Robert Stone

I’m re-reading Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise, his third novel published in 1981. (A Brooklyn native, Stone died January 10 in Key West.) Much is made of his characters. They are a lunatic fringe for the most part, etc. but engaging. (See Emily Langer’s piece in the Washington Post–

Having re-read A Farewell to Arms recently, Stone’s Hemingway lineage is remarkably clear and strong. Stone has many of Hemingway’s gifts for dialogue and writing about moral dilemmas. But his language goes beyond Hemingway in its sophistication, more to the Joyce side of the family emotionally. He’s also a great journalist of the landscapes that do a whole lot more than frame his stories. Here’s an example of the whole package from A Flag for Sunrise. Holliwell is an American professor here taking a side trip from a speech in a neighboring country to Somoza’s Nicaragua (page 157-158 in the Knopf hard cover). Stone’s alias for Nicaragua is Tecan.

“They drove on in silence over the dusty plateau. The coastward volcano was abreast of them, a second, larger rose ahead. To Holliwell, they seemed freakish mountains; only malignant gods could inhabit or inform them. They rose solitary out of featureless tableland, bare, without harmony, unbeautiful enough to appear exactly what they were–burst excrescences on Tecan’s pocked dusty hide. A geology lesson, he thought. They communicated a troubling sense of the earth as nothing more than itself, of blind force and mortality. As mindlessly refuting of hope as a skull and bones. The landscape was a memento mori, the view ahead like a dead ocean floor.”

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Writing about War

Michiko Kakutani has written an excellent piece in the December 26 New York Times on the novels, stories, and journalism written by Americans about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a good overview that also relates current writing to what came out of Vietnam and the “tradition” of war literature. This essay is fertile ground for suggesting other books and also for understanding some of the new issues these writers and all Americans lived and are living through because of our involvement in war pretty much since the country was founded, pretty much since the human race was founded. Continue reading

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Dave Douglas

The 2014 Earshot Jazz Festival concert at Town Hall in Seattle with Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano, and Sound Prints is still ringing in my ears as I listen to a 2008 Dave Douglas CD I got at the library, Spirit Moves. As is often the case with Douglas, interesting collection of players: trumpet, french horn, trombone, tuba, and drums. Tuba is a unique bass instrument and it brings a New Orleans feel to some of this music. In fact it’s easy to imagine this band marching down a street and drawing a crowd. But there’s more to it than that. Douglas pays tribute to Lester Bowie on a couple of tunes. In the liner notes he mentions that he heard Bowie while still in high school. It’s a little bit of a cutting session in some ways, though the best parts of the album (as Douglas advocates in the liner notes) occur when the whole group is involved.


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Genre Irrelevance

Science fiction and literary fiction. Ok, I accept the terms. They are realms of marketing mostly unless you’re locked into a limited spectrum of the imagination. Case in point, Margaret Atwood. She seems to have succeeded to some degree in encouraging people to ignore borders in favor of a sort of fiction that just has its own life no matter what can the critics want to can it in. Of course genre is a ladder to nowhere. No matter what people call you, any writer’s talent with words and storytelling is more important than genre. It’s like an internet ad: “What the publishers don’t want you to know.” They don’t want you to know that genre is low on the list as a descriptor of a given novel’s style, import, or genius. It sells books by trying to build, some might say manipulate, an audience.

This is a good thing in many ways. People who read science fiction have developed networks and conventions. Connections between readers, writers, critics have a certain neighborhood feel to them. We’re all in this together. And the thinking is pretty high level, on the fringe of science like a huge ring, giving rise to magnificent stories told with sense of the history of the genre and a totally daft, totally creative approach to the universe we live in. That’s right folks, you don’t just live in New Jersey, you also live in the Solar System in a galaxy in a universe with a history of it’s own, possibly many parallel histories. Continue reading

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ebooks: introduction (draft)

(This is a draft or first part of a longer essay. If you have comments, please comment.)


When you think about the history (and possible future) of technology, usually you assume that newer technology replaces older technology. The automobile replaces the horse and carriage (or walking). The telephone replaces the telegraph. The light bulb replaces the gas lamp. The tractor and eventually a universe of farm equipment replaces the plough. The word processor replaces the typewriter. The diesel locomotive replaces the coal-powered locomotive. The jet replaces the prop plane. The cell phone replaces the land line. CD’s and CD players replace vinyl and record players (and cassette tapes as well), in turn replaced by digital music players and headphones. Black and white silent movies (and TV) are replaced by color and stereo audio. The musket is replaced by the AK-47. The canon is replaced by artillery, then missiles. The cathode ray tube television is replaced by LCD’s and LED’s. The dot matrix printer is replaced by the ink jet and the laser printer. Typesetting machines are replaced by computer typesetting. Paper accounting journals are replaced by computers and computer software. Push lawnmowers are replaced by electric and gas-powered mowers. Plastic replaces cash. Indoor toilets replace the outhouse. Digital cameras replace film cameras. Email replaces letters. And this just barely scratches the Gorilla glass.

