Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week
September 24 - October 2, 2010

Celebrating the Freedom to Read

Banned Books Week (BBW) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment. Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.

Operation Dark Heart joins list of banned books

Washington, Sept. 27, 2010:
The U.S. Defense Department has paid $47,000 to destroy 9,500 copies of a former Army intelligence officer's war memoir that the Pentagon deems too sensitive.  Though permission had originally been given for publication, it was later rescinded.  The book has been reprinted with the offending sections blacked out. 

The book is a memoir of secret operations carried out by the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan and highlights Washington's lost chance to win the disastrous war. As many as 100 uncensored copies of the book reached the public before military officials put a halt to its distribution. A censored version of the book, with over 250 passages removed, is now available to readers as a list of 'key characters,' abbreviations and locations were removed in the name of “protecting national security”. [1]

Monday, September 27, 2010

In your ear, uninvited

Oh now, this is going a bit too far.

It's bad enough you can't read a news item online sometimes without a distracting pop-up ad completely blocking your text, and even more annoying when an actual voice starts hyping a product.  Volkeswagen marketing went one step farther; they've embedded voice chips in 2.2 million copies of the newspaper.

The Times of India and The Hindu, two of the largest circulated papers in the world, released a special advertisement in their daily papers Tuesday, launching Volkswagen's new sedan, the Vento.
When readers opened the paper to the back page, a light-sensitive, voice activated chip began reading out why you buy their new automobile. The "talking" advertisement — an audio rendering of the print commercial similar to a radio ad —was pasted on the final page of the paper's special 10-page section.

Unsuspecting readers bolted upright when the advertisement voice activation began. In many parts of the country there were unintended consequences from startled readers.  The police in Delhi received numerous calls, particularly from elderly Indians, who were frightened and suspicious of the talking newspaper. 

In Mumbai, the bomb squad was called out when passersby became suspicious of noises coming from discarded newspapers in trash bins. Some readers thought they were hearing the voice of a ghost. 

Source: here.

Voices from a trash bin--now that would startle me a bit.  The police chief asked people not to be afraid of new technology.  Some readers, upset when it rained and the newspaper got wet--which inactivated the voice chip--demanded a reprint in the next issue. 

Apparently this "talking advertisement" idea came from a 14-year-old niece of the head of marketing at Volkswagen India. [1]

It wouldn't be so bad if you could turn the darn thing off, i.e., not have it talk at you while you're reading the news.  Apparently it doesn't come with a warning: "Interruption Imminent: Turn page to avoid". But hey, why stop at the Internet and now, newspapers, for pop-up voice ads?

Imagine their being able to implant these little buggers onto junk snail mail, for example, which most people throw away.  The voice emanating from the envelope could plead:  "Wait a minute.  You don't want to do that.  I have important information to convey."  You won't, of course, fall for this, but they might try it anyway.
Why, they might even embed it in the pages of a book.  Say you're on page 475 of a novel and your eyes are getting tired.  Technology may one day make it possible for you to just press on the page corner and a recorded voice will ask you which page you're on, and when you reply, it will commence reading the rest of the book aloud to you.  (Don't laugh.  Science fiction today, reality tomorrow.)

Tired of writing your Congressman and getting only standard generic replies?   Senators and government reps are busy, they don't have time to read piles and piles of angry letters from disgruntled constituents.  But they have to leave the office sometime, right? and when they do, technology may someday make it possible for you to hurl a missile-type airborne voice chip that would sail across and land in their hair or on their shoulder, that will begin to lecture them:  "When are you going to start representing the people, instead of the mega corporations?  How come you have time to play golf three days a week but can't show up to vote on such-and-such-a bill?"  etc.

Of course, someone will most assuredly then start considering producing protective governmental outerware with the ability to detect an oncoming airborne voice chip and instantly deactivate it; or if that proved too unpopular, perhaps a simple, pocket-sized, portable AVCN (aerosol voice-chip neutralizer) that works similar to bug spray.

Whiny baby dolls, screechy musical greeting cards, talking cars, refrigerators, and now newspapers.  Please, please somebody don't get the bright idea to have our food someday talk back to us (Donuts that announce, for example: "Are you sure you want to eat me?  I contain 320 calories per bite.  Why not try an apple instead?", etc.).  I seriously doubt the Krispy Kreme people would ever consider such an idea, though.

I saw an old postcard today from 1903, an early "downtown" somewhere in Oklahoma, on the back of which someone had written:  "I have finally arrived."   I wonder from where, and how many days it took him to get there, and what such a person would think of our technology today.

What was missing from the talking newspaper that appeared in the above-mentioned Indian newspapers was the element of CHOICE.  Maybe not everyone wants to have an automobile ad barked to them while they're reading the news.  It breaks the concentration.  It's annoying.  Is no space sacred from these pushy marketers?  I am appalled at the lengths to which they will go to plug their products.   It gets less and less easy to avoid them.  What part about "Don't bother me when I'm reading!" do they not understand?


Friday, September 24, 2010

Question, from a Dead Man

Imagine you are a writer or an artist, living in troubled times. Commissioned work is hard to come by and the Powers-That-Be don't look favorably on your verse or art. Someone hires you and leaves the subject or theme of the creation up to you. Would you take this as an opportunity to express, in your art, something that's really troubling you?  This is, in fact, what Silesian artist Michel Fingesten (1884-1943) did.

The Nazis were not too happy with either his lineage or his drawings.  Finding less and less work, he allied himself with persecuted artists, focusing almost exclusively on ex-libris and small prints for private collectors, such as the legendary Gianni Mantero. It was in these productions that he "gave clear expression to his feelings and opinions." [1]  (Click here  to see some wonderful examples of his artwork.)

