Jul 31, 2009

WHAT MAKES IT GOOD?


Left: CAGED SKYLARKS




Maybe I hate golf. At least I’m uninterested in it. How can you make me care about the game in general or your particular interest in it? What makes three or four hours on a golf course worth a story? Worth an essay? To some withered nerd of a skeptic?

Soon I’ll be back in the classroom, teaching Basic Composition. In an attempt at a unifying, useful, thought-provoking question for the course and for the rest of our days, I’ll probably offer this to the students: “What makes it good?”

Whether we are evaluating a golf outing, or a blog, or a poem, or the architecture of a building, or a car, or a C.D., or an assist in basketball (only assists and defensive moves are interesting), or a strategy for starting up a business, or choosing a prospective date, or approaching her or him, or finding a restaurant or movie, or decorating a home (dorm room or house), the question arises, “What makes it good?” Isn’t it possible that there are at least a couple of answers that would apply to any human endeavor?

Surely the question of what is good might also include, "What makes it beautiful?" Or, "What makes it functional?" Must it include those? Surely it would include the question of what is important.

Or would it? Is there something I’m not seeing about the question? Or the nature of eighteen-year-olds? How much would, and should, answers change according to age, gender, ethnicity, and background (suburban, urban, small-town, farm), or region (Northeast, South, Midwest, West Coast)? And those factors don’t even take into account, as they might, parts of the world other than the U.S.

Have I gone totally pie-in-the-sky to think this is, and should be, more interesting than golf? Or brands of beer? Or models of cars? Far, far beyond a course in basic composition?

And if all this sounds elementary or condescending, if you’re thinking I should just re-take Dormitory Bull Session 101, please think back to conversations or other social situations (like poetry readings, concerts, golf outings) you’ve recently been involved in. Were you a participant, an interested spectator, or a victim? Why?

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Jul 28, 2009

The Hurt Locker, Movie Review

sand-colored cat



The Hurt Locker: 4
(on a scale of 1 low to 4 high )

In this study of a U.S. Army bomb squad in Iraq in 2004, director Kathryn Bigelow grabs us by the throat in the first few minutes and never lets go. I find myself tempted to say this is the best war movie I’ve ever seen, though spending much thought on art as a competition can become as wrong-headed as the Oscars are. So I'll just say I don’t remember feeling any more involved in the elite films of this genre—for example, Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter, Platoon—than I was during Hurt Locker.

Original but not self-conscious in technique, the action scenes, along with the landscape of a distressed city and its inhabitants, feel absolutely immediate and real. Ditto the desert scenes. There is some gore, though not the mindless exploitation of it that I've come to expect in action movies. More prominent is the interplay among the three main characters, which poses important questions about leadership, friendship, recklessness and responsibility, courage, grace under pressure, loyalty, obedience, heroism, the independent personality--and, always one of my favorites: when and how a character can seem both arrogant and sympathetic.

Toward the end of the movie, I find two problems, neither of them fatal. First, there are indications of the probable outcomes of two of the three main characters. Why not the third, who might be the noblest of the group? Did I miss a line?

Secondly, there’s a bit of drift toward didacticism, or at least summarizing. However, it is fairly well controlled, never develops into full-blown propaganda, lasts for only five or ten minutes, and doesn’t even begin to override the method that has dominated: action, and imagery, and characters revealing themselves without a lot of instruction from the script on how we should feel or what we should think.

If you assume this will be, or should be, a facile anti-Bush or “War is Hell” flick, stop supposing and go see an admirable effort to avoid both glorification and condemnation. The Hurt Locker is closer to work than play for an audience; good art requires more effort and attention than entertainment does. But see it anyway. It's a disturbing wealth of visual and psychological experience, concerning some of humanity's oldest, most troubling themes.

Jul 26, 2009

Post-Modern Science-Lite

Music is a conversation.

Above . . . Barnacle Doug
Riffs to His Rock

A friend of mine, who knows what he’s talking about, suggests that science must be a conversation between a well-intentioned human investigator and nature, who will reply if asked the right questions in the right way. In that spirit, I offer the following, based on lay research and lay understanding.

The barnacle is a shell-like creature who attaches himself to a rock. When the seas get rough, the barnacle sends out a thread, like a spider web, which attaches him more firmly to his friend, the rock.

Because barnacles are stationary and fixed, they must mate with their closest neighbor. This is accomplished by having a strong and stretchable penis. After the mating season the penis is thrown away, and a new one develops the following year.

