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Archive for the ‘Literary criticism’ Category

Front coverAn astonishing review of my New & Selected Poems (1984-2011) just posted over at a site called Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews.

The reviewer and I belong to the same LibraryThing group and she mentioned she was picking up a copy but, sheesh, I didn’t expect such a smart and, yes, glowing review.

It’s the first critique of any sort the poems have received. I get general rumblings of praise from the people who’ve read New & Selected Poems but folks seem reluctant to address the subject matter or prominent themes. I worried, in my Afterword, that the collection might be too personal, too intense and I think there might be something to that. If you watch the footage of the book launch, the poems are often received in what I would describe as strained silence. Sherron told me that at one point a woman near her was softly weeping.

Dear Lord

What kind of strange zeitgeist has my verse tapped into?

Poems are a hard enough sell these days—apocalyptic, mind-bending excavations on the human spirit may not be what readers are looking for.

Cripes, look at the bestseller list.

Yup, once again, it appears I’ve missed the mark.

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"Gulag"After a long drive across the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal, Frazier arrived at a long-abandoned prison camp near the town of Topolinoe. The camps along the Topolinskaya Highway were among the most dreaded destinations in Stalin’s gulag, the prison system that claimed the lives of more than a million people during the height of the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. Frazier walked through one of the barracks where inmates starved and froze in the Siberian winter: “This interior offered little to think about besides the limitless periods of suffering that had been crossed off here, and the unquiet rest these bunks had held.” As always, Frazier locates the apt historical anecdote that captures the horror with precision. He tells the story of two child prisoners who were given a pair of guard-dog puppies to raise, then struggled to find names for them: “The poverty of their surroundings had stripped their imaginations bare. Finally they chose names from common objects they saw every day. They named one puppy Ladle and the other Pail.”

-Joshua Hammer (from his New York Times review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia)

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Anyone who buys or reads Fifty Shades of Grey:

* immediately loses the right to vote (only adults have that privilege)

* is likely obese (physically or mentally)

* won’t be able to decipher this quote from Jung:  “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls.”

* should be consigned to menial jobs (cleaning, service industry); work more suited to stunted intellects and invalid brains

* must enter mandatory counseling for those suffering from “intimacy problems” (i.e fear of penetrative intercourse and/or anything remotely resembling a healthy sexual attitude)

* will immediately enroll in Morons Anonymous, rising at their first meeting and loudly proclaiming:  “Hello, my name is ______________ and I’m a fucking moron”

* should turn in their library card (in a post-literate world, you won’t need one)

* probably hasn’t had a date for awhile

* is likely to be a shut-in (and if not, should be)

* clearly made a mistake not finishing high school

* signs their name with an “X”

* reads tabloids

* needs help

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I have to get this off my chest.

Right now there are, count ‘em, three volumes from E.L. James’ vile, puke-stained series Fifty Shades of Grey at the top of the bestseller list.

Let me remind you folks:  this “author” honed her chops on Twilight fan fiction and has, apparently, graduated at the head of her class when it comes to derivative, amateurish, abysmally written gutter trash.  Reading the first five lines of any offering by Ms. James immediately reveals her paucity of skills, the crudeness of her prose.

I would never have believed it was possible that popular fiction could sink any lower than Stephenie Meyer…but then along came Amanda Hocking (ptui! ptui!) and, now, (God help western civilization) E.L. James.

Am I supposed to draw comfort from the fact that an unheralded talent can still score a lucrative contract from a venerable publisher? Should I holler and celebrate because at least two of these authors come from the independent/DIY/self-publishing world, same as l’il ol’ me?

Sorry, but that’s not the case. I’m embarrassed by the success of authors as horrible and sub-literate as James, Hocking, et al.  I’m embarrassed to belong to a society where the printed word has become so devalued and compromised, this kind of crap is not only published but gobbled up by a public whose brains have gone soft and fatty from all the junk food we take in through our eyes, mouths and ears.  We immerse ourselves in trash, refuse to task our minds with challenging artists and works, seek escapism the way a junkie craves the needle.  The mind is a muscle and ours’ have gone flabby, resisting even the lightest exercise.

