My Blog List

  • - * 13 DOORS OF X* *Meeah Williams* The Barking Cat Press * 2015 Brooklyn, NY * Seattle, WA copyright 2015 Meeah Williams/The Barking Cat...

Thursday, February 27, 2014

=Books recently read=

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie by Jean Rhys. What happens to a woman who's been accustomed to getting through life using the power of her beauty and mystique when her beauty starts to fade and her mystique seems more like desperation? That is essentially the question Jean Rhys illustrates in this short, emotionally brutal, and utterly no-nonsense novel. 

Julia Martin hasn't exactly left the Mr. Mackenzie of the title—in fact, he's dumped her, as men often will with mistresses when they tire of them. Julia has been in this position before; after all, she's on the far side of thirty and she's been living from man to man since her teens. The difference this time is that she sees that the horizon is narrowing and the future darkening. There aren't too many more Mr. Mackenzies appearing on the vanishing point where the last one came from. There is only the vanishing point.

With the money he's given her as a parting gift (more like a go-away now bribe), Julia blows most of it on new clothes and leaves Paris. She returns to England where what remains of her attenuated family resides, among them a younger sister and a dying mother. She looks up an old flame. She hooks up with a potential new suitor. But it's clear that she's no longer a very hot commodity. What is to become of her? Her desperation alternates with indifference. She drinks quite a lot. She wanders the streets. She hangs out in bars and cafes. She's soaked in ennui. She's often too exhausted and depressed to even get out of bed.  

As a younger woman, Julia was used to men coming unasked to her aid. She realizes now that it wasn't gallantry or compassion that drove them. She had something they wanted.  Now that she has less of what they want, they aren't nearly so generous, and not at all magnanimous. Now she sees them sizing her up, doing cost-analysis. To ask for help straight out is unthinkable; it means not only risking almost certain failure, but a dollop of humiliation on top of it. "When you were in trouble," she's learned the hard way, "the only possible thing to do was to hide it as long you could." In other words, you pretend you don't want what you desperately need to survive. People like people who don't appear to need them.

So she makes herself up, puts on her best clothes, and makes the rounds of the clubs, but her heart isn't in it. She visits her younger sister who has devoted the last several years of her life to caring for their bed-ridden, all but paralyzed and comatose mother. Her sister resents the freedom with which Julia has lived her life—the freedom and also, as she sees it, the irresponsibility. That resentment is masked by a moral censure that Julia feels pouring off the rest of her family, and the rest of respectable society as well. She's an outcast from "decent people" who look upon her as a fallen woman. But who are these "decent" people but those afraid to live true to their desires, like her sister, or out-and-out hypocrites like Mr. Mackenzie, who live them out in the shadows?

"If all good respectable people had one face, I'd spit in it," Julia violently erupts in a rare moment of much-needed self-defence and defiance. What a line! And from a female author, no less. Has any writer—male or female—ever dared to express so unapologetically such a seething, unadulterated, and virulent misanthropy? Or delivered with such devastating succinctness a more damning condemnation of the moral hypocrisy of the human race? I'm reminded of Caligula who was said to have expressed a similar disgust, wishing that the people of Rome had a single neck so that he could have them all executed with a single stroke of the executioner's sword. 

And yet, Julia can also wake up hungover after a desultory night of dispiriting debauchery feeling that "every day is a new day. Every day you are a new person." It is her vacillation between the possibility of perpetual reinvention and renewal and the hopeless vortex of despair threatening to pull her under once and for all that we are left with at the end of the novel. 

What does Julia do "After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie" is anyone's guess, but considering that all of Jean Rhys's fiction followed rather closely from her own life experiences, we aren't left without a clue.  Rhys herself was a survivor—of bad marriages, loneliness, literary neglect, and alcoholism— who lived long enough to see her reputation as one of the centuries most interesting authors revived following the unlikely comeback publication of her novel "Wide Sargasso Sea" in 1966; it proved to be  her most successful book; at the time, she was 76 years old. She died 13 years later, at the age of 89, this woman who often felt like "a doormat in a world of boots," a literary icon,  proving that, at least sometimes, the doormat outlasts the boot. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

=mail art received=

Above: the envelope, front and back

Below: from the enclosed "Book of Curiosities." A handmade paperbook of various papers with glued ephemera bound inside an old envelope postmarked New Orleans, LA, November 15, 1957. The front cover and a couple of sample spreads:

A beautiful, inventive piece, filled with many curiosities, indeed! 

