Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Harmony of the World – Charles Baxter

Charles Baxter - May 13, 1947

I don’t know if it would be considered a complement or an insult to say that I felt like this short story was a novel.

I’d like to think it would be taken as a compliment. Baxter’s ability to pack just the right amount of “everything” into this short- gave it such thickness and substance that my brain felt as if it had just consumed a novel.

Have I ever been sooooo passionate about something as to drive someone away?

No, I can confidently say that although I am passionate and a bit crazy, I know humans have certain boundaries and limits and most importantly edges that you can’t push them over.

I think it comes down to a level of respect for others.

I really try my best to respect people, and I’m genuinely concerned about their feelings.

At times, I may talk the talk of a heartless bastard – but, in reality, I’m soft.

The problem is – the characteristic that gets me into trouble the most with others – the one thing about me that drives others insane – especially those closest to me, is that I am a bit too self-centered.

Ya think?!!

Perhaps this is due to my constant self-assessment sessions that I put myself through.

Perhaps it is due to the divorce all those years ago and the years after struggling with my identity.

Who knows- I can blame any number of things.

The good thing is that I am aware of this and awareness is the key!

The Gift Horse’s Mouth – R.E. Smith

R.E. Smith – no info on this author

A nice grisly story about summoning the intestinal fortitude to carry out a task beyond what you yourself could ever imagine doing.

You know, like cutting the head off a horse.

It’s amazing what a person can transform themselves into when a loved one is injured or just slighted.

I don’t feel the need to relate any stories of past cases where I have undertaken a deed thought to be “unsettling” one moment and completely within my realm of doing the next. – It has happened quite often with me. –

-Well not cutting heads off horses.

The Power of Language is Such That Even a Single Word Taken Truly to Heart Can Change Everything – Alvin Greenberg

Alvin Greenberg - May 10, 1932 – Alive and still writing

Wild pigs and the slight possibility that they have the ability to write.

Hummmm- OK, I’ll bite, chew and yup – I like it.

I have a problem. I have the strong suspicion that I sound crazy when I speak.

Crazy, stupid and not “all there”.

I’ve run this thought across M, and she assures me that in fact, I’m mistaken, and that I don’t sound like an idiot 99.99% of the time that I open my mouth.

Even with that assurance, I am very self conscious about the way I use words even if I think I use them correctly. But, I don’t think I have the ability to put them together correctly. I think that I have them in my basket; I just can’t sort them out into a sentence or thought that really conveys what I want to say.

In short – I don’t like the way I talk, and I think I sound unintelligent.

I’m about 3% away from actually being labeled intelligent...but not quite there. And I’ll never gain that mysterious 3%.

How do I listen, or interpret what is said to me?

Well, I do take about everything that is said to me to heart – at least for the first few seconds that it bounces around in my brain. I pass it though a filter, and I am able to distill out what I need to hold close and what I need to let go (which I can never really do).

Not all that surprising- I take a lot to my heart. I really value what a person says to me, and I feel that my reactions to what was said are solidly based on their utterance – rather than my own well developed opinion.

It takes a good while for me to develop an opinion. I need time to really absorb all the information that I can and to put it into my crazy order – only to, yet again, sound stupid.

I hear others in my circle of acquaintances speak, and they are very well spoken, and I just don’t match up to them. This intimidates me further.

So, words that are spoken to me or about me are very important. I give them great weight.

I don’t think there are enough people that truly take what is said to them to heart.

It’s unfortunate – but makes life interesting - maybe.

The Café de Paris – Roberta Gupta

Roberta Gupta – Found it difficult to find ANYTHING on this author.

The one little nugget that I did find gave further weight to the selection process that was “undertaken” by Gardner when he bore the weight of making selections for the BASS 1982.

The shot below is from the book – “Conversations with John Gardner” and is from the Washington Post profile of Gardner by Curt Suplee in 1982.

So, another “Gardner Person” neatly tucked away in the collection.


I know I may seem to be going beyond being obsessive concerning this whole affair, but what I have done, is created this wonderful little game for myself where I simply have to find the connection between Gardner and the current author that I’m reading. It’s really not that difficult but as I mentioned in a previous post, I doubt the casual reader in 1982 would be able to make the connections that I have today (thanks Googles!).

The story-

This one took a few pages to get into, but once I did I found it quite readable.

I was almost in a position similar to the narrator of this story. Fortunate enough for me, I didn’t have to return to the Café looking for a love that I had discarded only to find that love missing.

