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   Carcharodon carcharias; GV photo

Fiction

 

When influenza strikes, whether of a personal or national sort, there is a time and place for escapist reading. So it was, as I lay gasping for air in bed, snot pouring from my nose and lungs, that I plunged into The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern on a tip from my son, Erik, and his girlfriend, Becca. The book came out in 2011 to rave reviews but arrived in my hands as a slightly-read hard copy. A fantasy, the work is a story about a magical circus and a pair of star-crossed lovers abused by manipulative and powerful men playing a deadly wager. Every page holds a fresh creative revelation, a novel character we want to study and cherish, a surprising action scene we have never witnessed before.

As I waded deeper and deeper into the story, traveling across Europe and America from one strange black-and-white tent to another, I found myself forgetting just how infirm I might be. The conclusion proved satisfying, a difficult feat with such a vast web of spidering story strands. Five stars. (3/20/17)

Still on the search for escapist lit, again led by my son, Erik, I found a book by Neil Gaiman, that much beloved novelist whose works I have somehow avoided. American Gods is becoming a classic and represents a new amalgam of fantasy and political/religious commentary. It's mostly a rollicking good ride, though, as imported deities to the New World lose their mojo--not all at once, just slowly enough to worry them. A tough book to describe, but an easy one to read. (3/20/17)

After hearing so much about it, I felt it necessary to read The Sellout by Paul Beatty. First American ever to win the prestigious British Man Booker Prize. National Book Critics Circle Award Winner. One of ten NY Times Best Books of the Year. Etc. I read the opening earlier in an excerpt printed by Tin House, and knew I was in for a wild ride. The novel delivers in spades.

From the opening sentence on ("This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I've never stolen anything."), Beatty delivers deft prose to build a racial satire overwhelmingly pungent, powerful, subtle, scathing and life-affirming, His characters, the stereo-type-defying narrator most especially, win a reader over. Once hooked, I found the book hard to leave.

Bonbon Me, born in the un-incorporated city of Dickens in South LA--the former murder capital of that great city--will no doubt go down in literary history as one of the greatest novel heros ever. AKA Sellout, our narrator is many things: farmer, producer of insanely delicious oranges and watermelons, horseback rider, calf emasculator, son of a social scientist maniac shot by the cops, marijuana cultivator, surfer, and parttime lover of the beautiful (if zaftig) city bus driver Marpessa. Bonbon, after a series of bizarre events, comes to own a slave (ex-movie star and former Little Rascal Hominy). Through the logical illogic of the novel, the hero tries to bring back segregation to his 'Hood, landing him, burning marijuana embers and all, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The prose, reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon with a heavy dash of Kurt Vonnegut, draws a reader in at the level of phrase and sentence, even as the wild story line urges a quicker read. Don't give in, slow down and take the time to savor luminescent passages like this:

''I was transfixed by Laura Jean's shimmering pink coral nakedness backstrokng through the ocean, nipples pointing to the stars, pubic hair sashaying in the clear water like a ginger tuft of silken sea grass. A scissor kick, a teasing glimpse, and she was underwater. Marpessa socked me hard in the ribs."

Along with the crazed plot., laugh-out-loud humor, stiletto-sharp insight, and delectable prose, a parade of wonderful secondary characters and non-stop roller-coaster inventiveness transfixes the reader. Rich stuff, the best I've read in forever. Paul Beatty--America's Mark Twain of the 21st Century? Yup. (12/24/16)

 

I began The North Water, by Ian McGuire, with great expectations. A book-reading buddy who reads my own work and gives me valuable critiques loved it and recommended it, mostly for the sensory descriptions of a "damn good Arctic whaling adventure." In a previous life, in the pursuit of that ultimate nature photo, I have ventured north of the circle a number of times and am fond of a good Northern Lights read. True to those expectations, at least, the novel held its own. The prose is gritty, vivid, and gut-wrenching. The sense of place becomes so realistic it is over-whelming and chilling. Definitely turn up the heat and put on a sweater before reading it.

Once senses, however, that the author is trying to compete with Melville and Conrad and write a story, set in their time, that equals or outdoes them. There is one small problem: This reader, at least, never connected with the narrator, never felt the necessary warmth and soul that could counteract and provide equal weight to the acts of the murderous sex-fiend villain, Drax (Hmm, could a name be any closer to Dracula and still be unique?).

A reader cannot help but be emotionally affected by the bestiality of the acts contained within the book, and I don't mean just the slaughter of marine mammals and polar bears. My conclusion, though, at the book's end: Violence without adequate balance is gratuitous, a sort of blood and guts pornography. Such writing leaves the mind (thankfully) almost as soon as one turns the final page. I only pursued reviewing it here because my son, Erik, read it and voiced the same thoughts today with no prompting from his dad.

The NY Times named this work as one of their five "Most Notable" fictions of 2016. In the sense that Donald Trump is Time Magazine's "Person of the Year," I guess that seems reasonable. "Take note of this book! It has lots of horrific, vivid scenes." Very notable, indeed.

Would I recommend you read this book, or (shudder, as I did) buy a hard cover copy?

Hell no. Spend your money on and read The Sellout or La Rose instead. (12/24/16)

 

Louise Erdrich's La Rose is the latest, and perhaps best, of a string of the author's masterworks. Once again, she has rendered this reader into the dazed state that can only come from a writer in total control of her art. The book has brilliant dialogue, innovative form, poetic prose, and immense heart. There is nothing within her Ojibwe/white universe Erdrich cannot do, no emotional state she cannot evoke, no comment on the craziness of the modern world she cannot express.

In La Rose, she intensifies the contrast between Native and Euro-American worlds by an inspired plot device.

A tragedy strikes two families living next to each other in North Dakota, one white and one Native. Landreaux Iron shoots and kills his friend Peter Ravich's five-year-old son, Dusty, when the kid falls from a tree between him and a buck he has been stalking for winter meat for years. To make ammends for the accidental tragedy, Landreaux and his wife, Emmaline--with great ambivalence--offer their own five-year-old son La Rose to live with Peter's family, an ancient Ojibwe custom.

The novel explores the ramifications of this gambit over the next three hundred thirty pages, with digressions to the past. Historical sections detailing the original, 19th century La Rose and the boyhood adventures of Landreaux and his Iago-like friend, Romeo, give us perspective on the modern characters and lend a break from the gripping plot line of the main story. Erdrich goes on to weave high school volleyball, tuberculosis, reservation feasts, and Ojibwe shamanism into her tapestry. Dozens of vivid characters enact a series of vignettes and scenes that, by the book's conclusion, come together in a well-wrought and satisfying denoument.

At times the work touches a painful nerve, and this reader, at least, had to put it down several times to regroup. But the pull of Erdrich's prose, her confidence in love and forgiveness, her unflinching portrayal of nature and humanity, always drew me back.

If you have not yet read this woman's work, please do so. You will not be disappointed. If there is one writer in the United States today worthy of attention for a certain literary prize from Sweden, it is surely Louise Erdrich. (June 26, 2016)

 

The much acclaimed (Pulitzer Prize, 2010) A Visit from the Goon Squard, by Jennifer Egan, did not disappoint. I am, frankly, not a great fan of distorted time lines and meta-fiction, but Egan's book is not designed to confuse, only to enlighten. Her characters are unforgettable: Sasha, the kleptomaniac; Lou the record producer who takes his family and a rock band to Africa, where the bass guitar player jumps into a lion feeding frenzy and almost dies; Kitty, a fallen star who ends up pimping a cruel dictator, also in Africa; etc., etc. Cut into a series of short stories that fit together in Russian doll fashion, the novel comments on the scatter-brained craziness of the pop music scene in particular and modern life in general. Clever and fascinating, but, for me, flat.

Sorry, I guess I need a linear book-length narrative with deepening insight about a small group of characters to get a full-blown novelistic emotional charge. Just as I started connecting with a character in Goon Squad, bang, off to another scene, another time, another place, another perspective. All brilliantly done, I must add. But the work did not come close to delivering the same jolt as the more traditionally crafted work I read just following it:

 

Another acclaimed work (National Book Award, 2012), Louise Erdrich's The Round House is the kind of book you finish and proceed to sit in shell-shock for an hour afterward, deep in thought. Ever since I read Fleur, a powerful short fiction by the author that Joyce Carol Oates plucked for her anthology, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, I have been enamored with Erdrich's brilliant prose. Most of her work, like that of William Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, revolves around life in a fictional Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. She is compassionate and wide-eyed in her view of life, but tough and uncompromising. The Round House, told in the first person by an adolescent boy, grapples with huge issues: rape, a necessary cold-blooded murder, justice, and racial inequality. Yet Erdrich does not stint on humor, nature, or sensory imagery, and her books are, at least, for me, page-turners.

Yes, I'm from Minnesota. Yes, I attended Ojibwe pow-wows in Northern Minnesota, dancing in a circle around a bonfire at the age of five. Yes, I love the idea of a writer who owns her own bookstore (Birchbark Books, in Minneapolis). OK. I'm biased. But that doesn't make me apologize for being a huge fan of Louise Erdrich and her scintillating prose. (May 30, 2016).

 

Nature

Edward O. Wilson has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his scientific writing for laymen and is a Professor Emeritus at Harvard. His latest work, Half-Earth, is an earnest entreaty written in the twilight of an amazing career. I would postulate it will be the work by which he is remembered and revered in the future. Wilson pulls no punches. Humanity is causing the planet's sixth geologic extinction, and the situation is grim. In fascinating detail, he weaves a web of words that makes the intricate, 3.8-billion-years-in-the-making web of species that is our biosphere come alive. Wilson then shows how mankind, over-breeding and over-consuming, has thrown an enormous wrench into the natural mechanism. Because of our heedless usurpation of natural resources and pollution, the extinction rate has shot up by orders of magnitude, comparable to previous, natural extinctions, such as the Chicxulab meteorite strike 63 million years ago.

But Wilson is not content to look at the present. He offers a bold vision of a future in which we stop our foolish destruction of other life forms. His goal: set aside half of the earth's surface area, both land and sea, and let nature rule. Wilson, with the help of 18 scientists, selects certain special areas, hot spots of species diversity that represent core preservation areas. These include the Serengeti, the Amazon basin, and many others. He makes a solid case for their preservation, and of the need for species preservation in general. Anything less--including absurd notions such as the utility of laboratory resurrection of species--and we risk catastrophic loss.

Set out in beautiful, clear prose, with ink illustrations from the 18th century, the book represents a blueprint for saving the planet as we know it. Perhaps Wilson is a naive idealist. Perhaps people will never give up their anthropocentric view of life (it's all about people, people, people, and the other species be damned). I think not. I think this book presents, in a clear-headed scientific and rationale way, an expression of hope and positivity.

Highly recommended.

 

Satire

James Hynes, a product of the Iowa Writing Workshop who travels and lectures extensively in literary academia, published The Lecturer's Tale fifteen years ago, but it rings as true today as it must have then. The story of a down and out English lecturer at a prestigious Midwestern university who undergoes a bizarre amputation and becomes a powerhouse university politician, the novel was a NY Times Notable book when it came out--and an utter delight to read even today.

Hynes mixes bits of the occult with biting academic satire, producing an hilarious brew of twisted magic realism, witty literary references, and laugh-out-loud funny set pieces. No sacred cow is safe from the stab of Hynes's bare bodkin. Whether he is goring transsexual novelists, gay black poets, Lesbian vampire literary critics, or macho straight-white-male chairs of departments, he keeps the tone perfect, never going too far over the top, expertly retaining the reader's suspension of disbelief, and making you truly care about all the wack-o's in the work, including one very, very flawed protagonist.

One of my favorite bits: a set piece in which bitter academic rivals, all colluding and conspiring to get tenure, lose it at a drunken meeting. Just prior to a grand physical altercation, they hurl insults from The Bard at one another. "Away you mouldy rogue, away!" "I scorn you, scurvy companion!" "Clod of wayward marl, knave, rascal, eater of broken meats!" This sort of thing I find insane (in a good way), and the book is peppered with similar episodes.

Hynes has written other novels--I'm definitely going to read him out. (April, 2016)

 

Three Classic British Novels

I felt inclined to dip into the past and so read some19th and early 20th century works by famous English novelists.

Middlemarch keeps appearing on lists of "best all-time novels," often as number one. Mary Ann Evans,, who adopted the pen name George Eliot, wrote her 785-page tome in 1871-1872. Published as eight serial novella-sized volumes over the course of a year, the work did not fail to fascinate on a first read. Nor did it fail to win praise and adulation at the time of publication. The setting of Middlemarch, a provincial English town, provides the stage for a long list of complex, three-dimensional characters: Beautiful, idealistic Dorothea Brooke; pathetic, scholarly, past-his-prime Casaubon; drop-dead gorgeous, superficial Rosemond; brilliant, ambitious Lydgate; spendthrift, foolish Fred Vincy; steadfast, plain Mary Garth; and clever, virile Will Ladislaw. Nor can we forget Bulstrode, the wealthy banker with the dark secret (yes, they had banksters even then).

Eliot weaves these souls into a complex tapestry, creating a powerful work that withstands scrutiny from any perspective, whether examined as a gigantic whole, or by fractals as small as a single sentence. The opening paragraph, a formidable, nearly two-page beast, gives the reader fair warning of the loquaciousness of the author, a loquaciousness not without charm, however.

The opening sentence: "Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress." A far cry from "Call me Ishmael." Yet its subtlety of thought recurs consistently throughout the work and defines the brilliance of the novel.

Virginia Woolf thought the book "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." Perhaps I am late to get to it, but I did much enjoy it and look forward to a re-read.

My son, a student at LMU, urged me to read a pair of masterpieces from his philosophy class. The first was Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse. Confession: the only work by this author I'd read previously was Mrs. Dalloway. The famous Woolf keeps her novels short and defines "interior writing." Not much happens, and language is all. She is a poet, really, and when one reads her works that way, they open vast linquistic worlds. I read To the Lighthouse twice, the first time to get a handle on the time shifts and characters, the second to imbibe the heady brew of the prose itself. The second read proved astounding, refreshing, amazing. A random example of a sentence, this one painting a Scottish isle setting:

"So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea."

This sentence slides down as sweet and pure as a fine Bordeaux. One can take nearly any sentence out of context and it will read just as well. Of course, deep currents also flow through the work, themes of loneliness, death, love, and art, themes that shift and shimmer like that sail stuck high in the sky. Perhaps I shall know them better after my fourth or fifth read.

The second book Nick urged me to peruse: W. Somerset Magham's The Razor's Edge. I first read the work years ago, and on repeat, found much the same and much different. The first person, dispassionate observer (hello again, Ishmael) keeps the reader at a distance as the travails and lives of Larry Durrell, Isabel Maturin, Sophie MacDonald, and Elliot Templeton unfold and, eventually, explode before us. Each of the four are touching and intricate characters, people who garner sympathy in different ways. Larry is crazy but absolutely sane and clear-headed. Sophie--poor, tragic Sophie. Sophie tears your myocardium into small, bloody pieces. Isabel is lovely yet lacking (see Rosemond above), and Elliot, a perfect snob, has the proverbial heart of gold. The manner in which the four relate with one another and with history forms the heart and soul of the work.

Each of these three masterpieces bears, in addition to its unique authorship, the indelible stamp of its time. Each could only be written in its own era, of course. How dependent an artist is on the mores and temperament of their particular age! (April, 2016)

 

Nobel Time

As is my custom every year, I buy and read a work by the latest Nobel winner in literature. It's my Swedish-American thing. Belarusian Svetlana Alexievitch's prize was controversial, as she is a journalist who, in preparing her books, interviews large numbers of individuals concerning a given topic and presents their quotes with minimal editorial comment.

On a friend's Facebook page, a well-known editor of a well-known national magazine asked, "But is it literature?"

Keeping that question in mind, I read Voices from Chernobyl. The dark subject matter provided fair warning this would not be a light read, but the emotional turmoil Alexievitch's plain-spoken quotes stirred within caught me by surprise.

