Friday, June 26, 2009

Who was ours?

My wife has the sense that famous people die in clumps of three. Nothing proves her idea, but here come Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and Ed McMahon to suggest again its possibility. Much has been made in the media over Farrah and The King of Pop having been so iconic for my generation, the generation that followed the baby boomers and came of age in the mid-1970s through the 1980s.

Add David Carradine of Kung Fu fame to that bunch, and you have a trio of recently departed celebrities who influenced a generation. What do they have in common? Television. Farrah on Charlie's Angels, Michael Jackson and his Thriller videos. When I realized that TV was the common denominator, I felt a little sad and a little stupid. The generation before mine had lots of literary writers as icons: Sylvia Plath, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac. These writers influenced people's ideas, put phrases and characters into the collective consciousness. So I wondered, which writers truly influenced my generation? Which writers would our generation call iconic?

And none came to mind.

Who influenced my generation's culture? Was it only the producers of movies and TV and music, Spielberg and Lucas and Aaron Spelling and Quincy Jones? Is that how our culture was shaped?

Who did I read? Lot of writers from other generations. I read the writers who influenced the boomers. Also I read comic books. Frank Miller's Dark Knight. And lots of genre writing.

But who did we read? I could come up with only a few names. Stephen King was one. From Carrie through Salem's Lot, he was the most literary popular writer we read. But who else? Jay McInerney got lots of acclaim, but in the end had little influence. Toni Morrison? Doesn't she belong more to the boomers? Raymond Carver?

Readers of this blog, I'd like to hear your answers. In the late 1970s through the 1980s, who did people read? What writers will that generation mourn one day saying, yes, she was ours. Yes, he was ours.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Recommended reading

Among the books I read in the last school year that I’d recommend are some that everyone has recommended and some books only a few people have read. What these books have in common, I suppose, is that they depict ordinary people living through extraordinary circumstances and in doing so suggest again that nobody is, in fact, ordinary. 

 All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Edward P. Jones. Jones’ third book and the third I’ve read; it might well be his best. The structure of his stories and handling of point-of-view combine 21st and 19th-century sensibilities, by which I mean the stories are thoroughly modern in how they depict interconnected lives, but have the epic feel of 19th-century literature in which the author knows everything about every character. It’s as big a short story collection as you’ll find, and each of the 14 stories is its own world. The book is a triumph of imagination. It takes the realism of his first book 

of stories and combines it with the strange magic of his novel, The Known World. The result is dynamic and heart breaking. No wonder it was a finalist for the Pen Faulkner Award.

 What Kills What Kills Us, Kurt S. Olsson. Read Kurt S. Olsson’s poems, and you’ll learn that Cain, who was firstborn, taught his parents everything, from how to raise a child to “the sound a soul makes leaking from a body.” You’ll learn as does Diogenes, as he is mauled by dogs, that at death even language is superfluous. And you’ll discover that even a name as revered as John Donne can belong to a first-grade bully


who smoked until his pupils drowned green

and chugged stupidity until his heart traded seats with his knees.

Olsson’s poems are as engaged with storytelling as with verse. Before he was a poet, he hoped to write fiction, and that old tug turns his poetry toward narrative and characters. He is drawn to classical subjects such as the death of Orpheus and Ham’s plea to his father Noah to stop his foolish construction of an ark. But Olsson also studies his grandfather “who loved the Packers” and the aforementioned bully with a poet’s name. In every case, Olsson’s poems are tight, his verbs powerful, his images clear.

 Who By Fire, Diana Spechler. This is a novel of ideas. The characters talk and think about important things: what is the nature of learning, and what is the nature of devotion; how do we balance duty to family against duty to God; why does grief turn us against the people who love us; how is it that we cloak selfishness with altruism and meanness with love, what do we do with lingering guilt? The characters in Who By Fire think about these things. They debate them, argue about them. These are not small questions this book explores.

But unlike some books of ideas, this one is a fast, fun read. The plot is alluring, the voices of the characters engaging, the situations often comic. Reading it, you might forget that while Ash is trying to sneak a sexy young woman out of his room in his Yeshiva, the two are arguing about God and feminism. You might forget that as Bits is seducing a man she doesn’t love, he is lecturing her about the nature of friendship and betrayal. Such a balance is hard to pull off: to write a novel in which charactes discuss complicated questions in complicated ways, even while the writer propels said characters through an exciting, action-packed life that has you, the reader, turning pages. Spechler pulls it off. (Full disclosure: I had the good fortune of sitting on Spechler's thesis committee at the University of Montana)

Others: Bluestown, by Geoffrey Becker, a funny, sad portrait of rock’n’roll dreams that never get farther than the opening chords (full disclosure: I teach with Geoff at Towson U.); Flood Stage and Rising, by Jane Varley, a memoir about loving rivers even when they turn on you; The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer, in which we learn it doesn’t take a village to raise a boy, it takes a good neighborhood tavern.