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Posts Tagged ‘Understories’

I’m going to start posting a list of books I’m covering in the Mindful Reader column about a week ahead of its publication in the Concord Monitor on the 2nd Sunday of the month. For the Sept. 9 column, I’m writing about Maryanne O’Hara’s novel Cascade and also doing shorter reviews of Rise by L. Annette BinderThe Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice, & Other Stories by Jay WexlerUnderstories by Tim Horvath; and Park Songs: a Poem/Play by David Budbill.

I wanted to say a bit more about Park Songs. Bookconscious regulars know I’ve written about David Budbill’s work before. The combination of plain-spokeness, beauty, and koan-like wisdom in his poetry blows me away. It’s brilliant to me when a poem reads easily — it’s clear and understandable — and then makes you stop and think and see more to it than when you first read it. And even better, to see more in the world than before you read it.

Park Songs is genre-melding, but it’s completely accessible. It’s a book about people in a city park in the Midwest on a single day. There are three epigraphs:

“There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.” — Mark Twain

“Numberless are the world’s wonders, and none more wonderful than man.” — Sophocles, Antigone

“We learn in a time of pestilence that there is more to admire in men than to despise.” — Albert Camus, The Plague

Those quotes would be an excellent start for a discussion of the book. Or a discussion of any kind. People who say “I don’t get poetry” could enjoy Park Songs. In addition to R.C. Irwin’s “absurdist and nostalgic” photographs, traditional blues lyrics complement the dialogue. In a note to readers, Budbill points out that like his rural poems in Judevine, which became a play, this book could be staged in its entirety or in parts.

He suggests a blues band could act as a Greek chorus, and that the section called “Let’s Talk,” a dialogue between Fred and Judy, who are, respectively, lonely and wishing to be alone, could be a one act play. “Let’s Talk” is touching and funny and Budbill captures the essence of human communication– the misunderstandings and connections, hurts and expectations—in one scene on a park bench.

Budbill says his father often told him “Stick up for the little guy, bud.”  The people in Park Songs are people who could benefit from having someone in their corner. But they are there for each other, even though like most people, they don’t always listen or understand each other. Two characters really grabbed me: Mr. C., “Would be poet, keeper, attendant and guardian of the Park.” and Haal, “Hangs Around A Lot.”

In “Haal’s Great Idea” they discuss Haal’s potential t-shirt business. He proposes “LIFE HURTS” for his first design and Mr. C. goes nuts: “God! Nobody wants that, Haal! Nobody wants to hear about or think about that pain and suffering thing. Take it from me, there’s no money in the suffering game, Haal . . . . And besides, that phrase, LIFE HURTS, it’s worse than poetry.”

I think Haal is on to something, because commercial fiction, Hollywood, and the glut of “pain-and-suffering” memoirs seem to indicate there IS money in it, as long as the product is marketed to the masses, which poetry is not. But I digress.

Haal comes back with, “Well then, how about GROWING OLD IS NOT FOR SISSIES.” Ouch. He goes on, “Yeah, and I got another one, too: SOME PEOPLE ARE SARCASTIC AND MEAN.”  Mr. C. realizes he’s been pretty harsh: “Haal! Hey wait a minute. What I meant was: it’s like poetry. It is poetry. Nobody wants it. People don’t care.”  Haal insists, “I think they do.” Oh, Haal. So do I!

There is much more to this beautiful, tragic-funny book than I can do justice to here. David Budbill’s writing is not just art, it’s a philosophical call to arms for readers to wake up to the world, to go ahead and risk feeling both the pain and the pleasure of being awake. Park Songs is an entertaining read and also one to make you think. It stayed with me and I can feel it connecting with other things I’ve read, helping me live with more heart, helping me notice things.

There’s not much more you could ask for from a book of any kind.

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This week I read Tim Horvath‘s first book, Understories, and it made me realize there are some excellent writers you’ve never heard of (nor have I). If it wasn’t for the fact that Horvath knows Rebecca Makkai, who I met last summer, I might not have heard him read from “Circulation” when they visited Gibson’s Bookstore in July (Rebecca was promoting the paperback of The Borrower). It’s entirely possible that what with books for my column, books I hear about at work, and books already around my house waiting for me to read (not to mention heavy media coverage of only a few “it” titles a month, but that’s another rant), I might have missed Understories.Which is maddening, because this is not a book I would want to miss.

Understories is a very satisfying short fiction collection because the stories not only share an aesthetic — writing that is philosophical, sometimes whimsical, darkly funny, thought provoking, intense, evocative — but seem to come from a world that is similar to ours but riddled with portals into imagined places beyond anything you or I could dream up. I loved the way reading these stories left me feeling slightly off kilter.

Examples: the eight “Urban Planning” stories are each set in a strange city, such as one inhabited by the dead (new residents don’t always realize it at first). Another city has films constantly projected on its walls, and the main characters in that story are a projectioneer and his childhood friend who is in an anticinematic movement.

Some of the other stories that aren’t part of the “Urban Planning” series also dip into fantasy, like “The  Conversations,” which I read as a satirical poke at the breakdown of civil discourse. Conversations (capital C) explode like terror attacks, leaving a strange mint scent in their wake. A philosopher determines that the opposite of Conversation is kismet, “meaning moments when people found common ground in an almost transcendent way.” He’s delusional and has spent a lot of time on his research: “the idea was to ingest as many and as various substances as he could track down, legal and illegal alike, and describe them.” He crashes a scientific summit convened to solve the problem of Conversations.

Even the stories set firmly in what we recognize as reality have a philosophical bent; Hovarth doesn’t just tell a story, he gives readers a window into the hearts, minds, and souls of his characters. I was drawn to many of them — the main characters in “Runaroundandscreamalot” and “Circulation” are people living with a great deal of empathy, even as they struggle, respectively, with divorce and joblessness and a dying parent. They each have a fairly quirky relative – an inventor brother in one case, and the dying father in the other, a man whose life work (never finished) was a book called the Atlas of the Voyages of Things.  Both men are so kind to these misfit souls whose quests have impacted their families’ lives.

I also loved “The Understory” — what a beautiful story. Schoner, a botany professor at University of Freiburg where Heidegger is also teaching, gets to know the philosopher before fleeing Germany ahead of the war. In America he can’t teach because his English isn’t good enough, so he landscapes, and eventually buys a home with a small patch of forest in New Hampshire. The hurricane of 1938, closely followed by the hurricane of Hitler’s invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland, topples the trees Schoner loves, even as the war topples everything he’s known in Germany. His children want him to “clean up” the plot, cut paths through it, but he refuses because in it he sees all the people who he lost: “this plot preserves them.”

“The Discipline of Shadows,” about an “umbrologist” is both a playful jab at academic politics and a funny and strange story about a professor of shadows. In “Planetarium,” a man vacationing with his family in Glacier National Park runs into an old high school classmate and revisits the memory of a girl he knew, his giddy admiration of her, and her rejection of him. I’m summarizing poorly, but Hovarth captures that bittersweet sense of both the pleasure and pain of adolescence that can be easily triggered by a memory conjured after long dormancy.

This is not a quick read; it’s a book to read slowly and carefully, and to ponder between stories. But you’ll be glad you spent time in Tim Horvath’s rich, thoughtful, witty fiction. I was not surprised that Bellevue Literary Press published Understories. They bring readers this kind of thought provoking, beautiful book (like Tinkers and The Sojourn)Check out their titles, and maybe you will discover a book you might have missed.

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