Decatur Book Festival 2018!

DBF logo

Another Labor Day Weekend, another DBF for Calvin.

After examining this year’s festival schedule, I headed into the fray without being excited by any particular event on offer this year, other than the opportunity to see and hear one of my living literary (and political) heroes, Armistead Maupin.

Fortunately, I was delighted by every single one of the talks I decided to attend. Without exception, the authors and their interviewers were intelligent, informed, witty, and engaging – a lot to expect of any speaker!

Only one of the presentations (and one of the most unexpectedly enthralling) was not connected to a new or newish book: “Volumes: An Artist in the Stacks” featured, along with archivist Tamara Livingston, photographer Sara Hobbs, who described her project of examining (of all things) the marginal notes in some of the many items in the rare book collection at Kennesaw State University’s library.

Each of the other presentations featured interviews with the authors of various recently-published books. The panels I chose to attend were about books about as different from each other as one could imagine:

Frankenstein cover

Charleston book cover

Grave Landscapes cover

Lost Colony cover

Apostles of the Revolution cover

One of the panels, “Clever Resistance,” featured the authors of two different books on a related subject:

Shw Caused a Riot covere   Sings of REsistance

 

As much as I enjoyed all the sessions I attended, the interview with Armistead Maupin was the highlight of this year’s festival. It was conducted to a huge and enthusiastic audience that filled the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Decatur. The kindheartedness, perspicacity, humility, sense of humor, and generosity of this endearing man were so wonderful to be reminded of. The book festival also featured a showing of the 2017 documentary about Maupin, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin (which Randy and I had recently seen at home via Netflix), but the interview the following day focused on Maupin’s recently-published memoir:

Armistead Maupin book cover

I can’t find the words to describe how stimulating (and hilarious) each of these presenters was – and how heartening it was to mingle with so many thousands of other book lovers – and  I came away Sunday afternoon completely convinced that I should continue to make time each year to attend the Decatur Book Festival.

Meanwhile, I can set aside more time in my life to reading books (and to posting mini-reviews of those books to “The Constant Reader” sidebar section of this blog), and to posting more frequently to my other blog, devoted to the celebration of all things bookish.

 

 

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Carl Sandburg’s “Honey and Salt”

From a typed-out collection of poems given to me in 1966 that I excavated fom my attic yesterday: this excerpt from the title poem of Honey and Salt  (1963) by Carl Sandburg [1878-1967]:

          How long does love last?
As long as glass bubble handled with care
or two hot-house orchids in a blizzard
or one solid immovable steel anvil
tempered in sure inexorable welding –
or again love might last as
six snowflakes, six hexagonal snowflakes,
six floating hexagonal flakes of snow
or the oaths between hydrogen and oxygen
in one cup of spring water
or the eyes of bucks and does
or two wishes riding upon the back of a
morning wind in winter
or one corner of an ancient tabernacle
held sacred for personal devotions
or dust yes dust in a little solemn heap
played on by changing winds.

William Gibson’s “A Gift of Suns”

Poking around in my attic this afternoon, I unearthed a notebook of assorted materials I had typed up or copied beginning in the late 1960s – fifty years ago! These apparently were longer pieces that wouldn’t comfortably fit onto the set of index cards that eventually became my Commonplace Book.

Among  what was mostly poems written by various famous and obscure poets (some of which I will post later on), I ran across a copy I’d made of a chapter from A Mass for the Dead (Atheneum, 1968), an unusual memoir written by the award-winning playwright William Gibson. 

I read this unforgettable book in 2001, after reading thuderous praise for it written by James Mustich, Jr., the editor of a monthly mail order book catalog called The Common Reader.

I was one of many thousands of Mustich’s fans, and for as long as he published The Common Reader – from 1986 to 2008 – we devoured every precious issue for its alarmingly persuasive descriptions of books Mustich felt were little-known and underappreciated. Via his Akadine Press, Mutisch republished some of the books he had rescued from obscurity, and I was so taken with the copy of  A Mass for the Dead that I’d obtained from my branch library that I bought a copy of Mutish’s 1996 reprint. 

I don’t remember exactly when or why I chose to copy Chapter 26 of Gibson’s book, but I’m certainly glad I did. Perhaps your reading of this single, short chapter will garner Gibson’s haunting memor another appreciative reader?