Video games, comic book movies, books written for an intended audience with a mental age of fourteen…all part of a decline, the barbarians at the gates garbed in corporate robes, enticing us with baubles, buying our delinquent souls with the equivalent of beads and flim-flam.

I shudder to think what the next step down the evolutionary ladder might be, how much lower literature can sink.

What comes after E.L. James?

That’s something too terrible to ponder…

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It’s Thanksgiving for our American cousins—it strikes me that late November is a weird time to be giving thanks, especially if you happen to live above the Mason-Dixon Line and your kids have already built a congregation of snowmen in your front yard.

And, frankly, I don’t need the excuse of a national holiday to carve up a turkey and then subsist for the next week on turkey leftovers, turkey sandwiches and, finally, turkey soup (sorry, I just drooled all over my keyboard).  Turkey, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, with pumpkin pie for dessert.  If I somehow manage to gain admission through the Pearly Gates I fully expect that to be the first meal St. Peter and his horde of super-efficient seraphim waiters place in front of me.

* * * * *

Yes, indeed, busy times here at Burns Central:  Sherron seems to have been on the road since her first day back at work in September. Driving hither and yon throughout her massive, far-flung school division, giving workshops and presentations. She’s seen more of this area of the province than this homebody ever will.

Both my sons are deeply involved in their individual obsessions, namely, submission wrestling and film-making.  Sam and his creative partner Sean hope to have a short movie ready to enter in the “Youth” component of the Yorkton Film Festival and are collaborating on a script. I accompanied Liam to his twice-a-week wrestling session last night and my 48 year old body recoiled and quaked when I saw how those young lads (and one lass) were bending and twisting each other, their bodies impossibly elastic. I was one of those seriously inept, uncoordinated kids who couldn’t even stand on his head so watching my athletic oldest son going through the paces with grace and strength fills me with immeasurable pleasure…and pride.

Meanwhile, I continue to labor away on my western novel, The Last Hunt.  Two consecutive weeks of 12 hour days, grinding and polishing, adding in some of the research material I gathered during my Montana sojourn this summer.  Still insisting that I will release the novel in late March (2012), come hell or high water.  But it ain’t been easy and my body is feeling the effects of the strain.

You’d think after 25+ years I would have learned how to pace myself, manage my time and energy more effectively.  Er, no.  Instead, I completely immerse myself in a project for prolonged intervals, work myself into a state of exhaustion and then, literally when my body-mind-spirit can take no more, I pronounce the story/novel finished…and collapse.  At that point, I usually come down with a nasty virus which lays me out for a week (complete with cold sores, intestinal problems…ah, fun).

How does that gibe with your methods?

And then I read a comment by self-publishing’s latest superstar, Amanda Hocking. Yes, she of a million Kindle sales.  She states, without an ounce of  self-consciousness, that she writes her juvenile vampire novels in about 2-4 weeks.  That’s right, all you fuckheads who were stupid enough to download her awful tripe, a month (usually less) to write a novel. And some of you “writers” out there actually hold her up as an example of a successful author, someone you’d like to emulate.  Message to you wannabe assholes:  I spit in your face.  You disgust me.  May your fingers rot off your hands and your putrid brains liquify in your paper-thin skulls. Leprosy and ALS are too good for you.  I loathe you and what you and your ilk are doing to literature.  You are nothing more than ambulatory turds.

But I won’t cede the field to you, do you hear me? I refuse to allow your excremental scribbling to carry the day. To my last, dying breath I will be composing literate, intelligent, innovative fiction, even if only six people on the planet read it.  I will follow the lead of the Masters, write in defiance of all the trends and market niches, write despite the Amanda Hockings of the world and the offal they disgorge.  Hocking will be nonexistent in a very short time, her moment in the sun is almost up—let her have her money, it will keep her warm as she wallows on literature’s scrap heap, where all the non-talented hacks end up.

