My story, The Words Strike Back is out in Peacock Journal.
For anyone out there who is actually reading this blog, please forgive me. I see that I have not posted since May. It’s been a tough year and a strange summer. I’ve been having eye problems since March (excuses, excuses), and other medical concerns that turned out, after much worry, to be nothing to worry about (excuses, excuses).–But, when your eye bothers you, it can be a little hard to spend lots of time on the computer. (Excuses, excuses?)
In any case, catching up here…. In terms of the strange–I first was told that I had not received an Individual Artist’s Fellowship from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (boo), only to be told a few months later that I had received an Individual Artist’s Fellowship from the Commission after all. (Yay.) I was not a finalist or winner for the Claymore contest put on by the Killer Nashville contest (boo), but a month or two later, one of the coordinators wrote, offering to introduce me to her agent. (Yay.) And I was not a finalist or winner of a grant from the Speculative Literature Foundation, but again, a month or more later, its coordinator wrote, pushing me to submit again (emphasizing there is no fee) and stating, “I want you to get this grant.” (Yay?) (And the news that I got the fellowship came only five days after my then current agent had written that she did not feel she could represent my latest novel. Depression–buoyancy–depression–buoyancy–depression–buoyancy…talk about ups and downs and ups. It makes one feel like they are on a see-saw.) Somebody up there likes me–or somebody up there is playing with me. Constantly feeling on the verge is frustrating, but the “close though no cigars” of the year do also help to keep one going.
So, now that I’m back, here we will go…
After reading an essay written by Jeanette Winterson in which she defends Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (in Winterson’s book, Art Objects, Essays in Ecstasy and Effrontery), I got curious about the book, and have been reading it myself. Winterson wrote that those criticizing Stein as being self-aggrandizing and not factual had missed the point of what she was doing. Winterson’s view is that Stein was no more intending to write a factual book than Matisse or Picasso were trying to paint photographic portraits, that the book was meant to be a work of fiction, was experimenting with an entirely new form, and should be judged on its experimentation–producing a new way of seeing and thinking–rather than on its substance. That may be. Nevertheless, I think a work should provide some substance as well.
The main thing I admire about The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, is Gertrude Stein’s chutzpah. Alice’s “autobiography” is actually a biography of Gertrude; thus, actually an autobiography by Gertrude. A literary trompe d’oeil in which Stein can have Toklas dub Stein one of only “three first class geniuses” she has known, and in which “Alice” writes next to nothing of her own life. A clever little con-artist, our Gertie.
My problem with the book, beyond the self-aggrandizement, is that it appears to be a rather constant recitation of the famous artists and writers, composers, or philosophers with whom Stein mixed in Paris, along with a stream of blanket statements about who got along with whom and who didn’t. But one never is given any details that would make the content more than name-dropping or very general, minimal gossip.
For example, Stein-alias-Alice tells us that Stein liked William James and that he thought highly of her and recommended she go to medical school and become a psychologist. But she does not tell us anything of what they may have discussed about philosophy or psychology–or even what her own views were. She tells us only that, when she got to medical school, at a certain point she didn’t do the work because she was “bored,” yet many professors passed her anyway because of her presumed “brilliance.”
Stein-aka-Alice writes that Stein talked with the geniuses or near-geniuses, but that she–Alice–only talked with the wives of the geniuses or near geniuses. Not only does she give us no details or insight into the “geniuses,” she tells us nothing about the wives except that they were congenial or not, fashionable or not, etc. Perhaps this is because the real author, Gertrude, never talked to the wives. But, then, neither as Alice nor as herself does she provide any depth–real or fictional–to her view of any of the people beyond the fact that they kept coming and going, and she saw them often or saw them rarely, or met them once, or saw them often but fell out with them (she never gives us the reasons).
Of Picasso (or Matisse or Hemingway, or others), she may tell us that they discussed or argued at length–with Picasso, long into the night–but never tells us what they discussed or what either thought. Instead of giving us a real (or even fictional) sense of Stein’s life or her thinking, the book leaves one with the impression that this person was a pseudo-intellectual who lived a shallow, if idiosyncratic, life–and an easy one (whenever there was a question of money, it seemed that all Stein had to do was call a relative in America and money–or on one occasion, even a Ford automobile–would be sent).
Stein’s experiments with literary form may have value. Her other works (poetry, novellas, novels, plays, etc.) may have something to them, but one cannot get any real insight into them or her from this book. Stein’s notions as expressed in this book remind me of no-one so much as Christopher Isherwood’s peripatetic Sally Bowles. And Stein’s very definite declarations of literary and artistic “truths,” to the degree that they’re expressed here, make me think of Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie, who fancies herself artistic, radical, and a sophisticated shaper of the thoughts of the little girls she teaches, but is actually just an admirer and adherent of fascism. Although The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas has nothing in it that addresses Stein’s political philosophy, there is something about it that leaves me unsurprised to find that she was an adherent of Vichy France and its leaders.