 

“A Gift of Suns”

Grace be unto you and peace, children, gentle readers, myself or whomever it concerns, for it is not altogether clear to me which of us I am addressing in this long meditation of that which was from the beginning, nor does it matter.

That I address others who will not read I know by recalling the week in which I pledged it. In a tiny bedroom of my sister’s house, where my mother lay dying and I sat with the gates of my soul so strangely open, I was leafing through a book of common prayer when a line stopped my eye – “I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, From henceforth blessed are the dead, for they rest from their labors” – and I thought indeed I would write, but no such lie, her labors were the fiber and sustenance of my mother’s life, and she took a dim view of rest. Some weeks later, n my workroom with her mementoes and missal, I saw this verse was in fact the epistle in the mass for the dead, and certainly it is to the dead also that I write, whom it no longer concerns.

Born, labored, died, and interred now in a perpetual rest of which they know nothing, why on earth should I write blessed are the dead? That the extinction we must come to is the bitterest fact of our existence is no news; after the first espial of death some terror of it is in every brain like a fretful grain of sand, and around it man has created many pearls of wisdom, mostly false; one is that consciousness is an affliction. I have been lucky as my kin were, average citizens in a plentiful land, and in my remembering of that which was from the beginning, which I have heard, which I have seen with my eyes, I cannot put down that any of them begged to be delivered out of this vale of tears I think our history is worth the telling because it is so ordinary, and it contains no suicide; none of us but, like most men, took in every breath possible. Hemorrhaging and in pain for weeks, my father on his deathbed still wanted to live, and banged on a wall with his bleeding fist that he could not. My mother in her last house, impatient to quit a life wherein she could labor no more, murmured not a word to disaffirm her love of this world; I overheard her thanks for it the day after I read of the voice from heaven, and it was her phrase, so much wholer in acceptance, that impelled me to write. Seeing my parents dead in coffins, I could have thought them blessed only in that their flesh was incapable of my grief, which is no pearl except of pity for self.

The truth is our wisdom sets my teeth on edge. By everything I know, the death of the animal is fortuitous, meaningless, and total; insofar as man, a maker meanings, is at the utmost stretch of his talent to bestow upon his dying a purpose, I wish him luck in it.; but when each meaning he arrives at is used by him to multiply the deaths it consoles him for, I think I am living among lunatics Is the decomposition of the flesh hideous? It is a door to the light beyond, said the priests of infinite love, let us kill all who think otherwise. Is our life brief as the grass? We are immortal in the glory of the empire, said the bearers of every flag, let us die to plant it in another place. Saints, patriots, bards, which of them in the name of a greater life has not counselled us to kill and die? From the day I was born I was taught, against the yearning in my bowels for the sun, that I should consent to my death for the illusions believed of my elders; and in all the battlecries of the world, honor, order, liberty, valor, justice, duty, faith, I heard a baaing of sheep, as ignorant as I of what the sounds in their throats meant.

Children, I write this epistle to a punctuation of incendiary bombs my neighbors vote to let fall, as seeds of freedom, upon the heads of children no older than you. I am by trade a maker of fiction, but no word of mine is so counterfeit as the myths by which men who kill and die will ask you to live; the world is a windbag of pieties, that in each age blows multitudes like you into its graves, and weeps over them as blessed. Its touchstone of greatness is bloodletting, Saul hath slain his thousands and David his ten thousands, and no king or president is venerable in our thoughts but like the Judas goat has marched a people under the slaughtering hammer. And beneath the baaing of trumpets and dreams, faint, the only sound I hear as fact is the death rattle of each man.

That sound is my premise. I am the elder now, I tell you my wisdom, not one of the dead is blessed; consciousness is all. I am of course less epochal of mind than the statesman, who in eulogy of the corpses that have served their purpose, his, is confident none has died in vain, well done, thou good and faithful servants; a dish I think fit for the devil is the tongue of every man who asks the power of life and death over others. I speak as that ignoble, small-minded, disaffected citizen, servant and master only of his trade, I mean the artist, joyous and haunted by time, who, making of his spittle a shape, a soul, a voice to survive, wants no interruptions by history or its heroes. Selfish and harmless, in love with my life, I tell you no more than what everyone knows, and is ashamed to live by. Consciousness is all, the sun is born in and ends in your skull; the struck match of self in our skull is all.

