2AM Thoughts by Makenzie Campbell | Goodreads Review

2am Thoughts2am Thoughts by Makenzie Campbell

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The experiment of the poem is compressing the emotional arch of a failed relationship into the course of an entire day. Each stanza is time stamped as the day progresses. As a thought experiment, this frame has a lot of potential but is poorly executed here.

Maximum schmaltz. Cringy, teen-age angst stuff. Self-abrogation in favor of some nameless, faceless idealized love interest. I kept hoping there would be a turn toward self-awareness and deeper layers of meaning would be exposed. I kept hoping the poem would actually be a clever address to a younger self. Alas, no. The pronouns don’t work out in that direction. The surface is all you get.

I read it through because curious but not engaged. Do not recommend.

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Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood | Goodreads Review

Lady OracleLady Oracle by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Permission to burrow deep into the messy, chaotic, wonderful lives of other people is one of the big magics of great stories. This isn’t escape exactly because their lives are often more chaotic, messy and dangerous than our own, and yet, at the end we wake up feeling as if we have been given the gift of a second, third or fourth life.

Lady Oracle is such a story. Atwood gives a loose, jangling coming of age story in which the narrator, Joan, learns the tightrope walk of expectations from her overbearing mother, her aloof father, her mercurial husband and mass culture at large.

Joan is at constant war with her own body and struggles to own her creative gifts. There’s schoolyard bullying, lurking perverts, gothic romance, political satire and, nearly, a minor act of international terrorism.

I fell in love with Joan, just a little, which maybe tells you more about me than the story. Lady Oracle is a robust, funny story bursting with the vibrant wordplay for which Atwood is known.

Read it. You may fall in love with Joan as well.

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Surfacing by Margaret Atwood | Goodreads Review

SurfacingSurfacing by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An unsettling, deceptively simple story about an unnamed narrator’s return to her childhood home in the Canadian woods and her growing desire to disappear into wildness, a desire which ultimately claims her or, more accurately, a desire she ultimately claims. Driven by a simple plot, my enjoyment of this novel came mostly from Atwood’s ability to slowly layer the tension and render the familiar unfamiliar. The narrator yearns to escape the sexual politics and unfulfilling materialism that is her everyday life. The traumas of her young life only gradually rise to the surface. The punch of this novel comes late as the narrator makes her final brutal decision and embraces the awful logic her own wildness brings.

Written in first person present tense, revelations arrive with almost hallucinatory grace. Surfacing is Atwood’s second published novel. It is very much an early novel written by an accomplished poet. A simple, spare frame draped with the fresh, succinct perception only powerful, honest poetry can provide. I recommend Surfacing for those already familiar with and curious about Atwood’s artistic gifts, but I would not recommend Surfacing as an introduction to Atwood’s work.

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Negotiating with the Dead | Goodreads Review

Negotiating with the DeadNegotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am reader who writes. I am on a journey to becoming a writer who reads. As such, I adore books about reading and writing. Most disappoint. Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing does not disappoint.

Adapted from a series of lectures, Atwood offers a philosophical exploration of writing that is both insightful and practical. There are no tricks or gimmicks. Atwood reflects on what is happening when writer is writing without getting cute or wandering into the weeds.

Negotiating with the Dead looks at a writer’s sense of self; the divided nature of writer as both observer and participant; the question of writing as commerce or art; the artifice of the author’s persona; the weird relationship between writer, reader and book; and finally, the work of going down into the dark to bring up useful insights.

My borrowed copy of this book is a porcupine of tape flags — so many vibrant, useful quotes to capture and keep. This is my favorite:

“As for writing, most people secretly believe they themselves have a book in them, which they would write if they could only find the time. And there’s some truth to this notion. A lot of people do have a book in them — that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same as ‘being a writer.’

“Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence.”

I’ve been digging holes in the cemetery for more than 35 years. This book helps me understand what it takes to become a grave-digger.