In her ten years of labor creating the work, the author underwent substantial personal risk, e.g., spending time in the Zone interviewing homesteaders lured to abandoned villages by land and freedom from war and persecution elsewhere in the crumbling Soviet Union. The cumulative weight of each interview, each individual slice of life, whether delivered by one of the liquidators, one of their widows, a mother of a deformed child, a refugee trading bullets for radiation, or even an angry, expletive-spewing Communist Party leader, all serve to create a rounded portrait of an incomprehensible tragedy.

One theme: you can't see radiation, can't know--at first--how badly you've been damaged. There is a smell, a strange metallic odor of cesium and strontium. With a dosimeter or Geiger counter, you know.

Another theme: once you've been contaminated, the rest of the world will treat you like poison. Chernobylites suffer in social as well as medical ways. Only a fool would marry one and hope to raise a healthy family.

Another theme: cleaning up a nuclear mess is all but impossible, even with countless heroic acts from a brave and patriotic citizenry.

Death by radiation, as portrayed here, must be the worst way to go imaginable. And yet the old saw from the Cold War, "the living will envy the dead," comes back in the stories of the survivors. Depression, weight loss, low energy, and cancer all stalk those who lived in or near the Zone.

Without a doubt, the work is the most powerful indictment of the horrors of radiation-gone-wrong since John Hersey's Hiroshima. Each hard-gotten quote, requiring an incredible amount of traveling, study, and persistence on the part of the author, proves itself rich in spontaneous poetry and human pathos. One cannot help but be moved by the power of the book. Voices from Chernobyl should be required reading for nuclear-weapon rattling hawks in positions of power throughout the world.

Is it literature?

Without a doubt. It is a new literature, a literature of the people of Belarus, a literature of the people of the earth, a literature of the neglected. Alexievitch is not so much an author as a medium, transmitting this poetry of the ignored to us readers.

At the end of Voices, in what might be the most heart-rending vignette of the work, the wife of a deceased liquidator (reactor clean-up man) talks about their adult son, who is radiation-retarded and kept in a mental hospital:

"He greets me: 'Where is Papa Misha? When will he come?'
Who else is going to ask me about that? He's waiting for him.

We'll wait for him together. I'll read my Chernobyl prayer in a whisper. You see, he looks at the world with the eyes of a child."

(October 23, 2015)

 

Fiction

A confession: I have avoided reading Salman Rushdie for some time. At the height of his infamous persecution by Islamic fundamendalists, I glanced at a few pages of The Satanic Verses. The sentences ran on and on, the paragraphs ran on and on, and I ran out and out. Although I was sympathetic to his predicament, I steered clear of the man's work.

Recently, my wife and I were forced to move out of our house for a few days. While staying at a friend's, I chanced upon a slim volume by Rushdie from 2002: Fury. Having nothing to read at the moment, I dove in.

Now, after taking the time to read this work, I get why the guy is so revered and famous. He possesses a broad and piercing intellect, a powerful, far-reaching mind that is only matched by an exquisite imagination. A keen observer of modern times and of cities, especially London and New York, Rushdie cleverly mocks the vapid nature of materialism and celebrity worship. He is also a scholar well versed in the antiquities (he mines deeply the Furies of Greek mythology in this novel). Nor is he afraid to exploit his Indian heritage and polymathic background to full extent.

In short, from opening to conclusion, Fury held me in rapt attention. I succeeded in getting over any antipathy to his verbosity and paragraphing and plan to read his latest, Two Years Eight Months, as well as his classic Midnight Children.

 

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed The City and The City (see below) I read another work by China Mieville. Perdidio Street Station is, perhaps, the quintessential example of The New Weird, or Steampunk, or whatever strange brew of fiction it is Mieville produces. The novel is set in the fecund and teeming New Crobuzon, a city of mixed races and species loosely modeled after an alternate universe London. Within this swarming nightmare of a city, one finds an odd combination of futuristic biologic mish-mashes (the authorities ReMake prisoners, sometimes cruelly, as punishment for their crimes--e.g., a woman who kills her infant has its arms implanted forever on her cheeks) and steam-age technology (blunderbusses, muskets, etc. are the weapons of choice).

The story begins with our hero, one Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, embarking on a strange quest. Taking a break from his insect-headed, svelte, human-bodied 'khepri' lover, the artist Lin, he tries to help a bird-man 'garuda'--for a sack of gold--regain his wings. To study flight, Isaac sends a seedy criminal friend to bring him all manner of small birds and insects, including a peculiar caterpillar, to his warehouse laboratory. The vividly colored creature, he discovers, can only grow on a strange new drug called Dreamshit. And grow the caterpillar does--to preposterous size. It forms a chrysalis and metamorphosizes into one of the scariest monsters in all literature: the mind-sucking, brain devouring, slake moth.

Mieville's gift, though, is not only to spin this wondrous, convoluted, and bizarre story, but to wield florid and heated language that propels and projects a reader headlong through that tale. There are subtle but plentiful political insights that recall Orwell's 1984, insights that made this reader sense allegorical layers lying beneath the work, palimpsest-like. This seems to be a Mieville trademark. Unlike The City and The City, though, the finale is appropriately climactic, cinematic, and satisfying. Not every character gets what they want or deserve: there are immense tragedies. When the wild ride comes to a halt, though, one can only stagger away, shaking one's head, looking for more.

China Mieville owns a seemingly inexhaustible well of creativity, a well he taps deeply for The City and The City. Two parallel cities, intermeshed and crosshatched, with inhabitants speaking different languages, "unseeing" each other, held in line by the alien and mysterious Breach--what a concept.

Throw a murder and police procedural into the mix, and you get this fine novel. A quibble--the dénouement has a deflating effect, something he did on purpose, according to the interview added to my text. A reader is so mystified and enthralled by the murders, the Breach, the Orsiny, ancient archeology, the double city life, and the like, the actual "untying," or "unkotting" (the literal translation of dénouement) of the plot does not satisfy.

Still, because the majority of the book is so fascinating and deftly done, I highly recommend it. After all, Huckleberry Finn does not have such a great ending, either, and we still consider it one of our finest novels.

Philosophy

Brian Treanor's Emplotting Virtue is a scholarly philosophy text with dense passages that require a layman (that would be me) to look up words common to the tool kit of the philosopher--hermeneutics, pleonasm, apodictic, coduction, etc. Once one gets beyond the vocabulary, though, the work becomes a brilliant discussion of how story can effect change in humanity.

Treanor demolishes the idea, with a series of trenchant observations, that facts alone can alter people's opinions, especially vis a vis the environment. He goes on to show how narrative, especially fiction, can be a powerful means of provoking, inspiring, and changing society for the better. The author makes a powerful argument in Emplotting Virtue that to inspire ourselves and others to flourish, and, most especially, to make the world around us flourish, narrative--story--plays a critical role.

For this reader-who-writes, at least, Treanor's book is a sort of manifesto, a blue-print, an inspiration for the importance of incorporating virtue ethics into the mental melange that fosters creative writing. To the usual ingredients--plot, character, dialogue, and setting--that go into making fiction, one must now add, I think, his profound ideas of environmental ethics.

Not always an easy read, but well worth the effort. Highly recommended.

 

 

Surfing

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan, now on the non-fiction best seller lists, is worth every kudo and rave review it has garnered. A staff writer for the New Yorker, Finnegan consistently produces journalistic gems, exploring injustice, forgotten wars, and the sorts of miscreants one can find over-turning heavy boulders. But this book is a surfing memoir, something different for the author, and it tells the story of a true-blue surfer. Whether getting bonked on the head with a two-by-four in shop class by a bully in Honolulu's Kaimuki Intermediate, scratching from certain death at a rock-strewn shoreline in Madeira beneath triple-overhead waves, or bouncing from one malaria-ridden island to the next in Asia and the South Pacific, Finnegan is a master story-teller, using his formidable literary chops to paint one vivid scene after another without ever sinking into purple prose.

Upon finishing the book, though, I realized this was much more than another surfer with writing skills bragging about his travel and wave history. Barbarian Days has heart. Finnegan's love for his wife, his daughter, his sibs, and his parents comes through loud and clear. The dangerous siren call of the sea, his 'other woman,' is often in direct contradiction with this love, and the paradox of it all forms the crux of the book's deepest moments. Also not to be ignored are Finnegan's strong affections for his surfing pals, friends who bond with him and lead him into disaster, yet frequently go on to rescue him from it. More enigma, more contradiction.

Even if you're not a surfer, be sure and read this emerald of a book. It translates to other obsessions: to climbing, to music, to dance, to hiking, to writing, to any one of a number of pointless and ineffable but necessary pursuits. There is more to existence than working, earning money, and procreating. While these can hardly be ignored, that desire to dip oneself into wild nature, to create art, to explore new and strange coasts and coves, that, to Finnegan, is the essence of a life well lived. While we may never fully comprehend such wisdom, this book makes a strong foray into our understanding of it.

For all surfers, ocean-lovers, arm-chair adventurers, and seekers of truth.

Looking forward to my second read...but, first, gotta go jump in the ocean.

 

Fiction

Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willet is a humorous follow-up to The Writing Class (see below). I find Willet irresistible. Her chubby, out-spoken, anti-heroine heroine, Amy, is lovable and interesting, and her meta-fictional story line compelling. As a lagniappe, Willit sets the story in my home town, San Diego.

OK, the work smacks of autobiography, and wishful autobiography at that--wouldn't all of us authors like to fall into a celebrity/television vortex and serendipitously have our names become household words? I guess. But so what? Willet indulges her fantasy with a caustic sarcasm and biting humor that makes clear literary fame is not all it's cut out to be.

Of course, her character didn't get invited to play in Stephen Kng's rock band, The Remainders, or things might have turned out much for the better. Nevertheless, as Amy nervously takes a plane flight, gets in a train crash, or has one harrowing literary interview after another, her faithful Bassett hound keeps things grounded.

Not sure I agree with Amy's (and Willit's?) negative feelings about doctor-writers (see the Varghese review below), but, hey, that's just a quibble (July, 2015).

 

Much sterner and deeper stuff is Transatlantic by Colum McCann, a wonderful and seamlessly connected series of stories that spans a century and weaves together the lives of three men and three women. McCann opens with the story of the first transatlantic aero-crossing (the duo flight of Alcock and Brown in 1919), followed by the visit by Frederick Douglass, the anti-slavery icon, to Ireland in 1845, and the peace negotiations ending the late 20th century "Troubles" in northern Ireland, negotiations spearheaded by Maine senator, George Mitchell. The genius of the book, though, lies in the second half, where women dominate the narrative. All were introduced or grew from the opening, male-dominated narratives. All shed an alternate light on events from a different and contrasting point of view. A book to savor and re-read. (July, 2015)

 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr received the 2015 Pulitzer and was nominated as a 2014 National Book Award finalist. Although leery of yet another book set during WWII, I started reading anyway, intrigued by the premise. Five hundred thirty pages later, a deep sadness filled my soul upon my finishing it. Doerr's work deserves all the accolades. The short Vonnegut-sized chapters, the alternating points of view, and the shifting times and settings all conspire to keep one glued to the pages. By the end, numerous developing story lines reach a satisfying, surprising, and inevitable conclusion.

Unlike other novels I've read that flip through time, Doerr does not present this work as a Rubic's Cube serving to puzzle, annoy, and mystify the reader (e.g., Dan Chaon's Awaiting Your Reply). The reader may be carried aloft by scintillating yet never cloying prose, but is never lost. To give one example, the final resting place of the MacGuffin of the work, the Sea of Flames diamond, a huge jewel spirited from a Paris museum and guarded and pursued throughout the book, gets its own poetic chapter.

The key to the novel is the empathy and sympathy its two principle characters, Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, evoke in us. One a charming, blind French girl, the other a boy with a brilliant aptitude for science conscripted into Hitler's Youth, they make parallel stress-ridden journeys through the ultimate trial--war--until their paths collide in the strange, water-surrounded city of Saint-Malo. Along the way, we become immersed in lock-smithing, mollusks, gemology, and the art of building radios. Greater themes on the power and danger of technology--and the madness of war--simmer beneath the plot and characters.

A masterpiece. (May 30, 2015).

 

My son bought us a copy of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and I read it with some interest, having already digested a rave review by Neil Gaiman in the NY Times and a pan by James Wood in the New Yorker. By now, the book should be familiar to many: an Arthurian legend set in the sixth or seventh century during the wars in England between Britons and Saxons. Ishiguro paints a world complete with ogres, pixies, and dragons, not to mention knights (one an elderly, if capable, Don Quixote-like figure), warriors, and a deeply moving elderly couple. A mist covers the land, a mist exuded by the breath of Querig, a dragon, a mist that sucks memories from everyone, good and bad both.

This is one hell of a set-up, and the flat, expressionless prose used by Ishiguro delivers it in a dead-pan and believable way. Suspension of disbelief was not a problem for this reader. Yes, the author's characters speak in a stilted manner at times, as if someone had to translate the original comments from Olde into Modern English. Yes, the settings are described in brief sketches, nothing ornate or flowery about the language. Yes, if one decides this must be an allegory--as James Wood does--there are incongruities, memories that slip through the mist, characters that have substance and multiple facets instead of the two-dimensionality one would expect to find in a true allegory.

This is a wonderful book, a fairy tale for adults, a work with limitless depth. Allegoresis of the novel, excessive insistence on reading hidden truths and figurative speech into every detail of the work, is a mistake. There are layers of meaning to be discovered here, yet the story at the book's heart, the romance between the elderly couple, trumps all.

Nowhere does Ishiguro write, "THIS IS AN ALLEGORY." He just recites his tale, Homer-like, and sits back and laughs as the Woods of the world over-analyze it. Just as Tolkien hated having his Lord of the Rings trilogy considered an allegory, I suspect Ishiguro feels the same in regards to The Buried Giant. Yes, there are multiple layers of meaning. No, you don't need to dissect them. Yes, you can just read the work and let it resonate.

Ishiguro brilliantly uses story to explore the issues of love, forgiveness, and memory. He weaves a complex and dangerous present with a partially-remembered past, and delivers a masterpiece that does not settle for pat answers or simple solutions. "Life is but a walking shadow" -- but the author shines a fascinating light upon it.

 

Reading Suspended Sentences, a group of three novellas written by this year's Nobel Laureate in literature, Patrick Modiano, was a pleasant and enlightening task. (Note: Mark Polizzotti handled the translation duties from the French and added a fine forward to my Yale University Press edition). Even when you read these in English, the three loosely connected tales evoke the French language, the German occupation of France during the forties, and the city of Paris. As Polizzotti writes in his forward, reading Modiano is a bit like peering through a camera lens smeared with Vaseline. There are sharply etched details and vague details. There are sudden events and, more commonly, non-events, unannounced disappearances, absences, or negations. The first novella, narrated by a young man (who reminds one of Somerset Maugham's narrator writing of Gaugain in A Moon and Sixpence), details an incomplete character sketch of a photographer. Chien de printemps becomes Afterimage, through Polizotti's translation wizardry, instead of the literal Dog of Spring. One gets snippets of memory, strange anecdotes, wonderful descriptions...the incomplete story of a life, an afterimage.

I like this sort of meandering non-story. The author shifts between the late forties, the sixties, and the nineties in a light-second. He uses short, Kurt Vonnegut-like chapters. It works.

The second novella, the title story, Remise de peine, literally, a deferral of pain, becomes Suspended Sentences. It tells the story of a ten-year-old living with an odd bunch of political/criminal exiles on the outskirts of Paris. His mother a traveling actress and gone for a year, his father out of the picture, the child narrator gives the novella a blurriness, an incomplete grasp of mysterious doings by friendly, fringe-of-the-law grown-ups. We never really find out what illegalities Annie and her gang are up to, only that they are kind to the narrator-boy, and fascinating. Again, not much plot, just a series of recollections, vignettes that taken together shine a light on the human condition.

The final story, Flowers of Ruin, (Fleurs de ruine), like the first story, is a character study of a nebulous inhabitant of Paris as written by a (fictional) budding writer. It spans from an unsolved double murder in 1933 to the nineties. Nothing is explained, no mysteries (and there are plenty) are solved. Instead, the world appears as a realistic reflection of half-truths, coincidences, and enigmas.

