Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Complete List of Subjects Treated in the "Partial List of Subjects Treated" in Garry Wills' Translation of Martial's Epigrams

Adult Homosexuality
Body Odor
Debt Delinquency
Legacy Hunting
Marital Fidelity
Marital Infidelity
The Simple Life
Tributes to Emperors
Tributes to Friends
Tributes to the Dead
The Writing Profession

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Modest Bowl Proposal

I can appreciate a meaningless football game as much as anyone, especially if the grass is real and the weather is dismal, but bowl games aren’t supposed to be meaningless. The way I understand it, a bowl game is a championship of some sort. For example, the NFL has the Super Bowl. College has a tradition of bowls, which should be scrapped for a playoff, but I can accept a series of games spread out over the holiday season. In fact, it was just that lovely idea that had me preparing to clip the bowl game schedule, so I could post it on the fridge in anticipation of some leisurely tv viewing.

That’s where I found a list of 35 bowl games. Thirty-five! That’s 70 teams, a huge number of which are absolutely mediocre. 32 of the teams playing—almost half of them—have records of 7-5 or worse! That’s unconscionable, pathetic, appalling. I realize that’s where money can be made, and that’s where our power lies. If your team goes 7-5 or 6-6, please don’t fly off to some southern city to support them. Let them earn their way to a bowl game. And if you’re at home with nothing to do, don’t watch the game. What if no one attended these games, and the broadcasts garnered 0.0 Nielsen scores?

And by the way, what ever happened to the Cotton Bowl? That used to be one of the biggies.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

For a Good Time . . .

check out the Literature Map. It's pointless, but it's fun.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Recipe for Happiness

It feels a bit pretentious to call this combination of three uncooked ingredients a recipe, but if there can be entire cookbooks devoted to salads (and there are!), then this simple concoction can bear up under the weight of being called a recipe.

• Trader Joe's Old Fashioned Cinnamon Grahams. I grew up with Nabisco's cinnamon grahams as the rarest and most satisfying of pleasures, but after trying Trader Joe's there's no going back. Crispier texture and a more pronounced cinnamon flavor.

• Peanut butter. Your call on this one, though I'm a smooth and creamy Jif man myself. Spread some pb on a graham cracker.

• Dark chocolate. Again, I'm a fan of the Trader Joe's bars from Belgium on sale in the check-out aisles. Three delicious bars for under $2: you can't go too far wrong. Put one little rectangle of chocolate on each half of the cracker.

Eat. Repeat. You won't be sorry. Simple and delicious. I've had them for breakfast, snacktime, and dessert, and I can't see laying off them anytime soon.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Line of the (So-Called) Week

"At the height of the battle, when it might have gone either way, the cool Taylor turned to his artillery officer and said, 'A little more grape, Captain Bragg.' Remarks like that were embedded in my head and took up precious space that should have been occupied with other things but wasn't."
—Charles Portis, from The Dog of the South

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Saint Paul, Sidewalks, Poetry

Need I say more? Well, here's a link to a public tv episode that aired last week that does say a little bit more. Note the very green trees in it, a welcome reminder of other seasons on this gray and icy morning with no one out and about. It's eerily quiet. No traffic. No pedestrians. No dogs.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


fecund summers,
sentences longer than trains.

Found poem taken verbatim from a conversation with C. Oliver, 11/9/10

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


"Saul Bellow, who won the Nobel for literature in 1976, was said to have grown wistful every October after that, because you can only win it once."
—Adam Gopnik, in the Oct. 18 New Yorker

Prose Poet David Shumate on Writing Poetry

Poetry is a strange endeavor. You go snooping about. Sticking your nose into other people's business. Turning your soul inside out. Then you huddle over a paper for hours to give voice to what you have learned, and in the words of the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, ". . . try to find words that are better than silence."

# # #

I seek words and images that possess the honesty of stones. Of water.

I want the poem to glow in the dark.

# # #

Sometimes, as the pieces of a poem are taking shape, I feel momentarily whole. As if the senses, the mind, the intellect, the ego, and some spiritual core have fallen into synchrony.

