Writers I’m Sleeping With

Writers I am Sleeping With

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Sometimes it’s good to cuddle up with a writer in bed. Better yet, it’s good to cozy up to several. For now, I’ve decided to sleep with Stephen King, Etgar Keret and William T. Vollman. I tried to sleep with William Faulkner too, but he and I just weren’t seeing eye to eye, so he’s sitting on the bed but we’re not really together. (And I’m not holding it against him that he’s the one who’s dead, either.)

Each of these guys has something different to offer me as I get my brain back into “writing mode” (otherwise known as I made that up so I can trick myself into writing more.) Eh, reading helps me write.

In re-reading parts of King’s On Writing, I’m reminded of how funny some of the stories are in the autobiographical section of the book. The precision of King’s language amazes me, the images are powerful, whether he’s dropping a cinder block on his baby toes, or nearly getting electrocuted by his older brother Dave. The read creates so much pleasure; I could re-read that book many times and never tire of the stories.

I haven’t cracked open The Girl On the Fridge yet, but I’ve read other Keret story collections like The Nimrod Flipout and Suddenly, A Knock On the Door and really enjoyed them; they’re fun. So Keret and I were friends first, now he’s been promoted to a sleeping partner. I’m hopeful that “Girl” will be a worthwhile companion.

Finally, the complicated Mr. Vollmann. I began reading The Atlas earlier this year and explored the strange emotional landscape Vollmann inhabits in that collection of stories. I never finished the book, but I’m ready to spend more time with Vollmann again and given the nature of the content, the best place to read that book is in bed. (No, I’m not going to tell you more, you will have to find your own copy and explore the terrain on your own.)

Yes, blogging about my reading is another mechanism to get my writing juices flowing again too.

Another baby step forward.

 

 

 

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A Review of Etgar Keret’s The Nimrod Flipout

I’m always on the hunt for great short story collections, and in the last few months I’ve purchased several. As I finish them, I’ll review them here in case you are also looking for examples of finely crafted stories.

Etgar Keret is an Israeli writer who has had several short story collections published, and translated from the original Hebrew into many languages. Thank goodness for that.

I procured 3 of Keret’s compliations including The Nimrod Flipout, The Girl on the Fridge, and Suddenly A Knock on the Door.

I relate strongly to Keret’s work. His stories are written succintly, and with great humor and a sense of the surreal in the everyday.

The first story in The Nimrod Flipout is called Fatso, about a man who meets the most beautiful woman and dates her. Eventually he finds out she has a secret … that when she falls asleep, she becomes a large, fat hairy guy at night. Fatso likes to watch soccer on TV and go out drinking. In Keret’s world, there are no boundaries for “what can happen” and in this story, the boyfriend continues to love the beautiful woman during the day, and befriends Fatso at night, coming to enjoy his company and root for his favorite soccer team.

In another story, Bottle, a man comes into a bar and meets a college student and a musician there, and the man puts the musician inside a bottle, as a trick. This story is only three paragraphs long, and was originally published online at KGB Bar and Lit Journal, so if you want to read Bottle and 2 other Keret stories, you can click here:

http://kgbbar.com/lit/fiction/three_stories_bottle_pipe_asthma_attack

And while most of Keret’s work is funny, some of it digs at the difficulties Israeli’s face in their culture. In the title story, The Nimrod Flipout, several friends are “flipping out” and dealing with bouts of mental illness as they remember their friend who committed suicide. You get the idea that these men are dealing with the aftermath of having served in the Israeli military together. Each of guys deals with the situation in his own way, but they all go a little crazy, one at a time.

I would strongly recommend The Nimrod Flipout and Keret’s work. Although I haven’t read the other two collections yet, I will. Nimrod was written in 2006, but the stories are self-contained and I think they will stay fresh and unique in their perspective because of it.

