Amis: Poetry Stops the Clock

LARB: The authors you write about in your book are mostly novelists. Do you read much poetry, contemporary or otherwise?

Martin Amis: “Yeah, I do. It’s much harder to read poetry when you’re living in a city, in the accelerated atmosphere of history moving at a new rate. Which we all experience up to a point. What poetry does is stop the clock, and examine certain epiphanies, certain revelations — and life might be moving too swiftly for that.

“But I still do read, not so much contemporaries, as the canon. I was reading Milton yesterday, and last week Shakespeare — it’s the basic greats that I read.”

From “The Age of Acceleration: An Interview with Martin Amis” by Scott Timberg for the LA Review of Books

American Poet Donald Hall, 89, Has Died

Poet Donald Hall, 89, has passed away. David Kirby has this in the New York Times obit:

“Hall has long been placed in the Frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet,” Billy Collins, another American poet laureate, wrote in The Washington Post in April 2006, two months before Mr. Hall himself was given the post.  . . . He was a staggeringly prolific writer who chose freelance work over teaching — a decision, as Mr. Collins put it, “to detach himself from academic life, with its slow but steady intravenous drip of a salary.”

Back in 2001, Hall called for a death to the death of poetry. Here’s how that essay begins.

Some days, when you read the newspaper, it seems clear that the United States is a country devoted to poetry. You can delude yourself reading the sports pages. After finding two references to “poetry in motion,” apropos of figure skating and the Kentucky Derby, you read that a shortstop is the poet of his position and that sailboats raced under blue skies that were sheer poetry. On the funny pages, Zippy praises Zerbina’s outfit: “You’re a poem in polyester.” A funeral director, in an advertisement, muses on the necessity for poetry in our daily lives. It’s hard to figure out just what he’s talking about, but it becomes clear that this poetry has nothing to do with poems. It sounds more like taking naps.

Poetry, then, appears to be:

  1. a vacuous synonym for excellence or unconsciousness. What else is common to the public perception of poetry?

  2. It is universally agreed that no one reads it.

Found in Anthologies

John Wilson writes about a couple story anthologies rescued from a library trash heap:  Fiction of the Fifties: A Decade of American Writing (1959), edited by Herbert Gold; and Stories from the Sixties (1971), edited by Stanley Elkin. He points out some differences and quotes from their introductory essays, but one thing unites them. “Both of these volumes are haunted by an absence. They are, with a few exceptions, radically secular.” But Wilson recommends one stand out story, which I see is the title of an anthology of its own.

What’s a Movie Critic to Do?

The stars of the new heist release Ocean’s 8 (are the estates of Frank, Dean, and the boys still making money on this?) aren’t wild about critical reaction to their film.

Cate Blanchett said, “A studio can support a film and it’s the invisible faces on the internet, and often male reviewers, who can view it through a prism of misunderstanding.” I gather that means they don’t like it because they don’t get it because they’re men. Sandra Bullock followed up, “It would be nice if reviewers reflected who the film is for, like children should review children’s films, not a 60-year-old man. I guess his opinion would be kind of skewed.”

And if children were the driving forces behind children’s movies, it wouldn’t be long before all we’d have is Axe Cop. May I remind our studio audience that Milne first wrote Winnie the Pooh when he was 44 years old?

But the stars are talking about critics, not producers or directors, on which point Alissa Wilkinson replies to say critics aren’t being paid to support films. They are paid to write essays (sometimes works of art in themselves) about the movies they watch. With many reviews of one movie, you’ll want a diversity of perspectives, because that makes for better reading and understanding in general.

In short, a good critic develops a large capacity for imagination. They can’t know what it would be like to see the movie as someone other than themselves. But the good critic tries very hard to put themselves in those shoes anyhow, especially when they detect that the movies’ target audience will be someone other than themselves.

