Archive for April, 2009

The next book is A Lost Lady by Willa Cather.   Don’t have much good to say about Cather — I tried to read My Antonia once in college (I think it gave me a brain tumor of boring), and I think  I read The Professor’s House for some unknown reason in grad school — by which I mean that I actually read it and don’t know why, since I hardly read anything in grad school.  Yeah,  two years well spent.

The Trashcan Diaries is to be  a little series nestled among all the other little third-grade book reports here.  It’s  dedicated to discussions of books and other literature that I have found discarded by others.  It’s happened twice now that I’ve found a box of books in my neighborhood left behind by some bibliophobe mover-outer; the first time I rescued The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, which I have to say blew my mind — and which I stupidly threw away after I read it, stupidly because I’ve thought about that book many times since then and wished I had it handy.  That experience left me unreasonably excited to see another box on the landing of my building by the elevators a few weeks ago.   This time, I rescued a couple  of novels — A Lost Lady just looks to be the shortest.   Which is good, because I ‘ll bet it is going to suuuuck.

I’ll keep you apprised, of course.


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[Originally posted on my old site on February 18, 2006.  Seemed in the spirit of the new site  in that it references bad writing, Mississippi and coal mines.]

Scott lets me know that the state of Mississippi is just about to inaugurate a new state poem.

Believe it or not, some people don’t want this to be the state poem of Mississippi. I truly don’t understand it.

Here it is in its entirety: (with my comments)

I Am Mississippi

I’m the land of the Choctaw
(We killed most of them, now they run casinos.)
The hills of Vicksburg, and a cross-cut saw
(That’s not a non sequitur, or anything.)

Dinner on the ground and a muscadine vine
I’m a longleaf pine, and Mississippi’s on my mind
(Something had to rhyme with vine, and we don’t have any coal mines, thank goodness)

I’m a banjo pickin’ and all night sings
(We loves to pick dat banjo all night, yes we does!)
Azaleas a ‘bloomin’ in Ocean Springs
(And only there.)

I’m a Gospel Singer and the old folks at home
(Oh! Darkies!)
And I’m the eagle on the top of the capitol’s dome
(Whatever you say, dude.)

I’m coffee in the morning and an ole smoked ham
(Hope its not too ‘ole,’ you’ll get trichinosis.)
Cathead biscuits
and blackberry jam
(Blackberries only occur in Mississippi.)

I’m a Mississippi moon, a dusty Delta Dawn,
(We’re claiming the Moon, now? And a song about a retarded woman from Texas?)
B. B. King, Magnolias in bloom
(I’ll give you those, all right.)

I’m an antebellum home on the Natchez Trace,
(Those slaveowning absentee plantation masters sure knew how to live!)
A rusty plow on the old home place
(Most of the rusting farm equpment I see in Mississippi is adorning the walls of ‘buffet style’ restaurants.)

I’m Walter Payton catchin’ a pass, Elvis Presley,
(This is a nice comparison, because Payton and Presley leave nearly the same legacy, and it’s all unambiguously positive.)
Coon hounds and bird dogs and tea of Sassafras
(Dogs love tea! Here, Rover, I got you some Tummy Tamer!)

(OK, I’m going to stop noting the horrible juxtapositions. It’s too awful.)

I’m Miss Mississippi and all her glory
(Pure glory. She’s like a queen! An illiterate, abstinence-only, born-again queen who gives herself a Brazilian every Wednesday night after prayer meeting.)
I’m William Faulkner as he writes a story
(Or as he drank himself to death, insisting to the end that he was a fighter pilot in Canada during the war.)
I’m Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman
John C. Stennis, a southern statesman
(This poem is really going to stand the test of time.)

I’m the Mississippi River as it rounds the bend
(Starting in Minnesota and ending up in Louisiana.)
I’m Gone with the Wind,
(Didn’t that take place in Georgia?)
y’all come back again

Well, I’m everything good you have ever dreamed about
(You’re teenage lesbians discovering forbidden desire?)
Hush yo’ mouth, I’m Mississippi
I am the South

I don’t understand the controversy. I believe that it represents all that is good and right about our fair state. (blank stare)

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This is a book by George Orwell, a nonfiction investigation of the lives of working-class people in the north of England, specifically coal miners and their families.   Published in 1937, it is an examination of an industry and society facing vast unemployment, poverty and perhaps political upheaval.  