::Dani Street, Tinmath, Colorado::

=It's public storage time!=

::I can't believe it. Another $247.65 to house what is basically the detritus of a life awkwardly lived.::

=mail art received=

::Richard Canard, Carbondale, IL::

I don't know where Richard finds some of these products; I've never heard of either of them, and the Catchmaster Pest Traps are (or were) supposedly "designed" in Brooklyn! I take it the marketing people over at Catchmaster must figure that's a real selling point, that if anyone knows vermin and how to kill it, it's bound to be someone from Brooklyn, where the roaches are big enough to ride to work. They go too far, though, in suggesting we'd know anything about getting rid of snakes or scorpions in these parts. I haven't ever seen either one anywhere in the city. I guess the rats and cockroaches must eat them.

Monday, February 24, 2014

=2 birds on Bible pages=

=bird on a cyclone fence=

=Books Recently Read=

Pop Art Book by black dog publishing. Curiously devoid of any authorial or editorial credits, as well as any copyright page that I could find—though admittedly I didn't look very hard beyond the places you'd expect to find them—I don't even remember where I got this book from, except that my husband bought it for me at a museum shop during a trip somewhere or other and I finished reading it on a trip this weekend for his birthday to Lambertville, NJ/New Hope, PA. I suppose it's somewhat apropos that no author or editor is credited for a book on an art movement that relied so heavily on the appropriation of already existing materials as Pop Art did. 

Filled with fun stuff, like postcards you can cut out and mail, transparent color overlays, cardboard masks and fold-outs, this book attempts to convey not only the history and spirit of Pop Art but to become a kind of Pop Art object itself with its lavish full-page illustrations, art reproductions, its variety of layouts, typefaces and type colors. The book is organized in an A to Z format, to which it doesn't strain itself to adhere, leaving out plenty of the alphabet along the way, including XYZ. There's nothing so tedious as an author stretching to come up with a subject for the letter "X." The entries seek to cover the range of concerns that motivated and inspired Pop Artists, for instance, supermarkets, comics, advertising, automobiles, celebrities, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, youth culture, and the space race.

This book is a broad introductory survey, best suited to someone who thinks of Pop Art pretty much exclusively in terms of Andy Warhol, with a little Roy Lichtenstein thrown in. Whoever—or whatever—assembled this book seeks to correct this mistaken Warholcentric view by gathering together a wide array of Pop and proto-pop artists, showing that the movement, though influenced by American culture, actually had it's genesis in England with the Independent Group circa 1952. Eduardo Paolozzi, Pauline Boty, Peter Blake, Joe Tilson, Derek Boshier, Colin Self, Nicholas Monro, and, of course, Richard Hamilton are some of the Brits prominently mentioned. I'm sorry to say that my art education is so full of black holes of ignorance I only heard of 25% of these people before picking up the Pop Art Book. Among the Americans not named Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein, you have Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist Allan D'Arcangelo, Robert Indiana, Mel Ramos, and Jim Dine. Here my percentage of ignorance, thankfully, declines a little.

A fun way to learn more about a fun art movement, this is a great book to take with you on a weekend vacation when you know that you just aren't going to be able to muster the concentration necessary to take on Heidegger's Being and Time, or if you normally have the attention span of a 15-second television commercial, or, like me, it's a case of both.  

Friday, February 21, 2014

=mail art received=

::Richard Canard, Carbondale, IL::

Describing something as the "Zen of this" or the "Zen of that" has got to be one of the most tired and overused tropes in existence. Even worse, it's one of the most misapplied. Do we doubt that one day we'll see The Zen of Imprisonment without Due Process? The Zen of Enforced Conformity, Mandatory Compliance and Suppression of All Dissent? The Zen of Total Surveillance? The Zen of Empire? The Zen of Mindless Patriotism? 

