1. Kick that Alice Munro. Hard. Christian Lorentzen in the London Review of Books:
There’s something confusing about the consensus around Alice Munro. It has to do with the way her critics begin by asserting her goodness, her greatness, her majorness or her bestness, and then quickly adopt a defensive tone, instructing us in ways of seeing as virtues the many things about her writing that might be considered shortcomings…[Her characters] live in a rural corner of Ontario between Toronto and Lake Huron… Occasionally they move to the vicinity of Vancouver, only to go back to Ontario again. If this patch of the North Country sounds like a provincial cage, just think of it as a Canadian Yoknapatawpha County, and ignore the ways the plainspoken Munro is otherwise anti-Faulknerian. (‘I didn’t really like Faulkner that much,’ she has said.) It might be too much to call her an anti-modernist, rather than someone on whom modernism didn’t leave much of an impression, but her conventionality – a writer ‘of the old school’ in Anne Tyler’s phrase – won’t quite do. For her admirers it needs to be offset by some kind of innovation. They usually point to her manipulation of time – her tic of adding a coda to a story, marked usually by the words ‘years later’ – as if she were the Doctor Who of upmarket short story writing.
2. Whatever will you read now that Alice Munro’s oeuvre has been thus problematized? O, my goodness, please consider heading for Dean Swinford’s Death Metal Epic (Book One: The Inverted Katabasis). So sharp, so witty, so much better than an excerpt can do justice to. But here’s an excerpt anyway. On some of the inspiration for Valhalla’s album Thrones of Satanic Dominion (the protagonist’s band/album):
The album cut starts with a batrachian choir of reverbed bullfrogs. A sample recorded in John and Phil’s backyard, true, but meant to evoke the elder gods’ demihuman disciples. The riff and the vocals begin together, puncturing the intro’s murky croaks: “I am from the swamp/ where the nameless one sleeps.” I’d originally written the lyrics for a school assignment, around the time we’d started the band. It was one of our first songs. The teacher, Ms. Smith, gave the class a poem, called “Where I’m From,” and asked us to write our own autobiographical rendition. We were supposed to, she said, Asian print skirt flowing as she flitted across the front of the classroom, “explore our identities.”
In the original, George Ella something or other went on about the backwoods, how she’s from clothes pins and fried corn. How she’s from beet-flavored dirt that she ate. Reading the poem, I thought about the backwoods of my neighborhood, the strip of “woods” separating our subdivision from Biscayne Bay. You’d probably die if you ate the silty mud where the houses end and a dank mangrove swamp takes over. Much later, after the hurricane, the newspaper reported that the entire subdivision had once been swamp. It wasn’t that the sea had swallowed the houses, it was more like the sea had only lended the land. Payback’s a bitch.
My poem landed me in a parent/ teacher conference.
Ms. Smith, my parents, and I sat in her office, a small room carefully decorated with international knick knacks culled from a Pier 1 clearance sale. A batik cloth covered the desk. A row of wooden Buddhas stood watch over the computer keyboard . African masks and paper scrolls splashed with Japanese writing adorned the walls. “Mr. and Mrs. Fosberg, I asked you to come in because I’m a little concerned about David.” She’d lined up her evidence next to the Buddhas: the original poem, my unholy rendition, and a copy of Lord of the Flies.
3. Enough literature. On to medical science! Can you identify the pruritic eruption?
Consultant magazine is a monthly journal targeted at primary care physicians. In addition to the sort of material one might expect in such a journal–best-practices for treating various disorders, new diagnostic technologies– The journal seems to specialize in quizzes. The titles make the point of these clear: “What’s Your Diagnosis?” “Can You Identify the Cause of these Puzzling Symptoms?” An curious case is described and photodocumented. Then, just like a puzzle book: “for answer, turn to page…” The journal covers all areas of physical disorder that a primary care physician might face, but these quizzes tend to focus on the dermatological, with a side specialty in x-ray-able bone and tissue disorders, presumably due to the enhanced opportunities for visual representation these offer.
Here’s one with a hard-to-beat title: Tender Honey-Colored Lesion With “Stuck-on” Crust.
I suspect that you, dear reader, are thinking that the audience for this, outside the medical community, could only be the very grim and jaded. Do reconsider, please. There’s something really lovely about travelling through the territory of the scaly and purulent and emerging on the other side, all sun and science, each little quiz/photoessay its own emotionally (and/or viscerally) engaging narrative with everything sorted in the end. They resemble classical mystery stories in they way they resolve gruesome chaos through the powers of reason.
And they’re really educational. Did you know that that “Dermal mucin is an amorphous gelatinous substance normally produced by cutaneous fibroblasts. Chemically it consists of acid glycosaminoglycans. These complex carbohydrates are free-floating or may be fixed on both sides of a protein core (proteoglycan monomer)” (If you’re not wikipedizing by this point you are more up to speed in dermatological matters than me or you have no soul or you have no brain.) Do you want to know what happens when dermal mucin production goes bad? And don’t worry about clicking through to that one: it’s really not really icky at all. The fact that it’s so subtle makes it all the more interesting. Such a … nothing… with a nonetheless thorough explanation about an aspect of our physiology I, at least, knew nothing about. Suspenseful drama and along the way the reader has the opportunity to learn about his/her own cutaneous glycosaminoglycan production. Beat that Alice fucking Munro.