06 January, 2017

The List: Reading October through December 2016

Jacek Yerka, Bible Dam

In the years since I started posting these reading lists, I doubt there's been one as illustrative of my crazily wide range, as a reader, than this. The Halloween season meant watching more TV, my November birthday meant more visits and phone calls with friends, and the holidays meant, well, more eating. Also, my early-morning reading time disappeared when Brett, my occasional workout partner, moved into the wing with me, eager to talk and stroll around before breakfast. By evening, more often than not, I'm too worn down to keep my eyes open while moving them across pages. Still, what books I did read are so wildly diverse as to make you shake your head in disbelief, wondering how the same guy enjoying books of poetry and literary criticism can also read comic-strip collections about a lobotomized cat who loves Star Wars.

For several of these titles, I owe thank-yous to my ceaselessly thoughtful mother (who knows my literary tastes, insane though they may be, better than anyone) and the lady with the out-of -this-world hair (who sometimes spoils my appetite with cotton candy).

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James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War

Purveyor of current television's most consistently awful programming, Syfy astounded critics and me, premiering a high-value series last year, The Expanse, a well-written and capably acted space opera about a mining ship's crew and a hardboiled detective who get swept up in interplanetary political intrigue threatening every colony in the solar system. The series is based on these James S.A. Corey novels, a rare adaptation that's actually better than the source, and it's no Z Nation.

I'm picky about my science fiction, generally preferring the literary strains. Although big, loud, and prone to explode, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War aren't dumb. I was able to overlook Corey's repetitive use of a few go-to phrasings — characters muttering "something obscene" and smiling in a way that "doesn't reach [their] eyes" — more easily than the atrocious first chapters of Caliban's War, but all was forgiven in light of these books' edge-of-your-seat twists and turns, and their skillful pacing.

Berkeley Breathed, The Bill the Cat Story and Bloom County Episode XI: The Force Awakens
Such is my Bloom County fandom that Bill the Cat would've had my vote in the 1984 presidential election, if only he hadn't died in that horrible cocaine-fueled car accident that claimed the life of an innocent prostitute. (It also would've helped to have been old enough to reach the voting-booth lever.) But Opus, Steve, Binkley, Oliver, Milo, Cutter John, and the rest of the gang kept me reading the strip. I was overjoyed when a new Bill was cloned, using the severed tongue found in the wreckage at the bottom of the cliff, and Berkeley Breathed's 2016 resurrection of this hilarious comic was an even more welcome return from the dead.

Leo Tolstoy (Lynn Solotaroff, translator), The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Anna Karenina's mannered tedium didn't affect me (precisely why can be read in this reading list post, from last year), but like the fever of a sudden illness, Tolstoy's little novel seizes the reader with life's profoundest, most harrowing drama — the one we've all got to face, eventually and in one form or another: the end.

This passage appears in chapter nine, describing the titular judge's deathbed thoughts:
And in his imagination he called to mind the best moments of his pleasant life. Yet, strangely enough, all the best moments of his pleasant life seemed entirely different than they had in the past — all except the earliest memories of childhood. Way back in his childhood there had been something really pleasant, something he could live with were it ever to recur. But the person who had experienced that happiness no longer existed. It was as though he were recalling the memories of another man.
The familiarity I have with this sentiment validates my own thoughts. At best, life in prison is a gimpy, fucked up kind of living, and the gulf between who I now feel myself to be and the fragile, gullible young man first brought into this place is an unfathomable abyss of years. Some late nights, when I wake for no reason, it yawns like the grave. By bringing across the universal in the specific, Count Tolstoy succeeded here. What a book!

Ed Tato, True Stories of la Cosa Nostra: Poems

I don't know whether the family profiled in these poems is a fabrication, like the Spoon River decedents written about by Masters, or a real object of genealogical study. I don't know if it matters. As with The Spoon River Anthology, Tato's True Stories are more conceptually engaging than as poetry qua poetry. Was this Tato's intention? I don't know his work beyond this collection, and (although I'm on such intimate terms with his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, that I get to call it Larry) I don't know the man.

James Wood, How Fiction Works

I love this:
We have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality. We must proceed on the assumption that almost all prose popularly acclaimed as beautiful ("she writes like an angel") is nothing of the sort, that almost every novelist will at some point be baselessly acclaimed for writing "beautifully" as almost all flowers are at some point acclaimed for smelling nice.
Wood's survey of literature's wide swath, from the Bible to John Updike, examining the mechanisms by which fiction does what it does, is a must-read for all serious readers who want to better understand fiction and its truths.

Charles Robert Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer

The Gothic novel to top all Gothic novels — that's what Maturin, an Irish clergyman, set out to write in 1818. Not three years later, the publication of Melmoth the Wanderer met with outright vitriol from reviewers, one of whom accused Maturin of blasphemy, brutality, and "dark, cold-blooded, pedantic obscenity." In other words, this is good stuff.

Olivia Liang, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Having heard me summarize this utterly engrossing 2016 history/memoir/meditation on loneliness, which wends through the lives of artists from Andy Warhol to Henry Darger in its exploration of loneliness, my neighbor Jim rolled his eyes. "Oh, great," he said. "Hanging out with suicidally depressed artsy-fartsy people is what put you in this mess to begin with!"

Touché, Jimbo. Although reductive (and missing the point) my curmudgeon pal's quip had the effect of validating my enthusiasm for the book. Yes, I do have more friends and associates now than at most other points in my socially awkward life, but I still exist in a persistent state of what psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan defined as "the exceedingly unpleasant and driving experience connected with inadequate discharge of the need for human intimacy." We all do. To what degree, and in what way it's dealt — these are areas Liang crawls into and peers around.

