Lakes of New York

The Great Sacandaga Lake is the left foot of New York’s Adirondack Park. It looks like a giant swan attempting to fly east while simultaneously having its neck stretched like a pinched wad of taffy.

Otsego Lake is the reason Cooperstown exists where it does, so it’s the reason the Baseball Hall of Fame exists where it does, by proxy. It’s home to Glimmerglass Park, which is a beautiful place to play badminton in the summer. Otsego Lake looks like a phallus in profile.

The Finger Lakes of central New York, including Canandaigua Lake, Cayuga Lake, Owasco Lake, and Skaneateles Lake, surround an important wine-making region and foster the community of Ithaca (and thereby Cornell University) as well as the town of Canandaigua, Ithaca’s ugly brother. The Finger Lakes look like nail marks left in the walls of a Cambodian prison cell.

Lake Champlain is the natural feature that has for years kept the state of Vermont from mounting any kind of effective westward assault on New York’s important (if sparsely populated) northern realm. It’s said that a giant creature named Champ lives in Lake Champlain’s cool, deep water, and, for all we know, that’s true. Lake Champlain looks like a sperm fired from Whitehall and headed directly, terrifyingly, toward Montreal.

In the southern part of the state, the Neversink Reservoir provides water security for the sprawling metropolis of Neversink, which is surrounded by the Willowemoc Wild Forest and a place called Big Indian Wilderness–a name that has stuck since the white man’s rudimentary first attempts at translating Iroquois. “What’s that he said, Franklin?” “Didn’t catch it. Let’s go with Big Indian Wilderness.” The Neversink Reservoir, when rotated ninety degrees, looks like a diving, stubby-armed mermaid.

Quick Tub 3/16/16

Been slow going on the reading front, but I managed to score some great finds at the Whitney Book Corner in downtown Schenectady yesterday: four Library of America-style volumes of Philip Roth, that beast that JK Rowling wrote after Potter was finished, some book about Detroit by a blowhard ex-badboy reporter. But the real prize:

How To Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen. Say what you will about his personality, the man has some crazy powers of insight, and had them even in 1995, when he wrote “The Reader in Exile,” an essay about the death of the novel, among other things that are killing our society.

His essay, “Why Bother? (The Harper’s Essay)” is pretty long-winded, but also worth reading if you’re a writer or wish you were one.

I took down Justin Torres’ We Were Animals this week. Amazingly beautiful read, quick, but pointed. Recommend.

On Reading

Open book. Read random selection of reviews, some by other writers, some by other critics, turn page. Think about who you would dedicate your book to, wonder if that makes sense, wonder if any ex-girlfriends should make the cut because, technically, the idea for that one story about eating sushi while high on Ludes came from the night you were with her, eating sushi and high on Ludes. Did the people you would dedicate your book to really help you to produce the work, or did they merely put up with you while you were doing it? In that case, should the barista at Starbucks be there?

Page one, experience stream of jealousy that someone who wrote this drivel even got recognized at all.

Page forty, start to get okay with it.

Page two hundred and fifty-seven, think about putting book down in favor of newer, fresher book; tuck bookmark in, look at the top of the book and try to gauge how much of the book, in fraction form, you’ve read, and how much you’ve got left to read. Go and wash the dishes, go to CVS and buy Swedish Fish, come back home and think about reading, watch HGTV instead.

Think long and hard about how this book isn’t following any of the standard advice you got in your MFA program: Show-don’t-tell, narrative arc, flat characters/round characters, Jesus there are a lot of similes just in that one paragraph.

Finish book, put it in a stack with other books you’ve finished/decided to give away without finishing. Wonder if you should hang onto it in case you get hired as a writing professor somewhere and you need something to decorate your office with. Get real, all of a sudden – for every five you give away, ten more will take its place.

In the Tub 2.9.16

Books on tape shouldn’t be called “books on tape.” They should be called “books on CD.”

Rant over.

This week was a busy one. Here are some of the books I read and bought and am excited about these days:

Read

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. A drag of a novel, really, with some interesting bits thrown it at the most inconvenient places so that you feel bad not reading it. There’s a bit with a character called the Boatman that is nearly legendary, though. Quite good writing there. The rest of it? Meh.

Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney. Young white kid gets caught up in drug culture of ’80s New York City while trying to hold a job and find a woman to warm his bones. A hyperfast read with some passages of astonishing clarity and some passages of seen-it-heard-it. Sort of like American Psycho minus the violence, maybe? Still, a good book to read if you’re interested in where the snappy, dialogue-driven intelligentsia writers of today (I’m thinking Jonathan Tropper, Josh Bazell, Jennifer Egan) are coming from.

The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta. Crystal-clear novel about faith and sexuality, though its segmentation can feel a little distracting. Though the book is named for a particular character (or is it?), multiple characters are explored at great length, and their relationships with their significant others, and politics charges in, and, and, and. I thought it was a cool, somewhat breezy read.

Bernie, by Ted Rall. Short little graphic novel about the rise and politics of Bernie Sanders, trying desperately to make the case that he’s different. And maybe it succeeds. I’m pretty much a Sanders guy, ideologically, already, but wonder about his ability to beat the establishment-just like everyone else who wants to vote for him, I suppose. Anyway, this one is interesting in parts, a drag in parts. Don’t want to rate it but if I did I’d give it an OK.

