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Posts Tagged ‘families’

A Writer in the Family

February 19, 2015 | by

On writers, glass, Pliny the Elder, and the way families pass on their stories.

Vesuvius_in_Eruption

Vesuvius in eruption.

Since I started writing, I have sought forebears who might have had literary aspirations. Were there writers in the family? My great-uncle György, who was exiled to the Ukraine during World War II and afterward became a functionary in Hungary’s Communist government, was a novelist, but my father has always been dismissive of his work. He says György wrote a variety of socialist-realist novel that’s hard to take seriously, hard not to see as propaganda. His books have never been translated into English, and my Hungarian isn’t nearly good enough to understand what’s in them. The only existing copies I know of sit on a shelf in my Cousin Hajnal’s house in the Buda Hills. I don’t have the heart to ask to take them and have them translated. When I’ve asked her about them in the past, she’s simply said that they are books, yes, and that her father wrote them.

In their stead I have purchased rare used copies of two books written by Frederic Neuburg, author of a large trove of letters to my father’s Aunt Traute that he keeps in an old teak box in his house in Los Angeles. My father is not Bellow or Updike, and I am not the son of Bellow or Updike, but it is the book I have, in two editions, an art book containing photographs of Neuberg’s glass collection and extensive commentary on the pieces. Read More »

Intermittent Explosive Disorder: An Interview with Matt Sumell

February 17, 2015 | by

mattsumell

Matt Sumell

In Spring 2012, The Paris Review published Matt Sumell’s short story “Toast,” in which the narrator, Alby, humiliates his girlfriend so creatively, and so often, that she ends the relationship. “Over the next few years,” Alby says in a typical passage, “I changed from a mostly passive prick to a mostly aggressive one, sexing a lot of girls and I’m pretty sure contracting HPV in my throat.”

“Toast” appears in Making Nice, Sumell’s first book, a collection of linked stories all told from Alby’s perspective. He’s a thirty-year-old having a hell of a time navigating the world since his mother died from cancer. Sumell’s stories are pugnacious, figuratively and literally. In “Punching Jackie,” Alby spars with his sister; in “OK,” he pushes his one-legged father over the side of a boat. Even when he isn’t taking anyone to task, the stories are full of fighting words: bitterness at the world, anger with fate, and misunderstanding of circumstance. Alby is lost. His outlets for self-discovery and definition are few and far between. Making Nice is hilarious in its prose, but painful in its nakedness.

Sumell and I met up to talk fighting, writing, and being named Matt on a freezing January afternoon. We ended up in Chelsea, at Barcade, a bar lined with arcade games where the tater tots are shaped like Tetris pieces. When we walked through the door, Sumell took a quick survey of the room and jetted from my side, making a beeline directly to Punch Out!! Nothing could seem more apropos.

You just returned from a trip to Manila with your father, Albert, to whom your book is dedicated. Your main character is also named Alby—which doesn’t strike me as a coincidence. What’s your relationship with your dad?

Oh, we’re going straight there, are we? Well, the funny thing about my father having that name—I’m the first born, but my great-grandfather’s name is Alby, and my grandfather’s name is Alby, and my father’s name is Albert. Read More »

I Swear

January 30, 2015 | by

In 1904, Roland D. Sawyer launched a crusade against obscenity.

In 1904, Roland D. Sawyer launched a crusade against obscenity.

No one ever heard my grandmother, in all her eighty-three years, utter a bad word. I can only once remember her even raising her voice. “It’s all fouled up!” she cried then, shaking a broken TV set. She said it with such frustration and despair that it expressed at least as much as any curse word might have. In fact, besides the time I heard a four-year-old in my brother’s playgroup call his sister Mary-Ellen a “fuckindamnshit,” it was the most shocking thing I’d ever heard.

Her husband, my grandfather, was considered foul-mouthed in the family; his language was a constant cause of distress to her. But in fact, he didn’t use real swear words either—certainly not compared to that little boy. It was usually a savage Goddammit! Or Hell’s Bell’s! His worst outbursts were reserved for his weekly gin game. It was then that he’d reach for the worst epithet of all: “I’ll be dipped.” Read More »

Walking and Talking

September 3, 2014 | by

Florine_Stettheimer_-_Heat_-_Google_Art_Project

“Hot enough for ya?” Detail from Florine Stettheimer’s Heat, 1919.

