Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in Reading.

I was not completely successful in my goal to read one hundred pages per day all year. I missed a couple of months. I missed about a month between the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and Christmas, and I missed November when I went to New York for Hurricane Sandy relief with the Red Cross. For more information about that adventure:

As to how many books were read, even I was surprised in the end. I had been wondering if I would reach three figures. I reached 140, not counting a handful I got halfway through and couldn't finish. I plan to continue with the same pace of reading next year. Hopefully I won't be derailed by a hurricane. Here's to 150 in 2013!

Here is the list of books I read. There are asterisks next to my favorites, or at least those that made a lingering impression. My single favorite is probably Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. My least favorite was Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter, for the completely loathsome and boring main character. Had I not been trapped without something else to read it would be on the unfinished list. Some on the unfinished list will be attempted again. We shall see.

Reading, 2012:

James Agee, A Death in the Family

James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina

Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo

Mika Ashley-Hollinger, Precious Bones

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake

James Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

Russell Banks, The Lost Memory of Skin

John Baskin, New Burlingame

Josh Bazell, Wild Thing

John Bockman (editor), This Will Make You Smarter

Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

Richard Brautigan, A Confederate General from Big Sur, Dreaming of Babylon, The Hawkline Monster

Richard Brautigan, Willard and His Bowling Trophies

Kevin Brockmeier, The Brief History of the Dead

Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing

Christopher Buckley, Thank You For Smoking

Blake Butler, Nothing, A Portrait of Insomnia

Blake Butler, There is No Year

Italo Calvino, The Castle of Crossed Destinies

Italo Calvino, Numbers in the Dark

Truman Capote, The Complete Stories

Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms

Lee Cataluna, Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa

Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue

Dennis Cooper, The Marbled Swarm

Miles Corwin, Homicide Special

Miles Corwin, Midnight Alley

Douglas Coupland, Life After God

James Gould Cozzens, The Just and the Unjust

Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

Mark Z. Danielewski, Fifty Year Sword

*Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

Randi Davenport, The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes

Samuel Delaney, Dhalgren

Don DeLillo, Underworld

Joan Didion, Blue Nights

Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays

Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel

*John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer

*Bruce Duffy, The World as I Found It

Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine

Louise Erdrich, The Round House

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes

Elyse Fenton, Clamor

Ford Maddox Ford, Parade’s End

Amy Franklin-Willis, The Lost Saints of Tennessee

*Tana French, Broken Harbor

*Jack Gilbert, The Dance Most of All

Allen Ginsberg, Howl

Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve

Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

Johan Harstad, Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?

Larry Haun, A Carpenter’s Life

Christopher Hitchens, Love, Poverty, and War

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

Amanda Hodgkinson, 22 Britannia Road

A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically

P.D. James, The Children of Men

Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son

Denis Johnson, Fiskadoro

James Jones, The Thin Red Line

MacKinlay Kantor, Andersonville

Bel Kaufman, Up the Down Staircase

Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

Philip Larkin, Collected Poems

Mark Leyner, Sugar Frosted Nutsack

David Lipsky, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

Ross Lockridge, Raintree County

Federico García Lorca, In Search of Duende

*Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

Norman Mailer, The Deer Park

Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

Henning Mankell, Italian Shoes

Katherine Mansfield, Collected Stories

Eli Maor, E: The Story of a Number

Gabriel García Márquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch

Gabriel García Márquez, Collected Stories

Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Richard Matheson, I Am Legend

Harry Matthews, Cigarettes

D.T. Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story

Cormac McCarthy, Cities of the Plain

Cormac McCarthy, Suttree

Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

Tim O’Brien, Going After Cacciato

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Tawny O’Dell, Back Roads

Kenzaburo Oe, A Personal Matter

James Patterson (Mark Sullivan), Private Games

Richard Price, Clockers

Eric Puchner, Model Home

Eric Puchner, Music Through the Floor

Ernie Pyle, Here is Your War

Ross Raisin, Waterline

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

Roger Rosenblatt, Kayak Morning

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

Kay Ryan, The Best of It

Carl Sandburg, Selected Poems

Jose Saramago, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

William Saroyan, Human Comedy

Vikram Seth, Golden Gate

Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brookyn

Patti Smith, Just Kids

Zadie Smith, NW

*S.L. Stebel, The Collaborator

Wallace Stegner, All the Little Live Things

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

*Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird

Wallace Stegner, On Teaching and Writing Fiction

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead

Patrick Süskind, Perfume

Colm Tóibín, The Empty Family

John Updike, Pigeon Feathers

Simon Van Booy, Everything Beautiful Began After

David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

*David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace, Oblivion

*David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

Mikey Walsh, Gypsy Boy

Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins

Jess Walter, The Zero

Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones

Bailey White, Mama Makes Up Her Mind

Bailey White, Quite a Year for Plums

William Carlos Williams, Paterson

Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Daniel Woodrell, The Death of Sweet Mister

Daniel Woodrell, The Outlaw Album


Ramona Ausubel, No One is Here Except All of Us

Teju Cole, Open City

Justin Cronin, The Passage

Fannie Flagg, I Still Dream About You

Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Why We Do This.

I was in Costco today getting new tires on my mother's car. I had to make a quick stop on the way in to town and the tires squealed. In the dry. Unacceptable. New tires. It is what my father would do. So I had time while waiting to browse the entire Costco in that pathetic, single-person-in-Costco manner. In my cart: salt and a box of wine. I was there so long that I got an email from Costco about their fall specials on my iPhone.

I had a chance to look at the book tables three times. They do carry some good things. I had read the good things. On my second pass a girl was searching the other side of the table; she was maybe fifteen. Suddenly she says, shouts: "They have it!" I don't notice that she's with anybody, so I smile for her happiness. She's grabbed, is hugging, a book. I think it's the last book of the Hunger Games trilogy, but I'm not sure of titles or order. She says, "I can finish it today!" She dances around. I smile. Because this is great.

Dream of this, writers. This is why we do this.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Past Due Review.

If you in any way enjoy mysteries, reading, books, Ireland, and being completely engrossed in a fantastic story with great, complex characters, proceed immediately to your nearest purveyor of fine literature and purchase Tana French's Broken Harbor. What a spectacular read! And if you also like Irish accents, get the audiobook. This book exceeds all possible expectations of possible goodness.

I think that about sums it up.

Monday, July 30, 2012


An idle thought, but if one does not own an e-reader, one does have an excuse for not purchasing the e-book that everyone one meets seems to have "published" on Amazon. Just sayin'.

Plus, here is an excellent way to destroy a valuable and interesting career:

Hope he knows how to make fries.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Man Booker Longlist.

It's out! The longlist for the 2012 Man Booker, and for once I haven't read any of them. Research to be done:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


New Tana French book out today! Broken Harbor! Plus, simultaneous audiobook release. I'm already four hours into it. Great story, great mystery, great writing, Irish narrators. So much win!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Vague Late-Night Idea.

Hey, I'm old. 9:15 p.m. is late to me.

What if all writers and would-be writers pledged a certain page count of reading to be done every day? Not my hundred pages, necessarily, because other people have jobs and children and pets and friends, but fifty or twenty or ten. A good thing, I think.

Oh, and the book I was on about and finally finished was James Patterson's (via Mark Sullivan) Private Games. I think this book was written in a month and Mr. Sullivan did not enjoy the process. I think this book must have been written to sabotage Mr. Patterson's book mill— much as the plot involves the demolition of the modern Olympic games— out of contempt for what the games have become.