Most of these changes are decisive, some happening in the last twenty years, some the last hundred years, which is crazy when you think about it. The printing press, manufacturing in the early Industrial Revolution, scientific advances, cultural advances—consider the clock, the map, the invasion of the rest of the World by Europeans, and all that. These were momentous developments in human history. Mt. Everest’s it seemed.

But it’s possibly true that the last hundred years (since the beginning of World War I) spans the most significant technological surge in human history bar none (especially in developed nations, but worldwide really). Some of these advances happen quickly, over a decade, some evolve with remnants of the older technology surviving still (like vinyl, film cameras, push mowers, artillery). But where does the evolution of book technology fit into this maelstrom of shifts? Is the ebook another new technology that will replace the old with a few vestigial remains throbbing politely in the shadows? I don’t really think so, though instead of black and white it would be good to think in color on this question, which allows subtle shading even on crude devices.

If the book is going to be replaced by the ebook, if that does occur, the transition will happen over the next hundred years, not the next decade or even longer that the media would lead you to believe. The recent Economist prediction that the U.S. market would be a one hundred percent ebook culture by 2018 is ludicrous! There is a lot of inexplicable punditry and a history of same on this subject which muddies the waters instead of making them run clear. (It’s almost worse than the political punditry, but not quite.) At a publishing conference in New York a six years ago I came upon a booth signed with a banner “Print is Dead.” Actually I think it was the name of this guy’s blog. Book publishers, bookstores, book distributors, authors, and editors all are living in a different world than they did a decade ago. That much is clear. But newspapers and magazines, contrary to what you hear if you listen to the pundits, have embraced digital content, way beyond what book publishers have done. NYTImes app on the iPad, Seattle Times app on Win8. Of course they’re banking on the notion that aggregators will not swallow them like alligators. The battle is still in play but I don’t really think news feeds will be news a few years down the road when magazine and newspaper publishers start to offer mobile-ready, responsive content, more streaming video, and the television news stations turn out to be the big loser.

Pure speculation of course, pure Punde, I sorry, but book publishers it goes without saying have not in fact been innovative or even beyond peripherally interested in the swirl of new tech for the most part. I think they’ve seen it as an operating expense when it’s obviously an important shift in the media they call home. They’ve herded their authors into Amazon, Nook, and iBooks corrals for the most part, which is fine, but what they’ve failed to do is push the reading platform beyond typographically abhorrent text on Las Vegas billboard devices (all LCD ereaders) or used the same abhorrent typography without the flashing lights (all e-ink ereaders). This is all we get to replace the paperback (an underrated technology)?

A cloud of mosquitoes will now descend upon this text (in the Biblical sense) buzzing “But look at the numbers on ebooks and ereaders in the last five years!” From a minority, mainly Amazon and Apple and their supporters, you might justifiably also hear about the scenic landscapes of Kindle and iBooks. My wife and I both use Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite which has taken over the ebook market for a much smaller market niche much as the iPad is currently the best tablet. My wife loves her Kindle and her iPad. She reads on the Kindle. It’s become her primary reading technology (along with audio books for the commute). She reads a lot and likes the heft and trim of the Paperwhite. I’m mainly a printed book reader, but I use the Paperwhite, except why did Patti Smith’s memoir not have all the photos in the ebook that are in the printed book? I didn’t quite get that although I understand the details. It reminded me though that the fundamental differences in print and ebook are not just a matter of delivery. People want to talk devices. I want to talk devices. Nobody wants to talk about copyright? Right? Again, it’s interesting that the magazine and newspaper publishers have tackled this problem and brought it down to brass tacks, while the book publishing community—are we talking about a hive of reactionaries here?—in spite of long experience with subject, goes hiding in the DRM cave, going deeper, no outlet, instead of trying to really come up with a solution that would satisfy themselves, authors and readers.

Of course, no such solution exists and never will. That’s what happens to bits. The suckers cannot be controlled. OK, publishers haven’t even gotten this far yet? Come on. Get up to hover dudes! Is it so hard to understand? Your product can now be distributed with a new technology, remarkably different from what you’ve used to date. People like to invoke the music analogy, which ultimately is a dead end. The digitization of music has certainly happened in the last twenty years and there’s been a whole landscape change for musicians. This was a decisive change. But like journalists, musicians have adapted. Again you hear the cry of the pundit. Ignore it. There’s a lot of good music out there! Do you disagree with this, pundit? Maybe I should give you a name. Punde. The French pronunciation with an accent grave over the “e” that will allow us to pay homage to groveling consumerism.