I’ll trust posterity and put my faith in the notion that as long as humankind exists, there will be discerning readers and that, eventually, my work will find the audience it deserves (even if I’m long gone).

I’d rather work for nothing than be stinkin’ rich and unable to look at myself in the mirror.

Which begs the question:  what price do you put on your soul?

“B.C.” comic strip by Johnny Hart

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“I…am…not…afraid…of…you.”

Standing before a tower of unread books, feeling a bit queasy but also defiant.  These are books that have bedeviled me for months, years, decades.  Tomes I know will be excellent, enlightening, life-enhancing…as soon as I find time to read them.  Others are volumes I read many moons ago and want to revisit.  Some big, fat, brain-building Pynchon titles, a few of the early Cormac McCarthys; works I read when I was young, stupid and trying to impress everybody.  Now when I read them, I’ll be a helluva lot more worldly, slightly smarter and apt to grasp more than I did during that initial encounter.  Can you really comprehend the magnitude of Gravity’s Rainbow or Marcel Proust’s convoluted, gorgeous prose at nineteen or twenty?

Never in hell.  I’m convinced human beings don’t start developing adult-sized brains until they’ve turned thirty and have popped at least one kid.  A teenager reading War and Peace is like handing a mandrill an iPad. Seriously.

This past week I was visiting The Big City and had occasion (okay, I lurked) to listen while a couple of teenage girls discussed their school reading assignments.

“This book,” one said, stabbing a livid finger at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “ought to be banned.”

“Did you read The Englishman’s Boy?”

“Only the chapter I had to.”

“Me too! Catcher in the Rye sucked too. What’s the big deal? The Outsiders--”

“That was half decent.”

“It was o-kay. But the main guy is such a whiner…”

And so on.  Book club night at the Stephen Hawking residence it was not.

What were those gals doing, hanging out in a book store?  Waiting for the rain to subside?  I wonder what sort of books they actually liked?

* * * * *

I must do something about my To Be Read pile. Make that piles.  It’s getting scary.  We’re running out of space.  Books are double-stacked on the shelves, some even (gasp!) relegated to the floor.  Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, essays…good God, things have gotten completely out of hand.  I catch my wife looking at me, her expression cagy: pondering involuntary commitment? What are the legal hurdles?  How much can she get for all these fucking books?

And now that I’m hooked up to the library system through the internet, I can log on and troll for more books, secure them free, via inter-library loans.  If three weeks pass and I need more time, I can renew the tomes in question with a few taps on my keyboard.

Sweet.

Or perhaps not.  It’s like having after hours access to the world’s biggest bookstore.  I get messages as soon as another book is ready for pickup at my local branch.  Can’t wait to get down there, scoop it up and bear it home…

Understand, I already have dozens, scores of books—wonderful books, classic books—waiting to be read but I’m still ordering more.  Isn’t that weird?  Isn’t that, well, nuts?

It’s called bibliophilia, folks, and I’ve got it bad.

I’m a collector on the verge of becoming a hoarder.  When I find a good bookstore, especially a good used book store, my hands get clammy, my stomach churns and I feel light-headed, like I’m suffering from some kind of sugar deficit. I kid you not. I’ve heard junkies say similar things when they find themselves in the vicinity of dope or paraphernalia. A feeling of anticipation that leaves you weak in the knees.

Have to say, when I visited my last big box book barn I didn’t experience anything like that.  The “New Release” shelves didn’t turn my crank at all—the majority of the fiction seemed to be geared toward women, and particularly stupid ones at that. The most dreadful shite. Spotted a number of offerings in the history section, including David McCullough’s bio of Truman, but the prices scared me off. After all my browsing, over an hour in the store, I came away with one thin volume, a beautiful little Penguin edition of Stefan Zweig’s novella Chess.  That’s it.

Pitiful, ain’t it?

But, of course, it isn’t just books.  I’m no longer part of the desired demographic, and that goes for music, movies, television, you name it.  I’m an old fogie with a critical brain and a handle on his spending.  Not exact a walking advertisement for consumerism.