I refuse to believe this book was written this way on purpose.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Speaking of Paid Reviews...

The Kirkus Indie Review service will run you $425. $575 for express service. Here is a review for one of the most successful self-published books of the year (so I am informed). See if you can spot the bit in this review that made me laugh out loud:

For that kind of money the author should be able to proof-read the review before it is posted.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Self-Publishing Ramble.

But first, the Relay went great, thanks for asking. I came third in lap count and got a (virtual) trophy. In twenty-four hours I ran the equivalent of 210 miles. I also watched the entire Harry Potter movie series while this went on, and made a discovery:  I had always been annoyed at Harry in the last three movies. He seemed whiny and incapable of seeking help. Having seen the movies all in series, I have transferred my annoyance to Dumbledore. He scarcely seemed to be the same character from one scene to the next, to say nothing of one movie to the next. If I had been Harry showing up in the otherworldly King's Cross, I'd have punched him in the face.


So this is happening today:  a pay-for-love review site has been exposed for what it is, and they aren't happy:

I struggle with the idea of self-publishing. Well, no, I don't; I don't like it with fiction, and that gets me in trouble. But I don't want my work going down a path I don't follow as a reader and a book buyer. I only buy self-published books written by friends. There are just too many books to read even if you're only reading the award winners, the new books by known writers, and the well-reviewed books from new writers. Heck, I just subscribed to the New York Review of Books like an idiot, and I have a four-foot stack of to-be-read books right now. And then there's the preview list for the second half of 2012 from The Millions...


So I am not out browsing for random self-published books. Even if I were, frankly, I am a damn picky reader. My mother sent me a book recently (I'll review when I finish it), thinking it would be an easy read because it's a big commercial thriller. Well, no, it isn't easy, because the writing is distractingly poor. Some of the sentences...

I can't read indifferent writing. And what do I fear in spending ten or twenty bucks for a novel that the writer alone feels is worthy of being published? Right. Indifferent writing. And I don't want to send my own baby floating down that river.

Self-publishing has developed into a dark twin of commercial publishing, with writers sending themselves on "book tour," calling local bookstores trying to arrange signings, and outfits like the one above selling glowing reviews for a hundred bucks a throw. Over on the Bewares and Background Checks forum on Absolute Write, this is called "Published Author, the Role-Playing Game." I don't want to play. And, as in the realm of screenwriting, I loathe the people that are getting rich helping others pretend. Or worse, fooling them into thinking this is the real thing.

I hope most writers are choosing this deliberately. As I've been told repeatedly, it's hard to get an agent, so why not? But shouldn't it be hard to get an agent if your work isn't there yet? Why would you still want your book out there if that's the case?

Sigh. I don't know. I can't even get a "no thanks" out of the last agent I queried and am soon to put that book on the shelf while I start the next (once I get the tile guys out of my house). I don't query enough, I know, and am easily discouraged.

Can I somehow convince myself I'm wrong and I should put the new book, the old book, and the next book out myself? Will that be giving up on what was the goal?

What's the right thing here?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Strangest Scheduling Cheat Ever.

There may be a slight cheat in the resolution this weekend. Reading one hundred pages per day? I may massage the required two hundred Saturday/Sunday pages just a bit, because:


This Saturday and Sunday are the Relay for Life of Second Life. Yes, this is the big fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Last year it raised $375,000. This year $400K? Who knows.

I haven't mentioned it much here, but Second Life is a virtual world where I operate several businesses and make actual real money. I first joined in 2007, the day after I sold the book. I thought I'd just use SL to promote the book, but, well, things happen. One of those things was my first Relay. Now I wouldn't miss it. Last year I was #10 on the list of "Most Laps Completed." This year, more laps!

In short, I may have to shove some of Saturday's reading off onto Sunday, if I can stay awake Sunday. The Relay starts at seven in the morning Hawaii time and ends, logically, at seven in the morning on Sunday. I shall be watching all the Harry Potter movies in the interval.

Anyone wanting to join in, please do. I shall be the glittery, glowing purple squid avatar. My name in SL is Rusalka Writer. Don't be a stranger.

That has to be the oddest post in the history of this blog.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Say What You Will...

...about the rest, but the review of Gravity's Rainbow is a riot:

Monday, July 9, 2012

So. All This Reading...

Did a bit of math last night. Assuming the average book page has 250 words, and I'm going through at one hundred pages a day, not counting extra reading and audiobooks, just how much reading am I doing?

Note that I give myself two weeks or so off for the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and other travel, so let's say I'm going to read 35,000 pages this year.

That is the equivalent of reading the bible every month, month after month, year after year.

So what happens to the brain?

—I can read anywhere. I am not distracted. Reading is now Thing #1 to my brain.

—I can detect voice much, much better than ever I could before. Not only can I readily tell the difference between any two writers; I can tell the difference between early Writer X and late Writer X.

—I need to read early in the day. If I wait to read until late in the day my eyeballs fall out. I need to start reading by six in the morning. I also need to see my eye doctor more frequently. I have reading glasses, but wearing them makes me fall asleep.

—My brain is completely addicted to constant reading. I just finished Raintree County by Ross Lockridge Jr., a great American novel that is actually a great American novel. Setting out across this vast work, feeling Fitzgerald's boats beating back against the tide, I learn writing, I learn voice, I learn the story of my nation, the story of my however-many-times great grandfather Henry William Clark, corporal of Company F of the 27th Connecticut Volunteers who fought at Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg...

I learn to read again.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Post two-fifty, apparently. Considering the year's festival of reading, there can be no better thing to say about writing than this:

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Dear Anonomi,

I do not wish to purchase Xanax, Cialis, or the like. I shall be temporarily disabling anonymous comments, if I can figure out how.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Unhappy News of a Great Mind.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


Sunday, July 1, 2012

New Genre.

I'm reading another one of these, and I'm trying to come up with a definition:

Wealthy young people* slumming in European capitols in genteel poverty**, experiencing the local culture*** while pursuing artistic endeavors**** and engaging in earnest relationships***** that turn into tragic lifetime memories******. Also, somebody dies*******.

*They don't think they're wealthy. Often they think they had a middle class upbringing. Until they explain their boarding schools, vacations, and ponies. Mummy sitting in the drawing room smoking all afternoon, for example.

**Genteel poverty in that they have small apartments in bohemian parts of town, but never have to work and never run out of cigarettes and alcohol.

***These folks live in the "real" city, and some of their best friends are locals. Mockery of the clueless foreign tourists is a necessity.

****They are painters, photographers, novelists, poets, whatever. The writers only write longhand and the artists never need supplies. Whatever they do, it never interferes with their free time.

*****Lots of sex, and sex very soon after meeting the partner(s). Remember, these are young artists.

******Because we know these relationships can't last, right? Because then it's not literature. It's a romance. Nobody wants to explain this lost summer to the grandkids.

*******Might be one of the lovely young couple, but often as not is the friend who chases the art thing a little too hard. Alcohol, drugs, random behavior, suicide, something gets him. This is the death that tells our lovers that the dream cannot last. That they may have to go home and get a job. One of the two (usually, if one is a novelist, it's that one) will succeed with the art part, but love will never be the same.