Once again, an obscure (to America, at least) European writer has been nominated to a Nobel by those damned Swedes. Once again, I find the winner writes beautifully. Modiano is worth checking out. Each work of his has that Truffaut-movie quality, that distilled essence of France, languid, startling, intimate, subtle. Cognac, anyone? (December 14, 2014)

 

"S" is perhaps the highest "high concept" novel I've yet to encounter. It makes CLOUD ATLAS seem uncreative. Start with the authorship: J.J. Abrams conceived the work, and Doug Dorst did the actual writing. Abrams is the creative soul behind "Lost "and a number of other TV shows, while Dorst is a fine author with a number of literary credits (Ploughshares, etc.). Unlike Abrams, though, he's not exactly famous and hardly a household name.

The concept: Two novels in one. The first is a traditional novel, written by the fictional author VM Straka, entitled SHIP OF THESEUS. It is presented as a library book, complete with stickers on the spine, library numbers, stamps on the inside: all the stigmata. Just about every page, in addition, is covered with marginalia, an unlikely conversation between Jan, a senior lit major, and Eric, a disgraced grad student specializing in Straka's works. The margin notes, many extensive, form a loose and chaotic story of their own, a story that parallels many aspects of SHIP. Oh, and there are multiple footnotes provided by the translator of the book which make, in effect, a third novel, the translator being a probable love interest of VM Straka.

Still with me?

Now, while you may adore this concept, in actuality, reading the two (or three) novels together proved, at least for my humble brain, impossible. I was about to throw the book into a wall across the room, when it occurred to me to just read SHIP OF THESEUS, ignore the marginalia, and go back later to read novel #2. For me, at least, this proved a success.

Dorst is a fine writer, and SHIP OF THESEUS stands on its own. It is a formidable work. A Kafkaesque story, it is full of well-turned phrases, mystery, danger, murder, ghost ships, wine made from blood, and not unimportantly, powerful allegorical references to the crushing nature of the military-industrial complex. Reading it was the high point of the S experience, at least for me. I thoroughly enjoyed SOT. It's a work of art.

Going back and reading the marginalia was, at first a chore. The linear nature of the narrative becomes fractured and scattered. Some of the notes make temporal sense, others don't. For example, there are notes in pencil by Eric from an earlier read long ago. Oh, and did I mention the postcards, letters, napkins with maps, and other loose odds and ends that fall out of the book? Yup. They're there, too.

The problem for me with the second novel is a big one: suspension of disbelief over two young people, trading notes in the margins of a library book, as if in real time, as if they were using iPhones or computers. Abrams' conceit uses modern conversation done, supposedly, on a library book left on a shelf. For many pages, the two don't meet in the flesh. Once I got over this issue things went better. I can't say I got the same sense of drama and excitement I took in from SOT, though. Yeah, reading a marginalia novel is novel. It's new. So is having postcards and messages jump out of the leaves. New does not always make for Good, though.

The work "gimmick" comes to mind.

Still, SHIP OF THESEUS is wonderful and well-worth the price of admission. I recommend it highly. I'm on the lookout for more fine work by Doug Dorst.

As part of the research for several classical music-infused novels I am polishing (OPUS BROOKLYN and OCEAN ORCHESTRA), I just finished Vikram Seth's AN EQUAL MUSIC. Seth first published the work in 1999, so it is 16 years old, but it reads timelessly. Seth, author of A SUITABLE BOY, is not a musician per se, but he is a virtuoso with the English language. Told from the point of view of a second violinist in a string quartet, the novel gets so many things right--the intense, family-like relationships in musical groups, the way emotion and music intertwine, sometime with disastrous results, the joy of making chamber music, the harsh competitive nature of the professional musician's world. It's all done in service to a love story, a sad tale in which the narrator and his old paramour from music school, now going deaf, find their love rekindled via music. The ending holds no real surprises, but is written in such an eloquent and moving fashion, one cannot keep dry-eyed. (March, 2015)

 

Abraham Verghese's CUTTING FOR STONE must qualify as one of the best books I've encountered. Upon finishing it, a host of turbulent emotions washed over me as, indeed, they did during much of my reading. Any novel that can make you forget your name, your job, your aspirations, and totally take over your consciousness--that's a masterpiece.

Verghese, born to Indian parents in Addis Ababa, went to medical school there, finishing in Madras, India, and completing his medical residency in the U.S. in a "less-popular" hospital in Tennesee. All this gives him the perfect background to write this ever-so-slightly autobiographical work.

The novel spins together fantastic threads in a logical yet fascinating manner. A once conjoined twin, the narrator, born to a nun (yes), his father abandoning him, becomes a surgeon. The hero, Marion Stone, the beautiful Genet, raised with him as a sister, his identical twin brother, Shiva, his step-father and step-mother, his real mother, his real father, all tumble together into a thrilling mix of medicine, history, and Africana. The prose is resplendent--a good thing for a 658 page opus--and never flags. I look forward to reading the work a second time.

One quibble: as I attempted to reconcile Verghese's website biography with the tear-rendering fairy tale, a troublesome thought occurred to me. In the book, the protagonist (Marion) returns to Ethiopia from the U.S. to live and work. In real life? Well, it would be hard for anyone to turn down a distinguished professorship at Stanford. Who can blame the author? Besides, he writes like a dream. (May 5, 2015).

 

Ed Abbey's, THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG, published 40 years ago, is a fantasy how-to novel, a thinly veiled blueprint for a violent response to mindless, nature-strangling growth. As each year of global weirdness progresses, as each cataclysmic storm form Katrina to Sandy punches yet another city with yet another knock-out blow, more and more people may start to realize just how prescient Abbey was. Is Abbey advocating violence against development? Not sure. It's fiction, man. Who can know? Did this book spawn ecoactivists world-wide? Who knows? It's a damn thrilling read, though, and full of wonderful contrasts between the ribald and the scholarly, the mundane and the sublime. Abbey could write, that much is clear. And, he possessed the leathery strength of his convictions. Hopefully, others will take the time to re-read, or read for the first time, either this book, or its non-fiction cousin reviewed above. (November, 2013)

 

The June 8, 2013 New Yorker Fiction Issue is, as always, a cornucopia of delights. This year the theme is "Crimes and Misdemeanors," with a select group of well-known writers contributing. There's a fine memoir by Gary Shteyngart, the sort of self-deprecating humor piece the author does so well, an essay about a lover he obsessed over in the past who ended up trying to kill somebody else and spent time in prison. There's an even better memoir (this one a "personal history"), better not so much in the writing but in the coincidence: Walter Kirn tells the long and painful story of how he got taken in and befriended--over many years!--by a notorious psychopath and murderer, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter. Kirn is a pretty shred guy, but the work just goes to show how a con man can, well, con the best.

I loved the book review in the issue by Adam Gopnik (straying here from his Francophile habitat) on Florida crime fiction in general and Carl Hiassen's work in particular, mostly because I love CH. Gopnik must, too, for he nails Hiassen, right down to a perfect portrayal of the author's recurring secondary hero, Skink, the ex-governor who lives an outlaw life in the Everglades, cooking road-kill and "leading a clandestine movement against polluters and greed merchants."

The editor/s (Deborah Treisman?) include a rather strange screenplay excerpt by Cormac McCarthy (the movie will be titled "The Counselor"). Since I'm writing screenplays these days, and since I read and enjoyed CM's "BORDER TRILOGY" years ago, I read it with interest. The piece contains zero dialogue. It's well known in movie circles that producers and directors, when evaluating screenplays, skip everything but dialogue. I guess that's not the case with CM. But don't worry. There are no run-on, stream of consciousness sentences like you'll find in the Trilogy. If you want to read script action notes about a drug-related beheading in pornographic detail, this is your baby. Don't look for anything in it but cardboard, though, character-wise.

IMHO, the best piece in the mag is Jhumpa Lahiri's "Brotherly Love." The story of a pair of twin brothers in Calcutta, one who goes on to be a scientist, and one who becomes a revolutionary, it has everything fiction should: a well-wrought setting, strong characters, and a theme, that brother thing, a theme the author builds wonderfully through a third character, the wife of the rebel. The piece resonated for me, a brother myself, long after I finished it. (June 10, 2013)

 

Took me a while but I finally got to the 2012 Nobel laureate, Mo Yan. With some trepidation, I ordered up RED SORGHUM, his epic, early novel about a village in China (North Gaomi Township) and the Japanese invasion of the late 30's.

Many have criticized Yan for not speaking out against the civil rights abuses of the current Chinese government. His reply, in so many words, was "read my work." He is a long term-member of the Communist Party. He is deputy chair of the party-aligned China Writer's Association. He described censorship in China as a "necessary evil." His name, in Chinese, means "Don't Speak."

Yet...in his books Yan is unsparing of his criticism of party officials, of faults in the Chinese government, and of anything else he finds immoral. In RED SORGHUM, nothing escapes his withering comments, certainly not the Japanese invaders, nor the guerilla troops, fighting even more viciously with each other than with the enemy, nor the foolishness of men and women in general, especially in matters of love.

Unspeakable things occur in the novel, yet it evokes a powerful sense of the richness of the land and the ability of the Earth to revivify itself and regenerate, no matter how foolish and violent its humans behave. There is an amazing section in the work where we slip into the point of view of a pack of wild dogs, a chapter reminiscent of paragraphs in the Hemingway short story, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," when the reader delves briefly into the POV of a wounded lion.

I can't weigh in on the debate as to whether Mo Yan is the most deserving of China's living great authors. Dissident Gao Xingjian won the 2000 Nobel literature prize living as an exile in France, and there are many others, in and out of mainland China. But Yan writes well, movingly well, and his peasant worlds, full of harshness and beauty, captivate.

The key symbol in the novel, the plant sorghum, used as both food and an ingredient in wine, bears close scrutiny. At the end of the book, after the Cultural Revolution in the 70's, the grandson narrator discovers inferior, soul-less hybrid sorghum has taken over the countryside, replacing the rich, wild, red sorghum. Mo Yan makes clear though metaphor his feelings about modern China.

Don't speak, Mo, just keep on writing. A little something on Tibet might be good. (June 5, 2013)

 

Here's another book from the past you may want to read. Louis Erdrich's first novel, LOVE MEDICINE, is a collection of interlinked short stories detailing the lives and loves of North Dakota Chippewa: the Kashpaws, the Lamartines, the Morriseys, the Pillagers, and the Nanapushes. I came to Erdrich via a collection of fiction offered by Joyce Carol Oates, a short story named "Fleur." Fleur is a Pillager, a family that never really came over to the white man's way of thinking, a woman with magical powers. Anyhow, that story got me hooked. A year ago or so, the New Yorker published another of LE's shorts, this one about a junk yard dog. Another great tale. So I went back and bought LOVE MEDICINE.

Wow. Talk about grit, and love, and booze, and great writing. Did I mention sex? That, too. Erdrich's work teems with life, and is everything I would expect from a fellow Minnesotan literateur. When I was five, I used to go to pow-wow dances Friday nights with the Chippewa in Northern Minnesota, at Hackensack. That was a thrill. I always felt close to them, even as a white boy from the Twin Cities. If you've never read Erdrich, don't wait. She's prolific, and there's lots of works to choose from. I'm moving on and reading more. She owns a bookstore in Minnesota named Birchbark Books. Will have to visit sometime soon.

 

Non-fiction

The Soloist is a classic book from 2008 I've put off reading, mostly because I saw the movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. Written by journalist Steve Lopez, of the L.A. Times, it is the true story of a young African-American man, Nathaniel Ayers, with extraordinary musical talent who wins a Julliard scholarship. Unfortunately, Ayers develops schizophrenia at the age of twenty or so (the usual age for the presentation of the disease), and, fueled by the pressure-cooker environment of the most competitive conservatory in the country, the illness flares out of control and lands him on the street.

A recent update on Ayers in the Times led me to the book. Lopez wrote a column on April 23, 2014 about a hearing where a psychiatrist and Ayers argued over medicating the unwilling soloist with neuroleptic anti-psychotic meds. http:#section/-1/article/p2p-79987297/

The column, and the book, underscore the devastation and hope found in the 1% of the population suffering from schizophrenia (yes, the disease is that common). In both Lopez writes brilliantly of the deft musicianship Ayers uses on multiple instruments, just as he vividly depicts the maddening unpredictability--and potential violent behavior--the disease can engender.

I don't think one can read The Soloist and remain dry-eyed at the end. It is a powerful, timeless work. Decades ago, I read Ken Kesey's famous book, also made into a movie (with Jack Nicholson), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Kesey's novel served to demonize the medical establishment, with its depictions of evil Nurse Ratchett and its use of a forced pre-frontal lobotomy as a plot device. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Kesey's fiction closely preceded nation-wide decisions to close most in-patient psychiatric institutions in the United States. Patients, supposedly, would take their thorazine and their halidol and live in peace in half-way houses. Money would be saved. The evil nurses and doctors in Cuckoo's Nest would be out of work.

This policy has proven a disaster, as Lopez documents at a personal level in The Soloist. A large percentage of homeless people are mentally ill, have no structured environment, and do not take meds. Thousands of schizophrenics inhabit the streets, or end up in jail.

We can only hope that The Soloist and the ongoing efforts of people like Steve Lopez will help turn these failed policies around.

As preparation for participation in a 25-year memorial essay project instituted by John A. Murray, one of America's most beloved nature writers, I have been re-reading the works of Ed Abbey. If you have never read DESERT SOLITAIRE (published 45 years ago), go out now, buy it, and read it. "A masterpiece," says David Quammen in an essay on the author. Beyond its disguise as a primer on the natural history of Arches National Park, the work is a meditation on the crimes and misdemeanors of anthropocentrism, on the inconsequence and malignancy of overpopulated humanity, and on the overriding worth and sustaining soul of the desert in particular and wild nature in general. Summarizes Abbey therein: "I am not an atheist, but an earthiest." (November, 2013)

 

Piano/Music Books

Most of my reviews, as you/ve seen, are of fiction. But...I am a pianist, and have a weak spot for all things pianoforte. It occurred to me that I've read a slew of non-fiction works on that amazing instrument, and decided it was high time to write a summary of some of the best.

Thad Carhart's PIANO SHOP ON THE LEFT BANK is one of the best piano stories around. In Paris on a sabbatical for a few years, Carhart decides to revisit the instrument, something he'd played only as a kid, after finding a nifty, mysterious shop on his perambulations around the city. He soon discovers no one can just visit the shop, indeed, the owner seems almost adverse to new customers. You must be referred by an established customer. Carhart works hard at it, finally gets in, befriends the owner, and his adventures in piano buying begin. It sounds like a mystery tale and almost is, but when the music starts, and the wine begins flowing, Paris takes on a new look and feel. I read this one twice. (2/20/13)

PIANO: THE MAKING OF A STEINWAY by James Barron is another fine work. Barron did an amazing job, tracing the building of a nine-foot Steinway D from the spruce forests of Alaska to the concert stage. The begetting of the sound board wood, the heart and soul of a piano, was for me the most emotional aspect of the book. You cannot make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, and you need old-growth spruce to make a great soundboard. Ouch. A good reason (or excuse) to always buy a used piano...The book spends time in the factory at Queens, of course, and will teach a reader enormous amounts about the innards of the instrument. An outstanding book. (2/20/13)

Perri Knize, an investigative reporter and somewhat impecunious, lives in Montana and falls in love with an expensive Grotrian Steinweg piano in NYC. She goes through so much trouble and grief finding this unique instrument, shipping it home, and trying to get it to work right in her home that one feel like one is reading the diary of Sisyphus. Utilizing her pals from a piano website on the 'Net, Knize has one adventure after another, culminating in a series of recitals touring piano dealers in NYC. A very personal, touching story.

Yes, Knize sounds like a major head case, but so what? Her nuttiness makes for great story. GRAND OBSESSION: A PIANO ODYSSEY (2/20/13).