Before the phrase is degraded to the absolute limits of absurdity, I'd like to say that Richard Canard exemplifies the Zen of Mail Art. He is continuously surprising me with the ordinary; in this instance, a simple index card becomes a handsome, pinstriped postcard with a subversive message all the more powerful for its understatement. A cultural critique disguised in a comic image: the ostrich with its head in the sand. Not to be overlooked is the return address, which locates Richard in the United States of Attention Deficit Disorder. 

And I'm not quite done yet using that already overstretched  "Zen of (in this case, Mail Art") phrase either to describe this piece. Because, for once, it's accurate. Richard's card reminds me of a traditional zen rock garden with its raked rows of gravel and its simple gray stones placed, as if by chance, just-so. Everything about this piece looks so casual, so natural, like the Zen archer pulling the bow and hitting the bulls-eye in one fluid motion, hardly seeming to take aim, which is the mark of someone whose long years of practice makes their present mastery look utterly effortless.   

=Books recently read=

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf.  This year, 1939, the Oliver family is hosting the village's annual summertime play at their estate in the English countryside. It's an amateur affair, acted by local townspeople, and meant to raise funds to supply the church with electric lighting. Meanwhile, across the channel, Europe is under the looming spectre of war with Nazi Germany. 

So basically the question Virginia Woolf is asking in this short novel is whether the people enacting the tradition of the play are engaging in a willful blindness with regards to the shattering inevitability of the war rushing towards them—or are they courageously persisting in cultivating the values that have always sustained them and which are worth preserving especially in the darkest of times. 

This entire short novel—about 150 pages—takes place in one day: the day of the play. The play itself becomes part of the novel, serving as a critical mirror thrown up to society, history, the reader, the novelist, and art itself. 

Woolf leaves herself open to the usual criticisms, that  it takes her characters 90 pages to sit themselves down to lunch, that nothing ever happens in her novels, that little if anything is ever resolved, that lots of wool is gathered but nothing so useful as a scarf is ever woven...but these sorts of objections always miss the point of all that Woolf does convey. What she conveys is the way our minds work in language that becomes synonymous with consciousness itself. What she achieves is a "stream of consciousness" as her characters seek, but never quite capture, a satisfying interpretation of the world. 

The precision of Woolf's language is, if not unparalleled, than certainly seldom equalled, and I'd venture to say, hardly ever surpassed. Although often thought of as an effete, "ladylike" writer, she can uncork a paragraph like the following, which is about as gruesome a piece of descriptive writing as anyone—from Lautreamont to Clive Barker--might execute:

"There, couched in the grass, curled in an olive green ring, was a snake. Dead? No, choked with a toad in its mouth. The snake was unable to swallow; the toad was unable to die. A spasm made the ribs contract; blood oozed. It was birth the wrong way round—a monstrous inversion. So, raising his foot, he stamped on them. The mass crushed and slithered. The white canvas on his tennis shoes was bloodstained and sticky. But it was action. Action relieved him. He strode to the barn, with blood on his shoes."

I was surprised upon reading "Between the Acts" to be reminded of Robbe-Grillet, of all people. But then again, maybe it isn't so surprising. Both authors sought to change the novel, both were interested in the workings of consciousness, subjectivity, and perception. Both had an abhorrence of the artifice and superficiality of conventional plot, except to satirize it. And both, in different ways, set themselves the project of telling the story that goes untold in most novels, specifically, what happens in the interstices between Mary does A, then B, then C. 

In a Robbe-Grillet novel, this often entails a precise description of the physical objects in a scene that become equally important as whatever human beings are on hand; occasionally inanimate things or landscapes are the sole "characters" in a scene devoid of human beings altogether. In Woolf's novels, the same impulse means describing the psychic arc of events as a character thinks her way through a time period as short as a single day. For Woolf, an entire life story—indeed, in "Between the Acts" a nation's history, even a world's history--can be contained in a single human skull; after all, where else would it exist, at least so far as it is expressed in human terms? So in the time a person lifts a teacup to the moment it touches her lips, one can travel backward and forward in time and space, across years, across continents.