This is a seductive feeling. I return the next morning hoping a poem will lead me there again.

I hope the poem conducts the reader on a similar journey.

— from Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets, edited by Todd Davis & Erin Murphy

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dream Word

Last night my unconscious mind created the following word and definition:

anchinth—an archaic term for anxiety.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sunday, September 5, 2010


What's going on with Michael Jordan's new Hitler mustache? Doesn't he have personal advisors to keep him from making such ill-considered moves? Didn't anyone at Hanes or their ad agency balk at it? And why haven't the good, snarky folks at Deadspin addressed this yet?

As I look further into this, I realize this ad campaign first ran in May. Why hasn't Hanes pulled it? Does a retired basketball player with facial hair stolen from the fuhrer really help move men's underwear?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Line of the Week

"Everything that distinguishes our era from the dark ages—since we still have plagues and torture chambers—is what we've been able to do with petroleum, and that is going to end very soon."
—Kurt Vonnegut, as quoted in Steve Almond's Not That You Asked

Friday, August 20, 2010

Line of the Week

"I settled down on a hurt as big as Robert Mitchum and listened to Lucinda Williams."
—Vic Chesnutt

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Line of the Week

"My grandmother was dead serious. Her sense of humor was a secret."
—Gil Scott-Heron, in Alec Wilkinson's Aug. 9 New Yorker profile of him

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Thanks to the Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk project in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Best of the Backlist

The other day I was telling my friend, Jomama, who is a sales rep for a book publishing company, how much I thought of Dave Eggers' post-Katrina book Zeitoun. Ms. Mama had just been down in New Orleans on business, and she commented that many of the bookstores down there were still displaying the book prominently even though it was no longer a frontlist title. Since then I've been re-reading Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, a book that I have loved since it was first published back in 1998, though I hadn't sat down to re-read it until now. Well, it stands up. It's an almost unbelievable story in many ways, and Orlean does a masterful job of telling it. Just because it's not brand new doesn't mean it's not worth reading.

I have also recently noticed that the window for comments on Facebook has shrunk to just a few hours. If people don't comment on a status update or a new photo in the first couple hours, they probably aren't going to. And that's too bad in a way. The update (if it isn't tied to the moment—and most aren't) doesn't really lose humor, poignancy, or validity half a day later. A year or two ago, such comments might have trickled in over the course of a few days, but now the conversation is over much more quickly. It seems to me even more of a loss when people post family or vacation photos. These things seem even less ephemeral, and yet the active comment window remains equally small.

All of which puts me in mind of something Quentin Tarentino said about his video store days. Customers would come in looking for recommendations, and film geek Tarentino would press whatever odd, obscure, great, foreign, or forgotten movie on them only to have them ask if it was new. His response: If you haven't seen it before, it's new to you.

In the spirit of Mr. Tarentino, I bring you the best of the Corvus backlist. The most recent of these is over half a year old, and the others were posted before 2010. They are the ones that have received the most visitors, but which many of you—if you are new to Corvus—may never have seen.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Adventures in Translation

From a student paper on Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants":

"The man tells the girl about a drink called Anis del Toro (meaning butt of the bull)."

No wonder I could never stand the taste of anise.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Line(s) of the Week

"Her voice was a force of nature, her conversation a fast-moving rapid full of deadly churning eddies. She was like Hitler without the anti-Semitism, MLK without the compassion or noble cause."

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Holy Order of Fish Handlers

There are those who claim
they can catch the sleek
trout in their bare hands.
My first response to this
was disbelief, but when
I try to imagine it—
I who can barely catch
that lovely and elusive
fish with hook and line
and who have seen them
flash upstream when I
merely scratched an itch—
I imagine something
like a sacred meditation,
a dance of stillness
demanding the non-
attachment of a monk.
To teach oneself to
stand in a cold river
without disrupting it,
to cast no shadow:
is it any different from
learning to levitate, or
mastering that bullfrog-
like chanting that resounds
even underneath the temple?
They talk of calming the fish
by gently stroking
its belly, and I admit,
like a hungry trout
gulled by glint and feather,
I may have been seduced
by a beautiful idea,
but I want to believe
in this, the holy order
of fish handlers, who, to
briefly catch their prey, must
first forget themselves.

