Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Katie Stoynoff

Who Wouldn’t Love a Talking Pig?

There are conflicting reports about my reading abilities as a youngster. My dad says all I asked to do when I was young was read. My mother says I didn’t want to read and will tell anyone who will listen that I couldn’t read when I went to Kindergarten, as if it is some sin of which I can’t be absolved. The only thing I can say with any certainty is I loved to read after third grade.

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Spurgeon, was a throwback to a different time. When I had her in 1984, I was confident she was at least 85, when in fact she couldn’t have been more than 50 or 55. She was “Mrs. Claus” with yard stick and a West Virginia accent. She meant business. Her career started in the 40’s in a one room school house, where she had perfected a loving nature, mixed with just enough grumpiness to keep the wild boys in our class in line.

The reason I remember her so vividly, when the memory of so many of my other elementary teachers has faded, is her art for reading a story. Over the course of the school year, I imagine she read us hundreds of chapter books and short stories but by far my fondest memory comes from her reading of E.B. White's Charlotte’s Web. She had a voice for every character, which brought them to life. We read a chapter everyday, and I looked forward to the time after lunch when we gathered on the “reading rug” to hear the next adventure of Fern, Wilbur, and Charlotte. I have read the book no less than 30 times. I still hear her voices.

Mrs. Spurgeon died in 2007. The picture in her obituary showed she had changed little since 1984. Her passing caused me to reflect on her teaching and what I learned from her class. I realized that I learned a lot about being a good teacher from her. Successful teachers know when to be a warm-hearted “Mrs. Claus” and when to use their “yard stick” to teach students the important lesson that their success is based on their choices. But more importantly than that, I learned from Charlotte’s Web what it means to be a good friend. I imagine that is what she wanted us to get from the book - that and a lifelong love for talking pigs. Fortunately, I got both.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Michelle Skupski Bissell

East of Eden: Something to Talk About

The first time I walked after doctors slit open my lower abdomen to drain and remove two menacing cysts, I nearly passed out, my ears full of the buzzing that comes just before unconsciousness as I attempted to lift my legs back into bed (also an impossible task with traumatized ab muscles). Recovery was eight weeks. Eight weeks, and for two of those walking was as painful as any activity I’d undertaken in my twenty years. So I didn’t walk much, only to the street corner and back, once a day for the first week, my mother wrapping her arms around me, supporting my hunched figure. I spent most of my time reading, turned sideways in an oversized chair to relieve the pressure from my sutured skin. It was during those eight weeks (which really only turned out to be six) that I read, for the first time, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

I cannot deny the fact that the conditions in which I read East of Eden shaped my experience of it. I was a twenty-year old college student comfortable in a life of instant gratification: I ran daily, felt the sweat poor down my back; I craved Cheez-Its, drove to the store and bought a box. Suddenly I was trapped in a house with my mother (whom I love dearly, but nonetheless), quite immobile. Novels, and I sifted through a number of them during my recovery, provided a means of mobility. For the hours my mind engaged in coursing the pages of Steinbeck’s masterpiece, I was not in the big blue chair in the family room of my parents’ house. Well, I was, really, but I was not focusing on this fact, and, as far as my mind knew, I was in the Salinas Valley. If my physical body could not move, then at very least my mind could. There is no more fitting way to exercise the mind than through narrative because it is familiar, comfortable. There is a beginning, middle, and end trapped between two covers. If only all of life was that tidy. I can’t squeeze my personal narrative, still in motion, between pieces of cardboard, so, in that way, a novel is a reminder of mortality. There is some satisfaction—gratification—in being able to close a novel and know that I’ve finished something (and not my own story). In the case of East of Eden, I finished a 601-page something. I needed to feel a sense of accomplishment during those weeks.

Now, nearly five years after that stationary summer, I would describe myself as a Steinbeck fan. But I only became a Steinbeck junkie because of a family vacation scheduled for six weeks after my surgery (which is why I cut my recovery short; I had Bryce Canyon to climb). My parents had always wanted to take my brother and me out west, and it just so happened we were going to be making a stop in Salinas, California. My mom did her research on the area and tempted me with the prospect of visiting the National Steinbeck Center on our way down California’s coast. I’d previously read The Grapes of Wrath and maybe Of Mice and Men, but that’s hardly enough familiarity with Steinbeck’s life work to justify subjecting my father and my seventeen year old brother to hours of Steinbeck paraphernalia, including, as I recall, Rocinante, the trailer Steinbeck traveled the country in while writing Travels with Charley. So I began reading Steinbeck, beginning with East of Eden. This is the most literal example of what a novel can do: prepare one for life experience.

