Content Tagged ‘reading’

House Guest with Arna Bontemps Hemenway: Living in a Tree of Smoke

In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors and cover artists, as well as editors from peer presses and magazines, to tell us what they’re working on or thinking about or reading, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.

The following essay is from Arna Bontemps Hemenway, on the immersive experience of reading Denis Johnson. Arna’s short story, “A Self-Made Man,” appears in Ecotone 15.

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One of the realest places I’ve ever lived (or traveled, or remember) is actually the territory of a certain novel, Denis Johnson’s National Book Award winning Tree of Smoke.

Tree of Smoke is a long book; at 720 pages, its length is possibly one of the reasons why it really feels as if you’re living in it as you read it.

That’s also one of the things I like about it: it takes time. You have to live a not insignificant stretch of your life with it. You have to consider it when your thoughts drift throughout a month’s worth of showers, of doing the dishes, driving to work, walking to lunch. And this reading experience mirrors the lives inhabited in the book itself, in that they are inescapable. This is a book as much about the oppression of never being able to escape yourself and your own life as it is about Vietnam, or anything else.

For those of you who’ve never read it, I’m going to lean on Geoff Dyer here (never a bad idea) to describe what it’s about, from his review of the novel in The Guardian:

“However extensively the novel’s story is summarised it is going to be sold short. It starts in 1963. “Tree of Smoke” is some kind of CIA project. Skip, an operative of uncertain status but intense dedication, is working for the Colonel (who also happens to be his uncle). Skip has an affair with Kathy, a Seventh-Day Adventist whose aid-worker husband has been kidnapped, possibly killed. Years pass. History–as they used to say of shit–happens. Kurtz-like, the Colonel’s methods become increasingly unsound. At the sharp end are the seriously messed-up Houston brothers (who previously saw service in Johnson’s first novel, Angels). Trung, a North Vietnamese–who once tried to assassinate the colonel–is being recruited as a double agent, but, at the same time, Trung’s assassination is being plotted by the same guy–a German–who killed a priest with a blow pipe in the Philippines, back in 1963. Twenty years later, in Arizona, the Houston brothers . . . Ah, forget it. There may be no smoke without fire but in this case you can’t see the wood for the tree of smoke, or something.”

That one of my favorite novels ever produced one of my favorite reviews ever is not so surprising. Tree of Smoke is not a book you can not have a reaction to. But the central weirdness in this novel is key to its brilliance. Because it is a novel that indulges itself shamelessly, I’m going to indulge a little in this post about it, and go back to Dyer, this time in his summation:

“Johnson is all over the place and he is an artist of strange diligence. It is as if his skewed relationship to the sentence – not really knowing what one is and yet knowing exactly what to do with it – operates, here, at the level of structure. Tree of Smoke is as excessive and messy as Moby Dick. Anything further removed from the tucked-up, hospital corners school of British fiction is hard to imagine. It’s a big, dirty, unmade bed of a book and, once you settle in you’re in no hurry to get out.”

A “big, dirty, unmade bed of a book” is possibly one of the most accurate statements I’ve ever read in a review. It’s also true that if that sounds like something that you would find intolerable—that is to say, if you are more comfortable with a somewhat orderly or clean vision of life and love and suffering—you’re probably not going to enjoy this book. That’s okay, though. One of the things I admire most about the writing in Tree of Smoke is how little Johnson seems to be thinking about whether someone will enjoy it. As has been noted elsewhere, Johnson does seem to pick up and examine the different forms of Vietnam War narrative we have lived with in the four decades or so since it ended. But I think the truly remarkable thing is that he then sets them back down, finding them wanting. Then he strikes out into the jungle of his own vision.

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What We’re Reading

We’re celebrating Thanksgiving week with another installment of What We’re Reading. As Anne Lamott writes, “Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of the things that you don’t get in life … wonderful, lyrical language, for instance. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention and this is a great gift.”

