Book Review: Slipping by John Toomey

Sometime in late March, I jotted down the names of three books that I was interested in. “Jotted” down was the wrong word–I “entered” them onto the “NOTES” feature on my iPhone. The three were Himself by Jess Kidd, Eggshells by Caitriona Lally and Slipping by John Toomey.

In late May, I went on AMAZON to order the first book, Himself, and AMAZON suggested that I might also be interested in two other books. They were the two other titles that I had written down on my phone. Now, I know it’s easy being paranoid in these technologically, dystopic times–but nevertheless it was eerie.

However, AMAZON was right. All three satisfied my reading needs.

Toomey’s Slipping is part of the Irish Literary Series published by the Dalkey Press (from

slipping jacket_med

Book cover of U.S. edition of   John Toomey’s Slipping

whom one can usually find a gem) and it is masterful in its plotting, its narration, and its style.

Albert Johnson is a middle-aged, high-school English teacher in a small village. He is dissatisfied with the path his life has taken, disgusted with the students who sit in front of him, and disparaging of most of the colleagues who teach with him. He also blames his wife for most of this.

And he saw a way out.

When the novel begins, Albert Johnson is in a psychiatric hospital for having killed his wife. Through his psychiatrist, Johnson hires Charles Vaughan, a local writer, to write his story, initially giving him a tape that explains what he did.

Obviously, this isn’t a murder mystery; we know who did it. Rather, it is an examination of storytelling itself, with multiple narrators and shifting points of view.

To research the story, Charlie Vaughan has the tapes Johnson has provided, (against the advice of his psychiatrist), the testimony of colleagues, of the arresting officer, and a problematic student who stumbled upon the scene. He also interviews Johnson’s adult daughter. A son wants nothing to do with Johnson or Vaughan.

The story Vaughan cobbles together, however, is sketchy and unsatisfying, despite Johnson’s own philosophical ruminations about what drove him to murder. Vaughan believes there is something missing, something that is not being said.

It is in the final section where some of these gaps are filled in, where the make-up of Johnson’s mind is more clearly illuminated.

Riveting is too clichéd a word, but it fits here. The novel moves quickly, moving us through Albert Johnson’s workday, through his fantasy life, through his years of married life. We see his dissatisfaction and his delusions. And we see his deliberateness.

Toomey, who has written two previous novels, Sleepwalker and Huddleston Road, is an English teacher in Dublin and his account of a day in the life of Albert Johnson is

JohnToomey

John Toomey (from RTE website. Couldn’t find photo credit. Contact me if you know.)

humorously realistic and frighteningly real. But this single school day serves as only a backdrop to the destructive thoughts that have been swirling in Johnson’s mind for years…and which lead to his horrific outburst.

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The world’s “black dog”

Silk Screen illustration 2016 by jpbohannon.

Winston Churchill called his bouts with depression “having the black dog on his back.” This was not original  with him, but was a common saying, referring more often to moodiness than depression. One historian likened it to the phrase “getting up on the wrong side of the bed.” But nevertheless, the phrase has been attributed to Churchill and ever since been associated with depression.

God knows, the world that Churchill saw certainly could buckle the strongest man’s knees.

And so it seems to be these past few months, as well. From Paris to Brussles to Orlando to Dallas to Nice  to Turkey to everyday traffic-stops, there has just been an onslaught of horrific and discouraging news. President Obama, in his speech after the Dallas shootings, said that “this is not who we are.”

But I wonder. Not we as Americans specifically–although I do wonder about that–but we as a species.

Sure, I know the heartwarming and hopeful stories as well: from high-school kids doing serious global service to individual neighbors coming together to help another in worse shape than they, from those who put their lives on the line to those who fight against power when it seems determined to crush the weak. I know people whose every thought seems to be how to better the lives of the sick and  dispossessed, the impoverished and the abused.

And yet these past few months have been relentless.

Last week, I read two novels by Dag Solstad, Shyness and Dignity and Professor Andersen’s Night. Both deal with teachers–Norwegian literature teachers–at the end of their careers. They both (a high-school teacher and university teacher respectively) question the value of the literature they profess. (Both are teaching Ibsen.)  The struggle to make students realize the value of literature has been ongoing throughout their career–that is always the natural give and take between student and teacher, although both feel it increasingly worse– but now they feel that that value is questioned by society itself. From evolving technologies–and  the distractions they provide–to current pedagogical trends and goals that emphasize success in a future career, they feel out of place, like dinosaurs, supporting a cause that is no longer relevant in the ultra-modern world.

