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Ahistorical Historical Fiction, Part Deux

Historical Fiction is not always historically accurate, but that’s okay. Please see Part One for more words on the subject and the first half of this list.


Michael Moorcock

I’ve written a bit about Michael Moorcock in one of my previous posts, and I return to him again with Gloriana, his rather fantastical and darkly imagined take on the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  Moorcock always takes pains to write fantasies lacking in idealism, and the England (or Albion) of Gloriana is an unpleasant, decadent, and bloated empire ruled by a debauched queen, with the book’s lurid descriptions of the kingdom and its court sometimes bordering on the didactic.  Written as “a dialogue with Spenser’s The Faerie Queen“, Gloriana offers a rare, unabashedly fantastic take on a supposed golden age that is not afraid to confront the ugly realities of the period.


The Sot-Weed Factor
John Barth

John Barth is an occasionally difficult author known to interlace his works with complex structures and esoteric ideas, but his works are also filled with ribald humor, genuine cleverness and exciting storytelling.  The Sot-Weed Factor, his most well-known work, tells the story of Ebenezer Cooke, ‘Poet-Laureate and Virgin’, a somewhat over-aged innocent traveling throughout Colonial America whilst attempting to write an epic poem about his homeland.  Primarily what drives this story is the quirkiness of its characters and the adventurous spirit of the novel, but the work also contains extended portions examining the actual events surrounding American colonization, including a notably different take on the story of John Smith and Pocahontas.


Umberto Eco

Baudolino, for what it’s worth, grants the reader a reprieve from Eco’s traditionally overstuffed and extravagantly erudite style of writing.  This may or may not be a good thing, since I tend to enjoy the challenges his fiction offers, but even with its deceptive simplicity, Baudolino stands with Eco’s best works.  Set in the High Middle Ages, Baudolino is the story of the titular character, a born liar and the adopted son of German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, as he travels across Europe using his genius and penchant for lying to solve the various problems of the continent.  To get the full gist of the story you are best served to have several degrees in European history, but even if you fall short of this requirement it is not hard to grasp the central thesis of the book: the way history, myth, and outright fabrication all contribute to our perception of the past.  Most of the book plays it straight, but in the last third of the story we follow Baudolino to the legendary and quite fictional realm of Prester John, where he encounters satyrs, unicorns, blemmyes and other inventions of the medieval mind.  Although the story is straightforward, much of it is based around a complex, multilayered examination of truth and fiction and the story may leave the reader with some fairly heavy lingering philosophical questions. (What is reality?  How does mythmaking affect our understanding of history and the immanence of time?  Did anything real actually happen to Baudolino or did I just read a 500-page novel that was some guy riffin’ on made up stuff!?)


The Baroque Cycle
Neil Stephenson

Like science?  Want to read a 2600 page trilogy about the establishment and early history of science, including excessive jargon, seemingly endless tangents on subjects you never thought to consider, complex historical analysis and bold, occasionally revolutionary diatribes on the changing nature of science and evolving paradigms in the way we view nature and reality?  Neil Stephenson is a science nerd par excellance, and he requires that his readers be the same.  Traditionally challenging, dense, and packed with facts you don’t need to know but should anyhow, his books excel because as an author he rarely forgets the fundamentals of a good story and fills his work with excitement, fun, and, in the case of ‘The Baroque Cycle’, some good swashbuckling.  Set during the time of Isaac Newton’s inquiries into science, the novels track the story of a group of scientists (or natural philosophers, as they were known at the time) as they seek to develop the systematized method of thought and analysis later to become the scientific method.  Lots of other stuff too. And there are enough bizarre and decidedly pseudoscientific events occurring in the series to place them disticntly in the camp of science-fiction, even if the optimist might declare that some of the oddities throughout the story are more improbable than impossible, and that Stephenson is educating us about branches of science that are yet to be uncovered.


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell

The most recent work on this list, and directly and openly inspired by Norfolk’s Lempriere’s Dictionary.  Set in Japan during the Napoleonic Wars, (making it the third book on this list set in that period,) The Thousand Autumns chronicles the lives of Dutch traders living on a small traders’ post in Nagasaki Harbor, attempting to adapt to the alien culture as well as to the changing times.  For the most part this book is very straightforward, and might read as some exceptionally well-written spinoff of the ‘Shogun‘ novels, but the inclusion of an immortal Zen master and his rather enigmatic temple adds what is, for my money, some old fashioned science fiction goodness to an otherwise very unremarkable tale of culture class, forbidden love, and days of trade and plunder.  I won’t say too much about what happens, but I will say I have a distinct theory about what Mitchell leaves to the reader to figure out. (Hooray for me.) Also, let it be noted that Mitchell has announced this book IS a science fiction novel, despite the scarce evidence to prove it as such, and he is currently planning two sequels that will involve the theme of immortality and take place in the far future.


