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Archive for the ‘The Monastery of Extensive Happiness’ Category

What A Strange Thing to be Alive Beneath Apple Blossoms

Thursday, March 21, 2013 @ 07:03 PM  posted by Mark

Evidence of Spring from around my bungalow. The title of the post is from a poem by Kobayashi Issa, altered slightly to fit my foliage:

“What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.”

Thanks, Little Bee!

A bee working on an Anna apple blossom.

The desert blooms are wild.

Snapdragons and stockflowers are blooming.

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Book Trailer for Give the Drummer Some!

Thursday, July 29, 2010 @ 01:07 PM  posted by Mark
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Official Website for Give the Drummer Some is live!

Saturday, July 24, 2010 @ 06:07 PM  posted by Mark

St. Louis from the Illinois side of the Mississippi River

The publisher’s website for Give the Drummer Some is live and full of features, funky songs and videos about soul music, St. Louis, the history of funk and the record industry. You can take virtual tours of Soulard (the neighborhood in downtown St. Louis where much of the book is set), East St. Louis and Brooklyn, Illinois. Because the novel takes place during winter and the snowy weather plays an important part in the story, it even snows all over the book’s website. Check it out!

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The Other Side of What

Saturday, July 24, 2010 @ 10:07 AM  posted by Mark

Shannon Yarbrough’s first novel The Other Side of What, a languid coming-of-age story with vivid characters and memorable descriptions of its Memphis setting, mimics the process of growing up that it describes, becoming more confident as its story progresses. Ultimately, though, like its narrator, it clings to a naivete that doesn’t quite allow it to mature.

The novel begins as the gay narrator Matthew moves from a small Tennessee backwater to Memphis, the metropolis of his youth, and his search for love in his new home forms the meat of the story. Through the course of several deftly described romantic relationships of increasing seriousness, Matthew maintains a personal detachment from his new friends and lovers, keeping key elements of his past and identity hidden—partly out of embarrassment about his hicks-in-the-sticks family and partly in an effort to shape his friends’ perceptions of his still-developing new persona. The Other Side of What explores the emotional impact of Matthew’s secrets, both on himself and the people around him, who all have secrets of their own. In Yarbrough’s story, the human heart is the ultimate secret, and the struggle to reveal the heart’s secrets is the whole meaning of human relationships. Though the content of the story is not religious, its structure follows a classic Original Sin thesis: we all have secrets because we’re human, and to the extent that we can unburden ourselves of those secrets and live honestly, we achieve redemption and become worthy of love.

The Other Side of What gains its strength from a combination of glibness and meditative reflection. The matter-of-fact debauchery of Matthew’s introduction to the Memphis gay scene, which is also his introduction to the Memphis drug scene, adds grit to Matthew’s otherwise ingenuous, naive and self-deprecating narration. The colorful characters he meets as he navigates and then rejects the drug sub-culture remain friends throughout, and a spitfire art dealer named Zoe befriends Matthew and becomes his confidant. Through sharp dialogue, Matthew’s relationships develop intimacy and snappy camaraderie, and the three intersecting secrets that weave together Mathew’s lover Seth, his brother Ethan, and his friends Jacob and Vance illustrate common, even archetypal tendencies that we all share and that subvert our attempts to fully trust each other.

However, the novel itself suffers from an inability to be completely honest with the reader, so that its story remains unredeemed and its narrator doesn’t fully earn our trust. This is especially true of the story’s climax, when the novel changes narrators suddenly and inexplicably, alienating the reader and casting doubt on much of what has come before. Specifically, the novel switches from reliable first-person to omniscient third-person to unreliable first-person back to reliable first-person narrators in the span of just a few pages at the story’s most critical point, betraying an unwillingness to face the implications of its own plot. This narrative waffling is the more unfortunate because of the charm of the narrator and story up until that point, and because of the potentially explosive conclusion that the story shies away from, involving a love triangle, buried family secrets and the kind of gothic horror found almost nowhere else but in Southern fiction.