I lost my mind for about a week back in 2000. I bailed out of “my reality” for awhile and part of bailing out was to discard the woman I loved and to tell her that what we had was finished.

I was under an extreme amount of stress, and the only way I was able to deal with it was to sever all ties to the life that I had been living.

I had every intention of walking away from a very important stage of my life.

I was one sentence, one signature from ending something that I knew I had to finish...but I just couldn’t find the strength to.

It was through the guidance of a good friend and a caring supervisor who calmly laid out the repercussions of what I was about to do, and in doing so, they talked me away from the edge.

Once away from the edge, I needed to decompress, and that took about a week. In that week, I found within me what needed to be done to complete my work.

But I had left someone very important to me crushed and bleeding in my wake.

When I returned to “my reality”, I was able to resume my life pretty much as I had left it. People who were impacted were told to “understand”...and they did.

Except for her. And, I can’t fault her for that. We were involved in a different way.

I walked back to that Café, and she was there. She waited for me. But the damage I did will last a lifetime.

I imagine that from time to time she wonders if I’ll ever check out of “my reality” again. I left a scar on her that is quite visible and a little deviation in my behavior can cause the old pain of that scar to flare up.

I think back to that week from time to time and wonder what would have happened if things turned out differently. I know for a FACT that I would not have the life that I do today.

It saddens me to think of what my life would have been...because I doubt that I would be as content as I am now.

I’m a lucky man to find a woman that waited, and one that waits for me day after day.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Continental Heart – Lissa McLaughlin

Lissa McLaughlin – alive and doing quite well.

Well, it appears that we have a story from someone who is not a “Gardner Person”.

In his introduction to the BASS 1982, Gardner states that this story could be classified as unconventional fiction and as “powerful”.

I had a difficult time with this story when I first read it. Even after a re-read, it still leaves me a bit perplexed. This though is a beautiful thing. We don’t need to understand everything on its surface. Sometimes meanings come to us between the lines.

I think this is another story that was perfect for its time (1981). I’m not saying that it’s not relevant today...I’d argue that it can stand stronger today... in our world –.


There are times, and these occur pretty often in my life, when the sun is at a certain angle in the sky, or the wind hits my face from a certain direction at a precise temperature, and a distant sound, or a shadow on a patch of dirt or grass catches my eye, I find myself transported out of my physical world into that of my memories.

Standing at a train window, in 1993 looking across the endless fields of southern Russia wondering if this is “home”.

Standing at another train window in northern Romania in 2000 wondering if running away from the woman that I love was the right thing to do.

Glancing out the window of my dorm room in Negresti and seeing her walking to me.

Sitting on a shady park bench in Romania in 1998 where I struggled to put my feelings into words in a letter home as tears welled in my eyes.

Watching a bee work from clover flower to clover flower as I sit on that same park bench in 1999, and knowing everything is going to be OK.

A dog barking in the distance – a cow mooing- as I sat on a hilltop in 1999 overlooking Negresti as the sunsets contemplating my worth to this world.

Staring into the mirrored wall of a bar at 3:00 a.m. in 2000, smoking my last cigarette and drinking yet another glass of Vodka and wondering if she will ever love me.

Sunlight shinning through the grape leaves on a cool morning in the spring of 2000, onto the table between us as I stun her with news that will change our lives forever.

A quiet morning on the banks of the Susquehanna River in 1994 – wondering what my future holds – and if I’ll ever amount to anything after a multi-year failed endeavor.

A Sunday afternoon sitting in my bachelor’s room in 1997 drinking my 8th beer and wishing I was anyplace but there.

Hearing the Blue Danube Waltz played as “hold” music as I call my father in 1998 to tell him that I will be leaving in a few months...for a long long time.

Sitting at my desk at work in 2005, looking at the sun shining outside my window and wondering if the last 4 years here was the right thing to do.

The memories are stirred so easily in me, and these images will never be written over, and when, or if I ever, have my life flash before me in an instant – these are the visions that will appear.

The Dolphin Story – Joyce Renwick

Joyce Renwick - 1942 - August 14, 1995

Well no shit – here we go again -

Joyce met her mentor, John Gardner, while studying at Bread Loaf. He taught her to “Just Tell The Story.” She had this motto hanging above her computer, typeset, and framed in bright yellow. She used to say this gave her such freedom, such permission to write. John Gardner was an inspiration to Joyce and, while at Bread Loaf, she interviewed him and many of the other writers (including John Irving) for a collection of interviews she called the Bread Loaf Dialogues. The Gardner interview was bought by NPR and broadcast nationwide.


Why! Why! Why!

