Monday
Jul282014

Teju Cole on Twitter

In the August Wired:

Twitter engages the part of me that makes sentences. I try to shape a sentence that works. And I know this because I sometimes put sentences out there that don't really work. With most other forms—if it's good enough, it's good enough. But I read poetry regularly. And poetry is where I see that every single line has a certain punch and precision to it. Being on Twitter has allowed me to participate in a similar kind of practice. When you're writing fiction and longform prose, you think about the best sentences, of course, and you work on them. But when you're tweeting, the sentences are isolated, they're naked, and so there is that much more scrutiny on how they work.

Monday
Jul282014

Our State reader response

Got an email from a man who wrote a master's thesis at UNC Asheville about Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald. "I was very pleased," he said, "with your discussion (and comparison) or Wolfe and Fitzgerald." Here's what I wrote:

Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Wolfe was born in 1900 down the hill from here, on Woodfin Street, the son of a stonecutter and an indefatigable proprietor of a boardinghouse. They both came of age in a most American moment. They both were epic talents and keen observers of their country and its people. The list of similarities about ended there. Fitzgerald was finer, and almost pretty, which is how he wanted his copy. Wolfe was imposing, broad and six and a half feet tall, often using the tops of refrigerators as makeshift desks, his pencils leaving calluses on his hand. Wolfe spent all his money because to him it mattered too little. Fitzgerald spent all his money because to him it mattered too much. Wolfe’s work was autobiographical based on who he was and where he had come from. Fitzgerald? He was more like his most abiding character. Like Gatsby. His work was autobiographical based on who he wanted to be and where he wanted to go. Fitzgerald prized aspiration. Wolfe sought introspection. Fitzgerald coveted the glitz. Wolfe embraced the work.

Sunday
Jul272014

You Are Not Special

11 things I underlined in David McCullough Jr.'s recently published post-speech book:

1. ... electronics. They've infiltrated every corner of our children's lives. It's beyond saturation. It's a redefinition of existence.

2. ... are high school students now better or even more efficient writers? No. Thinkers? No. Do they find more edification or pleasure in the process? Not that I can tell.

3. With their electronic enthusiasms and cultural encouragements, teenagers today seem to be abdicating both imagination and knowledge.

4. For children of the "Information Age," that they're so often uninformed and absent independent thought is to them utterly unconcerning. To them repackaging received thinking is effort enough.

5. Off their schedules, teenagers today are like wisteria off the trellis: into a limp tangle they collapse. It's hard to know what to do or why. Surface thrill, then, is entertainment, nonthinking a relief -- so they blog, tweet, text, Skype ...

6. Children are the only second shot at life reality allows.

7 ... words like "interested," "inquisitive" or "receptive" tend to mean little, while "accelerated," "advanced," "elite," "gifted" and "honors" have with many parents great resonance.

8. The possibility of failure must be real: failure can be, should be, instructive, even inspiring. ... However well meaning, protective parents charging to the rescue deny their children this essential experience.

9. Lately some parents have even been showing up for conferences with paid "advocates" to lobby on their behalf.

10. ... with the success or failure of our teachers so goes the success or failure of our species.

11. ... I tell my students grades matter only to the kid who's missing the point ...

Sunday
Jul272014

Dean Koontz on Flannery O'Connor

No one has written better about the reality of evil. Few have written as well, with such sharp-edged compassion, about the weaknesses and follies of humanity, about the operation of grace in our lives and about the necessity of humility. Her stories — her intelligence and passion — can restore reason to minds unhinged by our fame-obsessed, technology-obsessed culture that by so many mechanisms isolates more and more people even as it holds forth the (false) promise of a universal community. Click.

Thursday
Jul242014

Cameron Cottrill strikes again

This is the cover of Weekend in today's Tampa Bay Times. Young Cam does good work.

Wednesday
Jul232014

A paragraph by David Simon

In a piece about the Baltimore Orioles, sort of, in this week's Sports Illustrated (for which there doesn't seem to be an available link):

Well, for one thing, there is no God. There is only science. If there were a God, he would be — as evidenced by all of modern baseball history — a devoted fan of the Yankees. And God, at least the Judeo-Christian version of Him rather than the Aristotelian unmoved mover, is said to be good. Ergo, there is no God.

Tuesday
Jul222014

This summer in magazines

In Outside, The Bighorn Sheep Who Was YouTube Famous:

A sheep was dead.