Yarbrough’s descriptions of a snowy Memphis, his clever mistaken-identities plot, and his tender handling of the first blush of romance between Matthew and Seth are all admirable and recommend the novel, but these virtues are mixed with an ending that settles for the comic instead of exploring the deeper emotional complexities of its plot and that becomes confused in its execution as a result. A good first novel that points toward Yarbrough’s more mature later work, The Other Side of What still leaves the reader wanting more.

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Galleys of Give the Drummer Some Just Arrived!

Thursday, July 15, 2010 @ 03:07 PM  posted by Mark

Galley/review copies of my new novel Give the Drummer Some just arrived. We’re planning a release party in August when the novel becomes available for sale, and a tour in September and October!

Give the Drummer Some tells the story of Mouse Watkins, leader of the Bad Apples—the funkiest old school soul band in St. Louis. For twenty years, he’s been laying down smoking grooves, tasty rhythms and gutbucket funk in dance clubs up and down the Mississippi, always one break away from the Big Time. But Mouse is starting to wonder if his break will ever come.

Mouse’s best friend has disappeared with the Bad Apples’ last dollar, his tour van won’t start and a groupie stole his only warm coat at the band’s last show. Now, with no stomach for starting over (again) and a bleak winter on the horizon, Mouse washes up in East St. Louis, exactly where he started two decades ago. His dreams have come to nothing. Or have they?

Give the Drummer Some
is an odyssey into the heart of pop music and the soul of St. Louis, a book about the choices all artists, even great artists, have to make when the brilliant spotlight of stardom fails to shine on them.

I’ll announce details of the release party and tour when I know them. In the meantime, take a cue from the Godfather of Soul and Think (about the Funk!).

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How to Live on Nothing

Friday, February 19, 2010 @ 11:02 AM  posted by Mark

Since the collapse of the sub-prime market a year and a half ago, hand-wringing has become our nation’s most popular parlor game. The rules are simple: just watch the news and worry.

It’s still unclear if the government bailout of the banks, the economic stimulus package and the Fed‘s manipulation of interest rates have saved us from a worldwide collapse or merely forestalled an even worse downturn to come, and an extraordinary number of recent books, by eminent economists and armchair egomaniacs alike, have not settled the matter. What should we do when our nation’s economic prospects are uncertain and everything seems beyond our personal control?

Joan Ranson Shortney’s How to Live on Nothing offers hundreds of time-saving, cost-saving answers that bring economics back down to a personal scale. This guide, written in 1968, when “going green” went by the name “getting back to nature,” contains practical advice on everything from making healthy meals cheap, customizing vintage clothing, taking great vacations even when you’re broke and choosing doctors that make sense to your health and your budget. Because the book’s prices are in 1968 figures, the exact costs of furnishing your house on the cheap have to be recalculated, but the method of doing so is clever, sensible and still completely relevant (as are almost all of its tips and tidbits).

Most of the book’s charm comes from its gentle tone. As a time capsule from 1968, its analog attitudes contrast starkly with today’s digital disquiet, and it’s great fun to see how our approach to everyday living has changed in the last forty years and how it remains the same.

The great service of How to Live on Nothing, even beyond its countless nuggets of money-saving wisdom, is how matter-of-factly it humanizes the economy, giving you a sense of personal control—there are many things you can do right now to improve your life while saving cash—and Shortney advocates a philosophy that places time above money and family and friends above everything. As the Whole Earth Catalog said in its 1968 review, How to Live on Nothing could just as aptly be called Living for Something, and it reminds us that saving our sanity is as valuable as saving money, and the things we really care about retain their value even when the stock market doesn’t.

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Lust: What if Beauty is dumb and the Beast is just a beast?

Monday, February 15, 2010 @ 05:02 PM  posted by Mark

Now that Valentine’s Day is over and the best chocolates have long since disappeared from that heart-shaped box, let’s talk about the real heart of the matter, the secret we hide inside all of our flowery phrases and champagne dreams: Lust. Cambridge Philosophy Professor Simon Blackburn contributes this volume on life’s most guilty pleasure to Oxford University Press’s series on the Seven Deadly Sins, and, like the deliciously inviting urge that he examines, Blackburn leaves you momentarily satisfied and not so sure that what just happened was a good idea, but nevertheless craving more.

