Guy at the Bar: Vince Passaro on Harold Brodkey, Gordon Lish, and Pat Towers, Middle of the Night

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Guy at the Bar / Reading Under the Influence

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Lish

Up tonight, knee shaking, foot shaking. I think Trader Joe spiked my decaf. So it’s 1:00 a.m. when I start thinking about Harold Brodkey — does anyone think about Harold Brodkey anymore? All artistic talent of the first order is incomprehensible but certain talents strike us as more familiar and approachable than others. George Orwell, for instance, whose prose’s muscle and clarity — clarity above all — affected me strongly, does not mystify me. I have a solid sense of where he came from, where his language came from, his general mode of thinking.  Brodkey’s particular genius remains ungraspable. The language is Jewish, it’s American, it’s baroque, it’s beautiful and divine. Divine I mean as in suffused with a spiritual force and a spiritual necessity above that mustered by mere mortals.  It is miraculous and harrowing: to look into his work is like watching a great surgeon, a world class surgeon, magically operate on himself, remove his own organs, examine them in bloodied hands, drop them in a pan. Continue reading →

Lundgren’s Lounge: “Cloudsplitter,” by Russell Banks

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Reading Under the Influence

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Russell Banks

Russell Banks

Upon recently finishing Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks, I began to think about who are the best living American novelists. My reflections led to the Internet where, surprise, surprise, there were endless and varied lists. There was unanimity only regarding the upper echelon: Pynchon, Roth, and Morrison.  Russell Bankswas nowhere to be found on any of these lists, an egregious and inexplicable omission.

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Table For Two: An Interview with T.C. Boyle

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence / Table For Two: Interviews

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TC Boyle

Debora Black: You always seem to be having a really good time writing your characters and their situations—even when the subject matter wouldn’t suggest a good time. But you like to toy with things, amp up a situation and play it out. In your latest novel, The Harder They Come, you transform sunny California, its middle-class inhabitants, and their American ideals into a war zone. What compelled you to write this story?

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Guy at the Bar: Vince Passaro on the Passing of E. L. Doctorow

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Reading Under the Influence

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Doctorow

E. L. Doctorow

 

E.L. Doctorow departed from us this week, succumbing to lung cancer complications at the age of 84. It was my good fortune to meet him in the early 1990s and share a few brief conversations with him in the years that followed. There was an expression used among the elders on my Italian side: mal’ a visage, mal’ di cuore, buon’ a visage, buon’ di cuore, which means basically that the heart shows on the face. Doctorow – Ed to his friends – had that kind of expressive face; a moment’s engagement with him and you knew you were dealing with a thoughtful, polite, supremely gentle human being. A tall man, he never loomed, always stooped a little for those of us who couldn’t breathe the air up there where he was.

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Lundgren’s Lounge: “The Brothers: The Road To An American Tragedy,” by Masha Gessen

categories: Cocktail Hour / Don't Talk About Politics / Guest Columns / Reading Under the Influence

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gessen book

The universal response to the Boston Marathon bombings was revulsion, horror and incomprehension. The media’s talking heads incessantly characterized the Tsarnev brothers as Islamic terrorists/jihadists. In her account of the circumstances leading up to and the emotional aftermath of the bombing, journalist Masha Gessen offers up a more thoughtful and nuanced perspective on the causes of the tragedy and its broader implications in, The Brothers: The Road To An American Tragedy.   Continue reading →

Lundgren’s Lounge: “H is for Hawk,” by Helen Macdonald

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Reading Under the Influence

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Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald

 

Living with a bird is an education. I recently heard an ornithologist point out that, regardless of how long a bird has been a member of your household, that bird will always remain a wild animal. I was reminded of this one Sunday last winter when our  morning coffee was interrupted by a wild cacophony of screams and shrieks from Ruby’s cage in the kitchen (Ruby is an umbrella cockatoo that we adopted years ago); rushing out we were astonished to come face to face with a hawk, perched on the railing of our deck peering in at Ruby. The hawk was magnificent–breathtakingly majestic and with both talons firmly planted in a world of unfettered wildness far beyond our limited and merely human comprehension.