To read Woolf requires a different mindset than the sort one brings, for instance, to a Hemingway novel, not to mention John Grisham. This should go without saying, but so many readers have lost this mind-set that one is compelled to say it. Did they ever have the mind-set necessary or has such a mind-set always been in relatively short-supply? Who's afraid of a Virginia Woolf novel? Almost everyone. 

Both James Joyce and Virginia Woolf died in 1941. That means we're going on three-quarters of a century after their deaths and people still routinely, unthinkingly expect their novels to have a linear plot. I'll be the first to admit that there aren't many explosions, heroic rescues from cliff-sides, oral sex scenes, gun-play or kung-fu fighting in a Virginia Woolf novel. I can't remember a single killer-clown or blood-crazed robo-vampire in her entire oeuvre. Compared to Dean Koontz, it's true: nothing ever happens in a Virginia Woolf novel. 

What "happens" happens, as it does in "Between the Acts," when a woman is sitting demurely on a couch, looking across at the husband she both desperately loves and fiercely despises. Everything takes place in the moment their eyes meet, or their eyes avoid each other, when everyone else leaves the room and they are left alone for the first time all day and Woolf pens the last lines of the book: "Then the curtain rose. They spoke."

Thursday, February 20, 2014

=mail art received=

::Handmade envelope with a series of artist trading cards. Claudia McGill, Wyncote, PA::

=mail art received=

::Stripygoose, London, England::

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

=envelope art=

::off to London, England::

=envelope art=

::also heading to Cherry Valley, CA::

=envelope art=

::to Cherry Valley, California::

=mail art received=

::"Fake Nancy Bell Scott," by Diane Keys, Elgin, IL:

((in fact, this was such a good "fake" that not only did I instantly associate this piece with Nancy but my somewhat dyslexic brain stubbornly insisted on ignoring the clearly indicated "fraud" & continued to credit this piece to Nancy Bell Scott for a good half-hour until it finally relented and got the "joke." Well, this is a great piece of work...whoever did it!))  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

=Books recently read=

This Is Not A Fugazi T-Shirt: Sad Jokes #7 by Jon Foster.  Today's book recently read isn't exactly a "book," it's a 'zine written by teacher, musician, artist, and writer Jon Foster. It is the result of his participation in National Novel Writing Month, an event that takes place every November during which writers pledge themselves to produce 50,000 words in one month. The idea is to overpower your internal censor, hurdle over your writer's block, and let your fingers make a mad dash for freedom across the keyboard. Typically, writers are looking for a rough draft of something that they can later rework into a finished novel. As if the world isn't already over it's eyebrows in novels.

Jon Foster, thank god, had something else in mind.  

With a sovereign disdain for practical activity, Foster writes, "I like the process of typing even though I do very little editing. I imagine I'll go through this behemoth maybe once, do some corrections, and then move on. There's no ambition, just an outlet to make something and then hope someone out there in the world will actually read it...In our digital age there are no gatekeepers, no one keeping you from expressing yourself in any way possible. I've got Microsoft Word, internet access, a large book of addresses, and an industrial copier, so someone is going to be subjected to my ramblings about taking weird shits and noisy metal records. It's just fun."

What? I put aside Virginia Woolf for this? For fifty thousand words about weird shits and noisy metal records? Of course I didn't. For one thing, Foster never makes it to 50,000 words. For another, his facetiousness and flatulence aside, Fugazi T-shirt is about more than headbanging and fart jokes.

What is it about? It's about Foster's rather ordinary life as a human being here on earth. In his case, that means his work as a teacher, his relationship with his lover Misty, his love of music and art and thrift stores. It's about his observations and opinions on topics random and ridiculous. There are episodic flash fiction pieces in response to various absurd writing prompts: what happens when Foster wakes up wearing a pink wig beside Hillary Clinton or is invited by rock star Abe Lincoln to have lunch at his beach mansion in the Hamptons?