If it was simply the circumstances of reading East of Eden that made it memorable, taught me about the possibilities of a novel, I could just as easily be writing about Cannery Row or Tortilla Flat right now, as I read those, too, during my six-week entrapment. But there’s something, several things, about East of Eden that cause me to name it, quickly, when asked about my favorite book. For one, there’s Cathy Ames, though I have to admit that I had to look up her name. Steinbeck begins the first chapter that traces her life like this: “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents” (71). That is the readers’ initial glimpse of Cathy Ames. She is monster-like, truly, burning her parents home down as a teenager, intentionally, and them with it. She committed such an act without any regret. She lies and manipulates, conjuring fake tears while explaining her fabricated story about her situation to the whoremaster who hires her (92). Now that’s a character. And that’s only the beginning of her character. It’s been one year since I reread East of Eden, and I can’t name most of the characters or highlight any plot points. But when I close my eyes, searching for some of the book’s details, all I find staring back at me are red, devil eyes, Cathy Ames eyes. In the book, she doesn’t have such eyes (to the best of my memory), though that’s how I picture her. I should want to forget her, those eyes, her evil acts, but I don’t. I want always to be able to retrieve her character. That’s the power of a novel, to create within readers a tension.

And second, there’s the plot. I already noted that the plot is, at best, hazy in my memory. I do recall, however, thinking this: Steinbeck so gracefully steals the Biblical narrative (parts of Genesis, that is). There is so much emphasis in academia, especially at the graduate level, to think originally, to write something new. As a poet, I feel an inordinate amount of pressure to develop a form or tackle taboo subject matter just so that I can apply that adjective ‘new’ to my work. New, fresh, original. East of Eden is all of these things despite the fact that it derives from an age-old story. That’s its brilliance. East of Eden reminds me that it’s acceptable, respectable even, to mooch. I can rejuvenate old stories, poems, and ideas to create something both familiar and foreign.

I’ve read East of Eden twice now, and each time I finish reading it, shutting the cover, reveling in that sense of accomplishment, I feel a desperate urge to open it up and begin it all over again, as if I would be satisfied to adopt Cathy Ames’s narrative, or Caleb Trask’s narrative, as my own. Of course, I resist that urge, though I suspect I will reread it many times more, until I can recite its story as fluently as I can my own. Instead, I brag about East of Eden to family and friends, sometimes even buying more copies to give away so that others might be able to enjoy it as much as I do. Perhaps that’s the most important accomplishment of a novel: creating human connection. If I were ever trapped in a room, sitting sideways in an oversized chair, with all the people, dead or alive, that have ever read East of Eden, at least we’d have something to talk about.

Cited: Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Elizabeth Modarelli

From Yellow to Blue

By the time I was about eleven or twelve years old, I had already read all the books with yellow YA (young adult) stickers on their spines that the little branch library on Kenmore Boulevard had to offer. Okay, maybe not all of them, but all of the good ones, anyway. Good, of course = those with intriguing pictures on the front and/or jacket summaries interesting enough for me to take the effort to check them out (what a huge responsibility those jacket blurb writers have!). I had always been a reader and a regular library patron. When I was very young, Mom used to take me once or twice a week, and we would check out enough books to fill two canvas bags. The library was small, though about half of it comprised the children’s section, so the selection was fairly large. Also, some books were so great that I checked them out more than once. Nevertheless, at a pace of twenty to forty books per week, a kid could go through those holdings much more quickly than expected.

So I graduated to the YA section. I read staples by Judy Blume, Cynthia Voigt, and Paul Zindel, a couple of series aimed at adolescent girls (Sweet Valley Twins and Baby-sitters Club come to mind), and some pretty bad mysteries (which, I’m convinced, turned me off of the genre for good). They were all okay, and I had such a hunger for reading that I didn’t really discriminate much. I just wanted to read. I don’t know if I really felt it at the time or if I’m projecting onto my memories, but I seem to recall a growing dissatisfaction with these books with the little, round yellow stickers. It wasn’t enough to make me stop reading, though. For some reason, boredom with the increasingly mundane and predictable stories didn’t stifle the urge, the almost physical need, to read. I knew I should probably advance to the adult section, where the round stickers were blue. I knew I had to move on, but I think I was a little scared, so I stuck to the YA section until I had read all the books with moderately interesting jackets or back covers.

