Saturday, December 17, 2022

Three Books That Broke the Reading Drought, Part 2

Continuing our tale of the book lover who somehow lost her love for books, I was in a bit of despair after finishing Larry McMurty's travelogue Roads (which I gushed all over in Part 1 of this blog series). Maybe Roads was a one-time thing, I thought; maybe I'd go right back to the book blahs. So I grabbed one off my shelf more or less at random, an older copy of Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career that I'd found at a Friends of the Library sale* in Medford, Oregon.

I remembered fondly but vaguely the 1979 film starring Judy Davis, which I saw in the 1980s during my very impressionable community-college days. But I hadn’t realized the origin behind this 1901 novel (the story of which you can read in the “new introduction” to the 1980 edition). This tale of a fiery girl growing up in the farmlands of Australia was written by a 16-year-old named Stella Franklin, who took her grandfather’s name, Miles, as a male pseudonym since it was tough going for female authors at the time. The book was picked up by a publisher when Franklin was in her early 20s, it sold well immediately, and then started to create problems for Franklin and her family when readers mistook it for an autobiography, thinking she’d basically trashed her relatives in some sort of tell-all. Stung by the notoriety—and maybe also by a male literary critic who theorized that the girl in the book, and by extension, Franklin herself, must be mentally ill—Franklin withdrew My Brilliant Career from publication and basically kept it in a drawer for the rest of her life. She went on to publish many more novels and became one of Australia’s preeminent writers. My Brilliant Career was finally published again after her death in 1954, and had another resurgence of popularity. It’s now regarded as an early feminist novel, and it’s unlike anything from that era that I’ve read before.

What I love about My Brilliant Career is the voice of the protagonist, Sybylla. She makes bad decisions, hurts the people around her, and is so disagreeable that even Judy Davis, who played her in the movie, said she didn’t like the character. But man, Sybylla—well, Miles Franklin—had a thing with words. There are passages in the novel where Sybylla waxes poetic for a full paragraph about the way a creek looks, or a sunset, or a chair in a shady spot where it’s 110 degrees in the shade. (It’s often 110 in the shade where she lives.) Those extravagant passages just knocked me out; I went back and read them over and over, they’re so beautiful. And she’s funny; I also laughed a lot. And she never does what you expect her to do; even when she’s screwing up royally, it’s because she’s taken another left turn to defy expectations. 

I’m sure there are scholarly dissertations about why this was a feminist manifesto, but what I saw, again and again, was a woman who had no interest in the constraints expected of her in that culture at that time—to marry well, of course, and to be dainty and quiet and behave herself so as not scare off the men. And to wait around for a man to determine what her life will be like. In a way, it was like seeing Larry McMurtry in Roads, audaciously writing about whatever the hell he wanted to write about; My Brilliant Career is about that kind of freedom of choice to follow your own path. But Sybylla doesn’t really have any outlet for those independent impulses, and the book doesn’t resolve nicely the way the movie does; she’s a woman stuck in her times who will probably always catch hell for her rebellion. At one point you begin to see that her mother and other female relatives may have had that spark at one time too; there are layers of subjugation and frustration running through most of the women in the book. But… again, it’s also funny. Very funny. I found it a delight from beginning to end, a world I was glad to settle back into—110 degrees and all—at the end of the day. Even when things are going horribly for Sybylla, there’s charm, absurdity, and a lot of unexpected warmth. 

In part 3, I’ll talk about a recent book in a totally different genre—Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy, by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano.