—Dallas Crow

"The Holy Order of Fish Handlers" originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2008 (Vol. 103, #3/4) issue of Poet Lore.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Aesthetics of Gravity

Think of the pleasure boys take in falling,
the hours they devote to it: ko'd, shot
in the back, machine-gunned in the
gut; tackled, clotheslined, checked,
body-blocked, tripped; in slow motion
whenever possible; preferably
for an audience of friends or family;
dramatically, comically; into
pillows, hay, leaves, mud, snow—
any pile promising padding or a mess;
water, too: flips, splits, bellyflops,
can openers and cannonballs.

Some may argue that phylogeny
recapitulates ontogeny, that
they are reliving that initial fall
from grace themselves; others may
insist they somehow sense their
own mortality, and are preparing for
their future decline; but I am convinced—
watching my sons catapult and pirouette
through the invisible air, then replay
those all too brief moments of flight
again and again for friends—they are
enchanted by the aesthetics of gravity.

Icarus is their hero, not for his
Pyrrhic success or greedy heedlessness,
but for his most delightful failure.

—Dallas Crow

"The Aesthetics of Gravity" originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2008 (Vol. 103, #3/4) issue of Poet Lore.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sick and Awkward

One of the pleasures of teaching teenagers is that you get to keep up on current slang, or at least not fall behind as far as you would on your own as an old fart. This year’s two biggest slang terms are sick and awkward. Sick is an adjective that—not surprisingly—mean its opposite. It’s used almost entirely by guys, especially (at this institution) hockey players, in place of awesome or amazing. For example: That was a sick move! Or That was a totally sick move! Or Did you see the end of last night’s game? It was sick!

Awkward is used primarily by girls, which is fitting since it has more to do with social dynamics.

“I would never do that.”


“It would be so awkward. Can you imagine anything more awkward?”

It also has more complex connotations than sick. In fact, it seems to me, to signify a different and particular kind of social awareness. Sick feels like another version of cool or bad: one syllable terms that essentially mean good or really good. The prominence of the concern about awkwardness seems like something different and new. Obviously when I was a teenager there were awkward situations and moments, but we didn’t identify them in a such a clearly-defined category. Also, awkwardness can be uncomfortable or odd, and given those things it can often be quite funny. In fact, it seems to me to be the operating mode of the most popular comedy out there these days. The humor of The Office is built almost entirely around discomfort—our own and that of the characters—which is true as well of last summer’s hit movie, The Hangover.

I love to see the way people play with language, and make it fresh. I remember when my first son was born, and consciously not wanting to use the word cool around him too much. It seemed that everyone around me was using it for everything that was good or desirable. I felt like it put too much emphasis on what was cool and what wasn’t, and it also made people sound rather unintelligent when that was the only modifier that came out of their mouths. I wanted him to grow up with a greater range of descriptors at his disposal. In time, sick and awkward will either become passé or clichéd, but for now they feel fresh. Of course, as a middle-aged man I don’t actually use these terms. That would be awkward.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

For a Good Time, Call . . .


So, the other a day my friend and colleague, Ms. M., came to me with a song running through her head that she couldn’t identify. What she hummed didn’t ring any bells for me, and I didn’t think any more about it until she showed up in my classroom a couple hours later, having tracked down the above video.

When she started playing the song, I wasn’t watching the screen, and I called out “England, 1972.” The video actually says 1973, and the caption says it's from a 1971 album, so I wasn’t too far wrong on that, but the band, as it turns out, was not British but Dutch, which may or may not explain things. In any case, this video left me amazed and speechless on any number of fronts.

