The House of Books

bookstore cat sleeping

I think I’d be good at this

We were barely home from the wide-open green glories of the mountains when my girlfriend sent me an article on the cozy wonders of bookstores. If it’s possible to be reincarnated as a business, instead of something like a chipmunk, I want to come back as a bookstore. I’ve certainly spent enough time in them to feel at home with myself if I do.

Not so long ago, it appeared as if we could be moving toward a time when bookstores no longer exist. I’m more optimistic now that they will continue, but if they do disappear, no matter what fantastic wonders the future may hold, I’m glad I’ve lived in a time of bookstores instead. I love the magic of a bookstore, with all those books available any time you want to walk in the door, to browse from the Harlem Renaissance to Oaxacan Mexican cooking to Tibetan sand paintings. This is real immersion, not that webpage business. You don’t click away from a Oaxacan cookbook. You stand there and turn the pages, lost in it.

I have spent so much time in bookstores that one summer in a casual moment I started reading a few pages of the novel Moby Dick, then stuck a bit of paper in as a bookmark and returned the book to the shelf. No one bought that volume during the next few months, when I went to the bookstore so often that I sat there and read all of Moby Dick during repeated visits. I’m not making that up.

Last weekend my girlfriend and I were in North Carolina to visit my friend Lamar York, who founded the literary magazine Chattahoohee Review. In addition to the amazing house Lamar lives in with mountain views, he built a second tiny house, really just one room, out under the pine trees nearby to serve as a library. I think there can’t be very many people who have a separate building next to their house just for their books.

In Lamar’s library, the walls are lined with books, as you’d expect, most of them on southern literature, with one wall for literary criticism, and another wall devoted just to books about Florida. I don’t have an extensive book collection myself, as someone like me might, because I’ve moved 1,782 times. Actually, I’ve only moved about 30 times in my adult life, but you begin to cast things off after you pick the boxes up enough times.

While we were in North Carolina last weekend, we also went to Asheville for an afternoon, a city filled with young people, brew pubs (we had to try a couple of those), and restaurants, and of course with views of the green glorious mountains. In addition, this tiny city has not one, or two, but several private book stores. We went for a look at Malaprops, probably the most well known. It is what a bookstore should be, filled with people browsing through books on the Harlem Renaissance and Mexican cooking (or perhaps books on Thomas Wolfe and southern fusion cooking), and with a nice cafe on the side.

Seeing Malaprops so full of people gives me greater optimism about the future of book stores. A book store is one of the finest things human beings have created so far, and in my support for bookstores, when I want to buy books, I buy them from an actual bookstore or I don’t buy them. I know Amazon has made many things available (including my own books, and I will thank them for that), but when I want a book, if I can’t find it, I ask a small local bookstore near me to order it. Then I pay the higher price that it costs to buy from them. I’ve also browsed in bookstores over the years, picking out books I’ve never heard of, to take them home and see if I like them. I’ve found some books I loved by doing that, both in America and, as a matter of fact, in Ireland.

If it’s not possible to be reincarnated as a bookstore, if we are only allowed to come back as animals, maybe I could be one of the cats who live in bookstores.

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Before I’m Caught and Returned to the Asylum

Winnie the Pooh

President Xi Jinping of China

I’m so sure you would enjoy knowing that a very common word in medical studies is “randomization”. It means to take the people being studied and put them into groups in a completely random manner, so that no bias is involved in selecting the groups (and then they receive different kinds of treatment, to see what works). Nowadays randomization is done with a computer, though in the 20th century it was done by letting a squirrel in a cage, preferably a young squirrel, pick the numbers.

Actually, I don’t know how it was done. But as it happens, I have a squirrel here in a cage, not all that young, and I’m going to have the squirrel choose topics for me to write about in this blog entry. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that on principle I ruled out writing about any kind of nut or the band the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

So what does my little rodent have to suggest? Ah well, as uneducated as you might think a squirrel is, it has chosen the fairly subtle topic of satire. To my thinking, there is not enough satire in the world, which cries out to be ridiculed. Satire uses an exaggerated form of writing to emphasize the foolishness of people or situations, and the difference between satire and parody is…sheesh, I don’t know. And I have a degree in English. So much for my education.