* Holy moly, people, if you're ever in Medford during one of those sales, get yourself over there. This was by far the biggest library sale I've ever seen, a huge meeting room filled with tables and boxes of books, spilling over into another room next door. Literally thousands of books, old and new, nicely divided into fiction, travel, history, classics, cookbooks. I picked up about five books (for like $10) on Saturday and liked it so much that I went back on Sunday because I'd heard some sale volunteers saying they had boxes stored away that they hadn't even opened yet. I found all sorts of new books the next day and got about five more.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Three Books That Broke the Reading Drought, Part 1

I had an odd phenomenon going on this year: I kept quitting books. I must have started 10 or 20 in a row—books that looked great, things I’d been wanting to read—and then got 30 or 40 pages into them, and put them down. I just lost interest and couldn’t get it back. A terrible case of the reading blahs. 
This happened enough that I wondered if my eyesight was going, or maybe something was wrong with my brain. Or could it be that I’d just fallen out of love with reading? Like when you go on a date with somebody who’s really great, but in the end, they do *nothing* for you down in the body? Could it be that the thrill muscle just didn’t thrill anymore? 
And then, much like dating, I found the right book and the thrill muscle made its return. And weirdly, I found the thrill three times in a row—three books that broke the reading drought and were so good that here I am, foisting little reviews of them on you, thinking maybe they’ll thrill you too. Here’s the first one; I’ll publish the other two in separate posts. 

Larry McMurtry 
(Touchstone, 2000) 

This slim book, like an old flame, had been sitting on one of my bookshelves for years. McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’d read other things by him that I liked, but for some reason I’d never cracked this one open; it sounded too dour or something. One night, despairing of all the half-read books taunting me from my shelves, I pulled down this travelogue of the highways of America, and within five pages I was hooked—and the rapture lasted all the way to the end. And then I wished the book were twice as long so I could stay in that car with McMurtry for a few more days. 

The thing I kept thinking about Roads is that Larry McMurtry never would have gotten it published if he weren’t already famous. I mean, Roads is largely one man’s musing stretched over a framework of travel, as McMurtry drives the interstates north to south and east to west and back again. But the beauty is just that—the travel is the book’s premise, but the book is also not about travel. It’s about Larry McMurtry—his opinions, his memories, his passions (just listen to him go on about his love of the Plains), and his deep, long-earned research and knowledge about the American West. It’s also about people, some that he knew and some that he never met, who lived just off this or that highway. 

But the greatest thing about Roads is that it’s a book where a brilliant writer is writing about whatever the hell he wants to write about. That was what drew me most, and it’s also why I say he probably would never have had it published if he weren’t already a Pulitzer Prize winner and famous screenwriter (The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment); in today’s marketplace, I can’t imagine a publisher would take a chance on the musings of some unknown author. But these are Larry McMurtry’s musings, and he’s so good at it; it’s like he’s just talking in the car there with you. And thank goodness he was already famous, because now we have this exquisite book that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking, and as full of surprises as your uncle who works as a rocket scientist and also likes bats and Burmese food and Soviet trivia. It is a seriously fun, eclectic book. A very beautiful book. It renewed my love of travel writing, and a few weeks later at a library sale I picked up two more travel books and two early McMurtry novels, so it also feeds a delicious addiction. Even though I’ve now read it, Roads is again back on my shelf because I know I’ll want to dip into it again for quick bites, à la carte, of its oddly meandering, wholly satisfying essays. 

Check out part 2 in this three-part series—my mini-review of My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Art Imitates Art: Poetry Postcard Fest 2022 Wrap-Up

Cards I got from other Festers. Go, Group 9!

The annual August writing marathon is done—30 days, 31 poems written on 31 hand-painted postcards and mailed off to other poets and artists around the country (and one in the UK). This was my 10th year doing the August Poetry Postcard Fest, and as always, it was… different than other years. It’s different every time; it grows and morphs around what’s happening in the rest of my life, and in the world. This year, the writing came easy. I rarely was stuck for an idea, and I didn’t feel the usual peevish rebellion about having to write on a schedule, even though it was also a really busy month at work. Every few evenings I’d write three or four poems, and then I'd take a few days off. I like that pace with short postcard poems, which tend to ripen better in batches or something. 

Serial and random

I started out the Fest bent on seriality. Weeks earlier, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about: I’d turned 60 a few months earlier, and it was weirding me out. I just could not believe I was 60. I know lots of people in their 60s who suddenly got hernias and prolapsed bladders and tumors. When I think of 60 I see washed-out gray, stooped, moving slowly. Possibly shaking a rolled-up newspaper at a kid riding a bike too fast. 60 has moved in like a houseguest I didn’t invite and will not leave. I guess I’ll have to make my peace with 60; in the meantime, I plan to kayak the hell out of it. 