1. Where in the world had Ms. M. heard this before?

2. How had I never heard this before?

3. Who the hell are these guys?

The remaining questions I had left me so speechless I can’t even write them down. I was awed, amazed, and convulsing in laughter and disbelief. What were they thinking? It’s brilliant. And it’s awful. And even though it calls to mind Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull, and a demented Julie Andrews at times, it also is like nothing else on the planet. It's also addictive. I keep needing to see the vocalist (if that is the right word here) perform one more time. In fact, I'll probably click on the link right now, and see and hear it again.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Word of the Day

cwm—(noun)—a geological term from Wales, another word for a cirque, which may not help many of us flatlanders very much. Still, you gotta love a word with no vowels, especially a noun. That's rock solid.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Fool's Wife

The king's a fool. He's a fool's fool.
It's unnatural. What servant has
a servant? What wife a wife?
I'm the fool's fool once removed.

And when the king, that fink,
is in a funk and sends his fool away,
he drowns himself in sack,
then sacks out in the hay.

—Dallas Crow

"The Fool's Wife" originally appeared in Dunes Review (Summer 2008).

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Top 5 Books That I Have Lent to Friends and Which Have Not Been Returned

1. White Noise by Don DeLillo. Just as Hemingway was the most influential American prose writer for much of the 20th century, DeLillo has been the most influential novelist of the past two decades (at least among male writers), and by DeLillo I mean the DeLillo of White Noise. I lent this to a girlfriend in my early 20s. Lost it in the breakup. I still think of it as a contemporary novel even though Penguin has put it through nearly half a dozen cover changes since then.

2. The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. One of my favorite works of literary journalism. I will be teaching it next year, so just picked up another copy, which has a pale, much less attractive cover than the rich blue of the advance reading copy of the hardcover edition I owned. Also, the trim size of that was slightly unusual if I remember correctly, and it looks like they’ve trimmed the bottom margins of the current paperback to make it a more orthodox size. Too bad.

3. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. Read this during fall semester of my freshman year in college in a class that was confirming my decision to be an English major. This seems like a book I would really like to re-read. I remember it as a revelation of what a novel could be, and it seems like it would be no less satisfying to read in mid-life.

4. Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide to Doing a 180 by Mike Magnuson. The only book on this list that I’ve read twice, and if I had it on hand I might start in on it again right now. Magnuson’s account of his love affair as a 255-lb., chain-smoking, heavy drinker with bicycling is profane and beautiful. This and Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run are two outstanding books about the compulsions of endurance athletes.

5. Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin. The only book on this list I haven’t read in its entirety. I lent it out before I could sit down and read it properly.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Line(s) of the Week

"I should have moved to New York City, but I never was that cool.
I just languished in the Midwest like some old romantic fool."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Location. Location. Location.

Diptych: Sidney, NE

What's the Point?

Sidewalk Manifesto


Despite what it says on the front of the box—

“Flat-out funny.”

The New York Times

“You’ll laugh till it hurts.”

—Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

“Darkly funny, twisty-cool.”

Entertainment Weekly

Cold Souls with Paul Giamatti really isn’t a comedy.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Line(s) of the Week

"What's the difference between a duck?"

"One leg is both the same."

—Hank the Cowdog (as recounted by STF—aka Si Dawg)

Another Thing Julia Child and I Have in Common

For reasons I don't fully know and can't clearly explain, I have always found the taste of cilantro revolting. Cilantro and members of the fennel family almost literally make me gag. If I accidentally ingest some, it's all I can do to choke it down, and then try to get my palate cleansed. What makes this even more frustrating is how ubiquitous it's become. It seems like practitioners of every ethnic cuisine just want to ladle it on.

Turns out I'm not alone in my response to cilantro. The New York Times just ran a piece on the vile herb. There's a historical and cross-cultural distaste for it. How comforting. So much and such good company!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Line of the Week

"What falls away is always. And is near."
—Theodore Roethke

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lines of the Week

"It is very difficult to describe an experience of religious significance while you are being sprayed with a garden hose by a laughing, loving woman."


"Any game becomes important when you know and love the players."