You know, this was a decent story. It held my attention, was suspenseful and overall, I found it rather interesting.

And that’s about it. That’s about all I got out of this story. It was a story, plain and simple.

I looked for something in to to trigger some sort of connection with my life, and honestly, I came uop with zilch – nothing, nada.

Even now, when I have allowed the story to mellow for several days before writing about it here, I have nothing.

Perhaps I am placing too much pressure on myself to find a lesson in each story, and just to take a story as a story. Perhaps something will develop at a later date.

-I’ll wait.

Monday, March 29, 2010

K. 590 - Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker - January 7, 1957

Exploring the writings of Baker through my research on him for this post, I discovered that he is the author of “Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper”.

Yikes – I’m not even going to get into the tornado of opinion surrounding this work.

I remember starting off here at the library and seeing the above book reviewed in a publication...not sure which one it was, NYT, New really isn’t important now – but what is, is that I remember it from then, 2001, and I am now completing a sort of circle with this author.

His argument in his book touched something in me as a new worker in a library and a lover of books.

I started working at the newspaper in the library in December of 2000. I saw everything at that time through innocent eyes. I really couldn’t understand fully the complete arguments that Baker made. There was something though that I felt was important in his message and I smelled it every day as I walked into work and into a room of old newspapers.

Part of my duties here in the library was to archive the newspaper.

Back in 2001, we were still doing the electronic archiving manually. The electronic copy was in the production system, but it was our job to make sure it matched up with the printed version and manually push it over to an electronic archive.

– We did this with photos and text – but they were two separate archives.

We also kept a 13 month hard copy archive (15 copies a day of each paper), a year worth of papers on a “stick file” for quick access, 3 copies of each paper (1 month supply in a secret closet) and then the microfilm copy.

We also had a special section box that we stored copies of - special sections.

Today, we still have all of the above archives but with a small variation to the electronic archive. This is now an automatic system. We have a single photo/text archive of the paper that is pushed over automatically from the production side of the paper to the archive side of the paper. I will NOT go into what I feel are the disadvantages to this system – I will say though that we still have a 13 month archive and the microfilm.

I should also note that we have a MASSIVE clip file archive of the newspaper from the mid 40s – 1990. The clip files are actual clipped articles from the newspaper filed into small manila envelopes, indexed by topic or name and placed into sliding shelves which are housed in one of two massive rotating filing systems.

These are the clipped articles - dated and indexed

They are placed into these envelopes

Here are the rotating files

The index above, and the cabinets below

We also have an index to this file system – the only one in existence. It is a wonderful archive and we use it daily.(see above)

Now, we also have about 100 years of bound editorial pages that we have recently moved from a warehouse into a temperature controlled environment. We are pretty lucky to have the space as well as these wonderful volumes.

We have been approached by several companies (including the one that begins with a GOO) concerning the digitization of our newspaper but we are holding off on that right now for reasons I can’t get into on this blog.

These are the systems we have here at the paper. I know Baker wouldn’t necessarily approve of it – but it’s what we have, and we make it work.

I’d like to draw a little line of connection now between Baker and what I am dong with this project.

I think it’s safe to say that I would not be able to read digital copies of these books. As far as I know, and my research is pretty thorough, the only copies of these early editions of “The Best American Short Stories” that exist are in a hard copy format. I have seen a couple of scanned PDFs of a couple reallllly old copies – but nothing that I have now. I can not at this time find electronic versions of these early publications that would work on today’s e-readers.

Will they ever be digitized?

I would imagine so – someday.

But would the electronic version have the two poppy seeds I found this weekend pressed between the pages – left perhaps by a reader years ago as they read the book over breakfast? I doubt it. (look for further discussion of this find and another project surrounding these seeds in the days to come!)

A majority of my collection was purchased through companies or individuals that acquired them from libraries. The books were not shredded and they did not end up in a landfill. They sat on the shelves of libraries for years, and now they will sit on my library shelf for years. I feel that I have rescued these books and I am doing a bit of a service to their authors to mention their name (even if it just their name – without even delving into the meat of their story) – and I know, it is I who benefits the most from these books. I am the one gaining the richness and the lesson they have to offer. I find the seeds, the coffee stains, the hairs, the crumbs, the underlined phrases, the fingerprints...

I have to think that the founders of the companies (Thrift Books, Better World Books, and as middle men - Ebay and Amazon) felt the weight of Baker’s argument and pushed them towards acquiring books from libraries – and making these rare books available to me – and to my future.