Lust is a slender, compact book, a sort of philosophical speed-date that introduces us to an extraordinary array of Western philosophers, who wrangle about the meaning of sex. Blackburn excels at pitting philosophers from different historical moments against each other in imaginary debates about the proper meaning and place of lust in morality and culture, and he can’t help cracking wise about the moral struggles of our ancestors, which he does in a knowing, even superior way. After all, it is difficult to take Kant’s notion that “marriage is a contract for each to use the other’s genitals” as the final word on marital ethics (even if you’re prepared to concede that that phrase might usefully be included in standard marriage vows).

Walter Crane's "Beauty and the Beast"

A priceless passage from Augustine’s City of God, in which sexual desire is compared to farting and the proper control of sexual desire is compared to musical farting, causes Blackburn much glee: “Such people can do some things with their bodies which are for others utterly impossible and well-nigh incredible when they are reported. Some can swallow an incredible number of articles and then with a slight contraction of the diaphragm can produce, as if out of a bag, any article they please, in perfect condition. A number of people produce at will such musical sounds from their behinds (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region.” Thus, the Will can control the natural functions of the body, just as you should be able to control your urge to sleep with that flirty, athletic, unshaven guy at your brother-in-law’s barbecue, or that new woman in accounting who wears the inexplicably alluring false eyelashes.

Blackburn’s lightning-fast tour of the nervous superhighway connecting our heads and hearts to our nether regions is over so quickly and is so enjoyable that it’s easy to forget that you didn’t fully appreciate all of the scenery as it whipped by. The author gives issues of marital fidelity short shrift, and he dismisses feminist arguments about the power of the objectifying gaze almost out of hand, but as a broad overview of historical attitudes about lust—ranging from Lucretius to Woody Allen, Schopenhauer to Barbara Herman, Plato to Proust—Lust is seductive and fun. But it returns you to the genuine article of lust with all the same doubts you had when you started.

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Romeo & Juliet Make an Omelet

Sunday, February 14, 2010 @ 11:02 AM  posted by Mark

The classical idea of romance is tragic—the lovers want something they really can’t have in this lifetime, and so someone must ultimately be sacrificed to the idea of love. Romance survives as an ideal precisely because it can never quite be realized in this imperfect world, where a collicky baby keeps Juliet up half the night and then Romeo prattles irritatingly at the breakfast table about the Veronese government. Imagine Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after, surrounded by a brood of yammering children, Romeo with a paunch and baggy eyes, Juliet with stretch marks. Their days are filled with the (possibly happy) tedium of everyday life, but happy or sad, the idea of eternal union was not what Shakespeare was going for—that’s not romance—it was the ideal of eternal longing.

Romance has a tough time in this modern world because of our many freedoms: we are free to marry or not, to sleep with our lovers or not, to divorce and remarry without censure, and no one really believes in immortal damnation for the soul who commits adultery or divorces or defies the will of the parents by eloping with someone from another kingdom. In our individual lives, the barriers to love that once inspired romance have disappeared, and without real obstacles, the ideal of romance simply does not apply. That’s why there are so many absurd, unbelievable obstacles thrown in the way of modern lovers, which make both their romance and their union ridiculous (How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, anyone?). But does the ideal of romance survive today?

Happily, yes.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is not, in its main concerns, a romance. It asserts the redemptive value of art in a world where not all mistakes can be confessed or forgiven. However, the romance around which the major action revolves is classically romantic with a modern twist—not only are the lovers sacrificed for the ideal of Love, their romance takes place only after the lovers are already dead. It’s an ingenious way for us to eat our cake and have it to: by displacing the romance with a metafictional device, McEwan creates a satisfying romance in the classical sense and uses it to make a statement about storytelling itself. One of the best novels of the aughts.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient features a straight up classical romance, with real obstacles of class, adultery, enmity and the lure of Impossible. The fact that it won the Booker Prize indicates how much we still long for the classical myth of Romance in our fictions and that, however self-aware and detached our modern attitude toward love, compared with earlier eras, we’re not beyond believing that our feelings are more important than life itself. The tragic sacrifice of the lovers in this novel return us to a conception of romance as ethereal, impossible and desirable.