—W.P Kinsella, Shoeless Joe

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Taste of Bretagne

Last spring when I was in France, I was served a memorable salad before my lunch that was comprised in large part of grapefruit and shrimp. At the time, it seemed to me something that would be worth approximating after I returned home. In addition to being delicious, it appeared that it would be fairly simple to make, and it would undoubtedly make a great impression on my guest(s). Then I mostly forgot about it. Until yesterday morning, when Ms. O said something that reminded me of it. Suddenly I wanted to make it for her.

I couldn’t find anything in my cookbooks, and when I went online, searching for grapefruit and shrimp or grapefruit and shrimp and salad, I came up with some similar things, especially a couple that also included avocado that I may try at some point down the line, but nothing that represented the dish I had enjoyed. I then tried to call my French travel partner, Fast Freddie, hoping she might be able to help me out, but as I was dialing I remembered she isn’t much of a seafood fan. Even though we were served the same dish, she probably hadn’t felt the same way about it that I did. On the other hand, her husband is French—maybe he would know something about it. As it turned out, she wasn’t home. Or wherever her cell phone was. Or taking calls from me at that time. Which is when Ms. O had the breakthrough idea:

“Why don’t you google the words in French?”

As soon as I could remember the word for shrimp in French, I did it (you never forget the word for grapefruit—pamplemousse), and there they were at the very top of the list—variations on this wonderful dish I wanted to make for my girlfriend. And the information that it is a regional dish specific to Bretagne. No wonder it hasn’t made its way to the cookbooks I have on hand or to the enormous compilation of online recipes in English (at least on an initial cursory search).

So, here it is. Three ingredients in its simplest form, and the chance to wow friends with a simple, fresh dish they have probably never seen before.

What you need:

1 grapefruit

100 grams of already cooked shrimp (roughly a ¼ pound—essentially equal parts grapefruit and shrimp)

2 dollops of mayonnaise

What you do:

Halve the grapefruit. Remove the fruit, and chop it up. Scrape out the bowl of the rind, and dispose of the membranes. Chop up the shrimp into similar size pieces. Stir together the shrimp, grapefruit, and mayonnaise. Place the combined ingredients back in the grapefruit-rind bowls, and serve. Voila!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

W's Heavy Rotation Playlist

(At Age 6 3/4)

• "Chain Gang" by Sam Cooke
• "African Night Flight" by David Bowie
• "Flash's Theme" by Queen
• "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath
• "Mr. Crowley" by Black Sabbath
• "Die With Honor" by Manowar

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Line(s) of the Week

"If the horse you ride
is blind it's good
that it also be slow."
—Stephen Dunn

Top Five Seasons of 'The Wire'

1. the first season
2. the fourth season
3. the third season
4. the fifth season
5. the second season

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Line of the Week

"My mind remains a bad neighborhood that I try not to go into alone"
—Anne Lamott

For a Good Time . . .

. . . check out this Craigslist ad for bunk beds.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Top Ten All Time Greatest Doo Wop Songs (at least based on how I’m feeling this week)

1. "The Great Pretender" by The Platters

2. "Duke of Earl" by Gene Chandler

3. "Under the Boardwalk" by The Drifters

4. "Blue Moon" by The Marcels

5. "In the Still of the Night" by The Five Satins

6. "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers

7. "The Book of Love" by The Monotones

8. "Come Go with Me" by The Del Vikings

9. "Runaround Sue" by Dion

10. "A Teenager in Love" by Dion and the Belmonts

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Logic of Analogies

The hockey coach skates over to the bench, and tells his mites (6 and 7 year olds) that they are slapping the puck too much. He wants them to control it more. "The puck is a treasure," he tells them. It seems to me like the perfect way of being clear to this particular audience, but as soon as he skates away, one of his players says, "No, the goal is the treasure; the puck is the key."

I admit I may have been as proud of W. for making that comment as for scoring the first goal of the game.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Friday, January 22, 2010

Enough! Go Away!