One day, after returning a particularly disappointing batch of yellow-stickered books, I took a few steps to the right of the YA section into a small section of shelves labeled “Classics.” The books on these shelves looked different—no flashy covers, more dignified in some way. I stood there for a while, running my fingers along the spines of these plain-looking books with names of authors that felt strange on my tongue—Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Steinbeck—feeling as if, at any moment, the librarian would walk over to me and steer me back to the YA section, where I belonged. These books looked heavier, and I was surprised when I took one off the shelf to realize it didn’t weigh more than the books I had been reading. I’m not really sure how I settled on A Farewell to Arms. I would guess it was a combination of several factors:

.......1. “Ernest Hemingway” just sounded like the name of a great writer (I had probably heard it somewhere before, though I wasn’t conscious of remembering it at the time).

.......2. The back cover blurb probably mentioned something about a beautiful love story during a time of war. The jacket blurb of the copy I have now promises “a story of a volunteer ambulance driver wounded on the Italian front, the beautiful British nurse with whom he falls in love, and their journey to find some small sanctuary in a world gone mad with war.” What adolescent girl could resist such a story?

.......3. I was growing increasingly nervous under what I thought were the disapproving gazes of adult patrons and library staff (though, admittedly, I had a wicked imagination when I was younger that no doubt created danger where was none in my boring, sheltered life). I just wanted to grab a book, hope they let me check it out, and get out of there.

It was summer, so I had all day to read. I remember feeling that, beyond the fact that I was reading an adult book, there was something different with this writing. Though it was written at least twenty years before most of the books I had been reading, and though it was set decades before during a war I knew little about, it somehow felt more real than the yellow-stickered books. I couldn’t put my finger on it—still can’t really—but as I read that book lying on the bed in my yellow (yes, yellow) bedroom, I felt like this was what I’d been searching for but had until now been unable to find in books. Page after page, I was drawn in through the language—simple enough on the surface for my adolescent mind to follow, but containing deeper meanings I’m sure I missed—and I got to know the characters, characters who were not predictable or flat. Though I certainly couldn’t have put it into words then, I think, in a way, I understood that this book had been crafted, like a piece of art. It wasn’t just the story (though the story did intrigue me) that made this a great book; it was the language, the deliberateness of every paragraph, every sentence, every word. This was certainly something new to a girl who had been reading books in series written by ghostwriters, books pumped out at an alarming pace.

There was something else that made this book different—no happy ending. I remember desperately turning the last page, looking for the rest of the story, tears running down my cheeks, crying aloud, “Wait, that can’t be how it ends! Books don’t end this way!” At first, I was angry. I had just invested two valuable summer days in this book—beautiful, sunny afternoons I could have spent in happy activities that wouldn’t make me cry—that didn’t end how it was supposed to end. I threw the book on my bedroom floor, cursing this Ernest Hemingway and vowing never to venture out of the security and happy (correct) endings of the YA books again. I didn’t read another book for a few days after that (my mother felt my head for a fever, this deviation in my routine causing her to think I must be seriously ill). I tried to forget about Catherine and Lieutenant Henry, but I couldn’t. And this frustrated me even more. After all, almost immediately after closing many of the books I’d read before, the characters disappeared from my mind, making room for those of the next book. They didn’t hang around, pestering me with thoughts like, “Hey, little girl, this is real life. Shitty things happen, and the boy and girl do not always live happily ever after.”

