Saturday, January 30, 2010

And the Prize Goes to: Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov

Caption: Vladimir Nabokov receives the J.J. Ellstrom Award for Literature, 2009.

Dear Vladimir Nabokov,

When the applause dies down, every award winner, sits down. Their smiles twitch and relax. The tight buttocks widens on the seat of the chair. Still nodding to their peers and compatriots, still squeezing the hand of the one they love, still tightly gripping the statue, certificate, or badge, they think the thought, the one thought that is not really a spoiler, any more than winter is a spoiler to spring.

They think: "Why me and why this?" For you, the question, certainly becomes "Why this work, when I wrote Lolita and Pale Fire?" This work is hard to find. It is obscure and indeterminate. It is the least of these, my brethren. But of course, you know the answer, for this was, perhaps, your favorite work.

Timothy Langen from the University of Missouri says: "Of all of Nabokov's famously fertile works, Invitation to a Beheading has yielded perhaps the greatest bounty of plausible interpretation." Yes, I think that is true. As Invitation is an ambiguous book, providing for students and experts such a slippery surface for academic pursuit, I have put on my skates and worked my figures on the ice. Here is what my mind has etched as I thought and thought, like Cincinnatus C., over the past year.

I think that Invitation to a Beheading is a very personal internal portrayal of the topic of obsession. Like Humbert Humbert, in Lolita, our protaganist is manacled by and absolutely defenseless against his own personal obsession. HH's fixation is delineated for us. But CC's is left to our imaginations and our soul's empathies. We may fill in our own blank. Hopefully, ours will be less horrific than the one described in Lolita, but the imprisonment is the same.

The prison analogy that you, Vladimir, have used in Beheading, is a reversal of the one you chose for Lolita where HH is only freed, really, once he is behind bars. CC, on the other hand, eventually works through his obsession and in a final decapitation of much that he conceives to be himself, he finds himself free to live once more.

It may be CC's inability to fit society's mold, his "gnostical turpitude," that is the precipitating cause for the obsession that confines him to the cell of his unreal reality, but it is the obsession itself that holds him there, awaiting and hoping for the end of both the obsession and the only life that he can embrace while in it's grip. What day will this end? How long will this beloved horror continue? That is the question you have raised, isn't it? That is the tale you have woven in this curiously beguiling novel. Here you have analyzed the perverse intrigues of the heart and mind that is incarcerated by a forbidden enchantment.

One of the most interesting moments of the book is when it is revealed that CC can leave his prison, and that he does so, briefly, only to return rather accidentally but deliberately.

Somehow our hero reaches the end, his end, the end of his obsessed form of living. (And so does HH. And so do you, and me, and all of us.) By an act of will, or circumstance, or chemical recession, the obsession subsides and we walk away, finding that the spider was not real after all, though the experience certainly was. And life, though bereft of obsession, is once again his own.

Vladimir, because you have woven such an interesting psychological explanation of that which is impossible to explain, I have awarded to you the 2009 Ellstrom Award for Literature. Congratulations!


Friday, January 29, 2010

The J.J. Ellstrom Award for Literature, 2009

Dear Readers Everywhere,

All of this year I have been putting off a decision. It has been too hard. It has been fearful. I was scheduled to make this decision last March, but I delayed.

The Ellstrom Award for Literature is auspicious. It is the award for the best book of all the ones I read during the course of a year. 2008 was a competitive year. See the list of potentials at Books and Music in 2008.

The competing authors are like a list of who's who in writing: Ayn Rand, James Joyce, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Langston Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Juan Rulfo, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, Zora Neale Hurston, Don DeLillo, etc. And the books are among the best of the authors in question. These are some of the best books in the canon of American Literature. So before I announce the winner, let me do homage to those who also ran.

J.J. Ellstrom, for whom this award was named would want the other renowned authors named here to receive their proper nod. I remember his sense of respect. My grandfather was straight and gruff. To me he was tall, though I have no record of his physical measure. The house in which he lived in Altoona was light green. The wooden kitchen table was also green. I remember that table covered with flour and dough while my grandmother kneaded a sticky rye bread dough. I remember sitting at that table, spooning up delicious chicken noodle soup. And at that table my grandfather taught me to respect.

We never had much money, so a dollar bill was wealth. One afternoon, my grandfather called my sister and me to the table. He was prepared to bestow upon us a fortune. In his hands were ten crisp dollar bills. One by one, he counting them out, alternately placing one before my sister and one before me. Five dollars! For me! Then he called for our wallets and began instructing us how to place those bills into the pocket. "Never," he said, "place the head of our president upside down in the wallet. Make sure every head is up and facing front. These were the leaders of our country. Treat them with respect."

So, with that same measure of respect, I want to give homage to the greatness of the works of literature that I have read, not this last year, but the year before, during 2008.

Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo is an incredible example of Latin American magical realism. It held me fascinated. I am not sure I totally understood it and so may reread it next year. Perhaps it will take the Ellstrom honor second time around.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville is held in such high esteem that I must mention it here. I was extremely impressed by parts of it. I loved most especially its description of courage in Chapter 26. As a whole, however, I didn't think it held together. Some call it the Great American novel. I think that perhaps it is the Great Ocean novel.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald was a good read for me, but I loved, better, Fitzgerald's Babylon Revisited, which I read in 2009.