It’s Friday afternoon, time to roll out a few pet peeves to brighten your weekend:

• People saying, “Have a good one!” This saying seemed to come out of nowhere when I was living in Colorado about a decade and half ago. I hated it then, and I hate it now. It’s so lazy and imprecise. If you’re going to wish others well, act like you care. Wish them a good day, a pleasant afternoon, a fun evening, a relaxing weekend, or whatever is appropriate. When you tell me to have a good one, I’m not convinced you know what time of day it is, and if I’ve been telling you anything about my plans, I don’t think you’ve been listening.

• Drivers not using their blinkers. It’s lazy, inconsiderate, and dangerous. Just use ‘em.

• The fact that you always hear annoying Dire Straits songs on the radio, like the unbearable “Money for Nothing” (hated it then, hate it now—from the stereotyping of the blue-collar narrator to Sting’s guest appearance) and “The Walk of Life,” but never the ones you want to hear, like “Sultans of Swing,” “Skateaway,” or “Romeo & Juliet.”

• The rampant use of the term “perfect storm.” Sebastian Junger wrote a fantastic book with that title about the deaths at sea of six commercial fisherman, and now any time multiple circumstances come together, it’s “a perfect storm.” If you even semi-regularly read newspapers and general interest magazines, or listen to public radio, you will find this phrase popping up all over the place. It’s become a common cliché in a very short time.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Only in Minnesota

"23 degrees? That's not really warm, but it is pretty warm."
—W. (6 1/2 years old)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review Review

Without putting too melodramatic a point on it, the printed word is endangered. There have been conversations about the death of the novel, the end of the book, and the miniscule audience for poetry for decades, but it turns out the more fragile species are newspapers and magazines. As these publications fight for their life, slim down, and disappear, one of the first things to go are book reviews and book review sections.

The critic’s craft is an underappreciated one, and its role is diminishing as well. Long ago Rolling Stone drew readers away from the music reviewer’s analysis and reflection by posting bold stars at the beginning of the piece. There was no need to read the text; you could just count the stars. You could probably fit ten current Rolling Stone reviews into one of the reviews during their heyday. Likewise, as Siskel & Ebert’s show gained in popularity, the final decision—a robust “two thumbs up” or a resounding “two thumbs down”—overshadowed the content of their discussion.

Though far more books are still published per year than any human can read, sources for learning and thinking about them are drying up. And among those that remain, few of them are going to give you more than 500 words on a book. I remember interviewing for a freelance reviewing gig with piddling pay for a shortlived tabloid almost two decades ago, and the editor said anybody could review a movie or play, seeming to suggest that most democratic of possibilities: everybody’s perspective is equally valuable.

We now live in an world based primarily on two ideas that the quality of the arts can be mathematically tabulated (if you go to the website Rotten Tomatoes, a movie review website, you will see a score, not unlike a song got on American Bandstand or a wine gets from Robert Parker) or that everyone is a reviewer (say on What’s missing is the thoughtful analysis of someone who knows the field better than you do, the possibility of learning more about the topic at hand rather than just getting someone’s take on whether something is good or bad.

Well, last night I read a print review of a print book that reminded me of how good a review can be, of how if you give the right reviewer enough space, he or she can reflect, and give you context, and quote at length, and in the end come up with a compelling, thoughtful piece of writing that entertains while informing. I finished reading Wyatt Mason’s piece, “The Untamed: Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome,” in the February 2010 issue of Harper’s, wanting to know more about this young novelist I’d never heard of, and grateful for Mason’s acute commentary.

Mason is ostensibly reviewing Ferris’s latest, The Unnamed, but he spends the first half of the essay, nearly five full-page columns, discussing his debut, Then We Came to the End. He is in no way entirely laudatory of this earlier work, and he takes other critics to task for the lazy, shorthanded way that they praised it, but in his discussion of it, he brings to the surface qualities that make me want to know more, that in the end make me want to read the novel.

One thing Mason does is quote at length. In the first half of the review, he quotes four separate paragraphs from the novel, and the language in those passages tells me, as much as anything Mason says, that Ferris is a writer I want to spend time with, that he is going to help me see my familiar world in a new and vivid way, something like when I first came upon DeLillo (Ferris’s title is taken from the first sentence of DeLillo’s first novel—important information Mason gives us in the first paragraph of his review).

