Posts Tagged ‘J.D. Salinger’

Tobias Wolff on the Colbert Report

Thursday, September 12th, 2013
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TobiasWolffOkay, I’ll admit it’s a tiny little square below. But it’s worth watching. The backstory:  Stephen Colbert admits that J.D. Salingers Catcher in the Rye is his least favorite book, “the most important American novel I don’t get.” He prefers the Glass family stories. So he invited Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life, to convince him otherwise. “You will never convince me,” he warned on the Colbert Book Club.  Toby agreed it shouldn’t be taught to kids as mandatory high school reading:  ”Part of the experience of finding that book is that it felt really subversive reading it.” The adult world is unmasked as “a nest of hypocrisy and phoniness. That’s something you want to find on your own. You don’t want your English teacher to be introducing you to the hypocrisy of adults.” So why doesn’t he, too, prefer the Glass family stories? Toby relaxed back in his chair and presented a rhetorical question: “You like to read sermons all day?” Colbert responded in a beat: “I like to give them.”  Who can argue with that?

See it all for yourself:

Catcher-in-the-rye-red

Remembering William Maxwell: “He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012
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Maxwell

Sophisticated? He didn’t think so. (Photo: Brookie Maxwell)

In preparation for Stanford’s “Another Look,” a new book club launched by the English department at Stanford, I wrote a retrospective on author William Maxwell, whose  masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow, will be the inaugural book for  “Another Look”  on Monday, November 12.   The book will be discussed by award-winning author Tobias Wolff, with Bay Area novelist, journalist, and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford’s lit scholar Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.  More on “Another Look” here

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“I never felt sophisticated,” the erudite and elderly Midwesterner explained to NPR’s Terry Gross in 1995.  His modesty is certainly one reason why William Maxwell remains a connoisseur’s writer, never achieving the wider recognition he deserves.

Yet Maxwell’s career was situated at the epicenter of American literature and letters: On staff at the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, he was the editor of J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, John Cheever, and many other luminaries.  He also contributed regularly to the magazine’s reviews and columns, and continued to do so until 1999, a year before his death.  Maxwell wrote six novels, many short stories, a memoir, two books for children, and about forty short, whimsical pieces, which he called “improvisations.” Three volumes of letters have also been published.

Others have readily compensated for Maxwell’s modesty.  Christopher Carduff, editor of the Library of America edition of the author’s complete works, once called him “a kind, wise, quiet voice. One of the essential American voices of our time.”

“I don’t think he tried very hard to promote himself,” said writer Benjamin Cheever, son of novelist John Cheever, in a telephone interview. “He was very, very quiet – both as a public person and as a conversationalist.  He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

“He lived for art, its appreciation as well as its creation,” wrote John Updike in The New Yorker.  “His shapely, lively, gently rigorous memoirs, out of the abundance of heartfelt writing he bestowed on posterity, are most like being with Bill in life, at lunch in midtown or at home in the East Eighties, as he intently listened, and listened, and then said, in his soft dry voice, exactly the right thing.”

The path of Maxwell’s life took few sharp turns. He was born in Lincoln, Illinois, on August 16, 1908. His professional life was almost entirely bound up with the New Yorker, where he worked for four decades – in a sense, he became the “company man” his father would have approved.

After an intensely long and lonely bachelorhood, he married the most beautiful woman he had ever met.  Their marriage lasted until her death, a week before his own.  He and Emily (universally called “Emmy”) had two daughters – the first born when he was 46.

His work habits were relentlessly predictable:  According to his daughter Katharine Maxwell, he was consistently in bed at 10 p.m., and up at 6 a.m.  He didn’t like the superficial chitchat of cocktail parties.  He excused himself abruptly from dinner parties at 9.45 p.m. – he wanted to be fresh to write the next morning.

About four-fifths of his oeuvre is set in or around his hometown. Thanks to him, Lincoln has become a landmark as indelible as Hannibal, Missouri, in the annals of American literature.

“The shine went out of everything”

There was one defining peak on the otherwise rather flat landscape of Maxwell’s life: his mother’s death in the 1918 influenza epidemic, when he was 10. He never really got over it; almost all his friends and acquaintances speak about it when recalling him.

“He couldn’t speak of her without tears welling up in his eyes,” recalled his daughter, Katharine Maxwell. She said it resulted in a sort of flinty atheism, a grudge almost – “yet he said he thought God could write a better story than he could.”  Maxwell’s friend and fellow writer at the New Yorker, Alec Wilkinson, described him as “melancholy-minded.” Said Wilkinson: “His mother’s death stamped him forever with an awareness of the fragility of human happiness.  It kept him away from any religions. I remember him saying that ‘no one can fail to be astonished by creation – that’s as far as I’m going to go as to a governing faculty to the universe.’”