We learn various facts about Jon Foster that we probably didn't need to know, like "Sometimes I like the smell of earwax" or "I feel like a loser when I reach into a box of assorted popsicles and end up with a grape one." But knowledge doesn't always have to be utilitarian. Just think of algebra, as Foster does at one point in his verbal peregrinations (He hates it, doesn't get the point of it; neither do I). Then there are other equally useless facts that will surely stick with me for the rest of my life. How can anyone, for instance, ever forget the shock they experienced upon learning that robotic actor Dolph Lundgren, who practically makes Schwarzenegger sound suave as Cary Grant, was a Rhodes Scholar? "He could have moved the world forward with his genius," Foster observes, "but instead he decided to use his mind by memorizing the dialogue for Universal Soldier." 

And every so often there is an anecdote so quirky, sweet, and touching that it leaves you thinking you'd probably like to know Jon Foster personally: "Someone's been leaving these little messages on broken chairs. The first one I saw was simple and direct, 'Broken." Nothing more to write, I loved it...I decided to make my own sign and put it on a fully functioning chair. My sign was 'Sad Chair.' I really wish I could see people's reaction when greeting mysign. I think I'm going to continue doing this for a while and see if anyone notices." 

One of the delights of a text like "This is Not a Fugazi T-Shirt" is that you have no idea  what's coming at you next. Stream of consciousness writing—and who'd ever think that Jon Foster and Virginia Woolf could have anything in common—can be tedious or exciting: it all depends on the consciousness that you're streaming. Foster admits at the start that he will fall about 20,000 words short of the 50,000 word goal, but he's also already confessed to not being a particularly goal-oriented person.  Besides, he concludes, "no way anyone would actually read through 50,000 words of this sort of garbage anyway." 

He may be right. Be that as it may, I did read 30,000 words in less than 24 hours and as Jon says, "if you read all of this then good for you, you've probably learned a lot." 

I did. But exactly what I learned, I couldn't say. And that's part of the genius of Jon Foster and his wonderfully wacky 'zine.


=mail art received=

 <—this one a 'zine

::Jon Foster, Winston-Salem, NC::

=mail art recieved=

::Richard Canard, Carbondale, IL::

=mail art received=

::Bob Ray, Ocracoke, NC::

Friday, February 14, 2014

=Books Recently Read=

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler. Even though she won a Pulitzer Prize (in 1989 for "Breathing Lessons" and was a finalist several times more), I always feel as if reading Anne Tyler is a guilty pleasure. I mean, she's no Virginia Woolf, certainly no William S. Burroughs; she's not even Anita Brookner. What she is exactly it's hard to say. She's easy to read, for one thing. Her characters are engaging, often unpredictable, and therefore usually endearing. She's a  popular author who writes serious books that aren't too serious for the general reader, featuring ordinary people who, upon closer examination, are just like us only because they are so quirkily unlike anyone else. She plays against cliche even while using cliche's, isn't afraid of schmaltz and sentimentality, although she constantly undercuts what is often dangerously close to a cloying fatty sweetness with an astringent twist of reality.

In "Saint Maybe," she tells the story of the Bedloe family from Baltimore; in particular, it's the story of Ian Bedloe, a teenager who decides it's time his older brother opens his eyes and stops playing the fool. Danny has married a woman who already has two kids from a previous marriage and, doing the math, the latest baby she's had is probably not his either. But Danny is so in love with Lucy that he refuses to see that things in his marriage don't add up; that Lucy is taking advantage of his trust and good nature, that she's sleeping around behind his back. 

Ian can see all this clear as day and he feels it his duty to tell his brother. Danny doesn't take it well; in fact, he steers his car straight into a wall so that he doesn't have to take it at all. Shortly thereafter, Lucy also comes to a premature end. With her death the three kids left behind have run out of parents, out of relations altogether, as far as anyone can tell, except for the Bedloes. Ian feels responsible. Though he has just entered college, he decides that he must drop out to help his aging parents raise the orphaned kids. This is a decision he makes after walking passed a storefront ministry called The Church of the Second Chance. He drops in on a whim and there encounters the Church's unconventional pastor who preaches a form of redemption that depends not simply on passively asking God for forgiveness, but by making tangible amends for your sins and thereby forgiving yourself.  

So Ian decides to devote his life to raising these kids he feels he essentially orphaned by opening his mouth in the first place. What's worse, he's not even sure anymore if he was right about Lucy. She was a sketchy sort of person to be sure, but was she really unfaithful to Danny? Somehow his certainty has vanished.