I think of parody as sort of slapstick, closer in spirit to Monty Python. Satire is more subtle, but there’s probably overlap. One of the ancient Greek writers, Aristophanes, wrote satires (including one making fun of Socrates) that had some moments the Three Stooges could have worked with.

One of the most delightful bits of satire I’ve seen lately was created in China, where people have noticed that their president resembles the cartoon character Winnie the Pooh. As a typical dictator (i.e., pathologically insecure), he hates that comparison, and thus Winnie the Pooh is illegal in China. Think about that. How do you say “I love honey on toast” in Chinese? (我喜歡烤麵包上的蜂蜜)

There goes the squirrel again, and he’s—no, he stopped for a drink of water. Now he’s looking around, and he’s chosen British versus American spellings. What an eclectic little squirrel. What can I say on this topic? At work I get manuscripts from all over the world, and some of them use the British spellings, such as “programme” (American: program), “favour” (American: favor), and so on, and part of my job is to change them. If you’re thinking “Who gives a shit?” you should not apply for a job as an editor. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t give a shit either, but I do want to keep my job.

Here’s a little story about British spelling. When I was in Pennsylvania, I lived in the middle of the state, in Centre County, which uses British spelling in the county name (American: Center County). People in the county have gotten used to the spelling, so that some apparently don’t know any better. One day I was in a small town there and saw a sign on a restaurant advertising some of the food. I have no clue what a “chicken tender” is (a piece of chicken, I guess). Anyway, influenced by the county name, this restaurant had written that they were selling “chicken tendres”. I guess their cars have fendres and when they need a loan they go to a lendre.

OK, maybe that’s editor humor, something a normal person won’t connect with. Me and the squirrel like it, though. Look at…he’s…ah, I should give him a nut. I bet Winnie the Pooh would like those “tendre” jokes, too. And you know he’s British.

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The Provokingly Clever Title Goes Here

lemons and limesOut in the world, much has been happening. All the boys are out of the cave. Little Croatia kicked Russia’s ass in the World Cup. And it’s August already? Here in my world, you know how it can be, you pay some bills, think you’re doing OK, and then another bill shows up . . . and Jesus, where did that one come from? I was going to buy some mink underwear. Now I have to make do with the old silk stuff.

Even when I try to spend time in my imaginary world of words, reality intrudes like a steel wool pad dragged across your belly. About a month ago I decided I was ready to begin looking for an agent to sell the just-completed novel (Birds Above the Cage). Part of being ready to do that of course was finishing and polishing the book until it was as shiny as church shoes. Another part of being ready to go agent-begging with a new book was to conclude that it was time to give up—for now—on selling another book (The Invention of Colors).

Here I am a month later, and every day I try to send out a query letter to contact one agent. I only aim at one person a day, not more, because I find the process so debilitating. That seems like a big word, so I’ll throw in a dictionary definition here, from Merriam Webster. Debilitate: “to impair the strength of, enfeeble” and they gave the example of “sailors debilitated by scurvy”.

As you can see, sending out query letters to look for a literary agent is similar to having scurvy. In this case, the cure is not lemons or limes but rich red wine, or any wine, actually, just whatever you have, and some dark chocolate would be good, although peanut M&Ms will do if necessary.

Here’s what normally happens when you send a query letter: [this space represents the silence of outer space]. Not that the agents can reply to all the mail they get, I understand that. In a few cases, you get a form letter thanking you for letting them reject your book, and reminding you that it’s not you, it’s them, no really, and you should keep trying, and good luck. My highpoint in this process has been twice when someone wrote me a nice little note to say they didn’t want the book. The notes were very personal and pleasant, and I almost felt good about being rejected. That’s how hard this business is, when a nice rejection feels like a good thing.