Blair Tindall latched onto the oboe at an early age, went to a music-centered high school for the arts, attended the Manhattan School of Music for college, and spent much of her early life as a free-lance musician in NYC. MOZART IN THE JUNGLE: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music is her unsparing chronicle of her life in the music world, with its nepotism, uncertain money, and sexism. Did I mention oboe reeds are incredibly difficult to make, and an audition fails or makes it based, all too often, not on musicianship but on the state of your current reed? Tindall went on to get a journalism degree from Stanford (she has a knack for picking difficult professions), and has gone on to write for the NY Times and to receive notoriety in the press over a romance with Bill Nye, the Science Guy (of all people). Her writing is lively, informative, and fascinating.

 

Craft/Non-fiction

Two more screenwriting craft books: THE SCREENWRITER'S BIBLE, by Dave Trottier, and SCREENPLAY: THE FOUNDATIONS OF SCREENWRITING, by Syd Field. I can't say enough good things about either book. Considered classics in the industry, they cover it all. The former, in particular, hits specifics of formating that are invaluable. The latter gives you a great feel for the genre with concrete examples. So, should you be tempted to join the limitless ranks of spec-writing screenwriters, I recommend both.

Found a screenwriting craft book I must recommend: SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. Snyder, an established Hollywood screenwriter, knows of what he writes: jargon, structure, taglines, pitfalls to avoid. All this comes through in this fine work laced with literary pearls of use to fiction writers and storytellers in general. If you're inclined to write a screenplay, or even if you just write novels and SS's, this is the book for you. Read it first, not after you've wasted oodles of time. (October 3, 2012)

 

Plays

Just read a fine play by Barry Gifford in the winter 2011 issue of Zyzzyva--a literary magazine for West Coast writers. SPRING TRAINING AT THE FINCA VIGIA is a re-creation of life at Hemingway's famous house in Havana. Gifford has a riot bringing tough ol' Papa back to life. His theatric piece is complete with boxing matches between Hem and a pair of Brooklyn Dodger pitchers getting ready for the season (mostly by late-night drinking bouts with Ernesto), acidic comments from Martha Gellhorn-Hemingway, Papa's current wife at the time (1941), and shotgun blasts at real and perceived invaders into the villa. Oh, it's a delightful spoof, great stuff, and I loved every second spent reading it. For both Hemingway aficionados and Hemingway detractors. A load of buck-shot-filled fun. (January 4, 2012)

Poetry

Got my mitts on a great collection by Tomas Transtromer, Nobel Laureate in literature for 2011. THE GREAT ENIGMA, a collection of nearly all the Swede's works (he worked as a psychologist to support his poetry habit) has soared to the top 20 of Amazon's best-selling books. So...the poetry. The judges mentioned his work contains "condensed, lucent images." What impressed me was his ability to put together strong images of things that don't seem like they ought to be associated...until he does it, and the juxtapositions work perfectly. In other words, the guy does what poets are supposed to do, and does it better. The translation, by the way, by Robin Fulton, is amazing. And do look at the haikus. To me, this is poetry at its best. Pared down to a nubbin but packed with meaning. Here's a tease:

"Death leans forward and

writes on the ocean surface.

While the church breathes gold."

Tomas Transtromer, THE GREAT ENIGMA

(12/28/11)

 

Non-Fiction

I've been researching all things Northern Californian. I lived up there for a couple of years, and have spent some time in the redwoods, but I felt the need to study some aspects of the place that eluded me during my sojourn there (see review of Kevin Stewart's book, below). David Paulides' THE HOOPA PROJECT: Bigfoot Encounters in California was a fascinating read.

OK, OK, I'm a bit of a skeptic when it comes to Sasquatch, Bigfoot, or the Yeti. The anthropologist Jane Goodall doesn't write off rumors of this being, having voiced her open-mindedness about their existence on NPR. Anyhow, Pulides book is fascinating. He spends a lot of time near the Hoopa Reservation in Humboldt County interviewing Native Americans, and they come across as sane, intelligent, earthy people. Many of them have had experiences with Bigfoot, and can be coaxed into relating them.

Of course, the scientist in me can only wonder, where is a body? Do the things live forever? I'm not advocating Bigfoot hunting, but couldn't someone just once find one that died of old age? Maybe they bury their dead, or maybe they have a secret Bigfoot burial ground somewhere, deep in some inpenetrable Yeti-like natural fortress. They live in rough country, for sure. I dunno. But THE HOOPA PROJECT was a fun book to read, and I liked it. (12/19/11)

Richard Preston's THE WILD TREES is another book I highly recommend. Preston, a staffer for The New Yorker, is a great nature writer who makes his characters and their environment come alive. His previous book, THE HOT ZONE, about the Ebola virus, is another goodie. Anyhow, Preston gets into the lives and minds of redwood climber/scientists, most especially Stephen Sillet, a professor at Humboldt State and perhaps the foremost expert on the ecosystem of the coastal redwood. But Preston goes beyond that, mastering the art of tree-climbing himself. This guy not only writes, he climbs. Give this book five-stars. It rocks. (11/18/11)

Lucy Thompson's TO THE AMERICAN INDIAN: REMINISCENCES OF A YUROK WOMAN gives one the story of a tribe of Native Americans who struggled to keep their heritage alive amidst the grinding forces of modernization and industry. There are many lessons we can take from Ms. Thompson's book, and many images of a life lived close to nature.

The treatment of North American locals by invading Europeans is not the most salutary chapter in American history. I personally feel it is the duty of Americans living now, even though we are generations removed from our forefathers and their less than noble deeds, to honor living Native Americans and pay homage to the sacrifices their ancestors suffered. A lot of white Americans would rather forget about the whole nasty chapter of the Indian Wars in the 1800's, just as they'd like to forget slavery, or a lot of other unpleasant historical events. But modern Yurok, Hoopa, and others deserve our respect as true locals of the land. Reading this book is a good way to get to know what sensitive, wonderful people the northern Californian natives were, and are. (11/12/11)

THE LEGACY OF LUNA isJulia Butterfly Hill's testimony of her two years spent living in the redwood tree named Luna, her non-violent protest against clear-cutting and the loss of the coastal redwood forest. Julia is a character, with interesting parents and a vagabound childhood, and her strength and ability to stand up for her beliefs are inspirational. Not only that, but she writes clearly and with poetic panache. A great read. (11/12/11)

Fiction

In researching my novel, HUMBOLDT (see GV's current fiction) I ordered what appeared to be an interesting book by Kevin Stewart. TALES OF THE EMERALD TRIANGLE: Memoirs of a Marijuana Grower. Not only did it provide reams of info on the art and science of pot farming, but this fascinating read underscored the bizarre futility of the War on Drugs. Mr. Stewart, who at the time of publication was serving a sentence for marijuana cultivation, comes across in this semi-autobiographical first novel as a warm human being, admittedly with a prediliction for cannabis, but a person with humanitarian values. One wild story after another fumes forth in what is, admittedly, a bit of a dis-jointed work (pun intended). Still, a riveting read. One cannot help but wonder: how much of this really happened, and how much is fiction? My intuition: Kilos of fact, spiced here and there with a few hooka bowls of fiction. Highly recommended. (11/12/11)

I finally laid hands on Thomas Pynchon's latest, INHERENT VICE. This is a special book, one of a very few I had to re-read, just to savor the rip-snorting language. The hero, Doc Sportello, is a likeable hippie scum-private eye-pot head. He wanders around LA in the late sixties, from one stone to the next, from one delectible female to the next, from one corpse to the next. Like all good literary PI's, he gets clocked cold on a number of occasions. But the main thing is the dialogue, and Pynchon's masterful recreation of late-sixties psychedelic LA, with its post-Charles Manson paranoia, the Vietnam war burgling around the edges, not to mention Nixon, waterbeds, roaches, corrupt cops, etc. Great read, a few surfing anachronisms--sorry, Tommy, but nobody knew squat about Mavericks or Todos Santos in the sixties. A minor quibble. Pynchon is a famous recluse, but if he was a surfer, we'd see him in the line-up once in a while. Even Mickey Dora has surfaced here and there. Got to say I loved this book, it's right up there with VINELAND for my favorite Pynchon. (July, 2011).

Here's a title you may not have heard of, and ought to check out: THE END OF BASEBALL. Written by Peter Schilling, Jr., a fellow Minnesotan and a baseball nut, this is not the average baseball novel. It's a what-if story. What if Bill Veeck succeeded in breaking the baseball color barrier during 1944? Schilling makes this fantasy come alive, packs it full of baseball characters and trivia, and has you transported back to WWII, Jim Crow, and days of soda, pretzels, and beer. Great novel.

Once again autumn is here, and with it, the Nobel Prize in literature. The awardee this year: Mario Vargas Llosa. As usual, to test my Svenska cousins' judgment, I ordered a few books by the winner, whose work, I must confess, I had yet to sample. Wow. The guy rocks. AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER, my first taste of Vargas Llosa, blew me away with its depiction of life in Lima, a city I have spent a brief time in, a city replete with colorful characters, writers, radio personalities, lustful women, and wild times. Best of all, for the first year in a long time our Swedish judges have picked an author with a Sense of Humor. The guy writes in a light style, letting his characters careen from one catastrophe to another, yet making you chortle as you follow them. He's artful, too, concocting a novel with a set of interspersed short stories, the "scripts" the title's scriptwriter, Pedro Camacho, writes as serials for a radio soap opera. In the best of novelic tradition, though, as his mind slowly disintegrates, Camacho's stories, connected to one another ever more loosely, betray his failing memory and evolve with his character, or rather, devolve.

Between these wondrous stories runs a time-line-traditional tale, an account by a first person narrator, a charming18-year-old wannabe writer, who falls hook, line, and lure for his thirty-year old, newly divorced, "Aunt" Julia, a woman who tries her best not to give in to her charming "nephew" but, well, fails...

Vargas Llosa has created a masterpiece here. I loved every minute spent reading this translation by Helen Lane. Can't wait to try another...Nice job, Stockholm sages...You nailed this one. (November 2010)

I went on to read THE BAD GIRL, another novel by Vargas Llosa, this one translated from the Spanish by the incomparable Edith Grossman. This story of obsession, of a fool trapped by unrequited love for his entire life, sweeps from continent to continent and from decade to decade. Our bland narrator, a sympathetic sort of fellow, an interpreter who is generous to a fault, cannot shake his childhood-born love for the hopelessly rotten Bad Girl, an anti-heroine not as bad as John Steinbeck's Cathy (who burned her parents to death as a child in EAST OF EDEN), but pretty darn close. The emotions this book engenders are subtle and close to indescribable, for the relationship has many golden and stormy moments that twist and resonate in a reader's soul. Again--kudos to the Swedes for picking a real winner here. I'm not done reading Vargas Llosa, and if you've never dipped into his work, I can only say, begin now. (December 2010)

 

Who is a good buddy? How about someone you knew since the first grade, someone you went to high school with, someone you went skiing in the Rockies with, someone you keep in touch with after forty years? A definite good buddy of mine, Chris, sent me MATTERHORN with the inscription: Hi Glenn, 40 years ago you, Grant (my brother), Mark (his brother) and I were nervously looking in the paper for our Draft numbers. This book is good and reminds that we were so damn fortunate to have not gone.... So, on the occasion of my birthday, I read the thing, half the 566 pages one day, half the next. Needless to say, the book, by Karl Marlantes, reads fast and well. It enjoyed a long ride on the NY Times Bestseller list. Marlantes, a decorated Marine vet (Navy Cross!) who was in the thick of it, worked on the thing for 30 years before Tom Farber and the gang at El Leon published a small run noticed by Atlantic Monthly Press.

It is a consummate war story, full of the craziness and inane sacrifices of war. More particularly, it captures the essence of Vietnam, the racism, the fragging, the jungle, complete with tigers, leeches, and elephants, the obtuse officers obsessed with moronic body counts, and brave Marines doing their best to survive. Oh, it's a glorious read, full of ambiguity--you want to cheer at the bravery of Bravo Company, you want to murder the ambitious Colonel Simpson, who knows nothing of the bush and tortures his men with insane demands, you want to puke at the gore that erupts with sudden savagery from the forest.

I can't help but think there is a sort of perverse attraction to war stores...many novels and movies about Vietnam, this one included, show the utter stupidity of the the war, and then glorify the heroism of its soldiers. There's something wrong here, and I can't quite pin it down. Perhaps it's similar to the sort of wrongness that comes from looking at a pornographic picture of a sexy, unclad female. It's porno, she's exploited, yet you have to look. It's war, and it's folly, people die by the thousands, yet you have to look. Does anything good come from either? Do war novels help prevent wars, especially novels written by Marine lieutenants who went and fought "for their country?" I'm not sure. Yet I read the thing, glued myself to it, in fact, until I finished.

My buddy, Chris, nailed it. We were so damn fortunate not to have gone. All four of us prepared ourselves, one way or another, to figure a way to get out. And get out we did. We knew the U.S. was taking sides in a civil war. We did not buy the domino theory (history has proved us correct). We did not want to go kill "gooks" and pad General Westmoreland's body counts. We thought then the war was a disaster, and nothing I have read since, including MATTERHORN, has changed that. Yeah, those Marines were awesome fighters, loved each other, and went through a hell we can only imagine. But if they'd been smart, and brave enough to buck the system, they would have stayed home, and damn the consequences. World War II--that one was worth fighting. The Civil War--it defeated slavery and kept the country whole. But not many other of our country's frequent wars meet the grade. Most fail miserably, Iraq especially. Wars may be good for the bottom line of the military industrial complex, but little else.

I remain forever grateful you can still have good buddies without going through battles with them to prove it (10/24/2010).

Jonathan Lethem's MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. Now here's a novel you'd better read. In this classic "voicy" novel, Lethem climbs inside the head of a Tourette's-inflicted Brooklynite, and man, the result is spectacular. A detective story/psychological roman noir, his character is lovable and bizarre. If you've known anyone with the syndrome, and I do, you will see that Lethem gets it perfectly, just as he gets Brooklyn perfect. KnowhadImean?

I know, I know, I read too much Haruki Murakami. My only excuse: I was on vacation. When I'm traveling, especially when I'm surfing in Hawaii, I want everything to be "La vie en rose." So I often read sure-fire favorites. This spring break I read a collection of stories, THE ELEPHANT VANISHES, by HK. His shorts are, in microcosm, every bit as good as his novels. As a writer for the Village Voice puts it, Murakami's writing is "a wonderful combination of the bizarre and the mundane." I still don't know why I like him so much. His characters are intentionally boring, middle of the road types, average in every way, and fully aware of their shortcomings. Then--crazy things happen. I guess this is the Garrison Keillor principle of writing: take a small, still perfect pond, untouched by the wind, glassy, its waters smooth--and throw a stone into it. (4/12/2010)

As another confection for my vacation, I devoured a second book (there's a review of others below by the same author) written by Alexander McCall Smith. TEA TIME FOR THE TRADITIONALLY BUILT, number eight or nine (it doesn't matter) in a series of books about the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency in Gabarone, Botswana, takes on professional soccer, a devious, scheming woman, and the sedate but riotous life of Precious Ramotswe, the "traditionally built" heroine, a heroine whom one can only love for her humanity, wisdom, and ability to solve perplexing human issues. Maybe this fiction doesn't have the gravitas of a Nobel laureate's dark weavings, like the work of Herta Muller (also below)--but there is a sense of joy and faith in people here that I find infinitely pleasing. And just as valuable. Also, let's face it, this book is a great piece of Africana. Positive Africana: a rare thing. (4/12/10)

THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, a fine novel by Tim O'Brien (another Irishman, I've got an Emerald Isle thing going here), came out in 1990 and damn near won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. It blends short stories, fiction, and memoir into a soulful reflection on Vietnam. Not all the stories are set there, but it's a meditation on war and what war does to people. I especially loved the segment on the young man who is drafted, who almost makes it to Canada, (trekking through parts of Minnesota I know well), and then cowardly reports back to his draft board. He doesn't believe in the war, knows it's evil, but doesn't quite have the gumption to face family and firiends and tell them that. This all brought back a lot of 1969-1970 memories. O'Brien is truly a master. Guess I should have figured it out and read him 20 years ago--but better late than never. Let's hear it for back-lists. My suspicion is that this novel will be around for decades, if not centuries. (3/7/10)

I'd read about Colum McCann's LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, a book loosely woven around Philippe Petit's 1974 cable-walk between the top of NYC's World Trade Center towers. The novel garnered numerous reviews in all the best places and went on to win the National Book Award in 2009. I resisted buying it (all the books reviewed herin I puchase with my own hard-earned cash--to support authors, book stores, and publishing) for some strange reason. But, while I was browsing through Warwick's the other day, Seth, the store's fiction specialist, encouraged me to give it a go. All I can say is, the NBA people got this one right. The novel crackles with energy. Each narrator adds a fresh layer to a buzzing portrait of New York and beyond.