Alain de Botton’s charming novel On Love is a prime example of what happens to romance in modern times. Witty and deft, the novel nevertheless replaces all the tragedy of classical Love with mathematical calculations, the exaltation of the everyday over transcendent passion, and the acknowledgment that any particular romance is just one in a string of romances that you will indulge and that will fail before you settle into marriage. A delightful book, with its share of surprise, discovery and romantic gestures, On Love captures the true-life experience of love for many of us moderns: engaging, essential but not transcendent. The One True Love has been replaced by the one you happen, by luck and effort, to work out all the details with. No lightning strikes or love potions here.

Finally, I would like to recommend the tale that started it all, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. Quite a few versions exist, with minor variations, but this is the Bedier version. It’s a medieval story, so it has a fairy tale ring to our modern ears, and it has everything you want in a romance: passion, longing, adultery, battles with giants, dangerous voyages and most of all, a love to die for. As the model for all romances that came after it, right down to The English Patient, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult is still the best tale of love you can find: quick-paced, moving and tragic, it will make you long for the days when everyone knew what romance was and knew how to make real romantic gestures.

On a personal note: though the story of romance has been degraded by modern freedoms, I would still say that it’s possible to use the old, tragic gestures to express true love. Today, Valentine’s Day, my wife and I will be attending a matinee of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, after which I will make her favorite dish for dinner, which we’ll eat by candlelight. Is that romantic??

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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During this Valentine’s Week survey of Romances, we’ve noticed that a lot of characters in literary romances kill themselves for love. So we’ve invited some of the most notable lover-suicides here today to discuss their choices, along with Lucy Moderatz, the main character of the 1995 film While You Were Sleeping, who does not kill herself for love but lives happily ever after. This discussion is open for anyone’s comments, but let’s begin by asking Emma Bovary, wife of a successful doctor in a quiet town—why? Why kill yourself?

Emma Bovary: Of course, my first thought was to kill Charles, but he’s so boring he probably wouldn’t have noticed, and then I’d still be stuck in that backwater Tostes with all that debt! Then I thought of killing Rodolphe, who wouldn’t give me any money—you’d think he’d owe me something, after what he did. Honestly, I thought of killing everyone—Leon, the priest, even the butcher—but I was really, really depressed at the time, and flat broke, so I just got tired of it all and took the arsenic. I mean, if Rodolphe had just eloped with me in the first place, like he said he would, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, so maybe you should ask Rodolphe why he killed me!

Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary

Lucy Moderatz: But why not just get a divorce, declare bankruptcy and move to Rouen? There must be lots of nice guys in Rouen.

Emma: Divorce? Not possible! Bankruptcy? And go to prison? This is 19th Century France, you nitwit!

Lucy: Hey!

Bookmarkzero: Anna, can you relate to Emma’s suicide? Were you motivated by the same concerns?

Anna Karenina: Of course, I can relate. When divorce is not possible, and you can’t express your true love—

Zero: But Anna, did you kill yourself because of Karenin’s refusal to grant a divorce, or because Vronsky was cheating on you?

Tatiana Samoilova as Anna Karenina.

Tatiana Samoilova as Anna Karenina.

Anna: First of all, there’s no proof that he actually was cheating on me. So there’s that. And it’s true, everything just got to be too much. I mean, even if I get a divorce, I’m out of society, and I’m done for. I couldn’t have gone to the balls or the races, I had no friends, and I obviously couldn’t hang around with peasants all day. It was horrible—if I had gotten the divorce and then Vronsky had left me, it would have been the end of me. I don’t know—I think the morphine was messing with my head, too, but I honestly didn’t see any way out.

