Now Playing at Canterbury, by Vance Bourjaily. Here's the book situation: a group of academics and theater professionals get together to stage a faculty-composed opera at a fictionalized version of the University of Iowa--and things happen. Stories happen. Life happens. Magic happens.
I love this book so much.
I remember the day I bought my first copy: 19 years old and coming down with a cold, I was in a Minneapolis bookstore looking for something to read while I suffered. I saw NPAC, a mass-market paperback edition. I vaguely remembered a review a year or two earlier in Time--was it on the year's 10 Best List? I think so. Don't really remember. I bought it, though, and took it back to my squalid, mouse-infested apartment, and I read it pretty much straight through in one sneezing coughing Nyquilling sprint, caught up in the magic of the stories and characters in this book.
I loaned that book out to someone, never got it back. No problem. I bought other copies, loaned them out, too. Read it nine, ten, fifteen times. Gave away more copies. Bought new ones (used ones), learned from the writing. Went back to it again and again.
In grad school my thesis was supervised by James Hannah, whose thesis at the University of Iowa was supervised by...Vance Bourjaily. I found this amusing and pleasing, my lucky proximity to greatness.
But--you know what? Now Playing at Canterbury is out of freaking print and has been for several years! How is that possible?
So. Here is what you need to do: go grab a used copy and read it right now. And lobby to somehow bring it back into print....
The characters in my novel, Professed, are all English teachers or students, and they read a lot. This post is the first in what will be an occasional series discussing the books they read….
Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections on Sixty and Beyond
Toward the end of the “Dead Professors” chapter, Clayton texts Camille:
Im reading that mcmurtry book u gave me, he had
Clayton has had a heart attack and is sitting around depressed. Camille gives him the book, which, in part, describes McMurtry’s depression following a heart-bypass. Camille’s goal, I guess, is to get Clayton thinking that he’s not alone in his reaction to illness—also maybe to kick him in the ass and get him out of the house, to tell him to quit feeling sorry for his bad-heart having self. Camille's feelings toward Clayton are—complicated. Though it’s also the sort of book Clayton would enjoy—not just the bad heart depression section, but also McMurtry’s use of Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” as lens to examine the passing of traditional Texas folk culture.
Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen's a good book. Worth checking out.
You should read this book.
Today in the Fiction Writing class we read Jennifer Egan’s “Found Objects,” a story that first appeared in the New Yorker and is the lead narrative (chapter?) in her terrific novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’ve loved this story from the first time I’ve read it.
One of the problems/annoyances I’ve encountered teaching fiction writing is that students very often want to write allegedly creepy and disturbing stories about violent…stuff. About serial killers, serial rapists, creepo stalkers, etc. I just get sick of reading them. They are never any good, they are always ill-imagined, and they never stop coming. One semester I had a class with 25 students, and 23 of them turned in stories about serial killers or rapists.
It was too much!
“What do you know about serial killers?” I asked the students. “Just what you see on TV, right? But I bet every single one of you knows a shoplifter—or is a shoplifter. So why don’t you write me a story about a shoplifter!”
And of course no one ever did, or has….
So, anyway, I bought Goon Squad just after it came out in paperback, and I carried it around for a year and a half before I actually got around to reading it. And of course I fell in love—it’s a wonderful, beautiful book. But I was especially thrilled by “Found Objects” —a story about a kleptomaniac, which is sort of like a shoplifter. Finally, I had a petty theft story to share with students.
And so I was rereading it this morning before class, and I came across a short sentence that I missed the first time I read it, a short sentence that sparked a shock of recognition in me
“It’s almost like she did it on purpose,” Alex said. “For attention or something.”
There is nowhere else.
Where had I read that before? That—or something similar?
In Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises.
It was a warm spring night and I sat at a table on the terrace of the Napolitain after Robert had gone, watching it get dark and the electric signs come on, and the red and green stop-and-go traffic-signal, and the crowd going by, and the horse-cabs clippety-clopping along at the edge of the solid taxi traffic, and the poules going by, singly and in pairs, looking for the evening meal. I watched a good-looking girl walk past the table and watched her go up the street and lost sight of her, and watched another, and then saw the first one coming back again. She went by once more and I caught her eye, and she came over and sat down at the table. The waiter came up.
Isn’t anywhere else!
Is this a deliberate allusion by Egan, or just a coincidental line of dialogue? If it is deliberate, why? Is there some connection--across time, across texts--between Sasha and the prostitute? I don’t really know. But it was fun to find this. We live in such a very mysterious world—and, just like the characters in Goon Squad are connected and networked and intertwined, so too are the products of our culture, our books, our music, our movies….
My first copy of Gatsby...
I just finished going through The Great Gatsby with my “Craft of Fiction” class, and I’ve come to the conclusion—hey, call me a rebel, call me crazy—that it is the most perfectly punctuated book of all time. A few examples that I discussed in class yesterday….
“…They’re nice to have—a dog.” (27)
A bit of dialogue spoken by Myrtle Wilson. The em-dash there is heartbreaking, an indication of Myrtle’s selfishness and shallowness. The singular “dog” and plural “they’re” also give us a lot of information about Myrtle….