That’s very different than saying a movie wasn’t meant for you, so we don’t want your professional review possibly prevent our target audience from watching what we made. As Wilkinson points out, most studios want to attract a wide audience in order to make money on a single film. Discounting someone’s opinion because he’s not the right type of person doesn’t help.

Go Read, Young Man

Barnabas Piper recommends reading stories more than guidebooks, saying, “If men read fewer books on manhood and more really good stories they’d be much better for it.” He offers six reasons for this, one of them is on expressing emotions.

Men are often (not always) inhibited in our expressions of emotion. We can struggle to know when and how to give voice to our passions, both positive and negative. Stories give both example and lessons in how to do this. They show the benefit to being open and the harm that comes from locking feelings and passions away. But they do so in a palatable way by showing it in the lives of others.

Many of us define productivity in a way that rules out stories. We think reviewing a line of argument or series of purported facts accomplishes more than simply entertaining ourselves with a story, but as Piper says, we change, we influence ourselves, by the environment in which we live. Stories are part of that environment just as dinners with friends, serving our community, and riding horses may be.

If life is about learning, what do we learn from our environment? Who loves us and how do we know? Is it because they’ve said so or because we’ve understood their love from being around them, their actions, tones, and expressions? We know all manner of things without direct expression, not necessarily in the absence of such expression but more through living in the light of them. The Lord tells us repeatedly of his faithfulness, but how do we really know he is faithful? It’s when we see it in our lives–in our own story.

Reading fiction and non-fiction stories from others helps us understand ourselves and how other people think. If we ever ask, “How could anyone think that way?” stories will help answer that question. I remember a friend saying he thought a character in Lewis’s Great Divorce was unrealistic because he’d never known someone like him. The man didn’t want to know the truth; he only wanted to talk about issues and offer his opinion. Settling on an established truth meant the conversation and his contribution to it would be over. My friend thought this was ridiculous until he met someone who actually thought this way. His understanding of human nature was stretched before he knew it was possible.

But life isn’t about learning, is it? That’s only a part of it. Perhaps I’ll write about that another time, though it would be better to write a story about it.

‘The Excoms,’ by Brett Battles

The Excoms

I’ve grown fond of Brett Battles’ Jonathan Quinn novels, but I resisted trying his spin-off series, which begins with The Excoms. I noticed in the descriptions that it involves a special operations team made up mostly of women, and I feared it would be a “you go, girl” fest.

Sadly, I was right.

“Excoms” is short for “Excommunicated.” The members of the team are experts in various covert activities (legal and illegal) such as assassination, hacking, and driving. Each of them has suffered some bad luck, and is now in danger of death or imprisonment. A mysterious group called The Committee rescues each of them, brings them together, and offers them well-paying work doing what they do best for good causes.

Their first job is the rescue of a group of children from a gang of kidnappers. The story is tightly plotted, the action and dialogue are crisp, and the story is compelling.

I just didn’t like the basic concept.

I don’t know if author Battles is doing penance for some misogynist transgression, but he has produced a very stereotyped story – stereotyped in the contemporary manner. There are five members on the team – three women and two men. Each of the women is smart, competent, deadly, and efficient. Of the men, one is a good driver, but shows no particular flair. The other is a narcissistic womanizer who can’t follow instructions and messes up repeatedly.

This “girls rule; boys drool” approach annoyed me a lot. So although the book was well-crafted, I won’t be following the series. I’ll probably continue with the Jonathan Quinn books, though.

Cautions for mature stuff, but not too bad. It might be noted that there’s a possible homage to Chesterton here, as the members of The Committee are designated, not by name, but by a day of the week.

Samuel Johnson’s Half-Blind Guide to Life

What makes Johnson’s righteousness bearable is the fact that nothing he read himself — and he devoured more or less every word ever written — was able to guide him through the problems of his own life. Half-blind and wracked with self-disgust, Johnson was consumed by horrors: of annihilation, of madness, of destitution — what Beckett described as ‘the whole mental monster-ridden swamp’.