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Lundgren’s Lounge: “All Involved,” by Ryan Gattis

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Reading Under the Influence

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Gattis

All Involved, despite its rather pedestrian title, is an astonishing work of fiction chronicling the events around and in Los Angeles in the six days following the Rodney King verdict. Over two decades after the riots that ensued following the acquittal of the three white LAPD officers, author Ryan Gattis offers up a riveting, nuanced, multi-perspective account of the six days of rage. In the aftermath of recent civil unrest in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore and the inevitable question (raised by mostly white pundits and talking heads), regarding why “these people” would destroy their own neighborhoods as a form of protest, Gattis provides some possible insights… regardless of whether or not it’s what we want to hear. Continue reading →

Farewell to Ivan Doig, Another Great of the American (North) West

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence

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doig

Growing up in the small town of Snohomish in Western Washington in the 1950s, it often felt as if the rest of the world had forgotten about us. Mountain ranges, desert and plains separated Northwesterners from the white hot center of culture in New England, and its glitzy pop cousin, Los Angeles. And Eisenhower’s dream of interstate freeways connecting us all, was 15 years from being realized. Not that I didn’t feel the pull of the world out there as I sat in the Snohomish Theater, transfixed by Around the World in 80 Days or staring agape as a young Elvis pretzel twisted his hips and sneered on our teeny-tiny TV, or tuning in to San Francisco’s KGO at night to listen to Ira Blue at the Hungry I as he birthed talk radio. But it seemed that in the Northwest we were free to invent ourselves. Thank God for parents who allowed us almost free rein to explore the Pilchuck River, or on one Sunday afternoon, to walk across the Snohomish River Valley on the railroad tracks to hunt for fossils at Fiddler’s Bluff; had a train come while we were on the last high trestle, we would have had a tragic Stand By Me moment. And to the east, the glacier-carved valleys and peaks of the Cascade would soon become an even larger playground. Our earliest jobs were outside, picking strawberries and raspberries and later wandering behind trucks in the pea fields with pitchforks or milking cows. Continue reading →

Lundgren’s Lounge: “All the Wild That Remains,” by David Gessner

categories: Cocktail Hour / Getting Outside / Reading Under the Influence

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GessnerSanJuan

The natural world is out of balance. That much is clear to all but the most myopic among us. Global warming, annual ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ weather events, water scarcity, toxic pollution, species extinction… the list is a depressing drumbeat foretelling catastrophe. Yet despite this impending crisis the environmental movement seems to have lost its mojo. Where are the iconic leaders of this generation, the Ed Abbeys and the Wallace Stegners, wordsmiths who could awaken a movement with their well-chosen words? Continue reading →

Bad Advice Wednesday: Teaching Creative Nonfiction? Here’s the Best Craft Book on the Market!

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence

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Are you teaching writing?  Is it about time to order books for fall semester?  May I suggest Writing Life Stories?  No reason to be humble–it’s the original and greatest book on making creative nonfiction–and the best by far, often imitated.  And while it’s aimed at the creative writing crowd, it’s also very useful in the composition classroom, a complete course, and perhaps particularly suited to the community college setting, or anywhere non-traditional students appear, from high school to grad school and beyond.  You get from it what you bring to it, in other words, and it self-adapts to whatever level the reader/writer/teacher approaches from.  It moves seamlessly from Getting Started to writing memoir, then uses the memoir exercises as evidence for the writing of personal essays, then uses both to aim at public writing, including journalism and the formal essay.  It’s got advice on publishing, too.  It’s fun for students, which makes it fun for teachers, and it’s filled with exercises to do both in-class and on the fly, or to assign.  Or for teachers who’d like to get some of their own writing done, goddamn it!  The tenth anniversary edition, with Kristen Keckler, is thoroughly up to date, and replaces the old edition.  Several sample essays form a mini-anthology, and the huge reading list in an appendix collecting great books in all creative nonfiction genres is famous, often borrowed!  Among the many charms of Writing Life Stories is its price: $16.95, which means students actually afford to buy it,  and most opt keep it.  Plus, you know me! I’ll do an email chat with your class. I’ll walk to your university no matter where in the world, and I’ll talk to your class while you put your feet up and plot your novel!

“Bill Roorbach’s WRITING LIFE STORIES is brimming with valuable suggestions, evocative assignments, insights into the writing process, and shrewd common sense. I can’t wait to try some of this ideas in the classroom and on myself. This writing guide delivers the goods.”
–Philip Lopate, THE ART OF THE PERSONAL ESSAY
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