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Rilke: Selected Poems | Goodreads Review

Rilke: Selected PoemsRilke: Selected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Having adored Letters to a Young Poet, I reached for this slim volume wanting to be well-introduced to Rilke’s poems. This collection did not connect for me. There are moments in a few of the poems that grabbed me (“Autumn”; “The Panther”; “Faded”; “Piano Practice”; and “The Child”), but I found most to be indecipherable.

MacIntyre’s introductory essay and closing notes are dull and impenetrably obscure. I don’t read German but can’t help wondering if Rilke’s poems would connect with me more in a different translation or, also possible, if German Romanticism just isn’t my thing. I will be interested to read these five poems in different translations to find out.

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Nineteen Eighty-Four | Goodreads Review

Nineteen Eighty-FourNineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four as a sophomore in high school. I understood the novel then as political allegory, a dystopian fantasy of a possible, but unlikely, future. Like many Cold War kids, Oceania seemed to me an alternative future West fallen into the authoritarian trap of the Soviet Union and Communist China. I understood that Orwell wasn’t making a hard prediction about my imminent future. I was ten years old in 1984. None of that stuff had actually happened.

I recently reread Nineteen Eighty-Four expecting to be newly terrified by the prescience of Orwell’s warnings. I was. Big Brother’s authoritarian regime maintains power through a combination of surveillance technologies, willfully impoverished discourse, an infinitely malleable sense of the historical record and a collective surrender of belief in historical truth.

I reread the book thinking the surveillance situation is much worse. Winston has to navigate the omnipresence of bidirectional telescreens on every wall. We carry our own personal surveillance machines in our pockets and dutifully report through the day via social media. The day after I finished reading, I saw my first ad for Facebook’s Portal, which has Muppets happily chatting away through the convenience of smart televisions converted into living room telescreens. Add Siri and Alexa. What can go wrong?

Orwell might not have imagined emoji culture, the gradual transformation of written language into a hieroglyphic soup of images and gifs. If you can’t find a suitable GIF to express a reaction to the news of the day, is your reaction really worth expressing? The Ministry of Truth might admire the efficiency with which we are thinning the dictionary for ourselves.

Finally: history, which deserves its own essay. Impossible to ignore the constant stream of news releases and press statements issuing from the White House saying the President didn’t actually say the thing we all just heard him say. And the ever shifting sand of which countries are allies and which enemies. It is enough to know that we have always been at war and will always be at war. The details of how we are fighting and why change quickly. Who can keep up?

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book written to unsettle. It does. Most unsettling, in my latest read is the ease with which people adapt to the new situation. Winston grew up in times like our own. He remembers different rules, different norms. He remembers he had a mother who loved him and a sister. He just can’t quite remember what happened to them. Society under Big Brother is a society organized to forget, to be mollified and directed. The privileged adapt most quickly because they have the most to gain.

And so, rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2019, I am thinking less about surveillance tech and government misinformation campaigns and perpetual war. I am thinking about the Two Minute Hate, that purging parade of raw emotion that unites everyone in a blind, patriotic fever. The enemy changes during the rally and no one notices. No one cares. The core values we carry as baseline assumptions for how democratic society operates — social and family bonds, rule of law, civil discourse, the value of dissent — are lost in the span of one generation. It takes one generation raised with new rules, new norms and new language, to create a generation incapable of the habits of thought that make democracy possible. They haven’t actively rejected democratic society. They can no longer imagine it.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is worth a read if you haven’t read it recently. The first half is a little bit of slog. The second half is the stuff of nightmares. Read to be disturbed. Read to become distrustful. Not only of government but distrustful of ourselves.

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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood | Goodreads Review

The TestamentsThe Testaments by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A worthy successor to The Handmaid’s Tale. Before reading, I had assumed The Testaments would be a thin, exploitive cash grab designed to capitalize on the current popularity of the Hulu series and the dystopian zeitgeist. I was wrong. The Testaments is an unusual sequel in that it adds moral complexity and texture to the original work while standing proudly on its own. You don’t have to read The Handmaid’s Tale to enjoy The Testaments, but you definitely should.