If adaptability and faith are major factors in determining which species will survive, surely the barnacle, with one of his other friends, the cockroach, will outlive humans by at least four eons.

Equally hard science, based on extensive research throughout Scandinavia, Tibet, and Wisconsin, has revealed no greater act of focus, strength or will to survive in animals, plants, or humans.

Philosophers and poets are gathering in Lithuania and West Virginia to study the chemistry of the barnacle thread and its relevance to love, both erotic and Platonic. Stay tuned.




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Jul 22, 2009

Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs



Has anyone out there read Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs? What did you think? I’d be especially glad to hear women readers responding to Russo’s female characters, who strike me as fascinatingly complex and individual, yet fulfilling certain archetypes of womanhood. I think he keeps them constantly above the level of stereotype, but I wonder what the other gender would say.

As usual for long novels that I finish (in this case, I have about 100 pages to go, so don’t tell the ending), the architecture of the main plot and its subplots and the interplay among its main and minor characters create a structure that gives me the shivers. I cannot imagine anyone’s planning and then accomplishing this. Applause, applause.

For what it’s worth, in terms of plot(s) and main characters, I’ve come to think of the whole as a river with dozens of tributaries, or a freeway with many entrance ramps. So it's astonishing that any mere human can make sense of so many factors, the wiggles of each stream. Not one of Russo's events or characters takes an unrealistic turn, yet very little in plot and characterization is predictable.

I’m pretty sure I see sentences better than I see chapters, trees better than forests, and I must add this: Shame on Mr. Russo and his editors for not taking better care of his syntax or otherwise clunky sentences that pop up too often. Is this what the computer age has brought us? Speed reading over careful editing? Deadlines over details? And I don’t mean typos; I mean phrasing, diction rising above clich√©, and deletion of unnecessary words and phrases that over-explain.

But I cannot, would not, quit reading Bridge of Sighs, with its complex characters, almost every one sympathetic in one way or another, as are their relationships. I’m impressed by Russo’s avoidance of simplistic solutions to complex moral, sociopolitical, and psychological issues. I care about every character and what will, or has, become of them.

I guess this is the bottom line: I rarely, rarely, finish a book this long, but these people have become part of my life, as do the characters in other compellingly realistic novels. I will miss the folks in this irrelevant, yet essential upstate New York town fed by its contaminated river.

Jul 21, 2009

FINCHES AND THE MEANING OF LIFE


Okay, I’ve gone a couple of blogs without talk about birds, and you’ll yelp if I don’t keep you posted on finches. Sunday I bought two new net socks and another small feeder, the old kind that forces the bird to eat upside-down, which finches weirdly do.

Problem is, you see too much of their white rumps. What is the evolutionary advantage of a white rump, when the rest of you is electric yellow, a lit-up target for near-sighted cats?
Another factor about the upside down finch-prayer to gravity: they look a little dead, hanging there that-a-way.

Speaking of which, my window has felt the impact of two drunken pilot deaths in the last three weeks or so. I’m attributing that to teen or female drivers—because both little cadavers were olive, not yellow. (You thought you had me on misogyny charges, didn’t you?).

Here’s one more series of events. By far, the majority of my finches lately have been female (I thought). What’s up with that? Did the males go on bloody skirmishes against each other, concerning territory? What kind of irrational creature would do that to others of his species? Over a some air space? Over some dirt?

Then I half-remembered, and then confirmed in The Books, that juvenile finches look like the olive-ocher female, weenie or no weenie. So I’m apparently teaching a ton of finch teens to come back here, or never leave.

But shouldn't I then worry about inbreeding? And in a finch version of Deliverance, who would play the banjo?

Jul 20, 2009

Random: Shakespeare, Tragedy, Modernism

Left: King Lear or Polonius?


Even with The Bard, sometimes we just have to love the boy in spite of himself. A couple of years ago, in the final scenes of an excellent production of King Lear, the play came to its predictable conclusion of dying humans flopping around the stage like hooked fish flailing on a pier. It might have been worse in Hamlet, sometime later, again in an otherwise excellent production.

This business of death as group seizure, or Shakespeare's intimation of the mosh pit four centuries later, would be absurd under any circumstances. Add to it the sound of bodies thumping against the wooden stage floor and the eloquent dying declarations (as our TV cop and lawyer shows might say, “excited utterances”), and it is all simply comic. Shakespearean tragedies must give directors fits.