In case the literary agents grow weary of rejecting Birds Above the Cage, I’m currently writing another book (Moonapple Pie), so they can later reject that. This week I finished a chapter that makes the book one-third written. Unless I’m out somewhere having fun (which happens now on the weekends, since I have a girlfriend), then I’m home writing, or feeling like I ought to be writing, or taking a nap so that I’ll be rested enough to write, or at least rested enough to think about how I ought to be writing.

In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever written a book I enjoyed working on as much as this one. Why would that be? Am I finally getting enough naps? This book is set in my home town of Gainesville, Georgia, but I don’t think that’s what makes the writing such a pleasure. My home town, by the way, is famous for chickens, and I have not yet included a single chicken in this book. Or wait, I think there was a bowl of chicken and dumpling in the last chapter.

I think I’m enjoying getting to know the characters in this book, two twin brothers (Eston and Elliott) in their early 40s and their sister who is ten years younger. Oleander appeared in their family mysteriously around the age of two years, when she was found wandering in a store and no one ever knew how she got there.

So one word follows another, until a sentence happens. If the words don’t move along and get into place quickly enough, I drip a little lime juice on them. That puts a little fancy in their pants, and they hop to it after that.

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The River That Washes the World

painting of a river

Painting by Galya Velkova

In the last couple of months or so, the muse of poetry has not come by my house, even though I left the porch light on. I think I saw her down the street one day. She looked like she was going somewhere else, maybe waiting for Uber, because she kept checking her phone and then looking around.

So I haven’t written any poetry in weeks, nor do I feel any urge to do so. Fortunately, I’m not a poet, so it’s OK if I don’t write poems. The last one I wrote was about two months ago, and I thought I’d post it here, because: 1) I’m lazy, 2) it’s easy to do this, and 3) I’m…oh, I already mentioned lazy.

I also want to say something about the technique on this poem. When I wrote the first verse (which is now the fourth verse, revised), I discovered that the second and fourth lines didn’t exactly rhyme, but they did have a slight echo of sound (“dreams” and “rain”). That struck me as interesting, so I decided with every verse to intentionally use a semi-rhyme like that, a process that was just as much work as rhyming, maybe more.

Lucky for you, I changed my mind about going into more detail, talking about internal rhymes and voiced or voiceless consonants, blah blah blah. Who cares? Here’s a poem that strides gladly into the welcome darkness, and I offer my thanks to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen for creating the space for me to write this poem.

Now Drink

Sit down in the place where all the kings died,
and the new kings will die in their turn,
amid luxury, grace, and elegant meals,
in the hall where the plotting occurs.

Sit down in the room where the Quakers once met
in the city that lived on its slaves,
where everyone knew who wore silk and who chains
and that time when the rope grew too frayed.

Sit down on the shore where people once sailed
far away and they never came back,
though their luggage still sits untouched in the sun,
with an old folded nautical map.

Sit down by the light of the fateful sunset,
in the meadow where hopes fade to dreams
of wolves that stand still at the edge of the dark,
or gray gods who appear in the rain.

Sit down by the river that washes the world,
with currents of good and bad luck.
Sit down by the water and hold out your hands,
and we’ll give you your own silver cup.

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Poetry at a Higher Elevation

Young Harris College

Young Harris College

Though it is hard for me to imagine my grandmother as a young girl just out of high school, no doubt she was once. It is even harder for me to imagine that my farmworking grandmother, who I remember in a print cotton dress and sunbonnet working in the fields, who filled baskets with fresh tomatoes and corn and strawberries, went to college for one year when she got out of high school.

The college my grandmother attended was in the north Georgia mountains, in a town with the very strange name of Young Harris. From picking cotton, she earned enough money to buy a large trunk to carry her belongings, and off she went to Young Harris College. After one year, however, she was too homesick and never went back.