No, the ones the advertisers, viral marketers et al are after are the 16-25 bunch, the gamers and mall crowd, armed with credit cards and completely lacking impulse control.  Unmarried, no kids, disposable income, too much time on their hands. The morons that have kept Michael Bay, JJ Abrams and Bill Gates filthy rich and reduced the popular arts to public urinals.  Thanks, kids!

We have them to thank for the current state of publishing/bookselling.  The explosion of graphic novels, the flood of zombies and vampires and knock-off fantasy and franchise novels, and media tie-ins…can you say dumbing down?  That extended period I spent in the big box store was most educational.  It told me that in their efforts to cater to their sought after demographic, traditional publishers won’t just go for the lowest common denominator, they are willing, nay eager, to debase the language, alienate their traditional clientele and reduce an art form to mere commodity.  The rot is evident in every genre—what little “literary” fiction out there is getting harder to find, forced off the shelves by establishments that offer whole sections devoted to the excremental writing of James Patterson, Jody Picoult and the like.

I turn on commercial radio, flip through the TV channels during a rare hotel visit, check on-line movie listings for anything that might look promising and I feel old.  Nothing in the entertainment world speaks to me these days.  I don’t look forward to the summer movies or check to see who made the Oscar shortlist.  Ignore the bestseller lists, rarely buy a magazine or new book…and we’re the last family I know of who still don’t have cable TV.

I’ve been a reader all my life.  Forty years with my nose in books.  Books have always offered me comfort and consolation.  In childhood, they were a security blanket, helping me escape the depredations of reality.  As I got older, they became my primary sources of learning, as well as steering me down spiritual/mystical paths I might otherwise have missed. Without books, I would not be the person I am today.  I would be one of them:  mall zombies, semi-literates, half-simian.

All this might go a long way toward explaining that ever-growing TBR pile. I never stop seeking out new Masters, new teachers; men and women who can perform alchemy with the printed word, transmuting it into something more than mere sentences on a page.

A casual scan of the pictures reveals not too many of the books are of recent vintage.  Most picked up from thrift shops, secondhand places or on-line purchases; heavily discounted, showing the effects of their time in remainder bins or battered about in the mail.

New and old enthusiasms:  Samuel Beckett, Walter Kirn, Ken Kalfus, Richard Powers, Robert Stone, Raymond Queneau, Roberto Bolano, Fernando Pessoa, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Denis Johnson, Tom McCarthy, Terence McKenna, Georges Perec, Jorge Luis Borges, Gert Ledig, W.G. Sebald…and that’s just scratching the surface. These Jpegs hardly do my TBR pile justice.  It goes on and on…

When am I going to find time to read the gorgeous edition of Don Quixote Sherron picked up for me at least five years ago (translation by Edith Grossman)?  How about the three volumes by the incomparable Louis Ferdinand Celine that are only an arm’s length away from where I sit, typing these words?  Will I ever tackle Madame Bovary, War and Peace or the 1,000+ pages of The Collected Short Stories of J.G. Ballard?

Not as long as I keep adding to that pile.

How many titles are on the “Wishlist” I’ve kept in the same steno pad for the past twenty years?  Two hundred?  Three hundred?  The roster constantly revised; one title acquired and crossed off, three others added…

I’m a sick man.  Addicted to the printed word.  Always seeking out the best of the best, authors who present fresh perspectives, re-ignite the language, push the envelope thematically and stylistically.  Just when I think I’m making headway, someone mentions Ben Okri or Joseph McElroy.  How could I have missed them?  Fabulous, unprecedented talents, my collection incomplete without them.

The kind of authors no longer being published by the trads and, thus, increasingly unfamiliar to today’s readers.

Creators capable of composing work that ennobles us as a species, presenting an alternative to the superficiality of the processed, plastic universe the corporate types are peddling, the reassuring sameness one is sure to find there.  Our souls would be impoverished without these artistes, our “culture” reduced to inanity and tiresome cant.  A nightmare I hope never to endure, a history I pray we avoid.