(more…)

Yet another use for those unwanted books

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012
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Have some time on your hands?  If you are determined to thin your library, contrary to our advice, here’s another way to use those unwanted books.

Guy Laramee has created two series of carved book landscapes and structures entitled Biblios and The Great Wall, where, as the website says, “the dense pages of old books are excavated to reveal serene mountains, plateaus, and ancient structures.”

Says the artist:  “So I carve landscapes out of books and I paint Romantic landscapes. Mountains of disused knowledge return to what they really are: mountains. They erode a bit more and they become hills. Then they flatten and become fields where apparently nothing is happening. Piles of obsolete encyclopedias return to that which does not need to say anything, that which simply is. Fogs and clouds erase everything we know, everything we think we are.”

See more here.

Laramee’s next show will be in April at Montreal’s Galerie d’Art d’Outremont.

Closer to home, the San Jose Public Library (of all places) has another idea, via one of its volunteers, “Debbie” at the Willow Glen neighborhood branch of the library:

“One day, Debbie came across donations no one wanted to buy: Readers’ Digest Condensed books, with beautifully decorated hard covers. She’d heard there was a way to make a purse from a book, so she did what any librarian would:  research!  She downloaded patterns from the Internet and created prototypes to show the Friends. Now, besides selling books, the Friends handcraft one-of-a-kind purses; each takes about 12 hours to create. Book Purses were introduced to the public at the Friends’ April, 2011, book sale. Later, a line of E-book Reader Covers was added.”

To date, “Friends of the Willow Glen Library” has sold 72 purses and e-reader covers. Frankly, we can’t think of a better use for the Readers’ Digest.

More about it here.

Salinger fan

Postscript 2/25 – Fashion Note:  It’s Oscar week, and someone else has picked up the book purse theme:  see here for the Michelle Williams‘s J.D. Salinger/Catcher in the Rye purse, which accessorized her Louis Vuitton suit for the Independent Spirits awards. The Oscar-nominated actress usually sports Le-Tan clutches. “The reasons for choosing Salinger’s novel are not quite as obvious, but the bag complimented the actress’s unusual attire at today’s awards,” according to the article. Be patient with the video. The book-purse comes at the end.

What’s the worst great book you ever read?

Saturday, August 13th, 2011
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Stick to "The Dubliners"

A cadre of leading authors and critics are on a roll over at Slate, dissing the great classics.  It’s over here.

Disses are always fun to read, so here’s a potpourri:

Poet and Yale Review editor J.D. McClatchy says he would put himself first on the list, if he were rated at all, but then he characterizes Virginia Woolf as “noxious smoke and dusty mirrors.”

“Not far behind, and for completely different reasons, William Carlos Williams: So little depends on stuff lying around. The absolute worst, the gassiest, most morally and aesthetically bankrupt, the most earnestly and emptily studied and worshipped … that’s an easy one. Ezra Pound.”

James Joyce takes a drubbing more than once.

Author Lee Siegel confesses “I just can’t do Finnegans Wake”:

“As a graduate student in literature, I was surrounded by people who claimed not just to have read Finnegans Wake but to have understood it and I took another futile stab at it. I realize now that they were all frauds who later went to work in the subprime mortgage industry.” He concludes: The adult realization that whatever sublime beauties of language and idea are in Joyce’s novel, I have to let them go. Just as there are sublime places—Antarctica—that I will never visit. As I learned from Joyce’s Ulysses, the mystery of everyday life is fathomless enough. There is still a world in a grain of sand.”

"Lame" himself

Daniel Mendelsohn, frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, adds to the pile-on: “what spoils Ulysses for me, each time, is the oppressive allusiveness, the wearyingly overdetermined referentiality, the heavy constructedness of it all…it’s more like being on one of those Easter egg hunts you went on as a child—you constantly feel yourself being managed, being carefully steered in the direction of effortfully planted treats.”

J.D. Salinger?  Forget it.  Author Tom Perrotta recalls:

“On a recent episode of South Park, the kids got all excited about reading The Catcher in the Rye, the supposedly scandalous novel that’s been offending teachers and parents for generations. They were, of course, horribly disappointed: As Kyle says, it’s ‘just some whiny annoying teenager talking about how lame he is.’”