Note that this genre does not seem to work with actual poor people, particularly Americans, because they have to start paying off their student loans and can't just biff off to Europe or wherever.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Twenty-four hours ago my plane was leaving LAX. Two empty seats beside me, got to watch a movie that interested me but wasn't good— about as good as air travel is going to get. Even all on time on a less-than-elderly 757. Thank you, American Eagle and American Airlines. One dodgy moment as I was getting up to go to the restroom as the flight attendant paged for the owner of a lost copy of Fifty Shades of Gray. So not mine. There were smirks, but I was reading Lorca!

The hundred-page-per-day resolution is back on, and was met easily this morning with Tawni O'Dell's very good and enjoyable Back Roads. I find her style to be in league with my own aspirations. If I really knew how to write...

More about the SBWC in coming days. In short, what surprised me was how much I enjoyed the experience of leading a workshop, and how incredibly impressed I was by the writers who participated. They not only stayed up late to work on their own material, they stuck around to help their fellow writers, often into the wee small hours. Good writers and good people.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Book List - SBWC 2012

Here is the list of books I heard mentioned favorably at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Below the list is a picture of what I found at the excellent Chaucer’s Books. Titles marked with an asterisk will be bought on audiobook. In some cases they didn’t have the exact title but I was able to buy another book by the same author. There are also a few books in the pile that I found while browsing. A few books will need to come from Amazon.

Flat-rate mailing, here I come.

James Agee - A Death in the Family
Conrad Aiken - Silent Snow, Secret Snow (poetry)
James Baldwin - Blues for Mister Charlie (play)
Richard Brautigan - So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away
Italo Calvino - Invisible Cities
Miles Corwin - Midnight Alley
Douglas Coupland - Life After God
James Gould Cozzens - By Love Possessed
Joan Didion - Play It as It Lays
Joan Didion - Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream
Joan Didion - The Year of Magical Thinking*
Ed Dorn - Gunslinger (poetry)
John Dos Passos - Midcentury
Frederick Exley - A Fan’s Notes
Matti Friedman - The Aleppo Code*
Christopher Isherwood - The World in the Evening
John Katzenbach - The Traveler
Roy Kesey - Pacazo
Federico Garcia Lorca - In Search of Duende
Henning Mankell - Kennedy’s Brain
Cormac McCarthy - Cities of the Plain*
Tim O’Brien - The Things They Carried
Autobiography of Red Cloud
John Sandford - Rules of Prey*
William Saroyan - The Human Comedy
Patrick Suskind - Perfume
Simon Van Booy - Everything Beautiful Began After*
Jeannette Walls - The Glass Castle*
Bailey White - Mama Makes Up Her Mind
Sloan Wilson - A Summer Place

Anything by:

Truman Capote
Raymond Carver
Lucas Hunt (poetry)
Nikki Giovanni (poetry)
Louis Ferlinghetti (poetry)
Sid Stebel
James Thurber
John Updike

Our Revels Now Are Ended.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

So It Begins.

This afternoon the Santa Barbara Writers Conference begins, and for a week I shall suspend my hundred-page-a-day New Year's Reading Resolution. Five months and a week or so of solid reading, and I'm considering how to remake the resolution for next year. The two major changes will be allowing audiobooks into the mix, and reducing my reading requirement by half on any day that I'm actually working on my own book.

Oh, yeah, my own book... maybe that change will have to go into effect before the end of the year.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

New Book New Book New Book!!!

China Miéville has a new book out!!! Frabjous joy! Bit of info here, with an interview:

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Is it Wrong?

To face a day when one's schedule is completely jammed and search the to-read pile for a book with a giant font, knowing that one will get through the required hundred pages quickly? To be delighted to find the book selected is not good and can be skimmed (certainly through the unappetizing sex scenes)?

I give myself some credit for not picking up Tomas Tranströmer, knowing that poems often have plenty of white space on the page. That usually backfires. I have to read poetry slowly to understand anything. This novel? Yeah, not so much. I won't be mentioning it in my resolution reviews. It's that bad. Nor will I review the one I read before this. Same problem. Fortunately I'm listening to Under the Volcano on audiobook, and the sheer goodness wipes out the weaknesses of others.

In a couple of weeks the Santa Barbara Writers Conference will start, and for the first time is half a year I won't be able to get my hundred pages read per day. Unless I borrow some of my mother's mysteries. Have you seen the font size on some of those suckers? I could get through one hundred pages crossing the hotel lobby.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Win Conference Admission!

Enter the 40th Annual Santa Barbara Writers Conference Scholarship Contest – Best Opening

Dear Writers,

Enter the 40th Annual SBWC Scholarship Contest! Send us your BEST OPENING, up to 40 words -- a beginning most likely to compel a reader to turn the page.

Email all entries to:

Please include contact information: name, phone number, email address, & mailing address

All genres welcome

This must be your original work, published or unpublished

Winner receives a tuition scholarship to the 40th Annual Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and a signed copy of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina

No entry fee

Contest Begins: Today!

Deadline: Friday, June 1st, Midnight (PST)

Winner Announced: Saturday, June 2nd

“I think your opening is enormously important. You’ve got to write a first line that will haunt you. It’s got to be magic.” – Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, and keynote speaker at SBWC 2012

Please share this opportunity with writers you know.

Write On!

Nicole Starczak
SBWC, director

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Too Good.

Ever read a book that was too good to read? Too good to finish? Yeah, that's happening now. I'm reading Blake Butler's Nothing, A Portrait of Insomnia, and it's not even that the writing is great, which it is, it's that it strikes so close to home.

I have had insomnia at least since high school. Probably since childhood. Insomnia is like a secret club. We don't have a handshake or meetings. We do have a shared crazy look in the eye.

I'm not talking about the occasional difficult evening dropping off to sleep. I'm talking my last good night's sleep was February 9, 2008. It was a Saturday. This book knows that kind of thing. Want to share the crazy? Read this book.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

When Will it End?!?!

What sort of lunatic picks as a New Year's Resolution the reading of one hundred pages a day? It's not the reading that's the problem; I like that part. It's the blogging about it. The keeping up on Goodreads. From now on, expect briefer reviews. You don't care, I know, and I want to blog about other things. So here's a lightning round:
Kayak Morning by Roger Rosenblatt. A father mourns a lost child, framed in the setting of his morning kayak trip. Lovely, poetic writing, but I feel that I missed Rosenblatt's earlier memoir on this topic. Similar to Jeanette Winterson's work in that way. Can you keep plowing the same field in memoir?

Selected Poems by Carl Sandburg. I'm struck by how new and surprising Sandburg must have been when these poems were written, because they still feel new. I'm glad the Tea Party hasn't banned his work. All that pro-labor stuff, you know.

Clamor by Elyse Fenton. Fenton's husband was a medic in Iraq, and she captures the sweep of life during war, after war, and for the family left behind. I wish this book were better known. I had to beg Amazon for it for months.

Collected Poems by Philip Larkin. Modern poetry's bitter man. I'm sure it is neither coincidence nor a bad thing that his words fit my ear so well. Never has a less happy man written better verse.

This Will Make You Smarter edited by John Bockman. Every year the folks ask scientists and other smart people for one idea they think will make a difference for the rest of us. Last year was the one scientific concept they think their fellow citizens should understand. Here are all their individual answers.

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. A very funny attempt at following the two testaments literally. My personal favorite was the attempt to stone a cranky old man in Central Park. The author makes many adjustments to the actual text of the bible or he'd still be in jail, but worth the read.