As I’m learning, it’s much easier to slag off bad writing than praise good writing.  It’s like bullying; a book like The Shack is defenseless, has no good response to any objections and can be attacked from almost any angle, and it’s wonderful fun to make it eat a worm or two on the playground.  Good writing, on the other hand, tends to justify itself.  Whatever its flaws, it has a purpose (even if only to entertain), and you understand why it exists.  Good writing fights back.  With very good writing, such as from Orwell (or Nabokov, see earlier posts), I can’t even land a punch — not only because the writing is fine, but because it is surrounded on every side by a phalanx of other writing done by those who have trod this earth before me, and you’d really have to deal with all of that in order to be sure that you aren’t repeating the most obvious thing that everyone knows already like a jackass.   Just like in a kung fu movie, you have to dispose of all the students before engaging the master of the school — and even then, he may dispose of you without even rising from his chair.

I decided to read The Road to Wigan Pier after seeing a reference to the book’  in a recent New Yorker article about Orwell which I can’t find at the moment — about the about the fiftieth time I’d seen the book’s title in print over the last several years.   I’m in a new phase of, you know,  reading books, so — why not?   As mentioned, a straight review of the book would be pointless , or at least repetitive, so I’ll just mention a few salient things that jumped out.  

1.  It’ s a surprisingly easy read.  I read the entirety of it on a comically delayed flight from New Orleans to D.C., so it’s not a struggle.

2.  The first chapter is a masterly evocation of the squalor of life in a working-class boarding house (that doubles as a warehouse for — tripe?).  Such concise description, such disgusting detail — the bugs, the dirty thumbprints in the bread, the traveling salesmen eating food out of thir suitcases because they can’t afford the thumbprinted bread.  It’s really worth a read all by itself.

3.  Those coal miners sure had it rough, huh?

4.  On p 82 of my copy, Orwell addresses a question that has occurred to me in the past — why don’t the unemployed write more? (Or paint, or produce any kind of time-intensive creative work.)  If you imagine that a certain percentage of the population has some ambition to write, and a certain percentage of those people has some actual talent, then shouldn’t a period of mass unemployment produce a wave of creative product?   His answer, which  seems right to me, at least for some, is as follows:

[The unemployed] have all the leisure time in the world; why don’t they sit down and write books? Because to write books you need not only comfort and solitude — and solitude is never easy to obtain in a working-class home — you also need peace of mind.  You can’t settle to anything, you can’t command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you. 

Having had some “downtime” in the past in which I did some writing, I suppose I agree with this.  Mine was short and  I never lost faith that I would find something at the end.  These people are unemployed (and on the dole) for years at a time, and seem to have no hope at all. 

5.   When I was young, I once asked my mother if we were middle class.  She responded immediately that we were upper middle class.  Reading Orwell’s descriptions of the perceived divisions between the working people and the bourgeoisie, it occcurs to me that she was wrong — if defined in terms of tastes and manners,  the middle class may not really exist in Southern Mississippi.  There is certainly a difference betwen the rednecks and the white collar  group, but it’s almost entirely economic — the white collar group has the same tastes as the rednecks, but is able to afford superior versions of the same goods — McMansions instead of mobile homes, lexus rather than Toyota, a wider flatscreen.  (In fact, there is a cult that celebrates the tastes of the redneck group as being somehow more “real” than any lifestyle influenced by, you know, books and stuiff.)  There does not seem to be a difference in sensibility — the group that might be called the intelligensia of southern Mississippi, valuing information and art rather than consumer goods, is vanishingly small.   The Mississippi bougeoisie, then, looks like less of a separate class than a more monied version of the lower class.

Clearly, this is an underdeveloped thought — but it bears revisiting. 

6.  He sure seems aware that there is a war on the horizon.  I’m not sure why that surprises me, but it does. 

7. Regarding the last chapters – I give up.  I’m now a Socialist.

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Just a reminder that Eddie Murphy used to be really funny.

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Finished The Shack.  I may have more about it later (but probably won’t).  Executive summary: it continued not to be very good.   Sort of interesting was the notion that Mack, the main character, would encounter God personified by three characters: a black woman who goes by “Papa,” a Middle-Eastern looking Jesus and an Asian female whose name I forget.