Fingesten’s memory has been kept alive thanks to the efforts of ex-libris collectors who knew and praised his work before the war. Besides its artistic qualities, collectors are still attracted to the rich imagination, humour, playfulness and diverse symbolism of his work, as well as the at times macabre and erotic elements that constitute part of his artistic expression. In the course of thirty years he made almost 1,000 ex-libris.

Foreseeing the threat of war in late 1938, Fingesten expressed his outrage in a series of 13 etchings--Essai de Dance Macabre (Essay on the Dance Macabre)--which convey a vision of the imminent catastrophe. With this series he sought to warn the public in neutral countries of the true aims of the Nazi regime. [2]

He was arrested on October 9, 1940 and sent to an internment camp in 1941. Shortly after the camps were liberated, in September of 1943, Fingesten sustained an injury and was transferred to a hospital in Cosenca. After the operation he developed a wound infection from which he died on October 8 of that same year. He was 59. 

I look at the above sketch and it could be applied to today.  The suspension bridge on which the man is walking is unanchored (the link on the right-hand side is not attached to anything).   The bridge links could spell "2010" instead of "1938".  "Where are you going?" the artist asks.  The man's journey across the chasm doesn't look particularly safe; the ground is crumbling behind him, there is nothing to hold onto, he walks almost blindly, hands stretched forward,  trusting the connections will hold.  A dark, human-like shadow looms, threatening to surround him.  A hideous monster awaits below, already having destroyed others.  Fascism!, the artist is saying.  Step carefully.  Watch out, you could get enveloped in its shadow.  You could lose your bearings and fall.  You could be swallowed up by this monster.

Inspiration comes from strange places.  Michel Fingesten has been dead for 67 years.  I had never heard of him before today.  A random sidetrack led to the above images--one, erotic; the other, fearful.  I've been asking that same question for some time now--"Quo vadis?"--as I watch the foundations of my birth-country crumbling, the darkness thickening, sense the hardening grip of hatred, intolerance, the monstrous greed, corruption, and sometimes complete disregard for the welfare of its own people and land.  There is a loss of balance, a slipping away of all that is known and cherished.

It doesn't appear, to the conscious mind, in those exact words, of course; or even at all times.  It comes, rather, as flashes of puzzling unease, as if you're in a giant crowded room with a million other voices, now whispering, now shouting or wailing in despair over a planet in distress and endless wars, or loss of job, or love, or house or health.

Painting this, with the stroke of a brush; or saying this, with the words of a poem ... is not fixing it.  And yet.
Yesterday, dancing flowers.  Today: same reality, different vibrations.
Everything still possible.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blossoms in Verse

Frost is coming (they say, tonight) and so I closed my garden, collected all the not-yet-ripened tomatoes, wrapped them in newspaper and put them to rest in the basement, where they will turn red and be ready to eat in a few weeks.

The flowers watched as I planted wheatgrass seeds for winter ground cover and collected lavender, sage, mint and tarragon for drying. 

I think they were concerned that I might be plucking them next. Not to worry, I told them. I will take your photograph and write a poem for each of you, in French (to exercise my brain) and immortalize you on my blog;  so that when the snows come and you've long since dried and crumbled, your beauty will still shine, for as long as these words and pictures remain.

They gave me their permission. And so here they are. May I proudly present:   My plucky cappucines, my beautiful cosmos, and the ever vibrant Miss Brilliant Red Flower, whose family name I do not know.  Voila, alors, mes petites fleures!

                              fin de la saison                                 
                              peut-être nous resterons                                     
                             deux semaines de plus   

                                                  end of season
                                                  perhaps we'll stay
                                                  two weeks more                              


                                 même ceux avec des pétales manquants               
                                 boire du soleil                                                      
                                 et elles fleurissent  

                                                   even those with missing petals
                                                   drink of the sun
                                                   and blossom                                        

                             mes petites fleurs                                               
                             dansent dans le vent,                                          
                             ils n'ont pas besoin de la musique     

                                             my little flowers
                                             dancing in the wind
                                             they have no need of music        

                              Pas honte de faire étalage de sa rougeur,              
                              elle chante de Rouge;
                              les couleurs aussi ont une passion
                              pour la vie

                                                not ashamed to show her blush,
                                                she sings of red;
                                                colors also have passion
                                                for life
*photos by awyn  9/18/2010

Thursday, September 16, 2010

All One

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

                                                                     small rants
                                                                 0          0   0                0

                                                                           Tall rants
                                                               0      0       }     }                  Q
                                                               ( )     [ ]         |||      |||                !!!!

                                                                                 TALLER rants
                                                            O   O       }       }                Q
                                                              >>      []            ()()       >>              !!!!
                                                              ( )       []              |||       |||                !!!!
                                                              ( )       []              |||       |||                !!!!
                                                             ()()     []              |||       |||                ( )( )                                                                                                
                                                          T  O  L  E  R  A  N  C  E


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Write, because.

I've been thinking about the subject of writing lately--why, how and for whom writers write, how and when one finds one's unique voice and what part feedback plays or doesn't play in all this.

"I say what I think must be said" (Derrida)
(Why does one feel compelled to write, in poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, about this particular thing and not that? And in this particular way and not another?)

"I turned a corner into my interior self. I wasn't writing exterior stuff [anymore] ... I was writing for me." (Bradbury)
(Who is one writing for?)

Jacques Derrida, On the Fear of Writing

Noam Chomsky considered Derrida an example of "obscurantism"--although admitting he may simply be incapable of understanding Derrida (which he doubts), and in fact, he (Derrida) is extremely difficult to read. But in this video he talks, quite casually, about the dream-like state into which we slip while losing consciousness (as in falling to sleep) as being the place our true selves emerge, where we can get at the "truth".

When he wrote, in the act of writing itself, it was with the feeling of necessity.  He felt driven by a force that was stronger than himself, "that demands that I must write as I write."   When he was awake and conscious and working, though, it was as if he were more unconscious than in what he called his "half-sleep"--that state where he claims a kind of vigilance prevailed, a vigilance "that tells me the truth."   When he was awake and working, this vigilance was actually asleep. 