Not unsurprisingly, the most generous words come from Elif Batuman:

Generous spirit

Like many people, I enjoy learning which canonical books are unbeloved by which contemporary writers. However, I don’t think participants in such surveys ought to blame either themselves (“I’m so lazy/uneducated”) or the canonical books (“Ulysses is so overrated”). My view is that the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book. Literature is supposed to be beautiful and/or necessary—so if at a given time you don’t either enjoy or need a certain book, then you should read something else, and not feel guilty about it.

FYI on Elif:  Her The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, was plugged by Imitatio here. (hat tip, Dave Lull). Why the a surprise?  Imitatio is the organization founded to study the ideas of René Girard, and some consider her book to be a spoof of those same ideas, with an obsessed  and charismatic graduate student so unable to break the chain of mimetic desire that he finds peace and happiness only in a monastery.  My own opinion:  she has done a lot to revive an interest in his ideas for a new generation.  The site links to the glowing Guardian review that notes the hit memoir’s “detailed engagement with René Girard’s theory of the novel and mimetic desire.”

René told me he hadn’t read it, but when I explained the plot story about the graduate student, he chuckled sagely.

The “Great Minds Think Alike” Dept.:  Patrick Kurp over at Anecdotal Evidence has written about the same Slate piece today, with his own nominations for the overrated – it’s here.

Meanwhile, in the comments section at Slate, Terrence Wentworth offered this: “Cool idea, but reading author after author being bashed got depressing by the end. It was surprising how many respondents were willing to pass judgment on books they hadn’t finished. Saying “I couldn’t finish it” is not a very powerful argument for a book’s inferiority. And I thought being well read entailed knowledge of books one didn’t like or find agreeable. I think a call for praise of un-PC works would have been much more daring. But how many contemporary critics are even willing to look for beauty in, say, Ezra Pound?

Paris Review’s Blair Fuller: writer, editor, and mentor extraordinaire dies at 84’

Friday, August 5th, 2011
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"A sweetheart through and through"

Blair Fuller, former editor of the Paris Review, creative writing teacher at Stanford, and co-founder of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers – and mentor to many – died of cancer on July 23 in Petaluma.  He was 84.

Fuller wrote several novels and short stories, twice winning an O. Henry prize for short fiction.

“He was very gentlemanly, a sweetheart through and through,” said Edwina Leggett, who co-owned Minerva’s Owl bookstore on San Francisco’s Union Street with him, in the San Francisco Chronicle.  “He was very affectionate. He was kind to everybody.”

The New York native served in the Navy during World War II, then took a Harvard degree in philosophy.  In the 1950s, he went to the Ivory Coast and Ghana to work as an executive for Texaco. His first two novels were based on his experiences in West Africa.

The peripatetic writer moved to Paris and became one of the early editors of the Paris Review. According to an obituary on its website:  “He read each issue cover to cover and was quick with both praise and criticism: ‘The Levé piece is my favorite. I feel badly that he ended his life. An interesting and original man … I wish Beattie could be trimmed a bit. Bolaño never did grip me. Otherwise a fine issue.’ His first response to the Daily was typically forthright: ‘What a terrible idea!’”

When Pulitzer prizewinning author Wallace Stegner invited him to come and teach at Stanford in the 1960s, he headed West and never looked back.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle obituary:

After a few years at Stanford, Mr. Fuller co-founded the Squaw Valley Community of Writers with writer Oakley Hall. It was there he met actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, who was just launching her career and became a lifelong friend.

“He really helped me think of myself as a writer,” she said Friday. “He just intuitively understood my work. … He was absolutely invaluable to my development as a writer.”

Mr. Fuller also served on the board of the Magic Theater and American Conservatory Theater.

Salinger: "His cufflinks caught the light."

In more recent times, he began to send his reminiscences to the Paris Review‘s blog.  Two from June:  An article about Harold “Doc” Humes‘s LSD party with Norman Mailer in 1960 is here; and his piece blandly titled, “An Evening with J.D. Salingerhere.  The latter is a real ‘wow’:

A headshot of him had appeared on the Catcher book jacket—dark hair slicked back above a longish, handsome face. This night he was well dressed in a suit with a faint glen plaid pattern, a white shirt whose collar was secured behind the knot of his necktie by a gold collar pin. His cufflinks caught the light. Why did his elegance surprise me?

But the reclusive writer was far from elegant.  I won’t give away the rest.

Mailer and Fuller had a rematch in the 1970s, when the pugnacious author stopped by Minerva’s Owl.  Fuller was busy, so he sent Leggett to entertain the notoriously difficult New Yorker:

“I was nervous and mad Blair was abandoning me,” Leggett said. “I said, ‘Lordy, what will I do with Norman Mailer?’

