Category Archives: Books

Randonautica #7: Random Noticing #1

(This subseries, if it turns into one — which is doubtful — attends to auxiliary, secondary, or casual observations made outside but as an effect of formal randonauting, an activity which heightens the mind’s general awareness and alertness, and encourages it to find and tease out “random” connections.)

“You do not stop a jogger who is jogging. Foaming at the mouth, his mind riveted on the inner countdown to the moment when he will achieve a higher plane of consciousness, he is not to be stopped. If you stopped him to ask the time, he would bite your head off.” — Jean Baudrillard, America

I just recently read these lines, which are excerpted from a longer observation by Baudrillard of the American jogger. I’m an American jogger myself, and I tend to perk up at attempts to understand the “meaning” of this particular pastime and the people who engage in it. My interest derives not only from personal experience as a jogger but also from how uninteresting jogging actually is, both to do and to observe. It is a very difficult subject from which to draw much sense or sensibility.

There are direct efforts, like Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, whose title, taken from Carver, is as deliberately flat as the long-distance runner’s experience of the miles. The only passage I can recall from this book has nothing to do with running at all. It recounts the moment when Murakami decided to become a writer, which occurred at a baseball game at the moment when a player who had hit a ball into the outfield pulled into second base for a double. Murakami’s life flashed in front of his eyes: not the life he was about to depart, but the one he was about to begin.

There is also the runner, and running, as archetype and metaphor, most famously in Alan Sillitoe’s short story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. While running, “I’ve been asking myself all sorts of questions and thinking about my life up to now,” writes the narrator — identified only as Smith (perhaps appropriately the most uninteresting name in English). This thinking while running more closely resembles one’s life flashing in front of one’s eyes before death, but is categorically different, less a mortal reckoning than an incrementally updated accounting. With every run, a little more is added to “my life up to now.” Yet there isn’t an equal relationship between time input and thought output: “By God,” Smith blurts, “to say that last sentence has needed a few hundred miles of long-distance running.” Continue reading Randonautica #7: Random Noticing #1

Albania 6: Gjirokastra

IMG_1837Enver Hoxha, Albania’s dictator from just after World War II until his death in 1985, was born in Gjirokastra. So was Ismail Kadare, Albania’s most famous writer—but to call him that is to undershoot by miles. To the rest of the world, Kadare is Albania’s only famous writer, although that doesn’t make him beyond compare. Think of someone like Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s only well-known literary export.

Think of Vargas Llosa too because he and Kadare have some similarities. They were both born in 1936, are both still alive, by and large expatriates (Vargas Llosa in Madrid, Kadare in Paris), and both have made their careers by speaking truth to political power. (It was Vargas Llosa who, on a prominent stage, made the indelible comment about Mexico that it was “the perfect dictatorship” because it was camouflaged not to look like one.) Kadare’s early books, written in the 1950s and 1960s under Albania’s nominally communist boot (in fact a fascist regime), were banned in his home country. But as Kadare’s international reputation grew, Hoxha was shrewd enough to recognize the cultural and thus exchangeable capital Kadare embodied, and didn’t entirely censor him. Kadare even became an occasional writer for the state, traveling to China on diplomatic missions and going to Vietnam during the American war, where he reported from the side of the Vietcong, via Albania’s alliance with Mao’s China.

Kadare’s writing continued to run him afoul of the government, and at least one of his manuscripts had to be smuggled out of the country for publication, but he didn’t claim asylum in Paris until 1990, just before the dismantling of the political regime in Albania. Hoxha himself had been dead five years by then, and there’s something almost poignant about Kadare staying in Albania all through the dictator’s life, as though he couldn’t bring himself to leave his country and seek asylum elsewhere until its ruler had left it, too. Later, Kadare was offered the Albanian presidency (he declined, twice). They’ll be forever intertwined, these two famous Gjirokastrans: a symbol of oppression and a symbol of freedom.

Continue reading Albania 6: Gjirokastra

Chrissie Hynde: Rock & Roll & Reading, Friday 9/15

Hynde Book Cover

What: Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography reading with live rock & roll.

When: Friday, September 15, 7:00 p.m. Free!

Where: Global Breath Studio, 119 W. Main St., 3rd Floor, Durham, NC.

Who: Adam Sobsey and “The Pretend Pretenders,” a band assembled just for the occasion.

Why: The recent publication of my biography of Chrissie Hynde, the legendary leader of the Pretenders.