Although it would be a stretch to claim that reading A Farewell to Arms immediately propelled me into an adult (other factors of that time period, like entering junior high, reaching puberty, and the like certainly contributed), I think it was a pivotal experience for me. After my three-day long hiatus from reading, during which time I concluded that a book that could elicit such a strong reaction deserved better treatment than being thrown on the cluttered floor of an adolescent girl’s bedroom amidst muddy tennis shoes and Mad Libs, I returned to the library, dropped Hemingway (who had lived up to my initial assessment of his name) through the “Return Books Here” slot, and walked past the YA section over to the classics again, this time with a little less apprehension. I had read one of these books and survived, though the last few pages were now marked with my tears, so I felt as if I now had a right to be there. I don’t remember which book I chose that day, though I know it wasn’t another Hemingway—I wanted to see if it was just him or if other writers in this enigmatically named section could affect me so powerfully. I don’t remember because that summer started my voracious devouring of “classic” literature that would continue through junior high and high school and prompt me to declare English as my major in college.

I feel a little embarrassed to admit this, but though I’ve read many Hemingway novels in the twenty years since that first summer, several of them more than once, I have not reread A Farewell to Arms. I own a beautiful hardback edition, and I have told myself I really should read it again, but I think I’m afraid of sullying the memory of that first reading. What if I don’t like it this time? What if it doesn’t make me cry? I’ve returned to many books I read when I was younger, getting something different out of each reading, and I lived through these experiences just fine, better in fact, for being able to compare readings. But I have built up A Farewell to Arms so much in my memory that it feels like there is some danger of unraveling the very identity of my reader self if I return to it with all the knowledge of Hemingway’s biography and with comments of fellow graduate students who claim his writing is overrated and misogynistic as background noise. As a student of literature, particularly one who leans toward feminist theories, I can see their points and even, to some extent, agree with their assessments, wondering how I would feel about his novels if I approached them for the first time today. But a part of me remains oddly and fiercely loyal to the writer who brought me into the wondrous world of the little blue stickers.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Shurice Gross

The Introduction of Possibility

Mrs. Katz, the librarian at the elementary school I attended, was very opinionated about the kinds of books children should or should not read. Our small basement library was filled with reference books, volumes of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novels. But the kinds of books I liked to read were not found on those dusty shelves. I once overheard Mrs. Katz explain her hatred of Judy Blume, one of my favorite authors. “She’s just not a good writer,” she said. “The books she writes are too mature for children.” Not only was this statement a bold-faced lie, in my fourth-grade opinion, it only made me want to read more Blume.

My mother got me a public library card and I was allowed to walk the seven blocks from home to the Maple Valley library. To a voracious reader, a library card is better than high-limit credit card. I carried home as many books as my small arms could carry. The myriad choices were daunting to a 9-year old, but I made it through Blume, through Cleary and into the D’s. Authors I had never read before, but I happened across an old, worn hardcover edition of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Every book I’d ever read up to that point had been straightforward, reality based, and even still, those are the stories I enjoy most, the stories I enjoy writing the most. But Dahl introduced me to a nonsensical world in which anything, indeed, everything was possible. There was a separation in my mind concerning the world of fairy tales and the world of say, Ramona and Beezus, and I’d never encountered a book that dealt in both. Dahl’s description of the Bucket family’s destitution almost made poverty admirable. I began savoring my Hershey bars, eating them bit by bit, trying to make them last as long as Charlie did.

Here, in this story, was a hero’s journey. A classic rags to riches tale, but one that moves through a magical world of Oompa Loompas, Everlasting Gobstoppers and chocolate rivers. Charlie Bucket, with his 10-cent birthday candy bars and daily cabbage soup diet was a character that I recognized. From Aesop’s fables, he was the tortoise, slow and steady, but destined to win it all. A charmed prince disguised as a hopelessly innocent, hopelessly poverty-stricken little boy.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory became a precursor to other eventual childhood favorites, Norman Juster’s Phantom Tollbooth, and Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. I was entranced by the ridiculousness of the story. It was a world that I wanted to wallow in – who could not want to follow Charlie into Wonka’s factory? And once there, what child would not want to stay?

After my first read, I knew my mother would love it. But she worked nights and slept days, which didn’t leave much time for reading. She asked me to read the book to her as she dressed for work. We settled into a routine; I lay on the carpeted hallway floor as she dashed back and forth between her bedroom and the bathroom. It took us a full workweek to finish the novel. My mother enjoyed the story, as I thought she would. She interrupted me with her comments, “Now if they are that poor, he know he shouldn’t be buying tobacco,” and stopped me to point out the underlying morality in the story, “See, that’s what happens when you don’t listen. I like this story.” I’ll never forget how she laughed at the end, when Charlie, Grandpa Joe and Willy Wonka crashed into the family’s house.