A bighorn sheep.

Earlier in the day, in Wyoming's Sinks Canyon, the workers at the state park had organized a fun run and bake sale to raise money to stuff and mount the sheep, so he could come home, either in a standing pose or a walking pose, life-size and lifelike, once and for all and forever. At the visitor center, a sign hung from the rail around the deck. BRING BAM BAM BACK! Down in the town of Lander, his disembodied horns and coarse, tanned hide remained ensconced in a taxidermy shop, waiting to be mounted.

Now, in the cooling dusk of a 2013 summer evening, surrounded by the vast, impossible beauty that can start to feel almost commonplace in this part of the country—to the left, the conifer-covered north-facing slope; to the right, wildflowers and clusters of boulders and great granite walls—a couple dozen mourners and spectators sat in small, cheap chairs made of metal. They watched a lengthy slide show set to melancholy music. They looked at a portrait of the sheep, his regal gaze fixed in a frame trimmed with a black canvas shroud. They listened to sheep experts say what they felt needed to be said at such an unusual event, this tutorial meets memorial.

In Our State, Gatsby's Asheville:

Perched in a clearing cut from the woods, toward the top of a slope north of downtown, Asheville's Grove Park Inn is a grand stone jigsaw with a clay-colored roof that looks like a boast. To write about this city in the 1920s, North Carolina's mountain capital in America's enduring era of excess — that was my charge, and so I came here. The Inn was finished in 1913, but it was built for the '20s — erected in just under a year "with an unstinted expenditure of time, labor, material and money," in the words of early promotional gloss, "a hotel unlike any other," with "every convenience and comfort," from pure down pillows to hand-hammered silver to rugs from France, and a spacious lobby called the "Big Room," "one of the most wonderful rooms in the world," the blue vista filling the wide wall of windows like a mural, the yellow light inside from the copper chandeliers reflecting off the ceiling so as to not be too harsh, and the luring, lulling warmth wafting from the two huge hearths. It was a Sunday afternoon. I sat by the fire.

And I people-watched, noting the tight, tan skin of leisure, the men with pressed jeans and North Face vests and sun specs slipped into the V-necks of sweaters, the women with shiny lips and knee-high boots and sharp-spiked heels on slick stone paths. I eavesdropped on patter about the weather and the sounds of service and expectation.

"How's everybody doing over here?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Enjoy."

And I reread The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald — set in '22, published in '25 — the book most associated with the decade, the writer the same. Reading what I was reading, sitting where I was sitting, I underlined in red the words that floated from the page.

In Charlotte, The man who writes obituaries, the people who hire him, and what we learn from our last words:

Mr. Happy had terminal brain cancer.

First it had been in his lungs, but it didn't stay put, and in January of last year, his doctor told him, David Cribbs, Mr. Happy, that the tumors were everywhere. His doctor couldn't say for sure how long he had, maybe only months, maybe only weeks, but he did tell him to do what he needed to do before he died. So Cribbs readied his will. He talked to his minister. He picked the hymns for his service. And he called Ken Garfield.

Garfield, 61, a Jewish man who works at a Christian church, is a former religion editor for The Charlotte Observer. That's where he started writing obituaries. Now he works full time as the communications director at the 5,000-plus-member Myers Park United Methodist on Queens Road, but he still writes obits. People hire him. They hire him to write the words that will run in the back of the local section of the local newspaper. Sometimes he does the reporting immediately after the death, and sometimes he does it before, even well before. Depends on what people want.

For Cribbs, who wanted to be interviewed for his own obit, Garfield wrote about his upbringing in Florida, his marriage to his high school sweetheart, his work in finance, his move to Charlotte, the importance of his faith, the joy he got from his three children, and then their children, too, his morning laps in the pool at the Y, his ever-optimistic disposition for which he earned his nickname.

What Garfield didn't write were the two things he couldn't until he could, the two things he had to leave blank in his initial draft—the date of Mr. Happy's death, and his age. But he finished what he could finish, Garfield did, and he closed the document on his computer, and he waited.

Tuesday
Jul222014

Tom Bissell on William T. Vollmann

For some reason, this is my favorite sentence I've read so far today (in a piece in the new New Republic that doesn't seem to be available yet online): As for being suspected of being the Unabomber, William T. Vollmann was suspected of being the Unabomber.