So much is simple. It may be pinched out in an hour, therefore, burn in this hour; it may persist a half-century, therefore, burn wisely in this hour; but burn. Yet to make of each day an end and a beginning is not simple, and what is self? I have other selves of me, flesh of my flesh, whatever I believe in is of me, and much of a man is outside his skin; men not fools will die for a fools light as their own. Then burn, believe, die, but, children, I beg you, not for the lies of statesmen, and I think it better to hide and live.

I learned these things at the deathbed of my father, between two wars; on the wall hung a poem with a pasted snapshot of his young brother’s head, blown apart in the war that began in the year of my birth, and upon the night table sat a clock ticking, ticking the irrecoverable seconds away, and at his shrunken hand a portable radio bleated its news of a worldful of sheep who predictably would soon march under the hammer of another war; I did not intend to be in their ranks.. It is a most beautiful earth we inhabit, but not in the eyeholes of the dead. So a savior knew who two thousand years ago said, A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, and that night was betrayed. Are we less than lunatics who, aware we got into the grave at sundown, even in the failing light cannot love, but wrestle each other in? And when I remember what pains I took to hone this grievous and only jewel, my consciousness, I will not surrender it to any leader half in love with death, neither do I wear it in shame; nothing in his head is worth my life.

Daily I hear a whisper in me of the first and holiest commandment, Thou shalt not die.

Not in our time, but one day when there is silence in heaven about the space of half an hour, all the people will voice their right to live in a joyous shout, and the pillars come tumbling down. States, churches, armies, banks, schools, edifice upon edifice cemented in the blood of our bowing to the hammer, will lie in a rubble; the world will be born again as a comedy whose text is blessed are the living. In that day, great men who invite us to die for causes will charm the children as clowns in the parks, and cowardice will be in style, the ancientest virtue which preserves us, all manner of weakness be revered, and over every kindergarten door will be carved I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord. Not in our time, when that primal commandment is only a whisper, served yet deviously, and in dishonor.

Well, I too shall break it, in the end, and you. Till then, little children, keep yourselves from idols, greet ye one another with an holy kiss, and let us be neither goat not sheep, but lovers of the sun, which is no fool’s light.

In Praise of The New Yorker

new-yorker-cover

Two of the most enduring Excellent Things in my life are subscriptions to magazines that the postal service has been regularly depositing in my mailbox for almost thirty years. One of those subscriptions is for The New Yorker. (I will valorize  the other excellent magazine I subscribe to, The Sun, another time.)

Like many Americans who don’t happen to live in New York City, I have fantasized at one time or another about moving there – for all the obvious reasons that people who choose to live there are living there. I count myself fortunate to have lived there briefly – for the entire, magical summer of 1968 – and to have returned there since then for numerous always-too-brief visits. (It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since my most recent trip there.  Yikes! That’s partly because I no longer have any close friends living there; when Corky was alive and living in Manhattan, I visited a lot more often.)

Although the thought hadn’t occurred to me until recently, I’m think my longtime subscription to The New Yorker has been, among other things, a way of pretending that I have an ongoing – if merely an imaginative – connection with that amazing metropolis. (With other beloved cities – London, Paris, San Francisco – it’s mostly remembered experiences there, in addition to my reading, that keep alive my affection or nostalgia for them.) That said, the reasons I still look forward to every issue’s arrival have little to do with the magazine’s commentary on the city’s current cultural happenings.

