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...

Monday, March 31, 2014

=books recently read=

Man Crazy by Joyce Carol Oates. Abuse. In a word, that is what this book is about. But it's not about abuse that comes upon us out of the clear blue sky. It's about the abuse that we call down upon ourselves like a judgment from heaven through a desperate need for love where no self-love is and acceptance where we cannot accept ourselves, our need to fill a void at our core where there is a vacuum where self-esteem should be. It's not a matter of blaming the victim to say she brought abuse upon herself; it's not saying that she deserved it, that she got what was coming to her. A victim of abuse may be innocent and still be responsible for attracting abuse; in fact, she may flirt with it,crave it, chase after it, even beg for it on her hands and knees, "hurt me daddy hurt me hurt me..." hardly understanding why.

Ingrid Boone is the not-so-reliable narrator of "Man Crazy." A young woman so addled by drugs and eating disorders, by compulsions, obsessions, and low self-esteem, so starved for attention, in particular, male attention, that she is hardly sure herself what she remembers and what she has "dreamed." Her early life was spent on the run, literally, as her mother moved Ingrid from one small town to another ahead of the law. Ingrid's father, Lucas, is wanted by the police for the killing of a man that everyone agrees deserved killing. But you can't just go around killing people on your own initiative, unless, of course you work for the government. Which Luke did, as a pilot in Vietnam. He got used to doing a lot of horrific things in Vietnam that he won't talk about and that make it impossible for him to return to anything like a normal life. He's more than a tad unbalanced, Lucas is, but he loves his wife and child, that we're never made to doubt. But a "Father Knows Best" lifestyle just isn't in the cards for Lucas Boone. So he makes a living as a renegade pilot, doing the kinds of unlawful things that renegade pilots do, literally and figuratively flying under the radar, and dropping in on his nomad family whenever and wherever he can, which isn't often enough for either Ingrid, or her  mother, Chloe. 

Lonely, vulnerable, still-blonde-and-beautiful, Chloe is a woman in the prime of her life who feels that prime slipping away. She's a man-magnet who's gone a little man-crazy herself. She auditions a steady stream of walk-ons in a futile attempt to fill the void that her husband has left in her life. She isn't providing the best example to her daughter, but,at the same time, she means well. This isn't the life she pictured living; she's trying to make the best of a bad situation; she's just trying to ease the pain of a life irreparably ruptured.

And that's what makes "Man Crazy" not just a black-and-white story of an innocent girl's victimization, but a complex moral allegory where none of the main characters are wholly good or wholly to blame. Everyone's damaged, everyone is a victim of circumstance.

But it is Ingrid's dilemma that takes center stage. She's the one whose struggle most concerns us, whose tragedy we suffer, and whose triumph we root for, knowing that any triumph for someone like Ingrid will be  conditional, relative, and limited. For Ingrid, triumph may simply be survival.

It is Ingrid who is "man crazy," her head in the clouds, literally and figuratively, forever looking into the heavens for her pilot father and, here on earth, searching for a surrogate  Daddy in all the wrong places. Predictably enough, she starts her search in the back seats of cars driven by high school boys with one thing on their minds. She loves the feel of their strength, their need, their compliments, their attention, no matter how self-serving and manipulative, no matter how brief. Sure they only one want thing, but it's more than nothing, and Ingrid feels like nothing without it. She soon graduates to men, the rougher the better. She has made the leap that connects pleasure with punishment, love with cruelty, sex with self-loathing. No one who hasn't jumped that jump herself can understand how it's done, but it's done, and done all the time. If you've been trained all your life in a certain way, it's easier than you might think.

Ingrid eventually ends up with the man of her dreams; the problem is that her dream is a nightmare. Enoch Skaggs is the Daddy of All Daddies—the cruel, dark, sadist every woman of a certain Sylvia Plath-type fantasizes about, the vampire-lover who'll use you up and throw you out. Skaggs is a biker who literally believes himself to be a son of Satan. Ingrid through sheer passivity becomes part of his gang-cum-cult called Satan's Children. At the deserted farmhouse where they live communally, Ingrid is subjected to a systematic depersonalization sexual and mental, all the time believing herself to be in love, along with other women in his "harem," with the  mesmerizingly evil, charismatically messianic Skaggs. 

This part of the novel is truly skin-crawlingly chilling, verging on the nauseating, as Oates spares you little in the way of gang rape, cutting, beating, burning, killing, and dismemberment. If you've ever read Kate Millet's "The Basement" you won't have forgotten it and you'll have some idea of what's in store for you here. The only difference is that in "The Basement" the horror is unrelieved, it's all black, right to the blackest of ends. In "Man Crazy," there is a ray of light at the end of the black hole, but I'll say no more except to say that it is there, and knowing it's there, may be the only thing that keeps you going through these otherwise unrelentingly ugly pages.

