Archive for Readings

Homer Simpson’s Hands

There is a key character named Homer Simpson in Nathanael West’s 1939 Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust.

Yes, d’oh, a name familiar to most.

 

Did Matt Groening name his Homer after West’s original? The information is somewhat contradictory, though Groening did state in interviews that he lifted the name from West’s novel. However, Groening’s father was also named Homer (Matt’s younger sisters were named Lisa and Maggie, not coincidentally), and he has stated in other interviews that the name was derived from his dear old dad. 

My guess is that both reports are true — influences and inspirations often arrive in layers, filtering in from a variety of sources. 

I recall reading Nathanael West as a very young man: A Cool Million, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust. He made a strong impression at the time, an original mind with an absurdist’s sense of satire. He was wickedly funny and intensely dark about the human condition. That appealed to me, too. 

I recently went back and reread those books, some 40 years later. My feeling is that if you read a book at a much earlier time in your life, it’s like you’ve never read it at all. That is, the reader’s perspective has been so transformed that it’s like encountering a brand new book (even though, of course, the book hasn’t changed a bit). The relationship between text-and-reader is made anew. 

While I enjoyed reading West again, and still consider myself very much a fan, there were passages that haven’t aged well. This is true of a depressing number of books, as we know. Time is not always kind. Values change. We’ve learned some things along the way. There’s an unsettling streak of misogyny here and there. Perhaps a function of the time, a flaw in West himself, or just part of his eviscerating, take-no-prisoners satire. He’s tough on everybody. Rape comes up: the word, the desire, the act. As a social satirist, West doesn’t judge, just presents. Those are not comfortable sections to read. Am I being too sensitive? Well, to be honest, that’s not a complaint, too sensitive, I often receive. In any event, West seems neglected today. 

Let’s call his work problematic and leave it at that for now. Others can sort out where West fits in the canon. (The Modern Library ranks Locust at  #73 in its list of the 100 Best Novels.)

Mostly, I want to highlight Homer Simpson’s amazing hands.

Here’s a snippet from possibly my favorite passage in all of West’s work. He provides us with some genius descriptions of this awkward, ill-at-ease, deeply repressed character who seems almost detached from his own hands:

“He lay stretched out on the bed, collecting his senses and testing the different parts of his body. Every part was awake but his hands. They still slept. He was not surprised. They demanded special attention, had always demanded it. When he had been a child, he used to stick pins into them and once had even thrust them into a fire. Now he used only cold water.

He got out of bed in sections, like a poorly made automaton, and carried his hands into the bathroom. He turned on the cold water. When the basin was full, he plunged his hands in up to the wrists. They lay quietly on the bottom like a pair of strange aquatic animals. When they were thoroughly chilled and began to crawl about, he lifted them out and hid them in a towel.”

I can still remember encountering that section decades ago, that bizarre disconnection from his own body — a powerful metaphor for a character’s discomfort in his own skin, his own vibrating self.

He carried his hands into the bathroom.

God, that’s brilliant.

Nathanael West.

I confess that I’m pretty sure I tried to rip that off somewhere along the line, the idea of carrying one’s hands into the next room, etc., but I can’t for the life of me remember where it might appear. A Jigsaw Jones mystery for 2nd-grade readers? I don’t exactly recall. If I did borrow it, or quietly paid tribute to it — and I certainly hope I did — I had forgotten the source material at the time. It was just that remarkable idea lodged in my skull from a nearly-forgotten book.

Hands as strange aquatic animals.

The first time I read The Day of the Locusts, the animated Homer Simpson did not yet exist. It wasn’t until I came back to it that I realized, Oh, wow, Homer Simpson! I guess that’s where Groening got it.

“The Day of the Locust” was also a 1975 film starring Donald Sutherland (as Homer), Karen Black, William Atherton, Burgess Meredith, and other fine actors. I’m going to rent it on Amazon Prime sometime soon. Sadly, Nathanael West’s promising career was cut short at the age of 37, when he died in a car crash just one short year after the publication of Locust

A tragedy that his work prepared us for.

 

 

 

Triggered

I had my first true “triggered” experience the other day. Where I was reading something and it took me right back to a painful memory.

The book was Stoner by John Williams. At the end of the book, he describes in detail the quiet moments of a dying character. It’s a brilliant passage, the last four pages of the book: a profound, moving description of the dying of the light.

I thought of my mother, who died on July 31st at age 95. I felt her last hours, imagined anew that experience, and tears filled my eyes.

And you know what?

I was grateful for that book. For that trigger that came without warning.

The beauty of a novel, just one of the beauties, is that you can stop reading. You can close the book, think your thoughts, manage those emotions on your own terms.

If we have deep feelings about events in our lives, those memories are going to be triggered somewhere, somehow. A cardinal alights on a branch and it reminds you of someone. The smell from a teacup. An empty park bench. There’s no hiding from the triggers, no way to avoid remembering.

John Williams in Stoner wrote an achingly beautiful scene in which the main character passes from the living. Inch by inch, moment by moment. For me, while it brought tears, it also gave solace.

I am heartened and enriched that books can stir us so deeply.

 

 

Poem: “Written at Four A.M.”

I don’t usually post my poems on this blog, but wrote this one last night, as the title suggests, and felt I might as well put it out there. I am quite sure that not everyone understands, or even considers, the terrible stress and anxiety that our healthcare workers are under. There are heroes among us, and they don’t wear capes.

 

 

Written at Four A.M.