Some of those reasons for my loving this remarkable magazine:

  • It provides a substantial weekly dose of what I regard as my continual (if informal and self-selected) education. It’s impossible to sit down with an issue of this magazine without learning something fascinating or deeply interesting – possibly learning something about a subject I didn’t know I cared a hoot about. Until, that is, I waded into one of the magazine’s famously lengthy articles and found myself (because of the excellent writing or the impressively- and engagingly-marshalled research) gradually more and more intrigued and, ultimately, enlightened.
  • The sheer scope of the subjects The New Yorker addresses is astonishing – and satisfying. Not at all confining itself to things of interest primarily to New York residents, everything, large and small, enduring or ephemeral, is fair game for The New Yorker. Where else would one stumble upon an essay (by the always excellent Ian Frazier) about the Statue of Liberty – or, rather, of the particular familiar color of that statue, and its intriguing history?
  • The magazines editors employ a mixture of different presentations: thoughtful editorial commentary on national as well as local events and personalities; essays on everything under the sun; interviews with or profiles of famous people – and of people whose adventures or accomplishments or predicaments should have made them more famous than they are; reviews of books on subjects or written by authors (many of them no longer living) that I happen to be particularly and permanently obsessed with; startling photographs.
  • Most of the magazine’s essays and profiles feature a recurring pattern. Almost always, you know the writer is going to draw you into his/her subject in an engaging, often witty, way, and then, usually about midway through, the writer is going to back up and give you a mini-history of whatever – or whoever – he or she is writing about before resuming his/her analysis of why this person, place, thing, event, trend, creative work or artist, or area of scientific or sociological research matters. New Yorker writers seem to be expected to give the reader background, a context, to better appreciate what he/she is writing about. I love this reliable feature of New Yorker articles. Some of which, by the way, are so much longer than what Americans are used to reading, but so much better than if they’d been edited to a shorter length.
  • It provides a weekly sampling of some of the best nonfiction writing, and some of the best researched journalism, and some of the most impressive criticism being published. Well, in the English language, anyway. (The magazine also famously produces some of the planet’s best-written fiction; although there are undoubtedly people who subscribe to the magazine precisely because of the excellence of its fiction, I am ashamed to admit that I seldom reads The New Yorker fiction myself, having long, long ago – and somewhat mysteriously – become a reader who continually chooses to focus his reading energies on nonfiction. I can report, however, that I have never regretted a single decision of mine to read one of the fiction entries.)
  • Some of my favorite essayists regularly contribute to (or are one the staff of) the magazine. I am always to happy whenever I open up an issue and find another amazingly-written screed by Adam Gopnik or Louis Menand or Ian Frazier or Jeffrey Toobin or Jill Lapore or Roger Angell or Thomas Mallon or Calvin Trillin or David Remnick.
  • The critical essays alone are worth the subscription price. The swoon-worthy literary essays of James Woods and Daniel Mendelsohn (to mention a mere two of the magazine’s frequently-appearing literary critics) are not to be missed. I’m too young to have enjoyed the movie reviews by the renowned Paulene Kael, but I hope her successor at The New Yorker, Anthony Lane, outlives me, so that I’ll never be deprived of his amazingly insightful (and witty) movie reviews, or Hilton Als’s theater reviews, Alex Ross’s music reviews,  Peter Schjeldahl’s art and architecture reviews. I haven’t owned a functioning television set since the late 1980s, but sometimes the incredibly insightful (and witty) television show reviews of Emily Nussbaum make me wonder if I shouldn’t start (selectively) watching tv again.
  • Reading The New Yorker feeds my respect for and gradually increasing knowledge about a whole train of writers whose work the magazine published in previous eras: not only certain beloved poets (although far too many of the poems published over the past thirty years have left me unmoved if not downright annoyed), but revered essayists like E.B. White and George Steiner, not to mention the humorists of the Algonquin Round Table. It was The New Yorker who first or eventually introduced me to some of the most brilliant prose stylists of all time, including personal favorites like William Maxwell,  Jacques Barzun and Gore Vidal. I can’t begin to list the number of writers of enduring importance to me whose work I first read (or read about) in The New Yorker. In other words, this magazine is largely responsible for keeping alive my feeling of kinship with  (and certainly my admiration for) the Life of the Mind in general, the Life of the Arts in particular, and even more particularly, connected in a virtual sort of way with the mostly-American and British literary writers that the magazine has published or covered (or both).
  • The cartoons! Does any magazine, anywhere, publish such excellent cartoons?

new-yorker-cartoon-example11032016_0000

Not to mention the satirical prose gems that regularly appear in the magazine’s “Shouts & Murmurs” feature, which regularly features such fiendishly hilarious writers as David Sedaris, Woody Allen, and Paul Rudnick.

