No doubt others of you out there share my frustration (admittedly a familiar condition) with the failure of so many citizens, pundits, media thinkers, casual conversationalists to be able to hold two ideas in their heads simultaneously, especially to accommodate two difficult, provocative, “offensive” ideas. Or even three. Is it, for instance, possible to exercise a critique of religious extremists (never satisfactorily defined and to my mind a tautology) by way of careful and logical and humane hostility not only to one religion but, yes, all of them!? Look no further than the Bibliofellow, who here offers himself as an unshy role model, hostile to religion and able to ignore tasteless or dumb or unnecessarily mean efforts at, say, humor and satire but eager to celebrate the form always. Duh. This exemplary behavior seems too absent in a lot of what passes for discussion in too many forums, where silly people indeed talk about what “offends” them. I am increasingly, yes and oui, offended by religion, which is always necessarily a provocation, a purposeful, clumsy, institutionalized and too-powerful reactionary assumption-machine which by definition challenges the rational, humane, collaborative and usually gets away with it. Also, friends, the only people who attack religion with guns and swords and money are, yup, other religionists, no kidding.
Thanks for letting me rant. To provoke further, let's just say that the contradictions of religionists and their tolerators are increasingly uninteresting to me
. Except to point them out, always, fearlessly, and demand that they occasionally take a look at them too. And then move on, trying to have two conversations while they can have only one.
Another “for instance” arrives this week from the monarchical and completely anti-democratic environs of Vatican City, which offers one of the most, yes, sadistic and provocative choices for “sainthood” you or anybody could dream up. Except that, of course, most reasonable people reject saints, miracles, superstition. And might see that the political choice of Indian mass murderizer and imperialist poster child — if otherwise familiar gentle and kind teacher, often portrayed as a kind of social worker! — “Father” Junipero Serra as next candidate to shoot out of a cannon is a shot across the bow of the S.S. Culture Wars, a ship both sinking and floating along, occasionally hitting a whale or leaking crude or hitting some undiscovered continent onto which its missionary captains can trudge, planting their flag and cross for queen and country, mumbling some holy words and converting or killing the natives. And, see, that was both fact and satire, at the same time, friends. And, yes, it was meant to provoke and offend (sure, why not) but a whole lot more, and for a political purpose not just to mock, though that's swell too. Because the story itself, a good one, is itself provocative and offensive if you'd like to take it that way. And I guess I would. And, to sum up, I can object to both this particular saint and the entire concept of sainthood
. There, I said it. I can object to the whole idea of religion and also to each one of them. I am ecumenical. I am Whitmanic. I contain multitudes. Lucky me.
Climbing down briefly from my anti-theist pulpit, let's get to books and writers, hopefully some really offensive ones. (I once had a personal essay rejected by an editorial committee who believed it was a form of child abuse to have taken my son to an anti-war rally, so all bets are off offensive-wise!) I am happy to share here the invitation to one of the country's best opportunities to work for free with a renowned teacher-writer. Thanks to Mary Platt, communications honcho and literary booster over at Chapman
University for reminding me (and you) that this nifty chance happens in, of all places, Orange County, CA and it's not the so-called “magic workshop” at UC Irvine, my alma mater. The estimable Richard Bausch, on the faculty there, is reading submissions right now, and through deadline date of February 3 for another of his community-only creative writing workshops. Fourteen weeks of Bausch leading readings, discussion, critiques and collaborative intellectual and artistic engagement with, potentially, YOUR short story or novel. See the Chapman website for more information right away, and maybe polish your manuscript of no more than 15 pages, then send to the mailing address shared there. This is Bausch's third semester of facilitating a public (non-student, non-staff) project of encouraging, supporting local writers serious and sincere about their work, and who are clever enough to recognize a very good thing indeed when they see it. Good luck!
For this, my first New Year's post, here's me reporting on a few books read over the break, mostly enjoyed while sitting by the water's edge at the Sea of Cortez, lucky me. If you'd like to participate and also flatter me – and why not? – let me know what you recommend and do by all means compare this blog and its author as favorably as possible to Nick Hornby's excellent collection The Polysyllabic Spree, one of the best chronicles of a true-life reader ever, with a jolly and fun and inviting espirit d' corps by way of bibliophilia.