CRASH, went the elevator, right down through the roof of the house into the old people’s bedroom. Showers of dust and broken tiles and bits of wood and cockroaches and spiders and bricks and cement went raining down on the three old ones that were laying in the bed, and each of them thought the end of the world was come.[1]

My mother stood in front of the bathroom mirror, one hand holding the Maybelline mascara brush in the air as she laughed, her head tilted back, neck exposed, hair curled around her ear. That may have been the moment when something came together in my mind. I could make my mother laugh like that – I could make other people laugh like that with my own stories. It’s fair to say that I chose this book partially because that memory is precious to me and in that moment, I felt as if I’d also found a golden ticket.

[1] Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (New York: Penguin, 1964) 153.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Steve Smith

Red Wheels Rolling

It’s fitting that nowhere on Amazon dot com can one find the cover image of the story book for boys, Watch Those Red Wheels Roll! Published in 1965 and written by Marion Renick, this book carries with it a meaning consistent with my notion of what makes a good book still today. Its obscurity seems apropos because as I read this book from cover to cover at age 10, it kept me reading simply because it represented a good story. Period. A good story. Neither jaded nor learned, I was simply a poor boy living in the inner city of Akron, attending a newly built school—Clinton D. Barrett Elementary School. This book was about race cars. Make no mistake—I would have surrendered every molar in my head if I could have had only the means necessary to build a race car suitable for competition in Akron’s All-American Soap Box Derby.

Sadly, that dream sprung up in the home of a struggling truck driver with four children. It thrived a bit then died and faded there in the Wilbeth-Arlington Housing Project. The beauty of the book, however, was that it sowed in my mind the first seeds that if my ragged friends and I could not afford to race down the majestic green and white lined hill that stood just two miles from our homes, we might build and race our own. Renick’s book got me thinking that with some stolen lumber, a mix of lawnmower and golf cart wheels, axles and washers, a steering bolt, and a hunk of jump rope, we could race Ericsson Avenue down to Rosemary Boulevard and from there pert near to Arlington Street, wood shop goggles and glory.

How great the story a boy discovers without the educated arm shadowing over him pointing out the recognized and critically reviewed. Better yet, how great the story that illuminates for children the path to ingenuity and fun.

Monday, January 12, 2009

David Giffels

Jerry Todd and the Purring Egg

When I was a kid, my parents used to make Sunday afternoon visits to the Bookseller in Akron and allow each of us to pick one old used book from the basement shelves, an endeavor that taught me one of the great joys of literature: its smell. In those basement stacks, I took to cracking open the spines and, when no one was looking, breathing deeply the dark perfume of aged pulp and ink, sometimes even touching my tongue lightly to the page for a taste. It was in this way that I selected "Jerry Todd and the Purring Egg," published in 1925, one of a series of B-level adventures for boys that quickly became a skewed passion. Because of the nature of the Bookseller's inventory, I became an aficionado of thickly anachronistic pulp literature, favoring books with fanciful frontispieces and characters named Red and Scoop and Cap'n and boys who drank coffee and other such truck. And always, always testing them first with my nose.
When I was studying at Akron, I would do the same thing at the Goodwill store at the edge of campus (which store I will always associate with the smell of the Wonder Bread factory). That's where I learned that I was a fan of books with the Penguin penguin on the spine, without really understanding the higher principles of brand identity; when hundreds and hudreds of 25-cent books are randomly gathered and displayed with equal randomness, tiny details make all the difference. (Isn't that how butterflies find their mates?) I discovered Mary Gordon that way.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Jason Mullin

S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders

In the seventh grade, the boys at St. James Catholic School fought a turf war over a book: S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Although curious of the world, we had no sense of the power of books. For answers, we looked elsewhere. Billy Ruggeri routinely held private show and tell sessions in which he produced numchucks, brass knuckles, and knives of all size and ferocity borrowed from his father’s collection. Chris Gallagher once produced three cans of warm beer, and seven of us gathered round at Webb Park, adopting the bitter, familiar smell of our fathers with each arduous sip. Todd Link often presented us with his mother’s pornography, and Jeff Billings stole cigarettes from his grandmother’s purse at will. These things changed us, and though frightening, they were not unexpected, nothing like our reaction to Hinton. That is, we knew we had to fight one another now and then, and if someone offered a lit cigarette or open beer, then we had to take a drag. Also was it necessary to slip our sweaty palms beneath our girlfriends’ blouses when dared. This we accepted. But a book, a novel no less, rising to a level of importance, of necessity, of grace even, this surprised us wholly.