  • The covers! Not only are they usually wonderful, but every time I see one (and often when I’m about to discard an issue), I’m reminded of something someone I knew back in the early 1980s did with her subscription to The New Yorker: she papered the walls of her very large bathroom, from top to bottom, with hundreds of old New Yorker covers! It looked great!

The fascinating history of this magazine, all by itself, is almost enough to make one want to subscribe!

Incidentally, just as I prefer to read printed (vs. screen-requiring) books, I love getting the print version of the magazine. Subscribers have free access to the magazine’s online version, which contains even more examples of good writing than the printed version has room for, but unfortunately I never developed the habit of visiting the website to discover these extra morsels of wonderfulness.

A final note. Because the magazine is published every week, and aside from the fact that with some issues I’m able to immediately sit down and devour in their entirety in a single sitting, I am usually several weeks, if not several months, behind in my getting around to reading them. But I know better than to throw out any of the not-quite-finished older issues, as there’s bound to be something in each of them – and probably more than a single thing in each of them – that I’d be sorry to have missed. So there are usually multiple partially or completely un-read issues stacked on my coffee table at home. There are just as many piled on my bedside table at the cabin. In my view, this procrastination-created predicament is A Good Problem to Have.

It is difficult to gauge the full extent to which The New Yorker enlivens my interior life, but it’s significant enough to have made it easy for me to decide, decades ago, that I would continue subscribing to The New Yorker for the rest of my (or its) life. Though certain issues pack a bigger punch that certain other ones, there’s never, in thirty years, been a dud issue, which is why my enthusiasm for this magazine and its incredible writers and editors has never flagged. My subscriptions to other magazines – The Atlantic, Harper’s, Mother Jones, The Smithsonian, Mother Earth News – have come and gone, but I couldn’t do without The New Yorker.

Or, for that matter, without The Sun, whose virtues –  so different from The New Yorker’s – I shall get around to extolling in due course.

Best-Ever Discussion of Death and Dying

Cover of April 2014 Sun MagazineThe Sun has come through yet again with a paradigm-shifting, life-changing chunk of exquisite prose.

The Sun’s April 2014 issue contains an interview entitled “The Long Goodbye: Katy Butler on How Modern Medicine Decreases Our Chance of a Good Death.”

Immediately following this amazing interview (conducted by Sam Mowe) is an equally impressive four-page excerpt from Butler’s book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death (Scribner, 2013).

This magazine’s introduction to the wisdom of the unusually sensible as well as unusually articulate Katy Butler is one of many, many, many reasons The Sun remains, year in and year out, my favorite magazine. (It always wins out in my periodically conducted thought experiment about which of my two favorite magazines – the other is The New Yorker – is my true favorite.) 

Like The New Yorker, I began subscribing to The Sun decades ago and eagerly await its arrival every month. The Sun is so consistently brave in the subjects it tackles and the quality of its innards is so consistently higher than anything else I read (in print or on the Intertubes) that I never stop fantasizing that eventually everyone I know and care about will begin subscribing also.

Katy ButlerBe that as it may, if there’s only one article you will force yourself to read about death and dying this year, let it be this one. Like me, you may end up making copies and sending it to your loved ones. (Or maybe even giving them a gift subscription to The Sun?)

Bloggers are repeatedly advised to include photos in every blogpost they write. Hence the photos of the magazine cover and of this month’s interviewee.

Immortality: Pros and Cons

hourglassAnyone who’s knows me well also knows that I have long advocated that people should talk more about death and dying – not the mechanics of death and dying, mind you, but the indisputable fact that each of us is mortal – and what (if anything) that means for each of us, both in a practical sense and from a spiritual perspective.

My interest in this subject remains undiminished despite the also indisputable fact that few people seem to agree with me about the desirability for more deliberately-embarked-upon mortality-centered conversations.

In any case, this morning I stumbled upon an interview posted to The Believer website that presents some unusual reflections on this question. I’m not familiar with Clemson University-based philosopher Todd May, but have now added his book Our Practices, Our Selves, or, What It Means to Be Human (2001) to my list of Books Cal Wants to Read. (A wonderful irony, that: one of the reasons I’ve sometimes imagined that I wanted to live forever is so I could read all the books on my ever-burgeoning reading list!)