The Testaments is essentially a caper story told from three perspectives, giving nuance to the way the reader understands Gilead. The novel also places Gilead into an international context, which was something I found myself wanting in the original story.

I waved my way through an occasional minor plot hole and, as with The Handmaid’s Tale, the story ends a bit too abruptly. These are minor gripes. The Testaments satisfies.

Atwood’s ability to tell big, philosophically challenging stories through the closely observed private lives of authentic characters is inspiring. Atwood never sacrifices the personal to reach the universal.
This sequel is as good as the first.

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A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama by Michael D’Antonio (Goodreads Review)

A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack ObamaA Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama by Michael D’Antonio

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A rather dull recitation of President Obama’s accomplishments. I had hoped to find an honest, searching, complex portrait of a person and president I admire very much. What I got instead was straightforward reporting of Obama’s handling of the recession; health care; energy policy; environmental policy; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; education; finance reform; same-sex marriage and race. Reads like 265 pages of newsprint. Illuminating if you have been a coma since 2008 and wanted to catch up on what you missed. The author offers a few insights into the complexity of Obama’s strategies and his ability to work many layers of complex, interrelated problems simultaneously.

The author is at his best when critiquing Obama’s shortcomings because he is able to do so with respect and admiration. Unfortunately, those sections come at the end and are far too spare. Not enough is made of the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes and civilian casualties. Massive violations of privacy and domestic surveillance are shrugged off in a few paragraphs.

The book reads as a first plea for history to regard the Obama years generously. I think history will be kind to Barack Obama but reading this in 2019 is dispiriting. Watching many of Obama’s accomplishments thoughtlessly attacked and dismantled by stupid, mean and venal people, I rather wish the author had found an adjective more descriptive than “consequential” to describe Obama’s contributions. It is probably too soon to know what the right word will be. The version of this book written after the end of 45’s term will be clearer. The 46th President will have a lot of repair to do but will find a template for success in the legacy of Barack Obama.

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More Thoughts on Chekhov as the Father of Flash Fiction

Yesterday, it seems I made too much of the difficulty of reading Anton Chekhov, too much of the opacity of his text, too much of his Russianess. I called him the father of flash fiction. That’s a statement worth explaining.

First, I should say that I love writing flash fiction but don’t alway love reading it. In the wrong hands, perhaps my own hands, flash fiction can feel lazy, an abbreviated form of story telling for the internet age where everything connects to everything and so nothing really ever stands entirely on its own. Flash fiction is often heavy on the flash and sparing on the fiction. There is a temptation to catch characters in the middle of doing something interesting without the need to define or understand how what they are doing affects or changes them. It is easy to introduce a quick character, punch the reader in the stomach with some powerful detail or twist and then take your leave. If the reader is aching from the well-placed punch, you must have told an impactful story.

Successful flash fiction should haunt a reader. The quickness of action, the spareness and specificity of detail should unsettle the reader and leave them wanting to glimpse a bit more. Successful flash fiction is like haiku. It should guide a reader through a specific, concrete physical reality, bring them to the edge of epiphany and then push them over with both hands. The reader of flash fiction, like the reader of haiku, tumbles headlong into a realization that is not contained or expressed in the story. It is a realization or understanding that does not belong to the writer.

This, it seems, is the mystery and wonder of Chekhov. I don’t understand most of his stories, but I don’t understand them in the way I don’t understand haiku or a zen koan. I know there’s something there. I just cannot always apprehend it. Most of this has to do with narrative choice. Chekhov explores moments that other writers tend to ignore. My favorite, and most accessible, of Chekhov’s stories is “The Lady with the Dog” in which he tells of an adulterous affair. At its center, a young married woman takes a vacation without her husband and meets an older, womanizing rake. His predatory nature draws him to the mysterious woman on the beach, the lady with the dog. He approaches her for conquest, but, quite accidentally, falls in love.