And it is easy to believe that.

As hundreds are gunned down, blown-up, crushed, drowned, stripped of their homes, it is hard to rationalize the need to read a 150 year old Norse play, or a 450 year British play , or a 2500 year old Greek. Novels, poetry, drama, short fiction…it all feels so powerless against men with efficient guns and deficient ideas.

And yet, never before has it been so important.

Study after study has linked reading literature with an increase in the development of EMPATHY. Even the youngest teenager, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, understands on the simplest of levels, the importance of “walking in another man’s shoes.” Reading has always been a way of experiencing different lives, different cultures, different ideas.  And this is what it needs to continue to do. It is our insularity, our tribalism, our fear of (and intolerance to) the “other” that is that root of much of the world’s pain and horror.

I KNOW that art, music, literature, theater, dance are more than just “nice things” for entitled leisure. They are essential to us as a species.

I KNOW these things to be true. But these days I do not FEEL it.

But I must continue doing what I do, nevertheless: read and write.

However, as I read this, the “black dog” is wagging its tail frantically and banging up against the door.

 

 

 

 

John, Paul, and Christian, and the Theory of Chaos

John and Paul/Paul and John illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

John and Paul/Paul and John
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Last week, at a “workshop/institute/conference” I am attending for a few weeks this summer, Christian Talbot spoke to us about “chaos theory” and the creative need for tension in any collaboration. The theory goes, simply, that any collaboration must begin with chaos. Butting against each other is a conflict of ideas–and often a conflict of personalities.  As the collaborative project goes forward, this tangle of conflicts begins to stretch out into a diametric pattern of varying depths with one single thrust being countered by another until ultimately the collaborators move directly towards the goal. Talbot insisted that the initial conflict is essential, even positing that if there is no conflict the final outcome can not be as robust as it possibly could have been.

Chaos theory illustrated illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Chaos theory illustrated
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

The man next to me, Emanuel DelPizzo–an excellent musician and leader of a twelve piece R&B band–cited the Beatles as evidence of this tension.  He cited the arguing and fighting and one-up-manship that often went on during a Beatles’ recording session and the perfection of the result.  We both talked about the tensions that can arise within bands and the trust that one ultimately has to place in one’s fellow players.

AtlanticAnd then, this coincidence ensued.  The following day, as we were moving from one task to the next, I walked over to a quiet part of the room where there were a pile of recent magazines.  On the top was a copy of the July/August issue of The Atlantic. A picture of Lennon and McCartney on the cover caught my eye.  It is The Atlantic’s “IDEA issue.” (Though I would think it would want all its issues to be “idea issues”!)  Anyway, the essay was touted on the front cover as–“John vs. Paul: The Power of Creative Tension.”  This is exactly what Christian was talking about yesterday and was the very example that Manny had offered.

The essay by Joshua Wolf Shenk is entitled “The Power of Two” and immediately attempts to diffuse the prevalent idea, that Lennon wrote his songs and McCartney wrote his.  Debunking the idea of the solitary genius–so prevalent in popular lore and imagination–Shenk states that the two very different friends bounced off and into each other in order to create what they did.

And the two were in fact very different.  Shenk quotes Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, who said, “John needed Paul’s attention to detail and persistence, and Paul needed John’s anarchic, lateral thinking” (p. 79).  And this symbiosis continued to fuel their creativity. (One could seriously argue that nothing they wrote separately afterwards attains the same level as their “collaborative” effort.) I was surprised to hear that McCartney, more sure of himself, was the one likely to take criticism badly, while Lennon was more open to others’ opinions and more amenable to change.  Shenk attributes this to McCartney’s perfectionism.