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller. I'm a Herta Müller fan, but this one was a little odd. Here is a young man sent to a work camp in the post-WWII USSR, worked and starved nearly to death, witness to years of horror, and there just isn't much emotion here. Nothing seems to bother him much. Perhaps that is the point, though, as he has cast his hunger into the form of a separate being, a hunger angel that hovers nearby at the worst times. Has he dissociated from suffering? Did I dissociate from the story? I'll have to re-read this one.

Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. When these stories and essays are good they are very, very good, and they are never horrid. But there were several that didn't particularly interest me due to the subject matter. Axl Rose? Whatever. But there is some great work in here. Particularly fascinating was an essay about animal attacks. Was this fiction or non-fiction? The line is very thin and very faint.

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman. I don't know how teachers teach. How do they control a room full of students, much less get any information into their heads? This entertaining book didn't answer that question, but it made me glad there are people willing to try.

The Complete Stories by Truman Capote. Genius. I can't think of a writer better able to capture the variety of American voice. He could write from a holler to a penthouse. No age or social circumstance was outside his reach. The only sad thought I had while reading this collection was that I don't know if this sort of diversity is possible any more. I worry that publishing is categorizing writers for the benefit of marketing. Writers are now "that Ozarks writer" and "that barrio writer" and "that Florida writer." Can a writer today cover the ground Capote did, not just talent-wise but in terms of what the market will bear?

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Starting a story is like playing fetch. Stay with me now. Picture a nice dog. The nice dog wants to play fetch. You have a stick. The dog is vibrating with eagerness. Do you say:

 "Look here, dog. This is a stick. It is fourteen inches long. It's from the neighbor's larch. It has a diameter of three-quarters of an inch at the proximal end, which is held by me in my dominant hand, and half an inch at the distal end, which is pointing at you. There is a slight bend..."

 By now said dog has hopefully sunk his teeth into your leg. The dog wants none of that. He does not want you to finish describing the stick and begin elaborating the rules for fetch. The dog does not speak English, but even if he did, he wants none of that information. What the dog wants is to chase the stick. He wants you to throw it into the distance, possibly into a nice pond, and he wants to run after it as fast as he can. He will start running before either one of you knows exactly where the stick will land. That's your reader at the start of your story. He or she does not want or need to know about the stick or the rules of the game. Your reader just wants to run. He or she will follow your story wherever it goes.

 So long as it goes,

And goes fast,

Into the unknown.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Resolution Update #9.

Uh-oh, Blogger has changed its format again. This can only go well. The Resolution marches on. Ah, just had my first format problem. Had to switch to HTML since the normal Compose function does not want to do carriage returns. Well done, Blogger. Driving folks to Wordpress yet again.

Anyway, big update today since I have been shirking my responsibility and have a giant stack of finished books that need to get off my desk:

The Zero by Jess Walter. This was intriguing. Jess Walter came up with a structure I had never encountered before: a main character whose memory switches off and on due to a rather dramatic injury in the first scene. The book is centered around the events of 9/11, and nicely captures the chaos of the event and the insanity of what came after. I would like to see this character again. One warning: this book will make you go out and buy Zingers. It cannot be avoided.

Homicide Special by Miles Corwin. Non-fiction. Miles Corwin spent a year with the LAPD's Homicide Special division. Required reading for anyone who wants to write crime fiction or the modern murder mystery. I believe I shall be stocking up on Corwin's work. Very engrossing reading.

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace. Every word I read by DFW makes me more sad that he's gone. He was an absolute original in the world of writing. If you subscribe to the "show don't tell" school, there is less telling in his writing than seems possible. His use of pace, which seems slow if you're not paying attention, actually reveals amazing complexity about human beings. And he does this while sustaining some of the most remarkable absurdity I've ever read. Skim DFW and you'll miss the whole thing. A stand-out story in this collection is about a woman's struggle with depression. DFW captures not only the woman's troubles, but also the rest of the world's troubles with her. Depression was a subject DFW knew too well, and understood completely.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. How have I not read this before? Rushdie is one of the rare writers who can present supernatural events and have them seem to belong in the world. He does not stop to explain, or to let the reader catch up, or in any way to qualify his story. The writing is beautiful but clean and never in the way. Very like Gabriel García Márquez, I find. And I now see why he has had trouble with the fanatics. Respect to him for appearing recently at Christopher Hitchens' memorial. I shall be buying and reading more of his work. The delight of finding a master writer, years later than I should have.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. Memoir. The true story of a tragic adoption. Is there anything worse than discovering you might have done much better to be kept by a young, unprepared mother, rather than be adopted by a married couple? This is what happened to Jeanette Winterson. This book centers on her adoptive mother, a frozen religious woman who would have been better off not marrying and never having a child. The mother's problems hurt her daughter terribly, but this is not a tragedy. Jeanette Winterson survived and triumphed, writing the UK bestseller, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which is an autobiography about the same period. If I have any complaint with this book it's that I feel I need to read Oranges to understand everything that happened in this bitter childhood.

Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh. Memoir. I have long been interested in Gypsy history and culture. The UK's unusually lax trespass laws and caravan parks allow Travelers to roam the country, making money as they can, often via construction scams on homeowners. Often violent, rarely educated, Gypsies do not accept outsiders or anyone who wants more than what their culture offers. Walsh fled from his family when his homosexuality meant possible death at the hands of his own father. To this day he has to maintain his anonymity to stay safe. Another incredible tale of someone who escaped a closed society and rose to build a life from scratch as a young adult in an unfamiliar world. Like a deathmatch version of an Amish teenager escaping to the world of the English.

A Carpenter's Life by Larry Haun. Memoir. This was a beautiful book. Haun, a carpenter all his adult life, tells the story of his family through the story of the houses they built and owned. From his mother's life in a sod house on the plains of Nebraska to the small house in which he and his second wife raised their blended family, Haun tells us his thoughts about how we all build and live. He asks questions about what we value. Questions we should all ask. Why build a 10,000 foot house just because you can? Why live in a space so large that you lose sight of your family? Pictures enhance this splendid tale. I'm glad his non-fiction builders' guide publisher took a chance on this book. Everyone should.

The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell. I had some issues with his last novel, Winter's Bone. The main character, a young woman, seemed too passive for me. Other people came along to provide direction in her hunt for her father. Well, no such troubles in this short story collection. These folks (even the young women) definitely know their own minds, and you'll be amazed at the hunts they pursue. Brilliant writing doesn't hurt, either. My only complaint is that it wasn't three times longer.

There is No Year by Blake Butler. I seem to be chasing every novel that promises a magical or unusual approach to storytelling. I enjoyed half of The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and also liked The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall. This was wilder than those, more poetic, and was that much harder to follow. I was pondering my problem with this book and it seems to come down to something prosaic: the characters don't have names. They're the son, the mother, and the father. Maybe this is a nod to Heart of Darkness, which is not "the heart of darkness" because such hearts are many and might be anywhere. Does this book mean to say that this dark adventure could happen to anyone? Is happening to everyone? This is a kind of a haunted house tale, but unlike The House of Leaves events and characters do not ground themselves to the real world. They are entirely in this strange story, and I wish I could have been. I am looking forward to reading Blake Butler's novel of insomnia. I think that's a subject that will definitely respond to his style.

The reading goes on...

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Dance Your Story.