        So the first few poems of the month were all about 60—puns and visual images of the number, free-associated strings of maladies and misery. But by about the fifth poem, I could feel that I wasn't making any peace with 60, and not even very much sense. I’m not sure any of those poems are keepers. So I moved on to other ideas. 

        After that there were a lot of random poems, experiments, some of which turned colors and boiled over, which is good, and some of which didn’t. Two of my favorites were about black widow spiders. I always seem to write about black widows during August, since they’re in the crooks and corners of patios and garages around here, growing big and shiny in the sweltering heat and knitting their cottony egg sacs. Of course their ferocity is legendary, but in reality they’re mostly timid and serene. I always get a lot of poetic mileage out of black widows.

A game of 20 extras

This year I again hand-painted all of my postcards. I love that ritual, and I have to get an early start on it; I was painting the cards back in May or June so I could paint three or four at a time and then take a few days off (same as the writing). This year I used mostly Strathmore watercolor postcards; after experimenting last year, I settled on Strathmore as a good compromise between durability and quality. (Plus Strathmore used to have a mill in Westfield, Mass., where I lived, and they were a big employer there.) I also used a few scraps of cotton paper, always my favorite for watercolors, but cotton feels too pliable to send naked through the mail, so I popped those into envelopes so they wouldn’t get scuffed. 

A keeper. Can’t go wrong with Prussian Blue.
        Also like last year, I painted about 20 more postcards than I needed so I could keep my favorites, in case I might want to put them up for sale in my online store (which doesn’t exist yet; one of these days). I went though last year’s 20 "good extras" and was happy to find that a few of them didn’t seem that great anymore, which I took as a sign that maybe I’m a better artist now. So I sent those off with poems on them this year, donating them to the world of postcard poems. I also cut up a couple of failed paintings and turned the pieces into postcards—a great tip from a fellow postcarder in the Fest’s Facebook group—but honestly, cutting them up didn’t make them better paintings. 

        Some of the paintings I especially liked this year were monochromes and duochromes, abstract landscapes using just a couple of watercolor techniques—wet-in-wet gradients and dry brush, with some scraping and scratching. I had a lot of fun with those and kept a bunch.

I painted this one for a specific poem.
A bit like being a kids' book illustrator.

Mirror, mirror … never mind

This year I tried something new: painting postcards specifically for the poems, and also the reverse—writing ekphrastic poems about my own paintings on the postcards*. I sort of liked painting to complement the poems; that was a free-wheeling exercise in abstraction, or in surreal representation. But I didn’t like writing ekphrastic poems about the paintings; that felt weirdly self-referential, a kind of narcissistic loop. Like, I painted this somewhat abstract landscape, and now I’m writing a poem about it. It was a sham, a trick I was pulling on the reader—a made-up poem about a made-up visual scene. It was like trying to build a house on air. There didn’t seem to be much point to it. 

        One of my favorite poems of the month was about a baby that someone at a party asked me to keep an eye on for a few minutes. We were outside, it was raining a bit, the baby was sleeping in a little covered hammock—and suddenly the world exploded into metaphors. That was way better than any made-up landscape. There’s something to be said for writing poems about real things. This was a good reminder of that.

* Coincidentally, I just did a (live! in-person!) reading here in Ashland with my friend Allan Peterson, a renowned poet and longtime visual artist and art professor. During the Q&A after our reading, he said that he has no desire to pair up his poetry and artwork—say, in a book of his poems and paintings—because then the writing and painting “will be trying to explain each other.” 

Recently Allan asked how my art was coming along, and I said I’d become so engrossed in painting small postcards that I hadn’t painted much of anything else recently. He said he once had a student who felt she’d confined herself too much by always making small paintings, and he advised her to “use bigger brushes.”