Photos by Sherron Burns

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My “100 Book Challenge” progresses.

Just hit book #50, halfway there and still (barely) maintaining the pace necessary to hit the century mark by the end of the year.

Four or five books of note in the latest batch of reading, including Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (#42) Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (#46), John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance & Survival (#49) and W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (#50).

The latter left me especially shaken.

What begins as an investigation into the dearth of postwar literature devoted to the suffering and deprivation endured by German civilians during World War II, gradually metamorphoses into a meditation on the limits of language. Sebald asks if mere words can do justice to the horror of an air raid, the obscenity represented by Auschwitz, the experience of being tortured. Do certain episodes defy and impoverish description and can any re-enactment, however well-crafted and best intentioned, achieve more than verisimilitude and clever artifice?

Sebald cites several artists—Gert Ledig, Jean Amery, Peter Weiss—who eschew decorum, ignore taboos, use their immense talents to conjure sentences that are impossible to ignore, that permanently imprint themselves on our consciousness. It is their authenticity that distinguishes them; these men are first person witnesses, their credentials impeccable. They have determined (sometimes after a long period of silence) that they are going to tell what they have seen without embellishment or elaboration. Their courage and honesty simply will not allow them to go into the darkness without making one last fruitless, valiant attempt to communicate to us things we would rather not know, that we’d rather see safely consigned to history’s back pages.

Ledig et al do their best but, even so, words often fail them and images, still shots of destruction, grotesque tableaux, are often substituted; these come in the form of vivid, descriptive passages, devoid of sentimentality, chillingly matter of fact. They bring to mind the stark, silent, black-and-white footage taken in the death camps. Amery chose the personal essay format to unflinchingly document what it means to be dispossessed, cast out and marked for death by fellow citizens. He refused to hide behind a fictional counterpart or allow a contrived plot line to dilute/adulterate his message.

In the end, Ledig/Amery’s efforts are doomed; even the most enlightened, imaginative reader is incapable of gaining more than an inkling of the physical and spiritual agony that can be inflicted by a well-trained torturer…or visualize what it’s like to enter a crammed air raid shelter after it has suffered a direct hit from a thousand pound bomb. We can only, thank God, experience these things vicariously, secondhand, from the safety of a comfortable arm chair. And, though it might pain bibliophiles to do so, we must acknowledge the paucity of language in the face of such incommunicable pain and loss.

Sometimes only a scream will suffice.

We know we can’t possibly understand what they’ve experienced but we feel, in the depths of what passes for our soul, that we owe it to the victims to at least try. Every single day.

Try.

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Uh oh.

My reading has tailed off of late, which means I have to pick up the pace if I’m going to make my quota of nine books a month.  Nine books a month times twelve months equals 108 books.  Which means Cliff succeeds at the “100 Book Challenge” and doesn’t have to hem and haw and make up a dozen different excuses why he couldn’t keep up and why he isn’t more committed to the celebration and preservation of the printed word, etc., etc., and so on.

Ah, but if only every book was as good as The Risk Pool.  I’d take the “200 Book Challenge” and make it with room to spare.

I’m a huge fan of Richard Russo’s work.  I think I found The Risk Pool on-line somewhere.  Maybe Better World Books.  I like dealing with them and their bargain bin is often pretty darn good.  Slowly but surely, I’m paring down my “wish list”; it currently takes up 4 pages of a steno notebook I keep handy.  Books I simply must own, by writers I admire without reservation.  Russo’s on that list, right near the top.  He’s a wonder.

The Risk Pool is his second book, an unbelievably good sophomore effort.  Mohawk, his debut, was excellent but The Risk Pool eclipses it.  It’s comparable in quality to Russo’s That Old Cape Magic and Empire Falls…but not quite up to the lofty standard set by The Straight Man, which I consider to be the author’s finest (and funniest) novel.  “Funny” is an operative word when one encounters a Russo tale because as well as being populated by flawed, wounded human beings and blessed by compelling plot lines, his works often provoke bleats of laughter…and that’s certainly the case with The Risk Pool.