That's not to say that this isn't a book well-worth reading. It is. But more for the complex and psychologically sophisticated  insight that Oates brings to the subject of abuse, free of the falsifying cant of political and sociological correctness than for the thrills and chills and gross-outs. The important message Oates conveys is that we may not have chosen the bad situations we were born into, the dysfunctional parents who raised us, or the psychological problems these situations engendered that lead us to make bad choices again and again, to attract and be attracted to those who abuse us...of these we may indeed be innocent. But at the same time, beyond a certain age, we can't truthfully say that we had nothing to do with the abuse we suffer as a result. We are each of us responsible, the final analysis, for what we bring upon us, even the innocent. It's a matter of cause-and-effect. Which is not the same as saying we deserve to be abused. Of course, no one does. But if you ask for it, one thing is as certain as an equation, there will always be some sadistic creep out there eager to give it you. 

It's significant that the only person who can rescue Ingrid Boone is Ingrid Boone herself. But first she must reach the absolute nadir of personal negation, the earth cellar of self-abnegation. Her feet must touch the bottom, which you might see as the top of the rickety, worm-eaten coffin laid like a roof above the oblivion of death before she can stand up on that flimsiest of platforms and say "I've suffered enough. No more!"

This is where Oates leaves Ingrid Boone, and where we leave her, too. It's just the first step, but it's the most important step of all.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill. Taking a short break from Joyce Carol Oates, I turned my attention to another short story collection that I borrowed from the Brooklyn Public Library, this one by Mary Gaitskill.

Certain authors are by nature destined to polarize opinion. Mary Gaitskill is one of those authors. If you look at the customer reviews on Amazon, she's the kind of writer who'll garner 27 five-star reviews and 27 one-star reviews for the same book. As the cliche goes, it seems you either love her or hate her. 

Being the sort of person I am, I usually go straight to the negative reviews. I do this because it's almost always the case that the things most people dislike about books (or practically anything else for that matter) are usually the very things I like best. In Mary Gaitskill's case the rap against her is that she writes stories that are relentlessly sordid, about people who are dysfunctional, at least by conventional standards of normality. She writes a lot about "deviant" sexuality, in particular, lesbianism and the various manifestations of sadomasochism in human relationships, whether emotional or physical. This seems to make a lot of readers uncomfortable. They say "enough already with this wallowing in the mire! Enough already with the lesbians. One or two stories is okay, but does almost every story have to be about dykes and bisexuals, erotic cutting, and consensual rape?!" 

To which I would reply, "Hell, I sure hope so! If it were in my power, I'd make it the law!" 

In her Wikipedia article Gaitskill, responding to her interest in such matters and her literary influences, is quoted as having said "I don't think much of Sade as a writer, although I enjoyed beating off to him as a child."

This interests me. I remember reading Sade as a child with a hand in my panties and a hopeful anticipation only to be disappointed, vaguely nauseated, and completely turned off by the absolute coldness, impersonality, and mechanical nature of his descriptions of torture and death. I've known plenty of guys who said that Sade turned them on—it always seemed to confirm for me that a guy's sexuality must come from the moon—but until Gaitskill I can't recall having come across a woman who claimed Sade rang her sexual chimes.

What I can relate to, however, is what one character says in a story titled "Stuff." "I'm not looking for sex; I feel too vulnerable for that. I just want somebody to hurt me and humiliate me." 

A statement like this is probably the dividing line determining whether you're on the side of the chasm with those who love Gaitskill or you're on the side with those who hate her. You either understand what Gaitskill is expressing here or it sounds like something coming from some place even further away than the moon, beyond our galaxy. For me, it expresses something essential about my particular incarnation as a human being.

Gaitskill's stories are not about mainstream characters. And if you're a mainstream character and not interested in those who aren't, you're probably not going to be on the same wavelength at which these stories are written. Her characters are generally the sort that over-think life, sex, art—everything. They're touchy and eccentric. They are hyperaware of the constant fluctuations that occur beneath the apparent stability of our lives, the perpetual oscillation of all our thoughts and emotions. Within the span of a single embrace, her characters are apt to fall in and out and in and out of love again. In a typical scene, a woman impulsively and playfully slaps tapioca pudding onto her lover's vagina during a moment of intimacy and is shocked when her lover takes it the wrong way, gets disgusted, and asks her to leave.

An alienated father finds his old rage and bitterness boiling back to the surface when he learns that his daughter has sold a story to "Self" magazine about her coming-out as a lesbian and their complicated, imperfect relationship. A teenage runaway takes a  babysitting job only to find herself stuck caring for the three small children when a young mother doesn't return from a supposed job interview. A rape survivor meets a man some thirteen years younger and develops an improbable and unexpected relationship based on the emotional minefield of their joint sexual fantasies. A middle-age man is driven to share intimate and unsavory details of his life with an attractive woman sitting beside him on a plane who happens to remind him of a woman he once abused. A woman writer falls in love, absurdly and obsessively, with her bland, boring dentist during the painful and complicated extraction of one of her wisdom teeth.