More than energy, though, the thing has heart. The two chapters voiced by black women, one a prostitute, another a salt-of-the-earth foster mother, rock with emotion, every bit of it earned, searing and unsentimental. I can't say there was a chapter or character that didn't absolutely convince me: the ex-graffitti artist who rides the subway taking photos of tags in the bowels of the city, the painter whose husband leaves the scene of a fatal hit-and-run, the wonderful Corrigan, an Irish monk who endures frequent beating by pimps to let half of NYC hookerdom use his bathroom...and these are just a few. McCann masterfully portrays the psyche of Petit himself, too, balancing himself "in the zone," a man to whom art is everything.

You would have to have a soul made of stone not to love this book. Despite the dark topics, the work leaves one in a state of euphoria. Colum McCann's LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN: a masterpiece. (1/28/10)

 

I decided, after reading Leary's book (below) and looking at my reviews, that I read too many male authors. So I picked up a copy of a woman whose work I love, Alice Munro. Strangely, because I am a faithful New Yorker reader, I found I've already read each and every last damn story in TOO MUCH HAPPINESS, her latest collection. This proved not to be a bad thing, as re-reading fine works helps you understand subtle nuances in the writing you missed before, not to mention craft details. The reason I like Munro is that her stories contain twists that seem, well--and this is hard to write without sounding chauvinistic--macho with a feminist leavening, similar to that side of Flannery O'Connor that helped her create the Misfit. Take the first story, "Dimensions." It's the tale of a young woman visiting her husband, who is locked up forever--for murdering their three children. Yikes. This is heavy stuff. Yet Munro develops a lightness of being in her lead character that pervades this dark subject, enabling her to explore it without turning the reader away.

In another odd story, "Wenlock Edge," a college girl gets invited to dinner with her roommate's older, rich male friend--who insists she take off her clothes before dinner and remain naked for the duration of the evening. Munro makes this peculiar idea (if I were more Ivy league I'd say "conceit") seem rational in its dirty-old-man way. Of course, the author is too smart not to know the story turns on the girl's disgust with herself at putting up with the request.

The very best writers figure out a way to jump the male-female divide and cover the territory on both sides. Munro certainly is one of them. Thank you, Canada, for giving us yet another fine writer. (1/24/10)

Non-Fiction

I'm going to sneak in a NF book here. WHY WE SUCK by Dr. Denis Leary caught my attention at the bookstore (all right, full disclosure: a friend in NY helped publish the thing). Anyhow, I bought it and read it. Leary is a nut-case, but I agree with his rough-and-tumble view of the world. Brought up an Irish Catholic in Massachusetts, he had a tough mom and dad, and attributes most of the ills of American society to, well, everyone being such wimps. The book should be titled, WHY WE ARE WIMPS. There are some truly hilarious moments that make the price well worth it. The childhood recipes Leary offers up from his mother's cookbook made me choke with laughter (most of her recipes include boiling and 746 potatoes).

I agree with the guy on most of his rants, especially his recovering from being raised a Catholic, his promotion of public schools (yeah, public schools, I love 'em), and the inherent differences between Men and Women. Face it, you're kidding yourself if you don't recognize there are vast difference between the sexes. Sure, there are those exceptions from both that blur things, but most men correspond to Leary's brain map (with its large sex lobe, etc.) and most women fit to his female brain map. A better map appeared in, I thing, a New Yorker cartoon (the man's brain had the all-important but difficult to find "Neatness Particle," and the woman's brain was subsumed by the humongous "Frontal Shopping Lobe," an enormous structure, but...never mind). It's a fun book.

Note to Denis, from one doc to another: The autism stuff missed the mark for me. I understand many people think their kid ought to be above-average, like the Lake Wobegon children of Garrison Keillor, but we physicians don't throw the term autism around lightly. I personally know two autistic kids, and, Denis, trust me, this is no faux diagnosis. The real deal is a tragedy. There's something about the complete lack of eye contact, the inability to talk, that tells you that the software in the brain is not functioning properly. I get what you're saying, bro, but you ought to re-think your presentation. (1/24/10)

 

Fiction

JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANASI, a novel by Geoff Dyer, affirms my belief that the Brits, from Chaucer on, brew some of the finest literary quaffage in the world. Ian McEwan, David Mitchell, Martin Amis, the modern list goes on. The New York Times picked this one as one of the best 100 novels of 2009. Hell, I read enough about it to finally order the damn thing. It's a strange novel, to be sure. A pair of novellas, really, or short novels (as the new hip term would have it), novels that may or may not feature the same protagonist (a free-lance journalist), novels that both use setting as a prominent feature--something I'm a big fan of--novels that mirror each other in odd ways. The first tells the story of a cynic falling in love, through a riotous art festival in Venice, replete with tons of kinky sex, cocaine, and marijuana. Did I forget the constant swilling of bellinis? I'll confess, and perhaps I'm showing my age, that I found much of this rather hard slogging. I've read my share of stoner novels, and I can't say I still love 'em. Still, Dyer threads the vaporetto through the canal, coming up with some sage observations (I'm paraphrasing here): 1)Whenever you smoke dope, there always comes a time when you want not to be stoned but when you're stoned anyway; and 2) As a cocaine high dwindles, one finds oneself wanting more, even though the whole thing wasn't that wonderful anyway. In spite of the arch voice, the clever writing, and the more-or-less interesting characters, if the first novella had been it, I might have chucked the book across the room. As it was, it took me three or four sessions to get through it.

But--and it's a big but--DEATH IN VARANASI scores heavily. Dyer paints the color, madness, and bizarre poverty of India with carefree precision, and the gradual dissolution of his protagonist feels inevitable. The slow giving-up of self, the wasting away to disease, the joy in swimming in the corpse-ridden Ganges--somehow these all feel real, right, and perfectly rendered. I read this one at a single sitting and loved every word of it.

I'm not sure if it's worth reading the first half of Dyer's latest, but the second half made the purchase price well worth it. Perhaps the decadence in the beginning makes the India section resonate, somehow. Perhaps the over-hip, urban cynical tone in the beginning makes the sour enlightenment of the finale make sense. I don't know. Maybe Dyer's ahead of me on this. Read it and let me know.

Herta Müller's THE LAND OF THE GREEN PLUMS reads well for a dark view of a dark place in a dark time. Imagine that you live under Ceausescu's iron fist in Romania. Imagine that your father served Hitler in the SS during the war, that you are not even a Romanian, rather, a German outcast. You've left the country to study Russian in the big city, hoping to get a job as a translator. Classmates commit suicide in mysterious circumstances. The secret police follow you and your friends, they search your belongings regularly, and finally, they haul you in, strip you, and question you.

This is Müller's world, at least the one presented in Green Plums. Yet the prose is artful, the sentences short, undemanding, the images profound. The author, the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, uses repetition to devastating effect: everything brought to the story is significant and grows in importance, whether it is the eating of unripe green plums, the gold chains smuggled in a woman's 'snail,' or a pillow stuffed with straw. It's a grimy, gray world she paints for us, but somehow one finds oneself drawn to it through the poetry of the language, and through the Pyrrhic victories and minor pleasures that gave meaning to a Spartan life behind the Iron Curtain.

I can't say this sort of stuff is my regular cup of herbal tea--yet, one has to give the Nobel Committee credit. Bringing this artful and obscure writer to the world's attention is good thing, an important thing. Those Swedes have a knack for this kind of discovery: Coetzee, Le Clezio, Pamuk, and now, Müller, all have a certain gravitas, an ability to expand the reader's view of the world. They help us appreciate here-to-fore hidden intricacies of the dark world we live in.

Still, I'm left with the thought that any trace of humor must be devoid from a writer's opus these days to get named into this pantheon of greatness. Take most of the American writers with prizes--Morrison, Hemingway, Faulkner--much as we love their work, we rarely find much, if any, humor in it. Saul Bellow makes for a glaring exception, with his wild characters and rowdy Chicagoan scenes.

I know, I know, there's only one prize a year, and so many talented writers. But I can't help thinking that artists like Vonnegut and Calvino (see below), who use humor to scintillating effect, ought to have won prizes. Or as Bob Dylan wrote: "There are many here among us, who feel that life is but a joke."

Oh well. It's dark up there in Svenska-land, the days wane, the nights wax, and the lutefisk and lefsa grow stale. Uff da! One must drink plenty of aquavit to get through the winter, and one must take a fancy to dark, sombre authors. (01/02/2010)

 

Intrigued for some time by an ad from a university encouraging entrants to submit works "written in the style of Italo Calvino," I read my first work by the now-deceased Italian with gusto. A short story published in a February, 2009 New Yorker (thank you, Deborah Treisman), "Daughters of the Moon" tells the fanciful tale of a host of women drawn to witness the death, burying, and rebirth of the moon. Yes, that thing that orbits the earth, in all its cheesy, man-in-the-moon glory. Along the way come a bizarre parade of naked Dianas riding on the trunks of cars, drawn by lunar impulse through New York City, gigantic cranes, a Consumer's Thanksgiving, and a narrator who undergoes a metamorphic change into a woolly mammoth. Somehow Calvino's writing, even translated from the Italian, makes the story weightless and airy, believable even, and certainly a pleasure.

Having digested this delightful tidbit for some months, I bought a copy of IF ON A WINTER'S NIGHT A TRAVELER, expecting more of the same. While not so astronomically far-fetched, this work carried the same light-hearted ability to take a reader to a host of improbable places. A classic (is this possible?) work of post-modern meta-fiction, the book's narrator is a Reader, who falls in love with a woman, the Other Reader. Along the way both track down a series of novel beginnings, all wildly different, all fascinating, and all cut short at their respective climaxes. The only constant is Calvino's prose, or, rather, William Weaver's translation of Calvino's prose.

To show you how good the man is ( or was), listen to this excerpt of a passage, ostensibly the sexual union between the narrator and the Other Reader, Ludmilla:

"...Ludmilla, now you are being read. Your body is being subjected to a systematic reading, through channels of tactile information, visual, olfactory, and not without some intervention of the taste buds. Hearing also has its role, alert to your gasps and your trills. It is not only the body that is, in you, the object of reading: the body matters insofar as it is part of a complex of elaborate elements, not all visible and not all present, but manifested in visible and present events: the clouding of your eyes, your laughing, the words you speak, your way of gathering and spreading your hair, your initiatives and your reticences, and all the signs that are on the frontier between you and usage and habits and memory and prehistory and fashion, all codes, all the poor alphabets by which one human being believes at certain moments that he is reading another human being..."

The passage continues in similar rich vein. It's perhaps the weirdest, and finest, love scene I've run across.

It's the opposite of the sort of thing that wins the "Worst Sex in Literary Fiction," that award Britain's Literary Review gave this November to Jonathan Littell, for passages like the following one from THE KINDLY ONES: "I came suddenly, a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg." This fascinating prize, established by Auberon Waugh in 1993, has as its goal "to draw attention to crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it." (see www.literaryreview.co.uk/badsex.html) The award, given to a literary fiction author in good humor, consists of a giant plaster foot.

I would submit there ought to be a "Good Sex in Fiction" contest. Calvino would win it (1/1/10).

 

I read novels for two reasons, for pleasure and to study masters. I am not under the gun to read the latest top ten New York Times listed novels, nor the selections for the National Book Awards, nor the latest Nobel laureate's work (although I do try to keep an eye on such things). When I find a novelist that blows me away (e.g., Haruki Murakami, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace), I try to get my paws on everything they've done. I must add David Mitchell to my list of superb writers. I just finished his NUMBER9DREAM, a story set in Tokyo (where he lived for eight years) with a very Murakami-like narrator, a bumbling yet clever 20yo, who gets involved unwillingly with the yakuza through his desperate search for a father he's never met. The plot, although a good one, is overshadowed by the incendiary prose and the unforgettable characters. There are asides into WWII, into strange fairy-tale dreams, and there are gut-wrenching Japanese mafia scenes. In the end, though, the book is really about love and family. Reading it will tell you why Mitchell has been a finalist for the Man Booker prize twice, and why Time Magazine named him one the 100 men and women of 2007 who are "transforming the world."

Mitchell's writing has the one thing all writers should prize: heart. Loads of heart. Shipping containers-full of heart. (November 27, 2009)

It took me a while, but I finally re-read Charles Dickens's GREAT EXPECTATIONS. My interest in the author surged after reading Richard Flanagan's book (see below), and I decided to dip in. It hardly does the work justice to snap off a few brief sentences and be done--doesn't do any work justice--but some impressions are hard to shake. The opening, Pip's encounter with the convict, Magwitch, grips you by the throat.

"'You get me a file.' He tilted me again. 'And you get me wittles.' He tilted me again. 'You bring 'em both to me.' He tilted me again. 'Or I'll have your heart and your liver out.' He tilted me again."

Such passages, with their hypnotic repetition, their revelation of character, and their building power, reveal Dickens to be, as John Irving calls him, the King of the Novel. Such passages are frequent.

The plot, a classic bildungsroman, has some coincidences that stretched this reader's credulity, But by the time they are revealed, one is so invested in Pip, and Joe, and Herbert, and Jagger, and Magwitch, and Miss Havisham, and Estrella, one has suspended all disbelief and accepts them. At times (in the middle section) the prose drags, but to skim the work is a mistake--it's too easy to miss a literary pearl. The revelation of Pip's true benefactor at the end of part II is a complete surprise and makes the final third of the book hum.

Finally, there is that cursed double ending. A close friend of CD's, novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (who coined the phrases "the almighty dollar," "it was a dark and stormy night," and "the pen is mightier than the sword,") upon reading the author's original ending, which feels angst-ridden, modern, and appropriate, urged him to add a bit of hope to the possibility that Pip and his ice-queen object of desire, Estrella, might get together in the future. Dickens complied, and the published conclusion, while still ambivalent, shines a ray of hope upon the relationship. Scholars and pedants have had a ball over the years arguing as to which ending better serves the book.

My own thought: As an author, pick a course, stick with it, and ignore gratuitous advice. Or, if you accept help, destroy all previous versions. (November 26, 2009)

Two years ago or so, maybe three, I read--and marveled at--David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS. A tour-de-force of style, a Russian doll collection of a half-dozen novellas, the novel blew me away. I've since dug up his first novel, GHOSTWRITEN. Like CLOUD ATLAS, it's a series of interwoven stories. Unlike that work, he sets his interlocking puzzle pieces in the present, wandering across the world rather than through time. Mitchell is much more than a stylist though. He writes with heart. He makes you believe in his characters, suffer with his characters, live and love through his characters. I am, frankly, in awe of his talent. If you haven't read his stuff, get on it. He's a master, worthy of all the accolades he's received over the years. My suspicion is that he will only improve over time, if that is possible. (10/15/09)

A friend recommended I read Richard Flanagan's WANTING, since I've been writing a bit of historical fiction myself. The book follows two disparate yet intersecting stories: the tale of an Arctic explorer's brief governorship of a Tasmanian penal colony--and the dire experience of the Palawah, indigenous people who died in great numbers under the iron-fisted British rule--as well as the story of Charles Dickens' stint as a actor in his own play in London, and his falling for a sexy young actress. Flanagan takes these disparate threads and weaves a tapestry of desire. His writing is evocative yet feels perfect to the period. Somehow he makes it all work. A bit labored at times, but worth the work.