Shenk cites Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album as an example of the collaborative conflict that the two would cycle through–both jockeying for dominance, both vacillating between the alpha male and the diplomat.  Sgt. Pepper’s  showed the two working closely together. For example, they volleyed Lewis Carroll-like phrases back and forth to each other to write “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and they simply fused two separate songs together to create the masterpiece “A Day in the Life.”  Lennon called the White Album, “the tension album,” but as Shenk writes:

“Despite the tension–because of the tension–the work was magnificent. Though the White Album recording sessions
were often tense and unpleasant ([EMI engineer Geoff] Emerick disliked them so much that he flat-out quit),
they yielded an album that is among the best in music history.” (p. 85)

And when they did write separately they egged each other on. Lennon scoffed at MccCartney’s original opening of “I Saw Her Standing There”  and fixed it.  McCartney softened the raw pain of John’s original version of “Help,” adding a counter-melody and harmony. And even when they were apart, they were bouncing off each other.  John wrote “Strawberry Fields” –about a nostalgic spot of his boyhood Liverpool–in late 1966 and the band recorded it on December 22 of that year.  Seven days later McCartney arrived with a song he had written about another iconic Liverpool spot, Penny Lane. Shenk quotes McCartney saying that John and he often played this answer and call type of thing–sort of the middle ground of that chaos theory illustration.

Any one who knows the story of The Beatles, knows roughly the story of their falling out and “disbanding.”  And yet, Shenk returns to the final concert–the rooftop performance on top of Apple Studios–and sees the old collaboration–both the conflict and the trust–still evident.  Standing in the positions that they had taken in the early days, the two rely on and trust each other, even through some miscues and misstakes, to present a concert that was both memorable and historic.

While it is fun, to travel through the Lennon and McCartney’s creative process–and through their times in the studio–this is not really the focus of Shenk’s article.  He is attempting to show the workings of creative pairs.  He lists creative pairs from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Shenk enumerates McCartney and Lennon’s differences and their tensions as well as their friendship and trust as being the forge in which their art was struck.  As Shenk states:

John and Paul were so obviously more creative as a pair than as individuals,
even if at times they appeared to work in opposition to each other. …The essence
of their achievements, it turns out , was relational. (p.79)

And that achievement is timeless.

Shenk, Joshua Wolf. “The Power of Two” The Atlantic. (July/August 2014, pp. 76-86)

 

 

 

 

 

 

words and pictures (part 2) …and the power of MUSIC

Music...Art...Literature Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Music…Art…Literature
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the film Words and Music, a sweet romance about a battle between an Art teacher and an English teacher. The film had interesting examples about the power of words and magnificent examples of the power of “pictures.”  But what I forgot about was the part that held it together and in a way redeemed it:

The Power of Music

In the film. after the male protagonist has made a bollocks of things and the female protagonist has had enough of his destructive behavior, it is music that is the most evocative, most informative, most powerful…and most healing.

Scene after scene the male (Jack Marcus) tries to contact the female (Dina Delsanto) to apologize for the drunken mess he made of her art. Scene after scene we see her aggressively stop his attempts or stoically ignore them. Until the moment, when she opens an e-mail and there is an audio attachment.  The piece–written for the film by Paul Grabowsky—is a chamber piece for piano, cello and clarinet entitled “I am a Small Poem.”  (This is also the name of the poem that Markus steals from his son.)  It is rich and resonant and connects with Delsanto more than any words or pictures could.

It is what saves their seemingly destroyed relationship.

I wish I could embed the music that was played when Delsanto opened her e-mail. but I can’t.  It isn’t available yet.  So instead, I will give you this: an extraordiary piece by Fauvre. It is what I often listen to when I am writing:

A while back, a music teacher (Manny DelPizzo), an art teacher (Jackie White) and I got together to make plans for a large project. (The educators call this kind of thing “Project Based Learning.”)  I was going to get my Creative Writing Students to submit their best work and the art teacher and music teacher would each have their students interpret it and we would have a performance.  Our ambitions were high–this seemed like the best outlet for student creativity– but the realities of schedules and time and curricula put many roadblocks in our way and we let it fizzle out.

The “performance” that the fictional students in Words and Pictures was much like what we were hoping for, minus the music. Our music component would have made it better.

