James Joyce Celebrates His Birthday

February 2, 2017, is the 135th anniversary of the birth of James Joyce (above).

In his huge biography, Richard Ellmann notes in several places that Joyce found his own birthday to be a topic most fascinating (he made certain that his novel Ulysses was published on his 40th, in 1922) and he tells how this affected his relationship with another writer, James Stephens.
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Zombies to Help Love

Aston Parsons’ 2015 novel 28 Grams Later is a zombie apocalypse horror-comedy in which the only defense against the zombie infection is … cannabis. It is tightly plotted, stays one step ahead of its readers, and has many laugh-out-loud comic moments.

Among its great insights are that even in the middle of an apocalypse, bureaucratic types will emerge to run the remains of the bureaucracy, military types will offer to shoot first, and stoners will quite probably save the world. Parsons keeps the novel’s attitude on the tongue-in-cheek side, which is, of course, an awkward compliment for a zombie novel.

Parsons has also pledged that all proceeds from sales of the novel from December 1 on will be donated to the Courage Foundation’s defense fund for Lauri Love. In November, Amber Rudd, the United Kingdom’s Home Secretary, signed the order to approve Lauri Love’s extradition to the United States to face charges of data theft.

More than 100 members of Parliament, across party lines, signed a letter in October on behalf of Love that is to be sent to President Obama to request that he withdraw the extradition requests. People around the world are fighting for Love’s freedom. Parsons’ book is one more way.

The title is available through all the E-Book retailers. Hardcover, the book is available for around £3.00. Through Amazon UK, the title is £0.49, and though Amazon in America, the title is 99 cents. Buy a copy, and then spread the word.

28 Grams Later is also available through iTunes.

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Deus X-Files

Deus ex post facto: plot twists and other dilemmas …

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In classical drama, the term deus ex machina refers to a plot device wherein a plot problem is suddenly solved by the arrival of a previously unannounced character who supplies the answer or solution. “But don’t you know? That’s your brother!” would be a line delivered by a deus ex machina character, thus helping our hero avert or defeat a troublesome situation.

When a playwright or a novelist needs to fix an intractable plot puzzle, he or she might resort to the tool, which is Latin for “god from the machine,” or “you couldn’t figure it out for yourself with the characters you’d created, so you punted,” but audiences since ancient times have tended to see through the fix. “Where did HE come from?” More often than not nowadays, it is used ironically, but when you find yourself reading a book and seeing lines delivered by a character that you do not remember being introduced to, your inattentive reading is not to blame. That character really was not there 20 pages earlier.
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A Sentimental Journey Through …

Laurence Sterne was dying of consumption, the polite yet dramatic term that people used to employ for pulmonary diseases, especially tuberculosis. He had contracted it by 1740, when he was still in his 20s, and he fought for his every breath for his remaining three decades of life.

In 1765, he left England in search of better breathing, and he traveled abroad to France and Italy. He was a surprise best-selling author by this point, a clergyman who had decided on a whim to start telling the life story of a character but by not telling it in a straightforward manner, to comically digress his way through “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” One of the earliest novels in English or any language, “Shandy” was an instant success when its first two volumes started appearing in 1759.

The genre we call “travel writing” was not as common in the 1760s as it is now, and most works in that genre at that time were quite unsentimental: verbal pictures of natural phenomena and wonders of the man-made world and warnings-slash-complaints about the foreignness of foreigners on their strange home turf. In his 1765 journey, Sterne encountered fellow novelist Tobias Smollett, and the stern, dry Smollett left such an impression on the always amused Sterne that in his book, “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy,” he based a character named “Smelfungus” on Smollett. Nice revenge.
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The Story with a Twist, or, I’m a Frayed Knot

Every alcoholic in recovery has a collection of anecdotes that can be simultaneously heartbreaking, outrageous, and hilarious. Perhaps they are hilarious only to fellow alcoholics; perhaps they can not even be listened to by outsiders. For an outsider, most alcoholic anecdotes may as well conclude with the same punchline, an interchangeable rubber-stamped ending: “And then I got away with it again.” Or, “I didn’t die that time, either.” And then comes the next hair-raising—or eyebrow-raising—tale.

Every alcoholic in recovery is living a story with a twist ending, if they remain in recovery. It is that two-word pair there, “in recovery,” that provides the surprise, the twist, a period of life as surprising to behold as some of the antics, the many bizarre actions and activities and inactions and inactivities that were surprising for outsiders to watch unfold in the previous life.
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Henry Beston’s Cape Cod in Winter

The photo above was taken at Nauset Beach on Cape Cod on a December afternoon in 2010; the white glaze covering the footprints is ice and snow, and the Atlantic has ice in it—some of the white caps were frozen, and the waves merely swelled them, shifted them.

