Oral Tales Written and Human Lives Easily Broken

As much as I love the literature of our United States and its writers, I’ve slowly come to appreciate fine writing from other countries. While much of such writing is influenced by U.S. writers, there’s still much to learn from these bits of “foreign” fiction and nonfiction, the uniqueness of these writers’ lives, their stylistic originality, and the commonness of experience is places faraway and nearby. So for the next few weeks I’ll focus on writing coming from faraway lands.

 

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Black Diamond, by Zakes Mda

Before the written word, stories were passed on orally, something enjoying a minor comeback these days. And in Black Diamond, Zakes Mda has his story’s narrator mimic this ancient mode of storytelling. If you’re a reader committed to the modern techniques of the novel, much of what you read here may very well grate. Still, there’s Mda’s story, which is at least as engaging as the most popular genre fiction of today. The difference, though, is that this book also informs readers of post-apartheid life in South Africa. So what is Mda’s story?

Don Mateza, a former black revolutionary and now an up and coming member of security firm, is in a flawed romantic liaison with Tumi, an ambitious owner of a modeling agency. Don is given the job of protecting a white magistrate, Kristin Uys, who has sent Stevo Visagie, a member of a tough but minor crime family to prison. Stevo’s family threatens Kristin, and it’s Don’s job to balance his professional duties to the magistrate against his decaying involvement with Tumi. I hesitate to go on with the story at this point; I might be accused of revealing too much. Suffice it to say that Mda handles the intertwined fates of the Visagie family, Don, Kristin, and Tumi quite well.

The title, by the way, is a term for a member of the increasingly affluent black middle class in South Africa. Mda does himself proud in his depictions of post-apartheid life in the former black community of Soweto, the lives of black South Africans living respectable middle class lives and others still living on the perimeter of that society, the slow emergence of blacks and whites finding ways to live and work together. I’m one who isn’t enthralled with Mda’s choice of voice and narrative style, but the book’s content makes it a worthy read.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars

 

Lost in the Winter of Manifest Destiny

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For those who have read Keithley’s long, epic poem about the Donner Party – or for those of you who consider wading through such poetics a chore, there’s another book that will surely interest you:

The Donner Party Chronicles, by Frank Mullen Jr./Photogtraphs by Marilyn Newton

Author Mullen and photographer Newton have provided maps, illustrations, and photos to supplement Mullen’s somewhat sparse text chronicling the Donner Party’s westward groping of Manifest Destiny. It’s more of a cinematic approach in print to this tragic story, arranged in a diary-like form so the reader might experience something like the day-to-day journey across the western plains, the Sierras, and then the party’s tragic demise, all in an effort to find a shortcut to California, this ending in cannibalism of dead members.

As with any social group, conflicts within the party arose early, and to degree led to the party’s demise. Mullen adds entries from diaries of the Breen family and others that depict the ordeal of the final hundred miles across the Sierras and the interpersonal conflicts that should have been dispensed with for the sake of party unity.

I won’t delve into the specifics of this story, but it’s a rather archetypal story of America’s westward-moving, as well as a classic American example of group dynamics.

My rating: 18 of 20 stars

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Indie Booksellers Are Adding Up

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The following article from the Associate Press saw print in May, 2015. this should be good news to all avid book readers as well as writers trying to market their books.

The independent bookseller community continues to expand, through new stores opening and old stores adding new locations.

Core membership of the American Booksellers Association grew from 1,664 companies last spring to 1,712 this year, the trade group told The Associated Press on Tuesday, the day before the BookExpo America publishing convention and trade show begins in Manhattan. The association also benefited from the recent trend of sellers opening new branches, with ABA members now in 2,227 locations compared with 2,094 in 2014 and 1,651 in 2009.
The new numbers will be formally reported to association members later this week during BookExpo.

The ABA appeared in dire condition at this time six years ago. Membership, which topped 5,000 a quarter century ago, had been declining sharply as thousands of stores closed because of competition from Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon.com. The economy was still suffering badly from the financial crisis of 2008. E-book sales had been surging since Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007, often costing physical stores their best customers.

Down to just 1,401 core members in 2009, the association has reported an increase each year since. During that time, Borders has gone out of business and Barnes & Noble has been struggling, more likely to close stores than to open them. Print books have remained the primary medium as e-sales leveled off.

Association CEO Oren Teicher cites three other reasons he believes are significant and ongoing factors in the independents’ revival: decreasing costs of technology, the “buy local” movement of the past few years and the relatively smooth transition from older owners to younger ones, with the Colorado-based Tattered Cover among the stores changing leadership.

“A decade ago, when people were ready to retire, they couldn’t find anyone to take over and ended up closing the business,” Teicher says. “Now, some of the most prominent stores in the country have changed owners. And the new owners bring a whole new sense of energy – they’re more tech savvy and sophisticated. Their energy is contagious. They give everyone else a sense of possibility for their business.”

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Cannibalism in Iambic Pentameter

I’ve given poetry short shrift over the past few years in this blog, partially, I believe, because modern poetry is at a crisis point. While there are a few excellent poets today, some to be remembered through time, the craft itself has fallen into nasal whining on the one hand and into a morass of technicality, which can’t be justified, since no advised structure has come to the fore for today’s compulsion to free verse.