What truth is he talking about here?  In this dream-like state Derrida apparently experienced the fear of writing something "crazy," something that he felt would appear "aggressive" and cause anxiety or "wound" people.  The half-asleep yet vigilant part of him told him "This is serious."  He ignored this, however, in his waking state and continued writing, as he felt he "must". 

This intriqued me on a wholly different level:  i.e., the suggestion that one won't necessarily find the answers (to those big, important questions)  in one's conscious, 'working' self--that it's actually in the "half-sleep" stage, the dreamlike state when consciousness begins to slip away, that we discover the truth.  (That vigilance that prevails, through which we learn the truth--who or what within (or outside) ourselves is conducting the vigilance, though?)

In writing both poetry and fiction/non-fiction, I often feel drawn to, compelled, to write about a certain thing, sometimes in a certain way.  I know about the 'force' of which Derrida speaks, but for me it's not so much "that I must write as I write"; it's more "I must write about that", and the how and when of it is left open. Subconsciously, a fear emerges here as well.  For Derrida it was concern re: the perceived "aggressiveness" of his theories, that it would cause anxiety or "wound" others.  Awake, the compusion ("force") to keep writing took over.   But is not this compulsion itself an example of an inner urging, or subconscious directive?  Is there a contradiction here, a tension between one's subconscious voices--one compelling one to action; the other advising against it?  (Consciously acknowledging an awareness of the existence of this force is one thing; understanding its origin and what drives it, quite another, the truth of it being in the same foggy space where consciousness can't enter.)   

Bradbury confesses that all of his stories "that are worth anything" are ones based on a personal metaphor.  He recalled an event in his childhood that had profoundly affected him and created a story around it.  After finishing the story and reading it back to himself, he says "I broke down in tears.  I realized that after ten years of writing, I had finally written something beautiful."  It became, for him, a sign of where things would go, vis-a-vis his writing, from then on.

It's interesting, the stories and poems one might consider the most meaningful or one's "best" work that when read by others are met with indifference; and others, written in haste or as a youthful experiment or simply to get something down on paper and 'out there' are accorded praise the writer doesn't deem wholly deserved.  Which begs the question again, To or for whom are you writing?  Does it matter if it wounds, or bores, or electrifies?  Will feedback--positive OR negative--alter your way of writing?

I wonder--do even our innermost selves actually tell us the truth about ourselves?  Or do they, too, tell us what they think we want to hear?  And at what point in the writing should the self be told to pack up and leave the premises, and let the writing get on with itself?  Assuming they are separate, which sometimes isn't clear.


Sometimes you just get tangled up in your own words, too focused on the why and the how or the outcome (speaking for myself here). A friend, with the click of a keyboard key, broke it all down for me today.  I'm going to paste this on my computer monitor in the Everything I Need to Know About Writing category:

  1. Be Yourself.
  2. No one can tell you how to write or what a writer should be.
  3. Write until you have said what you want to say and then stop.

Amen to that.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Saturday, September 11, 2010

When Your Characters Outlive You

In an email correspondence with a fellow writer the other day the topic of fictional characters was discussed.  It intrigues me that though they are a product of our imagination they often take on a life of their own. 

Nowhere is this independent life of the character more evident than what seems to be happening lately with Lisbeth Salander, the popular female protagonist in Swedish author Stieg Larsson's popular Millennium trilogy, which has, as of last spring sold more than 27 million copies in 40 countries. The story has been made into three Swedish films and the American version (with Daniel "James Bond" Craig) will be out in December, with more to follow.  Lisbeth has her own page now, on Wikipedia.

I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in the series, in two days.  Once I began, I simply could not put it down.  The second, The Girl Who Played with Fire, a few hundred pages longer, I read half of on a bus ride back from Boston, finishing it within the next two days.  I did not get The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (the third one), mainly because it was only available at the time in hardback and I prefer paperback.  But I did something my mate finds absolutely  incomprehensible and would never do himself, under any  circumstance--when I was in the bookstore in Vermont, I snuck a peak at the ending. So now I know how it ends. I  don't have to read it.

This is what happens sometimes when you read a trilogy, or quartet, or string of sequels with exactly the same character(s)--reader fatigue can set in.  It was not, however, with the character(s) this time.  It was with the writing.   Repetitions began occurring, particularly around certain phrases which, while amusing the first time, began to get  old after the fourth or fifth time), and the annoying (for lack of a better term) frequent product-placement-pattern.  I mean really, how many times do we have to know that Lisbeth ate Billy's Pan (frozen) pizza for dinner, or that the furniture in someone's flat comes from IKEA (mentioned several times) or the brand name, specifications and operational details of Lisbeth's camera or computer software?  Describing the entire contents of a character's refrigerator or closet or living space, item by item, made me think the author once must have worked in inventory and liked making lists of things.  (A Swedish native, also noting the frequent mention of Billy's Pan pizza in the novels, claims it actually tastes "like a month-old fish-in-chip wrapper, dusted with road salt".)

Mention a product in a novel and sure enough, the word will get around.  A blogger named Metalia uses the Billy pan pizza image to accompany a rap song she wrote about her own experience of reading the Millennium Trilogy, confessing that despite its extraordinary length and "extra crap that muddles the book," she liked it "as much as Lisbeth liked her Billy pan pizza."  (Though Larsson refers to everyone in his novel by their surname, to a score of readers Ms. Salander is simply "Lisbeth". )

The Girl Wth the Dragon Tattoo, the first book in the series, was initially titled "Men Who Hate Women", and indeed, Larsson's three books are full of men who not only hate but torture, rape, kidnap, sex-traffic and murder women, described in sometimes graphic detail, evoking disturbing images.  The reader's sense of fear is heightened  (as in a theatre, being on the edge of your seat watching something terrifying unfold on the screen), when you realize a character is about to become caught up in a hopeless situation.  The mystery aspect of the novel suddenly becomes overshadowed by its thriller enactments.  The reader feels what the character feels.  But Lisbeth Salander is not Everywoman.  She's tough as nails, vigilant, usually prepared, unwilling to submit to control of any kind, not by superiors, not even by those she loves.  Ever on the move, sly as a fox, her face a purposely impenetrable mask, she lets no one know who she really is or what she thinks.  This intrigues readers.  It also frightens certain other characters in the story.  She doesn't fit the mold.  One has to deal with her differently.  Does Stieg Larsson himself find her needing to be tamed a little?