Henry Beston wrote perhaps the best physical description of Cape Cod in the opening lines to his classic book “The Outermost House“: “East and ahead of the coast of North America, some thirty miles and more from the inner shores of Massachusetts, there stands in the open Atlantic the last fragment of an ancient and vanished land. For twenty miles this last and outer earth faces the ever hostile ocean in the form of a great eroded cliff of earth and clay, the undulations and levels of whose rim now stand a hundred, now a hundred and fifty feet above the tides. Worn by the breakers and the rains, and disintegrated by the wind, it still stands bold.” He depicts a heroic shoreline, a land that declares its own terms of surrender against a hostile, battering sea. Given that from the air Cape Cod resembles a single raised fist jutting into the sea, a heroic, Byronesque, cliff face is only appropriate.
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Texts from Beyond

The poet and critic John Greening sums up the career of James Merrill, who died twenty years ago tomorrow, in a 2010 essay, “Ouija”:

James Merrill made a point of breaking all the rules, of remaining recklessly formal when all about him were casting off their chains, of being incorrigibly discursive and elitist, shunning the rhythms of speech for something more refinedly musical, and unswerving in his determination to squeeze every last pun out of a line.—John Greening, “Ouija,” The Dark Horse, Summer 2010

He was a rebel in his adherence to rules in a rule-breaking era. He wrote dazzling, perfect poems and employed almost every verse form available to him, as an actor might use accents. Greening quotes George Bradley: “Reading James Merrill is enough to make the rest of us suspect we’re not smart enough to write poetry.” Even at his smartest, he is engaging and not impenetrable. His pleasure in the sounds of words and the poetic effects he creates and his many puns are always evident. He compliments his readers in assuming that we must know what he is writing about at least as well as he.

He is not the poet of nature as much as a poet who will describe a beautiful painting of a natural scene. (In “A Renewal,” a park that he and his beloved are sitting in is rendered as, “A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.”) American poetry loves its confessional writers, its Beats and its bards like Whitman and Sandburg and Ginsburg, but Merrill made a lifelong project out of reminding us that the life of the mind takes one down a road no less winding that any western blue highway. And he found a way to be a bard, nonetheless.
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‘So it goes …’

Humans of New York, a website of photos and interviews with New Yorkers, was created and is operated by one young photographer who calls himself simply “Brandon.” It features Sidney Offit today.

Offit is a writer, nearly 90 years of age, who is better-known as a friend of the famous, a memoirist, and a curator of great writing—he helped found the National Book Critics Circle, which gives out one of the top-level book awards each year.


Sidney Offit

The caption to the photo at left reads: “Vonnegut said we live too long. He said: ‘You had your children. You wrote your book. Now don’t be greedy.’ Yet we all live with this fantasy of recuperation. We see an old photo of ourself, and we momentarily feel like that person again. We think: ‘I’m going to get back to that place.’ And we never get back there. But that desire gives us the ferocity to hold onto life no matter how bad it gets.”

Offit was great friends with Kurt Vonnegut for four decades. Vonnegut’s birthday is tomorrow, November 11. He would be 92. He lived to be 84 and he considered what he told Offit to be a sort of ideal, but it was one he fell short of again and again, as he published fiction past 75 and opinion pieces until the end.

The accidental beauty of a pacifist writer born on November 11, which is Armistice Day—Veterans Day in the U.S. since 1954—was not lost on the novelist.

In “Breakfast of Champions,” Vonnegut reflected on the coincidence:

So this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.


Kurt Vonnegut, 1922–2007

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

And all music is.

The moment war ends is not a moment that ennobles the war effort that preceded it, or converts the two opposing sides into concrete moral certainties like right and wrong, but that one minute of peace is sacred. It may have been the only minute of serenity the world has known.

In Vonnegut’s work, remembering the past is sometimes the only way for a character to know that there even is a now. The past, the present, and the future may as well as be characters in his books. Three characters, each of whom considers the other two as being irritating and self-important.

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Here is a thought that I, Mark, visit and re-visit: I see an old photo of myself and I think I can return there. A previous year, another existence, is merely another place I have visited, lived in, breathed the air of. The 1990s are only as far away as a bus ticket whose price is a bit out of my reach; I think I can visit 1979 as easily as visit Phoenix if I would just save up for a couple months. I am going to see Vermont again, I am going to visit Iowa again; I have not seen the Pacific Ocean yet, but I know I will. Next year, maybe.

I know what the 1980s sounded like, what food tasted like then/there, just as I know what Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Poughkeepsie, New York, sounds like. The ability to visit one (Poughkeepsie) but not the other (1983) offends me.

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Now is all we have and Vonnegut knew this, better than most. Reliving the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 is fine, was necessary for him; coming to understand that February 1945 and November 1918 and November 2014 all co-exist in an eternal now is spiritual, somewhat; finding oneself frustrated at the expense of a bus ticket to 1983 is Hell in its exquisite pointlessness.

In one of his last interviews, recorded in October 2005, Vonnegut told public television’s David Brancaccio the point of it all. What life is too short and too long for.

He said that his wife asked him why he would go to the store for “an” envelope. Apparently he used to make his errands last all day: buy an envelope, bring it home, put the letter in it, bring it to the post office, and then treat the next letter with similar care. Vonnegut:

Oh, she says well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope.

I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around.

And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 10 asks, “Fill in the blank: ‘Life is too short to _____.’ Now, write a post telling us how you’ve come to that conclusion.”

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