In a final sequence of related stories that can be read either alone or together, a middle-aged bisexual poet and teacher at Berkeley finds herself adrift between three lovers—an enigmatic young man, a damaged submissive woman, and an older sociology professor in the midst of a divorce who is trying start life over in what seems to him a strange new world.

What rescues these stories from being cheaply sensationalistic or merely exploitative is the exquisiteness of Gaitskill's prose, her ability to deftly describe even the subtlest shifts of arousal, repulsion, love, and hate within any and every encounter. And she does this in an elevated language that is as poetic, even ecstatic, as the acts she describes are often base and humiliating. Of a simple embrace, Gaitskill describes a woman feeling her lover's body as "made of bright fluxing atoms, forming and disintegrating in secret patterns, determined in their private purpose, and delighted if it made no earthly sense." Her interest in sadomasochism is not only sexual, not even primarily sexual, but ultimately spiritual (which is why I'm surprised that she finds Sade satisfying on any level).  

Mary Gaitskill is not to everyone's taste. So it's as little use trying to tell someone who enjoys her, finds her savory and delicious, as I do, that she tastes bad as it is to force her down the throat of someone who prefers the sunnier, middle-of-the-road fiction of an Anna Quindlen, for instance. Nor is there any point in trying to sugarcoat Gaitskill's work as if she were a bitter but valuable corrective pill. She speaks to those she speaks to and to others she's a grating, unbearable noise. But as a smart, sophisticated, transgressive writer with her pen on the pulse of what life is like today for those who swim in the counter currents beneath the mainstream, she's one of the best there be.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

=Lemon Ricotta Cookies=

This is a quick & easy recipe to make a soft, light cookie, not too sweet, with a refreshing  lemony flavor. They're perfect for an afternoon tea. They go great with coffee after dinner. They're also good at breakfast. Or for binging in the middle of the night when you can't sleep. Or for nibbling mindlessly when you're watching TV or cruising the internet. Or when you're just passing through the kitchen. So far I haven't found a time when they aren't suitable. Maybe while you're mouth is full of pizza. 

There are tons of recipes for making this cookie on the internet and this is a kind of mash-up of several of them. Most of the recipes you find are written to make four dozen cookies! But if you want a recipe that'll make only about a dozen, especially if you're afraid that if you make 48 cookies you'll eat 48 cookies, I've improvised a recipe for an abbreviated yield here:

In one bowl mix together two-thirds of a cup of flour, one-quarter teaspoon of baking powder, and a quarter teaspoon of salt. 

In a second bowl, cut up a quarter stick of butter and add a half cup of sugar and one large egg. Beat this all together with an electric hand mixer until its thick and creamy. Then add eight ounces of ricotta cheese, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, a tablespoon of lemon juice and a tablespoon of lemon zest. Go heavier or lighter on the lemon juice and zest according to your taste. Take up the electric hand mixer again and cream together the new ingredients, slowly adding the bowl of flour, baking powder, and salt.

Preheat the oven to 375, line a cookie sheet with parchment paper, and plop out about two tablespoons of dough to form each cookie. Slide the cookie sheet into the oven and bake for between 15 to 20 minutes until the cookies are just starting to turn golden brown around the edges.

Most recipes finish the cookies with a glaze made of powdered sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest. The glaze will make the cookies sweeter—and shinier—but you'll also have to wait an additional hour or two until the glaze hardens. As an alternative, and if you're hungry right now and/or are into immediate gratification, you can simply grate a little powdered sugar over the cookies and dig right in.

=at the hadal depths=

=Books Recently Read=

Black Dahlia & White Rose by Joyce Carol Oates. You'd recognize me immediately. There's one of me in every class. The tall, thin, awkward girl in black, pale as chalk, silent as a graveyard statue, never raises a hand, never asks a question, never talks to a fellow student. I'm sitting in the back row, same as always, as near to the door as possible, the better to slip in and out unnoticed, to make my escape, as if I'm afraid this classroom, any room with people in it, is a cage that I might be trapped inside for some inexplicable reason. 

All reason, being to me, inexplicable. 

I don't attend this class so much as haunt it.

You recognize me by the look in my eyes. Hunted. Shadowed. Scornful. Adoring. Do I think that I'm in love with you? A schoolgirl crush? Or am I waiting for you to recognize in me a kindred spirit, as a sister-bride of Dracula? Why then do I look down into my notebook, feverishly covering pages with my pen, whenever your eyes drift in my general direction? If I were a boy you'd be wary, even a little afraid, wondering what it was I carried in the black backpack that lies at my feet like a baleful dog. A gun with which to start spraying bullets, like semen, indiscriminately, to hold the classroom hostage in unbearable suspense, an orgasm of bloodshed delayed but inevitable? A serrated hunting knife I'll use to introduce myself to you later, one-on-one, intimately, in the parking lot or after office hours as you descend alone down the concrete stairwell of a building abandoned for the day? 