Ozone is coming and other news

  • Camroc Press Review editor Barry Basden has reached out to let me know “Ozone,” a story he accepted a while ago, has been assigned a publication date of October 16th. When the story goes live I will post the link.
  • In other news, I had the opportunity to revisit the work of Goran Djurovic and will be creating a second blog post dedicated to additional images from his show Prime Time, along with an explanation of how I came to acquire the images. Stay tuned that will be coming out shortly.
  • A good friend of mine is visiting his family in Europe, finalizing a novel mss he’s been working on for a while and which I have been helping him edit. I’m on tenterhooks now that we’re in the end stages with the mss. I can see a time in the near future when the book will be published. I’ve been working alongside him on this project for a few years now and I’m ready for it to be completed.
  • Also, while in California recently I had the opportunity to visit the bookstore in the Ferry Building in San Francisco. That building is probably the least tourist oriented building on the waterfront, thank goodness. The store is called Book Passages, and I purchased a short story collection by Joan Wickersham called The News From Spain based on a recommendation from one of the staff. I’m about halfway through it. One thing I like about it is that every single story is titled “The News From Spain” and it manages to work that idea into the story.
  • But I wanted to mention the bookstore too, Book Passages, because it is so well curated from both a selection and staff perspective. I want to talk to someone who is reading a lot, and knows what I’m talking about when I say I like “Lahiri but not Proulx so much.” Bookstores like that are hard to find anymore. We all know Powell’s in Portland, OR is a national treasure, and The Strand in NYC too. These are established places of literary worship and we’re losing them to hand-held backlit screen devices that can deliver the content of a novel, but that cannot deliver the experience of reading an actual book and those devices definitely cannot replace the encyclopedic knowledge of an amazing bookstore staff. Nuh-uh.
  • Call me old fashioned if you want; but I consider myself a “Gutenberg-ist.” (Yes, I just coined the word.)

Book Review – Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue

Of the three Michael Chabon novels I’ve read (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which won the Pulitzer; The Yiddish Policeman’s Union; and now Telegraph Avenue) I enjoyed Telegraph Avenue the least among them.

Telegraph Avenue weighs in at a whopping 625 pages, which is a big reading committment for one book. An author increases reader expectations tremendously when a book exceeds 500 pages, in my opinion. You expect more of every aspect of the book – the characters, the plot line(s), and the resolution of those plotlines.

The book is about two guys who own an old vinyl-based record store and their families, friends and enemies from the local neighborhood in Oakland, California (next to Berkeley.) One owner of the record shop is Nat, a white Jewish guy; the other is his best friend Archy, a black guy.

Telegraph Avenue has so many characters that I failed to keep most of them straight for the first half of the book, especially the two owners of the shop – our main protagonists! Chabon failed to sufficiently distinguish their personalities from one another and by failing to provide a basic description of the characters.

I kept reading, hoping things would become clearer, but…

Chabon doesn’t tell us Nat is white or that Archy is black directly for the first third of the book and yet, it is one of the most important elements of the story because there is a white/black dynamic running throughout the book.

As a reader, it is tiring to try and remember no less than a dozen main characters, especially when it’s unlikely someone will be able to consume a novel of this size in one sitting. (It took me a month to get through the book.)

Characters include Nat, his wife Aviva and their son Julie … Archy, his 2nd wife Gwen, and Archy’s illegit son Titus, Archy’s father Luther, and Luther’s girlfriend Valetta … and the main guys from the neighborhood Mr. Jones and his parrot Fifty-eight, Mr. Flowers, Mr. Singletary… and I could go on and on just naming characters. That is not a good thing.

There are several plot lines running through the book as well, and I didn’t find them compelling enough. The main plotline is Nat and Archy’s business, their record store, is failing. A guy named Gibson Goode, who used to be from the neighborhood and left to become a famous football star now living in Los Angeles, decides to come back and build a huge record store in the neighborhood.

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this if you want to read the book. Gibson Goode never winds up building the record store, and Nat and Archy break up as partners by the end of the book. The lack of tension around this issue in the 600 pages that preceed these events nullify their impact. It isn’t the “payoff” for the reader that it should be given the build up. Other plotlines meet a similar fizzled-out fate.

By way of example, one of the characters, a parrot named Fifty-eight whose interesting idiosyncracies keep us wondering about what he might say, flies away with a strongly implied promise to the reader that the bird will return or its whereabouts known later through several references. This is especially important when the bird’s owner, Mr. Jones, dies. But no, the bird never returns and the bird’s influence on the story is just dropped.

Chabon’s writing has always required a certain patience because of the level of description he provides, but this is also his genius as a writer. When used to build drama, this kind of writing can be exciting and assist the reader in populating the complex world Chabon creates, like the kind you’ll find in the Yiddish Policeman’s Union set in a fictional version of Sitka, Alaska. In Telegraph Avenue I found myself much more impatient with these descriptions because they weren’t adding up to a cohesive whole, and became more of a stylistic distraction – the very last thing you’d want from a really long novel.

To conclude, I would not recommend Telegraph Avenue. It’s bloated at 625 pages, and could have been edited down to create better pacing for the reader. (This novel had “saggy sections.”) It’s characters are too numerous and difficult to tell them apart. Plotlines are not compelling enough given the resolution to many of them (tied too neatly with a bow) at the end of the novel.