Tyler spins out the story from there. The children grow up and Ian grows older. He regrets his decision to give up his one-and- only life for the sake of three kids not his own and at the same time he can't think of any other life that would have been so rewarding. 
He becomes a carpenter. He continues going to the Church of the Second Chance. He never moves out of his parents house. And, in the end, just when you think you're running out of book and Ian is running out of time, he gets a second chance to start his own life.

Anyone who's ever tried to plot a narrative has to admire the way Tyler plots her novels.  She moves you through the years and between characters with such deftness that you're all but completely aware of the machinations behind the curtain. And then there is her unaffected writing style, as in the passage below, prose so unadorned, so lucid, and so precise that you feel as if you're looking at a world brought suddenly and sharply into focus through a new pair of prescription glasses:

"The evening was several shades darker now, as if curtain after curtain had fallen in his absence. Thomas was swinging the swing hard enough to make the chains creak, and down on the sidewalk the little girls were still playing hopscotch. Ian paused to watch them. Something about the purposeful planting of small shoes within chalked squares tugged at him...Daphne tossed the pebble she used as a marker and it landed in the farthest square so crisply, so ringingly, that the sound seemed thrown back from a sky no higher than a ceiling, cupping all of Waverly Street just a few feet overhead." 

Well, she may be the literary equivalent of a box of chocolate truffles and I may feel slightly guilty reading her instead of, say, William T. Vollmann or W.G. Sebald but, hey, a girl has to surrender to indulgence once in a while.

=star & buzzards=

=star & column=

Thursday, February 13, 2014

=Badda-Badda-Bing: A Biscotti That You Can't Refuse=

Like Proust with his madeleines, it's the
smell and taste of fresh-baked biscotti
that bring back to me the flood of childhood memories. Once again, I'm swept back in time to the dark little living room crowded with old furniture where, after a big pasta dinner, papa and Uncle Frankie would retire to smoke cigars and talk in hushed voices about "that other thing, you know that thing I'm talking about." It was biscotti that they liked to dip into their espresso and stregha as they discussed stuff "that has nothing to do with you, sweetheart."

Here is my own updated version of my Neapolitan grandma's classic recipe. It may not be entirely authentic, but it's easy-to-make and healthier, too: low-calorie, low-fat, and no one ends up stuffed into the trunk of a car left in a Jersey swamp.

First thing you gotta do is preheat the oven to 375. Then you take a cookie sheet and line it with some parchment paper—or spray it with a non-stick vegetable oil.

Next thing is to get out two bowls. In one bowl you beat together an egg, a half-cup of sugar, 2 teaspoons of anise extract, and 1/4 cup of vegetable oil. Now what I do is to replace the sugar with Truvia, a special version of which they sell just for use in baking. In place of the vegetable oil, I use a quarter cup of applesauce instead and maybe one tablespoon of oil just to keep it honest. 

In the second bowl, you sift together 1.5 cups or so of all-purpose flour and two teaspoons of baking powder. Then you mix the wet ingredients into the dry (or the dry into the wet), throw in some sliced almonds if you like and stir it all together with a wooden spoon until you get a rough, heavy, sticky dough. 

Dump this dough out directly onto your prepared cookie sheet and, handling as little as possible and preferably with your wooden spoon, form the dough into a long loaf. Slide the cookie sheet into the oven for about 22 minutes.

22 minutes later you have a choice to make. You can cut the biscotti loaf into slices, lay these slices on their side, and rebake for another 3 to 5 minutes—first one side and then the other. This makes for a crispier, more traditional biscotti perfect for dunking. But because I don't like to dunk stuff and, more importantly, because the capo di tutti capi in the house, a.k.a. my husband, prefers a softer biscotti, I make an end to it here. I wait for the loaf to cool and sprinkle it with confectioner's sugar. You can always still dunk it soft if you like.

You can, as my husband's done here, also top your biscotti with fresh ricotta and strawberry jam. Almost whatever you do with it, fuhgeddaboutit, the result is yummy!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014