All that flopping and thumping ruin my willing suspension of disbelief, along with any empathy or glee I’d developed toward the dying. It makes me long for Gary Cooper in a dusty ten-gallon hat, mumbling “Yes, Ma’am, this here eight-inch hole in my gizzard, it hurts a might.” Or Yogi Berra’s “Pain don’t hurt.”

I know, I know, you don’t go to a Shakespearean tragedy if you want Amy Hempel or Raymond Carver minimalism. But classic theater, along with the excesses of opera, might instruct us on why we have come to value understatement and restraint the way we do. Maybe the Renaissance showed us the idealized human, what we hope we can be at our very best, but an occasional or permanent attempt to see what we really are cannot be an entirely bad development.

Jul 17, 2009

Poetry, Two Movies

Not sure why, but a Cowbird for the two movies seems right, though I give each a 3--for doing something new?

First, about poetry:

Yesterday I stumbled onto a Dan Chiasson review of Frederick Seidel's poetry, and both had the kind of excitement that's often lacking in poetry and talk about poetry--bold but plausible statements, lines, and images, ideas you cannot dismiss even if they seem extreme or mean, and cleverly turned phrases by the dozen. I'm eager to get a book or two by both those guys, so I wonder if anyone out there has a comment or recommendation. I'm embarrassed that Seidel has escaped my attention till now.

Movie Reviews, 1 (low) to 4 (high):

Whatever Works, Woody Allen's newest, starring Larry David. 3.

I'm not a huge Woody Allen fan, though I've liked some of his work. I liked Whatever Works in spite of overwriting and overacting in the the female lead's stereotypical rendering of the dumb southern belle. If you remember A Streetcar Named Desire fairly well, you might have fun seeing Woody's uses of it. Or that might just be grating.

As always, I found a lot of the supposed wisdom of Woody Allen to be very ordinary, if not trite--and certainly repetitive. In the mouth and antics of Larry David, the best lines and gestures are terrific, but there's also a lot of dead weight (no pun intended--oops. See the movie).



Bruno, the ballyhooed follow-up to Borat. 3.

If you liked Borat well enough to see Bruno, I don't think you'll be disappointed by the new show. Bruno probably lacks the substance (meaningful social criticism, for example, or implied questions about the role of spontaneity in art and definitions of art) that Borat might have had, and Bruno's best moments aren't quite as good. But I did find them funny, and so did others in the theater. My psychic jury will be deadlocked for a long time regarding the merits of these two films--if they're saying anything, do they have to say it that way? But apparently they are turning new earth, and anyone who can handle the notion of film as an offensive weapon should enjoy Bruno well enough.

Jul 15, 2009

Cardinal Notes Continued


Two years ago, Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal adopted an orphaned white-crowned sparrow chick. Below is the adult version of a white-crowned sparrow. The young have less white, but there's certainly no resemblance to a cardinal. Even so, for about two weeks, I watched Mr. and Mrs. C feed the sparrow, which was almost as large as the they were.

As a minor league birder, I didn’t trust my own eyes, so I googled the subject and found confirmation. Then I called the local Audubon chapter: “Oh yes, cardinals are one of several species that adopt orphaned young from other nests, other species.”

The other evening, Mister sat alone on a wire, where he called and called. He faced away from me, and for the first time I saw the back of his neck swell and recede to create each cluster of notes in one long, descending solo after another. It didn’t sound like panic, but why did he keep going and going like that for fifteen or twenty minutes?

I decided that Mrs. was supposed to be home from the movies long ago, and he was worried, maybe a little cross. I worried with him for a while, then gave up—CSI Miami was coming on, a different version of brilliant color.

I have friends who argue about the possibility of altruism in animals—or humans, for that matter.

What’s the evolutionary advantage of feeding a child from another team?

My friends in high evolutionary places tell me that the Mr. Cardinal’s red or the gold finch’s yellow amounts to a double-edged sword: females have apparently found color attractive, so these seeds of brightness are spread farther abroad; however, a colorful Mister is also a brighter target for raptors and cats. What if raptors and cats are color-blind? Do we know?

As for the missing Mrs. C, she was back the next day. If they’d had nasty words at home or if they’d thrown vases at each other the night before, I couldn’t tell. They presented well as usual, with nonchalance. And as usual, they were the last to leave.