Happy Reading!



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I know what “a cappella” means.

Their parents must have been savoring a long post-meal linger in the cafe’s back garden, because two young teen gal-pals wandered into the children’s section in search of amusement.  Their clothing fascinated me.  Conventionally unconventional in that teen-uniform sort of way – a mix of Madonna, grunge, and Goth.  Sneakers, red & black plaid net mini skirt over shorts on one, denim mini over leggings on the other, tank tops, cropped jackets with necklaces, leather buckled bracelets, tousled hair with turquoise streak, etc.  My generation, at their age, was still dressed by their mothers in girly frocks an inconceivable universe away from such street-smarts. They idly perused past a few teen titles: the goth tale The Replacement, and from the Twilight series The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner.  Then to my surprise one of them caught sight of a fairy-themed play tea set and fell in love.

Oh, enchanting moment, to see the Miley Cyrus carapace crack open and reveal the sweet youth still imagining within.  Soon enough the luminous lofting soap-bubble between-worlds fairy delicacy will thud to earth, perhaps in vampire leather and heavy eye-liner or hip-hop army boots with hot-pants and knit beanie.  But this moment still held a wrestle between a fairy tea-party and an allowance just shy of enough to pay for it.  After intense debate with her pal about whether this particular purchase merited her entire cash reserve, the decision was finally made in the negative.

Summit concluded, her financial adviser turned and picked up the vintage classic moo-in-a-can toy.  I remember this toy from my childhood. Its simple goofiness seems to be persistently attractive – there’s even an i-phone ap that brings it into the cy-world.  Of course part of its charm is that the cow (or lamb, or goat, or whatever) never sounds very real…more the slightly strangled groan/croak of some indeterminate species.  The girls convulsed into giggles and began an a cappella chorus for cow, sheep and two voices. The possibilities were too rich, and by the time I was done with my enthusiastic instigation they had escalated into full beat-box farm rap opera with all the sound effects. I was in school choir.  I know what a cappella means.  But I would never have had the nerve to leap into the kind of wild scratches, buzzes, moans, and pops these little divas were throwing out. They took a bow, then bopped off to check on their parents, and my eyes fell upon two books nearby.  Air Guitar by Dave Hickey is a terriffc collection of jazz club-honky tonk-art gallery-hot rod-surf shop essays on creativity and art and our big, messy Democracy.  He likes to take seemingly unrelatable things and remark on how they tango together to make Art.  Like, possibly, baby’s moo-cow toy and beat box riffing.  Perfect segue to the next book over:  Becoming Jimi Hendrix by Steven Roby and Brad Schreiber, the thorough and thoroughly riveting biography of the shy, spacey, apparently chronically untogether young guitarist whose wild sonic experiments got him rejected as an ugly duckling at home, who journeyed away to foreign lands (well, England) where his strangeness took the rock scene by storm, who returned home a glorious Swan God of Music.  Hail! all ye eccentrics riffing the sounds in your heads, who can still see fairies, possibly adorning yourself in plaid netting and/or a worked-over tee – we at the bookstore are happy to egg you on!


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Here’s to a creatively fulfilling retirement, despite the existence, on Earth, of Nicole Krauss.

My buddy and co-worker, BJ, and I headed downtown to the Central Library on Tuesday night to attend an event featuring author, Nicole Krauss.  Ms. Krauss was being interviewed by Michael Silverblatt, host of Bookworm on KCRW, regarding her latest book, Great House. I really liked her previous book, The History of Love, and I was set to have a wonderfully stimulating evening.  We started with a lovely glass of wine at a nearby restaurant and then headed to the Library auditorium along with about 200 other literary fans.

The author read a few pages from the book and then, as Silverblatt began interviewing her, I knew right away that I was in for an evening of trying to decipher the meaning of the conversation between these two members of the literati. The talk was deeply intense about what engaged the author in obscure areas of thought that might or might not have anything to do with the book in question.  As the conversation continued I became more and more frustrated, trying to maintain an interest in following the ideas of both the author and the interviewer.  Even the Q & A was for the most part on a plane that seemed designed to keep everything esoteric and dense.  Finally, the last question came and I was relieved. I felt like an eighth-grader waiting for the bell to end the misery of the test I was failing.