Frances Wilson describes the good and bad about a new book on Dr. Johnson’s thoughts, saying literary self-help guides are generally rotten, but Samuel Johnson is particularly good subject for the genre. (via Prufrock News)

Johnson gave us many points of advice, like these I pull from my broken down book of quotations.

“A man, sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.”

“Be virtuous ends pursued by virtuous means,
Nor think th’ intention sanctifies the deed.”

“Men do not suspect faults which they do not commit.”

“Of all the griefs that harass the distressed,
Sure the most bitter is a scornful jest;
Fate never wounds more deep the generous heart,
Than when a blockhead’s insult points the dart.”

“A man guilty of poverty easily believes himself suspected.”

‘To Die in Vienna,’ by Kevin Wignall

To Die in Vienna

I’m fond of Kevin Wignall’s novels. Between Graham Greene and Ian Fleming on the espionage scale, his books run much closer to Greene, but I don’t like Greene much, and I do like Wignall. To Die in Vienna is not my favorite of his works, but it’s pretty good.

Freddie Makin used to be an intelligence agent, but after a very bad experience he gave it up – mostly, except for the nightmares. Now he does electronic surveillance, for clients whose identitiesw he does not care to know. For a year he’s been in Vienna, monitoring the life of a genius scientist named Jiang Cheng. He’s grown rather fond of the man, whose activities seem in no way suspicious.

Then one day Freddie abandons his monitoring early to go home with a headache. He finds a man in his apartment, waiting for him with a gun. Freddie manages to kill the man, almost accidentally. Then Jiang Cheng disappears. Freddie doesn’t understand what is happening, but some things are clear. Jiang must have seen or done something that made him a danger to someone. And whoever got rid of him clearly wants Freddie dead too.

So he has to disappear. Fortunately his experience as a spy has prepared him to change identities. But that’s a temporary measure. He’s certain of one thing – he must find out what the “too much” was that Jiang knew, find out who the killers are, and make a deal with their enemies – whoever they are.

To Die in Vienna is leisurely as spy novels go, but I liked that. The emphasis is on personalities, and we get to spend time with them. That makes for enjoyable reading, for my taste.

I thought the plot relied too heavily on coincidence at a couple points. Otherwise I can’t find fault. Recommended.

The hersir’s new clothes

I mentioned a while back that we’re going to bring out another paperback edition of The Year of the Warrior. Baen Books continues to publish the e-book version, but we’ll be doing it in dead tree. Our talented friend Jeremiah Humphries has come up with a cover I’ve approved, and I’m over the moon with it.

The Year of the Warrior (paper)

We don’t have a definite date for the book release yet, but you can be sure we’ll let you know.

‘The Killing Season,’ by Mason Cross

The Killing Season

Carter Blake, the continuing hero of a thriller series authored by Mason Cross, is a sort of special investigative contractor. Even the FBI will call him in from time to time, because of his unique gifts. That’s what happens in The Killing Season, the first of the books.

Caleb Wardell is a convicted serial killer, nearing his execution date. He’s supposed to be under top security, but somehow a van transporting him gets hijacked by Russian gangsters. Wardell is not slow to take advantage of the situation. The Russians die and Wardell is in the wind.

Carter Blake has met Wardell briefly once, a long time ago. He has a gift for reading criminals, getting into their heads and anticipating their next moves. One moment was enough for him to know that his best move would be to kill Wardell before he could do any more harm, but he missed the opportunity. Now he’s determined to remedy that mistake.

He’s teamed up with a female FBI agent, Elaine Banner, an ambitious single mother. Then – for no reason they can understand – they are pulled from the case. But that doesn’t put them off the trail. Wardell has threatened people each of them care about, and they’re going to stop him – preferably with extreme prejudice.