I'm watching the third and final night of the Merrie Monarch Festival, which is the largest annual hula festival here in Hawaii. It is held in Hilo, and draws halau (schools) from all over the state and from the mainland. It's a beautiful and splendid thing to watch. And as a writer, I am particularly struck that these dancers are telling stories through their dance. In the mele (chant) and in the dance itself. Hula is storytelling done with the voice, mind, and body. The Hawaiian people have saved their history through the hula. Even to those of us who are woefully ignorant of the language can feel the complex emotion of these stories.

I recommend that you spend some time on YouTube considering the hula, and think of how you would dance your story. How would you tell your story with your whole self?

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Downloaded David Foster Wallace's Pale King last night, and it's love already. First, how clever to start a novel on an airplane! Kidding— I did it— there's no actual extra credit. But to entertain while telling the story of a man on his way to Peoria to take his CPA exam, to impress with observation and diction and entertain with questions from the CPA exam... A lost genius. I also added a next book to my wish list that I greatly look forward to: Sid Stebel's The Collaborator. Good times ahead. I think I'll wash my mother's window screens and lanai this weekend to get in some good listening time.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

I Quit.

I turned off Ramona Ausubel's No One is Here Except All of Us today, three hours into the book. Part was narrator trauma, part was the flowery writing, part was the feeling that this was a short story that got turned into a novel against its will. Must we describe the rain— and everything else— quite so thoroughly? It also suffered from a POV problem. The main character is an eleven-year-old girl. How does she know what is being said in her parents' bedroom? I'll go ahead and assume she knows a cabbage is being hurled in there because of the thud.... No, I'm not kidding.

Another problem might be entirely unique to me, but there's a creeping discomfort to a book that is showcasing a lavish writing style and odd, mystical storyline against the Holocaust. Part of my brain is yelling "run!" so loudly that I can't relax into the book. And nobody does run. There's a lot of groupthink in this village. We'll call that strike three. Off to try my luck again at Audible.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Another Weird Thought.

The book I just started reading for the New Year's Resolution is also striking me as odd. I'm not going to tell you what book this is, because my suspicion about it is rather serious. It's a memoir. Maybe. I feel safe here because my next Resolution update will contain a couple of them. One of them, the one I'm reading now, is straining my credulity just a bit. I'm getting a Million Little Pieces vibe off of it. Everything you read has a "do I believe this?" question attached, fiction or non-fiction. That question is much stronger in memoir, especially in light of the number of pseudo-memoirs we've seen in the last few years. I read James Frey and "JT LeRoy," and both of those struck me as bogus while I was reading them, and the same radar is going off today. Curious.


So I'm driving home from giving blood listening to Ramona Ausubel's No One is Here Except All of Us, which is exhibiting strong signs of what I call "old world tchotche style," when it came to me. I was suddenly certain that what I was hearing was an MFA program. Got home, checked, and lo, presto. Ms. Ausubel does indeed hold an MFA in creative writing. No harm, no foul, but I'm getting pretty good at hearing it in fiction. Some combination of mannered and florid. Seven or so hours to go and then I get to spin the wheel of audiobook selection once more. This narrator is still driving me wild.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Epic Fail!

I purchased a new audiobook this morning and ended up turning it off after thirty minutes. I would have done it faster but I was out on my morning walk and that was all I had on the iPod. I'm rather astonished, because I've been reading good reviews of this one for quite a while. Part of the problem was my usual reaction to the wanderer archetype, and this book was apparently little more than a man's thoughts as he wanders around Manhattan. That, however, could be done well. What killed this book dead, and I never thought I'd say this of a mainstream, well-reviewed novel, is the appallingly bad writing. I mean the sort of thing I'm used to hearing from first-time writers who are trying to be "writery." Just the worst sort of florid and strained diction and bits of tortured introspection ("I sat down on one of the benches and sank into a reverie" or somesuch). Writing to make the skin crawl. And oddly, the main character admits that he doesn't read much at present. I fear the same is true of the writer. How Teju Cole turned Open City into an acclaimed novel or even got it published I have no idea. Maybe people in NYC are terminally excited reading about NYC to the point of blindness. So there was $20 down the tubes.

And then...

And then I bought No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ansubel. I've barely begun this one and have no issues with the writing as of yet. Indeed, there have been some bright moments already. But the narrator... The narrator... She reads the young main character as though she were a low-IQ robot of some kind. A long, dreadful verbal tic. And tomorrow I get to listen to a couple of hours of this as I drive to town to donate blood. Perhaps the road noise will drown out some of the narrator's choices? Perhaps the Holocaust will distract? I shall be wishing for something awful one way or another.

The levels of roulette that function in the audiobook world are astonishing.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Audiobook Update.

I just finished Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, and I have a special request or two:

1. If you are a writer who has not grown up reading science and science fiction, you MUST give your manuscript to a science fiction writer for review prior to publication. This will save the would-be Eden-builder from making idiotic claims that industrialism will never re-emerge in the post-apocalyptic population of Ideal Beings because all the easy veins of iron ore have long since been tapped, then mentioning not ten minutes later the iron spikes of a fence that is part of the epic layer of iron-rich rubble that covers the entire surface of the Earth. The Stupid, it Hurts.

2. If you are doing the tired old "environmental collapse leads to societal collapse" thing, you must explain why human beings turn to animals in a way that we have never done in the presence of any other emergency, ever. Even the black death. If we were able to hold our shit in the face of the black death, you have to explain why we didn't when global warming hit the fan. I'm looking at you, too, Cormac McCarthy. I thought you were writing about nuclear winter. Ms. Atwood, I particularly need you to explain why all of your genius populations neither saw their fellow men as (a) human beings in need of compassion and help, nor (b) customers.

Final verdict: passion-free sociopaths are boring and poorly-executed apocalypses are frustrating.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Resolution Update #8.

I am still reading one hundred pages per day. Almost three months now. Amazon loves me.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I finished it! I loved it! The best description of the late DFW's writing I've seen is that it captures the internal dialogue of everyone in his generation. You can't miss the paragraphs that begin "And but then..." A genius book. An entertaining book. A book that is hard to lift. What a tragedy that DFW is no more. Is this Ulysses for our day? It has certainly been shelved with my all-time favorites. I will never forget nuclear war acted out by boarding school students on a tennis court, or DFW's description of what life is like for a drug addict. I'll confess that when I got to the end my memory could not connect what I had read in the early pages and complete the circuit, but I can re-read. Brilliant.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. I am of two minds here. I loved the main story to such a degree that I consumed the book in two days, most of it on the second day. My lost weekend with a big book. I adored the mystery of the house. As in, loved it to bits. I enjoyed the conceit that this was a real event that became well-known and was studied and researched. I enjoyed the footnotes that came with that conceit. What didn't work with me was the twin story of the young tattoo-shop employee who came across the research collected by a man who had himself been swept up by the story of this spectacularly mysterious house. That story seemed rather vulgar and unimportant compared to the family in the house, and it skewed the sense of time in the novel. Haunted house story: A, footnotes: A-, tattoo shop story: B.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. The long title should have given away the game: this is based on real events. And my only complaint is one common to such work: events have not been shuffled sufficiently to take advantage of thematic elements. Specifically, there is a sequence in which the well-being of animals is given much more consideration than the welfare of the humans. It comes too late and is on stage too briefly to deliver the punch it carries. But don't get me wrong— this is a book that carries a number of punches we need to receive.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion. Poor Joan Didion has been in for some criticism lately that she is too much of the 1% and environs to speak to the rest of us. That she is tone-deaf to the problems of the non-bi-coastal. No doubt this is exacerbated by the current economic disaster. Who wants to hear about the problems she has with her jet-set life when families are living in motels and cars? And indeed, I felt her least-successful essay began with complaints that the smog in L.A. had grown too heavy, so her family decamped for coastal Mexico for a few weeks. I want to read about the folks forced to remain in L.A., scramble for a buck, and catch pleurisy. Where she is most successful is in her straight reportage, and I will pursue her work in that area. Basically, wherever Joan Didion is not writing the story of Joan Didion.