But I'm a girl and you know any harm I'm likely to cause, any violence I'd perpetrate, would be more than likely turned inwards, towards myself: pills, eating disorders, alcohol, risky sex with dangerous men, suicide. One look at me and you can tell I know well the canon of those who traveled this road before me, the Sylvia Plaths, the Anne Sextons, the Virginia Woolfs.

I've read your books; of course, everyone in this seminar has read them. We're all fans, devotees, acolytes, student-scholars. You notice the book I've brought with me, lying on my desk, which I will never—out of pride, shyness, simple fear of the humiliation of being turned down—ever ask you to sign. It is "Black Dahlia & White Rose." And why ask for a signature anyway? What does that convey? It's not a magic spell, no stamp of affection or approval; it's simply impersonal graffiti, impersonal, even if you personalize it with a reader's name. What could it mean to those who collect them? Is it a trophy, maybe? The kind of innocuous trophy the normal horde, but comparable—at least in our lurid imaginations, yours and mine Ms. Oates—to the grisly trophies that the serial killer prizes to remind him of his victims. The book I bring to class is not your best; you would readily admit it yourself, but it is one of your darker  collections of short stories. Why that one, you wonder? Am I trying to send you a message? If so, what message might that be?

The first story in the book is a blend of fact and fiction about the savage murder and dismemberment of would-be actress Elizabeth Short, whose one and only starring role would be to play the victim, the infamous Black Dahlia; it's a crime that holds a lurid fascination even decades later, like the Jack-the-Ripper murders, and likewise unsolved to this day. In your version, Short was sharing a room with Norma Jean Baker—the White Rose, in your version of this contemporary myth--at the time of her abduction. You speculate that it might easily have been the future Marilyn Monroe who was pornographically slain instead of Short; in fact, the killer's first choice was the baby-girl blonde, it was the White Rose he wanted to pluck in the bud, but fate intervened.

The next two stories are subtler, but no less disturbing in their aura of menace, their themes of abuse and cruelty. In one, a teenage girl with an unstable mother who often disappears for days with unknown men is called out of class by two police officers; she's taken to the morgue to identify a body. In the other, it is a mother, lost in a haze of barbiturate-fueled self-centeredness, who comes to see, in a brief albeit shattering moment of clarity, how she has inadvertently  prepared her daughter to accept a lifetime of mental and physical abuse. 

Have I been abused? Is that what I'm trying to tell you? Well-who hasn't been abused in one form or another? You wonder about the writing assignments I've submitted for your evaluation. Could I possibly have really experienced even half the things I've written about? It wouldn't seem possible. You shudder to think it true, but people have naively wondered the same thing about you, after all. They don't understand the power of imagination, of the saintlike empathy that is essential to the craft, how you can write the wounds into your own flesh and psyche through the vividness of your identification with a victim, the way St. Francis could exhibit the stigmata. It's a fiction-writing class, after all, and you should know better than most, but I strike you as the sort of troubled writer who'd have trouble separating fact from fiction, poetry from confession.

There's a story about a man who is determined to make the most of his second chance at marriage, his chance for a do-over as a husband and a father to his two new stepchildren; but the very foundations of this new life are undermined when he innocently unearths a long-buried skeleton, damning evidence of a previous crime. Another father, a distinguished professor, is about to get the shock of his life when the long-lost illegitimate son he pressed his student-lover to abort rises from "the dead" to confront him at a graduation commencement. Apparently you don't mind if the feminists howl that you've written a story that might be construed as anti-abortion.

That kind of criticism, including the female hostility your sympathy for divorced men taken to the cleaners financially and emotionally by vengeful ex-wives, you repeatedly provoke—and scorn.

There is a story about a sparrow who's somehow become trapped inside an airport waiting area and a weary traveler (who sounds an awful lot like it must have been you) who comes to identify with the poor bird so intimately she experiences a kind of transmigration of souls in which she suddenly becomes the sparrow in its panic. In another story of animal transformation, a woman gone all but invisible in a dull, sexless marriage begins to experience the strange visitation of a "wild man" who materializes from the woods surrounding her million-dollar home; it's a twist on the werewolf theme, with spotted hyenas instead, and a rebirth of vitality in rites of violence, sex, and bloodshed.

In another story of a marriage gone flatline, a husband and wife each have separate—if unequal—midlife crises on an extended Italian vacation that ends—or climaxes—in Rome.

A pair of prison stories end the volume. Prisons and prisoners—a recurring theme in your stories. One is a weird little piece from the point of view of a physically deformed, semi-retarded convict that forces the reader into an uncomfortable position between sympathy and repulsion. "Anniversary," the final story is perhaps the least successful for the likely reason that it's probably the most personal: a widowed professor volunteers to teach an English class to men at a high-security prison. She has clearly not moved on from her husband's death two years ago to the day; in fact, she seems to have something of a death-wish herself, brought to bear in an imagined climax of blood and eroticism. Well, I guess we all mix the facts of our life with our fiction to one degree or another.