BJ and I turned to one another and I was thrilled when she admitted that she found the discussion too lofty and ultimately uninteresting to her, as well.  Thank goodness.  We began to talk about how we felt in school, when although we were more than adequate writers, we had lost our confidence because, invariably, in our classes were young Nicole Krausses who intimidated us (intentionally or not) and we were left with the feeling that if we couldn’t write like her and think like her then we might just as well give up.  (Our faulty thinking, no one else’s).  But many of us have taken ourselves out of the “creative race” for just those reasons… not so much fear of failure but fear of not measuring up… forgetting that there are many levels of creativity, all of them affording some measure of satisfaction.  Our parents and maybe even a favorite teacher might have tried to tell us that, but we just couldn’t hear them. We couldn’t bear the idea of not being the best and brightest, so in many ways we gave up.  How sad.

Many people in L.A. roll their eyes at the mention of someone who is trying to be a screenwriter (and there are hordes of them writing screenplays), but I silently cheer them on and say, go for it.  Even if they never sell a script I give them great credit for pursuing a dream and trying to hone their craft and not being discouraged by the overwhelming competition. Perhaps the young people today are benefiting from the emphasis in the last twenty years on self esteem, both in schools and in our culture.  It certainly takes confidence and self esteem to compete against the best and not remove yourself from the competition until you have given it a good try. Who knows, I may decide to spend my retirement writing… maybe a screenplay. Certainly, it won’t be a novel…not with Nicole Krauss still out there writing.


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Goth Talk, Part II

Precisely one eternity after Part I, (which you should read before wading in here,) we bring you the second installment of Kevin’s most excellent list, in time for…

well, just in time.


The Historian
by Elizabeth Kostova

Debuting at what may be considered the beginning of the now slightly moribund vampire craze, The Historian is a novel that had a fairly good run on the bestseller list and gained some fairly favorable reviews.  Written in a self-consciously literary style, with chapters split into alternating timelines and much of the story told in epistolary form, the novel has a similar vibe to it as occult-academic thrillers such as Foucault’s Pendulum and The Club Dumas.  Taking place in three different periods of the 20th Century, the novel follows an academic, and later his daughter, as they try to unravel the legacy of Vlad Tepes, the real-life character Dracula was based on.  Never coming quite fully into the story, Tepes is imagined by Kostova as combining the qualities of the historical Vlad the Impaler with those of the literary Dracula, as imagined by Bram Stoker.  Painstakingly researched, the novel analyzes the folkloric roots of the vampire legend in Eastern Europe, as well as offers an in-depth look at Eastern Europe’s significance as a transitional region between the Islamic East and Christian West during the Middle Ages and between Capitalist and Communist societies in the Modern Era.

Suffused with an atmosphere of eeriness and subtle terror, The Historian is not filled with grue and blood like other Gothic tales; rather, Kostova obsesses on another stock feature of Gothic literature: books.  This book is filled with lavish, evocative, and slightly obsessive descriptions of maps, documents,  mysterious tomes, old letters, and the decaying structures that house them. [Ed.  Yum!]


The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen

One of horror’s forgotten classics and a significantly influential book to many later writers, The Great God Pan explored the theme of the rational mind’s inability to deal with the monsterousness and perversity of nature.  Starting out as something of a science fiction story, the novel soon turns into a story of supernatural horror, as the narrative follows a woman who appears to be the offspring of the pagan god, Pan.

Machen has some flaws as a writer, but he has a singular ability to write stories that are bizarrely imaginative and still shocking by today’s standards.  The Great God Pan, like The Horla, (see Part I) had a significant influence on later Weird Horror writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and others, inspiring the concept of the ‘Eldritch Abomination’: a creature of godlike capabilities and malignant indifference towards mankind, who can drive a person insane simply by its presence.  Later writers would usually cast their abominations as extraterrestrial or inter-dimensional beings, but Machen’s Pan is stated explicitly to be the well-known pastoral deity known from Greek mythology, who, according to ancient standards, was far more dangerous and terrifying than we would ever imagine.