 

Bought

The Yard, by Alex Grecian

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, by Sunil Yapa

Nostalgia, by Dennis McFarland

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James

John Updike: The Early Stories, by John Updike (duh)

Plus, gang: Elisa Albert’s Afterbirth came out this week in paperback. Go and scoop.

Cheers.

Smithfield, VA

The town of Smithfield, Virginia spreads out from the banks of Cypress Creek, which flows north-south, and the Pagan River, which flows east-west and is a tributary of the James, and whose name is not derived from the heathen religions but from the Cree Indian word for pecan.

Smithfield’s roots sink nearly three hundred years, when it was settled as a port village with easy access to the Atlantic by way of the James. It is the site of Fort Huger, one of a network of forts established up and down the James to prevent a Federal fleet from sailing straight up the Confederacy’s jugular to Richmond.

Smithfield also boasts the Wentworth-Grinnan House, a hot living spot for traders of the 18th century who were looking to make their fortunes on the backs of slaves in the sugar trade with Bermuda and the West Indies.

The town’s little library is lovely.

Smithfield Station is a particular pride and joy of Smithfielders–it’s a giant restaurant.

The roads that lead into downtown are lined with softwoods and willows, and the storefronts have well-manicured facades and awnings with neatly-stenciled lettering; the downtown area is so idyllic, in fact, that one almost forgets that Smithfield is also the headquarters of Smithfield Foods, the largest meat-packing operation in the world, which is responsible for the slaughter of over a hundred thousand pigs every single day.

In the Tub 2.1.16

So every time I pick up something by Kazuo Ishiguro, it seems to be the only thing I read for that week, or for those two weeks, as the case may be. In part this might be because I keep looking his videos up on YouTube because he’s so goddamned intelligent that I always want to hear him explain what he’s doing in his own words. The Buried Giant, his most recent novel, which I’m almost finished with now, is, by modern standards, a bit of a slow-mover: the language is intentionally precise and outdated, the setting is something of a fantasy-novel cliche, it is episodic and in constant consideration of the slow reveal it promises. But somehow Ishiguro has a way of keeping you in the thing, even if you’re only reading it four pages at a time. (In fact, maybe there’s an intelligence to that, too? Maybe writing that’s meant to be plowed through misses some broader point in some way?)

In my car, I’ve got Tom Perotta’s The Abstinence Teacher going, and it’s more of a quick-paced thing, something that wouldn’t take much effort to read myself and is built to raise questions about significant (albeit, arguably, common) domestic issues like religion, sex, and education policies. Nevermind, Perotta’s writing is contemporary and fast, lucid and snappy. I like it.

Also, the recent Atlantic, which features an interesting article about the owners of Hobby Lobby and their questionably fast acquisition of ancient Christian artifacts and texts, and their apparent plan to build a gigantic museum with them-called the Museum of the Bible-in Washington, DC. How very ostentatious, no?

William H. Hamm and the Circus Fire

Look closely at the circus fire photograph that is the header of Belmont Foghorn. Just to the right of the line of tapestries you will notice a small boy in dark pants and a flat cap, running from the crowd and back toward the water tower. That boy is William H. Hamm, a devoted arsonist his entire life who was never caught; in fact, he ultimately became the mayor of a small town in Pennsylvania called Purityville.

On the day of the circus fire, William Hamm was with a group of his friends in Schenectady, watching the show and eating popcorn they’d bought with money Hamm’s father, who was an engineer with General Electric, had given him earlier that morning. One of Hamm’s friends dared him to set a hay bale on fire with a cigarette tip, and Hamm, never one to back down from a challenge, did so.

Three people were killed in the inferno, including a baby and his mother. An elephant had to be put down due to complications of smoke inhalation, and the Barnum and Bailey Circus didn’t return to the Capital Region of New York for forty-seven years, despite the pleadings of several governors, all of whom were avid monkey lovers. Hamm himself escaped that day, and many other days on top of it (if his diary, discovered in a cardboard box following his death in 1982, is to be believed; this writer thinks that it surely must be, as Hamm provided details-times, ignition points, amounts and types of accelerants used-that were never reported in the papers). He went on to major in accounting at Union College, not half a mile’s walk from the scene of the circus fire, and later married and moved to Amish Country, where it’s said he put on one hell of a bonfire.*

 

*Absolutely untrue. Almost all of it.

 

 

Burrowsville, VA

If I wanted to go to Burrowsville, Virginia, it would cost me around $350 to fly from Albany, NY to Richmond, at which point I’d have to get in a car and drive another hour down Highway 10, just to the west of the James River, well past Tar Bay, well past Indian Point, and just slightly past where Ward’s Creek flows through on its way to Mann’s Pond and beyond. (Ward’s Creek, incidentally, dies off in the middle of nowhere about ten miles northeast of the unincorporated town of Disputanta, which got its name when an engineer-cum-Civil War general named William Mahone, who was building a railroad through the swamp between Petersburg and Richmond, got into a fight with his wife about the name of his new rail depot, and she came up with the clever name of Disputanta.) When I got to Burrowsville, finally, I might see this church there, with its red metal roof and its back pressed against a marshy section of deciduous forest, and that wouldn’t be entirely unpleasant, especially if I had a cold Diet Coke and a ham sandwich on white bread.