If you want to experience the a much better example of the stylistic writing of Michael Chabon, I would recommend the Yiddish Policeman’s Union instead.

 

A Comment on Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

First I’ll start off by saying I have read the first hundred pages so far… so please, if you’ve read the book (which is a detective novel) do not post spoilers in the comments section! 🙂

As you frequent readers of this blog already know, if I’m going to read fiction it’s pretty likely to be a Pulitzer prize winning novel. (Sadly, this is really a comment on how infrequently I’m reading these days because I have not even gotten through the past 10 years worth of fiction winners yet.)

Also, you might imagine if I’m mentioning Michael Chabon and Pulitzer Prize… I’m mentioning the wrong title. His Pulitzer winning book was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It also just so happens that when the airport bookstore is out of pulitzer prize winning novels, and you’re staring down a 6 hour flight from one coast to another, you might decide to purchase an alternate title by an author in that “P” group. Well, you might not do that, but I did.

And now for an aside from my aside… how come nobody ever challenges me on why I’m sticking to Pulitzer prize winning novels and instead singing the praises of an amazing author who should have been nominated for a National Book Award, Pulitzer, or is just a genius with words? Come on peoples, tell me at least one of you has read a totally amazing novel this year where you were blown away by the story, the writing, the characters… something? (For the record, I’m very far behind on my contemporary literature reading. Even I know that reading a prize winning novel from a decade ago isn’t the cutting edge… but I’ve got to dig in somewhere.)

Okay, enough. Back to the topic at hand, Mr. Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

I’m in love with Chabon’s writing. Some of you out there, the writerly writer types, might hate his flowery, adjective filled long strung out sentences… but I whistle and moan in admiration with some of his descriptions.

Try this paragraph:

Litvak makes an impatient or petitioning gesture with his hand. He takes from his breast pocket a marbled black notepad and a fat fountain pen. He wears his beard neatly trimmed, as ever. A houndstooth blazer, tassled boat shoes, a display handkerchief, a scarf strung through his lapels. The man has not lost his sporting air. In the pleats of his throat is a shining scar, a whitish comma tinged with pink. As he writes in the pad with his big Waterman, Litvak’s breath comes through his great fleshy nose in patient gusts. The scratch of the nib is all that remains to him for a voice. He passes the pad to Landsman. His script is steady and clear.

Do I know you

Now, I don’t know about you, but how can you not swoon at phrases like “a scarf strung through his lapels” or “in the pleats of his throat” or even “the scratch of the nib is all that remains to him for a voice”?

This is one random paragraph, mind you. The book is a cornucopia of such phrases (okay, sorry, I can’t help myself…).

What’s especially interesting to me about this book is an interview Chabon did with the New York Times which is reprinted in the back. In it he says that he remade his writing style in order to take on a Chandler-esque detective novel because he shortened his sentences considerably to write this novel. And, oh yeah kids, he had written a 600 page manuscript as a first draft of this book, decided he didn’t like it and chucked the whole thing and re-wrote it from scratch.

I admire that about the guy.

Whether or not you decide to read this book is not the point of this particular post. For me, this post is about craft. Meticulous craft. And I’ve gotta hand it to Chabon in this novel, his loving care about his subject and his characters just oozes out of every page.

Did I mention I’m only 100 pages into this 411 page novel? Well, I am. As for the remaining 300 some-odd pages? I’m going to savor them, nice and slow.

P.S. We will return to your previously scheduled Hurrican Sandy installments in future posts.

Buried Under My Books

One of these days I’m not going to be able to leave my house because it’s been filled to the top with books. I’m exaggerating, of course, but probably like many of you, I’ve got oodles of well worn tomes hanging about on shelves and tables, stacked up and tossed, margin noted or not.

I’ve got a decent poetry collection, and a whole shelf of books on Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy, I’ve got non-fiction biographies of physicists (Feynman and his books especially) as well as books on cryptography and the NSA. I’ve got art books. And cook books – don’t get me started. I’ve saved books I read when I was a kid (Harriet the Spy anyone?) and I’ve got picture books I love. I’ve got books about people who cook and their opinions about gastronomy (especially cooks and chefs from NYC).

And then there’s the short story collections. Oh boy, do I have a ton of those. Best American Short Stories, and Pushcart and invididual authors and more. And then there’s books about writing… writing plays, screen plays, writing short stories, and crafting characters and no plot no problem and the rest of it. (I still say Stephen King’s book On Writing is one of the best.) No book collection would be complete without a bunch of dictionaries, and I’ve got those too.

