Category Archives: art

“My Mercedes Is Not For Sale”

A quick summary: a memoir wherein the author, Jeroen Van Bergeijk, drives a Mercedes into West Africa to have a bit of an adventure as well as to turn a profit selling it to an African car dealer, or deserving cabbie, or whoever ends up actually producing the cash in the end.

It may be that in translation, pulled off by one John Antonides, the tight, clever character of the writing was utterly lost. But whatever the reason, a chant of the writer’s commandment to SHOW DON’T TELL grew in volume in my head as I progressed through the book.

Also, I think there is some kind of guideline about not treating your reader like a blockhead. If every time I read an analogy, and three sentences later the only thing I can think is, “DUDE! I get it…” then something needed to be edited, methinks. Let me soften this by saying, I was never actually insulted by the overexplaining; it is not pompous, just annoying.

That said, where else are you going to be able to read about an automobile trek across the Sahara? I’m sure there are other places, but there are enough things in the plus column to warrant joining Van Bergeijk’s trek:

1. It’s a pretty quick read, assuming you don’t have little kids interrupting you for food every couple of minutes.

2. The narrator is successfully presented as somebody you’d actually want to hang out with (even if he is a bit circuitously long winded).

3. He pulls in a lot of references to other relevant texts and some historical facts to illustrate the events and his observations, so you feel like you’re exploring the continent from several angles.

4. It takes a fairly balanced look at Africa – I’ve been studying the continent’s history and art for a few years, so I’m attuned to some of the common pitfalls as far as assumptions and prejudices go. The narrator manages to present his feelings (which tend toward compassion) but makes sure to include enough alternate testimony that you feel you’re getting a sufficiently broad crosscut of various points of view.

In conclusion: it’s worth a go, if the African continent holds any fascination for you.

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Renaming

My first lesson gleaned from studying Mark Morford‘s columns in the San Francisco Chronicle is how concisely he adds meaning by simply renaming things.

For example, in his column entitled “When History Spanks,” he talks about the Republican campaign team and refers to them once as “vile, cold-blooded tacticians” and then as “these Rove-trained dung-flingers.” Apart from the humorous element, renaming is also a tidy way to cram a lot of opinion into a quick statement. I can see a more clumsy writer saying instead, “The campaign team members, who were trained by Karl Rove to fling dung,…” Doesn’t pack the same punch.

To rename is to cleanly insert ideas and impressions without pausing to go down an explanatory side street.

Naming is a very powerful act. Think of how profoundly important it is to choose the name of a child or to be the first to discover a new species or star and have the honor of establishing its moniker. Imagine the god-like power of the people who “found” certain islands, rivers, mountains, and even though their own name may be forgotten, generations of people have referred to that particular chunk of earth by the title they designated.

To rename is to reclaim this power and use it to your own ends.

Gertrude Stein had this to say about nouns, which represent the basic act of naming: “Things once they are named the name does not go on doing anything so why write in the nouns.” Why, indeed, continue in one’s essay to refer to something or someone by a noun that has become an empty shell, like an anonymous finger pointing. Instead, assume the divine right of a writer to express the world as you see it, which includes the essential job of creating a fresh, revealing name to replace the old lifeless one.

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Autodidact curriculum

Some folks, after being plied with a couple of brewskis, might shyly admit to having fantasies of being a star quarterback, a rock god or maybe even royalty. My confession: I fantasize of being a syndicated columnist.

My first hero was Molly Ivins, who unfortunately for the world of words and intelligence has passed on.

But I’ve found someone else I’d like to learn from: Mark Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle.

I love to read him for his wit and intelligence, but I hate to read him because he gets away with so many “illegal” writing conventions that come fairly naturally to me (I am NOT saying I can pull them off as well as he can) but that I am told to drop from my writing because “it is not allowed.”

Similar to how, fifteen years before the Harry Potter phenomenon, I was told by my fifth grade creative writing teacher that I shouldn’t continue my story about the magical girl but should focus on “reality.”

One of Morford’s apparently successful infractions: using second person.