In no particular order I'll start with Dear Committee Members, because it made me laugh on nearly every page. Julie Schumacher's tidily perfect story is written in recommendation letters composed by a seriously passive-aggressive professor. Wittily mean yet wearing his broken heart on his sleeve, he misses not a chance to recommend himself by way of self-deprecating mixed messages, complain about his colleagues, booster impossibly difficult students, court his ex-wife, apologize to his mistress, attack the economics department and the athletics program and generally make things a little better in the long run as he makes things so much worse in the short run. Right up
there with Richard Russo's Straight Man, but do let me know which other high-larious darkly sarcastic novels about academia I should read. (Teacher friends: You must read this!)
As I said, I was catching up, so treated myself with a novel by one of my favorite writers ever,
Penelope Lively, one of the greatest and gentlest realist writers ever, a keen observer, as they say, of the human condition, however out of shape, broken, complicated, funny. This 2012 book by the octogenarian British novelist, Booker Prize winner and memoirist is called How It All Began, and explains, elaborates on and traces the effects as in so many of her novels of coincidence and fate and accident, telling the story of the pebble and the pond, of what happens when one injury is an injury to all. An elderly woman is the victim of a nasty if everyday attack, a mugging but the collateral consequences on her circle, of family and friends and, as that ripple extends and extends, even to complete strangers is quietly profound. Completely and totally satisfying, if you like a sort of ensemble cast of contemporary characters — familiar, average, flawed, self-aware — whose thoughts are yours, into whose consciousnesses you are completely emerged, then this novel is not only for you, but possibly about you, as you will find yourself in it even though you are not a retired British scholar, his housekeeper, her son-in-law or perhaps the thoughtless assailant.
I'm pretty dumb about international writing, but know I should like and admire Roberto Bolano, the late Chilean writer. I'd read a few short stories and been wowed, so made the next step to a short novel recommended by a friend. Amulet (2006 is ostensibly the account of similarly collateral consequences, these of the lone woman, a character who appears in his previous and celebrated novel The Savage Detectives, a hyper self-aware and wildly free associating heroine whose story is built on the bizarre experience of a real-life student activist trapped in, of all places, the ladies room of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma of Mexico City during the brutal crackdown of the army against revolutionary students in Mexico City, 1968. Twelve days stuck in this weird refuge gives our already strange Balano alter ego a poet and poet groupie named Auxilio Lacouture, an even more bizarre perspective. She takes this unlikely opportunity to review the lives of the Mexican poets she admires, and in whose writing she somehow constructs an alternative history, ending with an awe-inspiring if ecstatically hopeless vision of peaceful resistance. Bolano is magic realism, sure, but also crazy-magic syntax and perspective shifting, a reckless and brilliant take-no-prisoners egomaniacal truth teller whose sentences are each one a story.
Finally, you have heard me go on and on about J. Robert Lennon, the all-American novelist and short story writer followed by so many and, to my mind, unrewarded by huge commercial success and acclaim, though clearly he could care less. This writer is too busy (check out the website of this peripatetic multi-media genius and teacher) and imaginative, and obviously having too much fun to care. Still, I'm counting on his latest collection, short stories published in some of the best magazines in the country (Paris Review, Granta, the New Yorker), to win over millions to his sharp re-imaginings of what passes for daily life, domestic tales of sardonic beauty and composed in the kind of tension readers enjoyed in the heyday of magazine stories in the golden age of popular reading. There is not an imperfect story in this collection, fourteen easily harrowing adventures, starting with the story of a family with a portal in their backyard, another who discover a time capsule, a neighborhood friend who becomes a jolly and gentle zombie, a sad housewife transformed into a wraith. These stories are built on crazy premise and fast-moving plot, as old-fashioned tales but with the atmospherics of our darkly suspicious moment and the details of our collective surrender to trends and memes and fantasies and fads which seem to manipulate so many like puppets. These stories are also just plain fun. They are wicked, smart, entertaining good bad fun.
Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher, Doubleday, 192 pgs, $22.95
How It All Began, Penelope Lively, Penguin, 240 pgs., $16
Amulet, Roberto Bolano, New Directions, 192 pgs., $15.95
See You in Paradise, J. Robert Lennon, Graywolf Press, 256 pgs., $16.00
The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby, Believer Books, 143 pgs. $16.95
Andrew Tonkovich edits he West Coast literary journal Santa Monica Review and returns in spring 2015 to hosting the weekly books show Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.