Johannes Göransson of Exoskeleton blog makes an interesting observation about Lisbeth Salamander's character, that in her fictional life, trauma and love were both used "to control her violent motility, to give her inferiority", and that while trauma "might excuse her weirdness," in the end the author has her falling in love with Blomkvist, the other main character, "to sentamentalize her" (implying either an intentional or inadvertent attempt on the author's part to make her just like every other woman?).

Lisbeth Salander is a tiny, 90-lb. child-woman, a tattooed, multiply-pierced, quirky, violent, bisexual, expert computer hacker who has a photographic memory.  She's hard to figure out, even when you know her history.  And she has become the new cult figure of a horde of fascinated new readers.  A victim who refuses to wallow in victimhood, she fights back, carefully, methodically, sometimes viciously.  Justice or revenge--she operates by her own peculiar moral code.

Her image has cropped up EveryBloodyWhere.  Websites offering dragon-tattoo T-shirts and mousepads are of course available and in no time, as with the Harry Potter franchising megablast, it would not be surprising to see Lisbeth Salander action figures and wasp-like talking dolls in production by Christmas time.   In the back of my 724-page copy of The Girl Who Played with Fire (the second book in the series), is an ad inviting you to "Win a trip for two to explore Lisbeth Salander's Sweden!"--or, you could join hundreds of others flocking to take a walking tour of  the Swedish landmarks mentioned in the books (as was done with the sites in Paris, mentioned in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code).
Stieg Larsson, the author of the Millennium books, died in 2004, at the age of 50, of a heart attack, after climbing seven flights of stairs when an elevator had malfunctioned, and collapsing.  He was a heavy smoker, never exercised, and apparently "lived on hamburgers and carried his belongings around in a plastic bag." His last words, according to a colleague,  were: "I'm 50, for Christ's sake."[1]). He died before completing the fourth book in the series (there were originally supposed to be 10), and it is possible it could be finished by someone else--his longtime partner, Eva Gabridsson, perhaps.  Some have even suggested it was she, and not Larsson, who is the actual author of the trilogy, claiming that he was not actually that accomplished a writer.   At any rate, the hubbub has not died down, and six years after Stieg Larsson has left the earth, the books' popularity continues, unabated.

From a reader's perspective, the story definitely holds one's interest.  Even readers who complain of its length and sometimes obsessive detail, agree that it's "riveting" and are compelled to continue reading.  If you're going to write about corporate corruption or abuse of women or sex trafficking, using fiction to bring these issues to public attentiion, this author has certainly succeeded.  As a thriller, with mysteries to solve and motives to discover, it tickles the curiosity, and an unusual or deeply complex character can serve as a mental magnet to entice you to not just stop at the first book.  From a writer's perspective, however, the writing is sometimes a bit  pedestrian.  All the excitement, it seems to me, is for the story, the mystery, and readers' fascination with the main character: Lisbeth Salander, and the battle over who gets final control over Stieg Larsson's unfinished manuscripts. The books' potential for being morphed into a long-term cash cow, in films and walking tours and commercial products exites a different group of people.

So here's the thing.  Apropros the subject of one's fictional characters, say you're writing, or want to write, a novel, and you have in mind a certain character or characters and a particular story you want to tell in which those characters play a part--what is it exactly you want the reader to come away with?  The way you wrote, recognition, or that your words or images resonated--or all of the above?  What happens, for example, when you, as writer, become invisible as author, no one remembering anymore who penned your brilliant creation?  Would that upset you?

I wrote a short story once in which the protagonist all but has a nervous breakdown because his fictional character will not agree to being killed off in the last installment of the author's decades-long detective series.  The writer has grown weary of writing this in genre and wants to move on to something else, but his character won't let him.  Also, the author has become jealous of his protagonist.  The character is much more self confident, he realizes, than he himself is; gets more women, has more Fun.  It turns into a battle.  His fictional alter-ego turns on him, refusing to mouth dialogue he feels is beneath his imagined elegance. This is what happens when one gets too involved IN the stories one writes, ha ha, is not just the pen penning them but when one hangs out with the characters too long, until the fine line separating the writer from the writing becomes hopelessly blurred.  My character can no longer see the difference.  The story ends with a surprising revelation, and because readers didn't see it coming, felt tricked.  They suggested taking it out, telling me you have to be careful with surprise endings; not everyone enjoys being fooled.

The problem with (some of) my stories is that many of the characters are not all that memorable.  Certainly nothing in the league of Lisbeth Salamander.  They are nobodies:  awkward, uncertain, sometimes foolish, more observers of life than participants, beings caught up in and unable to extract themselves from certain ridiculous situations; people at the end of life wondering what they could have done differently and deciding it didn't matter, ordinary people finding love in unexpected places or stumbling on an insight, dislodging a longheld belief; or saying what can't be said but felt.

My friend reminded me that our made-up characters are like our children--they do what they want. And like our children, we don't want them to get pounced on.  We downplay their flaws, don't send them out on their own until they're ready, or we feel they're ready.  And then, of course, there's nothing we can do, they either sink or stand on their own.  Will they make us proud, or be ridiculed, criticized, made to seem inferior, or praised by friends because that's what they think we want to hear?  Should it matter, what anyone thinks? Someday down the road we may ourselves realize we could have done a better job with this or that creation, and re-do it.  And it's back to work again.  Reshaping, readjusting, redefining, rewriting. 