Daniel Mason is a young medical student at UCSF. Prior to his graduate work, he spent a year in Burma doing some sort of biological research. He also threw his hand into writing a novel, and cranked out THE PIANO TUNER. The work, recommended to me by a friend into books that use music as a theme (I'm a pianist and guitarist myself), tells the story of an1880's piano tuner who is asked by the British government to tune the piano of a Kurtz-like jungle demigod in the Burmese jungle. It's a good read, memorable, a tale of an exotic foreign clime seducing a naive Englishmen. Music plays a critical role in the book, and Mason does a bang-up job mixing exotic locale with sound. Luminous. A bit on the purple side. Still...the guy can write. Watch out.

Alexander McCall Smith has written a series of seven books based on a private detective working out of Gabarone, Botswana. Mr. Smith is an elderly, somewhat pudgy, and very white Scotsman. His heroine, Mma. Precious Ramotswe, is in her thirties (perhaps), somewhat pudgy, and very black. None of this matters, for Mms. Ramotswe merrily winds her way through one twisting case after another with aplomb, tenacity, and a distinctly African point-of-view. After the first paragraph or so, you find yourself at home with Smith's simple yet generous tellings, lost in a strange world of snakes, the odd water buffalo, Kalahari bushmen and Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors--yet finding it not very strange at all. Smith lets the most touching of emotions leak through in the most sensitive ways. The result is that each book in the series slides down like a large scoop of fresh ice cream from the Gabarone President Hotel, which is to say, sweetly and quickly. I've read two so far, the eponymous NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY, and THE TEARS OF THE GIRAFFE. I fully intend to read the rest of the series, saving the books for those times when I'm ill or out-of-sorts or in need for a boost.

Unfortunately, the novels run rather short and can be finished in a few hours apiece. Darn. Time to get off my rear and go support my neighborhood book store. (9/26/09)

Ron Carlson's latest offering, the novel, SIGNAL, carries on at the same high level as FIVE SKIES (reviewed below, somewhere). Yes, there are flavorings of Jim Harrison and Earnest Hemingway. Yes, the plot felt a bit abstruse at times (there's this whole find-the-MacGuffin-in-the-mountains-with-a-Blackberry thread that I didn't quite follow). But who cares? Carlson's writing about the Wind River range, the wildest and bestest mountain range in the continental U.S., the range where I spent six weeks at the age of seventeen, the range where I damn near died in a fall off Temple Peak (12,792 feet). Nobody writes much about the Winds, but Carlson weaves a lovely tale of a newly-divorced local rancher and his camping trip with his ex. Carlson uses muscular prose that makes the world come alive, and he does justice to place like no one else, setting being a huge part of this work. A fine novel, highly recommended.

After having read about the infamous hero of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley series for years, I finally picked up a copy of THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. This book, and the next four with the same anti-hero, are not for the easily influenced or highly impressionable. Highsmith wrote these stories in the fifties, but they feel germane today. Ripley starts out as a likeable sort of everyman character. As life throws him a few curve balls, he rather blithely decides to murder someone, for reasons that almost seem logical to the reader. Before you know it, he's off on a macabre trail of complex evasions, dealing with family, detectives, police--and the whole time everything, for the reader, is backwards. You find yourself cheering for him, nervous he'll get caught. The whole thing is so wrong, it's delicious. Worth all the kudoes over the years. Tom Ripley is one of the sickest, most fascinating characters to spring, like Athena, from the Zeus-like skull of an author.

Read Highsmith at your risk.

We all remember Franz Kafka from high school, reading "Metamorphosis." An indelible, searing image, that awakening upside down, your chitinous carapace stuck to the bed, your six legs wiggling ineffectively, your body segmented into three parts. The perfect metaphor for adolescence. When a friend turned me on to a beautifully produced collection of Kafka short stories (METAMORPHOSIS AND OTHER STORIES, Penguin Classics), I had no choice but to re-read the masterpiece. Stuck in the midst of a collection of Kafka stories, the classic shines bright in comparison.

Don't get me wrong. There are other joys in this book, and the writing has a balanced feel that reminds me of modern writers like Murakami. Kafka doesn't play a false note, nor does he go for the cheap thrill. "The Stoker" caught my attention, in particular, along with "In the Penal Colony." An odd duck, the man worked as an insurance official for most of his life, writing on the side and not, it seems, particularly caring if anything got into print. This excellent book covers his entire published oeuvre. Such fine works as THE CASTLE and THE TRIAL were pulled from his effects posthumously (he died at 91 of TB) and published, against his will, by his executor friend, Max Brod.

Still, this one short story (a novella in length, really) must be considered his masterpiece. Surreal and touching, it rolls along in an unsentimental fashion, letting the strangeness of the change in both Gregor Samsa and his blossoming young sister--who undergoes a metamorphosis as beautiful as Gregor's is hideous--seep into the reader's consciousness. It's well worth a second look as an adult, or a first read if you played hooky and missed it in the old days.

Don't miss Kurt Vonnegut's ARGAGEDDON IN RETROSPECT, a collection of "new and unpublished writings on War and Peace" with a foreward from his pediatrician son, Mark. Vonnegut, as we remember from SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, had the unusual experience of witnessing Curtis LeMay's carpet bombing program from the ground as a prisoner-of-war in Dresden. Perhaps it was watching the destruction of several hundred thousand women, old men, and children in a city with little geo-political strategic value. Perhaps it was working on the burial crews handling the corpses for weeks on end afterward. Whatever. Don't expect laughs and giggles, but do expect surprise insights and that Vonnegut manner of making you, somehow, both laugh at and despise that madness humanity calls "war."

"The Commandant's Desk" is a real pearl here, as well as Mark Vonnegut's foreward. If you love semicolons, a word of warning: Vonnegut hated 'em. And the letter he writes his parents from the Red Cross Club in Le Harve, after his release from the German P.O.W. camp, is, by itself, more than worth the price of admission. Vonnegut, in spite of his heavy smoking, lived to the ripe old age of 85 before giving it up in 2007. On hell of a guy, and one of my heroes. I may use semicolons, and I may not smoke, but I love him just the same.

I picked up a pair of surfing novels, thought I'd sample some of the latest beach fare out there. Tim Winton's BREATH hit me like a knock-down ten foot lip. I read it through from cover to cover (it's a brief novel, only 218 pp) drinking in all the while a heady brew of Western Australian juice. Winton can write, and he's a bona fide surfer. He keeps the story simple, boiling it down to four characters. We follow the first-person narrator through his teen years in this bildingsroman as he becomes addicted to surfing. He and his crazed bud Loonie fall under the spell of surf guru Sando, who takes the two groms out on ever more adventurous surf surfaris. When Sando hauls Loonie away to surf Indo and leaves Pikelet, the narrator, with his pain-ridden, lonely, ex-stunt-skier wife, things get more than a little sticky. To say it again, Winton can flat out write. His prose slides down like a cold glass of Foster's, leaving an aftertaste that lets you know it's the real thing. I'm reading this one a second time.

I have a lot of good things to say about Don Winslow's THE DAWN PATROL. It's a cracking good detective yarn with horrific bad guys and colorful surf characters straight out of a Carl Hiassen novel, only with a San Diego setting. Winslow is skilled at setting pace, with classic twists and surprises, and a master of the climax. You find yourself caring more and more about his characters, from Sunny Day, the wannabe pro female surfer, to the hero PI, Boone Daniels, an ex-cop with a dark past. Again, a cover to cover read.

My only qualm is that Winslow should've had a bona fide big wave surfer review his book for accuracy. Obviously he's depending on research here rather than personal experience. If the surfing scenes weren't intrinsic to the plot, I wouldn't have minded much. But hey, Don: you don't surf a ten-foot gun with a five-foot leash in twenty-foot waves. Only beginners rise from their feet to their knees before standing up on the board. All surfable waves are wind generated, even the "macking" swells of winter that surpass twenty feet. Surfers do not surf tsunamis, bub. Sorry. Doesn't happen. To a surfer, these errors stand out like the white carcass of a Humbolt squid floating on a pile of kelp. Still, I recommend the book as a thrilling read. Winslow, in spite of being a surf wannabe, writes a fine thriller.

What is it, though, with the contemporary villains in many novels I'm reading? They're all child molesters and torturers. And taking drugs is not enough anymore for characters--they must practice near-death experiences from choking themselves to get high. I guess it's so hard to lure readers (especially male readers) away from their electronic media, authors feel the need to up the gross-out level. Speaking as a reader, I'm OK with garden variety villains who merely kill people without flaying them alive or molesting eight-year-olds. Guess I'm old and square. I prefer taut characterization in well-wrought settings with believable action.

Stieg Larsson--THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE--Part two of Larsson's trilogy, the story of Lisbeth Salander, an anti-social computer hacker who hates men who hate women. Although the plot had a few close-to-unbelievable moments, this proved a worthy sequel to the opening novel, and just as hard to put down. Bed-ridden, I happily read the tome at a sitting. Although I'm not sure how much I'll ponder about the book say, a year later (the mark of a literary work versus fluff), at the time of reading, I felt mesmerized. Days afterward, I'm still thinking about it. A mild gripe: the conclusion leaves about a million ends hanging, making it all the more painful to wait for the finale to get translated and published.

I find myself intrigued by the Steig Larsson story: Like his protagonist, a writer for the fictional Millenium magazine (Mikael Blomkvist), Larsson was a journalist who struggled against racism and right-wing extremism. He became chief editor for the magazine Expo in 1999. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack in November, 2004, just as he delivered the Millenium series novels to his publisher. Although there are rumors that enemies he made in his career of exposing "racist and totalitarian organisations and tendencies" somehow orchestrated his myocardial infarction and death, they are not substantiated. Although he had an unwitnessed will dated 1977 leaving his estate to the Socialist Party, the Swedish bureaucracy denies its validity, leaving all the considerable earnings from this series of novels (and the movies they will generate) to his father and brother. His long term partner, Eva Gabrielsson, will get nothing.

Steig, baby, there's a reason to get married, even if you're a hip, free-wheeling Swede.

Naturally, having Swedish anecesty, I find stories set in the region fascinating. The commonly-held trope of Scandinavian nobility and truth, a sort of 180-degree turn from the shudders of evil-doing that Norsemen going a-viking used to generate, may not be so accurate. Even the most upright societies have a dark underbelly--certainly the illicit sex trade may be one of them. Larsson did his best to expose such things in his journalism and novels. A true champion of the underdog, the oppressed, and the bereft.

Although thrillers and crime fiction in the best sense, his works contain such sharply portrayed characters, so odd and yet so wonderfully human, they feel like people you've known all your life. I don't know the medical facts of Larsson's life, but it is a great loss to the world that he died at the age of fifty, just when his novelistic career was revving up.

Haruki Murakami--Couldn't help myself, can't stop reading this guy. SPUTNICK SWEETHEART is a love story with the usual Murakami humor and twists. A little more angst in this one than in the others, but a first class job. Classic Murakami narrator and voice. Calling Stockholm...

Thank God Murakami is a dedicated runner (as well as a jazz aficionado). He should last longer than poor Steig Larsson (see above). I fear that soon I will have read him out, and will have to hang on his new work only. A confession: this has only happened to me once before, with Earnest Hemingway, who has not produced much lately. Ditto Patsy Cline, Jimi Hendrix, and a host of other artists. C'est la vie. Or, to be more accurate, c'est la mort.

Woody Allen--MERE ANARCHY, a collection of short stories, many published in the New Yorker, is, frankly, a work of comic genius. Whether you like the man's films or not, try out his books. Every sentence brims with hyperbole and witticism, every phrase scores a knock-out. "Nanny Dearest," one of the shortest works in the book, is my favorite. The descriptions of the family's failed au pairs, one a Swedish battle-ax and the other a 19 yo French confection, got me in hysterical high jinks. Don't get me wrong, I loved "Annie Hall," I've got nothing against Allen the director. But Allen the writer...he's a hoot. OK, there may be no life for the man outside the tri-state area, but this Californian is willing to forgive him this bias. He's in love with the English language, and he uses it to maximum effect.

Kurt Vonnegut--THE SIRENS OF TITAN, Vonnegut's break-through novel, brims with imagination and the author's dead-pan take on humanity's foibles. As I took in the work (I read it concurrently with the novel below, and found it taking over my attention), it was impossible not to recall an editor-friend's comment that in today's literary business environment, he's not sure Vonnegut would ever get published. What a shame, for the guy is a master. The scenes with the creatures on Mercury, the harmoniums, are especially poignant and weird. Do we all take ourselves far too seriously? You bet, says Vonnegut.

Debra Ginsberg--I'd never heard of this author, but I chanced upon BLIND SUBMISSION, her first novel, in my neighborhood bookstore, Warwick's (yes, such stores still exist, and a good thing, too). It's the story of a young woman who takes a job under a DEVIL WEARS PRADA sort of boss in a literary agency. The heroine, Angel Robinson, is a likeable creature. She has an uncanny knack for finding the diamond in the slush pile, a knack the catty females who work with her lack. When someone starts sending her novel excerpts that mirror her own life, though, she starts to sweat, especially when murder enters the plot. A delightful, quirky read. Fine summer vacation stuff, and great if you're in the literary biz as a writer, publisher, or whatever.

Naguib Mahfouz--To get my feet wet with Mahfouz, the Nobel laureate for literature in 1988 and the only winner to write in Arabic, I read THE THIEF AND THE DOGS. This dark tale relates the story of a man released from prison, his sad attempts at revenge, and his abandonment of morality as he plunges headlong down the path to self-destruction. I had a tough time finishing this roman noire, to be frank, but the language is beautiful and evocative. One can taste the dust of the Cairo streets. One can also, somehow, understand how some men may be driven to murder. The book reminded me, in a strange way, of Jim Thompson's THE GETAWAY, only with a more literary bent. I'm on to reading the CAIRO TRILOGY (not to be confused with the ALEXANDRIA QUARTET), Mahfouz's masterpiece. Like many Nobel winners, the Egyptian writes dense, difficult prose that pleases the Swedish mind. I'm looking forward to the trilogy.

Haruki Murakami--A mild case of the flu kept me in bed this weekend; luckily I had laid up a stash of two un-read novels by the contemporary Japanese master. Neither disappointed. I read my way throught the illness, transported to strange lands and places. A HARD-BOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD is a sensible yet over-the-top amalgam of two different novels that somehow merge together into a seamless whole by the book's end. Delight in the slimy savagery of the INKlings, murderous creatures who live in subways and subterrarean tunnels beneath Tokyo. Thrill to bizarre sounds rung from unicorn skulls. Savor a mad professor and his eminently likeable subject, our personable narrator.

DANCE, DANCE, DANCE, a sequel to A WILD SHEEP CHASE, follows a classic Murakami narrator as he stumbles from one misadventure to another, with characters that pop with believable weirdness--a murderous, mediocre movie star, a clairvoyant 13yo daughter of a famous photographer and novelist, a beautiful call girl. Is there no limit to this man's inventiveness? Will those Nobel guys ever give him his just desserts? Stay tuned.

Stewart O'Nan--My second SO'N book, after SNOW ANGELS, LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER is a deft novella that spends the final day at work with Manny, the Hispanic manager of a failing Red Lobster restaurant. Not much happens in the story, other than a blizzard, a kid eating too much and puking, and a torrid good-bye between a pair of ex-lovers, but O'Nan makes the day spring to life. As you settle into the "no ideas but in things" compilation of a restaurant day, the steady theme of a true but failed love makes a subtle counterpoint. Manny's gotten the girl he doesn't love pregnant, and he's gonna do the right thing and let the one he dreams about go. It's painful, and realistic, but the blue-collar details of work save it from sentimentalism or melodrama. As the protagonist puts one foot in front of the other at his job, he pulls both himself and the reader to a deeper understanding about the world.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa--Although Haruki Murakami in his forward rather coldly puts Akutakawa (the "u" is silent) in third place as classic, national Japanese authors go (behind Soseki and Tanizaki), you shouldn't let that put you off reading Jay Rubin's lucid translation of the master, RASHOMON AND 17 OTHER STORIES, newly released in a deluxe paperback edition by Viking/Penguin. His short stories are short but hardly sweet, the blood fairly drips from works like "Hell Screen," and the weird agony of the depressive (see below, D.W. Wallace) has never been better portrayed than in "Spinning Gears." Akutakawa is not without humor, "The Nose" is proof of that. Overall a great introduction to a writer I only knew from the Kurosawa film, Rashomon, from thirty years ago.