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Lookout intern Becky Eades is reading Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke.

Space, in Chains vibrates with memories of Kasischke’s youth, coupled with wrenching poems about her father, to form a narrative of both celebration and grief. The surprising image in “Hospital parking lot, April,” for example, tells us everything we need to know: “These seagulls above the parking lot today, made of hurricane and / ether, they // have flown directly out of the brain wearing little blue-gray masks, / like strangers’ faces, full // of winged mania, like television in waiting rooms.”

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A Few Recommended Recommendations

Walking into a library or bookstore—or falling into the swirling vortex the kids call the “World Wide Web”—can be an overwhelming experience. Life is short, and there’s so much literature worth consuming. We all long for a weekend afternoon on the couch, our only companions a cup of coffee and a good book. But what book? You’ve got five sitting unread on your shelf, not to mention three stacked by the front door (library due date approaching), and a Readability queue full of the online essays and short stories you marked “read later.” If you own an eReader, you probably went crazy downloading all the public domain classics you never got around to in high school. Where to begin?

Allow me to simplify things for you by offering some recommendations from a few trusted sources. Herein you’ll discover brand new literature, the craziest stuff on Wikipedia, and everything in between. Mark down what’s of interest to you and disregard the rest. You’ll never run out of things to read, so you may as well just pick something and get started, no regrets.

1)  Roxane Gay’s Reading Roundup, Fall 2012: The Rumpus offers some great recommendations and reviews from the co-editor of PANK. She organizes her selections into categories such as “Coming of Age” and “Looking Ahead.”

2)  Treehouse: This new online literary magazine requires its contributors to submit Top Five recommendations lists which appear on the site the day after their own creative work is published. The links range in theme from Wikipedia articles to poetry collections to banned books. (The actual pieces posted in Treehouse are excellent, too.)

3)  One Way to Talk About Contemporary Fiction: my friend Chris maintains this Tumblr with a friend of his. Find regular links to new fiction and lit-related happenings, nearly all of which are available online.

4)  Radiolab: This isn’t a recommendation list per se, but the website for Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich’s fantastic science radio show is chock full of great listening and reading material. Subscribe to the podcast, check out the show archives, and find supplementary reading material for many episodes.

 When you’re on the hunt for new reading material, where do you look first? Whose opinion do you trust the most? Let us know in the comments!

Making A List: My Top 5 Post-Modern Detective Novels

by Lookout Intern, Joe Worthen

#5 – Noir by Robert Coover

Noir is essentially a compendium of detective tropes written in 2nd person, strung together to give the impression of narrative. You, Philip M Noir, spend most of the book drunk, searching for a widow in a maze of murder, jazz and cigarette smoke. As goons continually beat you in the head, victims change into suspects, corpses turn up living, and dead end clues pile up with the bullet casings.

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Poet John Rybicki, breathing life into desolation

A powerful silence graced the room as Rybicki weaved through anecdotes of time spent with his wife and passages from his books. As he finished, most felt not a deafening sense of sorrow but rather a promised notion of his fortitude in overcoming a grave loss.

“He makes his poems out of true feeling — he lives his poetry,” said creative writing professor Robert Fanning, who introduced Rybicki to an audience of more than 100. “He’s doing things that are so far beyond what we can do in our best hour with our sharpest pen.”

This excellent article was published by CMU’s student-run publication, Grand Central Magazine. Read onward (more photos included).

Banned Books Week

You may have noticed that Lookout is celebrating Banned Books Week, which runs from September 30 – October 6.

Here in Wilmington, Old Books On Front St. hosted a Banned Books Read-In on October 1st. The YouTube channel Banned Books Week Virtual Read-Out features readers “exercising their First Amendment Right to read a banned book.”

Hopefully many readers across the U.S. have been spending this week feeling grateful for—and inspired by—the opportunity to read banned books and fight back against the egregious acts of censorship that have prevented many readers from accessing these titles.

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