Before computers and the magic and mystery of the internet fused with the library experience, we regarded the task of searching through card catalogs in order to locate a book equivalent to marching through our own backyards to collect a switch with which to be beaten. The stacks at St. James were impossibly dry, and we suspected wholesome Catholic teachings in every page, positive lessons on life buried deep in the prose. Who could withstand preaching while his body transformed in the grotesquerie of puberty? There was no Stephen King, no Sydney Sheldon (a very good read for a curious thirteen-year-old), no J.D. Salinger, no H.P. Lovecraft. A few liked Poe but were dubious—he wrote poems as well. Was he one of them? The book, our book, had been there all along, we supposed, and now, upon discovering it, we suffered an awakening of sorts.

The Outsiders did not remain checked out for long, two days, maybe three at the most. Many held it a single day, stumbling to school with heavy eyes and the vague notion they were different types of boys than they had thought. One by one, Hinton startled us with the idea such intimacy was possible between us and anything else, let alone a novel. And for those of us not yet indoctrinated, we feared the school would discover the book before we could read it. Despite the recurrent images of handguns and switchblades, the incessant smoking, the coarse language, and the heavy sexual overtones, the book remained on the shelf. Had the nuns slipped? Had Sister Dolores, who had held onto the practice of corporal punishment in school long after its legality expired, allowed us access to this book on purpose? Had the same priests who promised hell fire over missed sermons and Friday cheeseburgers been won over by Hinton’s hard scrabble world? Unless a trap, an oversight this great could not last.

When we spoke of the book, we did not mention its emotional impact, though that was the draw. Instead, we professed love for the knifing by the fountain, for the gang fight in the abandoned lot, or for the way Dally refuses to surrender in the park, choosing a hail of bullets over conformity. We maintained our mantle of aloofness. (Young writers do that, too, disguise their lack of emotional investment with profanity, gore, and aggression.) Yet communal as our experience was, it remained secret. Like all our adolescent pains, we hid them from the only other people capable of empathy, each other. There is no more solitary creature than a seventh-grade boy. Connection was the change we wanted yet feared most. Alone, we confronted our own sensitivity, disapproving, therefore, even of ourselves.

We didn’t know who read it first, who experienced that initial shock of self-discovery, but the fight for its possession gripped us in a kind of temporary psychosis. Eric Gelb wrote Bobby is an Aids-man on the desk of Robert Skully, who insisted no one call him Bobby. And David McMichael punched Terry Burchak so hard in the groin he peed a little blood. Yet no one returned the book unfinished. Those of us who hadn’t read it could scarcely bear the exclusion, the waiting. It’s been three days. Who’s got it? Those in the know teased the others, holding lofty conversations, retelling their favorite scenes, and shooing away the unread. The air in the library thickened, as if violence could erupt any moment. There was something too savage about it all, something awful and permanent about being last, as if our place at the bottom of seventh-grade society was at last confirmed. I would not be that boy.

Back then I was neither bookish nor athletic, neither lonely nor popular, neither bully nor victim. Amorphous in the way of all adolescents, I longed for knowledge of myself. The question what do you want to be when you grow up implies that at present, you are nothing. Finally, when there was no one left tougher than me who hadn’t read the book, the librarian stamped my card. The tattered plastic cover lay bedside while I read the story three times over four days. If I couldn’t read it first, I would read it most, I reasoned. In the novel, Ponyboy suspects his identity is incomplete, that he is more, or at least different, than his greaser label, and sunken into my bed, the only child of a broken marriage, feeling like nothing much, I wondered whether I was something even less than that, perhaps lacking identity altogether, yet realizing on some base level I existed already, an unrealized self, hovering in the future, waiting.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Dawson Steeber

An Old T-shirt

I have an old T-shirt—coming apart at the neck, stained around the belly—on which is a black and white photograph of Charles “Hank” Bukowski. He looks to be in his fifties, but is more likely in his thirties, and is leaning against a streetlight, one arm wrapped around it like an old friend. His forearm rests on a pamphlet box. The sign on the box reads: JESUS CHRIST SAVES FROM ALL SIN. PRAY TO JESUS NOW. OBEY THE BIBLE. WARNING: DEATH, JUDGMENT, ETERNITY, HEAVEN or HELL. There is also a small note telling passersby to TAKE ONE PAPER FREE. The box is empty. Several people have asked who the preacher is on my shirt, and expressed more than a little surprise that I am religious. I generally laugh and explain that the preacher is a poet and that the shirt, to me, suggests that the Word of God is empty, and Hank is the one to listen to.