The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
by Carson McCullers

Despite achieving some popularity in her lifetime and having a fairly interesting circle of Lost Generation friends, Carson McCullers’ life was not an easy one.  Suffering several strokes before the age of twenty and constant physical impairment afterward,  watching a promising career as a young musical prodigy peter out before it started, and enduring an endlessly repetitive cycle of bad relationships throughout her life, it is no wonder her stories are almost without exception about misfits and outcasts living in some degree of isolation or deprivation.  Told  in the relatively realistic tradition of Southern Gothic literature, her stories usually forgo horror for horror’s sake and instead offer startlingly sympathetic and often heartbreaking looks at the lives of her characters.  The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, one of her more fantastic and fable-like novellas, is the story of two strange outcasts: the extremely masculine Miss Amelia, and the hunchbacked, childish Cousin Lymon.  The two meet each other and a Platonic love blossoms between them as they run the increasingly popular Sad Cafe, which offers them both acceptance and a sense of purpose within their community.  Into the mix comes Miss Amelia’s ex-husband, and a very strange, somewhat tragic love triangle develops.  Unlike any other work on this list, McCullers’ fixation on deformity, deprivation and suffering is not intended to horrify, but to give the reader a sense of the universality and inescapability of these conditions, and to posit as to the manner one may find dignity and hope within them.


by Daphne du Maurier

Sharing much in common with Jane Eyre, Rebecca is a sort-of Gothic crime novel chronicling a young woman’s journey into adulthood as she finds herself living under the shadow of her husband’s former wife, the seemingly perfect and beatific Rebecca.  Although there is not a hint of the supernatural, this story is as Gothic as they come.  Dark secrets, sadistic villains, labyrinthine mind-games, dangerous attractions, decaying country homes, and poignant descriptions of bad weather, Rebecca self-consciously appropriates the tropes of Gothic literature but does so rather effortlessly.  A rare and celebrated case of high literature that reads like a guilty pleasure.


The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea
by Yukio Mishima

It is debatable whether Yukio Mishima falls in to the realm of the Gothic tradition or if his personal perspective was just so weird and unpleasant that he appropriated the features of the genre in his work without knowing it.  The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea is a good example of just how effective a writer he is in any case.  Set in a Japanese village by the sea, the story follows a sailor, a young mother, and her son, as their relationships constrict around each other.  Dreamlike, with spare, tense passages and a sense of menace that descends slowly, we float along as the anger and isolation surrounding the young son Noboro give way to a suggestion of horrific, senseless violence.  What I like about this book, besides its serious weirdness, is its ambiguity.  Characters in the story seem supernatural at times, but little is explained, and a great deal is left to the reader’s imagination in terms of what actually happens.  [Ed. If you insist on watching the film first, (which happens not to be terrible,) be sure to pick up the book at some point after and marvel, mouth agape, at how much more satisfying your own imagination can be for your various forms of hunger.]


Exquisite Corpse
by Poppy Z. Brite

Like with most works by Poppy Z. Brite, either you will enjoy this book or you will read it and want to immediately wash your brain out with bleach.  Brite is the master of two things:  Baudelairean, bruise-purple prose and incredibly detailed and explicit acts of depravity, murder, torture and etcetera. Exquisite Corpse is one of her non-supernatural stories– essentially the novel is the story of two serial killers in New Orleans as they indulge themselves in their favorite pastime.  Though gore and torture are not my cup of tea in literature, I have to admit a lot of respect for Brite’s absolute mastery of the genre and his ability to go to the darkest and most horrific places imaginable while rising above the cheap-shocking and sensationalistic.


As a final thought on the subject, I’d like to broach a topic that has been debated furiously over the last few years.  Is  the Twilight Saga Gothic Literature? It does, on the surface, have some resemblance to the Gothic genre; primarily the inclusion of supernatural elements and the theme of a young woman’s journey into a terrifying world where she confuses the fearful for the alluring.  The reason Twilight does not quite make the grade is because the alluring is too alluring, and the terrifying not terrifying enough.  Elements of terror and the grotesque surface, but mostly fleetingly.  Instead of the main character (who, being a somewhat dim-witted innocent, is undeniably a Gothic heroine in the high style,) being confronted with the hideous and malevolent as she falls deeper into a dangerous attraction, the primary drive of the Twilight Saga is her  love for the angelic Edward.  Making evil attractive is a feature of Gothic literature, but it is debatable if Twipires are in fact evil (their feeding habits are somewhat similar to those of Bunnicula).  Where Twilight succeeds is as a supernatural romance,  but as I have stated the supernatural is not a guaranteed element of Gothic literature, and the intense focus on beauty and love as major themes run counter to the traditional Gothic formula.  Other young adult books like Harry Potter, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and especially Lemony Snickett, fulfill the requirements of Gothic literature at least somewhat notably.