It is not me, of course, sitting at the back of this class. But the me I imagine I would be, if you had come into my life at an earlier time, when it wasn't already too late. You've announced your retirement from teaching later this year and my days as a student, at least in a formal setting, are long past; though I might still see you at a reading at a bookstore somewhere in Brooklyn; in fact, you were here only a month or two ago. It's improbable, though, as I don't like public gatherings and don't suffer them voluntarily. But it's possible; anything, I've come to learn, is possible. If our paths do cross, if should see me in the back of some room in which you're speaking, I won't be as intense as I would have been back in the days of my youth, not nearly as romantic or haunted or tragic. I won't be nearly as eager for the lover's sting of emotional cruelty or the delicious humiliation of the boot on my cheek or the erotic jolt of the razor at my throat; I've had more than my share of all that. At the end of the day, when all is said and done and written, it turns out I was a survivor, not a victim—a survivor, still writing. But I'll bet you recognize me all the same.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

=outgoing postcard (front & back)=


=miscellaneous journal pages=

::basically ideas—& not always very good ones—in a state of becoming—or not::

Is it possible that by the close observation and coordination of hand-and-eye necessary to copy a work you can enter the "mind" of an artist—gain an approximation of what it was like to see the world through his (or her) eyes—in a more intense and direct way than merely passively looking *at* the work? A few minutes of Van Gogh, survived, thank god, with both ears still attached:


Text from the gnostic

Gospel of Thomas.
What it has to do
with the drawing
I couldn't say: 

daily mandala

Notes for a short story scrunched
up around a bird drawing. I always find it easier to write when I hardly have any space to put the words, like on envelopes or post cards or napkins. Then the words & ideas just come flowing out of me! Better yet when I don't have any paper at all...or pen, crayon or computer. I'm always guaranteed to write real masterpieces when there's nothing available with which to record them. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

=mail art received=

::Diane Keys, Elgin, IL  A fabulous collection of stuff that shows off the variety & range of DK's art. These pieces are subtler, more subdued, and more aesthetic than her more explicitly raw "trashpo" work. But you can always see the rawness in the refined and the refinement in the raw in whatever she puts her hand to creating. I perpetually find myself stumbling around in her wake, picking up clues on how to proceed in my own work::

=Books recently read=

I Am No One You Know by Joyce Carol Oates.   Wow, with this staggeringly excellent collection of short stories, I instantly become a slavishly devoted, humongous Joyce Carol Oates fan. Previously, I'd danced around the edge of the whole Joyce Carol Oates question. She's an author with a reputation for writing way too much in far too many genres. She writes so much that there are people in the literary community who figure, "how good, after all, can she be?" She's churning them out like Lee Child or Danielle Steel, for crissakes. 

Then there's the "problem" with her subject matter.  As a writer of "serious" literature, she devotes a lot of pages to writing about sensational, low-brow themes: serial killers, kidnap victims, abused children, abused women, criminals—all the stuff that most people expect to find in popular fiction or on the true crime shelf.  This is precisely the kind of stuff you find in "I Am No One You Know."  

A divorced woman poet becomes pen-pals with a convict. Another woman tells us what she won't even tell her husband: that as a teenager she was abducted and held captive as a sex-slave for a week by a deranged serial killer. A daughter returns for the funeral of her father who died in a fire she suspects may have been arson—a fire set by her own brother. 

Another daughter is disowned by her family for testifying against siblings involved in the senseless, brutal slaying of a local black student. A forensic expert—this time a man—falls in "love" with the female skull of an unidentified murder victim he's charged with reconstructing. Another man descends into the hell of of an old age home to visit his father and finds a monster from his childhood among its denizens. 

A brother and sister go back to the house where one horrible, unforgettable night they witnessed their father beat their mother to death on the beach with a hammer—but whose version of the events of that night, which has haunted and deformed the rest of their lives, is correct?

Alcoholics, teachers (male and female) who have sex with their underage students, ex-death row prisoners, bad mothers, bad fathers, bad children, family dynamics as fucked up as those in any Greek tragedy—Oates often writes not only about tawdry subjects but about tawdry characters. This isn't going to win her any support among those who believe that the mark of great literature, especially where literary prizes are to be awarded, is that it should be elevating. Instead a typical Joyce Carol Oates story seeks to illuminate the darkest of characters and situations. Her admittedly gothic sensibility seems to draw her inevitably to the transgressive. She's often compared to Poe. I don't know about that. Those who make the comparison may be grasping at a justification for including Oates in the great canon of American writers. I don't think she needs such justification. The intelligence that she brings to even the skankiest of subjects and the skill and artistry with which she wields that intelligence through one daring, high-wire virtuoso prose performance after another are what separates Joyce Carol Oates from a James Patterson. 