In the end—or more precisely in the second half of the review—Mason makes it clear that Ferris has fallen prey to the dreaded sophomore slump with The Unnamed, but fortunately, he himself never succumbs to such clichéd shorthand. He quotes from the novel at length again, and explains its unusual premise, comparing it to works by Saramago and Kafka, which gives credence to Ferris even as he comes up short. When he critiques the novel, he does so by quoting shorter passages, and then pointing out clearly and effectively how the prose in those passages lets the storyteller down. You still feel that Mason respects Ferris’s abilities, but that he doesn’t see him executing them as skillfully here as he did in his first book. You also get the idea he will be reading Ferris’s next effort with a hopeful yet critical eye.

As for myself, I will be seeking out Joshua Ferris’s first book Then We Came to the End because of the way Wyatt Mason negatively reviewed his current novel. I encourage you to seek out that review.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Best Books of the Year

Unlike the New York Times Book Review and other such publications’ year-end lists, which are so stodgy—including only books published in the most recent calendar year—my list is comprised of the best books I read in 2009 regardless of when they were published.

1. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall. McDougall weaves a number of threads together in this engrossing work of journalism that looks at running injuries, ultramarathoning, the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico's Copper Canyon, and the evolution of humans. An unforgettable cast of characters makes this compelling, almost unbelievable reading. McDougall also takes on the sacred cows of the running world, while also returning us to the true childlike joy of running. This book was the closest thing to a religious text that I read this year. Thanks to the good folks at Micawber's for pointing me to this one.

2. Stoner by John Williams. This unfortunately titled novel was originally published in 1965, and it is that rare thing, a work of fiction set in academia that isn’t farcical. What makes it even rarer is that Williams doesn’t hit a wrong note in the entire thing. There isn’t a single word out of place. The protagonist of his sad, beautiful novel with the understated tempo of a Townes Van Zandt ballad is William Stoner, who, we are told in the first paragraph, "did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses." Though he may lead a life of quiet desperation, he is a man of heart-breaking principle. More on this unforgettable book from Morris Dickstein and Steve Almond.

3. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Originally published in 2002, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this novel combines a sympathetic protagonist, Magical Realism, a global and historical scope, and a loving portrayal of that most beleaguered of cities—Detroit. The last chapters seemed to me to lack the imagination and brilliance of the first nine-tenths of the book, but there was so much in the first 400-plus pages that blew me away that I can't complain too much about the slight drop-off at the end.

4. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. This novel about a 19th century buffalo hunt in the mountains of Colorado echoes Heart of Darkness and Moby-Dick, yet—like Stoner—it manages to be gloriously understated. It is clear early on that nothing good can come of this expedition, and there is more than just a bit of Ahab's monomania in Miller, the leader of the hunt, but every step (and misstep) of the journey is worth watching. Originally published in 1960, this book is likely to gain a larger audience in coming years as major Hollywood players are signing on to bring it to the big screen.

5. A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. I almost didn't include this one since it was a re-reading for me rather than the first time through, but it is so damn good. A beautifully-crafted work that is about nothing less than beauty itself, and how rare and brief it is. I was crying among strangers at 37,000 feet when I finished it.

Honorable Mention (because it's not a book): Pat Jordan’s beautiful short essay on aging from Men’s Journal.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Line of the Week

"Poets run on rocks barefoot when shoes are available for a dime. They stand on cliffs but not too close to the fatal edge."

—Jim Harrison

Top 5 Will Oldham / Palace / Palace Brothers / Palace Music /Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Albums

1. Viva Last Blues by Palace Music (1995)

2. Beware by Bonnie ‘Prince' Billy (2009)

3. Days in the Wake by Palace Brothers (1994)

4. Joya by Will Oldham (1997)

5. I See a Darkness by Bonnie ‘Prince' Billy (1999)

Honorable Mention: There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You by The Palace Brothers (1993)

Thursday, January 7, 2010