Anyway, you might enjoy reading The Believer’s engaging interview with Todd May. (Which, incidentally, I found by clicking on a link of articles recently being highlighted by the ever-excellent Arts & Letters Daily.)

A Stroll With William James and Jacques Barzun

“There are books…which take rank in our life with parents and lovers and passionate experiences.” – Emerson

With both excitement and regret, tonight I finished reading the final pages of Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James (Harper & Row, 1983).

Excitement, because this is easily the finest book I have read in years…and I tend to read a lot of books, almost all of them fine to excellent. Excitement also, because reading it has strengthened my longstanding – but so far unrealized – resolve to seek out more books (ideally, all of them!) written by and about William James.

The Jameses and their circle have long seemed to me to be the closest American counterpart of England’s Bloomsbury Group – whose books (and books about) I have managed to read many of. For example, Henry James’ novels – so far unread by me, although I’ve read not one but two novels about him – have been hovering around the middle of my “Books to Read” for years, and I dimly remember being impressed by the breadth of  his brother William’s genius when I first heard of him, back in my introductory college psychology courses. And this very afternoon, what book did some kind (and apparently kindred!) soul donate to my library but The Death and Letters of Alice James?

Barzun died last year at age 104; my learning about his death (and the memory of having, with pleasure, at some distant point in the past read – yea, even purchased –  Barzun’s The Modern Researcher) was the trigger for my searching out this book of his. Actually, when I began my search for a Barzun book last fall, any of them would have done:  A Stroll merely happened to be the first one I got hold of. Talk about a lucky choice! Barzun  was a lifelong admirer of James’ accomplishments, and his affection for James radiates from every page of this remarkably humane, wide-ranging, and exquisitely written tribute.

My regret at having finished A Stroll has to do with my realizing that, at age 64, there’s simply not enough time for me to read everything written by or about William James. (For starters, I want to track down whatever remarks were recorded at or about his funeral, and to find and enjoy James’ collected letters.) Added to the too-many-books-too-little-time problem is the additional sad fact that there is also not sufficient time to read all the rest of Barzun’s books! (He wrote several dozen, and if A Stroll is exemplary of his extraordinarily engaging writing style, every last one of them would be well worth reading. )

What I can do, however, I will do, and immediately. I am ordering my own copy of A Stroll with William James, so I can read it again – and so I can methodically scrutinize the citiations in Barzun’s numerous and intriguing footnotes. Also, as a particular treat for myself, the first book I plan to read after I retire next month will be another Barzun tome, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (Harper, 2001)I look forward to enjoying every one of its undoubtedly riveting 912 pages.

Although, like most readers, I could make a list of my favorite writers, there have been only a few literary rabbit-holes I’ve fallen into over the course of my reading life. My first Great Overwhelmingment was my high school era obsession with Thomas Wolfe. Decades later came a fortuitous discovery of Lawrence Durell’s novels (and nonfiction), and, even later, a mania for collecting all of Frederick Buechner’s nonfiction works. Soon thereafter came the Era of Reading All Things Oscar Wilde, followed by (or was it preceded by?) my still-ongoing passion for the lives and works of the Bloomsberries.

My plans to – with some trepidation – immerse myself, post-retirement, in the novels of, first, Henry James, and then on to the imagined pinnacle of Proust will now have to wait a later turn. For now and for some time into the future, for Calvin’s reading it’s got to be more William James and/or Jacques Barzun. (Neither William nor Jacques wrote novels, although they are such fine prose stylists that they might have tried their hands at it: reading either of them is every bit as pleasurable as reading a well-wrought novel.)

Somehow I feel, with this rediscovery of both James (William, I mean) and Barzun, my reading life has taken an unexpected and radically enriching turn. The beliefs and values and writing styles of both these men somehow speak directly to so many of my longstanding personal preoccupations. Dismayed at how much more of their work I’ve yet to read, I feel immensely lucky that each of them wrote so much for me to read! Which reminds me of another bookish quotation:

“Literature can shake our lives to the core. Our life can turn around corners by simply reading words on a page….Literature remains the only medium that gets directly inside our interior life.” – John Barth