I won’t give away the ending (heavens, no), but I will say that it takes a certain courage to have Papa cook a lot and says things like “Sho nuff.”  And the same kind of courage to have Jesus remark on the fact that he has a big nose because he’s Jewish.   A certain ill-advised courage. (The Asian character appears to be serious and hardworking.)

I will remark that I had some of my facts wrong in the earlier post: It was my brother who gave me the book, not my mother — and he hadn’t read it.  My sister and mother both report that they read the book and didn’t enjoy it, but that they each have encountered a number of people who go on and on about it as the greatest thing.  “Two women brought it to my book club!” Said my sis.

Well, that’s probably it for The Shack.  Next up is The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell.

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In an earlier version of the post below, I coined the term “jesusphere” to refer to the Christian-only internet that some people probably choose to use, instead of the other version, that has pictures of naked ladies and stuff.  I thought to myself, cool neologism, you’re a great writer, like Tolstoy.  You’re really getting somewhere.  Turns out, of course, that it’s already in use.  Goddamn it.

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Old Book: Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene.   Awesome, gritty crime novel. Funny, pathetic, frightening.  Highly recommended.  I learned what “vitriol ” really is.  (Hint: it’s sulfuric acid.)



New Book:  The Shack, by  “Wm. Paul Young.”  This is a slight piece of Christian fiction, given to me for Christmas by my mother.   And you know, I’m trying to read more, and I don’t want to be that guy who never reads anything that anyone gives him, etc.  So I picked it up this afternoon and gave it a spin.  I read about half of it in an hour or so.

It’s tagged “Where tragedy confronts eternity.”  Here’s what the blurb on the front says:

“This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.  It’s that good!” — Eugene Peterson

Who is Eugene Peterson?  Pastor, scholar, author poet.  He’s written over thirty books! 

(I never have read Pilgrim’s Progress, you know.  Now I want to compare the two!)

This book has a website.  You should check it out.  No really.  Read “Shack News.”   The last entry is from April 17, 2008. 

How’s the book?  Man, it’s terrible.  I can’t even say that it’s not to my taste, because this kind of book was never going to be to my taste.   But I really did want to give it a chance.  And I sure as hell did.

But you know, give Mr. Young some props.  He wrote the damn thing, got it published, probably made a million dollars.  (I hope he tithes!)  I’m sure he doesn’t care if I think it sucks.  He shouldn’t, in fact.  But oh man,  does it ever.

Here’s a sample paragraph.  This takes place after Mack, the main character, realizes that his daughter has been kidnapped by the Little Ladykiller, a serial killer of little girls.  He alerts the authorities, and the manhunt begins:

With evening quickly approaching, an intense discussion began regarding the efficacy of immediate pursuit or holding off until daybreak.  Regardless of their point of view, it seemed that everyone who spoke was deeply affected by the situation.  Something in the heart of most human beings simply cannot abide pain inflicted on the innocent, especially children.  Even broken men serving in the worst correctional facilities will often take out their own rage on those who have caused suffering to children.  Even in such a world of relative morality, causing harm to a child is still considered absolutely wrong.  Period!


Not terribly subtle.  I picked that passage at random (it’s on page 59), but it’s a good example of what’s wrong with this book — besides the exclamation marks.  Yes, the threat of harm to a child is abhorrent to most people, which is why it’s a really cheap way to play on the reader’s sympathy.  There’s no moral quandry here:  Mack is blameless as a father — Missy is abducted while he is saving his other child from drowning, for goodness’ sake.   And just in case we didn’t get the fact that having your little girl abducted by some diabolical pervert is just about the worst thing that could ever happen, the narrator goes ahead and spells it out for us

(I’m using a lot of italics to write about this book!  It’s that good!)

And you know, there’s the odd logical inconsistancy, boring tangent, cardboard characters — Like I started to say before, this book wasn’t written for me.   I wasn’t ever going to like it.    I am 90% confident that they will make a movie out of  it,  and Mr. Young will be famous forever. 

(Do Christian writers have groupies?)

So, that’s The Shack.  Check it out!  I’ll let you know whether it takes a crazy left tun after the half, Hancock-style.

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