I realize this sounds a bit hyperbolic, and too many young braggadocios love to invoke him and his lifestyle, but Bukowski really did have a strong, nearly spiritual effect on me. I was never one for reading. No papers. No glossies. Nothing. Then I serendipitously came across Love is a Dog From Hell when I was around twenty years old. And ever since reading that book from cover to cover over a couple of hours, and repeat readings each day for three days after, I have been addicted to reading his words. In fact, reading Bukowksi was a sort of ironic “moment of clarity”, an epiphanic moment. I read him with the attention an ascetic would poring over the Bible. I read through his oeuvre with a catechismal rigor. I went from simply lying back on the floor of my apartment letting the words rush over me, to actually reading Bukowski’s words.

With his gritty, poignant brevity, with a blunt street vernacular, a frank looseness of tone with seemingly arbitrary line-breaks, the language of the layman—a language that one might use in conversation with a friend over a drink—Bukowski showed me at the heart of the American Dream lies profound ambivalence and empty morality. His first person narratives reflect parts of American society that I had long ignored—the working American, issues of social stratification, a harsh critique of the American Dream, and a critical analysis of work. Bukowski wasn’t the sort of poet that had driven me away from reading poetry; the type that had me disenchanted by literature’s alienating austerity and antiseptic content, though in high school I simply thought it corny and boring.

He was neither elitist, bohemian, nor overtly political, but simply working-class. It was his unique brand of beer-soaked irreverence and comic misadventure, tempered with scathing social commentary, and his blatant challenge to the efficacy of the American Dream; an unwavering assault on numbing, routinized work deadening the majority of Americans and a strong anti-consumerist belief—essentially, to hell with consumption for the sake of consumption—that spoke to me like scripture. I was embracing the sins of man, and Bukowski seemed to be showing me that I had, we have, no other choice. In fact, Bukowski told author Ben Pleasants that all of his, Bukowski’s, work dealt with an America that was “mentally fucked up and unhappy, not knowing what to do, how to get out of bed, how to get a job, how not to get a job, how to get through another day...” Oh, Yes! Tell ‘em, Brother Hank! Brutal truth teller!

I drank in his words and read that my refusal was a positive one, in that it implicitly demanded something more than material affluence. His work, ferociously bleak in its portrayal of life, his depiction of drunks, drug addicts, criminals, prostitutes and outcasts of all shapes and sizes was the world I was living in, those were the people I talked to, worked and drank and rode the bus with everyday.

It was this aliterary style with its characteristic themes of desolation among society’s misfits, outcasts just getting by, managing somehow to cope with the absurdity of life and work, that moved Ezra Pound to recognize Bukowski’s writing as “new” and “slapping the face of the status quo of writing.”

For me, Bukowski’s work will always be one of a kind in its range, its detail, and in its perspective from which readers are able to make value judgments regarding notions of work and its influence on the individual and all of us.

For a long time I carried around copies of Bukowski’s poetry clenched tightly in one hand and, like a bus stop or barstool preacher, I slurred catechisms to anyone who would listen.

Now, a husband and a father, I don’t preach so much, but there is a four shelf altar in my basement to old Hank to which I direct any visitors wanting to read good lines about the bad life.

Eric Wasserman

A Lifelong Treasure

There is a wonderful line I identify with near the beginning of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in which the narrator says, “Being the third son of the family, and not bred to any trade, my head began to be filled very early with rambling thoughts.” As the third of four children in an enormous family I didn’t exactly feel special as a little boy. Also, I was a child who struggled in school from dyslexia and was placed in special education classes until the middle of the seventh grade. Reading was definitely no pleasure back then. What I did have going for me was an imagination.

