"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Here are the novels, memoirs, short-story collections and poetry books our favorite local writers and editors are reading this summer:
Sally Mann is best known for the photo project "Immediate Family," a series documenting her family's isolated life in the Virginia hills, starring her three young children. The beautiful photographs occasionally feature Mann's kids in the nude — a fact that caused an uproar when the pictures were published in 1992. Mann unpacks this controversy and much more in her new memoir, "Hold Still," my favorite book I've read so far this summer. The memoir was born when Mann decided to research the lives of her forebears, and as she writes in the prologue, "I secretly hoped I'd find a payload of Southern gothic" in their personal histories. Indeed she did — luckily for us — and the resulting brick of a book (nearly 500 pages that I never wanted to end) is an absorbing reflection on art, nature, home, marriage, parenthood, race relations and family ties. Mann's own story and that of her kin is endlessly fascinating, though it's her voice — as vital as her photographs — that makes this book such an excellent read.
The most pleasurable reading hours of my year have been marked by two recent story collections, each of them boasting at least one story I would number among my all-time favorites.
First there is César Aira's "The Musical Brain and Other Stories." Aira, famous for the luxuriance of both his imagination and his publication schedule, has seen 13 of his 80-some books translated into English, but this is the first collection of his shorter work. "Acts of Charity," the foremost of the stories in my affections, might be most fruitfully read as a parable of the artistic life. It recounts the tale of several generations of priests who, one by one, forego helping their fellow man in order to create the most opulent possible home for their successors, thereby (at least theoretically) freeing them to live a life wholeheartedly devoted to charity, and it strikes a mood of delighted — even nutty — cynicism that is unique to Aira's work.
Next there is Rebecca Makkai's "Music for Wartime," her first collection, stories from which were chosen (by Salman Rushdie, Alice Sebold, Richard Russo and Geraldine Brooks) for an unprecedented four consecutive editions of "The Best American Short Stories." Among them is "The Briefcase," about a prisoner in a war-torn country who escapes, adopts the identity of a missing physics professor, and spends his exile trying to demonstrate that the sun revolves around the earth. It is a story that displays remarkable compression, force and agility, and is also one of the very few I've read that would fit just as snugly into Kafka's oeuvre as it would into Amy Hempel's or Joy Williams'.
My wife calls me a nostalgia machine. "It's what oils your parts," she says, teasing me about how strangely I ache for the past, how sometimes I miss something before it's even gone. This, of course, is what drives me to forgotten snapshots in antique stores; it's what I can't quit contemplating — the slippery and fragmented nature of memory, something I never could quite articulate, at least not until now, having read Rick Barot's third book of poetry, "Chord." These new poems, while various in subject matter, are all seemingly born from a world tenaciously observed, from a practice of looking closely in a way that both reaches for what has gone before and remembers that the present will soon pass, too. You might imagine this makes for a melancholy read, but instead, these poems crackle with the language of deep attention, making his observations of even the mundane seem like prayer. Barot is also brilliantly adept at taking abstract thought and giving it flesh. Consider "Particle and Wave," showing that "memory can be particle, // that it is a certain justice / carried in time, the shape of it // exact in mind, long after the faded / fact."
I got into writing because I thought it was the best excuse to read for a living, but the intensity to which I've had to research lately has made me steal moments of what I've come to describe as "useless reading." It's been very revealing to see what reading I choose when it's serving no other purpose.
A lot of people who go into filmmaking want to be Spielberg; I just want to be Schulberg. I've found myself indulging any spare time in two of my favorite novels, "What Makes Sammy Run" and "The Disenchanted," and two of my favorite screenplays, "On the Waterfront" and "A Face in the Crowd." "A Face in the Crowd" was a first love, and "What Makes Sammy Run" deserves all the credit it's been given, but the unsung hero here is "The Disenchanted." Based on a young Schulberg's own experiences of writing a screenplay with (another favorite novelist) F. Scott Fitzgerald at the nadir of Fitzgerald's career, it's about disillusionment, both of a young man when faced with the demise of someone he's idolized, and of the entire Jazz Age and the literature and artists that were born from it. The book is funny, heartbreaking and expertly crafted, and Budd Schulberg is, as ever, a pro.
Years back, my friend Matt White gave me a copy of Frank Stanford's "The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You." I didn't know what to make of it, but I couldn't help but feel that Stanford's mouth and heart were bigger than mine could ever be. Unconventional. Tortured. Utterly false at times, utterly fearless at others. As if James Merrill had wallowed in a creek bed. And he was writing about all these places I know. With "What About This: The Collected Poems of Frank Stanford," I still don't know entirely what to make of him. I'm not sure Stanford knew what to make of himself, but I'm glad a lot more people will be punched in their guts and dragged out into the sunlight like I was to try to gauge his mass and power.
Set free from the semester's constraints of required reading, I've begun writing poems again, which means seeking out others' poetry to inspire me. So far, I've found two new collections that do just that.
Matthew Olzmann's "Mezzanines" is like happily wandering a Hollywood studio lot where doors open to everything from a gas station in Detroit to long-dead sailors swabbing the deck of a sunken ship. Here, a stroll through the Housewares section becomes a meditation on race, and Mountain Dew becomes a symbol for enduring love — powerful proof that nothing is too weird or quotidian to be worthy of our attention.
Andrea Cohen's "Furs Not Mine" showcases a magician of a different sort. Writing about her mother's death, it is not so much her mother Cohen wrangles onto the page but, perhaps more impressively, the amorphous weight of grief itself. Her tools for this are unexpected: sly humor, a touch of surrealism, and deceptively simple language, which again and again transform into elegies staggering in their impact. At first, I was obsessed with how she did it, but with a performance this masterful, by the end I was simply thankful to have witnessed it.
I like to coordinate my summer reading with my summer journeys, so for a first-ever trip to Minnesota over solstice weekend, I took along J.F. Powers' novel set there, "Morte D'Urban." Powers is mainly a shortstory writer, highly praised but neglected, though this novel, his first, won the National Book Award in 1963. The book is about Father Urban, an ambitious Catholic priest in a down-at-heels order, the fictional Order of St. Clement, who is transferred from its Chicago office to a rural Minnesota retreat. The fish-out-of-water comedy here, low and high in abundance, is both Catholic and catholic, as his satiric targets are the universal ones of pride, social climbing and institutional bumbling, and his sentences are well-wrought structures, unlike the domicile of the Clementines: "The wall had been yanked out like a tooth, the gap crudely plastered over, and now, presumably, was expected to heal itself." Father Urban courts wealthy benefactors, including one who builds a nine-hole golf course at the retreat, leading to a match that becomes a hilarious psychological battleground. A later putatively comic scene turns suddenly heart-racing and serious — Mary Gordon has called it "one of the most memorable and quietly horrible in modern fiction" — and Father Urban has to make a decision on which you feel the state of his soul depends.
In 1917, years after World War I started, President Woodrow Wilson finally caved in on pacifism and his fellow Americans jumped at long last into the "war to end all wars." The reverberations were felt all the way back to our part of the world, and the state of Arkansas was in many ways changed forever. Those days are now chronicled in a masterful collection of 12 essays, "To Can the Kaiser: Arkansas and the Great War," edited by Michael D. Polston and Guy Lancaster. (Butler Center Books, 2015).
Though little has been written about Arkansas during this period, more than 70,000 Arkansans served in the armed forces. On the home front, the war also expanded the role of women and delivered Arkansas products to global markets. On the eve of the 100th anniversary of U.S. participation in WWI, it's nice to find a book that gives an authoritative and rare glimpse into an important part of our history.
And, since I'm not getting any baseball this season on my cheap cable package, I decided to visit an old friend, Roger Kahn, author of a classic book called "The Boys of Summer" (Harper & Row, 1972). It's about the mid-'50s' Brooklyn Dodgers and their killer lineup, featuring the likes of Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges and Duke Snider. Also included is an Ozarks farm boy named Elwin "Preacher" Roe of Viola, Ark., who was known to throw an illegal pitch now and then and tells you how to do it without getting caught.
For this book, Kahn sought out and interviewed Dodger players from that team years later. The resulting profiles, including a great one on Roe, put you as close to being on the field as you can get, except for the smell of pine tar and seeing guys spit "chew."
"The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks" was the first novel I read by Donald Harington, and it remains my favorite. A hilarious, bawdy and affecting saga that calls to mind both "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Catch-22," the book only slyly pretends to be a history of the development of domestic architecture in Stay More, the fictional hamlet that serves as the setting for most of Harington's novels. Its real concern is the intermingling (in all possible senses of that word) of several generations of families well known to readers of Harington's other Stay More novels.
Though TAOTAO (as Harington abbreviated the title) was obviously inspired by Garcia Marquez's novel — some fans have referred to it as "One Hundred Years of Hillbilly Solitude" — it reminded me of "Catch-22" in its ceaseless inventive cleverness. You might even get a little worn out by all the wordplay and joking. But as with "Catch-22," at the end of the book you will stop laughing just in time to feel genuinely moved.
Congratulations Tara, beautifully written!