So what’s a poor publisher to do? Big five aren’t poor of course. They’re just a part of corporate America. Some of us wish we were there! Not me, I’m retired, but it’s a grand enterprise as important as building cars at least and with larger implications. But I also know people who rant splendidly all the time about corporate America. I get it. But here you have to think in color. There is a spectrum in publishing. The big five are at the top of the heap though even that can be part of an illusion because publishing in 2014 is not just a business, it’s a way of communicating directly, it’s politically loaded, it’s doing pretty well in many respects. Unfortunately, if you get the Bezos vaccine or the Jobs vaccine, you will begin hallucinating and start chanting “Print is Dead.”

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A Farewell to Arms

FarewellWhen a friend mentioned re-reading Hemingway’s 1929 novel I was ripe for suggestion, especially when he said that the book held up well. He thought the published ending was the best, though variations have appeared. I’d just finished reading a gut-wrenching, totally page-turning sci-fi novel, mostly reading on an airplane and no, not on my Kindle, but the Tor paperback of Jack McDevitt’s Deepsix. Carried an iPad, camera, and phone on this trip. Used only the phone except for a snapshot of the Lexington, Missouri Civil War battlefield. I may have used the iPad in the hotel for web browsing. I think my brain is currently taking a spur off the digital track.

A Farewell to Arms is still as great a novel as it’s always been. Hemingway’s writing is so direct it’s like a drumbeat. We all know the origins, the journalism, hanging out with Gertrude Stein. (Is there any bigger influence on Hemingway, other than Michigan of course?) It also occurred to me that the novel is very much aligned to the blogging/Twitter/instant communication media of 2014. God, Hemingway on Twitter. Maybe he would have hated it, but no one could have packed more into a short sentence than Hemingway!

One of the things that I was reminded of reading the novel again was how much Hemingway was interested in language, his skill with dialog, his use of languages other than English as a kind of dramatic foil—people can or cannot understand Italian, French, German. He’s a very modern writer. I suppose that’s obvious but I don’t think he gets much credit for that, at least in the popular view where his safari’s and suicide outshine his books to some degree. It’s important to remember what’s important, which is how moving and powerful A Farewell to Arms is.

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Ted Kooser reading

Ted Kooser reading at Dale Chihuly Gardens and Glass, Seattle Arts and Lectures, October 2, 2014

Ted Kooser’s reading was a good meal, the real deal, and a reminder of what a great poet this guy from Nebraska is. The things you immediately notice are his attention to detail, his clear perception of the joys and sorrows of being alive, and his ability to communicate in lyrics that go down easy but pack a kick. A short stanza from the poem “Estate Sale” from Kooser’s book Splitting an Order gives you the gist of his diction:

“A soggy shoe box, and in its grayness
a yellow tin of corn pads rising
sun-like over the reflecting pools
of a neatly folded pair of glasses.”

The visual quality of his language may owe a debt to the fact that Kooser is also a painter and admires painting. In the Q&A following the reading, when asked who his favorite painters were, he said “pre-Abstract Expressionist,” mentioning Edward Hopper among others. Kooser’s realistic tableaus can sometimes have a “Hopper-esqe” feel. He’s also clearly one of the descendants of William Carlos Williams, not so much in his prosody as in the things he thinks are important, the intimate details of people’s lives and the infinite detail of the natural world.

Photo from inside the reading venue, illuminated art glass through the atrium glass walls

The venue

Kooser read from his new book with modesty and a sense of humor, letting his words provide the drama. His newer work is a welcome addition following the 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner, Delights and Shadows, one of the best books in his 45-year publishing career (this and his new book published by Copper Canyon Press).

This was the first reading presented by Seattle Arts and Lecture at Dale Chihuly Garden and Glass at Seattle Center, which is stupendously beautiful and fascinating museum–not included in the price of admission, though you could walk out through the garden as you left. I’d never seen the garden at night. It’s like walking into a science fiction novel. The reading was in the atrium area with its glass ceiling through which you can see illuminated glass sculpture as well as the Space Needle. However I must mention that it was not an optimal venue for a poetry reading. First you are crammed thigh to thigh in uncomfortable folding chairs. Then there was the sound system, which exhibited the same general range in quality as a high school auditorium PA system in a not very intimate setting. Too bad since sound is just as important for poetry as it is for any other kind of music.

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