In other hands, the story would be a tawdry account of passions whetted and cooled, followed by the inevitable weighing of moral and ethical cost. Their impermissible love would set a trap and the story would be the trap closing, ensnaring them in its crushing, moral jaws. Instead, Chekhov offers the story of a man who wakes up to his own life and finds the simplest pleasures and joys offer complication and challenge. Their joy and sorry are not the price or reward. Their joy and sorry are just life. Nothing really special after all.

Spoiler alert. We leave the lovers with nothing resolved but a deep recognition that they will forever complicate one another’s lives. The last sentence: “And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they still had a long, long road before them, and that the most difficult part of it was only just beginning.” (337)

That’s it. The end. Do they escape their not unhappy lives and make a different life together? Are their families destroyed? Are they rewarded or punished? Do they live happily ever after?

Don’t know. Don’t care.

I am haunted. The story cannot resolve and so, in a weird way, the story becomes a thing that belongs to me. My insight. My understanding. It is a narrative leap, not toward a moral lesson, but an imagined next thing.

This is a thing Chekhov does remarkably well. I stand by my original thoughts that Chekhov is difficult, opaque and very Russian. I also stand by Francine Prose’s assertion that Chekhov is writer for writers to read.

Haiku. Zen koan. Flash fiction. You should probably read Chekov.

Source text: Chekhov, Anton. “The Essential Tales of Chekhov.” Richard Ford, ed. Constance Garnett, trans. Ecco Press: New Jersey. 1998. [Find it in a library]

Essential Tales of Chekhov | Goodreads Review

The Essential Tales of ChekhovThe Essential Tales of Chekhov by Anton Chekhov

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finally read Chekhov because Francine Prose said I should. In her excellent Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, Prose venerates Chekhov as the writer’s writer, the master of human emotion, keen observation and the devastatingly well-placed detail.

Prose offers Chekhov as a writer of superhuman intellect and heart. She writes, ““By the time Chekhov died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-four, he had written, in addition to his plays, approximately six hundred short stories. He was also a medical doctor. He supervised the construction of clinics and schools, he was active in the Moscow Art Theatre, he married the famous actress Olga Knipper, he visited the infamous prison on Sakhalin Island and wrote a book about that.” (Prose 243) I happen to be 44 and suddenly feel like a slacker. I had to take a look.

Prose devotes an entire chapter to “Learning from Chekhov”. From Chekhov’s letters, “You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.” (Prose 245) I was intrigued by the proposition that writers shouldn’t aim to solve problems but only ensure that the problem is properly stated.

And then this from Chekhov’s letters, “It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything.” (Prose 246)

Yes.

Having read Prose, I understood that I was supposed to love Chekhov and love him deeply. I picked up The Essential Tales of Chekhov (Richard Ford, editor) thinking myself ready to love. The actual experience was something else. Not love. Remote admiration, perhaps. Confused esteem. Chekhov, it turns out, is very Russian. He writes about thoughts and feelings so fine, so nuanced and mature that I revert to a confused, naive youngster. After all, I’m only 44. What’s this story about? Love. Passion. Disappointment. And also something more. It is the something more I could not grasp.

There are, to be sure, clear moments of brilliance. There are many more moments that sail entirely over my head. I’m not grown up enough, or cultured enough or, perhaps, Russian enough.

Chekhov had always been presented to me as the master of showing not telling, but in the stories I read he tells more often than shows. The fascinating thing about Chekhov is where he starts and stops his stories. He does not begin with catastrophe and he does not end with resolution. The beginning and end are more ambiguous. We meet characters in the middle of their situations and leave them before they understand their situations for themselves.

Chekhov, to me, seems the forefather of flash fiction. Stories told quickly in a rush that isn’t actual impatience but an attention to weird, unexpected detail that alludes to bigger truths off-page.

You can, it turns out, appreciate Chekhov without exactly loving him. If you get the chance to read for yourself, I recommend “Hush!”, “An Anonymous Story” and “The Lady with the Dog”.

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