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But one book of poetry bears mention, one coming to the fore a second time in forty years, because, as I continue to harp, that “the story’s the thing.” I’m thinking here of George Keithley‘s book-length poem, The Donner Party, which reacquaints us with America’s only recorded case of cannibalism. Too, I’m surely not the only one in thrall to this work; it was republished in revised form in 2012. But if you aren’t familiar with the story here it is in brief:

A party of wagon trains leaves the midwest for California in an ill-advised season, and almost to their destination has to detour, trying to escape winter weather. Finally stranded, and without food, many members of the wagon train die, and, so legend has it, they’re eaten by the survivors.

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This story – and the book – is part history, part literary imagining, based on author Keithley’s deep research into the subject. Keithley leads us on, as a novelist might, in traditional iambic pentameter (for the most part), letting the story tell itself though his poetic gifts. To me, this book is perhaps more compelling that a linear dispensation of the party’s history. Whether you find the original book in the library (you may not), or buy the new version, you’ll find this tale of Americana’s dark reaches compelling. I’ll mention more on the subject early next week.

 

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

 

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Superlative Acting Amid Cliches

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Sometimes doldrums take over before the summer movie blockbusters, and that’s where we seem to be in early June of 2015. So this weekend I opted for one of the most highly promoted movies of 2014, The Judge. It’s a handsomely cast movie: Robert Duvall, Vince D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton, Robert Downey, Jr., and Vera Farmiga, among others. The cinematography is superb, and the acting top drawer, eliciting at least one Oscar nomination last year.

But the story?

D’Onofrio and Downey are 2 sons of Duvall, and Duvall can’t seem to help reprising bits and pieces of Santini here. The boys’ mother has died, and while Downey, a big city lawyer, is visiting for the funeral, his father is accused of murder. It’s a small town scenario, and easy for most citizens to take sides when Downey takes up his father’s case in court. Duvall is sick, and of course the plot works its way through a cascade of cliches before the final scenes. Still, I didn’t mind the hairless plot; the acting was that good. This was clearly a vehicle for Downey, and D’Onofrio and Duvall did an excellent job of downplaying their parts to second banana status. If you’re looking for new, provoking plot twists, this isn’t your movie. But if you want great acting and entertainment, check out The Judge.

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

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Hurricane: Rubin Carter’s Metamorphosis

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Last night, wishing to avoid TV reruns for an hour or so, I flipped through the various free movie channels (“free” in that I’ve paid for HBO, Starz, etc with my cable TV subscription, but don’t have to pay again to watch such movies). In doing so I came across an older movie, circa 1999, Hurricane, about the life of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. I thought to post on it because the problem of police/black citizen relations isn’t a new one, and because the movie avoids many of the pitfalls of storylines involving racism in bio-pics.

Carter was a prizefighter from New Jersey, and gaining in prominence when he was falsely arrested and convicted of a triple homicide. He maintained his innocence, gained the attention of cultural luminaries such as Norman Mailer and Bob Dylan, but had to serve twenty years in prison before his conviction was overturned on new evidence.

Hurricane isn’t really a bio-pic, in my view, as much as it’s the story of Carter’s metamorphosis from a difficult black childhood to angry prizefighter to an insightful older man. Denzel Washington plays Carter throughout, and to my mind his performance is impeccable, nuanced, and powerful. Such movies always run the risk of becoming didactic; Hurricane, however, accomplishes the purposes of didacticism, as good literature often does, through a thorough examination of the story’s character, allowing us into Carter’s increasingly loving nature as he found ways at different stages of his life to take control of and responsibility for that life.

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

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A Funky Objective Correlative

Yesterday I promised a piece (which was an exercise at the VCFA Novel Retreat) using an objective correlative, or an object or some such about which a story is centered. The exercise was to write a complete one page story set in a rest room, the idea being that, set in a strange environ, new, fertile ideas would likely come into play in creating the story. Mine used a central character from a novel I’m currently writing – a period piece set in the U.S. of the 1960s.

Readers: Where do you see the objective correlative? Why did you choose this? Any other comments?

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The filling station rest room wasn’t Adam Claypool’s first choice, but when his gut rebelled like this, it was find a place, any place within the bounds of decorum. No exhaust fan, and the last guy in must’ve just dined on barbecued brisket and bourbon. But the good thing? It forced on Adam a moment to think. He wanted this kid, Dennis, to hand off some of his engineering workload to, but wife Cheryl was pressing him to keep Nate, the black kid with the militant attitude.

He cleared the dark, fetid stall, stepped to the lavatory to wash. The light over the mirror was bright, too bright, it seemed. Odd. Why would anyone want this much light in such a shithole? And the mirror—it was marbled with arabesques of color, managed only by cracks begetting cracks. And so at first he didn’t see it: a small bump, but then he knew it was another skin cancer.

Why? he wondered. He didn’t abuse his body, he exercised regularly, ate the right stuff, and made regular doctor’s appointments. Still, he knew by now it was something he couldn’t placate or run from. It was genetics. That fact failed to console, though, and that was the way he was beginning to feel about his construction company. Small, efficient as such companies go, but he could no longer avoid the complications of managing a growing business. Dennis and Nate. He only needed one, but to hell with it, he’d show Cheryl. He’d hire them both.

A fist banging on the restroom door. A block of a man stood at the threshold, his size preventing the summer sunlight from blinding Adam.

“You done?” the man asked.

“For now,” said Adam. He suppressed a smile at the man’s expression and then he strode toward his car.

 

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