I’ll be writing an essay and I’ll want to build an imaginary scenario for the reader. Without making the conscious decision, I find myself talking to the reader, inviting, suggesting, seducing their imagination to follow me down some rabbit hole where we might get a glimpse of a new world, or at least the old world turned on its head. It works so well to say, “You.” But you’re not supposed to.

And yet week after week he uses this tactic, among many others, to great effect.

Though it’s been a couple of years since I took my last class, still I spent enough years being indoctrinated into the scholarly method that I think I will give myself some study materials to figure out what makes Morford’s writing so damn good. I have a pile of his articles that I will inspect, analyze, but above all, enjoy.

I will be writing at least one follow up blog post to let you know what I’ve discovered.

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Book Review: “The Last Straw”

Hold your applause ’til after the show please, but I, who require a minimum of three months to get through so much as a magazine article, read an entire book this morning!

Okay, it is a kid’s book.  But it does have 217 pages in it!

Fine, most of those pages consist of cartoony drawings.  Nevertheless, it is indisputably a book, and I without a doubt did begin and finish it along with my morning cup of java.  (I have witnesses.)

Making its appearance on the book scene on January 13th, 2009, The Last Straw is the third volume in Jeff Kinney’s series Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  My son discovered the first one when he was about 10, I think, and after he read it everyone in the house passed it around and had a good laugh.  

I get a kick out of the realism; it is fashioned to be an actual kid’s diary, with a font resembling handwritten words on lined paper and cartoon illustrations, drawn at the level of a child’s ability (although still in general better than I could do!), on every page.

The main character is endearing and hilarious in all his vulnerability, crazy assumptions, slapstick mistakes and naive undertakings.  He faces the challenges of childhood with the kind of sloth, paranoia and heartrending hopefulness that we can all relate to.

I highly recommend any of this series of books for you to give as a gift to any funny-bone endowed youngster with an upcoming birthday, or perhaps a late Christmas gift!  Or just because you happened to be at the store buying a world map for your youngest daughter and you noticed that the new book had just come out a couple of days ago.  

But make sure you let the child on the receiving end of your purchase know that you are first in line to read it after them, because that line will get pretty long pretty fast.  

Read it for no other reason than that it WILL make you laugh out loud, and you WILL be able to brag that you finished an entire book in under an hour.  (As long as no one asks the title, you will be hailed as the new superstar of the literate set.)

You may now commence thunderous applause.

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Folk Art

Today, touring the Hickory Museum of Art’s Southern Contemporary Folk Art exhibit, I decided that folk art is my favorite flavor.

Two reasons.

First: if I don’t like it, no biggie. Someone was just sitting in their backyard, had a funky inspiration, goofed around for a while with some different materials, colors, forms.  I can get on board with that. Though that particular piece may not be my cup of tea, I can still respect them as a creative individual.

A “real artist,” on the other hand, is not allowed to produce things I don’t like and get paid handsomely for it. They don’t get to have all this respect and fame when that “thing” they churned out is a bit of moronic rubbish. I’ll not stand for it!

Since my only choice is to hold them in the most foul and begrudging contempt, then the whole thing ends up getting ugly.

A folk artist, being a far more humble creature, can get away with anything.

And if I do happen to like what the folk artist has produced, then I can stand back and marvel. Wow, a regular person like me created this artistic miracle, this shining proof of the greatness of the human spirit, this indisputable evidence of the vision we are all capable of.

If a “real artist” pulls off the same stunt, I’m like, well yeah, you’re supposed to be making good art, whaddya want… a medal?

 

I cannot be held responsible for the content of this post.  Mostly because it is a treatise on a subjective subject that is beyond the stifling rules of objectivity which state that one must give everything a fair shake and argue one’s point logically and not just whip out flagrant opinions willy-nilly.  On the subject of art, I reserve the right to will and nill to my little heart’s desire.

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“What is the What”

Since I have almost zero time free to read, when I do read something it had better be good!