Fictional characters are simply the vehicles to carry the story or mouth the words we want said, when you have something to say, or when you just want to experiment, see how it comes out.  You can always change the salad dressing.  The point is, it must, in the end, be at least palatable.   What one finds delectible, another might choke on.  It goes beyond mere taste, though, in writing.  Good writing, I think, is instantly recognizable.  Even if you don't think much of the venue, packaging, etc.--you know good writing when you see/hear it.

Churning out book after book, collecting accolades, doing book tours, making guest appearances, raking in the dough--how many writers fit that category today?  Even with wildly popular books, at some point it ends.  Then they wait for your next book, which will be judged better or worse than the one preceding it, and if it's not perceived as being equal or better, your limelight might fade a tad.  The problem with writing today is, you not only have to hawk your own books, you often turn out to be the sole publisher, at considerable expense, just to get them "out there."  Unless you luck out like the once obscure J. K. Rawlings, in 2003 dubbed the wealthiest woman in entertainment/show business, eleven times richer than the Queen of England.[2]  Notice it's not the richest "writer".  Her field is referred to as entertainment/show business. 

But back to Blomkvist and Salander, et al.  My assessment of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy: It definitely was a page turner.  Even readers who found it at times tedious and unbearably detailed admitted it was "compelling", and "riveting".  I concur. Had I read the second book without first having read Number One, parts of it would have been confusing.  But reading the second one so soon after the first, it just seemed like more of the same (Billy Pan pizza again!!!  And really, how many people do you know who eat sandwiches first thing in the morning for Breakfast?!  Sandwiches and coffee and pizza all the time, made me yearn for, oh I don't know, ANYTHING different, ha ha). There were different, equally interesting adventures in Book Number 2 but on the whole it was somewhat of a disappointment.  Others have told me this as well.  The 724 pages could have been whittled down a bit--to say, 500. 

Since I now know the ending to Book No. 3 (having peeked), (which by the way, cleverily leaves open the possibility for a Number 4--and by extention--5, 6, 7, ad infinitum), I can wait till it comes out in paperback--or if I think of it again, which may or may not be the case.  Despite mild curiosity about what new problems Salander and Blomkvist are going to encounter in Book No. 3,  I guess you could say I'm pretty much 'trilogied out' right now. I want to move on.

Speaking of saturation, once, in my other life, I read The Golden Bowl, based on a friend's enthuasiastic recommendation, and thereafter in the course of one summer in Toledo, Ohio decided to read every novel Henry James had ever written.  Making a list, I got them out of the local library and began.  After about the eighth or ninth book, however, I experienced a sudden bout of sentence overload.  I blame that summer Jamesian reading marathon for my seemingly ingrained tendency toward verbosity. I could not plow through a novel by Henry James now without groaning (sorry, Henry).  I loved his subtle weaving of words, the delicious way he skirted meanings and played out nuances, linking intricate threads of words in which the reader gets enmeshed and carried thickly along.  But in the end, it tried my patience. (I am not good at 1000-piece puzzles, either. I'd rather climb through a forest thicket shoeless than sit working on a puzzle for four hours.  (Finding hidden or purposely obscured information--now that's a different story; à chacun son goût.)  I think it was the what seemed to me pointless curcuitry of getting to the heart of a thing that did me in, regarding Henry's novels.  Some people circle around a thing; others plunge directly to it, disregarding the sign that says: "Go this way".  This is typical of Aquarians.  If told to go right, for example, they say, "Can I go left instead?" But that is neither here nor there.

And so it goes, as Vonnegut says.   Said.   He doesn't seem gone, somehow.  Every writer's dream:  Not to be out of the mind of readers. ( I wonder if he's still giving them hell, wherever the heck he is.)


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Little Inserts Bringing Smiles

Steven Fama's recent post about Greying Ghost Press in Salem, Mass., and the various items that were included with the book he ordered got me curious. I decided to check this publisher out and ended up ordering a booklet from them--one of the few in the catalogue that hasn't yet sold out--titled "Walden Book" by Allen Bramhall.  It cost a mere $3 (including shipping to Canada) and arrived promptly.

Yes, it's true, just as Steven Fama says, "You buy a book, any book, and you get the book and what amounts to a goofy treasure-stack of flotsam and jetsam (plus free pamphlets) that brings back the fun of (warning: boy and young kid allusions dead-ahead) opening a pack of baseball cards and seeing which players you got, plus the silly fun of the prize in the CrackerJack box."

I'm a sucker for the CrackerJack box experience. Who can resist the invitation to ... have fun?!   Here's what I pulled out from the envelope sent from Greying Ghost Press when it arrived last Friday:

"Walden Book", by Allan Bramhall on unnumbered pages, 'printed and bound in an edition of 75 by Carl Annarummo in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. The covers are from an old coastal map found in a recycling bin.'  My copy is #10.

It's a booklet of 18 prose poems about Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.  I know this pond, have walked those woods, swum in those waters, felt both the nearness and absence of Thoreau there. Words, images, things touched on in the poems clearly resonated.

~ "I cannot believe any catastrophe could be as damp as this pond" (from "Monstrous Walden")

~ "I drank of the water and it tasted of Mexico. Henry hated that war, the standard installations. Walden's formulation left me instilled with a gift.   if you live in the deep cold, and prance along wooded margin, the cautious countryside continues.   life force holds an ace up the certifiable sleeve. this is mere red wine of a saturday eve ....." (from "Political Pond Power")

~ "any day could hold something. the shapely articulation never fades.  splitting light spreads a dramatic      tone poem for all." (from "Walden Will Remain")

~ "the Conquistadors aren't done, envy is a perfect implosion. something is over there, across the way.   just another monster, perhaps, but highly intriguing. maybe we should have words." (from "Stress Test").