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Jul 14, 2009

Red Alert: Some Notes on Cardinals




For true birders this will be old news and somewhat mushy. But for novices, maybe the sketches are interesting.

One male cardinal won’t allow another to share the feeders and yard, though they share comfortably with other birds. I think it’s been each spring for a few years that I’ve seen two males challenging each other; maybe the females also stake out territory, but I haven’t seen it.

I have seen a male cardinal face off against a blue jay twice his size and win—much more bravado than physical contact. Still, the cardinal had been at the feeder first and was not going to give ground.

Mister and Mrs. check out the safety of the yard before they settle onto the platform feeder or the grass. One lights on a pine branch or the eaves trough on the garage to stand guard and wait for the other to drop to a lower level. Usually each partner goes to one or two lookout stations before both settle down to feed for a minute or two. Then they leave and come back several times, but the cardinals are usually the last to leave, as dusk almost becomes night.

More than once I’ve watched Mister stuff food into the beak of Mrs., to the point where it’s more than she can handle and has to spit it out or turn away. It’s one of the most comical courtship rituals I’ve ever seen, until I walk around at a mall.

Jul 11, 2009

SPEED KILLS? SPEED CREATES?


Left: "Sloppy Drunk"




To Bettertry, about yesterday’s post and your welcome comment:

You're right, of course, about the middle, and the penguin example is perfect—the warmth of the middle is necessary for survival.

However, the fact that most penguins, people, and other critters choose the middle is precisely what might make it mushy (formless, noncommittal, moderate, conventional, easy, safe, unquestioning, unimaginative, unchallenging). From there to “cowardly” is a short stroll.

I was aiming at the notion that heroes are heroic precisely because their actions are rare, a tiny minority of all actions, as well as being momentously courageous. In fact, maybe it’s the rarity that creates and defines the courage. In any case, heroic behaviors are not typical of the acts of ordinary citizens in the vast middle.

(See my June 24 post, re: W. H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen.” Better yet, read the whole poem. It must be available online.).

After the conclusions of courses I've taught, I've often had the warm, fuzzy, and once-puzzling experience of having dozens of nice, able teen students ask if their group was the worst class I'd ever had.

What I heard was that they wanted to be memorable, which probably meant that they knew heroism wasn’t an option. So they sought the identity of renegade or outlaw, anything but the mainstream, the ordinary. They seemed not to realize how completely embedded in the middle they were (along with me!), while sociopaths and rebels-with-a-cause, along with cowboys, exceptional soldiers and other heroes are what they are precisely because of their extreme distance from the middle, the norm.

Where do the WSDs (walker, sitters, dozers) fit into this scale of normalcy and aberration?

Maybe the interior lives and inner cultures of great thinkers are so often adventurous or tragic because HBDs (hiker, bikers, and runners) pale by comparison to the fireworks in minds of high-powered thinkers. Need I mention names? Plath, Sexton, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, and on and on.

AH (Altadenahiker) contributes to this with a nifty paradox. After yesterday’s post, she wrote, “Fast clockers have a hard time getting along with anyone. They're too impatient. And when you're too impatient, you're rude. I'm rude.” And she continues, “Hiker/runners may, for those moments, be the closest to nature, because, for those moments, they are outside of their heads. You have to be, or you couldn't continue the pace.” So . . . closeness to nature means . . . outside one's head, beyond self-consciousness and into the realm of instinct, that which is necessary, urgent? Squirrels don't look in mirrors, don't comb their hair. The squirrel state of mind is where running and other mind-altering, mind-emptying activities take us. I hope no one's hearing that as a negative. Why not hear it as transcendentalism or mysticism?

Isn't the next step obvious? What if we change AH’s subjects from runners and other speed folks to thinkers and artists? What if the stationary but creative types are too smart to be patient, even with themselves? What if they’re so involved in ideas and visions of shapes and stories they must create that “they are outside of their heads?” Maybe they “have to be, or [they] couldn’t continue the pace” – the pace of the argument in the case of historians and philosophers, maybe, or the pace of the story in narratives and dramas (which involve the creation of other humans!) or the shapes of images (in poems and the visual arts), demanding to be conveyed.

Isn’t the very definition of “vision” -- as in “visionary” -- essentially a mental/conceptual/psychic/mystic/spiritual experience that transcends rational or conscious thought?