New Burlingame: Life and Death of an American Village by John Baskin. Note the long title with colon: this is non-fiction. The midwestern town of New Burlington was doomed by a dam project, so writer John Baskin moved into town for a year to collect its history and stories. A magical book. Generations reaching back to stories of the Civil War and beyond. Old American farm families. Love stories, tragedies, facing the unknown future, this is a beautiful story from the heart of a changed America.

Waterline by Ross Raisin. A story of grief and how it drags down a proud man. I can say that this is the first book of the disintegration of a life from the middle class to homelessness that I found utterly credible. Credit wonderful character development. At no point did I look at this character and feel irritated that he did not do something that I (in my ignorance) thought he should do to reverse his decline. I utterly understood how this man fell apart. Add marvelous use of language and a perfectly-judged pace and ending, and this is a winning book. I shall be reading more from Ross Raisin.

Phew. Two more books going now on the Resolution, and another on audiobook, and this mad reading year continues....

Audiobook Update.

Been a while, I know, and while there is a ginormous resolution update to come, there are just a couple of audiobooks:

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Part of my problem with this book was that I thought it would be darker. Part of my problem was that the writing wasn't great. Part of my problem was that Angela's Ashes was great. And part of my problem was that this was too darn close to my family history. As in, the names were frequently the same. As in, I have the same name (abbreviated) as the main character's younger sister. I think I heard lines from this book growing up. This main character would be my grandmother, but it's my mother who loved this book. For my take on my own childhood, see Wallace Stegner's Big Rock Candy Mountain. In any event, this is a must-read (or listen) for anyone whose Irish roots first grew in New York City.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. When it was good it was very, very good. When it was bad it was boring. Sorry, poor David Foster Wallace, but I'm not so interested in television as you were, and nobody can be interested enough in David Lynch. And I'm speaking as someone who was once in an elevator with David Lynch, me with my parents and wearing platform gold-lamé shoes and sequined, rainbow-colored pants. But two essays in this book are epic. One, the state fair essay, and one the title-providing cruise essay. This last one is worth the price of admission, got me very wound up for a few days about cruise ship food, before letting me down on the "drinks not included" thing. Extra points for the most excellent narrator. DFW is becoming one of those writers whose work I must read In Toto.

No, not the little dog...

Monday, March 12, 2012

Resolution Update #7.

Our flooding emergency is apparently over, and I managed to continue my reading throughout. A useless achievement. I've discovered that I can get through the pages faster before sunrise than I can after sunset. Especially when the internet has been knocked out. So here's the latest stack:

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. She is one of my favorite writers, and this book did not disappoint. It has some of the same structural features of the earlier, less-successful Cigarettes, by Harry Matthews, with movement in time and joining different groups of characters and moments of story already in progress, but where that was confusing this was clear. Surprising when so much of what's happening is grim. Erdrich pulls no punches when showing the reader what life is like for too many Native Americans. Occasional magical elements do not eliminate the pain of poverty, but nor does she descend into hopelessness. And she has an absolute ability to convey the damage caused by alcohol. These are not "drunk tonight, fine tomorrow" characters. The brilliant writing makes even the most serious passages lyrical.

The Best of It by Kay Ryan. Speaking of magic, great poetry can convey complex ideas mind-to-mind through language so subtle and well-chosen you can't even see how the communication is happening. These small poems, at their best, achieve this alchemy. A poem that describes rain falling on drought land but never reaching the ground. Virga. That at some altitude all problems are solved. Beautiful.

Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley. This is a screenplay come to life, and whoever adapted it for the movie had the easiest job ever. Although I can guess, not having seen the movie, that some changes would have to be made. Repeated restaurant scenes are generally to be avoided, even if the dialogue within sparkles, which this does.

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. This book came up next in the stack after Love Medicine, but I suspected that wouldn't work. I shuffled the stack. Good guess, as this was grim as well. It's not without flaw; most seriously that the antagonist essentially disappears for the majority of the book, only reappearing for the big finale. And there's too much time spent on the life story of every member of this large family, but the backstory doesn't play out in the present. It feels like a story waiting for the ending. But the brilliant, dark, flawed conclusion to this book makes it all worth it.

Collected Stories by Gabriel García Márquez. Reading this book I decided that if I were kidnapped and forced to seek a Ph.D. in literature focused on a single author, it would be Gabriel García Márquez. You could spend months just analyzing the stories in this collection, watching the evolution of themes, elements, and diction. What a master writer. And what magical tales. I hope he lives as long as the longest-lived characters here, and writes every day of his life.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why is School Like That?

I've been pondering the mystery of college vs. high school. Let's say it's because of the recent focus on school bullying. This post was inspired by something I actually can't discuss because of confidentiality rules in some volunteer work I do.

I hope that's obscure enough.

I've pondered a question: why is it that bullying is one of the worst problems in school until you get to college? It's not just that not everybody goes to college; that would assume that all the bullies don't go. That may be what we want to think: bullies are idiots. But they aren't. I think it comes down to class.

Most everybody goes to elementary school, junior high, and high school. Almost all victims and their bullies are in these schools. If you're getting bullied while being home schooled, you have more problems than the evening news has covered thus far. Did I just stumble upon a new YA? Anyway...

My theory is that from college on, class is hidden. Through high school it is naked. Everybody knows who is on free lunch, everybody knows who has the latest gadget, everybody knows who lives where. When you get to college you are on your own, out of your parents' house for the most part, and manhandling massive future debt is a common feature for the majority. Even the richest parents may not pay tuition for their scions. Within your department and your major you can find all the us vs. them you could want, and if you wish you can add a sorority or fraternity identity. Plus, you are called upon to be a bit more sophisticated in your attitudes and behaviors. High school is prison; college is a country club. You are of the college class. The have-nots are now in menial jobs. Beneath mention. You, by virtue of an acceptance letter, are acceptable; you are a winner, and so is everyone around you.

And it ain't just about school.

Adulthood is a continuation of class separation, whether we acknowledge it or not. Think adults are all sophisticated and able to leave petty differences behind? Yeah, force people together in times of crisis. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. What I've been contemplating is just how rarely the different classes mix in day-to-day life, and how awkward it can be when they do. We are embarrassed and embarrassing in our turn. I haven't read or seen The Help, but I fear the cringe-worthiness.

As a last point, I should mention that I don't believe in any classless society, anywhere. Surprise. Maybe most schools have no major problems and all the kids are happy together in their identity as Wildcats or Warriors or Spartans of Anytown, USA, but I fear for those who aren't. I hope they make it to college.

P.S. Please support your local Red Cross. Volunteer if you can.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Resolution Suspended?

The hundred-pages-a-day may be temporarily suspended. We've had some major storms pass through here on Kauai the past few days, and have suffered some serious flooding. Not here at the manse, fortunately, but others have fared less well. I am a Red Cross volunteer, and as soon as they've opened the flooded bridge north of me and/or cleared the landslide south of me I shall be reporting to staff a shelter and/or do some damage assessment.