Last Saturday I went to the town of Young Harris myself, the first time I’ve ever been there, to the very school my grandmother attended. I went with my girlfriend to a meeting of the Georgia Poetry Society, which she belongs to (and which my father used to belong to). I didn’t mind going to a poetry meeting, but I really just went to spend the day with her in the mountains. I got up at 6:00 in the morning, which is still the middle of the night, in my opinion, as we had a two-hour drive to get there and needed to get on the road.

I find the mountains of north Georgia peacefully beautiful, and the road we followed for a while writhes back and forth like a frantic snake. That contorted road led us up Blood Mountain, up and up for miles, with no hint of descent, and all that way we passed thin muscular bicyclists, in tight cycling outfits, pushing hard on the pedals, to work their way maniacally up the mountain.

On our drive, we also passed the farmstead home of the poet Byron Herbert Reece, an Appalachia boy who published novels and poetry, and who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, earned Guggenheim Awards, and was a writer-in-residence at UCLA and Emory. When we finally reached Young Harris College, where the meeting was being held, I was a bit astonished by what a pretty campus it is. The view takes in those wonderful low mountains, and the campus itself is an interesting mix of new and old architecture, incorporating some pleasant landscaping.

We met in the faculty and staff dining room of the student center, where one wall was lined with bookshelves filled with bound volumes of old magazines (I know because I checked to see what they were), and with framed black and white photographs. Along the other side of the room were glass doors looking out at the mountains.

The meeting began with an open mic, which I signed up for and read a poem about sailing to Saturn while drinking wine with friends. We also had a longer reading by a featured poet, Karen Paul Holmes, who read from a new book, and she did some quite nice pieces. I had seen her before in Atlanta at the Callanwolde Arts Center, so we recognized one another.

The events for the day were scheduled to have two workshops run by poetry professors from the college, but instead of workshops we ended up having lectures. I didn’t really mind, as I have little interest in poetry workshops (i.e., no interest). I don’t wish to write poetry when someone says “write”, nor do I have any great interest in studying how to write poetry. Unconsciously, perhaps I do study poetry, as I’ve thought quite a bit about how to write it, but if someone were to ask me to study the topic, it would grow dismal for me and lose all interest.

While we were in that room, those words that had taken their place in line for history sat on the shelf in bound volumes. The words that were still participating in the messy chaos of life were moving about in the air around us.

Here is a bit of poetry by Byron Herbert Reece:

My heart’s contracted to a stone.
Therefore whatever roads repair
To cities on the plain, my own
Lead upward to the peaks; and there
I feel, pushing my ribs apart,
The wide sky entering my heart.

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We Have Tongues As Pure As Snow

Vladimir Putin on screen

I heard what you said

This evening I read an article on the BBC Russian language website, and I have to tell you a quote in that article from a Senator in the Russian government. He was referring to the fact that the head of the government youth organization (they have such a thing), who was talking about how to raise a child to be patriotic, used the word “quest”, apparently from English (spelled квест in Russian).

The Senator said (my translation from the Russian):

“If we don’t raise our young people, someone else will. If we use phrases, words, and expressions imported from other languages, we’re not raising our children to be dedicated to our Russia. Instead, they will will live according to the formulas, interests, standards, and models of other countries.”

In the article I read, three different senators were quoted as objecting to this word. We can draw two conclusions from this incident. (1) There are no actual problems in Russia that Senators need to spend their time on. (2) Just like the United States, Russia has some really fucking stupid politicians.

Given the behavior of one of our political parties here in the U.S., we can now say that there are politicians in both countries who see their main function as not doing anything that might upset Vladimir Putin.

Look at that translated quote again. That’s a pretty heavy bag for one word to carry, but “quest”—I bet that word is up to it. Notice that the Senator used not one, or two, or three, but four nouns (“formulas, interests, standards, and models”) to emphasize the perniciousness of foreign words, like . . . um, Senator (spelled сенатор in Russian).

Of those four Russian nouns, by the way, the first three are very obviously borrowed from English or French. But this blog entry is not just about ignorance. Every country on earth has plenty of people who firmly believe that patriotism and stupidity are the same thing. A more interesting point is why purity of language is seen as a sign of patriotism.

