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On behalf of the entire TNB community, I want to send love and appreciation to Cynthia Hawkins, our longtime Arts & Culture editor, who is battling cancer with uncommon grace and determination. All of us here–and of course I’m referring to our far-flung tribe of writers and editors, both past and present–are deeply moved and inspired by you, Cynthia, and we want you to know how much we care about you and your family.

With this in mind, we figure a good old-fashioned, comment-heavy post here at TNB will cheer you up and give you some more good energy. (All readers are invited to join me in offering positive thoughts on the board below.)

December, the end of the Julian calendar year. For critics, it’s time to get listy, to go all effusive, doe-eyed, and misty over what we’ve read during the prior three-hundred-and-something days. For authors, it’s time to hunker down in our metaphorical emotional foxholes, to employ one of four battle-proven strategies:

1.  Get depressed, drink heavily, get more depressed, and jag-cry. (You were left off the holy lists but can’t for the life of you figure out why.);

2.  Get pissed, drink heavily, scream, and stamp your feet. (You know exactly why you were left off the holy lists. A vast right-, left-, and middle-wing conspiracy against your genius, obvis.);

3.  Get deliriously happy, drink slightly less heavily, and do freestyle “ballet” moves in the living room (You made it for once!); or

4.  As in 3, but let it go to your head. And for God’s sake, make sure you slop that confidence all over Facebook before sobering up. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to remember.

I thought about doing some sort of list here—longest books of the year starring an author’s ego in a supporting role, best works of Middle High German-to-English translation my cat vomited on, worst sestina collections I feel uncomfortable criticizing. But for obvious reasons (see above), we’re going with the uzhe, a Microbrewed literary six-pack of new books.

P.S. I may still do a list. Or two. Or six. Stay tuned.

 

“To be without a feeling for art is no disgrace. A person can live in peace without reading [novels] or listening to [music]. But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it. There is a popular misomusy… The fascists and Communist regimes made use of it… But there is an intellectual, sophisticated misomusy as well: it takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic… The apocalypse of art: the misomusists will themselves take on the making of art; thus will their historic vengeance be done.”

–Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

 

“Misomusist: n. rare A person who hates learning (also, in recent use: art).”    

–Dictionary

 

With Kundera’s strong opinions and talent for rhetoric come a penchant for overstatement, even hyperbole; an inclination that causes him to contradict himself from time to time. This is the problem with broad pronouncements—statements of absolutes, even from a master like Kundera—there is almost always an exception to the rule, whatever the rule. In this instance, Kundera’s work, and its focus on the political, provides the exception.

Kundera’s concept of the novelist as someone who poses questions (rather than answering them) is a notion I return to often, and his idea on the misomusist’s hatred of learning and art seems linked to that, even though it might not initially appear so. When Kundera speaks of misomusy, he’s speaking metaphorically, not issuing a metal-clad prohibition against “any vestige of the political in art,” even though it sounds as though he’s suggesting just that—that if we want to save poor, little Art from the encroaching idiot hordes we’d better stuff it in a covered wagon and get the fuck out of Dodge.

If we peel back Kundera’s hyperbole, he’s speaking of a problem of degrees, the way too much focus on politics, religion, or commerce (as examples) might negatively impact art. Though Kundera almost certainly wouldn’t approve, you might even extend the point to include too much “artistry,” suggesting that if you are too concerned with pursuing beauty as you see it, whether out of some overly idiosyncratic aesthetic or a lack of more visceral narrative elements like plot and story, you could damage your own art, create something unrecognizable to anyone but yourself.

Set deep in literature’s make-up—perhaps essential enough even to qualify as its DNA—are the ideas of knowledge and progress as identifiable, worthy concepts. We read not only for aesthetics and entertainment, but to expand the scope of our worlds. We read to engage with other cultures and people, to live other lives. And, to some extent, what I want from a writer is their unvarnished perspective on the world. If that view is heavily informed by politics (whether they be governmental or those of race or gender), so be it.

Several of the books I’m covering this month could be considered political, though some are certainly more overt in their politics than others. As someone who writes about politics at times, who has his own strong opinions, I’d say the challenge is (as Kundera has suggested elsewhere) to avoid absolute certainty in your fiction, to maintain some level of impartiality, even though as human beings demanding perfect political neutrality of ourselves is a doomed proposition. Ultimately, you must do what makes sense to you, regardless of what the great Milan Kundera or little, old me say. The only test of success is the reader’s response, the impartial (though always partial) answer to the question, “Does it work?”


In many ways, the greatest praise we can bestow on a piece of art is to say it inhabits its world so fully as to define it. Whether we’re talking about Flannery O’Connor or Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway, the writers we come back to, the ones who maintain readership and critical attention, often capture their environments to such an extent that their claim on the territory comes to supplant the reality they once sought to depict.