There are names here of varying recognizability: Billie Holiday, Edward Hopper, Josh Harris, David Wojnarowicz, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Klaus Nomi, Greta Garbo…. The Lonely City wends its way through the lives of these lonely souls, a path that reveals the ways in which we — human beings — live without that "discharge" the psychiatrist wrote about, the forms of our connections when we do have it, and the role played by society in perpetuating the exclusion of what Liang terms "unwieldy and strange" people. Her eye is keen, her mind is lucid, and the product of her studies is easily the best work of nonfiction I read all year.

05 December, 2016

Awful, Contemptible, Foolhardy Hope

Hope is the best-smelling meal you've ever salivated over, which riddles you with intestinal parasites. Hope is the cutest girl in your third-grade class, approaching you at recess just to kick you in the nuts and run away giggling. Hope is the stingray you mistake for a sand dollar. Hope is the big, frosty orange-sherbet tub in Grandma's freezer, from which you scoop a bowlful and discover, too late, is frozen chicken fat. Hope is the beauty spot on your cheek that metastasizes.

You might've been surprised to read, in my September post about MTV's Unlocking the Truth, that the series had me "excited for the future," since I normally eschew such hopeful abandon. If you later scratched your head at the series finale, aware of what producers cut from the show, you'll understand now why my September enthusiasm turns my stomach.

Hope is the imprisoned innocent's daydream of freedom.

As a recovering pessimist, I nevertheless consider wide-eyed, credulous hope a failure to maintain perspective. My perspective was warped when I unquestioningly believed that, with access to all our information, Unlocking the Truth would at least mention certain witnesses, certain critical points, even if television's strict time constraints prevented lengthy discussion of them. As long as all of the information got out, I'd have been satisfied with whatever interpretation of it the series came to. The narrative only goes one way, so I naively waited, episode after episode, for them to show the rest of the picture.

The night of the finale, credits rolled, a Catfish rerun began, and I sat stock-still on my bunk, in the TV's flickering, trying to work out what I missed. I thought, That can't be it. But, somehow, it was.

Street demonstrations, benefit concerts, candlelight vigils, #FreeByronCase trending on social media, donations piling in to cover my lawyer's fees, mailbags bulging with viewers' expressions of solidarity, flurries of messages to the governor and tweets to @GovJayNixon — none of it happened. But, then, since Unlocking the Truth left out essential facts, and since Ryan Ferguson concluded that the evidence didn't establish guilt or innocence in my case, I was hardly surprised. Impassioned responses don't usually result from a shrug.

Then the election came and went, and I couldn't stop thinking about my pardon application, submitted to Governor Nixon in August of 2011 and still under consideration. Plenty of prisoners and parolees have filed and been denied in the five years since I filed that document and its fat appendix, setting out a pretty solid argument of innocence. The governor's legal advisor, after meeting with my people in 2012, seemed to believe that mine is a wrongful conviction, that I didn't murder Anastasia WitbolsFeugen. He must've told Governor Nixon the same, so why this delay?

Missouri has another highest officeholder now. Is Governor Nixon planning to leave my case untouched, a sticky wicket for his successor, Eric Greitens, to deal with? Or is he going to dignify my plea for freedom with an answer? With less than two months before the powerful Governor Nixon reverts to being plain ol' Jay, every day that passes adds weight to that question.

Since day one (that's 11 June 2001, as anyone paying attention already knows), I've maintained that I had nothing whatsoever to do with Anastasia WitbolsFeugen's death. It was true then, it's true today, and it'll still be true in another fifteen years, whether I'm locked in this box or living a life of rightful freedom. It'll be true no matter what stories Kelly Moffett tells, no matter how many distortions the Antibyron Clique posts online, no matter which of my personality quirks gets mistranslated, no matter who steps out of my undignified past to say what an asshole I was, no matter when (or if) the evidence of my innocence is finally shown to be incontrovertible.

Moreover, I'll keep saying it until the public, the Missouri courts, Governor Nixon, Governor Greitens, or whoever else has power enough to change my circumstances sees my innocence for the absolute truth that it is. That such a day comes is the one and only hope I'm willing to keep close to my heart, without regret, without embarrassment, without reservation, unflaggingly, for as long as it takes.

28 November, 2016

A Different Kind of Love Poem

The Animals the Animals Loved

Ask Frenchie about Rootin' Rudy,
the potbellied pig allowed to sleep in the biker's bed many nights,
before he shot and stomped a man to death,
and Frenchie will dig out the photos
of his black porcine pal
kissing him, proper as a beldam.
His eyes will twinkle.

Or Mustache Jerry, so taciturn,
who murdered a man outside a bar
and needs no invitation to share with you
a story about Boots, who'd pull a dead
truck as well as he could hump
a plow along a rut
but was stubborn as the day is long.
Evenings, Jerry brought apples in a basket
and they'd watch the sun descend on
the hills while the man liquored up
and the mule chowed down.

Or broad-as-a-barn James, with
his murderous leer and short fuse,
easily slighted and, on the prison yard, best steered
clear of: he had a cat, an enormous tabby — Tut —
that believed itself a dog. They went
for walks together, and James would feed Tut
flank steak when he grilled, out back.
The cat was his friend, and James
wept babylike when he died after
a fight (a coyote, the culprit), but not
after sticking four holes in Earl McCann,
The fucker, he had it comin'.

Hard men. Hard men all,
and beastly.

* * * * *

Does a poem need a disclaimer? Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental ought to cover it, if so. But you do hear some stories from questionable individuals (nearly the only kind, in prison) if you do enough time, and the three I cannibalized for "The Animals the Animals Loved" remain largely intact, right down to the incriminating facts.