"Why can't we have the benefits of the new and extravagantly expensive digital copy and keep the convenience and beauty and historical testimony of the original books resting on the shelves, where they've always been, thanks to the sweat equity of our prescient predecessors?" (p. 67).

Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper

Exchange Value - Charles Johnson

Charles Johnson April 23, 1948

Unfortunately, with this story, I find myself using for the first time in this reading project the word “contrived” and it hurts to do so.

Annnnnddddd wouldn’t you know it:

"As an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University, Johnson studied with novelist and literary theorist John Gardner, whose conception of "moral fiction"-demanding from the author a near-fanatical commitment to technique, imagination, and ethics-deeply impressed Johnson."

It’s unfortunate. I’m the last to be considered to offer any serious judgment on writing but, I just felt this story should have offered more.

I can’t help but feel, that it was included in this collection for one reason only – John Gardner is once again using this anthology to push his disciples forward in the literary world of the 1980s.

And you know, I can’t really see Ravenel offering any sort of resistance to what he has done.

Knowing the personality of Gardner, it seems that he would have steamrolled any suggestion by Ravenel that he was stuffing this edition by including his “crew”. Gardner’s admission that he rushed in his selection can only lead me to the conclusion that he took an easy way out in some of the the selections.

So – here is a bit about the relationship between Johnson and Gardner – This is taken from the “African American Review” – full citation at the end of the post.

From early in their relationship:

At his home, I plopped three of the six unpublished novels I'd written in two years down on the meadhall-sized table in his dining room. Far from seeming like an ogre, Gardner, wearing wrinkled bluejeans that day and a white shirt that curved around his slight paunch, came across as kind. There was nothing phony or pretentious about him; he was the very portrait of self-confidence, but also self-mocking, and deeply involved in the work of the chattering students crammed into his house.”

And as their friendship developed:

The distance between teacher and student collapsed; he began treating me like a younger brother. He took possession of my literary development and, I believe, saved me five or six years of groping on my own. In our conferences and conversations Gardner began pushing me gently, then sometimes roughly to imagine harder and with greater precision, to write with fairness for every character in my book, and to hold in contempt any sentence I composed that fell below the level of the best sentence I'd ever written.”

As a mentor:

“But Gardner was a whole university education - a "school" - in himself. Some of his commentaries to me, written in longhand, run seven or eight pages.”

And again as a friend:

“I made it a point early on in our friendship never to ask him for anything. And since I never asked, Gardner - to my astonishment - gave and gave and gave.”

The development and inclusion of “Gardner People”:

“Once he opened up, Gardner was a teacher who could fill you to overflowing with confidence and his bottomless love for fine storytelling regardless of the culture or race that produced it. That first year of our friendship he introduced me to his friends - a network of scholars and artists I now refer to as "Gardner people" he brought together across North America (and Japan), and who still stay in touch, bonded by the belief - which grows each year - that this farm boy from upstate New York was, in his theory and practice, just maybe ten years ahead of his time. "

On his sudden death:

And then he was dead, killed in a motorcycle accident on September 14, 1982, on a lonely, curving stretch of road in Pennsylvania. Dead two weeks before the publication of my second novel. I felt, as so many "Gardner people" did, that our spirited conversations, our arguments over every aspect of life and literary culture, had been cut short in mid-sentence. Him we expected to go on forever, growing old but never less vigorous, holding forth on our sins against civilized life and holding up art as a Way to redemption. We will never see his like. again. And twelve years after his departure, during the quiet early morning hours when I work - as I first did until daybreak on Faith - I know beyond all doubt that I'm still writing feverishly to get a rise out of John Champlin Gardner.”

Johnson, Charles. "John Gardner as mentor." African American Review 30.4 (1996)

I suppose that Johnson’s skill and talent deserve the recognition of Gardner and the extra push that his reputation provided.

Johnson was and is hugely successful, and he attributes his early success to the relationship he had with Gardner. And the lessons that Gardner taught Johnson proved beneficial.

What I feel is a sort of “cheapness” to have this story included here.

Finally, all Gardner was trying to do was help. Johnson stated that Gardner just gave, and gave – and he did again by including this story.

Once again, what I am seeing develop into a lesson for me as provided by this story and the others that Gardner has included, is that sometimes it helps to have friends and teachers that are willing to take that extra step on your behalf.

Too many times – in my life, I’ve sought to isolate myself from assistance.

To distance myself from help – to almost forbid myself from asking for it. I need to learn to take advantage of the resources that are at my disposal – perhaps someday, I’ll have a John Gardner type person that will step into my life, I just hope that he/she hasn’t already passed me by.