A bit of background: In 2014, I was asked to contribute a biography to the American Music Series, edited by the venerable Raleigh-based music journalist David Menconi and published by University of Texas Press. I chose Chrissie Hynde, whose Hall of Fame band the Pretenders — best known for their tough- and melodically-minded pop-rock songs from the late seventies and early eighties, like “Brass in Pocket” and “Back on the Chain Gang” — are still very much alive and well, with a superb album out in 2016 and a recent US tour with Stevie Nicks. Hynde is an extraordinary and unique figure in pop music: she has an iconic voice and signature style; she’s “a self-possessed idol with no real forebears; a complete original who has trail-blazed for countless musicians [yet] has no true musical descendants,” as I put it in my book.

My musical biography focuses on Hynde as, above all, a great and greatly underrated songwriter. I hear her life through her music: from her well-publicized, Hindu-based vegetarianism to her complex feminism to her staunch commitment to motherhood. A review at Pop Matters called the book “gloriously comprehensive… I doubt there will be a need for another Hynde biography for some time as a result of the quality of this one.”

On Friday, I’ll read from the book, including excerpts about individual Pretenders songs, and the “Pretend Pretenders,” a quartet of excellent musicians from Greensboro, will play the songs. It will be great fun, perhaps illuminating, and there will be beer. Afterwards, I’ll have copies of the book available for purchase at a discount and signing.

For additional background, check out this Pretenders Spotify playlist I made for the book’s publisher or my preview of the Pretenders’ show in Durham last November. The webpage for the book itself is here.

The Pretend Pretenders and I hope to see you Friday!

Visiting Denis Johnson in Idaho

I was an MFA writing fellow at the University of Texas while Denis Johnson was teaching in the program. Denis saw a production of one of my plays and liked it, and we got to know each other a little. In the summer of 2002, I happened to be driving to Idaho and Denis invited me to visit him at his home in the panhandle. Before I drove up from Moscow, a few hours south, I asked him if there was anything I could bring. Some half and half, please. It was a half-hour drive to the nearest store from the Johnsons’ house.

The property bordered on a federal wilderness area on one side and Canada on another. Denis told me to look for a gate and a sign that said “Doce Pasos North.” The reference, he explained, unnecessarily but as a sort of formal declamation, a diplomatic laying-aside of the entire matter, was to the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. “I used to be quite the drinker,” he said, in a way that was at once offhand but definitive, understatement so laconic that it seemed intended to draw a vast pandemonium into a plainly marked but remote container. (I think he also told me he liked the name’s homophonic resemblance to John Dos Passos.)

Parked outside the house was a large vintage Cadillac convertible. Denis had bought it while he was in Texas, the crowning accessory to a general re-costuming he had undertaken when he was teaching there (cowboy hat, boots). It was a great car, he said, he’d always wanted a car like that, although he allowed that this collectible was now up in the weather of northern Idaho and was I interested in buying it. He was willing to give me a good deal and he had a price already in mind. About a decade earlier, when Jesus’ Son came out, I was talking about the book with a colleague who said he liked it but sniffed in it something of a put-on. In Idaho, Denis told me: “I wrote it because I needed money.” Continue reading Visiting Denis Johnson in Idaho

On James Salter

A writer’s writer — awful term. It’s damning, like putting a bird in a cage or a princess in a castle. There’s even “a writer’s writer’s writer,” applied to Elizabeth Bishop by John Ashbery, and by Terry Southern to Henry Green. I’m sure there are others. It is a high compliment and a virtual death sentence. It has not only to do with low sales but also high style: somewhat austere, perhaps, basically inimitable, with a certain difficulty or density or obscurity. Salter seems (at his best) to do more than his language suggests. Actually, it’s that his language is so often almost entirely suggestive, creating space around things, enlarging them. A Sport and a Pastime, his best book, is barely 200 pages long.

Maybe it’s risky or repugnant to say it’s his best novel. A Sport and a Pastime (1967) is an objectionable book, a secret book, a precious book, a notorious book. Continue reading On James Salter

10 thoughts on Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper

[Spoilers.]

1) Any book that quotes from Four Quartets, my favorite long poem, wins my prizes.

2) I like that every now and then she reminds you that many conversations rendered in English are actually taking place in German. It gives the whole book this great occasional (but very strong) sense of alienation and misunderstanding and exile, even loneliness (which is much of what Tiffany suffers from, I think). And it makes you see that Tiffany and Stephen don’t really understand one another any better, even though they’re both speaking their native English.

3) My objection to most younger writers’ books (that I read) these days is that they’re trying so hard to sound older than they are. Nell Zink is trying to sound a good deal younger than she is, which is harder. To some degree I’m sure this is just her voice (as demonstrated The Paris Review interview, which is almost as fun as The Wallcreeper), and I wish more people were talking about the voice. When I used to teach high school writers, a lot of them were obsessed with this. I always told them voice is the last thing any writer should worry about. But if I was going to tell them what “voice” was, I’d tell them to read this book. Continue reading 10 thoughts on Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper