“Theodicy,” by Nick Laird. What a phenonomal poem, with a vivid, piercing close.
“Theodicy,” by Nick Laird. What a phenonomal poem, with a vivid, piercing close.
Borrowing the structure of a few other online writers whose websites I enjoy (Paul Robert Lloyd and Mark Boulton, among others), I thought I’d start weekly low-key look-backs on the week, bullet list-style. Perhaps weekly is aspirational. We’ll see.
Greatly enjoyed Emily Nussbaum’s long New Yorker profile of Fiona Apple, whose long-awaited record just hit my Spotify streaming today. After reading the piece, I’d been going back through Apple’s back catalogue, awaiting the new songs and relishing the old. That stellar start of “I Know”: “So be it / I’m your crowbar….”
Also in the New Yorker, I was moved by Alex Ross’s essay honoring his late mother, “Grieving With Brahms.” I admire Ross’s writing greatly.
Okay, one more New Yorker reference for the week: I was floored by Dan Chiasson’s review of Joyelle McSweeney’s new book of poetry that involves motherhood and tragedy.
I’ve been dabbling with Roam, which is getting a lot of indie attention as a networked-notes app. (See: #roamcult) At least for now, I’ve enjoyed reading in-depth use studies more than actually using it. Somewhat relatedly, it’s been a big few weeks for Notion, which I continue to use more as a work/life dashboard than a notes app. This general area of knowledge management is one I’m deeply interested in and will continue to be tracking.
Speaking of tech, I’m three episodes into “Devs” (Hulu) and plan on continuing. Intrigued. (I loved the look of Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina.”)
“Knives Out” was fun.
On my family’s own isolation front, lack of options breeds ingenuity. Today Leo and I played driveway tennis over a rope tied between our basketball hoop and a locked stroller, followed by foam-ball lawn golf employing our Christmas tree stand as the hole. Worked surprisingly well.
I just finished Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (2019), and every few pages or so, I thought to myself: it’s rare I’m taking in prose this rhythmically perfect, this deeply intelligent.
From “Peril” (2008):
How bleak, unlivable, insufferable existence becomes when we are deprived of artwork. That the life and work of writers facing peril must be protected is urgent, but along with that urgency we should remind ourselves that their absence, the choking off of a writer’s work, its cruel amputation, is of equal peril to us. The rescue we extend to them is a generosity to ourselves….
Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorry into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.
From Morrison’s 1998 Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address:
If I spend my life despising you because of your race, or class, or religion, I become your slave. If you spend yours hating me for similar reasons, it is because you are my slave. I own your energy, your fear, your intellect. I determine where you live, how you live, what your work is, your definition of excellence, and I set limits to your ability to love. I will have shaped your life. That is the gift of your hatred; you are mine….
We are already live-chosen by ourselves. Humans, and as far as we know there are no others. We are the moral inhabitants of the galaxy. Why trash that magnificent obligation after working so hard in the womb to assume it? You will be in positions that matter. Positions in which you can decide the nature and quality of other people’s lives. Your errors may be irrevocable. So when you enter those places of trust, or power, dream a little before you think, so your thoughts, your solutions, your directions, your choices about who lives and who doesn’t, about who flourishes and who doesn’t will be worth the very sacred life you have chosen to live. You are not helpless. You are not heartless. And you have time.
Lastly, here is the oft-quoted passage from Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature:
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
I was impressed and moved by Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Poetic, searching, deeply affecting. Highly recommended. Related reading/listening: Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker; Kat Chow in The Atlantic; and this Politics & Prose conversation with the author (genuine, exacting, deeply intelligent).
From the novel:
Is that what art is? To be touched thinking what we feel is ours when, in the end, it was someone else, in longing, who finds us?
From a substantive new interview with Joshua Rothman:
I had felt for many, many years that the form of the novel, as I used it, created a distance from life. When I started to write about myself, that distance disappeared. If you write about your life, as it is to yourself, every mundane detail is somehow of interest—it doesn’t have to be motivated by plot or character. That was my only reason for writing about myself. It wasn’t because I found myself interesting, it wasn’t because I had experienced something I thought was important and worth sharing, it wasn’t because I couldn’t resist my narcissistic impulses. It was because it gave my writing a more direct access to the world around me. And then, at some point, I started to look at the main character—myself—as a kind of place where emotions, thoughts, and images passed through.
On this Father's Day, here are four terrific recent pieces I've been lucky to come across — two very short essays, two short poems — that capture this part of life so well:
The Longform Podcast's new episode with Elif Batuman is fantastic. I've enjoyed her writing for a few years, and in this interview you can just feel her thinking deeply about literature and writing and gender and observing in cities around the world and much more. As interviewer Max Linsky tweeted when sharing the link: "Genuinely, this is the most fun I have had in a long time. It was so fun, in fact, that at one point I stopped and said 'Wow I’m just very happy to be sitting here with you! This is so fun!' And then Elif was very gracious with me and then she said a bunch more brilliant things." It's true.
I also loved Design Observer's new episode with Aminatou Sow. She was new to me, and I'm clearly late to the game. On being late, though: Really enjoyed Sow's skepticism of the tech press's focus on the young (who wants to peak at 28?), vs. her interest in longevity; she's long thought the ideal age is 63 .
I wrote this piece, “Words of William H. Gass touched readers around the globe," for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was published this past Sunday. (The anecdote at the beginning — which in a way launched my relationship with Gass — almost didn’t happen. I went to that literary reading only after hemming and hawing about maybe staying home to watch “24.")
George Saunders on Monocle 24: A does-the-heart-and-mind-good interview with Georgina Godwin.
For The New Yorker Radio Hour, Joshua Rothman walks Central Park with one of my favorite living writers. I especially loved this bit, which comes after Knausgaard is asked about the differences between the way children and adults go through their days:
I have four children, and maybe when I spend a summer day with them, it is like nothing. Time is just passing. There’s nothing remarkable happening. It’s like the world is not attached to me, and I’m not attached to the world anymore. And then I remember the summers when I was a child myself — how important everything was, how attached I was to everything that happened, and how slowly those days evolved, somehow. I find it very easy to underestimate my own children. That I don’t see them — that they’re just little creatures, not realizing that they have an enormous, huge and independent inner life. Somehow, the task is apparently to be aware of that.
After discovering this short appreciation in a Jonathan Lethem essay collection on bookish things, I just read it aloud to my wife, who'd been curious about why I've been so utterly taken by this series and increasingly hungry for each subsequent volume. Lethem nailed it ("Knausgaard's approach is plain and scrupulous, sometimes casual, yet he never writes down. His subject is the beauty and terror of the fact that all life coexists with itself."), and he was only one volume in.
A special piece by Daniel Mendelsohn about Homer's epic, his father and a journey they took together.
Loved this World Book Club episode, with informed and curious readers asking Karl Ove Knausgaard about one of my favorite works of literature in several years. We shouldn’t be surprised that he’s a thoughtful and candid interviewee.
In September of this year, I was honored to be part of “The William H. Gass Symposium: International Writing” at Washington University in St. Louis. I joined Lorin Cuoco, who co-founded the International Writers Center with Gass in 1990 and was its associate director until 2001, in giving some opening remarks, then discussing Gass’s work with William H. Gass Fellow Matthias Göritz and Ignacio Infante, associate professor of Comparative Literature and Spanish at the university.
I spoke about my work editing and publishing ReadingGass.org, The Ear’s Mouth Must Move: Essential Interviews of William H. Gass and Abstractions Arrive: Having Been There All the Time. To say I was in impressive company is an understatement. Don’t miss the other videos all housed here together.