~ "this pond makes sense, said that person, laying by the water. I must regulate my functions within this framework, agreed another.   next to and listening.    now talk is cheap.   Walden Pond has this thing, it puts position on the map.   the map fills with specified colours, just for the nexis of that.  imagine!   I love your pond, Henry, someone murmurs.   we are heartened, came an agreeable noise from someone else.  everyone is someone, listen.   the earth seems something of a puddle right now.   it's a political thing, announced whoever, whenever.   the winds that swirl the pretty eddies has a thoughtful virtue.  the sensible pond cluthces time in all transformations.  choice articles clear the eyes, the view perfects.  someone smile and take my picture, pleads a tourist, visiting from a place.   taxonomy relaxes the boundaries, and everyone dies to learn more. these racing cars (Route 2) enforce the latest. mind where you roam, percipient one. endless delivery is a love of place. (from "Map This").

I find myself coming back to certain phrases, certain images. ("Thoreau's ghost makes a rare appearance everyday.   smile when you see that he has been laughing inwardly.   you can throw a rock on his memorial cairn, or screw it, invent a new tree. oh the passing train feels a sadness ..." etc.)  I've taken that sad train to Walden; it often carries relatives to visit inmates at the Northeastern Correctional Center.  Can sadness reside in the seats of a train?  In the track on which it rumbles forward? 

Here's what else was in the package from Greying Ghost:

A Triptych of Poems by Nate Pritt
Three Poems by Gregory Sherl

A playing or trading card. The back of the card says "Whitman".
He looks too neat to be a real cowboy--his shirt looks shiny
and ironed, not a smudge or scuff mark on his perfectly
creased leather pants, not a hair out of place. 

Three 50-word stories, as  part of the Stamp Stories Project
at  Mudluscious Press, by Teresse Svoboda, Zachary 
Schomburg, and Norman Lock.   (Click to enlarge)

Page from a fashion magazine.

 And on the reverse side:

Script beneath the photo:

"We asked Mr. Sahl why he always wears button-down-collar shirts and no tie. "I'm a button-down type," he replied.

"It's an anthropomorphic determination. And I sometimes wear a tie--say, if I'm taking a gal out to dinner. I don't believe in wars over minor issues." Mr. Sahl shown here in his deep-tone Mountain Grape and Piedmont Blue sweater with vertical Grape accents, a bulky knit wool pullover Italian import.

A postcard of Government House in Toronto.

A Sears Roebuck catalogue page of  pocket watches (90 cents
for one in a solid silver case); a glossy page titled "Subscribers",
with various coats of arms and symbols, flags and swords 
(crossed), including the seal of the city of Boston founded in 1630; 
and page 216 of a Tarzan novel. (Click to enlarge)

Mixed Pickles:  

~ ~ A postcard in Hebrew.  Inscribed on the back in blue ink:  "Happy New Year Barbara, from your mother, Jan 1, 1985"

~ ~ A page from a HULK comic book where a military figure warns Hulk that it's his last chance, "Those planes are carrying bombs with nuclear warheads! Give yourself up or we'll blast that cave off the face of the map!"

 ~ ~ An ad page from the back of a nameless magazine urging you, among other things, to "Go globe-trotting at home with a custom-built, all-wave Scott Fifteen short-wave radio console ("Hear, in the quiet comfort of your own home, Spanish tangos, German symphonies, Italian opera, London dance bands, or the wild laugh of the Australian Kookaburra ... direct from their homelands."); sail to Europe via Red Starlines (one way to Antwerp, $117.50); take a summer tour of Ceylon via India State Railways for $18 a day.

~ ~ A page from a comicbook in which an apparition named "Trevor", bearing a remarkable resemblance to  Clark Gable (except his mustache is twirly and pointed, while Clark's, if I remember correctly, was thinner and more tapered), appears to a young woman awakening from sleep.  "You know me, don't you, Lucille?" his voice bubble croons ominously.   "Yes," her voice bubble replies, "but ... you didn't die, DID you?"   In the next frame she asks herself, as he slobbers her with smooches,  "Why am I accepting his kisses... I hate him... and he TERRIFIES me!"   So--Hollywood, ha ha.  In the last frame, she marches zombie-like after him, declaring her obedience to his every command.  I do not know how this turns out, as Greying Ghost has included only this one page.  I seriously doubt the author of this little story was a woman.  (Lucille is blond and beautiful, almost voluptuous, in her form-revealing pink nightie. The cartoon man's dream girl.)

~ ~ A second, different cartoon page where a mysterious hooded figure warns:  "My Lords, I come to you with evil news.  The time of the prophecy of chaos is at hand" (in a kingdom called Crystalilim with no king, where twin princes are vying for the throne). 

What a little treasure trove of stories and poems that could be created from these curious cuttings!! And all of this -- for a mere $3.00.   Thank you, Greying Ghost.  I now know how to write Happy New Year in Hebrew;  I got introduced to three new poets and three writers of mini-stories limited to 50 words; and  I learned that Boston was founded in 1630.  (I knew that before, but forgot the last two digits.)

Things that got my attention in the clippings:

~  That when these magazine ads were published, zip codes did not exist, and you could take a Mediterranean cruise for TWO WHOLE MONTHS, hitting 22 ports of call for a little over $300.

~ That two of these randomly selected items used virtually identical language in sending a message intended to intimidate:  an ad trying to get you to buy a certain brand of dog biscuit featuring a growling  pit bull quoted as saying, "I mean BUSINESS!!", followed by the kinder approach:  "We dogs are easy to please... just give us the right food ..."  Implied, of course, is:  "and if you don't--well, you just better watch out.  Look at the picture.  Look at my growly face.  Look at my sharp teeth.  Look at my words.  'I mean BUSINESS.'"   And in the comic book, a military type shaking his fist, screams at his comrades:  "Show him we mean BUSINESS!!" (as a canon is pointed at Hulk's head).