While we're on Japanese shores, the classic tetralogy by Yukio Mishima is worth discussing, too: THE SEA OF FERTILITY. Mishima committed cermonial sepuku at the age of 45 after finishing the final, fourth book in 1970 (Akutagawa killed himself at the age of 35--what is it about these brilliant writers who rob us of their late years?) I've only read RUNAWAY HORSES and THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, but found both captivating. Written in the late sixties, the two take one from just before WWII to the post war years in Japan. One can never know with translations, but the prose, even in English, has an exotic haiku-like feel that makes each sentence and paragraph hang in shoyu salt mist after you read it. There's a mixture of foreign and familiar in these works, a rendering of psychology and setting that I find tantalizing. The former book is the chronicle of a conspiracy, a chilling exploration into the psyche of a patriot-fanatic. The latter is the post-war story of a lawyer whom a young Thai princess bewitches, fulfilling his belief in reincarnation. Strange, heady prose.

For a lighter dose of Mishima, read THE SOUND OF WAVES, a love story set on an island of pearl divers. Like all great books, this novella packs a shipload of meaning into subtle passages that demand to be re-read.

Another great writer from Japan is Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese author to impress Sweden sufficiently to garner a Nobel (1968). His writing is spare and lyrical. You find yourself, in reading SNOW COUNTRY, transported to a strange land of blizzards, ten-foot snowfalls, and geishas by prose that outdoes Hemingway for spare beauty. A THOUSAND CRANES is based on a visit by a man to the mistress of his deceased father. One might think a novel about the tea ceremony would be boring, but passions run deep in this elegant, brief tale.

Denis Johnson--Amazing how you can finish a book like INFINITE JEST and think you'll never see another one of that caliber--but along comes TREE OF SMOKE, Johnson's masterpiece, one of the ten best NY Times books of 2007 and the Vietnam war novel to end all war novels. Captures the madness of Southeast Asia in the sixties with poetic precision. An interesting book in that it is never clear who the protagonist is, Kathy Jones, perhaps, the love interest of Skip Sands, the CIA agent pogue who blunders his way through most of the book. His uncle, The Colonel, is an unforgettable character, a mad charismatic schemer not too different from Conrad's Kurtz. Another thread of the book involves two grunts from Arizona, the Houston brothers, who take different paths but end up in the same prison. The war slowly and irrevocably corrupts younger brother James into a soul-less killing machine. When the brass finally tumble to his pathology, they give him an honorable discharge. Then there are Trung, Hao, and Minh, vividly drawn Vietnamese characters who send their loyalties one way, then another, as they wind through the twisted miasma of the times.

Johnson kept me rapt the entire book; he balances introspection and poetic moments with action and suspense. A fine book. The Times got this one right. An addendum: Check out www.newyorker.com, fiction: there's a podcast with Tobias Wolff reading a wonderful short story, "Emergency," by the above Denis Johnson, bookended by a discussion of the story with Deborah Treisman, the New Yorker fiction editor. I sat spellbound through Mr. Wolff's dramatic diction. Ms. Treisman has a clear and eloquent voice herself; the two of them engaged in a delightful literary exam of the work. Great stuff.

Stieg Larsson--THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO. I picked this 600-page crime novel up one Saturday evening and was 2/3 done six hours later. Bleary-eyed, I put it down and finished it promptly in the morning. A dark, Swedish thriller, with finely drawn characters and a complex locked-room plot with more twists and turns than the winding tat on the heroine's back. You may learn a few things about modern day Sweden from this beast: They drink a lot of coffee, there's no end of philandering going on, and bad guys (band robbers, serial killers, con men, rapists, etc.) abound. The hero, Mikael Blomkvist, is a muck-raking financial journalist. Women love him. The heroine, Lisbeth Salander, is an Asperger-syndrome-like strange girl who doesn't get mad. She gets even.

Larsson, to my great disappointment, died of a massive heart attack in 2004 under what some say are mysterious circumstances. He led a journalistic life not too different, or perhaps even more muck-raking, than his fictional hero, and made many enemies.

David Foster Wallace--I've been slow to write new reviews, the problem due to my immersion in the last completed opus from the late, great, David Foster Wallace, who hung himself after a long battle with depression in the fall of 2008. INFINITE JEST rates every superlative one can call to mind. Verbal calisthenics, half-way house mayhem, tennis academy madness, all of it seething, voicy, scabrous, scintillating, absurd, hilarious, touching, literary, and above all, long. Sort of a modern LES MISERABLE, without Javert, unless it is the Substance--yes, I think the Substance is the evil, unrelenting inspector of your inner soul. I'm only 400 pages into it at this point, yet totally fascinated by the characters, by Gately, the reformed B & E murderer addict, now a trustee at a halfway house and frequent devotee to AA meetings; by the Incandenza family, the suicidal father, who makes addicting art films but sticks his head in a (working) microwave oven, Hal, the tennis ace and pothead, Owen, the professional football punter with a taste for sexy Subjects, Mario, the brilliant handicapped child; the Quebecois separatistes wielding machine pistols, wheelchairs (they all lost their legs playing chicken jumping across tracks in front of trains), and hilariously mangled English; the list goes on exponentially. I forgot to mention a beautiful but disturbed cocaine addict/shock radio personality from Kentucky and about one hundred others. Some tips if you decide to read this behemoth: The end comes at the beginning. Read the footnotes, or you'll miss a lot (like why the Quebecois lost their limbs). And carve out a two or three week chunk of time to devote to it. You won't want to look at much else until you're finished.

Addendum: Finally finished Wallace's novel. Wallace gives the impression he did a prodigious amount of "field research" into the drug culture. But the brief passages where Mario quizzes the Moms on depression struck me as the most poignant. These few paragraphs illuminate the core of Wallace's illness, and his familiarity with it. As with drugs, he knew that dark world firsthand.

Perhaps, artistically, everything he wrote after this magnum opus seemed anti-climactic, explaining why he was so hard on himself re his later work. Characters and projects take on a life of their own; sometimes a writer stumbles onto a piece of magic where life experience and fiction come together perfectly. Joseph Heller survived CATCH-22, but Wallace couldn't survive INFINITE JEST. Maybe.

What a book. I'm still reeling. Think I need to found my own support group: "Readers Who've Finished Infinite Jest, Can't Find Anything To Replace It, and Suffer Acute Situational Misery."

Aravind Adiga--The Booker Prize people got this one right. THE WHITE TIGER turned out to be everything I hoped. Read it shortly after seeing "Slumdog Millionaire" and found it to have many of the polychromatic elements of the movie with the added gloss of a protagonist who is lovably murderous, a real scoundrel with a heart of gold. Unlike Slumdog, which I found more of a romantic urban fantasy (I liked it immensely, don't get me wrong), THE WHITE TIGER has resonance with books such as the American Richard Wright's NATIVE SON. There is no lecturing here, no pompous (I use that word too much, there's so much of it out there) moralizing. Just a down to earth explanation of the way things are in India. Great read, you won't skip a line.

J.M.G. LeClezio--Still intrigued by the taste of my Swedish ancestors, and especially interested this year, because of an intemperate comment by a member of the Nobel literature committee--a comment disparaging American fiction as lacking international context--I reviewed the work of the 2008 literature laureate, J.M.G. LeClezio, and read ONITSHA. Before I get back to the fascinating debate between Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, and American lit defenders such as David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, here's my view of ONITSHA: Hmmmm. Starts off most promising, a sensitive discourse between a mother and her son, a long voyage on a freighter between France and West Africa, stuffed with lyric prose and subtle characterization. "A Long Voyage": great stuff. Things only go slightly awry later, as the author gets the dumb idea of introducing dreamy asides in the POV of the half-insane English father, asides delving into African mysticism and the symbolism-strewn mythology of an ancient African queen, Meroe. The text delivering the story, told from the mother (the Italian born Maou) and son's (Fintan) POV, carries on in the same riveting fashion as the opening, though, saving the book. I found myself skimming the mystical asides, which grow all too frequent, to return to the story of Fintan's seduction by the African people, the story of Bony, Oya, her baby, and Okawho.

LeClezio does not, unfortunately, strictly heed the director Sam Goldwyn's advice, "If you want to send a message, send a telegram." He condemns colonialism baldly throughout the book in a heavy-handed manner. I agree with his assessment, but I don't need a novel for such chastisement.

I expect better from the Nobel committee. I plan to try more LeClezio, and, of course, will read some different translations as they become available. This was one of Engdahl's criticisms. "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining." Remnick fired back, "You'd think the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures."

I will say ONITSHA is a fine book and a worthy book. It does have elements of categorical lecture, though. All that might have been bearable without the lengthy intermittant homage to African mythology. But then again, I'm just an isolated, insular American. I do believe in the dictum of Elmore Leonard, though: cut the parts readers are going to skip.

Richard Dooling--If you're interested in visiting the Dark Continent, you may want to pass on WHITE MAN'S GRAVE. Or maybe not. A biting satire, loaded with humor, this book illuminates the absurdity of life in both America and Africa. A finalist for the 1994 National Book Award. A much better window on West Africa, in my opinion, than ONITSHA (see above). But gosh darnit, this damn book's funny. Would never be on the radar of those pompous Swedes in their Volvos.

P.G. Wodehouse--There's a reason Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse is beloved. His classic, all-knowing butler, Jeeves, his bumbling aristocrat Bertie Wooster, and the pleasant, unreal British world they live in read much like a glass of cool ale slides down a thirsty gullet. THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS is one of my favorites, but Wodehouse wrote ninety books and each of the many I've read has a uniformly cheerful outlook on life--something rare and delectable in these depressing times.

Depressed about your 401(k)? Worried about global warming? Need a break from the front page? Try a bit of Wooster, with some Worcestershire sauce. Jeeves will get it for you. Put your feet up. Relax. Aunt Dahlia will not bother you, I guarantee.

Michael Malone--HANDLING SIN, a comic road-trip through the contemporary south, is a joy to read. Great characters, ludicrous scenes, general hilarity---the kind of book that makes a dull, rainy weekend at home reading seem like heaven.

Philip K. Dick--A SCANNER DARKLY is a definite roman noir, not quite sci-fi Jim Thompson, but close. Also a treatise on identity, for the protagonist, a double drug agent, takes a drug (Death) that causes loss of identity and memory. After a while, neither he nor we are sure exactly what is going on, but it ain't good. Still, the best book on the drug culture I've read. A far cry from Aldous Huxley's DOORS OF PERCEPTION. There's no glamorizing of drugs here, no moralizing either (see the movie, Reefer Madness).

I've also read Dick's COMPLETE SHORT STORIES. Maybe because he wrote for pulp sci-fi, many of these rely on surprise endings. I like O. Henry finishes, but after you've read twenty or thirty and the major portion of any given story seems based around getting to the surprise, it can get tiring. Still, what an imagination. Wonderful stuff.

DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? The novel from which the movie Blade Runner came, this is a classic, reads well, good characters. Loved it.

Galsan Tschinag--Read this book. Read this book. THE BLUE SKY is the first novel of an autobiographical novel trilogy by the Mongolian writer, Galsan Tschinag. A timeless story of a boy and his wolf-dog, Arsylang, it casts a reader into the steppes of Central Asia and the subsistence life of hunter-gatherer herders in the early 20th century. Author of more than 30 books, Tschinag studied at the University of Leipzig in East Germany during the sixties before returning to life as chief of the Tuvans in Mongolia. A Milkweeed Edition book. Beautifully translated and published. The sort of book you will cherish.

Georgina Harding--THE SOLITUDE OF THOMAS CAVE--Another book in which setting plays a character role. The protagonist chooses to spend a winter on an Arctic island alone but for ice, darkness, and blizzards. He turns into a man possessed, and you as reader will be possessed, too. A wonderful story.

Stewart O'Nan--SNOW ANGELS, written by a writer's writer, takes you, alternatively, into the third person mind of a depressed murderer and his wife/victim, and the first person mind of a teen-ager in a failing Western Pennsylvania town. It's a dark book, but the prose sings, and one can understand--sort of--how such tragedies can occur. Worth the effort.

Roberto Bolaño--I bought THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES on the advice of a good friend who works at one of those threatened independent book stores. Man, what a book. Sexy, tumultuous, off-the-wall. Part Borges, part Thomas Pynchon, part Marquez. The settings becomes indelibly etched in your mind, the Chihuahua desert, Mexico city, various cities in Spain. Electric, eclectic, hard to put down. The ex-pat Chilean author died young--from liver failure, possibly from Hepatitis C, but had an intense life, complete with heroin addiction and incarceration (and near execution) in Chile for his support of Salvador Allende. The novel tracks two "visceral realist" poets in a mad quest to find Cesárea Tinajero, an obscure avant garde writer.

Tom Bradby--THE MASTER OF RAIN takes you to pre-WWII Shanghai, and the city plays a major role. A robust murderous thriller, full of sex and mayhem. Not an easy book to put down, although not exactly the sort of thing that you will re-read. Still, worth looking at.

W. Somerset Maugham--THE RAZOR'S EDGE is, of course, well established in the canon of classics. A hard book not to love, the story of six friends and their strange lives. Fine characters, sharply drawn as the title, alive, predictable yet unpredictable. To read Maugham is to read a master.

A MOON AND SIXPENCE tells the fictional story of the painter, Charles Strickland, loosely based on Paul Gaugain. As a writer fascinated with painters myself, I am in no position to judge this work objectively. Nor can any reader understand with ease the Strickland of the novel, a classic, brooding maniacal artist. A novel to read and re-read. The Tahiti chapters shine.

Orhan Pamuk--The first piece I read by the Nobel literature laureate of 2006 was his acceptance speech, published in the New Yorker. A loving elegy for his father, who wrote a single novel and was done with it, the essay also delved into the strange need for a person to sit for hours in a closed room and weave stories. It's great stuff, worth digging through the New Yorker archives to find.

MY NAME IS RED was my first Pamuk novel, a story about "murder among minaturists." From the opening chapter (I Am A Corpse) to the grand finale blowjob, I found myself pretty much enthralled, though I skimmed plenty of the more wordy passages. The shifting first-person chapters, the history of Turkish painting, the period scenes from ancient Istanbul, mix together to make this a unique book. Not a rave freom me, but good stuff.

SNOW, although a political novel, reads faster and quicker than RED. It's set in a remote Turkish mountain town during a road-blocking storm. There's a coup, beautiful women, and some poetry. A subtle book written in a detached tone.

THE BLACK BOOK, the story of a man whose wife disappears with a famous newspaper columnist, is a meditation on identity. The jilted husband begins to write columns in the name of the missing celebrity and finds himself losing control of who he is. Gives you a feel for contemporary Istanbul. The essays thenmselves aren't bad, either.

William T. Vollman--An editor friend told me about this book, as I mused to him about spinning a novel based on the Icelandic Sagas. Damn Vollman anyway. He tossed down a superb novel, THE ICE SHIRT, replete with Norse gods, legends, and landings in Vineland. He wisely honed in on the two alpha-females of the times, Freydis and Gudrid, and takes them into the heart of Norse darkness. Darn good reading, like nothing you ever read before, excepting, maybe, something by Pynchon, or GRENDEL, by John Gardner.

John Gardner--Well, since I mentioned it, I did read GRENDEL, the story of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster. Gardner's books on writing craft (I'll get to them below, eventually) are super. His novels, hmmm, well, I tried to read OCTOBER LIGHT but bounced off for whatever reason (maybe I had a bad hair day). But GRENDEL is a fine story, moving, and as accurate as an expert on ancient languages and medieval culture like Gardner can make it. This is a jewel, a "vivid and continuous dream" and best read right after you read BEOWULF (Seamus Heaney's translation, of course).