The book I just finished fit the bill.  What is the What by Dave Eggers is part autobiography and part fiction, recounting the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese man who survived the civil war that destroyed so much of his homeland.

I find the mixture of truth and fiction intriguing, but as Mr. Deng explains in the preface, “It should be known to the readers that I was very young when some of the events in the book took place, and as a result we simply had to pronounce What is the What a novel.”  But he goes on to assure readers, “The book is historically accurate, and the world I have known is not different from the one depicted within these pages.”

It is also interesting that Mr. Eggers helped him write it, and is the only author listed on the cover.  One might ask, whose story is it, really?

Having studied in college the genre of testimonio, a category of writing that includes texts which tell the true story of individuals who have survived oppression and hardship, I am sure that theorists would go nuts over the truth/fiction blend going on in this book.

For me, I find it worth reading for the history as well as for the perspective of a person who has lived in both the US and Africa and can inform us of the contrast.

It is a story that never stops for a moment.  It will take you out of wherever you are and move you through a world that few of us, thankfully, will experience otherwise.  

It was worth reading just for the moment when my husband was watching a rerun of a goofy sitcom while I had my nose in the book, and I could hear the characters on the TV joking about their party-gone-sour while in the book young Achak is riding in the back of a military truck with a load of dead bodies… I had to stop reading.  Just to let it all digest, that we are all on this planet together but our realities are separated by light years.  Just to feel that moment when our realities existed, paradoxically, in the same space, when they came together in my conscious mind.

If you get a chance, join Mr. Deng’s reality for a moment.  How can we resist someone who wants so badly for us to hear his story?  As he says in the book, talking to us, the readers, about his storytelling, “…I speak to you because I cannot help it.  It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there.  I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us.  How blessed are we to have each other?  I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words.”

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My Original Inspiration

When listing my favorite writers, my husband comes second, then Ousmane Sembène, Carlos Fuentes, Assia Djebar, and Beryl Markham.  It’s impossible to list every author I admire and can’t get enough of, so I just toss out whichever names come to mind at the time.

But my husband is always second.  And the name I always put first, and I know my husband doesn’t mind, is my father, Lewis Horton. 

A few months ago my Dad sent me an article from his local paper written about his recent publication of a short story in an anthology called Big Water.  He has one whole shelf of a bookcase filled with anthologies and magazines that he’s been published in over the years.  

But that shelf is not the reason I list him first.

I have watched him practice his craft since my earliest memories.  Every evening he would retire to his bedroom where he had a desk and a typewriter (now he has a computer and an office in his home).  He would be in there for at least three hours.  

A few years ago he finally had his first book published: Escape From Mexico.  It is a memoir of his adventure on a weekend leave in Mexico while he was in the US Army.  It is a funny and exciting story, so well written that at the end, when he is describing his escape from a Mexican prison, I couldn’t help wondering if he made it out alive, even though I knew perfectly well he was sitting at home the very moment I was reading it!  I admire him so much for teaching me that even if it takes 20 or 30 years, you can get published.

And now, after over five years of trying to sell his second book, he has again succeeded.  I don’t even know the title yet, but I will definitely post an update when it gets closer to publication.

He is also my favorite writer because when I read his stuff, it is a guaranteed laugh.  I’m not sure if other people find it as gut-bustingly hilarious as I do, because they don’t have the added advantage I have of being able to hear his voice and see the facial expressions he would be using when telling the story.  Reading his work is never just me in my own head digesting meaning; it has visual and audio effects as well, which makes for a lot of fun.  Any sense of humor I have I attribute to his example and influence.

I got a lot of great stuff from my mother as well, just as good but in a whole other realm, interests such as cooking and baking, sewing, gardening, mothering, and having faith.  I owe her just as big.

But when I see his picture in that newspaper clipping, holding up a book in which yet another of his stories has been published, and when I hear that, finally, he will have another book on the shelves, I am proud that I have a father who had a dream, went for it, and continues to pursue his craft and explore his talent.  I hope I have inherited at least some of his determination, and that I can be even half as successful.

Thanks, Dad.

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