If anyone would like to comment on this dilemma please feel free to do so.  The question of if the Saga qualfies as good literature is beside the point. Since it is consciously modeled on the formula of Gothic literature and currently sets some standard for that genre, it is a question I think is worth asking in good faith.



[Ed. Wait. So. Do you mean to say, Kevin, that you read Twilight? I’m confused. Apologies for tactlessly butting in, Aida.]

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Very Special Sleuths -Part I-

Cover of the pulp magazine Mystery (February 1...

To commemorate the runaway popularity of 'The Girl Who...' series, otherwise known as the Millennium Trilogy, and also the glut of Agatha Raisin mysteries we have in our store, I have decided to put together a list dedicated to mystery fiction. Though the varieties are endless, mystery fiction in general follows a rather strict formula that dictates the narrative.

Usually, the first pages involve an impossible, or at least unsolvable crime, and the protagonist (who is either a police detective, private investigator, or Jessica Fletcher-like busybody inexplicably given access to crime scenes the world over,) is called in to solve the crime.

They do, inevitably, but not before being stymied by at least one dead lead and weathering B-plot personal difficulties that eventually give them the strength to overcome the heavy and solve the crime.

The crime itself, having been solved, is usually revealed to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors regardless of how impossible it at first seemed, and the hidebound rule of ‘fair play’ requires that clues to solve the mystery have all been discovered and explained sufficiently for a smart reader to solve the case.

Usually, all this will happen over twelve chapters, sometimes more if the author has a talent for fluff.  Naturally, the strict format most mysteries follow is not to the genre’s detriment; legions of passionate mystery fans will agree that the formula most of these books follow is extremely satisfying, and by adhering to a sense of ‘what works’ in terms of plotting, the author is free to focus more on aspects of the story, like style of writing, setting, and character.  And character, perhaps, more than the plot, setting, or the mystery itself, is what makes a reader want to come back for more.

The protagonist of any given mystery story, besides being required to live in an atmosphere of death and deceit at all times, must have something unique and, daresay, quirky about them.  Rabbis, Confucian judges, Welsh monks, bed and breakfast owners, and all other kinds of individuals have been featured as the sleuth of some mystery series or another, and it seems inevitable that mystery fiction sleuths will grow ever more colorful and bizarre against all expectation of realism.  As a treat to mystery readers, and to honor those unlikely (fictional) geniuses who labor endlessly to solve equally unlikely and contrived crimes, I offer a list of the ten (well, eleven) most interesting and colorful sleuths of detective fiction.

Here is the first installment.


1. Agatha Raisin (M.C. Beaton)
The Agatha Raisin mysteries belong to the sub-genre of mystery fiction known as ‘Cozies’.  To wit, they occur in a bucolic, countrified setting and play down the murder and gore aspects, remove elements of danger and harm to the detective, and generally aim for good, clean fun without falling into the grittier aspects of the genre.  Think the classic ‘Miss Marple‘ mysteries, or perhaps ‘Rosemary &Thyme‘.  The Agatha Raisin mysteries fit nicely in to this sub-genre, but in some ways are a deconstruction of them.  The titular detective, Agatha Raisin, is an older woman in the vein of classic cozy detectives, but is herself not a cozy type of person.  Moody, abrasive, man-crazy, and restless in her little town, Agatha Raisin is a far more fleshed out and believable character than other notables of the genre, and usually more entertaining.

2. Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton)
A popular character from Victorian literature, Father Brown was written as a deliberate alternative to Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes, like Poirot, is a haughty eccentric who champions reason and observation as the key to solving a mystery. Father Brown, on the other hand, is a diminutive, modest priest who comports himself as a bumpkin and utilizes his talents of understanding and intuition in his cases.  Chesterton based the character on a priest friend of his , whose years of hearing confession had instilled in him a deep understanding of human nature, and most Father Brown stories have a philosophical aspect to them, with the crime being an ontological puzzle as well as a logistical one.  Although some of Chesterton’s ideas have not aged well, the Father Brown mysteries are still highly thoughtful, enjoyable, ornate, and surprising, and the good father himself is as likable a character as one could hope for.