– for Lisa, 3/29/20

 

My wife cannot sleep these nights.

She lies blanketed in worry,

rueing her sleeplessness and tasks

undone, so much still to be done,

and afraid of what’s to come:

hospital beds in cluttered corridors,

patients sharing ventilators, alone

and clawing for air and surcease;

the fear in everyone’s eyes; the nurse’s

front desk, so often a font of crude

jokes and late-night laughter, now

red-rimmed and fraught. Awakened,

I rouse and speak: it only annoys her,

so I rub Lisa’s back in night’s full dark,

resort to an old trick, and pick up

a bedside book of poems, Philip Larkin’s

The Less Deceived, to read aloud.

It never fails. My good wife listens and

only half-hears, the words washing over

her in waves, undulant images, a mind

open like a drawer of knives, a hometown

recalled, a horse troubled by flies. Finally

I reach the last poem, read it twice

as I often do. Lay down the book,

the reading glasses, fumble with

the light. It rains outside our window,

a soft pattering urgency, dawn’s chorus

still two hours from us, if it comes

at all. But listen: at last she sleeps. I yawn,

thinking of poems and hospital beds,

and cough.

 

 

My wife, Lisa, is a midwife at Albany Obstetrics & Gynecology. Her work often finds her in the maternity ward of St. Peter’s Hospital. She’s also recently created a Facebook page, Reproductive Health at Home, which you can follow in these days when access to healthcare is challenging. These are hard times, and very scary for many. I write children’s books, a far less perilous venture. In support of teachers and parents as they scramble to provide online learning for young readers, I’ve created a variety of free videos for ages 3-14. You may access them at my Youtube channel. Just stomp on this link and it’ll bring you there.

Be smart, stay home, protect the vulnerable.

BEES IN BOOKS: “Anna Karenina” & Jen the Beekeeper

 

Illustration by Stephen Gilpin from BEE THE CHANGE, which is the third book in  “The Big Idea Gang” series.

We all have them, those books we feel that we “should” read . . . someday. For me, one such book was Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

I am pleased to formally announce to my Nation of Readers that I finally got around to it. And I enjoyed the book, too. Tolstoy gives each character a full interior life, and allows them the room to inhabit contradictions and complexity. Good writer, he might make it!

The book’s hero is Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, an educated landowner in touch with the rhythms of the natural world. I was charmed when at the end of the book, sometime after page 800, we learn about Levin’s “new interest in bees.” It came out of the blue. Levin even takes his guests to visit the apiary. This is a clear sign — from Tolstoy — directly to me — that Levin is truly a good guy. He gets bees.

I admire bees, too. They’ve crept into my books of late. A bee plays a pivotal role in Better Off Undead, and (bizarrely) delivers the key line of the book, “It all connects.” In addition, a small group of students and a wonderful science teacher keep a hive on the grounds of the middle school. Bees are a theme that buzz through the book.

Here’s Jen now, smoking the hive to settle things down.

I borrowed the hive idea from a local science teacher and beekeeper, Jennifer Ford, who teaches at nearby Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland. Jennifer met with me, answered my questions, and even took me to commune with the hive at the middle school garden. Jen’s beekeeping activities extend beyond the school where she teaches; Jen and her partner Keith have run the Bees of the Woods Apiary in Altamont, NY, since 2008. They currently have about 20 chemical-free hives and produce beeswax candles, honey, and mead (honey wine).

For the third book of “The Big Idea Gang” series, Bee the Change, the narrative centered around honeybees. Lizzy and Kym visit with a beekeeper, learn some things about pesticides and colony collapse disorder, and become inspired to make a difference in their local community. These are characters who ask, “What can we do to help the honeybees?” Essentially the story revolves around the specific things they do to make positive change, concluding with the creation of a bee-friendly garden at their elementary school.

It’s funny how it works with books and reading and life in general. Once our antennae is up, we receive all kinds of signals that we’d have otherwise missed. If I read Anna Karenina even five years ago, I would have missed Levin’s bee infatuation. I’m glad I caught it.

UPSTANDER: Six Books That Helped Me Write a Prequel/Sequel to BYSTANDER

Writing a novel usually begins for me with reading. Here are six books that I’ve read, in addition to other research, to help me write my current work-in-progress.

     

               

Again, it’s like falling down a well. I could keep reading endlessly, blow deadlines year after year; the more I learn, the more there is to know. For this topic, it is truly a deep, dark well. A heartbreaking place I found hard to climb out of.

Then as a writers, at a certain point, we need to push that aside — take what we need for the story, for the characters, and start writing.

When I wrote Bystander, I came away with the feeling that I could tell a hundred different bully-themed stories. Each one different, with countless variations and permutations. You can’t say everything there is to be said; you have to make choices. Decide that this is the story I’m going to tell, and every word in it must serve that particular story. But I am always haunted by the fear of getting something wrong, or missing a critical insight, a layer of perception. I want to do a good job. 

For this book, I have a seventh-grade character whose older brother is dealing with substance use problems. He’s not the main character, but his struggles have a profound impact on the middle school-age girl, Mary, who is the featured character of the book. 

Mary O’Malley first appeared in my book Bystander. This is a prequel/sequel to that story in that it takes place along a similar time-frame — before, during, and after the events first explored in Bystander. There’s some overlap, a few of the same scenes are revisited from a new perspective, but on the whole this story stands on its own.

Working title: Upstander.

You heard it here first.

Everyone has a story. 

Any luck, look for it in 2021.