I'd say I admire Oates the courage to risk literary life and limb and to court critical marginalization in order to follow her inclination—call it her "muse" if you like—into the dark and unsavory basements of human nature. Except isn't that what a serious writer should do? Shouldn't that be the default setting? And yet so often it isn't. Instead most writers that take themselves seriously take the safest route possible to publication and critical acceptance. They write as if they took all their material not from life, but from MFA programs and writing workshops, where they learned how to craft and cook that material up into the most blandly palatable of broths—a kind of Campbell's soup of fiction—no matter how distasteful the original raw ingredients. They've boiled the rankness right out of it.

Joyce Carol Oates leaves in the wild gaminess.

She flirts with and crosses the line. She writes with a sympathy for the murderer, the mad, and the maddened that might be mistaken for a condoning of their sins and crimes. She isn't afraid of being called out for siding with the abuser, the outcast, the misfit, the politically incorrect. Or, if she is afraid, she soldiers on all the same. She writes about human beings pushed to the extreme outer limits of human emotion. In this regard, if she resembles anyone, she resembles the Emily Bronte of "Wuthering Heights" more than she does Poe; for one thing, she understands the violence and injustice that social stratification engenders. Oates speaks from the place where words customarily begin to fail, where we often say "there are no words to describe this pain, this horror, this madness."

And she does this by writing not only about diverse subjects, not only about a wide range of human characters, but in many different voices and styles. She writes from the point of view of men and women, rich and poor, the articulate and the otherwise mute. She gives voice to sharp young female poets and elderly male college professors,  semi-literate ex-convicts and upper-middle class housewives in prose that is pitch-perfect nearly every time.

Pulitzer-prize-winning author Jane Smiley said this of Joyce Carol Oates: "Like J.S. Bach, Oates often seems to be working in private, cultivating the variety and complexity of her vision in service to something larger than a literary career."

That's a great way to put it, which is why I put it here. Thanks, Jane Smiley. But to that, again, I'd be inclined to snap back, "So what?" Isn't that the way it's supposed to be? Shouldn't that be the way all literary artists work? Except it hardly ever is that way. All too many literary artists are literary careerists. One might argue that Oates is a literary careerist, too; after all, she's made a career out of being a writer and a professor. To that I'd say, "Yes, but she didn't compromise. She did it her way."

Which is why I'm a huge Joyce Carol Oates fan.  I'd be surprised if she won a Nobel Prize. Not because she doesn't deserve one, but because the Nobel, as it is presently awarded, how it is presently constituted and what it presently represents, doesn't deserve her.

If Joyce Carol Oates is fated to be marginalized, to dwell on the circumference of the inner circle of great writers,  to be locked like the madwoman in the cellar of the literary pantheon, or given a table at the end of the table, a slightly embarrassing, grudgingly acknowledged "poor" relation, that's all the more to her credit in my opinion. 

And I get the feeling that Joyce Carol Oates isn't too upset by it either.  That she's too busy following the next illuminating sentence down the rabbit hole and into the twisting labyrinth of human experience no matter how dark, no matter to what unmarked grave or uncharted hell it might lead.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

=fragments of divine power=

::collaged papers, water color marker, crayon, oil pastels "bound" together with ribbon::
—sent to Petsmo, Finland

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

=mail art received=

::Fake Fine Art from Escondido, CA::

No "B" side on this postcard. Truly does take a step beyond Warhol. The only problem  with this piece is that when I tape it to the wall there's one side that wont be visible. But that's a problem with the physical world as presently constructed, not an artistic problem.   

Monday, March 17, 2014

=mail art received=

=Jon Foster, Winston-Salem, NC=

Jon has a signature style that always comes through in his work, even in this piece, which strikes me as somewhat more "narrative" than usual. I'm seeing towers and skyscrapers toppling leftward like dominoes in a blaze of light and fire (thermonuclear explosions? apocalyptic global warming?) and, waiting on the right, a reversion to a natural world where the first human being has yet to emerge. 

It's also possible that I'm holding the piece upside down. No matter. I like it this way.

=mail art received=

::Richard Canard, Carbondale IL::

A master of understatement, Richard adds some hilariously tragic social commentary to this piece. I particularly love his editorial query in the lower left hand corner. As RC wryly notes, child hunger ends here alright—and the vomiting begins.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

=Because the Marigolds Are So Beautiful=

—which is the title of my short story now appearing online in the Spring Issue of Per Contra: An International Journal of the Arts:

=Books recently read=

After Dark by Haruki Murakami. Dear Haruki Murakami, I am writing to you at three in the morning when most regular people are sound asleep in bed, like my husband is now, right beside me. No, this is not that kind of letter! 

But this is the time period, between midnight and dawn, when all of the action in your novel "After Dark" takes place. You—or someone—might ask why is it necessary to write this pseudo-review during the same time-period that the novel itself takes place? I will answer like many of your characters answer each other when asked questions of this sort in your novels: with a shrug (which you can't see) and an enigmatic "dunno." 