The reader in our family was my oldest brother, Todd. I recall a family vacation to Lake Chelan and seeing Todd reading Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. I was not a reader at the time. I was a boy obsessed with going to the movies and reenacting the plots I loved. My father was one of the first people in our neighborhood to buy a VCR and often recorded movies for us that played on television. One that I loved was the 1950 Walt Disney version of Treasure Island. I remember breaking one of my mother’s brooms in half and attempting to fasten it to my knee with duct tape to play the part of Long John Silver in my playtime fantasies. Treasure Island is one of the first books I read by choice. I read it for two reasons; I knew I liked the story from the movie and I wanted to be like my oldest brother who excelled in school and did not have dyslexia.

Coming from a big family, I had built in playmates, but the truth is that I spent a lot of time by myself imagining stories and acting them out. One of the places I would do that was Highland Forest. Had my mother known I was riding my bicycle into the forest and setting off to play out adventures she would have grounded me until puberty. In that special place I believed I really was Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island. And when the adventures Stevenson put to the page ran out, I created my own because I didn’t want them to end. Alone there in Highland Forest, lost within my own imagination and the world of stories, I found a way to feel special. I would run about the trees singing “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest— / Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum!” having no idea what rum was at that age, but Coca Cola would do just fine to play the part. I was a suburban boy dreaming inside boy’s adventures. Like so many places of my childhood, Highland Forest is no longer there. But my imagination is still there among the vanished trees, believing I am living within a story.

When I went on my honeymoon to Scotland I took a copy of Stevenson’s Kidnapped. As I read it on the plane I simply could not imagine a fictional David Balfour. As I read, “I” was David Balfour and Highland Forest was Scotland. I was once again a little boy finding a way to feel special through reading. The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh has a special Robert Louis Stevenson exhibit. In one of the security protected glass cases is a copy of the first printing of Treasure Island. While there, I stood and looked at it and thought of being that little boy who didn’t feel special who read a book and slipped into the world of the imagination. A book had opened a new door to my life and as a newly married man I was opening another. The once little boy with dyslexia found his life in the special gift of reading was staring at one of the seeds.

Emily Dressler

The Day I Met an Author

When I was ten, I was obsessed with one author. Her name was Lurlene McDaniel and she wrote books about girls with cancer. They usually died. Every girl was beautiful, even in the throes of sickness. Often, they had gorgeous boyfriends. I devoured these books. I could finish one in a day. They were supposed to make you cry, I think, but I never did.

McDaniel was coming to a bookstore in Fairlawn and I forced my dad to take me. I was nervous about meeting her. I had never met an author before and I didn’t know if you were supposed to meet the people whose books you practically ate. I had been too privy to her private thoughts, and I wondered if it would be awkward to see her.

My dad agreed to take me there on the condition that I stop reading her books. He said I was getting to old for them. Everyone died in the books, I had told him, and I added how grown up that made them. I knew he was right, though. I could tell the books weren’t all that great. It was a guilty pleasure and I was ten. Before we left the bookstore, he bought me Sirens of Titan and Of Mice and Men. Talk about growing up fast.

Meeting her was actually a nightmare. My dad was the only dad there. This was before Borders had a coffeeshop, so he couldn’t even go there and wait. He had to sit there with me. He wasn’t going to, but all the moms were with their daughters, so he stayed with me. I don’t remember what she talked about. I remember that I was the only one wearing basketball sneakers. During the Q & A, my dad nudged me. He knew I had a question. I had asked him my question on the car ride there and he hadn’t been able to answer it.

I asked her why all the sick girls were pretty. I had a big gap in my front teeth, my left eye was lazy, my shoes were never tied, and my hair was an unruly mess of frizzy curls. I asked her if it made the sickness worse, made their death sadder, if they were beautiful. She said no, but her books said otherwise.

On the drive home, I told my dad I didn’t want to read her books anymore. She wrote about people living and dying (mostly dying), and she didn’t talk at all about the magic in anything.

About Me

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I write short stories and essays. I have published over seventy stories and essays in magazines, as well as a novel, Jack's Universe, and a collection of stories, Private Acts. I grew up in a military family, so I'm not from anywhere in particular except probably Akron, where I've lived for forty years. Before I came here, I never lived anywhere longer than three years.