“I thought you inherited your money.”
Dialogue between Nick and Gatsby. The comma in “…did, old sport…” is perfect. But most of my students will not notice that. Very odd—students have tremendous difficulty punctuating dialogue, especially the comma after an introductory clause. Also the lovely “old sport,” which of course is totally pompous and condescending to whomever is being addressed.
“All this ‘old sport’ business. Where’d you pick that up?”
Tom is addressing Gatsby, but Daisy intervenes. I suppose you could italicize the “old sport” here, but the single quotes work too and bring out an air of contempt in Tom’s question. Italics would have indicated greater contempt, more sneering, and might have been too much.
Nice comma before Tom, too. And Daisy’s use of “Tom” is interesting in itself. How many times do people actually use names when they address one another? Not too often, in my experience. Names in conversation are used to get the addressee’s attention and, sometimes, to assert control. That’s what’s happening here….
“Still—I was married in the middle of June,” Daisy remembered, “Louisville in June! Somebody fainted. Who was it fainted, Tom?” (127)
Nice use of the em-dash—a little lurch of speech. Then calling out Tom again….
“I know I’m not very popular. I don’t give big parties. I suppose you’ve got to make your house into a pigsty in order to have any friends—in the modern world.”
Tom, Nick, Gatsby. Daisy. Again the lurching em-dash in “friends—in the modern world.” Tom sounds confused and stressed. Grasping at priggish straws.
Then Gatsby speaks with an unusual double em-dash! “...old sport——“ Really helps show Daisy’s interruption—Gatsby is left gasping. Then, Daisy’s “Please don’t” should logically be “Please, don’t” but the missing comma imposes a feeling of urgency to her words. “Please, let’s all go home” is a gentle plea. “Please let’s all go home” is a desperate plea. And, I try to convince the students, it is a deliberate missing comma, not a missing comma of ignorance….
“I’m going to drain the pool to-day, Mr. Gatsby. Leaves’ll start falling pretty soon, and then there’s always trouble with the pipes.” (153)
Perhaps I obsess over properly-placed commas. But—I’ve read so many stories by beginning writers that I have become acutely aware of how hard it can be to see these things, how hard it is to read like a writer.
“Don’t do it to-day,” Gatsby answered. He turned to me apologetically. “You know, old sport, I’ve never used that pool all summer?” (153)
The “old sport” thing again. But creating that last sentence in the form of a question? Changes everything.
“Have you got a church you go to sometimes, George? Maybe even if you haven’t been there for a long time? Maybe I could call up the church and get a priest to come over and he could talk to you, see?”
Michaelis is talking with George. No dialogue tags in this passage—we know who is speaking, and there’s no need for Fitzgerald to assert extra pacing. The constant use of “George” is there as Michaelis tries to get George’s attention is also very cool…..
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—— (180)
A non-dialogue passage—a very famous passage, justly famous. But look look LOOK at that amazing double em-dash that leaves us dangling at the end of the book, setting us up for the beautiful last sentence! An ellipsis wouldn’t be as effective, nor a single em-dash. Doubling helps make this memorable and moving….
This is how absent-minded I can be sometimes: I will buy a book, and enjoy it—love it, even!—and then lose it, or think I’ve lost it. And so I buy another copy.
And then I find the first copy hiding somewhere.
This most recently happened with Alice Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease, a book I’ve mentioned before—it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read on writing.
And so, yesterday I was happy to find the older copy, the long-lost friend, and I leafed through it, looking at Flaherty’s words and my various marginal notations, and I came across a puzzling one:
The photo is sadly blurry. There is a wavy line around a paragraph, and above it a little sort-of circle with lines emerging
from it—a dandelion seed, maybe, or a bacteria. It took me a while, but then I realized, no—it’s the sun! For
next to it I wrote: “Sunshine!”
Here’s the passage I was commenting on:
I strain my nerves for the faintest sense of the feeling I should write, the feeling that my feet are starting to lift off the ground. Although I sit down to write every day at five in the morning, on the days when my muse has left me, I can no longer pretend to sit down because I am in control of the situation. I am not writing but doing penance for all the days when the muse spoke and I failed to listen (87).
I do like this passage. I’m not a muse-man, but sometimes writing does indeed feel like penance. I love this book.
One of the best writing students I’ve ever had was an athlete, a young woman basketball player who was heading off for a career as a high school coach. I told her a quick path to publication might be to write about basketball—there always seems to be a demand for sports stories.
“Basketball stories are all the same,” she said. “Buzzer-beating shot wins the game.”
I said—Well, then, don’t write that story! Write about what it’s like to be a basketball player—the endless practices, the rivalries and relationships between the players, the intricate tangle of conflicts and desires that exists in the locker room and on the court….
I’m thinking back on this because I just finished reading George Dohrman’s Play Their Hearts Out, one of the best books I’ve ever read on sports—certainly the most disturbing. Dohrman spent eight years following a team of young basketball players, and the stories of these young men are heart-breaking and tragic and occasionally—incredibly, rising up through the corruption—inspiring. Always we have lives revealed through action.