Like many of the women in your novels—and like Mari Esai in this one—I have my reasons but my reasons for doing anything (or nothing) are often not communicable through mere language. Or maybe I just don't want to share them for personal reasons. Or maybe I don't fully know the reason myself. Maybe that's the point; maybe that's the essential mystery of life: I'm trying to find out myself.

I'm always on the fence when it comes to you, Haruki. I know you're a great author and all that. They even said you were one of the odds-on favorites to win the Nobel Prize this year! You and Philip Roth and Alice Munro, who actually won. Good for you! You're still only 65 so you have plenty of time yet. You're even five years younger than Philip Roth, who's quit writing (so he says), so don't give up. Keep writing! If Philip Roth has really thrown in the towel, you'll catch up and pass him in no time.

Anyway, what I meant to say is that I always have mixed feelings about you. Not about you, personally, of course; naturally, I don't know anything about you personally; but about you as a writer, specifically, about your novels. From what I've read so far of your work, I think I might like your short stories better. About you personally, strange to say, but I get the sense that I would like you, if I knew you. At least if you were anything like most of the male protagonists in your stories, like  Takahashi, for instance, in "After Dark." He is a fairly typical example of what I'm talking about. 

Takahashi seems like a nice guy, earnest, a little naive maybe, questioning, a bit verbose, actually, even annoying to a woman who'd prefer (or thinks she prefers) to be alone, but at the same time he's considerate and patient. He doesn't force himself physically on a woman. He senses (without saying it) when a woman is in trouble or lonely or would like to open up or fall in love(but can't) or whatever—and he tries to help. He tries to do what he can, including go away if the woman insists (which most men won't, even if they swear they'd do anything for you, even die they love you so much. The one thing most of them won't do is leave!!). Anyway, your heroes remind me a little of my husband (still sleeping, by the way) in many ways (though not the annoying part, of course), many of these quietly heroic understanding male characters of yours. I might be mistaken, but I imagine you are like this, too.

But back to Takahashi. He's up all night because he's practicing with his jazz band in the basement of an unused building. He's a couple of years older than Mari, who's nineteen, and we learn that soon he'll give up playing music and get "serious" about his future and start studying law. He has a lot of interesting opinions about the law. For instance, he thinks it's something like  a giant malevolent octopus. He's frankly a little afraid of it. He compares it to a beast into whose clutches any one of us might get entangled and devoured. Maybe for that reason he feels it all the more important to get to know it—and learn to defend others from falling innocent prey to it. See what I mean about him being a hero? At least that's the sense I get from what he says about the subject.

In fact, what he actually says is this: "Any single human being, no matter what kind of a person he or she may be, is all caught up in the tentacles of this animal like a giant octopus, and is getting sucked into the darkness. You can put any kind of spin on it you like, but you end up with the same unbearable spectacle."

You get the feeling that he's talking about more than just the law here. That he's talking about life itself. Or what opposes life and eventually consumes it, which, of course, is the inevitability of death...oblivion, probably. It's a pretty grim view of life from a basically optimistic happy-go-lucky character. But that's the thing about Takahashi. He's a lot deeper than he looks. He's seen a lot of darkness in his own life; but he prefers to turn his face toward the sun. And he's trying to get Mari to do so, too. That's what makes him a hero. He's not trying to save the world, just one girl, maybe, two, if you count Mari's sister. He's a modest, unassuming hero, but a hero, nonetheless.

It's very sweet the way he comes upon Mari Asai reading in an all-night Denny's and decides to sit down with her and start talking. He's drawn to her right away it seems, even before remembering that he was once on a double-date with her and her older sister Eri. It was Takahashi's friend who was dating Eri and Takahashi was just dragged along, as was Mari, who stayed in the hotel pool where the date took place practically the entire time, hardly saying a word to Takahashi, just swimming back and forth, back and forth like a sleek young porpoise! He doesn't say it with any anger or bitterness or self-pity or anything. That's why you've got to like the guy. He doesn't seem to take offense and he remembers thinking that Mari was cute at the time, even though it's her sister who is the beautiful one, literally magazine-model beautiful, and who usually gets all the attention.

And it's actually Eri who's the most obvious damsel-in-distress; she's in the most immediate danger, even though she's not really much of a character in "After Dark," not the heroine at all. In fact, she's asleep through practically the entire novel. And not just because it's night time. It seems she's been asleep for the last two months, unable to face the world for secret reasons no one knows. Although she seems to wake up briefly—and conveniently—to nibble enough food and sip enough water to stay alive and continue looking beautiful and not like a skeletal concentration camp victim or a terminal cancer patient with bedsores. And, also, conveniently, to use the bathroom. Otherwise she wouldn't make a very fetching "Sleeping Beauty" or "Snow White." 

There are many scenes interspersed throughout the novel of Eri sleeping, which are, I have to admit, not very enjoyable to me, really tedious, in fact; they are narrated in this super-objective tone, like something out of a Robbe-Grillet novel. We are an impersonal observer, we're informed by an impersonal narrative voice, all we can do is watch, like the eye in a camera. We can't wake Eri; no one can. So the details of her room, of Eri herself are gone over with obsessive attention, with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. How beautiful she is, how perfectly formed, etc etc. 

I guess its supposed to gives us a  voyeuristic erotic thrill on some level, which is ultimately why you couldn't have her really in a coma pooping herself into a diaper (unless you were a real pervert!). But I don't know, Haruki. It just seems a very typical sort of "male" thing, this lingering over a woman's unconscious body, creepy, too, but I guess boys will be boys, even sensitive otherwise heroic boys like you (and Takahashi) and probably even my husband. I suppose you'd say these scenes were intended to build suspense and mystery and surreality. But I suspect they probably just turned you on at some level, and turn-on a great deal of your male readers. But they really don't do anything for me(sigh).

I feel pretty much the same way about the scenes in the "love-hotel," which is another term for "hot-sheets hotel," as we call them here in America. It's a place for illicit affairs and where hookers take their clients. Mari finds herself there for a while trying to talk to a young Chinese prostitute who's been beaten bloody by her client for the evening, a typical Japanese company man. I should have said already that Mari studies Chinese in school; she wants to be a translator when she graduates. 

Anyway, these scenes are ostensibly meant as a means to introduce Mari to the dark netherworld of "after dark," the side of life she is ordinarily protected from behind the white picket fences of her upper-middle class suburban lifestyle. Okay, fair enough. But they also seem a way to provide some "cheap thrills" and the tendency of these motifs to "pop up" all the time in even otherwise serious literature written by men is one of the reasons I tend not to enjoy reading male authors as much as women authors. 

I guess it's a hormonal thing with you guys, not something that can be helped, like your spontaneous erections and your need to scratch and rub "down there," for instance, or the way you immediately stop channel surfing whenever an underclad woman appears on the tv screen, or to forward each other emails with photos of women with boobs the size of overstuffed knapsacks, no matter how deformed-looking or gross these appendages are hanging. So I try to cut you some slack, but it's true, I'm reading through these scenes with eyes a-rolling.

Anyway, I have to say, when all is said and done, and as dawn approaches here in Brooklyn, New York, and it's time to get up and make my hubby his sausage-egg-and-cheese scramble or to first take care of his own "beastly" urges (I have been told enthusiastically by quite a number of men that I'm a very skillful little blowjob, the best they ever had, though men will typically say that to any girl in that situation, even long after that situation, in the hopes of soon getting in that situation again, so how can you know for sure. I tend to believe them, though: 1. because I want to. 2. because I really do like it that way. See I can play to the audience, too!) The point is that I'm no prude Haruki Murakami, which some of my above criticisms of your book may have led you to conclude. Far from it. Misleading as these caveats may be, I want to tell you  that, on the whole, I actually enjoyed "After Dark" very much.

At the end, which I won't give away just in case anyone is reading this (and who would be reading this, pray tell, I can't imagine; certainly not you, Haruki Murakami, that is almost for certain! No one will read this unless it's a guy googling the word "blowjob" who gets directed here by accident but he'll have given up long before now)...anyway, at the end of the novel, I was literally reading through tears in my eyes. I'm talking here about the final scene at the railway station between Takahashi and Mari, not the faintly lesbianic concluding scenes with Mari and Eri in bed together, where my eyes were rolling again, but this time just a little bit. 

Well, what can I say? In the end you had my eyes tearing up and rolling in quick succession, Haruki Murakami—but this is the important part, you had them reading through it all. 

Good morning (which is probably good night to you in Japan) & best wishes from your friend, m(not quite mari but almost)eeah.

PS. I hope you win that Nobel Prize. Nice guys should finish first once in a while, even ones I just imagine are probably nice. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

::(inspired by, dedicated, & sent to Richard Canard)::

=mail art received=

::Richard Canard, Carbondale, IL::

On the left, a spare and elegant visual poem. 

On the right, a bit of early mail-art history.

Together, a perfectly matched, beautifully balanced presentation that, again, eludes-defies-transcends-simply disregards with indifference the ultimate irrelevance of interpretation when it comes to art.

=mail art received=

::Richard Canard, Carbondale, IL::

This one is so great on so many levels that any description of why its so great would only diminish it. Suffice to say, I never tire of looking at "Sasquatch Big Stick" and find myself amused and bemused anew each and every time.

=mail art received=

above: the envelope
below: 2 ATCs

microbook (cover):

microbook (sample spread):

below: "scrapsbook" front and reverse:

Below: another microbook:

::Carina Granlund. Petsmo, Finland::

I can only hint with these scans at the incredible beauty and delicacy of this work. It's really a treasure of creativity, intimation, and imagination. I suspect that this is a collection that I'll be returning to again and again for inspiration. Its a museum exhibit in an envelope. I mean that quite literally.