You can find this attitude everywhere. The French even have an Academy that most people ignore, which tells them how to speak proper French. Here in America we have no Academy, but we’ve had plenty of politicians propose laws we don’t need to make English our official language, not because we need to communicate better—we already speak English here—but from xenophobia and distrust of other languages.

If we were to take the cynical point of view, we could say that every single thing human beings touch, they will find a way to turn into a howling mob and break it. Naturally, I’m not going to take the cynical point of view. Instead, I’ll say that this obsession with imaginary purity of language, and how important that is, is a sign of the great importance of language. Even people what don’t know no rules in English and ain’t got no reason to learn none, even those people will insist on how important English is here in America, by God.

I just look at them and say, “Moi? I’m not arguing.”

If you read Russian and want to see the original that I quoted up above, here it is: “Если не мы воспитываем нашу молодежь, ее воспитывает кто-то другой. Если мы вводим формулировки, термины и формулы на импортных языках, мы воспитываем не людей, преданных нашей Родине, а живущих формулами, интересами, стандартами, шаблонами других государств”, – заявил сенатор Алексей Кондратьев (Тамбовская область).

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You Can Imagine an Angel

forestWe drift through a physical existence composed of incomprehensibly small particles, separated by spaces that are filled with energy. It seems, though, as we perceive the world, that we see shadows moving on the ground, light and dark exchanging, and we can look up to see leaves moving on the trees that appear so solid and substantial. There appears to be no escape from the illusion of reality, and at times how heavy, how grim, and how hopeless that illusion can be.

The spirit has ways to try to find itself, however, and one of those ways is with words, which are themselves so insubstantial, almost as if they don’t exist, but how powerful they are. To give an oversimplified example, if a woman falls in love with someone who is not interested, and she is then turned down for a job she wants, the woman can write a story about a character who struggles and then gets hired, and who later finds romance. With writing, the unhappy woman can at least imagine a better reality.

More profoundly, I was shown an article this week by a writer who described the ability of writing to help the writer make sense of chaotic and disturbing events. For events of chaotic incoherence, such as experiencing a war or becoming a refugee, a writer might find or create some kind of narrative, presenting events that lead to one another. In that piece of writing, crazy unconnected things will happen, but in the writer’s narrative, events will also move in some logical direction.

Writing can not change what happened, but the creation of a narrative structure allows the writer to mentally process the disturbing event with some feeling that at least a bit of logic is moving through the madness. It may just be a mental trick, but given that our spirits are trapped in a world of physical illusion anyway, it works.

At other times, events may not be chaotic but nevertheless disturbing, such as violence against a person, or even something more long-term, such as ongoing racism. In such a case, one approach a writer might take is to create a story in which the events become controlled by the writer, as in my oversimplification above. The writing allows the writer to write the world as it should have happened.

I also just read an article in the Washington Post about a class teaching Tolstoy and Russian literature to young prisoners in Virginia, with the powerful effect the writing had on people who felt helpless and lost. The article made it clear that for some of the prisoners, the experience was deeply affirming, helping them to recover some of the hope in life that they had lost.

The power of literature is perhaps an indirect indication of the power of the human mind and spirit. In the most basic conception of writing, it is nothing but symbols, and those symbols are arbitrary inventions. Compare, for instance, how the word “angel” is written in Russian (ангел) or Japanese (天使).

Once in a while, I used to tell my own students that a page of writing does not say anything. It is nothing more than spots of ink on paper. When we read it, however, the words form and the ideas happen inside the mind of the reader. The reader helps to create what is happening with a piece of writing, and when a reader is moved by writing, when the reader is inspired, finds affirmation, finds hope, connects with life—the reader is touching things that in some sense were there all along.

We say that writing is powerful, and it is, for both writers and readers. At the same time, writing is a tool we have invented to touch the power that we all have inherently.

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