Thursday, December 25, 2008

One Manageable Story

Not too long ago, I subscribed to One Story. They put out a tiny publication containing one short story every three weeks. It turns out to be the perfect flow of fiction from publisher to household. For me, anyway. Some lit periodicals arrive and I'm intimidated by the amount of fiction I have to read before the next hunk of fiction arrives. Or there's the New Yorker--only one story each issue, but it comes every week. Pressure. Stress. With One Story, not so much.

I wasn't crazy about the first story that arrived and thought maybe I had tossed my eighteen bucks, but the following issue was a slightly surreal, frenetically written story about hallucinatory water polo (!? among other things) and called "We Bluegills" by Robert Travieso. I loved it and I've loved everything I've received since.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Shakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby

There's something about Nick Hornby's writing, particularly his columns in The Believer, that is addictively readable. Of course, to some degree, what I'm doing on this site is a cheap, less intelligent, less funny imitation of the Believer column that Hornby has done for the last five or so years. But in both the latest collection, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, and the first one, The Polysyllabic Spree, Hornby cast a spell that had me poring through the books over the course of a single day. Granted, they're not very long books, but still, I'm not that kind of reader. I read for an hour, I put the book down and do something relatively productive, I pick it up again later in the day and read for half an hour, etc. With Hornby's books, however, I just can't stop. Last night, I was reading Shakespeare Wrote for Money in bed, put it down and fell asleep, then woke up for a bathroom run a couple of hours later and couldn't keep myself from opening the book and finishing it right then.

I think what makes Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading" column so compelling, is the pure pleasure and excitement he gets from books. It's an excitement I share and, I assume, many others share (or why would his column be popular enough to assemble into collections?). His lack of pretension in the column contributes to the excitement. It's something I've tried to do and, I think, failed at. Of course this is made even worse by the fact that I don't have the intellectual prowess to back any sort of pretension up. It's a bit of a double whammy, but I'll keep on trying and maybe one day I'll reach Hornby-like status. Maybe.

Edited to add: The good folks at McSweeney's have pointed out that this is actually Hornby's third book of "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns. I somehow forgot about the second of the bunch, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt. Shame on me.

Edited again to add: Okay, honestly, no one from McSweeney's reads this blog. I was actually lying in bed this morning between snooze hits and I remembered that there was another book. Double shame on me.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

City of Thieves by David Benioff

A buddy-story set during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, City of Thieves is the latest novel from David Benioff, author of 25th Hour and When the Nines Roll Over (as well as various screenplays). The story throws together a dashing lothario who's gone AWOL from the Red Army and a half-Jewish seventeen-year old resident of Piter (the characters all refer to Leningrad as Piter).

In classic buddy-story style, the two characters get on each other's nerves as they trundle through the Russian winter on an impossible mission in search of a dozen eggs. Their picaresque adventure takes them from cannibals to the secret police to prison marches as they bond in their attempt to survive. The setup is a bit shopworn, but Benioff does a nice job with it. The characters are likable and believable (though some of their situations stretch the believability factor). Even the elements of the novel that were entirely predictable (it seems quite obvious early on who will not survive the adventure) were still enjoyable because of Benioff's craftiness with a story and readable style.

It's not a great novel that will change your view of literature or the world, but a well-told bit of escapist fiction.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Verificationist by Donald Antrim

I couldn't help thinking, as I struggled through the second half of Donald Antrim's novel, that it would have made an excellent short story. All of the elements of a prize-winning, lit-magazine story were there: the witty, almost ridiculing tone of psychobabble; the extremely self-conscious professional protagonist and his cohorts; the fantastical element of an otherwise realistic setting; the satiric nature of the protagonist's sexual and homoerotic concerns. But even at less than 180 pages, the tale seemed to go on for far too long.