Ned Hall is the narrator but, really, the central figure of the novel is his father, Sam.  Sam is a legend around the town of Mohawk;  he survived the Normandy landing and the Battle of Bulge, fought his way to Berlin…and returned home a changed man.  His young, blushing bride swiftly becomes disillusioned with his gambling and whoring, his determination to have a good time regardless of the consequences to those closest to him.  There’s a separation but Sam won’t hear of a divorce.  He remains a distant presence in his son’s life, at least until his mother suffers a breakdown and Ned finds himself his father’s ward, with all the complications accompanying that status.  Sam’s motley assortment of friends—drunks and local characters—give Ned a different perspective on life in Mohawk:  the perqs of winning and the cost, in human terms, of drawing the low card.

Looking for a book that is, at once, literary and a joy to read, a novel you can’t bear to part with until you’ve found out how it ends?  The Risk Pool satisfies on every count.  It is the kind of tome authors dream of writing and devoted readers pine after.  Beautiful and sad, subtle and powerful, filled with desperate, hope-filled people, who behave with the courage and foolishness their circumstances require.

Highest possible recommendation.

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I managed to read nine books in the month of January, which (barely) keeps me on pace for the “100 Book Challenge”.

The titles I tackled reveal the diversity of my tastes/interests:  Michael Palin’s latest set of diaries, Halfway to Hollywood, along with some readings on cinema (Dark Knights and Holy Fools), history, science fiction, theology, a novella by Roberto Bolano (Monsieur Pain)…

Yesterday I finished a collection of stories by one of the best English language writers on the contemporary scene, Jim Shepard.

Love & Hydrogen brings together close to two decades of Jim Shepard’s magnificent short fiction.  Here’s the citation I wrote up for Love & Hydrogen in my book journal:

“Jim Shepard is a marvel.  He and George Saunders and Ken Kalfus are the kind of writers who make you want to sweep everything off your desk and apply for a job as assistant manager at the local Dairy Queen.  Aesthetically, they make no mistakes, the scope and diversity of their work dazzles.

Love & Hydrogen displays scope and diversity all right:  in spades.  The stories transit spans of time, the subject matter encompassing everything from the final flight of the Hindenberg to ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon’.  To my mind, any number of these tales could be included in an anthology of the finest writing of the past fifty years.  I’ve read that Shepard’s research is meticulous and that is evident in historical reconstructions like the title story, ‘The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich’, ‘Krakatau’, ‘Batting Against Castro’, etc.

There’s a shiver of authenticity present in all of his fiction, an emotional honesty that defies sentiment and still manages to be heart-wrenching.  No one in Jim Shepard’s universe is blameless, everyone complicit; perhaps it’s his version of original sin.  We quickly recognize ourselves in Jim Shepard’s peerless short stories and novels and that (among numerous other things) is what makes him so great.”

* * * * * *

…and along with that reading I’ve been spending most nights of late snuggled up on the couch with Sherron, watching one or two episodes of the first season of “Mad Men” (a Christmas gift from my sons).   Intriguing and addictive.  A little bit more of Don  Draper’s past swims into focus with each episode, some of the murkiness dissipating…and a very scary picture emerging.

Next month:  the first season of “The Wire”.

After “The Wire”, my friend Gene assures me, everything else on television pales in comparison.

We shall see.

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Well, what do you know:  an early Christmas present.

Corey Redekop is a terrific Canuck writer–his debut novel Shelf Monkey is anarchic, funny and viciously satirical.  Thus, I was mighty chuffed when someone directed my attention to a review he’s just posted of my 1997 short story collection The Reality Machine.

I’ve been searching for blurbs for the print version of So Dark the Night and Corey just handed me some on a silver platter, with little sprigs of parsley on the side.

Bless you, Corey…and don’t take too long with that followup to Shelf Monkey.

Helluva writer, that boy…

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