What would 19th century England mean to us without David Copperfield and Oliver Twist? What would 20th century Paris be without The Sun Also Rises? Even though film’s more overt, incandescent iconography has overtaken the literary in the popular consciousness, one of the written word’s chief uses remains its role as historical document and anthropological source, a record of the things that animate geographies and eras, nations and civilizations. And let’s be clear: Even today, there would be no cinema without writing. Whether in the form of novels and stories that provide jumping-off points for screenwriting or the scripts themselves, the production of the images that become our shared memories could never happen without the written word.

The Nervous Breakdown’s inaugural Microbrew showcases the diversity of American letters. Realist and fabulist, lyrical and metafictional, novels and stories, novellas and poetry. Drawn from small and big presses alike, this is a group of writers engaged in the work of claiming their territory, defining their worlds with such linguistic precision and clarity of vision that those worlds, if we’re lucky, begin to feel like our own.

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So, you wrote about the dead guy again.

You mean my best friend who died five years ago in a mountain climbing accident nearly ten years to the day after he’d been mauled by a grizzly in Yellowstone Park? Yes, I did write about him again. The book is called Altitude Sickness.

 

Why?

Well, we were best friends for over two decades and, like I say in the book, we got together and broke up more times than the earth has rotated the sun, so I’d say his sudden death at the age of forty-two was fairly earth-shattering. We loved each other deeply and his death nearly destroyed me. And I’ve been a writer most of my professional life, so it’s kind of hard to bypass all this.

COVER Altitude Sickness“That funeral ate balls,” my brother Gus said as we walked through the Seattle rain to his car. He unlocked the doors and Dad got in the passenger side, while Mom sat in the back with me. I can be a tad verbose, but couldn’t speak. My mouth, like my heart, felt cauterized.

Mom reached for my hand. “Oh, honey,” she said. “I know this is awful.” She paused. “Where should we take you to eat?”

Usually I’d tease her about Greek protocol, how we hone in on food no matter the circumstances. We’d just left my best friend Neal’s funeral, though, and everything seemed absurd, but not in the funny way.

the lone bellow brooklyn

Please explain what just happened.

We just stopped at a little gas station where they had homemade hamburgers. We think there’s a 50/50 chance that this is actually true.

Gena-Perala44444

Please explain what just happened.

Alanis Morissette came on the radio playing a hit from 1994, and then a very beautiful song came on.  It’s called “All I Want,” by Kodaline.  Pretty.

DIER, Brett2Please explain what just happened.

I banged my knee on the computer desk, and I’m now in pain. But I’ve recovered nicely by the time I finished this sentence. Nope…still hurts.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Earliest memory would be me dressing up in my mothers nylons and pretending I’m Batman. I WISH I was making this up.

 

If you weren’t an actor, what other profession would you choose?

If I wasn’t an actor I’d be a professional break-dancer who also dabbled in graffiti. Legal graffiti of course…

Trance

It would’ve been easier to write a list called “The Only 3 Movies I Won’t See in 2013,” but that wouldn’t have done anybody any good. So instead I made an entirely subjective list of 40 reasons why I think this will be an amazing year for film. Missing are big films that I’m just not that enthusiastic about (The Hunger Games: Catching FireMan of Steel), films that would be on the list if it weren’t for the director’s last film being a total letdown (e.g. Ridley Scott’s The Counselor; thanks a lot, Prometheus!), and films that would be on the list had I written it any other day (sorry, The EastLowlife, and Kill Your Darlings). For the most part, the order is arbitrary. However, the top five are set in stone, and if I could only watch one movie this year it would be the film at number one.

So, without any further ado…

When words meant to be spoken are bottled up for too long, those words stop showering and shaving. Crank speed metal at four a.m. Carve lines into your forehead with rusty knives. Illegally park in handicapped spaces, create fake ads on Craigslist. Those bottled-up words trade up for down, left for right, dropkick you into the shacklebone zone. They smile in public, beat you in private. Fill your mouth with rains and hurricanes, pee a circle around your soul and mark it for extinction.

Please explain what just happened.

Well, I just saw an ad in the NY Times for a ladies’ handbag.  It was selling for $9,200.  Sorry, but I just cannot explain that.

 

What is your earliest memory? 

I’m in a room with striped wallpaper and two twin beds.  My brother and I are jumping back and forth from one to the other when my mother comes in and says, “Settle down.  It’s nap time.”  She walks away.  We resume our jumping.

 

Please explain what just happened.

You tell me. I obviously missed something.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Stuck outside on my dark front porch, huddled in a scratchy patchwork blanket after stealing pennies and sneaking out to (closed) corner store in the middle of the night. My mom still doesn’t believe me on that one.

 

If you weren’t an actor, what other profession would you choose?

World traveling photo-journalist-writer-translator-spy.

Please explain what just happened.

If you mean just now, I would have to say I just read this question.

 

What is your earliest memory?

You remember those small baby bike seats that your parents would put on the back of the bike? I remember riding in that with my dad and the way the bike swaying back and forth felt. Other than that, I feel like I was born yesterday.

 

Other People, a twice-weekly author interview podcast hosted by TNB founder Brad Listi, has just rolled out its 100th episode.  The guest is the great George Saunders.

Read what people are saying about the show right here.

Subscribe for free at iTunes right here.