Normal service will return when we are a little less soggy. Do some reading for me!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Write Like a Poet.

I am just finishing Kay Ryan's The Best of It, and I realized something about poetry. Everything in it is intentional. You never encounter a typo, or an accidental tweak in the grammar, or an agreement problem. Certainly, there are some deliberate unusual usages here or there, depending on the poet and the work, but the point is that the poem is as the poet wants it, because they are careful and care about every mark on the page. Anything less is not writing poetry.

Try writing like a poet.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Audiobook Update.

Since they foolishly don't count toward my New Year's Resolution, I must update audiobooks separately. You can bet I won't make this mistake next year. If I do this next year. If I make it to next year.

Wild Thing by Josh Bazell. I loved this so much. I loved the book, I loved the narrator, I loved the whole thing. I will listen to this one again. The narrator is perfectly matched to the book. The author uses profanity like Michelangelo used marble. Funny and yes, wild. His sub-plots are better than most other books. I do hope Dr. Bazell chucks in his medical career to write full-time, because I'm going to need one of these every year, if not every month. Faster, pussycat!

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. I am going to name my first ulcer after Wallace Stegner. He started it with Big Rock Candy Mountain. I was lured into a false sense of security with Spectator Bird. Now Angle of Repose and I am again knotted into a dense little ball of anxiety. How in the world did Wallace Stegner travel through time and perfectly capture three or four generations of my family? Or at least every painful, alienating theme we've ever explored? There are a couple more Stegner audiobooks waiting for me, and I am very, very nervous. But I will read them. Once I stop twitching.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Resolution Update #6.

The 100-pages-per-day deathmatch continues. Two months now without fail. It begins to play upon the mind, particularly the rate of coincidence, one book to another. Just today, two books the main characters of which enjoy eating raw potatoes in place of the more expensive apple. I'll just assume the later author read the earlier's work and it either stuck in his head or (as I would claim) it was the world's most subtle homage. On with the update.

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote. I get the feeling that Truman Capote was Truman Capote from the moment he was born. To the extent that he can be imagined in elementary school, he must be pictured disdaining the playground whilst coddling a martini. His main character here is just as well-limned at twelve, as is the object of that character's affection. An unrecognized and rare gift here, to write children as people. Not little people— people. With complex problems and everything.

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez. I confess. I liked it. And I liked that I liked it, because this is the sort of book that would have driven me up the wall a couple of decades ago. I liked plain vanilla fiction back then (not that there's anything wrong with that). Here's a book that moves all over in time, switches point of view and even tense mid-sentence, and is written as not only one long paragraph but one long sentence. I suppose commas were necessary or they, too would have been jettisoned. And yet, for all the confusion, it works. Even I could follow it. Go, me.

Deer Park by Norman Mailer. This is Norman Mailer's "I want to go to Hollywood" novel, I will assume. This one ranks rather low amongst the wines and spirits, in my opinion. A collection of Hollywood-hamster-wheel types out in a thinly-disguised Palm Springs, having rather vulgar and dispirited relationships while planning their Next Big Thing. Yawn.

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. If the Scandinavians ever decide that a white American male is worthy of consideration for the Nobel Prize in Literature, I do hope and expect that Cormac McCarthy will be at the top of their nomination list and I shall drink his health when he wins. This is one of those books that had me gnashing my teeth in jealous admiration from the first paragraph, and that's even with a character archetype that usually just makes me gnash my teeth in irritation. Suttree is a wanderer. Don't expect him to point to some goal and march toward it. This is a man who has given up much, and loses more, and lets it slide. But the writing! Oy!

Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson. This one took me by surprise in a very good way. I've read several of Denis Johnson's books. This was a radically different subject than any I'd seen him take on before. Post-apocalyptic Florida. A last zone of life on a ruined Earth. In this book I learned that not only does Johnson have an epic set of writing chops, he has the wisdom to not over-explain. That is usually the kiss of death in this sort of book, when the writer wades in early to tell you what happened before the story began and again late to tell you what the mystery was all about. Not here. Here you get an elegant riddle that lives on after the book. I will not forget these characters any time soon.

Howl by Allen Ginsberg. Okay, so there aren't 100 pages in this book. It got read just the same. The title poem probably irritated the bejaysus out of Ginsberg's parents' generation, and it has the unique capacity to irritate those that come along later, too. Just remember that this was the first generation to write poetry about its alienation and destruction in a setting other than war, or rather to see themselves at war in the home, classroom, workplace, everywhere. Not the last, of course, so don't get too annoyed with the sense of singular importance they had. For my money, the poem America is worth the price of admission. What a fantastic rant/love letter that poem is. Wonderful.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Resolution Update #5.

On with the actual, physical page-turners whose pages have been turned. One hundred pages a day through:

Clockers by Richard Price. Speaking about creating dodgy characters we genuinely root for even in their misbehaviors, Richard Price is a master. And I don't know how many decades he's spent hanging out with cops, but he has their side of the story down, too. Ferociously paced, filled with real people rather than types, the business language of both sides of the urban street shines through. The only problem with this book is it made me long for gummy bears...

by Harry Mathews. This book grew on me as it went along, but at the end of the day there is a schtick here and it didn't quite win me over. Each chapter is about the relationship between two of a host of characters, and the book covers several decades with these stories out of sequence. All fine and large, but the episodic nature and the time shifts didn't seem to cohere quite enough. Add the sin of having three female characters all with polysyllabic names beginning with "P" and I feel taxed to keep it all in my head. I may re-read it with the stories in sequence and see how it fares.

Paterson by William Carlos Williams. Blame it on my meager familiarity with poetry. Blame it on an unhappy encounter with one of WCW's grocery-list poems in high school. Whatever it is, this doesn't work for me. This is poetry interspersed with letters and bits of the history of Paterson, New Jersey. I seem to be finding a lot of books lately that have Fancy Writer Tricks, and I haven't seen one that works. But then, maybe this is just poetry and I'm a barbarian. Fair enough. But even when a city is named the main character of a book, I'm not going to perk up until it catches fire or runs off with the mailman or Does Something.

An All-Audiobook Update.

Getting hard to keep up the blog pace with the ferocious reading pace. Thus far I have not missed a day of my 100 page New Year's resolution, which is tricky when I'm also doing a major home repair. Tomorrow I expect to have two contractors, an electrician, the tile guy, and the new window guy all in the house, and to finish William Carlos Williams' Paterson. Phew.

Here are some books I've read that don't qualify for the resolution because they are all audiobooks. The good, the bad, and the ugly! Let's start with The Good:

The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner. How gorgeous is this book? Perhaps it's because the marriage depicted reminded me of my parents, but the writing is what makes this one of the best books ever. The diction, the precision, and the humor are splendid. I shall remember this main character for ever. And voice! Here not only does the writer shine through the words, but the narrator is perfectly matched to the material and wonderful.

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. I shall be surprised and delighted if I find a better or equal book this year. Or next year. Yes, it has one of those annoying, editors-love-them-we-don't-know-why titles. Get it anyway. Want a master's course in subtext? In tension? In high-stakes brinksmanship? In making you root for a character, even one who has done some reprehensible things? Heck, just buy this book because you are a reader. If Stanford does not make Adam Johnson a full professor with tenure they are out of their tiny little minds. Every MFA program in the country should be charging hard to his doorstep. A new masterpiece.