3. Lord Darcy (Randall Garrett)

Imagine a world where Richard the Lionheart remained King of England, and for some reason, as a result, magic existed in the place of technology.  Now imagine a detective living in that world capable of utilizing magic for the sake of forensic examination, who goes on tosolve mysteries that, despite the mystical nature of the setting, are all by and large mundane whodunits with realistic solutions.  Take that, and add a bit of James Bond-type espionage, and you have the Lord Darcy novels.  Lord Darcy himself is a suave, gallant aristocrat who is not terribly interesting, but he represents a blending of the classic genre detective with elements of the pulp action hero, and to boot, he’s a sorcerer.  As I’ve said before, fantasy fiction is not for everyone, but if you are a mystery fan who can open your mind to a bit of Tolkiensque world-building, with dazzling, relentless humor and inventiveness, then I would suggest giving these novels a try.

4. Mike Hammer (Mickey Spillane)

Maybe you don’t want your detective fiction with a side of fantasy.  Maybe you want the real stuff: hard-boiled, gritty, hyper-realistic, cynical, and violent detective fiction.  Then welcome to Mike Hammer’s world.  Mike Hammer takes the qualities of such characters as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but dials them up to the extreme and adds in a characteristic streak of misogyny, sociopathic violence, and a total contempt for the machinery of justice.  Mike Hammer does not solve crimes through detection, intuition, or any other mental capabilities, he solves them through copious use of his fists, feet, and any blunt object at hand.  If you like Mike Hammer, or support his tactics of investigation then you are probably missing the point, but Spillane’s character has influenced a whole school of detective fiction and does not seem to be waning in popularity.  The key, perhaps, lies in how deeply enjoyable such an unpleasant character can be once you find humor in his awfulness.

5. Nancy Drew (Carolyn Keene)

All-American girl.  Wonderteen.  Idol to millions, proto-feminist icon, and a formidable fighter when she has that Maglight at hand.  Just remember, the secret in the old clock was not political correctness.

Too Bee Cuntinuuued… Duh Duh Duh Daah!



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Visual Discombobulations, Sometimes Referred to as Poetry

This is a (visual) poem entitled “fallen”, created by Jorg Piringer.

It is comprised of the fallen English letters of a translation of The Communist Manifesto. Out of context, stripped of meaning, jammed together, in effect failed and discarded. You see where this is going.

This medium is as old as painting and writing themselves. Those of us at one time or another disposed to flights in the direction of fanciful thought and stuck in the mud of very loosely grasped esotericism have offered, perhaps, that a particularly poetic painting or other work of art can legitimately be referred to as a visual poem. Indeed, it cannot. If something is poetic all it is, in the end, is poetic. Being poetic does not a poem make. So, all this gibberish to say that visual poems are not regular-Joe poems, they are not paintings; they are a sometimes-silly-other-times-stupid-often-poignant category unto themselves wherein people who can’t string together coherent sentences or draw actual figures combine their two non-talents to make something silly/stupid/poignant of them. I’m going to stop kidding around now and invite you to


“Labile” by Michael Basinski


“untitled” by Derek Beaulieu


“The Disremembered Glossolalist” by Peter Ciccariello


“alwaysendeavor” by Bob Dahlquist


“haiku #62” by Scott Helmes

All poems first published in Poetry magazine.

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Kevin Makes Another List

Authors that Should Have Received The Nobel Prize for Literature (But Didn’t)

Like the Academy Awards, the Nobel Prize for literature is the highest honor an author can receive, with the added distinction of being an award for a lifetime of work, which comes with a cash prize of a cool million.  And like the Oscars, the decision-making process when it comes to picking the recipient can seem capricious, petty, or downright bizarre, and many of the best authors of the last century lost that prize to inferior (in my view) contemporaries, or were simply ignored.  Why don’t you make this list longer, as surely it can go on forever, by adding your own in comments!


1. Jorge Luis Borges

A fairly notorious case of the Swedish Academy ignoring an author for their political beliefs, Borges was turned down time and time again for the prize, for his conservative political views and support of South American dictatorships the fervor of which, perhaps over-exaggerated by his critics.  A list of those authors influenced by Borges would include all South American writers, all science-fiction and fantasy writers (including, arguably, Tolkien), all postmodern writers and some modern ones, and perhaps any authors whose fiction contains a tiger, a mirror, a maze, or any combination of the three. Generally, the decision to pass over Borges for the award is reason numero uno that many consider the Academy to be out of touch with prevailing literary opinion, and a quarter century after his death the omission still raises hackles.