Had Antrim been able to inject more humor into the story, it would have held me, but I kept thinking as I waded through pages of Tom, the narrator's, pseudo-sexual flight around the upper reaches of a pancake house during a departmental outing he has organized, that much of his meanderings are almost funny. That almost, and Antrim's skillful wordplay, would have been enough to carry twenty-five or thirty pages. As a novel, it's landing was long overdue.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Another Gilead Passage

I have to copy another passage from Gilead because it's such a remarkable book. John Ames, knowing the end of his life is near, finds beauty in nearly everything. Mere existence is beautiful. Here's an example from early in the novel that I loved:

I really can't tell what's beautiful anymore. I passed two young fellows on the street the other day. I know who they are, they work at the garage. They're not churchgoing, either one of them, just decent rascally young fellows who have to be joking all the time, and there they were, propped against the garage wall in the sunshine, lighting up their cigarettes. They're always so black with grease and so strong with gasoline I don't know why they don't catch fire themselves. They were passing remarks back and forth the way they do and laughing that wicked way they have. And it seemed beautiful to me. It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Gilead

I finished Gilead last night and have to add it with Out Stealing Horses to my list of the best novels I've read in the last couple of years. Maryilynne Robinson created a fascinating character in the Reverend John Ames; a decent man caught at the end of his life with his family just beginning. It's really an epistolary novel addressed to Ames' young son for him to read later in his life. His accounts of growing up in turn of the century Iowa, dealing with the loneliness of bachelorhood and coming to terms with his distrustful feelings toward his namesake, the son of his closest friend, provide more drama and conflict than I would have thought possible.

Ames' Christianity is handled deftly by Robinson. He comes from a line of Congregationalist preachers, but he is far from a zealot. Ames's brother was an atheist, to their father's discontent, and Ames recounts his poring over the texts that his brother recommended, but it only strengthened his faith. Normally, I would be skeptical of such a devout main character, but Robinson has instilled Ames with such intelligence and insightfulness that he's the type of man you want to spend time with. Chalk this up to one that didn't appeal to me on the surface, but turned out to be a favorite. Now I'll have to read Home.

Monday, November 17, 2008

God, the audience

A recitation on God that I hadn't heard before, from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson:

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Another Ketchup - Part Two

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose - I've always been a sucker for these kinds of books that mimic survey courses. This one is particularly good, helped along by the fact that Prose is a top-notch fiction writer. Her chapter on Chekov alone is worth the price of admission (though I must admit that I borrowed this one from the library).

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson - Awful title, decent book. I fell in love with Atkinson's previous novel, One Good Turn and then went after her earlier Case Histories which I enjoyed, but not quite as much. WWTBGN? falls into that same "not quite as much" category. All three feature the same retired detective, Jackson Brodie, finding himself wrapped up in someone else's problems. In this one, the setup seemed to take forever (well over a hundred pages) and was only saved by the fact that Atkinson captured the voice and mindset of a quirky, sixteen-year old girl perfectly.

The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton - I don't buy many books strictly on the advice of cover blurbs, but this one had a blurb from David Sedaris saying that he howled with laughter. I didn't howl, but it was amusing and enough of a plot to keep it interesting. It felt like Flannery O'Connor-lite.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson - This is one of the best books I've read in the last couple of years. A beautiful style (and I guess some of the credit has to go to the translator, Anne Born) and a deceptively simple story of a man who moves to the country to find isolation for the remainder of his life. The novel manages to pull in a story of familial love, betrayal, honor and a bit of WW II intrigue.

How Fiction Works by James Wood - This book almost feels controversial now that I've read so many differing opinions on it. I fall into the camp that appreciates the perceptive insights that Wood contributes. I don't find him nearly as pedantic as some of the reviewers--he tends to affect a lofty diction, but that's just his style. Plus, he's English. I did notice that many of the examples of literature that Wood cites are the same ones that he's cited in other essays (some of the same scenes were used to illustrate points in essays from The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self). Not that there's anything wrong with that. Whether you agree with Wood's championing of "realistic" fiction or not, I think the book is worth the read. His explanation of the "free indirect style" is reason enough.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

It's been over a month, but I have to mention the fantastic Nick Cave show at the 930 Club in D.C. Very likely the loudest show I've ever attended, they played a lot of material from the latest album which lent itself to a high energy show. Cave himself was mesmerizing. José mentioned something about what the two drummers were doing, but I couldn't take my eyes off of Nick Cave the entire time. He was like this shamanistic evangelist, wheeling across the stage on those impossibly long legs and gesturing to the crowd almost constantly. He even took a moment to autograph a book someone passed up to him.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Another Catch-Up

Again, I've been neglecting the roundup of books. So much so that I think I'll have to break this "Catch-up" into multiple parts. Here goes part number one:


The Book Against God by James Wood - After reading a chunk of Wood's essays, I decided to check out his novel. Thomas Bunting is working on his Ph.D. but spends most of his time jotting notes in his "Book Against God" and lamenting his relationships with his wife and his father, a small town priest. As one would expect, Wood's style is lyrical and humorous and is what makes the book worth reading--otherwise it's a standard "my life is falling apart, existential crisis" novel.

The Sea by John Banville - Elegiac is the word most often used to describe this short but dense novel and that's the first that came to mind for me when attempting to describe it. I'm not sure if anyone writing in English today writes a more beautiful sentence than Banville. Sometimes it's almost too much, like a whole dinner of incredibly rich Alfredo sauce. Still, beautiful with the great little twist at the end.

Harry, Revised by Mark Sarvas - I picked this up because I read Sarvas' blog, The Elegant Variation. While I think that the review in the NYTBR was unnecessarily nasty, there were several points made that I have to agree with. Most of the "comedy" scenes played like bad television slapstick (the ball-busting exercise bike ride, the peeing out the window onto someone's head scene) and the humor in general just didn't work for me. Almost all of the character's ploys (Harry goes way out of his way to help a downtrodden waitress in order to impress her coworker) felt like they were contrived solely to advance the plot of the novel, not because they fit with the character's motivation. I wanted to like this one, because I do enjoy Sarvas' blog, but it never took hold with me.

That's it for now. I'll get to the rest later. Today? I don't know--that's kind of stretching it.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Monday, August 18, 2008

New David Byrne and Brian Eno


I woke up this morning to an email alert from the David Byrne and Brian Eno website that their new album was ready for streaming and downloading. I clicked on the link, popped on the headphones and "Home" was already playing through them. It was a beautiful thing. I love it. Check it out.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

I almost gave up on this book. After reading the initial section—made up of the journal entries of a precocious and at times dislikable young man recounting his initiation into a group of Mexico City poets—I was nearly ready to abandon the novel. The early chapters of the bulky middle section didn't help.

That middle section is told with a variety of voices—faux interviews, really. The name of the speaker, the place and date of the interview precede each interlude. Some go on for pages and some are just a paragraph. Some of the speakers are characters we've met in the first section, while others are new characters, but all of them have had some contact with our heroes, the leading poets of the visceral realist group, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. They leave Mexico City on a trek to find the original visceral realist poet, a woman who disappeared into the Sonora Desert in the 1920s, Cesarea Tinajero. When some of these interviews became bogged down with lists of obscure Latin American writers and obsessions over defunct (or entirely fictional) Mexican publications, I took a break from The Savage Detectives and read James Wood's How Fiction Works (more on that later perhaps?).

When I returned to the novel, I found myself entranced by the numerous voices that comprise the middle section. Characters began to distinguish themselves. Some were one-timers, others returned repeatedly throughout. I was captivated by Quim Font, the father of two visceral realist daughters who ends up in an asylum, by the Austrian skinhead who befriends Ulises in Israel, the female bodybuilder who lets a room to Arturo in Barcelona. Through this panoply of character portrayals, we follow the two poets across continents by the people they come in contact with. In many ways, we develop a much better picture of the numerous characters than we ever do of the two poets. Bolaño's dense pages of first person narratives, in a variety of first persons, demonstrate his genius for collecting the voices of Latin American and Spanish characters that give an intriguing portrait of an entire generation of artists, writers and scenesters.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Big Catch-Up

I've been neglecting the reading list recaps here, so I'm going to do a quick list of the stuff I've read since I last wrote about the stuff I've read. The stuff I can remember anyway.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz - This one just didn't bowl me over the way I thought it would. I appreciated Diaz's virtuosity, but it wasn't until the last third of the book that I really felt like I was reading something beyond "good."

Continental Drift by Russell Banks - Beautiful, painful, filled with striking grandiose passages that I kept wanting to copy. For my money, Banks captured an immigrant experience much better than Diaz did.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates - Artfully written; sentences I kept going back and reading again just to figure out how he made them seem so effortless.

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan - Remarkable in the compassion we feel for this Everyman going through the motions of his work. The pride the character takes in the small details of his thankless job is heartbreaking. I loved this much more than I imagined I would.

The Book of Evidence by John Banville - My first experience with Banville; gripping, frightening, funny and deftly constructed. I can see why he's considered a master.

That's it: just quick impressions that don't do justice to these books, but all I have time for now.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Friday, May 30, 2008

"Tree Guy"


By Gary Riggin. 24"by 18" Oil on Canvas

Monday, March 17, 2008

Thursday, March 6, 2008

That Time of Year


I haven't been posting much lately, so I thought I'd throw this quick sketch up here. Baseball is upon us and the Phillies could be in for a long year with the Mets' powerhouse pitching staff (A pox on you, Johann!).

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Stories They Told

I finished Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried last night (or was that the night before? this round-the-clock CoAdvil regimen is beginning to affect my thought processes) and was happy to discover the book was as much about storytelling as it was about the war. I avoided this one for a while because, between movies, television and novels, I felt I'd had a lifetime's fill of Vietnam stories. 

O'Brien, however, uses his own career as a writer (fueled by his experience in Vietnam) to blur the lines between fact and fiction in this novel. In the second half of the book, he'll return to stories from the first half and admit that, well, it didn't really happen like that or that kind of happened but it didn't happen to that character, it happened to me. And throughout the novel, stories are being told by characters and their technique is critiqued by other characters. O'Brien's point seems to be that the "truth" of fact doesn't matter; it's the emotional "truth," the larger "truth," that captures our experiences.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Third Policeman


I read Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman recently and throughout this whole surreal vision of hell I couldn't help seeing it as an animated film. From the red-faced, fat policeman to the bicycles that take on some of the attributes of their owners (and vice versa) to the enormous subterranean machine known as "eternity" I saw it playing out as a dark cartoon.
I scribbled a few of images with my limited (laughable?) drafting skills.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Bridge of Sighs

First, I must divulge how in love with Richard Russo's novels I am. Nobody's Fool was the first I read and I immediately went to find his two preceding books, Mohawk and The Risk Pool (which my friends Jen and Derek had recommended years before, a recommendation I, for some stupid reason, ignored). I loved everything about them: the artistic, but conversational tone; the truant and impish father figures; and, most of all, the humor. Russo's small town, upstate New York characters were people you wanted to go have a beer with because they were not only compassionate and smart, but they were witty as hell. If you can make me laugh in a novel that deals with some serious issues, I'm yours. So I could forgive a lot when it comes to Russo. Unfortunately, with Bridge of Sighs, I felt there was a lot to forgive.

While Russo keeps his traditional setting of upstate New York intact, he goes in a different direction with his main character's father issues. This time, his protagonist, Lucy Lynch (an unwelcome corruption of Lou C. Lynch) dwells on a father who is caring and ever-present. Big Lou isn't the brightest bulb, but he's a kind-hearted soul and Lucy adores him. This adoration and Lucy's instant nostalgia for every aspect of Thomaston, NY fills page after page of a memoir Lucy is working on. And Lucy, apparently, doesn't possess Russo's economy with words. The novel feels about two hundred pages too long.

There are welcome breaks in Lucy's story to recount the modern day life of his childhood friend, Bobby, who has become a famous painter, and Sarah Berg, the woman who loves both boys and eventually marries Lucy and settles in  Thomaston with him. Bobby's character provides the Absent Father story line that is prevalent in so much of Russo's work, but this time the father is an abusive bully instead of the happy-go-lucky wastrels of the earlier novels.

The problem in Bridge of Sighs is with the pretext of the memoir Lucy is writing. Lucy's pie-eyed vision of his beloved hometown isn't meant to be taken at face value--he's an unreliable narrator and we depend on the stories of Bobby and Sarah to get the real scoop. In the end, it feels as if Russo has pasted these various viewpoints together once he realized that Lucy's tale wasn't much more than a wordy postcard to his town and his father. The last hundred pages nearly redeemed the book with a couple of surprises, but the saccharine ending confirmed the feelings of frustration that accompanied the rest of Bridge of Sighs.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Wildwood Days, Wildwood Nights

I came across this quote today that I had copied when I was reading Philip Roth's Everyman. He has a habit of writing passages that hit home like a smack in the head from an ill-tempered nun.
But how much time could a man spend remembering the best of boyhood? What about enjoying the best of old age? Or was the best of old age just that--the longing for the best of boyhood, for the tubular sprout that was then his body and that rode the waves from way out where they began to build, rode them with his arms pointed like an arrowhead and the skinny rest of him following behind like the arrow’s shaft, rode them all the way in to where his rib cage scraped against the tiny sharp pebbles and jagged clamshells and pulverized seashells at the edge of the shore and he hustled to his feet and hurriedly turned and went lurching through the low surf until it was knee high and deep enough for him to plunge in and begin swimming madly out to the rising breakers--into the advancing, green Atlantic, rolling unstoppably toward him like the obstinate fact of the future--and, if he was lucky, make it there in time to catch the next big wave then the next and the next and the next until from the low slant of inland sunlight glittering across the water he knew it was time to go.
The beautiful part is that we still go to the Jersey shore every year and now my kids are experiencing the same thing. The same exhilaration, the same exhaustion, the same sense of joy tinged with the sad knowledge that it soon will be over. 

I'm ready for summer.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Murder of Crows


I was upstairs reading Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs (more on that later) when I gradually realized there was a lot of noise and activity going on outside. I pulled the blind and watched as a gang of crows gradually filled the trees in my backyard, cawing and squawking at something that I couldn't place. I grabbed my camera to shoot a couple of pictures (I've always been intrigued by crows and ravens) and saw why they were so upset. A pair of hawks had wandered in and a little territorial standoff was happening. I couldn't get a shot of the hawks, but I managed to catch some of the crows in action.

Friday, January 18, 2008

January Moon


Unloading groceries from the car today, looked up and there it was.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Snow!


The obligatory snow picture. Early school dismissal, snarled traffic, wet clothes--so much to look forward to today.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Retro Baseball Day


I cleaned my office this weekend and among the many surprises that made their way to the surface from the depths of the piles was this team picture of the Aston Valley Pirates. According to the back, the year was 1980 and the Pirates finished in second place. And I had really great hair. And possibly the beginnings of a mustache. (You can click the image for a larger version to get a closer look.)

The office cleaning thing is not recommended. I've spent hours over the last couple of days looking for things that used to be right where I needed them. Yeah it looks good, but it's horribly inefficient. Not to worry, though. I'll have this place junked back up in no time.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Macbook Air, eh?


In honor of the thinnest laptop ever, I present a photo of . . . my left hand.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Brass Portrait


Did I mention there would be no POTD on Sundays? No? Especially Sundays during the playoffs?Plus there's the New York Times to get through, the Sunday Sun, The Wire, and general lethargy. So, no Sundays. Unless I feel like it.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Playoffs Galore


I'm too busy watching football to go outside today, so here's a shot of the snazzy condenser mic that José let me borrow. Thanks, José, it works beautifully. Now if I could only produce something worthwhile with it.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

One Smithwick's, on the House


I was going to post a picture of the immense pile of crap I collected today while cleaning out the office, but I decided to go with a shot of the reward for all of my hard work instead. One tall glass of Smithwick's, just begging to be sipped. Cheers.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Picture of the Day!


For no good reason, I've decided to attempt a Picture of the Day post. Yes, it would have provided some good symmetry if I had started this on January 1st, but that would be very inconsistent with everything else in life I attempt. Either do it half-assed or don't do it at all.
I made it out of the house for the inaugural shot, but just barely.