“Blair said, ‘That’s easy. Take him to the nearest bar.’ “

Poet Moore Moran: A death in Ordinary Time

Sunday, March 6th, 2011
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Moore Moran, Sept. 27, 1931 - Feb. 27, 2011

I received an email from my publisher at Ohio University Press/Swallow Press earlier this week – the poet Moore Moran, known to his friends as Mike, died on February 27.  He was 79.

I had blogged about the Santa Rosa poet here and here. He had published his first full-length book, Firebreaks, in 1999 – it bagged a National Poetry Book Award.  His newest book, The Room Within, was published last year.

“Imagine a poet who could deal with the experience of Jack Kerouac but with too much intelligence to limit himself to the road. You don’t have to imagine him. He exists. He has many skills, all of them beautifully bright, and on occasions when he looks into the abyss they take him safely over it,” said Turner Cassity of Moran’s poems.

But I was startled when I reread the email a few days later and realized I had overlooked that the memorial would not be in Santa Rosa, but nearby, in Menlo Park – where, it turns out, he had graduated from high school before getting two degrees from Stanford.

So I dropped in on Friday afternoon to pay my respects to a poet in the century-old Church of the Nativity.  But it was not a poet who was being honored so much as  “husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, father-in-law, friend, poet,” according to the program.

He was much loved.  About 150-200 friends and family came to the mass, with bluegrass guitar and bass fiddle performers Dennis and Ehlert Lassen singing “Amazing Grace” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Not necessarily what one would expect from the poems, with their bleak, spare mystery.

Surprisingly, everyone looked like they had come for the same event – the men were all in jackets and ties, and the women in somber suits and dresses. Banished were all traces of “California casual,” where some people look as if they had wandered in from the garden or the beach or a cocktail party.  Nor did there seem to be any poets on hand from the “Yvor Winters Circle” – but then, the room was crowded and I was in a back corner, and this was a very quiet death, after all.

The priest, referred to only as “Father Davenport,” recalled that Moore Moran, despite disability, was “always smiling” and “a good man.”

His son, businessman Mike Moran, said, “I never stopped amazing my dad, and my dad never stopped amazing me.”  The son, to put it mildly, was not a poet or lit freak.

His father taught the kids Latin and music, as well as Yvor Winters, John Steinbeck, and J.D. Salinger.  He was “an encyclopedia of jokes,” recalled his son.  And, in fact, the program included his poem “Just Joking,” written on his 51st birthday, when he had “maybe a third of a tank left”:

…the bewildered heart in us which,
Year by year, measuring our slim attainments
With mounting despair, still feeds
In its recesses some faint hope, despite
The certain knowledge that what it hopes for
Cannot change the tide…

“He was often lost in afterthought,” said his son.  “I’m certainly no poet, but I came to appreciate my father’s poetry.” He recalled the children’s hesitancy to have their father correct their writing, because “then we’d go back for another hour of writing.”

But sometimes dad came in handy.  Moran Jr. recalled a long discussion his father launched when the son was having trouble “getting” Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales.  The next day in class,  Moran Jr. performed the usual duck-and-hide with averted gaze, to avoid the teacher targeting him with a question.  The teacher targeted him anyway.

Thanks to his dad’s monologue, the so-so student poured forth with a reply “at a depth and level far beyond what my teacher had.”

The class was “absolutely stunned.  The whole room was silent,” he recalled.

“I was bumped up to AP English,” he said, and paused for only an instant. “That lasted about four days.”

On Moran’s memorial page at legacy.com, David Sanders wrote: “A gentleman and a fine poet. It was an honor to edit and publish his last book.”

“Just Joking,” with its rambling style is nice, but my favorite Moran poems are quick and cryptic – like this one:

Ordinary Time in the Pews

Church of the Nativity, Menlo Park

Ordinary days again.
Advent, Pentecost are past;
who now will accept our sins,
raise the dust in which we’re cast?

Cold the God flesh on the tree,
banned the crèche to attic murk,
sheer the silence after prayer.
Nothing seems at all to work.

Yet we try and try again
serving Him we hardly know:
honk if you love Jesus, friend,
beeping blessings as we go.

Here we meet who, somehow, must
rescue meaning from the dust,
where betrayal’s kiss presents
our best hope of relevance.

PostscriptPatrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence has added a lovely tribute here.  “Earth only will find him cold.”

Postscript on 3/7: Looking online for others who remember Moore Moran, I found this mini-memoir from Peter Robinson.