Robert Stone--The first book I read by Stone was OUTERBRIDGE REACH, an epic sailing novel. The story of a wealthy guy chancing a round-the-world race and losing his wife in the process. Dark but gripping. An even better work is DOG SOLDIERS, Stone's masterpiece, a 1975 National Book Award-winner. The tale of a regular guy who slips from Vietnam war reportage into a drug world loaded with people way heavier than he can ever be. Full of juicy California madness, including a wild ending in a stoned hippy complex in a place that sounds like San Diego East County. Another good one, also loaded with blood and guts, is A FLAG FOR SUNRISE, the story of a coup in a banana republic, replete with complex characters that fail to fit easy genre stereotypes. No doubt about it, Stone writes literature in the Hemingway mold, stuff that slides down like a thriller but leaves images and characters that linger in the memory as only the best books do.

Ian McEwan--The first book I read by this fine British author was SATURDAY, the story of an intense 24-hour period in a neurosurgeon's life. The hero has a rude brush with the underclass, finding himself the target of a criminal with a neurologic problem. Although the premise is a bit far-fetched, McEwan makes it all seem credible and compresses some great scenes into a taut novel. The squash game with his anesthesiologist is one of the best moments.

Buoyed by this read, I hit ATONEMENT, now a motion picture and famous. A deep, sensuous book, loaded with potent imagery from Dunkirk and WWII Britain, this love story is marred only by a perplexing ending. McEwan felt the urge to go meta-fictional here, gave a last-second carotid jerk to this reader. In an interview with The New Yorker, he said, "If the reader feels angry with me for the turn around at the conclusion, I succeeded," or words to that effect. Hmmm. Not sure. Anger is anger. No more bullshit like that, please, Ian.

Still, a good one to re-read, and I plan on it. Maybe I'll like the ending better the second time around.

AMSTERDAM is a clever, British twist-at-the-end novel that is intellectually more satisfying but less moving than ATONEMENT. But it is not a book to be put down, with a double revenge murder that still has me shaking my head in admiration. Also has a great funeral scene and a great composer-in-the-woods scene. How many books have great composer-in-the-woods scenes?

I attempted to read ENDURING LOVE but, frankly, bounced off after a chapter or two. Probably me.

THE INNOCENT, McEwan's story of a not-so-clever spy in Cold War Germany, proved rich and satisfying. Wonderful scenes of post WWII Berlin, an evocative love story, good spy stuff, and the usual twist of an ending. Right up there with the best of McEwan.

Gary Shteyngart--While I was writing my own satire, S.I.C. MEMORIAL, I sounded out for current stuff and ran into ABSURDISTAN. Although mostly set in a back-water republic somewhere near the Black Sea, the book has New York roots as well, and an obese yet lovable narrator who has enough money to attract plenty of hot females. I can't say it ranks up there with Kurt Vonnegut, but it was a damn good book.

Kurt Vonnegut--CAT'S CRADLE still ranks as the best satire I've read. The story of Jonah, a narrator who end's up witnessing the end of the earth due to Ice-Nine, a water crystal that forms at room temperature, this novel read just as good in 2008 as it did when I read it as a kid. It seems apropos in its subtle condemnation of our smug belief in human power and immortality. A friend in publishing lectured that he doubted if he or anyone else would be able to publish Vonnegut now, given the weird forces that have overwhelmed the business (giant corporations owning all the major houses and demanding fast return on investment, etc.). This is an extraordinary shame.

Joseph Heller--I also sat down and read CATCH-22 again. This must be my third read. It's still an amazing book, holds up just as well to modern martial times as sci-fi Vonnegut. Heller pulls no punches, and he's not afraid to let his train go off the rails, as when he has Milo Minderbender bomb his own men. The absurdity of combat shines through Yossarian, whose quest to avoid a meaningless death seems timeless.

Before Heller himself died, some inebriated critic cornered the author at a party and said something like, "Hey, Joe, you never did write anything better than CATCH-22."

Heller famously replied, "Nope. Nobody else did, either."

Jim Harrison--RETURNING TO EARTH, like all of Jim Harrison's works, slips down easy as a shot of twenty-year-old bonded bourbon. This one, the story of a man slipping away from Lou Gehrig's disease, told from three points of view, embraces death through Harrison's theme of the redemptive value of nature. A fine book, one I regretted finishing.

J.M. Coetzee--I make a point to check out the writing of Nobel Prize winners, to see if those dumb Swedes (I can say that, I'm one myself) got it right. Most of the time they do. In 2003 they definitely got it right. Coetzee writes books that linger for years in your memory, and although they are not always easy to finish, the work is worth it.

My first Coetzee was ELIZABETH COSTELLO, a semi-autobiographical portrait of a famous novelist who gives occasional lectures on philosophical/animal rights/literary themes. Her personal life barges in on these lectures, and Coetzee weaves philosophy and the intrusion of the real world in a masterful way. Don't expect riveting violence like you might get with Robert Stone. Do expect to start thinking about things you may have conveniently ignored.

The next novel I read was DISGRACE, a Booker Prize winner. This is the story of a professor who has a career-ending affair with a student, moves in with his daughter in the country outside of Cape Town, and finds himself square in the midst of a race war. Riveting, yet full of the philosophical complexity that marks a Coetzee novel. This one's the prize.

SLOW MAN got mixed reviews, but I liked it. The tale of a photographer who loses his leg and falls in love with his (married) nurse, it turns postmodern when Elizabeth Costello, the same woman in the eponymous novel above, shows up and becomes a major force. Some critics hated this, but to me Coetzee pulled it off and made EC a real character, integral to the philosophical dilemmas perplexing the hero.

Haruki Murakami--The first thing I read by Murakami was a nonfiction essay on the back inside page of a New York Times Book Review section. The author explained how he owned a jazz club in Tokyo for many years and that, consequently, when he began to write fiction, he used principles of jazz improvisation in his writing. I loved this short work, read it three, four times. It spoke to me, for I play piano and guitar and I, too, love Miles, Coltrane, Bird, Ella and all the rest.

Inspired by the essay, I bought a Murakami novel, AFTER DARK. Set in a twelve-hour period, at night, the book condenses life in nighttime Tokyo into a gritty time capsule. You'll find both magic realism here and harsh reality. Something strange and beguiling about Murakami's voice enables him to discuss the darkest of circumstances in a non-depressing way. Something I've only seen before in Kurt Vonnegut.

Next, I read THE WILD SHEEP CHASE. This one's set in northern Japan, Sapporo and beyond. A non-descript protagonist who quits his job (a Murakami trademark) ends up in a bizarre, snowed-in mansion with an odd girlfriend and a strange creature who is half sheep, half human. Again, that haunting voice.

On a roll now, I ordered THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLES, the pièce de résistance of Murakami's career. A five-hundred page tome, it follows a typical bland but endearing protagonist down to the bottom of a well and into a friendship with a man bent by unspeakable horrors in WW II. Horrors that Murakami manages to speak of in riveting fashion. Various beautiful women make dramatic entrances and exits. I could not put this one down; it ruined my life for a time as it is a formidable tome. The book then cruelly forced me to re-read portions.

My last (for now) work by HM was KAFKA BY THE SHORE, a modern Oedipal novel. This one slipped down like a bottle of fine sake, with its everyman hero, an orphan, and his odd but touching love affair.

Elizabeth Hay--I bought LATE NIGHTS ON AIR after reading several glowing reviews. A Minnesotan by birth, and a frequent traveler to the Arctic, I am a sucker for books set in the cold country. Yellowknife, a distant outpost on Great Slave Lake in the Yukon, qualifies. The story of Harry Boyd, Dido Paris, and the other loveable characters who man a funky radio station in this small town, I found the premise, the setting, and the plot (with its canoe trip at the end), fascinating. I read the novel twice, liked it just as well the second time. Hay's voice is soothing, yet her Arctic comes alive. She doesn't stoop to the usual thriller tactics of leaving the reader on a limb at each chapter end. Instead, she gives you a subtle character image, a thought, an event, and lets it linger.


I'll be upfront here. I am not a fan of so-called "chick lit." I'm a guy. I like things to happen. I don't need car chases and serial killers, but I like things to happen. I've read Virginia Woolf's MRS. DALLOWAY, even enjoyed it, but you won't see me searching for the latest book by Helen Fielding or Candace Bushnell. LATE NIGHTS ON AIR is something else again. It's seductive but not chick lit.

The exotic Arctic setting plays a character role. A giant industrial consortium wants to run a gas pipeline through a Native American paradise. One learns all about the ins and outs of running a radio station. And the canoe trip--take it from me, an experienced Minnesotan canoeist, this hefty section alone, exquisite in every detail of character development, love story, history, and adventure, made the price of the hard-cover book well worth it.

Per Pettersen--OUT STEALING HORSES--This slim novel, picked by the New York Times as one of the five best novels of 2007, lives up to its rep. Again, there is that seductive property of the far north, the Norwegian/Swedish border. There is a logging adventure, teen-age style, a tragic shooting accident, a clandestine WW II resistance affair, and more. Yet the book moves along smoothly, without jarring or rockets. Petersen just shows us the story. No telling here. We are with his young-old hero every step of the way.

Vladimir Nabokov--There is more to Nabokov than LOLITA. Don't get me wrong. It's a masterpiece. Try PNIN, though, a subtle, quasi-humorous, quasi-tragic gem of a novel. The clumsy, confused professor endears himself to a reader quickly. The language is Nabokovian exquisite. Also, try COMPLETE SHORT STORIES. I'm only half-way through, but these Borgian bits of Russian, German, and American life shine in their language and eccentricity.

Jincy Willet--If you've ever attended a writing workshop, THE WRITING CLASS is for you. This is classic "closed-door' murder mystery, a who-done-it, but the literary style and pretension of Willet, the writing teacher-protagonist and her varied and hilarious class, all make it rise above the genre. Another book I just had to re-read. The classes contain writing pearls, too, making the work a disguised craft book. And--the novel is set in my home town of San Diego.

Ron Carlson--FIVE SKIES got a rave review in the New York Times and a "Carlson should stick to short stories" review in the New Yorker. I'll vote with the rave, hands down. The story of three varied characters taking on a huge and eccentric construction project in the wilds of Idaho (building a motorcycle jump for a female Evil Knievel), it has a perfect blend of setting, character, plot and theme. Exquisite but not over-done detail keeps a reader caught in the moment of the story. The ending packed a wallop.

After reading this, I read several collections of Carlson's short stories. No question, A KIND OF FLYING, HOTEL EDEN, AT THE JIM BRIDGER are all marvelous. Carlson is that rare writer who has a Vonnegut-like ability to make you laugh at bizarre and tragic things. Many of his stories end happily, an unusual thing in these ironic, desperate times.

 

Non-Fiction

I do read a slew of non-fiction, yet have held back reviewing it till now. Why? I guess I saw this site as a fiction place, that's all. In researching my latest novel, NORTHERN LIBERTIES, a work of historical fiction, I read dozens of books about Thomas Eakins, the Civil War, Samuel Gross, M.D., and so on. I can't say I read them all for pleasure, but I did enjoy them. Someday I'll get on it.

Anyhow, I did read a book I think needs to become part of the national conversation on health reform, THE HEALING OF AMERICA, by T.R. Reid, and I felt pressed to discuss it in brief. Reid, a journalist, not a medical person, has lived all over the world, and has studied health care in many countries. He explores the national health care systems of England, France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, and India in some detail. Although each system has its peculiarities, some general points emerged.

In all cases, health insurance companies become non-profit entities. Take that Blue Cross/Shield, Aetna, and the rest. This scoops up the 20% these companies scrape off the top of all health care transactions and returns it to the people. In all cases, countries have an individual mandate that demands every citizen get health care coverage and pay for it somehow, whether by taxes or by fees or by insurance. And lastly, in nearly all cases, the doctors get screwed. Badly. Docs overseas make one-quarter to one-half what they make in the U.S. This causes odd scenes, such as doctors striking and marching in lab coats and scrubs through the streets of Paris.

To be sure, in most countries physicians get free or dirt-cheap education. They do not graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, as they do here. They also have little or no risk or expense from malpractice. The lawyers in most developed countries have been muzzled. Many physicians, as a result, seem happy with this state of affairs. They work hard, earn a decent income, but have no fear of spending years fighting lawsuits or paying off debts. Their lives are hardly stress-free, but they are considerably less stressful than the lives of American doctors.

I can't agree with all of Reid's subjective conclusions, but I found his book incredibly informative and interesting. I would recommend it to anyone interested in health care in America. (9/26/09)

 

Poetry

Seamus Heaney--What is it about Irish poets? Why are they so damned good? Is it the tortured history, the Troubles, the Potato Famine? The urge to one-up the English at their own language? Whatever the answer, I picked up a copy of SEAMUS HEANEY POEMS 1965-1975. Oh my. Each poem is a treasure, rife with images of country life, nature, and hough-hewn wisdom. "No ideas but in things" only partially descibes the Heaney magic. Some favorites: Scaffolding, a ten-line love poem I much enjoyed reading to my wife; The Outlaw, the story of a cow getting serviced by an unlicensed bull--no ideas, just basic, worldly things; Punishment, strange, dark, laden with sinful fruit.

An old saying: Novelists are frustrated short-story writers, short-story writers are frustrated poets. Some truth in that. All hail Seamus!

Geoffrey Chaucer--One of the joys of being out of school is that you can read classics without worry of a final exam or an essay or the third-degree from some professor. You can read, for example, THE CANTERBURY TALES (Nevill Coghill, translator into Modern English) and delight in the 1380's. After reading such ribald joys as The Miller's Tale, one must conclude that people then were not at all different than they are now. Different technology, sure. But the same emotions, jokes, and passions ruled.

 

 

Books on the Craft of Writing

James Wood--HOW FICTION WORKS--Most reviewers loved this, although the guy who used to edit fiction (maybe still does) for Gentleman's Quarterly, Walter Kirn, wrote a snide pan in the NY Times Book Review (Why Reader's Nap). Wood's book is no thriller, but the author clearly loves literature. He's not interested in taking cheap shots but does love to plug great wordsmiths. I don't think there's a negative sentiment in the entire book. The chapter on writing in detail is extraordinary. Wood pulls a host of telling details, specifics that prove the generality, from classic and current lit. My favorite: a scene I'd forgotten from MADAME BOVARY where Emma fondles the slippers she danced in weeks ago: "the soles of which were yellowed with the wax from the dance floor."

Worth reading. Yeah, Wood is a lot smarter than you or I, and knows it, but what the hell.

Sol Stein--STEIN ON WRITING is one of those books you might want to keep on your desk. It covers all the usual things writers need to remember, but presents them in a vivid, writerly way that impales it on one's memory. Great chapters on dialogue and on suspense. Great editing advice. Stein, a playwright, novelist, editor, and teacher, has forgotten more than I'll ever know, and he practices what he preaches.

HOW TO GROW A NOVEL, written later, underlines all the points of the above and adds some more. Stein's goal is to make you think about your reader, make you go where your reader doesn't want to go. Paradoxically, this is what readers want. Confused? Whether it's suspense, romance, whatever, one cannot go the easy route. For example, there's a great chapter on love and sex scenes. Most readers, presented with two characters who are attracted to each other, want the two to come together. Yet, in creating obstacles that slow this natural process down, literary foreplay if you will, one makes the scenes pop and the reader happy.

James N. Frey--HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL--A concise little book you want to re-read and keep out while writing or editing. Frey must give some damn good classes up there in Berkeley, because his book refreshes your memory about character, plot, setting, dialogue, POV--emphasizing character, of course. The section on premise, which most didactic folks call theme, is worth the price of admission alone.

Francine Prose--READING LIKE A WRITER slid down like a fine Zinfandel. I've always believed attentive reading of the masters is the prime education of any writer, and Prose, in this delightful book, proves the point. A warning, though: Just when you think you've read everything, Prose reminds you of essential classics you've simply got to read--the miles to go before you sleep.

Renni Browne & Dave King--SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS--a superb book for any writer who wants to hone an existing work in a Samurai sword. Some good points on thought attributions, which I haven't seen discussed elsewhere. Also a discussion on beats that is well done.

Ron Carlson--RON CARSON WRITES A SHORT STORY--This is a joy to read, the thoughts going through a writer's head as he fashions a short story, "The Governor's Ball" (I remember it, incorrectly, as "The Mattress"). Juggling all those balls in the air while you're conjuring a short may be a little easier after you've read this one.