I haven’t even talked about novels, because it’s so obvious I’d have a gazillion of those, right? Everything from the classics to recent Pulitzer winners to dollar finds on the sale rack and everything in between.

Although I’m surrounded by all these books, I must admit most of these books I have not read twice. Why do I keep all these books I love, just because I read them? I don’t know, but I know it’s what I’ve always done. I read a book and think, oh that was wonderful, and put it on the shelf and enjoy looking at the title knowing I read it. Then I forget it’s there because I’ve moved on to my next book…and the next.

But I don’t know how to part with my James Joyce Reader, or Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (actually I read this from time to time.)

A friend of mine and I were recently discussing Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. I instantly knew I had a copy of it, although I have not picked the book up in two decades. I’m not kidding (about either fact…) And it got me to thinking, why do I need a copy of Winesburg, Ohio? I don’t think I do. And I don’t think I need every single book I have on my shelves either…but where to begin in parting with them?

How do you deal with this, dear reader? For some of you, if space is a severe constraint, have you boxed your books and put them in storage? Do you only use the public library? Do you read the books you buy and immediately give them to someone else, donate them, or discard them (perish the latter)?

Even if space is not a severe constraint, how are you handling the dozens, or hundreds, of books you’ve accumulated?

I think it’s time for me to seriously consider a partial divestiture…

The Chronology of Water – an Un-book Report

As a writer, a woman and a human being I’m finding it hard to know what to say about The Chronology of Water, a memoir written by Lidia Yuknavitch.

Maybe I’ll start with this: this woman has had an incredibly messed up life, some of which was completely out of her control, some of which was in her control (but she spends most of the book telling us she’s been out of control for most of her life, regardless.)

Here’s the litany: she was sexually abused by her father, had a severely alcoholic mother, dropped out of school, did drugs, drank, slept around (no really, really slept around) and did just about everything she could to self-destruct. (In one chapter of the book she describes how she was drunk, got in her car, and hit another car with a pregnant woman driving. She never tells us what happened to the pregnant woman or how the accident was resolved.)

I don’t read many memoirs, but whenever I’ve read memoirs or auto-biographical material, I usually get the impression the author is trying to convey events as they happened and that, to the best of their ability, they are telling us the truth. Throughout Chronology of Water, the author tells us she is not telling us the truth about certain details. She’ll say one thing, then she’ll add something like but it didn’t happen that way or similar verbage to let the reader know she’s blurring the lines between what happened and what she is telling us happened. She wants us to know she is untrustworthy, which is a strange trait to want to convey in a memoir.

Also unusual is the lack of linearity in the book. Like water, the chapters ebb and flow between different parts of her life. She’ll drop something very casually in one chapter somewhat out of the blue and then tell us later the background of her casually dropped previous comment.

As a reader and a writer, I think it’s brave to talk about yourself ‘honestly’ on the one hand and focus on how the messed up events in your life have shaped you, but on the other, the book (with few exceptions) is almost entirely about that. By the time I got to the end of the book, I wasn’t sure I liked the “character” (?) of the writer or person who was speaking in the book.

I didn’t find these anecdotes describing a “strong” woman, even though I wanted the book to be about that. It was more like someone who has been through hell in her family, something horrific I’d never wish on anyone, to someone who had those experiences and then spent 30 more years killing herself with marathon drinking, drugging (including heroin) and the most irresponsible sexual behavior.

I could say some of the writing is lovely, and some turns of phrases are interesting and clever. That would be true. My comments aren’t about the writer’s ability to write well, which she does.

What I’m struggling with, and still struggling with, is what to make of the book. Honestly, I still have no idea what to make of it. I take that as a sign I need to think about it more, and consider the ramifications for writing about such brutal content in such a straight forward way – albeit with a writer’s voice that we’re told many times throughout the book, is unreliable.

A Kindle, a Kindle, I have a Kindle…

I am SO excited – I just got my Kindle delivered today!  I opened it up and ooohed and aaaahed over the lovely glare-free screen, the sleek buttons and the cute little black leatherette carry case that came with it.

But after my initial rush of Kindle-adrenaline, I got to thinking. Hmmm – I could actually read BLOGS on my Kindle! Wow – what a thought!

I’m not exactly sure yet how to read blogs on my Kindle, but I know it can be done and I am going to investigate that, dear readers, and let you know what I find out.

For those who are already super-duper Kindle/blog saavy, please please feel free to leave helpful comments and suggestions – I can use them!