2. W.H. Auden

Auden, who was one of the best poets in the English language and one of the few Modernists to actually deal with modernity instead of treating it as some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland, was allegedly passed over because he made some rather scandalous remarks about Dag Hammarskjold.  Since the Academy is comprised entirely of Swedes, you can see where this might have been a miscalculation on Auden’s part if he’d really desired the prize.


3. Vladimir Nabokov

Best known for a novel that inspired a song by The Police, Nabokov was hugely influential among high-minded writers everywhere, and wrote in a style that expressed both a great deal of wit and playfulness while still being dense and rigorous as anyone could imagine.  While Borges was perhaps more influential in terms of style and theme, Nabokov set the high-water mark  for four generations of authors after him.  He was nominated once but two Swedish authors took it home that year instead.  Both those authors were on the deciding committee.


4. Graham Greene

Another also-ran, Greene probably confused the political-minded Academy with his eclectic beliefs, which combined strident (even if often laissez-faire,) Catholicism with secular humanism and a flirtation with Socialism.  Greene, who wrote about ugly characters in ugly situations, grappled with the problems of suffering and unhappiness and, although he depicted many characters that wanted badly to be good and just, his books are filled with ambivalence and confusion in the face of evil.  The effect of all this is that his world is rather bleak and unlikable, but that’s the point.


5. Mark Twain

Mark Twain was passed over for the prize not once, not twice, but ten times.  From my understanding, he really could have used the money.


6. Joan Didion

Didion’s work, whether fiction or truth, sheds more light on the trends, culture, aspirations, and interior life of 20th Century America than practically anyone else I care to name.  Her prose is lucid, clear, and spare, and at times it touches a rare perfection in her prosody.  And, as anyone who has read her knows, she is unbelievably brutal; painful, heartbreaking disenchanting and sometimes just plain mean.  The Academy probably has no plans to offer her the award any time soon.


7. Haruki Murakami

An author who has blossomed into an international superstar of mind-boggling proportions, and one that has become an icon for the protean, conflicted, deeply imaginative character of modern Japanese culture.  He’s still young(ish) so he might get it some day, but his serious-minded contemporary Kenzaburo Oe already scored the award a little while ago, so don’t count on it.


8. Thomas Hardy

What do the works of Henry James and E.M. Forster have that Thomas Hardy’s don’t? Answer: brief glimmers of happiness.  Thomas Hardy is best remembered as a Naturalist writer, but I think his work contains elements of the Gothic as well as a sense of transcendentalism that is often overlooked.  Life is tough in a Hardy novel, but that’s because it’s tough in real life too. Hardy never pulled his punches and endured scandal for it.  He deserved the award doubly, since his career as a poet was as fruitful as his career as a novelist.


9. Robert Graves

Though he was, in my opinion, a second-rate scholar, Graves defined the genre of the historical novel and wrote some of the best of them, when not writing otherwise on every subject under the sun, and some, like his quasi-fictitious White Goddess, under the moon.  Graves’ status as a polymath, as well as his fearless unconventionality, honesty, and the evocation of the wonder and mystery of the human experience should have won him the prize. But didn’t.


10. Thomas Pynchon

Pynchon is one of my favorite authors, perhaps the greatest American author of all time, even if his books are impossible to figure out, frequently obscene and loaded to the gills with lame jokes, shaggy dog stories, and esoteric minutiae so lovingly detailed it takes several Ph.D’s to know what is going on.  But, even if that doesn’t win accolades, he’s gotten a lot more lucid with his later novels and people are actually starting to figure out what he’s talking about.  Plus, he wrote ‘A Journey in to the Mind of Watts’, which is regarded as one of the best essays written on race in 1960’s America.  If he ever did get the award, it would mean he would have to leave his Salingeresque seclusion and actually make a public appearance, something he has never done in his career.  Here’s hoping.


[Unsolicited, Somewhat Related Editor’s Note: The only writer since 1901 who refused to accept the prize for Literature was Jean-Paul Sartre. You’re probably not surprised. Good. I hate to break it to Kevin, but Pynchon, if he were to win, would probably follow suit. Which would be appropriate. In lieu of the cash prize, however, (which would be the real pity to waste,) all he’d have to do is sell his toilet on ebay. ]


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