Maybe runners, intentionally or not, create endorphins the way Native Americans have used peyote, and writers have used booze. A recent History Channel program (probably a re-run) proposed the likelihood that America’s Founding Fathers were routinely high on beer, wine, whiskey, and, yes, marijuana. Hemp was used for all manner of items, from rope to sails to paper and more, so why not smoke it too? (I wish I could properly footnote the program—it aired around midday sometime in the last three days, I’d estimate).

Maybe we come to a thesis something like this: Our greatest insights and achievements occur only after the shedding of mundane thoughts, worries, anxieties, and niceties—by any means necessary, from Harleys to Nikes to Amish rocking chairs or LSD.

Or, the only good thought is a drunk thought.

Jul 9, 2009

Karma: Life and Speed, Continued

left: Knowledge is the yellow eye of the grackle. But he blinks.



First, regarding Berol’s and Altadenahiker’s questions about cycles: if I admit to some ambiguity, will the rest of you admit that, if you hear nothing but the word and the image, “motorcycle,” it’s more like running than sitting or walking or dozing? Ditto for bicycle, I suppose, whether the tires are skinny or fat. But isn’t a motorcycle just a bicycle on steroids and megaphones?

Not so their riders, however. If I say, “pumpkin-bellied,” we know I’m not referring to any halfway-serious bicyclist. But a motorcyclist? Maybe—whether s/he is a yuppie in mid-life crisis or a hard-core gang member. So I humbly submit that “motor” attached to “cycle” is less confusing than it might have seemed. (Yes, I've read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; there's some great stuff there, but that does not mean the word "motorcycle" alone denotes or connotes philosophical complexity.).

Moving on, the "karma" in today's title is based on this bumper sticker: “If you’re not sure whether you’re jogging or running, go faster.”

I was stunned to see that on a black, well-used Toyota Scion in a parking lot, after lunch today. On the same car, a smaller sticker advertised tony Hilton Head, SC, presumably a destination of choice for the driver. Do running and Hilton Head go together? How?

How connected are the words and concepts of destination and destiny?

Maybe Cratylus had it right; maybe language is impossible. (I encourage you to revisit my post on June 26, 2009, and see comments by Jeff and Berol).

I’ve been told that the discipline of philosophy uses the expression, “way of being in the world,” and I love the phrase, the idea. I think it's profoundly important in one's self-awareness and awareness of others, at least as I understand the phrase. Instinctively, I hear “one’s way of being in the world,” but I suppose any noun—person, place, thing, or even idea—can have a way of being in the world, and it might include fast or slow.

In the context of fast and slow, I recall another dichotomy I used to obsess about: “being” versus “doing.” Does everyone's way of being in the world tend toward either being or doing? How mushy and cowardly is the middle ground?

By the way, is there a meaningful difference between dichotomy and duality? I think so. And surely neither is as bad as a “bifurcation.” Surely a bifurcation needs medical attention.

Is everything part of one dichotomy or another? Is categorization--a series of dichotomies?-- essential to thought, behavior, and action? Does the finch need to know whether the large bird overhead is a re-tailed hawk or a screech owl? A raptor rather than a passerine? Not our kind of people? It won’t matter if the finch doesn’t get the hell out of Dodge.

But where does categorization necessarily become generalization, stereotyping and, in turn, bigotry or other forms of over-simplification? Where is that “tipping point” in any dialogue?

And when does over-analysis of language and thought lead to Cratylus Syndrome (my expression as far as I know)? At Banjo52, does the banjo ever stop playing? One friend who tolerates bluegrass music in certain incarnations, such as Doc Watson, says banjo music gives him a headache. Like all my friends, he’s been told—at one time or another—where to stick his headache. Dont' worry, they say it back. And don't worry, I know when to quit on this stuff. I think.

Jul 8, 2009

The Speed of Life: a Real Conversation

Left: "Bub's Pub Chatter"


Rather than do a new full-length entry, I want to celebrate, and refer visitors to my July 6 post. At last, we have the beginnings of a conversation! Even debate!--or at least a couple of differing points of view. We can keep this as light-hearted or as earnest as the participants choose. I must say, I don't see how anyone can have no thoughts on this subject, in one tone or another.

Many thanks to Slowmo, Altadenahiker, and NYportraits for getting it started. Anybody else ever been weighed down or churned up, taken out of your comfort zone, by another person's molasses or lightning?
And by the way, yes, Altadena, I had motorcycles in mind, but the subject of bicycles might add to the discussion as well--even mountain bikes versus the skinny-tire folks on pavement. What differences or similarities arise in our first impressions or developed conclusions?

