… it is not just modern poetry, but poetry that is today obscure. ‘Paradise Lost’ is what it was; but the ordinary reader no longer makes the mistake of trying to read it — instead, he glances at it, weighs it in his hand, shudders, and suddenly, his eyes shining, puts it on his list of the ten dullest books he has ever read, along with ‘Moby Dick,’ ‘War and Peace,’ ‘Faust,’ and Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson.’ But I am doing this ordinary reader an injustice. It was not the Public, nodding over its lunch-pail, but the educated reader, the reader the universities have trained, who put together this list of the world’s dullest books.
I turned faceup on the slab of stone, gazed at the sky, and thought about all the man-made satellites spinning around the earth. The horizon was still etched in a faint glow, and stars began to blink on in the deep, wine-colored sky. I gazed among them for the light of a satellite, but it was still too bright out to spot one with the naked eye. The sprinkling of the stars looked nailed to the spot, unmoving. I closed my eyes and listened carefully for the descendants of Sputnik, even now circling the earth, gravity their only tie to the planet. Lonely metal souls in the unimpeded darkness of space, they meet, pass each other, and part, never to meet again. No words passing between them. No promises to keep.
You will lead, you will strike up the march of the future, boys will swear by your name, and thanks to your madness they will no longer need to be mad.
…from Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn As Told by a Friend (greatest title ever?) by Thomas Mann (greatest Mann ever?).
We were language’s magpies by nature, stealing whatever sounded bright and shiny.
…from Salman Rushdie‘s imperfectly perfect novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which I hesitantly allow to be considered the greatest “music novel” ever, instead of Coming Through Slaughter, if only because Vina Apsara is the sexiest female character in literary history, which makes perfect logical sense thank you very much shut up.
While I have used real names and characters and historical situations I have also used more personal pieces of friends and fathers. There have been some date changes, some characters brought together, and some facts have been expanded or polished to suit the truth of fiction.
…Michael Ondaatje, at the close of his first novel, Coming Through Slaughter. How come when he says that phrase, “the truth of fiction,” it sounds magnificent, but when I do, I sound like a middle-aged old school hippie dad painting watercolor landscapes on an easel in the backyard shirtless in his socks and short shorts after smoking his second joint of the day?
It’s the truth, man. The truth.
Except…hell, it is.
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
…the first line of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng which is apparently winning all kinds of awards or something, and which I’m sure I’m going to hear about nonstop for the next year, for every reason other than the one that I actually care about: she totally stole that first line. From somewhere. Who knows where. I certainly don’t. But c’mon, that’s a brilliant heist job if ever I saw it. I love it.
We ran along the railway,
arriving in some place called ‘the City’
where we trade in our youth, and our muscle.
Finally we have nothing to trade, only a cough
and a skeleton nobody cares about.
…from Skeleton, a poem by a young migrant worker in Shenzhen named Xu Lizhi who just jumped out of a Foxconn window. Read all about it here in the Washington Post.
This is bothering me because I wrote a novel about this guy, about him and the four million other hims in this city. You can read part of that novel here. Though when I knew him, he wasn’t yet good enough to write things like…
I swallowed a moon made of iron
They refer to it as a nail
Midnight. Everyone is sleeping soundly,
We keep our pair of young wounds open.
These black eyes, can you really lead us to the light?
A few weeks ago I heard Chang-Rae Lee say that he chose not to write a book about factory workers in Shenzhen, for reasons of his own, and in the room there was the sense that the book had already been written, that it wasn’t a new story.
I disagree. It’s never been written. A lot of white-guilt books have been written. A lot of literary zoos, for people with Creative Nonfiction degrees or automatic charity payments on their credit card, to gawk at and pat themselves on the back over. But not this story. Not at all. Not even close. Some stories only get told in the living and dying.
Eggs cuss and snap on the kitchen stove. (2)
Clare, the sound Madeleine’s toilet makes when it’s dry. (3)
His voice is close shaven. (26)
She could sneak in there, but she must be quiet, like cancer. (88)
The way that woman walked, like she was paying the sidewalk a favor. (96)
…all from within the first hundred pages of 2A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas, by Marie-Helene Bertino, an author with whom I’m fairly certain I’ve waged eerily charming (but ultimately losing) verbal battles in non-smoky taverns at forty-five-percent occupancy facing a nicked and scraped wooden bartop on three separate continents in which she blinked too much and I spilled my beer and no less than three song lyrics were quoted and at least one jazz song referenced in such a way that that both of us knew but were unwilling to admit that neither of us had ever actually listened to it.
Remnants of light lingered on the horizon, buried behind the hill at Osby’s back. The bare tops of the trees jutted above the fence line, as hard and cold as metal rods – almost as black, too – against the darkening sky.
…from Ridge Weather, novella number one in Josh Weil‘s debut, The New Valley, the protagonist of which, I’m certain, drives back and forth each day past the tattered park site of my own family reunions.
Smoldering realism. Campfire poetry. Fork in the road at dusk with rain clouds. That’s this book.
These I know are more than empty words:
Our life’s a play of light and shade,
Returning at last to the Void.
…from “Returning to Live in the Country II,” by Tao Yuanming (陶淵明), which is one of the Top-10 Country Songs Of All Time. (Translation from the Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry by Burton Watson, which I don’t recommend you buy, because there haven’t been very many good translations since Ezra Pound did this. Though a few of these are cool.)
I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give.
I lean back, try to forget these fields and flanking hills. A long time before me or these tools, the Teays flowed here. I can almost feel the cold waters and the tickling the trilobites make when they crawl. All the water from the old mountains flowed west. But the land lifted. I have only the bottoms and stone animals I collect. I blink and breathe. My father is a khaki cloud in the canebrakes, and Ginny is no more to me than the bitter smell in the blackberry briers up on the ridge.
Every time I read this guy, I feel like I’m watching a magic act.
Women with legs the colour of sweet nut glaze, their dresses high and tight to their throats, the clip of their short steps. The girls with the secrets under their skirts, fingernails like preserved cherries.
At school things caught at his hair and plucked at the back of his trousers. His pen moved slowly across the page, ink swelled into the paper. He felt himself trapped between the bone and flesh of his face, and he couldn’t move. Everyone else’s hands moved at impossible speed over their work, the noises of the classroom were high-pitched and speeded up, made no sense. He felt his own body, a sluggish weight, pale and thick, a rock with a wooden shell. With effort he stood up, ignored the squealed noises of the teacher, the weird electric sound of laughter, saw only that Amy Blackwell’s blue eyes watched him as he walked out of the classroom, away from the school, heavy enough that he might sink into the ground and suffocate, or else fall on the pavement and shatter into splinters.
Sometimes you read and have a feeling, not that you’ve read what you’re reading before, but that somewhere along the way you forgot to write it, and its overjoying, realizing someone else wrote it for you, exactly as you would have wished it written.
I love the language, that soft bastard Latin, Which melts like kisses from a female mouth, And sounds as if it should be writ on satin, With syllables which breathe of the sweet South, And gentle liquids gliding all so pat in, That not a single accent seems uncouth, Like our harsh northern whistling, grunting guttural, Which we’re obliged to hiss, and spit, and sputter all.
What was Byron like?
He was a pompous ass…