If any book contended for the 2009 Ellstrom Award, it was, for me, Harper Lee's, To Kill a Mockingbird. This truly is one of the finest stories that I have ever read. When Harper Lee was asked why she never wrote another book, she stated that she had said everything she had to say in To Kill a Mockingbird. And she said it well.

Huckleberry Finn, likewise, is a wonderful story and a great novel. Mark Twain gave a great gift to literature in this book. The ending kind of falls apart, deteriorating into some kind of tall tale. I'm not sure why Twain let it peeter out. It's unfortunate.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is a stunning book. I liked it very much. This book, as well as the study by Brannon Costello in the book Plantation Airs led me to her other, more mature book, I think, Seraph on the Suwanee, which is in contention for the 2010 Ellstrom Award.

Tambourines to Glory by Langston Hughes is perhaps not the weightiest book in all the world, but I think it is one that is overlooked. I would recommend this book highly.

Jazz by Toni Morrison is, I think, one of Morrison's best, at least in it's form. It mimics the Jazz form. I loved that about it and thought it was a marvel in that way. But the story wasn't as compelling. I'll have to reread it one of these days to figure out why it is both great and not quite so great.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand hugs the top of the list of best one hundred populist-rated American novels. I find that quite curious. I was fascinated by it, for sure, but the writing itself is not great. The combination of philosophy and novel is what makes it fascinating.

Dubliners by James Joyce is an amazing collection of short stories. Certainly if I were giving an award for the best short story, it would be The Dead from this collection.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy, stands with To Kill a Mockingbird as a book that certainly deserves an award. It is probably the best post-apocalytic book ever written. Though the movie was a bit disappointing, the book is spectacular.

So, that was the field. You can see why I was flummoxed.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Above the Eastern Treetops, Blue

Dear Libby Falk Jones,

I am so happy to hear that you are publishing a new book of poetry!

Publishing is an amazing thing really. I have spent the last few years facilitating publication, both print and online. Publication, I have often said, is a public form of communication. It is the transfer of ideas from one individual to another using some medium of exchange.

When that medium is poetry, well. . . the communication is pretty special. The poet condenses and distills ideas and then communicates and publishes abroad. The words become powerful, like nectar, like espresso, or like a dagger.

I love this poem that you have allowed me to post here.

October Tenth: For My First Son

At a surprise T’ai Chi class (the yoga
            teacher was sick) I breathe in, hold,
                        breathe out, willing my ribs to

expand, focusing on the knot
            in the floorboard, circling my hands
                        over the energy flame in my navel

as eighteen years ago today
            I panted your life into life,
                        my fingers circling my knotted

belly, my focus down
            and out, my core expanding, my
                        center sliding forward, until

there you sat, upright
            in the doctor’s palm, your arms
                        circling the universe.

                                                —Libby Jones

Again, congratulations on your new book: Above the Eastern Treetops, Blue, from Finishing Line Press!


Thursday, January 07, 2010

Books and Music 2010

Dear Lovers of Books and Music,

This year, as in the past, I've decided to keep a record of the books I've read and significant pieces of music that I have listened to. I am not a fast reader, so this list won't grow quickly. However, I like keeping a record. My goal last year was to read a book a week. If you want to count, you will find that I did accomplish my goal, although, I had to search my memory to pull one last book out of the hat. (A children's book, but a book nonetheless.)

I'm rather committed to keeping most of my reading on a classic level. I am trying to catch up on the best of literature. Plus, I really do prefer books that have a lot of substance, even when I miss some of the points, which I often do. Other readers sometimes help me understand, and for their insights I am grateful. Regrettably, I don't have too many musician friends to help me with my musical passion.


Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman
Beowulf by Anonymous, Translation by Robert Kay Gordon
Manga Messiah published by Tyndale House
A History of God by Karen Armstrong
The Shack by William P. Young
What Now? by Ann Patchett
The Runaway Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini
The Lifted Veil by George Eliot
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
The Niagara River by Kay Ryan
Japanese Children's Favorite Stories compiled by Florence Sakade
The Illustrated Anansi compiled by Philip Sherlock
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
A Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer
Cinderella Tales from Around the World compiled by Ila Lane Gross
The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin
A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Ender in Exile by Orson Scott Card
The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman
We Make the Road by Walking by Myles Horton and Paulo Freire
Dracula by Bram Stoker
American Mind Part II by Allen Guelzo
American Mind Part III by Allen Guelzo
Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Tinkering Toward Utopia by David Tyack and Larry Cuban
The Life of Our Lord by Charles Dickens
Silas Marner by George Eliot
The Castle by Franz Kafka
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
The Amazing Mrs. Polifax by Dorothy Gilman


L'Enfance du Christ by Hector Berlioz
The String Quartets of Shostakovich
Love's Twilight by Anne Sophie von Otter
Dvorak Symphony #9 conducted by Arturo Toscanini