A new school term is starting in a couple of weeks. I am newly energized (though not as drunken as Jack Marcus) and am excited about trying this for real. It doesn’t have to be a battle–as it was in the film–but a really cool examination of the power of words, of art, and of music–a real exercise in Creativity

Baseball Poetry: “The Pitcher” by Robert Francis

Satchel Paige--a true poet

Satchel Paige–a true poet

I gave my students a poem today and asked them to wriggle around inside it and tell me everything they found in there.  The poem I gave them was “The Pitcher” by Robert Francis.  I was hoping there were some baseball players in the class, but none of them had played much past little league. But many of them were fans.  And I believe they achieved a pretty good literal reading–how a pitcher in baseball depends greatly on being misunderstood, at aiming at something he didn’t seem to be aiming at, at avoiding the obvious and varying the avoidance.  We went through it line by line, describing what aspect of a pitcher’s performance was being described. One student thought that maybe it might even be, in his words, “about a pitcher and maybe about a non-conformist.” That was interesting. He knew what he meant but was having trouble working himself through it. And then one student, somewhat self-doubting, said that he too saw the poem dealing with a baseball player and something else. But for him, that something else was “a poet.” He went on to say that a poet’s deception was that instead of saying something was brown, he would say something was like the “leaves of autumn.” Much like a pitcher’s throw looks like its coming one way but then intentionally breaks another. A part of him believed that he was really off-the-mark but, to his credit, he forged on. And he was pretty good. In fact, in the past, after a class has seen this poem, I ask them–as they are leaving–to think again about “The Pitcher” when they get home, but this time to think in terms of a poet and the poet’s craft, to think about the similarities between what some pitchers and some poets attempt to do. And the next days’ discussions are often quite good. But today’s student was the first ever to go there without my prompting.  And that’s a pretty cool thing.

The Pitcher by Robert Francis

His art is eccentricity, his aim

How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,

His passion how to avoid the obvious,

His technique how to vary the avoidance.

The others throw to be comprehended. He

Throws to be a moment misunderstood.

Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,

But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate

Making the batter understand too late.

A Chance Meeting: MK Asante on public radio

I rarely drive, so I rarely listen to the radio. That might not make sense for many, but I know that some will understand. The radio is simply not part of my home life.

But anyway,there were reasons for my being behind the wheel this past Thursday and I was listening to RadioTimes on Public Radio (Marty Moss-Coane on WHYY in Philadelphia.) The guest was MK Asante, a hip-hop singer, filmmaker,  writer and creative-writing/film teacher at Morgan State University.

I was blown away.buckautographed

Asante was plugging his new book, Buck: A Memoir about his life in “Killadelphia” during the 1990s.  At the same time it is the story of his family’s breaking apart and then coming back together.

Asante was born in Zimbabwe and raised in Philadelphia.  His parents’ marriage disintegrated, his idolized brother had a series of run-ins with the law and was imprisoned, his mother suffered from clinical depression, and he grew up in the “hood” full of anger, confusion, and energy.

This coming-of-age story is probably more familiar than it ever should be, but, oh, the language itself is extraordinary. Like nothing you ever heard.

Here is the first paragraph of the book: (Asante reads it in the interview attached below):

The Fall

      The fall in Killadelphia. Outside is the color of corn bread and blood. Change hangs in air like sneaks on the live wires behind my crib. Me and my big brother, Uzi, in the kitchen. He’s rolling a blunt on top of the Source, the one with Tyson on the cover rocking a kufi, ice-grilling through the gloss. Uzi can roll a blunt with his eyes closed.

     Cracks, splits, bits.

     The rawest crews in Philly are all three letters,“  he tells me. I read the cover through the tobacco guts and weed flakes:  “The Rebirth of Mike Tyson: ‘I’m Not Good.  I’m Not Bad. I’m Just Trying to Survive in this World.’”

Awakening crews in a rude fashion
On they ass like Mike Tyson at a beauty pageant•

      I do this–spit lyrics to songs under my breath–all day, every day. The bars just jump out of me no matter where I am or what I’m doing. It’s like hip-hop Tourette’s.

     Dumps, spreads, evens.

    “JBM–Junior Black Mafia. Of course us,  UPK–Uptown Killaz.  PHD–Play Hero and Die.”

     Tears, licks, wraps.

    “HRM–Hit Run Mob. EAM–Erie Ave. Mobsters.  ABC–Another Bad Creation.”

    Folds, rolls, tucks. Another perfect blunt, jawn looks like a paintbrush.

    Jawn  can mean anything–person, place, or thing. Sometimes if we’re telling a story and don’t want people to know what we’re talking about, we’ll plug in jawn in for everything. The other day I was at the jawn around the corner with the young jawn from down the street. We get to the jawn, right, and the ngh at the door is all on his jawn, not nowing I had that jawn on me. Man, it was about to be on in that jawn.