Growing up around wisecracking old relatives, you learn early how to craft a comeback. It doesn’t need to be that witty. It doesn’t even need to make sense. It just needs to be kind of sassy and really fast, to show you’re wise to the game or something.

“Just who do you think you are?” an elderly uncle might demand, inexplicably. Or, “I bet you think you deserve some candy!” In such situations, you can show no fear. When you’re a small child, this kind of obligatory badinage is awful. But it’s a skill—if you can call it a skill—that stands you in good stead as an adult.

However, even those of us trained to keep our cool in the face of faux-belligerent idiocy are occasionally stumped. Despite my years of experience and calibration, there are, specifically, three situations that leave me mute and baffled. Read More »

Bittersweet

July 23, 2014 | by

Gemeindebau_Hadikgasse_268-272_Stiege_11_-_Mosaik_Zwetschken_-_Richard_Ruepp_1953-54

Richard Ruepp, Plums, 1953-4

One might wonder at the wisdom of undertaking a batch of homemade jam on a ninety-degree day. But I think about it this way: when people actually canned fresh food to get through the winter, it all happened in the summer; hot weather is when you’re supposed to stand over a kettle stirring incessantly without air conditioning. 

Besides, I’ve recently come into a very large—tyrannically bountiful—number of plums, the result of a CSA share lent to me by some generous friends. Their family of four can eat a lot more fresh fruit than one smallish woman living alone. And although there are probably lots of things I could do with them, in my family there is a tradition of plum-jam-making.

Well, sort of. Plum jam was one of my grandfather’s specialties, along with the strips of discounted meat he prepared in his smoker, the icy “gelato” we made in the “electric” ice-cream maker (it was broken, and had to be cranked by hand), and the increasingly dubious loaves that came out of a yard-sale bread machine. While no one can fault the man’s zeal, his technique was, to say the least, idiosyncratic. Read More »

Regina and Louise

July 23, 2014 | by

A companion to yesterday’s piece by Edgar Oliver.

Edgar Louise and Helen by Regina Bartkoff

Regina Bartkoff

01 Savannah

Louise Oliver

Deer Trio by Regina Bartkoff

Regina Bartkoff

Louise Oliver - Notepaper 1 for web

Louise Oliver

Edgar's favorite Regina drawing

Regina Bartkoff

For a long time, whenever I visited Edgar Oliver on East Tenth Street, I would look at his mother’s wonderful paintings. They hung all over his crumbly walls and because it was always night when I visited, they were amber lit from the lamps sitting here and there in Edgar’s living room. Whenever I looked at the paintings, I would feel a pang at the thought that I’d never get to meet her. When I decided that I wanted to make Louise Oliver the subject of the third issue of my magazine, Housedeer, Edgar brought out portfolios filled with her drawings for me to see and we looked at them together, sitting on the floor. It seemed as though his whole childhood, and his sister Helen’s too, had been recorded in pencil by Louise. She must have drawn her children constantly, and she drew cemeteries and swamps and old houses and churches and ordinary people going about their business on the streets of Savannah, where they lived. Many of her drawings included detailed notes to herself on the colors of everything in them, so she could use them later to make paintings. Edgar told me that he and Helen were raised to be artists.

I wanted to ask Regina Bartkoff to do a drawing for Louise’s Housedeer cover because while she and Louise have very different styles, there is something about each of them that reminds me of the other. To my eye, the beauty of Regina’s drawings is in their mystery and their innocence. And I think if I had to choose one word to describe what Regina and Louise have in common in what they’ve made, the word innocent might be a good one. Honest would be another. When I told Regina what I wanted, it had been more than a year since she had done any drawing at all, the reason being that she and her husband, Charles Schick, had just finished doing a play by Tennessee Williams called In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel. The play was put on in the gallery they have use of on East Third Street, and they had not yet come out of that other world. Regina and Charles love theater and they love painting (Regina loves drawing too), but when they do a play, it is all-consuming. Regina was still waking up as Miriam, her character in the play, and feeling the kind of lost that theater people often feel when the play is over. Read More »

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