I am inclined, as relates to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, to quote Hemingway: “A rose is a rose is an onion.”
During the Year 2015:
–I was one of three head jurors for the regional competition for the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards.
–I began writing reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books. (My very first review, of Tesla, A Portrait with Masks, by Vladimir Pištalo, was one of the five most popular reviews for February 2015.)
–I read from my work in The Inner Loop reading series.
–I represented the Potomac Review, critiquing writers’ work in the “speed-dating” session of a writers conference held at JHU.
–For three weeks in June, I attended the New School’s Summer Writers’ Colony in New York. (Colony helpful; New York wonderful–when there was time to do anything in it. Colony activities went from noon to 8:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday. But feeling of living in the city, having a purpose other than touristing, was nice.)
–I read and critiqued a memoir for the Arts Club of Washington, D.C., for their Marfield Prize for Non-Fiction.
–I applied for an individual artist’s fellowship from the D.C. Commission of Arts and Humanities. (Missed it by “that much.” It was awarded to 12; I was number 14. Close, but no cigar. Sigh.)
–Last but not least, I completed the final draft (I think) of my newest novel.
A lot of “I”s in this post. But then, it is titled “MY” Literary year.
Note: In December, I was quite busy, as is everybody, with the holidays and end of the year tasks. For my birthday weekend, I met a friend up in New York. We went to three musicals: Kinky Boots; A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder; and The Book of Mormon. Mini reviews:
Kinky Boots: The plot summary sounds boring, but the musical is anything but. Lively, funny, and carries a message of acceptance delivered in a way which rings true, not trite. Plus, Wayne Brady, who plays Lola/Simon is AMAZING.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder: A cross between Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and Oscar Wilde’s plays, this musical is set in an earlier era and satirizes the British class system. The writing, staging and performers are terrific. The two female leads’ voices are wonderfully strong, and their style of singing is more one of purity of voice than the “belting” it out one finds in pop music these days.
The Book of Mormon: The cast performs ably, and it has its moments, but overall, this play was a disappointment. The satire of the Mormon religion is gentle and could apply to the evangelical missionary aspect of any religion. However, the portrayal of the Africans and their situation, though kindly, was steeped in stereotypes. The jokes based in this made the audience laugh, and maybe that’s all these playwrites cared about. But if you’re doing satire, your jokes should be aimed at what you intend to say. If they intended to promote stereotypes of black people, I don’t like it, but so be it. On the other hand, cashing in on stereotype just to get a laugh is cheap. Better to get the laugh playing against stereotype.
This ends my summary of my year, and brings this blog up to date on my December.
If you have a few moments, check out my latest book review, of Landfall, by Ellen Urbani, at Washington Independent Review of Books.
July and August:
July is a blur. I remember that friends visited, but other than that, I must have slept away most of that month–oh, and probably that’s when I read the novel Landfall, by Ellen Urbani, which I was assigned to review for Washington Independent Review of Books.
August was spent reorganizing my writing space, reminding myself of where I was in my various projects, and writing the review. At this point, My review has been turned in, edited, should be out soon. Stay tuned.
The first time I headed down to Chinatown, I stepped into Henry Street Settlement Playhouse instead, and got to chat about the settlement house movement with David Garza, Henry Street’s Executive Director.
My father used to tell me about activities at Madison House–one of the settlement houses existing in New York in the early part of the last century. At the time, one could participate in the arts there–theater, dance, writing, painting, etc. (Now, combined with another settlement house to become Hamilton-Madison House, it tends more toward the provision of only basic social services.) Hearing my father’s stories about the artistic stimulation provided for slum-dwellers in his days living on the Lower East side made me want to learn more about the settlement house movement with a view to how it might be adapted to today’s world.
I noticed Henry Street Settlement House on a map and set out to walk left on Grand street to visit it before heading east to Chinatown. Fortunately, a native New Yorker directed me to the new Henry Street Settlement House–the playhouse–since the old one is now used as an administrative office and would have required a longer walk on a hot day to no purpose.
When I explained my interest to the two people I found inside, the man–Garza–said to the woman that he’d take care of what I was asking. And he talked with me for at least 20 minutes, telling me about the current umbrella organization, United Neighborhood Houses, telling me that Hull House (in Chicago) has been closed, and explaining the difficulty of doing now what was done in my father’s day because gentrification has destroyed the cohesiveness that communities had back then.
I was very impressed by Mr. Garza. Unlike many public faces of organizations, I strongly felt his sincere concern was for what this movement is trying to do, not for the furtherance of his organization or himself.
I do hope to do research on this subject and write in greater depth about it (not necessarily on my blog). This visit was meant to be a beginning. Walking in off the street, I did not expect to get lucky enough to speak with someone at that level, and very much appreciate the time he took to do so.