Jul 6, 2009

Hiker-Biker-Runner vs. Walker-Sitter-Dozer: Two Brains, Two Inner Cultures

In my July 5 reply to a comment from Altadenahiker, I quipped (brilliantly), “Maybe your Hiker-mind has some reckless Biker-mind built into it. . . . . the topic of Bikers, Hikers, and Runners compared to Walkers, Amblers, and Sitters might be interesting.”

Now I’ve started to wonder if anyone else gives a somewhat serious hoot about the topic. I think we should, because it involves important aspects of love relationships and friendships.

What do you think about the following?

Hiker-Bikers are manic, unimaginative, muscled escapees outrunning their demons.

The Sit-Butt-Strollers are fossilizing, depressive visionaries, who are deaf to the ticking clock and chances dripping away.

There is no third or fourth type, only gradations within these two.

How do the two get along with each other?

Jul 5, 2009

Movie Reviews: Public Enemies, Easy Virtue


Above: Mrs. Finch Goes to the Movies, Has Popcorn.
Left: in her absence, Mr. Finch scouts for hotties.

Movie reviews. Ratings from low of 1 to high of 4.

Public Enemies. 2+.

I don’t want my money back, but I’m glad the popcorn was warm. Michael Mann likes to moderate action with long, slow, impressionistic photographs. I didn’t find the characters worth a long, slow study. The long, slow study dulled the action and did little to make Dillinger or Melvin Purvis fully-realized characters to care about.

So the movie is neither fish nor fowl, neither serious psychological portrait nor compelling shoot-em-up.

The action could have been good, but these dozens of intense, flat-bellied, dark-and-greasy-haired white guys running around in 1930s black cars left me wondering who was chasing whom. That was especially the case in a night scene in the Wisconsin woods, which could have been gripping if I’d known what was going on.

Late in the movie we get an imposing black guy, a stout, sadistic redhead, and an ersatz Joseph Cotton copper-agent. They do their jobs well, and they’re a relief from the sameness, but they’re too little, too late.

Easy Virtue. 3+.

Softball player, golfer, former halfback and point guard, a friend of mine followed his wife to this one and liked it, so I decided to do the same, and I'm glad. Excellent acting, directing, and writing add interest and gravitas to a story that could have limited itself to one more Noel Coward comedy of manners. I’m tempted to give it a 4, but the fact is, it’s still English drawing room stuff, muffled chuckles, muffled passion, and shades of grey that are still pretty black and white.

Jul 3, 2009

ABOUT BOOKS

Above: Rocky the Reader


Here are the numbers of Blogspot bloggers, including me, who include these works or authors as their favorites.

The Great Gatsby 358,000
King Lear 7,700
Raymond Carver’s stories 5,700
Tobias Wolff’s stories 265 (or does that include his book-length work as well?)
Alice Munro’s stories 4

These numbers have a kind of logic, except for one item: why so few for Munro? At least in Canada, she’s become well-known and highly awarded in the last decade or two.

I suspect the problem is that her stories aren’t page-turners in the usual sense of the word. But if you want multidimensional, thoroughly developed characters, who find themselves in intriguing, troubling, believable situations in remote small towns or country settings, she is your writer.

My favorite Munro stories tend to be set somewhere in the past (1950s backward to the nineteenth century) in the villages or wilderness of Ontario. Munro makes me care deeply about people and places that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with me. The only exceptions for me are occasional tilts toward soap opera in a few of the stories with modern settings.

If you’ll allow yourself to slow down to Munro’s dignified, but never turgid style, you’ll learn about distant places and their humans; I have found page-by-page satisfactions and surprises (including beauties of phrasing and leaps in plot or characterization).

Try “Meneseteung,” “Carried Away,” “Wilderness Station” and “Vandals”—all four of which are placed toward the end of her Selected Stories 1996).

I’d also be interested in your responses to the stories of Aimee Bender and two poets I’m getting know somewhat, though they seem to inhabit different universes: Bob Hicok and Karen Volkman.

I almost added to my favorites Edward P. Jones’s magnificent The Known World, but I’ve only read it once, and, in case there's a quiz, I decided to include only works I’ve known really well at one time or another.

Lovers' Lane