The Bad...

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. This one got shut off about halfway through, so it doesn't really count as yet. I may restart it out of pure curiosity for the wonderful critical reception it has received. As near as I can tell, 100% of the admiration for this book must be due to the fact that it involves baseball. I don't care anything about baseball, but I am rather fond of a great story, great characters, and great writing, and this book is three strikes and out on those counts. One telling thing about the audiobook is that the narrator has used a rather enervated tone for the main character, which matches him perfectly. A less self-motivated main character has rarely been seen. As I said, I may finish this one, but there'd better be a pony in here somewhere.

The Ugly:

A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe. I shut this book off once, but I was out in the car and had nothing else for the long drive home, so on it went again. This is a book so rife with loathsome characters, so filled with peculiar sexual behavior and relationships between the sexes, that it gave me the creeps. And not in a good way. There's an old story about someone admiring Philip Roth'sPortnoy's Complaint, but observing that they would not wish to shake his hand. Well, this was more unsettling. It is not fiction's place to make the reader comfortable, but this book committed the sin that the character's actions felt arbitrary. ***SPOILERS*** This was sealed in the last fifteen minutes of the book, in which the character completely reversed course, became a responsible citizen, shouldered his burdens (which were magically lifted, basically), and went on with his life. I think the writer got as tired of this character as I did.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Resolution Update #4.

Still reading, but falling behind on updating. I've finished three more books, two of which involved iguanas...

Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. This book covers the lives and loves of a group of friends and family in San Francisco in the early 1980s. One of them does, in fact, own a iguana. This book is, unusually, written in verse. Maybe it's the curse of the contemporary reader, but I liked the book more when I read it out of verse. I confess my poetry experience leaves much to be desired. The question you should ask as a writer contemplating an unusual execution is whether the story is big enough to sustain the technique. I'm not sure here.

The Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks. The reptile fancier here is in trouble for attempting to become an underage-girl fancier. He and his iguana are exiled with other pedophiles and pederasts to life under a causeway in Florida, kept at great remove from all potential victims. A local sociology professor appears and tries interviewing and organizing this community of outcasts, and with the professor the book stumbles. We the readers are told his story down to the last detail, so when a mystery springs up around him there is no mystery for us at all. Never let the air out of your drama before you have to.

The Just and the Unjust by James Gould Cozzens. This is a courtroom drama published in 1942, and is a much more modern book than I was expecting. Expert use of the language of the law, the dance of a court case, the turns along the way. Add the realism of life in a small town and you have a non-sugar-coated novel of crime, punishment, and justice. Anyone with an interest in the law should try this book.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Genre Fail.

I made it about 20% of the way through Justin Cronin's The Passage before shutting it off. The book deals with a virus found in the jungles of Bolivia that causes vampirism. Good enough. Some reader reviews presented it as a post-apocalyptic tale, but the part I listened to was all pre-apocalyptic, with a secret military operation going on to explore the virus' effects. There were a few weaknesses in the operation, and I assume through one of these routes the virus would escape and go, well, viral. I had some concerns about the mismatch between what people reported the novel to be and what I was hearing. Was all this backstory necessary? But that wasn't what killed it for me. What did it was two questions:

1. Is anything about this story new and different in approach or execution? Am I surprised by any of the plot choices the writer is making? Is he creating problems for himself that I want to see him solve? Am I learning anything about writing by reading this? There's the real killer. I'm a writer. I need to be learning from what I read.

2. Are any of these characters any different from what I would expect them to be? Are the military commanders other than hard-bitten, just-following-orders, possibly-sociopathic types? Is the FBI agent working out past emotional scars? In fact, about the only note of non-cliché is that the innocent little girl caught up in the story has black hair rather than blonde. Maybe because it's a vampire story?

In the end, there was nothing new here, the writing was not exceptional, and there was too much of it. It was slow, it was only mildly interesting, it was done. On to the next.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Resolution Update #3.

Finished two qualifying print books and one audiobook, and I'm sorry to say there was no joy in this trio:

Dhalgren, by Samuel Delaney. I'm on the fence about this one, actually. It's one of those legendary "hard books," along with James Joyce's Ulysses and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It's a read-at-your-own-risk book. Eight hundred pages, and, well... it has left a lingering impression, but a weird one. The problem I have is that the main character— very interesting to all the other characters in the book— was not interesting to me. When he did act, I found some of his actions objectionable. I "got" the book's central trick fairly early, but I didn't care. The book is not complex; it is complicated. And fair warning, since the book is such a commitment: It's circular. If you're a fan of Apocalypse Now, well, when you get to the end of this book, you're still only in Saigon.

Collected Stories, by Katherine Mansfield. Nothing wrong with this book, really. Just not to my taste. Subtle domestic dramas. All well-executed, lovely pieces. Just the sort of thing I grew up with as the definitive "short story," when all I wanted to do was read science fiction (not Dhalgren, though). And a times the fact that Mansfield was from New Zealand seemed to put a difficult cast on the language. It just didn't fit in my ear correctly. I blame my inattention and growing impatience.

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Professor Eugenides likes Henry James. Professor Eugenides has written a romance novel. Professor Eugenides has a love triangle. One male lead is one of the most irritating characters in fiction. Just someone you would not want to sit next to on a short plane ride, much less listen to for hours. The female lead is in love with him for reasons unknown and simpers after him with slightly more self-confidence and independence than the girl in the sparkly vampire books. The second male lead is interesting and is in love with the female lead, but conveniently hies off to Europe and India so as to miss most of the romantic action. Add vast quantities of money from the female lead's family (honeymoon in Monte Carlo? Really?), just to let most of the possible drama and difficult choices evaporate, and you have a very, very flat story indeed.

The strangest thing is that a sequence in The Marriage Plot gave me a wicked sense that I had read it before. The second male lead is in India, at Mother Theresa's home for the dying, and he struggles with the more demanding parts of the work there, finally fleeing after three weeks. I would swear I read just that sequence of events in another work at some point in the last year. I shall have to search.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Resolution Update #2.

The hundred pages read per day minimum continues unbroken. Actually, thanks to a bad cold and failure to shift from the couch for most of a week, my pace is unprecedented! Here are the latest three books finished. I admit I managed one hundred pages out of the first book in 2011, but it had a lot of words. Fortunately, they were all good:

The World as I Found It by Bruce Duffy. A historical novel about the lives of the philosophers Wittgenstein, Russell, and Murray. A first novel, by the way. Wonderful writing. Describing Murray at table, bent over his meal, "placid as a cropping beef." And later, in a battle scene from WWI, after the two sides have come together over the trenches for a Christmas celebration, "In the woods, refugees ate weeds and died like little flies." That is the most significant use of the word "little" that has ever been seen. I shall be buying Duffy's new book about Rimbaud.

Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor. Where great writing meets a big, big story. I was vaguely aware of the story of the Civil War prison at Andersonville. Great-whatever-grandpa was a corporal in F Company in the 27th Connecticut. But my Civil War history is not good. This book was staggering. If nothing else, look at the bibliography in the back of this book and understand how many years of research went into it. Then take it to the front of the bookstore and buy it.

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer. One of those "should" books. I should have read this before now. Greatly decreases my patience for writers who write books about slightly neurotic middle-class characters who have no real problems. More about that in a later post. For now, I'm just a bit more sad that my grandfather would never talk about his time in the Pacific during WWII. Or maybe I am glad.