Dohrman’s book just misses the mark of greatness, I think, because it lacks a strong narrative voice—it’s more a work of journalism (very high quality journalism) than a work of art. I often found myself wondering where the narrator was in certain scenes, and wondering too how complicit Dohrman was in the corruption he describes. (As an observer, does a reporter have a responsibility to step in and help out a kid in trouble? Or at least just address his or her complicity?)
Still, it’s totally worth reading… And it points to maybe the biggest task a young writer—any writer—faces: recognizing the incredible richness of the material that exists in this world—all the stories that surround all of us….
Buy Play Their Hearts Out….
George Dorhman’s website….
Our semester at Texas A&M begins tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to getting started and meeting all the new Young Scholars. These are the books we’ll be reading in class….
For my two sections of composition:
§ Modern Language Association. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. New York: Modern Language Association, 2009.
§ Nathan, Rebekah. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. New York: Penguin, 2006.
§ Miller, Char. Fifty Years of the Texas Observer. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2004.
My experience as a composition student took place many years ago, but it continues to traumatize me. Our professor was an old fart whose pedagogy was based on reading the comp handbook out loud. Yeah. No kidding. Reading the handbook out loud. For the whole 50 minutes we would read aloud fascinating factoids about comma splices and sentence fragments. I hated that book, and I hated the class, and I hated the professor, and I go on hating them: every time I teach comp I have evil flashbacks, a sort of Post-Traumatic Comp Disorder. (I elaborated on this disaster of a class in an essay, “Comp: a Personal and Pedagogical Narrative,” which is scheduled to be published in an anthology at some point next year).
I guess that ancient class left me with some lingering disgust or distrust of composition books—I don’t even like thinking about them. Still, I’ve got to use something, I guess, and so I started looking around for a basic comp handbook. And then I was totally shocked and appalled—the prices! They’re ridiculous! I see no reason to force students to spend a fortune on a book that will be used as little more than a reference. (Really, does anyone actually buy these things for the exercises? Can’t you come up with your own?)
So I turned to the good ol’ MLA Handbook. It has most of the necessary information the Young Scholars need (anything else they can get off Purdue OWL), and at a more or less reasonable price.
My Freshman Year, by “Rebekah Nathan,” is a book I’m looking forward to teaching, even though I’ve never met anyone who actually likes it—including me. I read it through in pretty much a single sitting, and found it quite frustrating and annoying and depressing. At the same time I think the author does raise some interesting questions about the culture of students at a university, and I hope that the Scholars—who will probably dislike this book as much as me or anyone else—can use it as a starting point for reflecting on their own college experience. (Next semester I might add Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, another book I didn’t much care for, to the list to go along with Nathan. The YSs could then mount a defense of their generation and its use of technology).
We’ll also be using one book I like very much. Fifty Years of the Texas Observer, edited by Char Miller, is an excellent collection of well-written, short essays about the place we live. I always enjoy teaching this book, and it seems to go over pretty well.
For my multi-genre creative writing class, I chose the following books:
§ Addonizio, Kim. Ordinary Genius. New York: Norton, 2009.
§ Casares, Oscar. Brownsville. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2003.
§ Fountain, Carrie. Burn Lake. New York, Penguin, 2010.
§ Singleton, George. Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 2009.
§ White, Lowell Mick. Long Time Ago Good. College Station: Slough Press, 2009.
Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius does a terrific job of de-mystifying poetry. It’s great—a generous and open discussion of how poems get made. I talked a bit with Kim last spring at AWP, and told her how I used her book. “That’s what the book is for,” she said. Well, yeah! I use it in my prison classes, too…I think the world of this book.
Oscar Casares’s Brownsville is a wonderful story collection set in an area of our state—our nation—that is often overlooked. It’s great when I get a Young Scholar from the Valley who says, “I didn’t know you could write about Brownsville!” It’s almost even better when a YS from the suburbs of Dallas says the same thing. It’s a book full of revelations.
Last spring I had my book order almost ready to send out—had everything except the poetry selection—when I went to Carrie Fountain’s reading in Austin. By the second poem I knew I wanted to teach her book, Burn Lake—a collection of very tight, well-observed poems about New Mexico. This is going to be fun.
George Singleton’s Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds is a cool collection of aphorisms about the writing process. It’s funny, too, with charming little drawings to illustrate the points he makes. The advice is good, the presentation effective. I’ve listed this as “Recommended” in semesters past, and have now kicked it up to “Required.”
Oh. Yeah. And we’re covering one of my books, too, Long Time Ago Good. At first I worried a little about the morality of requiring my own book, but I came to the conclusion that it was more or less okay. This is the second semester I’ve used it. I try to walk the Scholars through the stories, pointing out the decisions I made at different stages of composition. It works, I think.
Stuff to look for:
Kim Addonizio’s website.
Oscar Casares’s website
George Singleton’s website
Purdue University Online Writing Lab (Purdue OWL)—a great resource for teachers and students
Carrie Fountain’s website