Marketing messages intended to subconsciously bully customers into buying a product; uniformed gun-pointers proclaiming solidarity in the business of killing--in this case, a large, green person who has an uncontrollable anger management problem.  It just seemed odd, the repetition of that particular phrase, about "meaning business".  Nowadays we don't say that that much anymore; we shorten it and simply say:  "I MEAN it", emphasizing our resolve to turn nastier and carry the threat one step further if what's requested isn't done.  Less business, more meaning--a good thing, one would think.  But in context, things haven't evolved all that much, it seems to me:  it's simply continued being business-as-usual, conducted by meanies. 

Enough of bully talk.  What drew an immediate smile was that "Slim" the perfect cowboy reminded me of my first remembered love.  As a child I once heard an old recording of  Gene Autry singing a Christmas song and told my mother I loved him and was going to marry him.  I must have been 7 or 8 at the time.  She reminded me of my age, suggesting that this was one dream that couldn't possibly come true for me.  I didn't like that answer and  told her:  "I'll wait."  By the time I next remembered my childish infatuation, Gene Autry was, of course, long deceased.  But it wasn't his cowboyness I loved, or even his face.  It was his voice.  Once, some years ago, someone somewhere, on TV or something, played that particular song during the holidays and the people around me laughed at how corny and old fashioned it sounded, but I got goosebumps hearing it. It was like an old love, visiting once again, and everything disappeared: the room, the people, the TV.  All that remained was Gene Autry and the child-me, together again, like I once dreamed.  My little secret.  I never let on, then or since, that I was once in love with, of all people, Gene Autry.

Random clippings, a cowboy card, inserted randomly, in a packet housing a book, a key to unlock past images, bringing back a time where waiting and hoping, for what couldn't ever ever be, was willingly embraced, because of love.  Associations.....

I like the idea of showcasing other poets' work by including them as little bonus gifts when one orders a book; of small press publishers working in concert to promote new poets and writers by including samples with book orders; and in Greying Ghost's case, injecting the fun of anticipation and surprise into discovering the funky, interesting and/or nostalgic clippings chosen for each package mailed out.  They increase knowledge, bring back memories, and (for me at least) provide a wealth of material for future stories and poems.

Thank you Steven Fama for the link.  And thank you Greying Ghost for a delightful mid-afternoon break from the monotony of database work, to go revisit, if only mentally, a beloved pond down Massachusetts way, meet some other poets, and see what little surprises came in the envelope from Salem.  In the end it's not the clippings, or the momentary fun, but the words that remain.  The words. 

Some words not only the writer but readers themselves might utter.  

"I love your pond, Henry."

"everyone is someone.  listen."

Friday, September 3, 2010

Poetry, Writ and Sung

I received an email this morning from a local discussion group that meets twice a month at a downtown bistro to talk about science, art and literature, in an effort to address what they term "the need for lively thought."   

Discussion at the next meeting will center around reflections on a single line in one of Louis Aragon's poems entitled ll n'y a pas d'amour heureux, a melancholic poem about the nature of love.  (trans. "There is no happy love.")

The line they'll be discussing is  "Le temps d'apprendre à vivre il est déjà trop tard" ("The time to learn to live is already too late"), focusing on Aragon's development of a reflection on the aims of human existence.

Not only philosophical discussions have resulted from the reading of this poem but it's been made into a song recorded by French singer Georges Brassens (1921-1981).

Brassens sang not just the verses of Aragon, but  lyrics based on poems of Lamartine, Richepin, Villon, Apollinaire, and Victor Hugo (the latter in which he "protests the indoctrination of vulnerable minds with Medieval religious terrors")

His songs have been translated into 20 languages, and 50 doctoral dissertations have been written about him.   He's made 200 recordings, singing about first love, unrequited love, middle-aged love; nostalgia for his childhood town, cheating death, dying for one's ideas, reasons not to propose marriage, the malignant effects of publicity, capital punishment, the intolerance of respectable people.

He wrote songs remembering his days in poverty and hiding, and of being a total outsider (with titles such as "The Bum You Are" and "Useless Weed That I Am"). Called an outcast and an anarchist, forced into hiding--then choosing to stay there--he wrote and sang his and others' poetry.

[This information thanks to David Barfield, who has devoted his blog entirely to the songs of Georges Brassens, including lyrics in both French and English, as well as videos of Brassens and others' performing them  (e.g., the naughty Carla Bruni, wife of French president Nicholas Sarkozy, despite being strongly advised not to do so, here singing one of Brassens' bawdy songs that was banned on French radio.]

Georges Brassens, singing "Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux".

Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux

Rien n'est jamais acquis à l'homme Ni sa force
Ni sa faiblesse ni son coeur Et quand il croit
Ouvrir ses bras son ombre est celle d'une croix
Et quand il croit serrer son bonheur il le broie
Sa vie est un étrange et douloureux divorce
          Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux
Sa vie Elle ressemble à ces soldats sans armes
Qu'on avait habillés pour un autre destin
A quoi peut leur servir de se lever matin
Eux qu'on retrouve au soir désoeuvrés incertains
Dites ces mots Ma vie Et retenez vos larmes
          Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux
Mon bel amour mon cher amour ma déchirure
Je te porte dans moi comme un oiseau blessé
Et ceux-là sans savoir nous regardent passer
Répétant après moi les mots que j'ai tressés
Et qui pour tes grands yeux tout aussitôt moururent
          Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux
Le temps d'apprendre à vivre il est déjà trop tard
Que pleurent dans la nuit nos coeurs à l'unisson
Ce qu'il faut de malheur pour la moindre chanson
Ce qu'il faut de regrets pour payer un frisson
Ce qu'il faut de sanglots pour un air de guitare
          Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux
Il n'y a pas d'amour qui ne soit à douleur
Il n'y a pas d'amour dont on ne soit meurtri
Il n'y a pas d'amour dont on ne soit flétri
Et pas plus que de toi l'amour de la patrie
Il n'y a pas d'amour qui ne vive de pleurs
          Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux
          Mais c'est notre amour à tous les deux

Louis Aragon (La Diane Francaise, Seghers 1946)

[Source:  Feelingsurfer's blog.]