Lucy: But what about your children, what about Seryozha and Annie? Didn’t you think of them?

Anna (stares at Lucy): Annie didn’t like me anyway, and Seryozha. . . well, obviously, I didn’t want things to work out like they did. I killed myself—I’m not proud of it!

Lucy: But why not just demand a divorce, get the alimony and take the kids to Moscow? You could get a job! What were you good at?

Anna (to moderator): Who is this bitch?

Zero: Let’s bring in Juliet Capulet, who killed herself at her dead lover’s side. Would you do it again, knowing what you know now?

Claire Danes as Juliet

Juliet: What do I know now? My one true love is still dead. What did I have to live for?

Emma: That totally makes sense to me. If Rodolphe had died in my arms, I would have killed myself, too.

Anna: Me, too. You go, Juliet!

Emma: Right, better to get it over with early. No offense, but if he had lived, Romeo would probably have turned into a jerk like every other man.

Juliet: What! Take that back, you fusty baggage!

Zero: All right, let’s keep this civil. Lucy, did you ever think of killing yourself for love?

Lucy: Well. . . (thinks). . . not really. I mean, it was sad that Peter was in that coma, and then when he woke up. . .and Jack found out about everything. I mean, I quit my job—does that count?

Anna (bewildered): Quit your job?

Emma: This bitch doesn’t know anything. She has a job, she can sleep with anybody she wants and nobody cares, she can have a kid by herself, get divorced and remarried and divorced. What the hell does she know about love?

Juliet: That’s right! My family would have slain me in an honor killing if I had slept with Romeo out of wedlock, and then they would have killed Romeo and half his family. Marriage and sex and fidelity obviously mean nothing to you!

Lucy: Hey, that’s not fair. All I ever wanted was to be married.

Sandra Bullock as Lucy Moderatz

Anna: Sure, but you have choices. You can vote. You can sleep with that guy down the hall and who cares? No one ostracizes you from society, if a peasant like you could be said to have a society.

Lucy: You know, just because you lived in different times, that doesn’t give you a right to judge my feelings. I feel just as deeply about love as all of you did.

Juliet: Oh yeah?  (withdraws a dagger from her skirts and offers it to Lucy) Prove it.

Emma: Yeah, prove it.

Lucy (recoils): But I’m not going to kill myself. I’m happily married.

Emma (to moderator): Why did you invite her? What does she know about anything? (turns to Juliet) Give me that dagger!

Lucy: I’m getting out of here! (jumps up and runs away, followed closely by Emma, Anna and Juliet)

Zero: I guess we’ll have to resume this discussion at another time. Until then, let me leave you with this final question: Would you kill yourself for love?

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Does Romance lead to Marriage? Turgenev’s Spring Torrents

Thursday, February 11, 2010 @ 01:02 PM  posted by Mark

Several of you took issue with my Valentine’s Week post about Pride and Prejudice, saying that I was unjustly dismissive of Austen only because the romances in P&P lead to happy marriages. Isn’t that where romance is supposed to lead, to a happy marriage? What’s wrong with a happy ending?

There’s nothing wrong with happy endings. Personally, I like happy endings. But Romance does not lead to happy marriages (at least, not in literature), and if you see a happy ending, you’ll know that something other than true Romance is really happening.

Romance in literature is, by its very nature, against marriage. In fact, even the “romantic” stories that end happily in marriage end with the wedding: these “happy ending” novels and plays and movies have no interest whatsoever in the married couple or their happiness, since there is no drama in marriage, no ideal of longing—all these stories care about is the obstacles to love. The happy ending wedding brings characters who have been in defiance of community morals back into line with accepted codes. We don’t go to romances for happy endings, because that’s not what they’re designed to deliver: we go to romances because we want rapturous longing that doesn’t care about society’s rules, the superiority of noble feelings to everyday morality, and the exaltation of the individual over the community. When they end happily in marriage, these stories reaffirm a basic covenant that they’ve spent their entire length contradicting.