“ Wreck Your Ears (Can Do),” The B.U.M.S. (Brothers Under Madness), 1965

This is language at its most alive, its most energetic. (To hear him read it is even more electrifying.)

Asante mentions in the interview that the first book that turned him on was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Besides the plot of the novel–drugs, sex, wildness–which he was surprised to learn could be the focus of serious literature, it was the style of the writing that attracted him, the energy, the speed, the exuberance.  As he said, from it he learned he didn’t have to worry about commas.

photo of MK Asante from the L.A. Times

photo of MK Asante from the L.A. Times

MK Asante’s journey from the hood to plugging his books on national radio is one story. But it is a minor story.  The true story is the language of this memoir. It is hypnotizing, energetic, alive and present.  It puts me to shame.

In two more weeks I begin teaching a class in creative writing. My students are quite a distance from the world that MK Asante grew up in.  Nevertheless, I am opening class with readings from the book.  It is a lesson in being true to oneself, in being true to one’s voice, in being able to plumb one’s life for the story we all need to tell.

Here is the interview in its entirety: (this is Radio Times web site and will feature the day’s current show. Scroll down to the middle of the page to hear MK Asante on yesterday’s show. As time passes, the 8/22/2013 show will be placed in the easily accessed archives. And check out MK Asante’s web page, above, to see trailers, past works, etc.)

RADIO TIMES INTERVIEW WITH MK ASANTE

Big Brother IS Watching: 1984 and Summer Reading 2013

bigbrother

In the two weeks before the opening of school I have the students who will be entering my class read George Orwell’s 1984. It is the perfect prequel to the first two books we read in class, Brave New World and A Handmaid’s Tale. (We start out with a big dose of dystopia.)

Well, one of my more ambitious students has already done all his summer reading and e-mailed me about 1984. Orwell was pretty clever, he wrote, but he doesn’t think that that kind of thing could really ever happen.

George Orwell

George Orwell

Signet Classic's cover of 1984

Signet Classic’s cover of 1984

Boy, did he pick the wrong summer to make that statement.

The other day, I saw the trailer for a film, Closed Circuit (see bottom of post). It is a terrorist-mole-investigative reporting-shady government department type of thing. And it looked very good. But, as I was telling a friend, one of the major players in the film is the network of 1.85 million close circuit cameras mounted throughout Britain. (http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/mar/02/cctv-cameras-watching-surveillance). That is roughly one camera for every 32 people. Of course, that ratio is a lot smaller in urban areas than in rural.

George Orwell saw it coming.

And then of course, the major news story of the summer was the Snowden leaks. (As Yossarian said in Catch-22, “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?”) For many, the actions of Snowden, his search for asylum, the international posturing and subsequent tensions have been the most riveting part of the story. What seems to have trouble staying in the foreground, however, is the fact that the U.S.government has been spying on its citizens, collecting data from their e-mails, their texts, their cell-phones, and their search engines. The citizens have been assured that the NSA is not going to use this data, but is simply archiving it. “For what?” is a sensible question.

George Orwell would have certainly asked it.

And the technology just gets better and better. Even the most naive teenager knows that his computer searches and activity are catalogued and sold to marketers. So it is not surprising that if the day after you search on-line for an umbrella for your father, you see umbrella advertisements popping up on your screen. (And depending who you are, where you are, and how often you searched, the price for the same umbrella will fluctuate.)

Well now this same marketing scheme has been adapted by the brick and mortar stores through face-recognition technology. Higher-end stores are testing facial-recognition technology which will alert store clerks immediately when someone (usually a celebrity) walks into the store and what his or her buying preferences are. At the moment the focus is on celebrities because their photos are already available in their databanks.

But it won’t be long. Walk into your favorite department store, spend some time in the men’s shoe department, and you might find an advert for men’s shoes pop up the next time you click on your device. They already know what you think you want.

Google has the technology for you to snap a photo of someone on the street, upload it, and learn everything you want about them. They have refrained from releasing it so far, mainly due to the legal tangle that Facebook is finding itself in.  Facebook’s ‘”tagging” photos capabilities is a subtle way to create an enormous facial-recognition database. And that database is available not only to you and your friends.

As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once famously claimed, privacy is no longer a “social norm.”

George Orwell would find it all familiar.

If things go right, the first few days in school should have a lot of interesting discussions.

I hope so.

Here’s the trailer to Close Circuit. It looks like it could be good.