There Is No Happy Love

Man never truly possesses anything
Neither his strength, nor his weakness, nor his heart
And when he opens his arms
His shadow is that of a cross
And when he tries to embrace happiness
He crushes it
His life is a strange and painful divorce
       There is no happy love
His life resembles those soulless soldiers
Who have been groomed for a different fate
Why should they rise in the morning
When nighttime finds them disarmed, uncertain
Say these words and hold back your tears
       There is no happy love
My beautiful love, my dear love, my torn heart
I carry you in me like a wounded bird
Those who unknowingly watch us walk by
Repeat after me my words and sigh
They have already died in your bright eyes
       There is no happy love
By the time we learn to live
It's already too late
Our hearts cry in unison at night
It takes many a misfortune for the simplest song
Many regrets to pay for a thrill
Many a tear for a guitar's melody
       There is no happy love
There is no love which is not pain
There is no love which does not bruise
There is no love which does not fade
And none that is greater than your love for your country
There is no love which does not live from tears
       There is no happy love
       But it is our own love

[Source: Verbal Collage]

Thursday, September 2, 2010


The past two days and nights have been exceedingly hot and humid. My tomatoes in the garden love it. All the sun people I know, love it. Last night there was no wind, not even an occasional, timid little puff of it. We have one fan, which sits downstairs during the day, and is dragged back upstairs at night. Even when it is blowing directly on you, it still feels like you're sleeping inside an oven. We didn't invest in an air conditioner because summer is short here and out of the whole summer, these sweltering, steamy days are relatively few.

What's most bothersome about continuing high heat and humidity is that it depletes every last ounce of one's energy. I turn into a complete vegetable. Or so it seems. Only in mid-October, when the first chilling winds arrive, does the mind come completely alive again. Summer is usually my least productive time; I'd just rather read or swim or watch movies. For most people here the arrival of Fall means Winter's coming soon, and they groan. I'm among the one percent who jump up and down shouting "Yay!!!" at the first hint of a snowflake.

But that's not for some time yet. The heat wave's debilitation's rendered the mind complete mush today, and to prove it, here's a little poem I just wrote on this particular season (somewhat biased; were it 10 degrees cooler, it would no longer be relevant), (with apologies to Wallace Stevens):

One must have a mind of summer
To withstand the heat and the burn
Of the sun's brutal spread

And have loved warmth a long time
To regard the asphalt steaming and
The ice’s instant melt in the bag

In the August sun, and not to think
Of any misery in the lack of wind
Or sweat-soaked hair

Which is the blast of Sun’s fire
Burning the brain
to complete inertia.

For the sunbather, who bakes in the sand,
asleep to himself, yet sensing
Everything that is there and the Otherness that


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Lucky Number

It's weird about numbers, how we relate to certain numbers, have favorites, etc.

I'm a 4.  I have always thought of myself as a 4.  Perhaps because I was born on the fourth day of the month.  I thought of my mother as a 2, though she was born on the 24th day of the first month of the year.  The then love of my life, for many years, was a 7.  The combination of him and me (4 + 7) in my mind came up, not as 11, but 47. 

That this was indeed my lucky number was first confirmed--or so I convinced myself--years ago when I agreed to go one afternoon with a friend to the dog races.  To me, this friend was just a casual acquaintance.  But I think at the time he thought of our little excursion as a date. 

On the way to the ticket booth, he explained the basics on how to place a bet.  I was more interested in looking at the thin, sleek, graceful greyhounds, wondering what kind of life they led when they were not training or racing.  He asked me which dogs I wanted to bet on.  I don't remember the names of any of the dogs and because he was in a hurry, I gave him $2 and said to bet on numbers 4 to win and 7 to place.  (4 + 7 = 47) He made his bets based on a thorough examination of each dog's racing history and current predicted favorites.  Dogs Number 4 and 7 weren't among them.

Imagine his (and my) surprise when 4 won and 7 came in second.  He was dumbfounded and scowled and muttered something like "Beginner's luck!"    I don't remember the exact amount of the winnings but it was around $50 (a considerable amount at the time, for two poverty-stricken students), which he insisted we had to split because it was he who went to the booth and placed the bet for me.  He seemed miffed that none of his picks had turned out, and that I, a race-gambling newbie, who wasn't even paying attention when he explained how to bet, ended up winning.  But that seemed to me at the time, a message from the universe.  Yes, your lucky number is indeed 47.

Fast forward to today and I'm web surfing for some info on an entirely unrelated matter and come across a poem written about the number 47, by Bulgarian poet Ivan Kulekov.  Here it is:

It may not be the greatest number in the world, but it's still my lucky number, to this day.  I've won lottery tickets (nothing substantial, usually only in the $10 range, but once for $40) when that number was specifically chosen, and twice on a "quick pick" where the store machine picked the number for me.  Not that I do this often--I mean what are the odds of winning even a hundred dollars buying a lottery ticket--and it's probably only coincidence, but the myth lives on, ha ha, that this number, 47,  is still significant, despite the connotation on which it was originally based.  

Silly humans and their strange beliefs: That 1 is more important than 2, that 13 is unlucky, that 66 is evil, that saying "Be back in 2 minutes" sounds better somehow than "Be back in 3 minutes".

But hey, how many people can say their personal lucky number has a whole poem written about it? I'm thrilled.