Nastassja Kinski played Polozova in a 1989 film of Spring Torrents.

Great romances always make their protagonists contend against arranged or loveless marriages, hypocrisy, duty and necessity; they are in favor of a transcendent emotion that cannot be contained by society. When a great romance ends in marriage, the great romance itself ends and the lovers are absorbed back into society; when a great romance ends in death or exile, the great romance lives on past the lives of the lovers, as a grand, swooning ideal of love superior to the mere laws of the community (or physics). In the story of Romance, the lovers must die so that Romance itself can live.

Ivan Turgenev‘s curious little novel Spring Torrents is an excellent example of the great love that refuses to end in marriage. It’s especially telling that there are no good reasons in the story of the novel for the protagonists not to have a happy ending—the main character, Sanin, simply chooses not to marry his beloved. This choice is represented as an unhappy one, made seemingly against his will, but in fact he must choose not to marry his beloved in order to prolong his romantic feelings for her and not ruin them with the less dramatic comforts of marriage.

As Jane Austen captures the plight of middle class Englishwomen with wit and clarity, Turgenev describes the stranger in a strange land with insight and sympathy. The protagonist of Spring Torrents is Sanin, a minor Russian aristocrat traveling abroad for the first time, having adventures and falling in love. (Here‘s a clip of Timothy Hutton as Sanin in the 1989 film, doing a Russian mating dance for Gemma). Through a series of mishaps, he is stranded temporarily in Frankfurt, where he falls in love with Gemma, a clerk in her family’s pastry shop. Gemma is already engaged to another man, Herr Kluber, but Sanin falls instantly in love with her, anyway (why not?). In the course of events, Sanin saves Gemma’s brother’s life; and, more importantly, when a soldier insults Gemma, Sanin defends her honor when her fiance will not. Eventually, Gemma rejects Herr Kluber and agrees to marry Sanin. Sanin is overjoyed, the family is happy, Gemma is happy: cue music, roll credits.

Not so fast! Jane Austen might have Sanin marry Gemma, now that the obstacles to their love have been examined and exorcised, but Turgenev is not interested in affirming the basic structure of marriage or society’s rules. He’s so interested in keeping his Romance between Gemma and Sanin alive that he subverts it with a ruinous, unmotivated, even cruel plot twist. In order to pay for the wedding, Sanin agrees to sell some land in Russia to an aristocratic Russian woman, Polozova, who is sojourning in a nearby town. While away from Gemma transacting this business, he has an affair with the woman (who is married!), and then he abandons Gemma and follows Poozova and her husband to Paris. There, he is tormented by both Polozova and his love for Gemma and ultimately returns to Petersburg a broken man. In a coda, we learn that Sanin loved Gemma for the rest of his life; in his old age, he travels back to Frankfurt to find her and learns that she is happily married. Gemma forgives him for abandoning her.

If we didn’t understand that Romance is about eternal longing rather than happy marriage, the plot of Spring Torrents would be incoherent. As an instance of Romance, though, it’s perfectly realized. Sanin himself doesn’t even understand why he chooses to undermine his great love for Gemma, but we as readers know it is because, in the myth of Romance, great love is always opposed to marriage. Sanin chooses to desperately desire Gemma forever rather than have her because by doing so he may pine for an ideal that is always alive in his heart rather than live in an untranscendent reality.

Despite the fact that I’ve just spilled the plot to Spring Torrents, I would still recommend it, because, like all great literature, its value is not in its plot, and there is one sublime extended scene near the end of the book that will stay with you long after you finish reading this slender volume.

Romance is an ideal of passionate desire. Marriage is a reality of devotion. Romance places the lover’s own satisfaction above everything—God, family, law. Marriage places the partner’s well-being above one’s own. Are these two kinds of love mutually exclusive? Maybe not in life, but in literature?

If you know a passionate novel of romance whose main couple is already married to each other at the beginning and stays together through the end, please let me know.

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