The Killing Season is an exciting book. The writing was good and the characters intriguing – though I found Carter Blake’s skill set a little implausible. I also found the surprise final revelation unconvincing. And it hinted (to me) at political bias.

Still, an entertaining novel. Moderately recommended, with cautions for adult stuff, but not extreme.

The Good, the Bad, and the Danish

I don’t think I’ve shared this yet. Apparently the Danish National Symphony did a series of concerts earlier this year, performing the music of Ennio Morricone, who wrote all those great scores for Sergio Leone (and others).

This might seem like artistic slumming, but it isn’t. First of all, Ennio Morricone is in a class by himself. And it’s been suggested by people who know a lot more than I do that the only really good classical music being written today is being written for films.

Anyway, I think this is beyond great.

What’s the Best Coffeeshop in Your State?

Food & Wine magazine offers this list of the best places to buy coffee in every state, plus one runner-up. Is your favorite place on the list? I have consumed several wonderful cups from Mad Priest in Chattanooga, so I’m happy to see they made runner-up in Tennessee. Naturally our readers in Delaware will expect to see Brandywine Coffee Roasters and their Brew HaHa! stores in top place for their state (our cultural influence knows no bounds).

And the best place for coffee in Minnesota is Culver’s.  j/k

‘The Fractured,’ by Brett Battles

The Fractured

When I discovered there was a new entry in Brett Battles’ enjoyable Jonathan Quinn series, it was the work of but a moment for me to download it for my Kindle. The Fractured is an enjoyable thriller, like all its predecessors.

When The Fractured begins, our hero, Jonathan Quinn, and his wife Orlando are still recovering from the disaster that occurred in the last book – where an important member of their team died. Not only did they lose that person, but there was a rupture with Quinn’s old protégé, Nate, who has vanished.

But the bills need to be paid, and they’re delighted when they’re contacted by an old friend, who is trying to revitalize the secret semi-government office that used to employ them as “cleaners” (removers of evidence after “wet ops”). There’s a chance to get inside the compound of a white nationalist militia. This job gets done successfully.

But there’s a bonus. What they find in the compound gives them a chance to nail the money man who’s been funding the group. And not only can they get him, but they might also get a mysterious international arms merchant, a man who keeps his identity so secret that few have ever seen his face.

But one of the few who has is the missing Nate.

If they can locate Nate and persuade him to cooperate, they may be able to prevent an apocalyptic disaster in the United States.

The Jonathan Quinn novels are neither deep nor fancy. But they’re fun and they move fast. Recommended. Cautions for language and violence, but not as bad as many.

Hearing from Grandma

Grandma's hands
Photo credit: Cristian Newman

I had a moment of grace yesterday. No great miracle as miracles go, but it kind of moved me.

I’ve been using my grandmother’s old devotional book for my daily devotions this year. It’s an old book, in pretty bad shape, but I’ve found the meditations insightful. And anything connected with my grandma, who was perhaps the best person I ever knew, carries a measure of comfort. The book is Thy Kingdom Come, by Ludvig Hope. Hope was a leader of the lay evangelical movement in Norway, and along with several other church leaders (both conservative and liberal) he spent time in a concentration camp during World War II.

The book includes space for writing in important anniversaries at the bottom of each page. Grandma noted birthdays and weddings, and sometimes baptisms. Yesterday I noticed an unfamiliar name on an upcoming page. Most of the names in the book are familiar to me – family members and people from our church. But this name was unfamiliar. It was a woman’s name, and she would be a few years younger than me. I grew curious.

I went to Facebook and searched to see if she was listed under (assuming she was married) her maiden name. She was. I discovered that she is part of my own church body (which is not the one I grew up in), and her daughter is married to the son of one of the administrators at the Bible School where I work.

I contacted her, and found out she’s the granddaughter of Grandma’s sister. So I found a new cousin.

It was gratifying to find a lost relative. It was deeply satisfying to find one who believes as I do.

Grandma, I think, would be pleased.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture