Train Dreams

The other night I was working late, and trying to shift my mind and wind down for sleep, I ended up fishing Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” out of a pile of unread books.

What a book! I finished it that night, reading in one big gulp. The whole experience felt dreamlike and strange, and I found myself staring at the cover: a simple black and white landscape by Thomas Hart Benton of a horse racing a train. I’m still a bit under its spell.

I don’t think there’s anyone like Johnson for beautiful writing that feels somehow tossed off and vernacular. The most gorgeous sentences go past almost without you even noticing how perfect they are. The other thing – to me, his books feel so truly American. It’s the poetry they make of landscape, violence, work, and mysticism.

A long thaw had come earlier in the month. The snow was melted out of the ruts. Bare earth showed off in the woods. But now, again, the weather was freezing, and Grainier hoped he wouldn’t end up bringing in a corpse dead of the cold.

In this scene, Robert Grainier, the main character, is transporting a man who’s been shot in the shoulder by his dog (it’s a long story). It’s a brilliant miniature of absurdity and awe – kind of like “Emergency” in Jesus’s Son.

Grainier disliked the shadows, the spindly silhouettes of birch trees, and the clouds strung around the yellow half-moon. It all seemed designed to frighten the child in him. “Sir, are you dead?” he asked Peterson.

“Who? Me? Nope. Alive,” said Peterson.

I usually distrust short books, often feeling that their writers are trying to palm something off not properly formed. Or, with dread, I anticipate they will be overly poetical, though not with the rigor of actual poems. And I’ll get into it – make the investment and commitment you do with any book – only to discover there’s not much there. (Maybe this is my problem with tapas restaurants.) But reading “Train Dreams” I realized there is another category of short books – books that would be worse for being longer, books that somehow perfectly compress something huge and large as life into a small form.

Latest reads

I feel like I’m in a great stretch of reading right now, as if all my choices are magically good. It’s such a wonderful feeling – I wonder when my streak will break.

September started with The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a choice directly inspired by the article “Doubles” in the New Yorker, a review of a new Collins biography. (Incidentally, a search on “Wilkie Collins new yorker” for the link led me to discover the amazing I Hate the New Yorker blog, and oh my god, finally someone to obsess about this stuff with). The Moonstone is insanely entertaining, and there’s so much to bite into. There’s the way the book is broken up into sections by different narrators, so we get this sly commentary on the different characters. Sergeant Cuff, the eccentric but genius detective, spreads his DNA over an entire genre to follow (no less than TS Eliot called The Moonstone the first detective novel). And then there’s the whole treatment of “the Orient” (for the Moonstone is a mysterious Indian diamond stolen from the subcontinent) in which you can read a whole sorry/fascinating history. But aside from the interestingness of it, The Moonstone is also one of those wholly satisfying books: the good triumph, the sanctimonious are mocked, the puzzle is deliciously puzzling.

All that was a warm-up to Mat Johnson’s Pym, which is one of the best books I’ve read all year. In Pym, hapless academic Chris Jaynes, who’s obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, is refused tenure because he won’t sit on the college’s Diversity Committee. With an all-black crew, Jaynes journeys to Antarctica to discover the truth about Poe’s confounding novel, which is full of antebellum color terror and the source, as Jaynes says, of “the pathology of Whiteness.” I can’t remember reading anything so great as Jaynes summarizing the weird-ass story of Pym. (People who read this on Kindle, I am the mad highlighter!) This is my ideal book – full of ideas, smart people making bad decisions, and phrases that had me grinning like an idiot as I read it on public transportation (“snow honkies” q.e.d.). Plus, it has a plot! Things happen. A smart book with a plot! Thank you, Mat Johnson.

A recent surgery, in which a chatty dermatologist rooted around for skin cancer in my forehead, left me swollen and grumpy. It was a good time to read Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor for magical romance and adventure. I find myself a huge fan of Brimstone, and I loved all the scenes of Prague, art school, the teeth errands, and I loved Poison Kitchen, the restaurant where Karou and her friends dine on goulash. (It brought back a strange trip to Prague I once took after contracting an especially virulent flu in Moscow.) Very lovely, especially with Vicodin.

Lastly, I am now reading Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran. Ah… Here is the dead-eyed, slightly worn, drug-abusing lady detective I’ve been waiting for all my life. I’m not done yet, and there are already parts where it’s wildly great and wildly not-so-great. In fact, some parts are infuriating. I don’t care. I’m driving around New Orleans, seeing the high water marks and the collapsing shotgun houses and drinking 40s in a rented truck with Miss Claire and a bunch of street thugs. Throw in the I Ching and an inscrutable text by a master French detective and I’m sold. The first couple chapters alone, which are genre and also way beyond it, are so awesome the rest of the book can go to hell and it wouldn’t make a difference. I haven’t read Sara Gran’s other books, but have a feeling I’ll be checking out Dope and Come Closer soon.

A fan’s notes on A Dance With Dragons

All summer long I have been watching the works of George RR Martin take up residence on the bestseller lists with the same satisfaction I felt last fall when the SF Giants were winning games. It’s a curious thing about being a fan: that transference that happens when your team is winning and by extension you are a winner too. Stieg Larsson, whose party I was late to, never made me feel like things were going my way when his Millennium Trilogy had taken up its misanthropic squat atop the list. But seeing evidence of the success of A Song of Ice and Fire makes me happy in a purely tribal way.

I think the sports metaphors are justified here, not only because I’ve read through some pretty long posts about football on GRRM’s blog, but also because fandom itself is pretty much a pleasure-pain loop of triumph and disappointment. Same thing whether you’re watching sports or reading a great series.

Reading A Dance with Dragons it was hard not to feel that I was witnessing a book collapse under its own weight. With a Feast for Crows, I remember feeling nervous as the dark energy of expansion started to override the tight, nasty gravity that kept the previous three books as big as they could be without breaking apart. But this one feels like entropy, baby.

The problem may be mine. I am simply not that interested in anything that happens in Braavos, Pentos, the grass sea of the Dothraki, Astapor, Yunkai, or – sadly – Meereen. I do not work to keep the names straight, still less their geography. It’s the north, with its towering Wall and gloomy Winterfell that is the singular achievement of the saga. (It is an unhappy and rather belated realization that the name of the series is, after all, A Song of Ice and Fire – and having had our Ice, we’ve now got to pay with Fire.)

Meereen is a slog. Tyrion is on a camping trip that makes Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows seem like a jaunt to the corner store. Daenerys – always in danger of being too good – is stuck as a Ruler Who Struggles to Do the Right Thing. Beset by dangers on all sides, she’s become even more of a bore. And yes, of course Jon Snow is having to do the same thing at the Wall – I’ve just always thought he was a more fully realized character than she – despite her misfortunes and her dragons. (I’m not quite certain why, but I think it has to do with the exoticism of her setting, which has always felt a little invented, and the way she is regarded by everyone as a figurehead. In this book, she has a baker’s dozen of suitors trying to win her hand purely because of what she symbolizes. It’s hard to come into sharp relief when everyone abstracts you, including your writer.)

It is almost always easier to say something negative than positive. In this case, though, it comes from love. I don’t really mind that this book disappointed. It doesn’t matter that this book is not as “good” as the the first three – which seem matchless now in hindsight. The series has been awe-inspiring on the level of plotting, character, imagination, the vigor with which the author’s seized a whole genre and made it seem like I’d never read it before. There are still great moments here – the Others erupting from underneath the snow, the greenseer, the Stone Men. And there are the surprises – there’s the whopper at the end, but on a lesser scale, who knew that Reek would turn out to be the most interesting character of the book?

Still a fan.

The passive characters support group

It’s a truism of writing craft that characters need to act and reveal themselves and basically fling themselves from choice to choice in order to show who they are. But a new book I’m reading has made me realize how one-dimensional writing advice so often is. I suppose the rule of active, doing, choice-making characters is valid for many books. But how come one never reads advice on how to make a main character a passive observer? Why shouldn’t writing gurus advise this occasionally?

I am wondering this because I am in the first flush of excitement over a new book with a passive observer narrator, and it is just lovely: observation after observation unrolling at a snail’s pace.

This is “A Question of Upbringing,” by Anthony Powell, book one in “A Dance to the Music of Time.” I downloaded it (yes, I now have a Kindle!) because Elif Batuman did and wrote about it, and I have been slavishly following her blog, because it has the right proportion of humor, curiosity, random association, and erudition, plus I appreciate her philosophical attitude toward life’s big and little travails.

I was a fan of Elif’s article about drunken dialing Agatha Christie on her Kindle (which led me to think about the underrated quality of coziness in literature), and upon learning that she had turned to Powell, I blindly followed her Kindle trail.

And I’m enjoying it wholeheartedly. I’ve downloaded several books that are much more pacey (an adjective I heard the cool editors use at a literary conference and now want to use myself as a way of appearing in-the-know), and find that I’m in no hurry to read them. Could it be I actually prefer snail’s-pace books with somewhat passive observers as the main characters? (Can’t be, I am, after all, the same person who also read Paranormalcy this month.) Should people sometimes think about writing observer characters?

But that would be … thoughtcrime! You can’t write a character who’s less assertive on the page than the secondary characters.

Or can you? This is where it would be so great to be someplace like graduate school again, where you can go away and tackle a question like this instead of – as I do – thinking about it late at night after writing a white paper on network security solutions.

An observer character is an interesting animal – someone whose drama is all interior, intellectual, and the meaningful action is all about a changing of perception. There’s definitely pleasure to be had in following someone like this around and seeing the world through his or her eyes. But I think you need to be such an assured, masterful thinker and prose stylist to pull this off that maybe it’s nearly impossible to do well. That may be why craft discussions steer writers the other way. The people who can do it know who they are.

At any rate, in my own writing journey I’m writing a character who acts and reveals herself in choice and (I hope) goes smartly through her paces as a well-rounded complex character with a satisfying “arc.”

But I still would love to see a workshop or a blog where someone says, you know what, it’s ok sometimes to write an observer character. Let’s study what makes them great.

You’d think there’d be room enough in the fiction zoo for characters like that.

For the love of newspapers – The Imperfectionists

I have been reading Tom Rachman’s “The Imperfectionists” and loving it so much I feel like hugging myself every time I pick it up. The book is about all the characters who work for an English-language newspaper based in Rome. (It’s not hard to imagine it as the International Herald Tribune, where Rachman did a stint.) This book has Rome (plus other exotic international locales), wonderfully real characters in full-blown quirk mode, and … newspaper stuff. Okay, Rome and everything is great, but it’s the newspaper stuff that really makes this book a treat.

Back when I was fresh out of college, I worked at a weekly newspaper in San Francisco. I started as an intern and kept hanging around until I think they finally felt embarrassed enough to give me a job. I loved this job. These were the last days of actual typesetters and, in what is surely not a coincidence, the last days of fairly cheap apartments in San Francisco. All the typesetters were artists – or cranks, really they were both. I used to go to Cafe la Boheme on 24th St. and run into one of the typesetters and hear about her latest painting, the near-deadline disasters, and all the alcohol that more senior staff members had consumed the night before.

I’m probably generalizing wildly, but I think people who have worked for newspapers have a kind of tribal identity that follows them through the rest of life. I think this is why David Simon focused Season 5 of “The Wire” around The Baltimore Sun and beat on it so hard. Newspapers get under your skin. (I feel this way and I only worked at a weekly. All I know is the Bay Guardian’s crusade against PG&E is seared onto my soul.) There’s a peculiar combination of really smart people, ambition, a curious failure to reach one’s potential, alcohol abuse, and the condition of getting screwed over by management that forms the perfect essence of newsroom – and that I think Rachman captures perfectly.

My parents still get two newspapers a day (it used to be three, back when there was such a thing as afternoon papers), and my idea of bliss is still an uninterrupted hour on Sunday morning with the New York Times.

We are slackers with only one newspaper subscription, and with the way the SF Chronicle seems to be going, I wonder how long we’ll have that. I don’t know about the newsrooms of the future – my impression is they’re actually just a bunch of Starbucks where the bloggers sit. Which brings me to another reason I appreciate The Imperfectionists: even though it’s acidly funny, there’s still this wonderfully elegiac tone for the passing of a treasured institution (done with a light touch, of course, it’s not morbid). Treasure your newsprint while you can.

My copy of The Imperfectionists posed against my kids' stack of Harry Potter videos

Fear of short stories

I’ve never really felt comfortable around short stories. For one thing, I struggle to write them, and always feel a bit out of proportion whenever I make the attempt – too obvious, too obscure, too packed with stuff, not enough depth. My failings aside, I’m also wary about reading them. In fact, I never did read many at all until in grad school, when I was forced to. Short stories seem to me feel full of treacherous melancholies, all the more dangerous for so often being quiet. And since in my daily life I struggle to remain chipper, it’s rare that I’m in the mood to open myself to their insinuating, perfectly wrought sadness.

All of which is to say I’ve been surprised to find myself really enjoying some short stories lately. I think I’m a full-blown fan, for instance, of Tessa Hadley, who’s often in the New Yorker. Just the other week, she had a story, “Honor,” that has all the elements that usually put me in a funk for days (a dead child, emotionally cramped relationships, the past). But it’s so beautifully done, I found myself swept along.

Here is the narrator, a woman looking back on something that happened when she was a girl:

“I was dreading arriving home in the middle of a big fuss. I couldn’t bear crises: the huddles of women, their lowered voices, smoldering glances, shutting the children out and yet looping them in – tantalizing them – to the dark, sticky center.”

How I love that. Everything she writes is so beautifully simple and exact. Here is another:

“People had mixed feelings about men’s violence against their families in those days: it was disgusting, but it was also, confusedly, part of the suffering essence of maleness, like the smell of tobacco and beard growth.”

I’ve always thought my fear of short stories spoke to a kind of literary arrested development. Like the child in the quote above who couldn’t bear crises, I often feel that I can’t bear fiction that is too real, for I’m too afraid of encountering true sadness and grief. In books, the length helps, and they’re less pointed.

Actually, it was a recent attempt to write a story again that led me to my current spate of short story reading. In the course of this, through posts on Short Story Craft and Earth Goat I ended up loving two other short stories with dead children in them. I’m talking about Alice Munro’s “Dimension” and William Trevor’s “The Dressmaker’s Child,” each of which appeared in the New Yorker. They are each so artfully artless, each about the aftermath of tragedy, each about such ordinary people that they could easily bear their unbearableness into any one of our lives. But they were great. I read them and re-read them.

Maybe I’m finally growing up.

P.S. Here is a great review from the Virginia Quarterly of “Too Much Happiness,” the Alice Munro collection that includes “Dimension.” Puts it much better than I can.

My writer for 2011

The other night I was getting ready for bed and my husband said he was going to stay up late to finish reading Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard, he explained, was his thinker for 2010 and he was hustling to wrap him up so he could get on with a new thinker for 2011 (thinker still tbd). It got me thinking that I should choose a writer and make him – or her – my writer of the year. After all, I have a huge stack of books that I’ve put in my “read next” pile but what I read is actually quite random. Casual observation of my “read next” pile makes it appear that the book I’m reading next is “Proust, Portrait of a Genius” by Andre Maurois, when really I am going to the Berkeley Public Library and reading “Horns” by Joe Hill. If I had a writer for 2011, it might not do anything for my “read next” pile, but it might give my wayward reading habits a little shape, and presumably help me remember what all I’ve read for the last year.

It just so happened that a friend had recently given me “The Norton Shakespeare (Based on the Oxford Edition).” Like all Nortons, it is about ten pounds of onionskin, dwarfed only by the inestimable weight of the scholarly fantasies it inspires. So, with a drum roll please, I am announcing that Shakespeare is the lucky writer I have named as My Writer for 2011.

The Norton Shakespeare

Even if I read only “major” plays I am unlikely to get through all this in a year, but I’m going to give it a try nevertheless. Wouldn’t it be something by the end of 2011 to have memorized some lines and be able to sprinkle my conversation with sage quotes from The Bard? (Take me out for drinks in 2012 and see what you think.) My idea is that I’ll read a little each day – at lunch time, when I’m usually scrapping around the Bay Area section of the San Francisco Chronicle and reading the crime report. If I supplement this program with motivational viewings of “The History Boys” I should have at least a few plays read or re-read by the end of the year. Sincere excitement!

An overdue leopard and other book trouble

The Berkeley Public Library copy of "The Leopard"

This week I had the humiliating experience of leading a kindergarten field trip to the local library only to be outed, once there, as scofflaw borrower with a lengthy rap sheet of overdue library books.

The librarian, who gently tolerated our loud and exuberant group, patiently checked out books for 20 kids and then when it was our turn, handed me a long printout where my reading habits for the past few months were set down in black and white. It was quite a reckoning.

Did I really read “The Lost Symbol,” by Dan Brown, for which I owe the Berkeley Public Library 50 cents? I vaguely remember of a bunch of strenuous Masonic hugger-mugger in Washington, so I must have.

I more clearly remember “Blood Oath,” by Christopher Farnsworth, in which it’s revealed that the president of the United States has a personal vampire secret service agent. I think that premise alone was worth the 50-cent fine.

Then there was “The Mood Cure: The 4-Step Program to Take Charge of Your Emotions Today” coming in at $4 (!) in overdue charges. This, I must have checked out when I was searching for a way out of the despair, lethargy, and crabbiness which waylay my life these days. (The cure, in case you are wondering, is an alphabet soup of amino acids). Someday I might still pursue The Mood Cure, although I may decide instead to put $4 worth of future fines toward dark chocolate, which also seems to do the trick.

But the book for which I have racked up the most fines ($5 and counting) I still have no intention of returning. It is Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” and I have been savoring every moment spent in its company.

And here is the problem with books from the library. Three weeks – which is the time allotted to you when you check out a book from the Berkeley Public Library – is not close to the amount of time it takes to enjoy “The Leopard,” a book I think I would like to keep checked out for the next couple years.

Consider this line, describing a moment in the Jesuit Father Pirrone’s return to the small Sicilian village of his birth: “Soon they moved off to church for the commemorative Mass. That day San Cono looked its best, basking almost proudly in its exhibition of different manures.”

How perfectly that captures the author’s sly humor, his balance of sacred and profane, his evocation of Sicily: stubborn, unchanging, and proud. This book has given me countless pleasures. I love the pomp and grandeur of the Salinas, the squalor of peasants and small towns, the melancholy ruminations, the political digressions, the descriptions of landscape, the air of “carnality” that swirls around the young lovers, the corpse of the soldier discovered in the garden.

Why do I not buy “The Leopard”? Because reading material already covers every surface in our house like a shaggy mold. And I’ve been virtuously resisting the urge to buy a Kindle, partly out of a characteristic tendency to overthink any technology purchase, partly because I’m wondering how good ebooks are for publishing, and partly because it’s inevitable that I will own one and so therefore can take my time.

Plus, if I get “The Leopard” I want to buy the Berkeley Public Library edition, which I’ve grown fond of, not the least because on its the back cover there is an ancient Post-It with the cryptic words “stealth pathogens” written down along with a note in my doctor’s handwriting to try Tony Horton’s P90X exercise routine. This, right there, neatly encapsulates the current state of affairs chez moi with a precision that approaches the poetic.

I guess I could just move the Post-It to my Kindle. But it wouldn’t be the same.

Coming back to life in Mexico

At the end of summer, to get our Español in gear, we took a trip to Cuernavaca, Mexico. It was the first family trip ever outside the country, and, in a measure of how little we travel outside the familiar rotation to grandparents’ houses, we all needed passports. These we applied for from a bored and tattooed student worker at the UC Berkeley rec center. With competitive swimmers in the background, we dutifully smiled and paid our fees on a gray day in June.

I was sort of resenting the intrusion of a complicated vacation into a life that had become all about meeting deadlines and remembering to pack my son’s soccer cleats. For Grant and me, it was the end of a long, grinding year. But slowly, over the course of two weeks, I did come back to life – reading deeply again, noticing things again.

From my Mexican vacation, I can highly recommend J.M.G. Le Clézio’s “The Mexican Dream, Or, the Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations” which I read in the shadow of a conquistador’s church built from the stones of destroyed pyramids. And this brought back to mind a doomed screenplay attempt I once made, trying to scale the story of La Malinche, the complicated woman who was instrumental to the Spanish conquest and became mistress to Cortes. Who was she, really? As the minatory clouds built up each afternoon over the Cortes Palace, we sipped coffee and pondered her character.

xochicalco pyramid

Cuernavaca is the setting of my second favorite book of all time, “Under the Volcano,” where Malcolm Lowry wrestled with his mezcal-soaked demons to produce the most amazingly moving chronicle of a man reckoning with his past mistakes and failures. It’s an incredible book that once you’ve read it, always stays with you. The home where Lowry once lived is now a hotel, by the way. We wandered through its picturesque desuetude taking photos on our phones.

There were the countless, invigorating moments of dislocation, wonderful mashups of context. Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” blasting down the crowded Calle Tacuba in Mexico City. Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” heard in a Mexico City taxi caroming through the streets at 5 in the morning.

Also great was seeing “Mi Vilano Favorito,” aka “Despicable Me,” in a movie theater off the zocalo. Or even better, seeing “The Great Gatsby” as part of a small evening cinema series in the Robert Brady museum in Cuernavaca. Brady – an artist and collector with a great handlebar mustache, a furry chest, and loads of money – was apparently *the* guy to know in town. After living in Venice he decided to relocate and bought a place that backs up against the 16th century cathedral. There he displayed an amazing folk art collection and threw fabulous parties. His house is now a museum where even the bathrooms are exquisite and everything is staggeringly colorful. Frida Kahlo with a monkey on her shoulder stares with her confronting glance from a wall in one of the upstairs bedrooms, holding her own in a space crowded with paintings and objets. Anyone who has been to the Museo Robert Brady will understand that I now live there in my dreams.

Or maybe my dreams will go live in the Jardin Borda, the gardens said to be haunted by the ghost of Empress Carlotta, the sad, mad, ill-fated wife of Maximilian. You can easily believe in ghosts as you explore the long, moody walkways, fringed with all kinds of exotic plants, and stumble upon melancholy fountains that are silent, shut off until some future, better day.

I’ve writen a self-indulgent lot, but it’s not even the half of it. Mexico was wonderful – full of elegance, life, mystery, struggle, 400-year-old crimes, and much older temples. Plus, incredibly excellent papaya. I am saving my centavos to return.


Great, now I’m a high-fantasy nerd

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1) A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Wow. I almost never like high-fantasy epics of m’lady courtliness, plus (ho hum) spooky old darkness, plus swords forged someplace awesomely dread of some kind of dreadly steel, plus, oh, dragons and prophecy and kitchen-sink Tolkien. Now I know why I’m so dismissive of that stuff – it always falls short. This book does not. The copy I have looks like any other pulpy doorstopper you might buy in a pinch at a drugstore before heading to jury duty, and yet I stayed up quite late reading and against my will and good sense went down the “Song of Ice and Fire” rabbit hole, even unto behavior like checking out George RR Martin’s livejournal and reading of his football preferences, yea for several entries even. F*** it’s now onto “A Clash of Kings” and more Westerossian madness for me and a futile attempt to shake free of books that slice like fine Valyrian steel through all my reading prejudices and plans. Bring on the dragons.

View all my reviews >>