Sunday, December 18, 2016

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A.: TalesSlow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A.: Tales by Eve Babitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A NYRB classic, Babitz in her witty singular voice offers up Los Angeles and Hollywood of the Sixties and Seventies, not long after my first enchanted visit, in her incomparable portraits and badass tales. I had a good time with this book.

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Sunday, November 20, 2016


Having spent hours poring over Zappo's website, I remember the distress and the joy of shoe shopping when I was fourteen or fifteen and wearing a size eleven woman's shoe. Of course, there were few to be found in town except sensible brown oxfords or white bucks which made my foot look like Clementine's ("wearing boxes without topses"). Then we discovered Capezio in New Rochelle, NY. I'll never forget the excitement of that first pair. Ballet flats. No arch support. Red leather. I was in heaven. They still sell them.
And it was not only shoes that caused problems. I was about five foot ten inches tall in 7th grade. Finding clothes offered challenges especially at the all-important age of thirteen when "everyone" was wearing the same thing, the flat knit angora pullover sweater and matching unpressed pleated skirt. De rigeur.
My mother was helpful, taking dressmaking classes and learning how to sew and tailor. she made many of my skirts and dresses. Most of them came from the fancy couture patterns I insisted upon, having spent a great deal of time with Mademoiselle and Glamour and Vogue magazines. Even at the tender age of fourteen, I loved fashion magazines and followed the lives of the models as eagerly as my sister stalked the Beatles. 
My mother, my ally, my friend, turned on me over a handbag. She gave me the money to go downtown and buy a bucket bag, a leather bucket-shaped purse being touted as the latest fashion for the teens. I went downtown and completely ignored the bucket bags because I had found the featured Glamour "item of the month," a black patent carryall with large white polka dots - goes with everything - and it was less than the bucket bag. I bought it and carried it home with pride and delight. My mom threw a fit. This was so far from her idea of a school purse that I had trespassed on her very intelligence, displaying a frivolousness with her money that was not acceptable, even infuriating. I pleaded and wept and bellowed my dismay. She remained obdurate. She told me to return it. I refused. She wrapped it up and returned it herself, unfazed by my wailing. My resentment clung for years. Even now, if I saw that bag for sale, I'd buy it. Gaudy. Festive. Fun. What's not to love about polka dots?
Was it the bag? Was it independence? Was it a chance to express my own sense of fashion in an approved manner vis a vis Glamour Magazine? I was going to become a writer and live in a garret, goddammit, but I would do so stylishly.
That purse was dearer to me than any person at the time. It was the sine qua non of fashion taste and pizzazz. Even my crush in biology, Larry Somebody, couldn't really compete with the polka dot bag. I can't think of another article before or since which has generated such pride of possession. Or perhaps I've blown it out of proportion. Only a handbag, you say? But it meant that I could have a tiny taste of the life I coveted from the New York world only glimpsed in magazines. The Mademoiselle College Issue was another absorption when it arrived, or perhaps I bought a copy. Actual living commoners like me were dressed in the latest fashion as they prepared to go off to college, one of the "Seven Sisters" like Vassar or Radcliffe or Smith, and then photographed on campus. I spent as much time on that fall issue as I did on any subsequent textbook until Statistics. The fascination fashion and modeling was eventually surpassed by bell-bottomed Levis and hippie plaid shirts with my embroidered denim jacket in the next decade, but in the early Sixties, this was where my heart dwelled. Ask me about Carol Linley or Dolores Hartman or Verushka and I could tell you anything, even the sad truth that I was too big to be a fashion model.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Any Human Heart, the Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart by William Boyd

Any Human HeartAny Human Heart by William  Boyd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This fictional journal of the writer Logan Mountstuart kept me enthralled for the bulk of this bulky novel. I was sorry to see it end. I miss it. When starting with his childhood, I twitched and sighed hoping that we would soon be into Oxford days, but after twenty or thirty pages, I was hooked. Not a fan of roman a clef or historical fiction, here I was enjoying both, in a journal format, particularly the protagonist's encounters with real life figures like Hemingway or Joyce or Picasso or the Duke of Windsor. Settings were seductive, Oxford, Paris , Zurich, Bermuda or New York City. The spy tasks during WWII, the haunting prisoner of war years and aftermath, the art gallery milieu, the publishing business fascinated me. There is a Meiner Badhof interaction toward the end, oddly involving our hero, which didn't seem to fit, but I never faltered in my bulldozing through the book, picking it up at even a hint of insomnia. My favorite quote from his Southern France retirement oasis of which he writes:

The pleasures of my life here are simple – simple, inexpensive and democratic. A warm hill of Marmande tomatoes on a roadside vendor’s stall. A cold beer on a pavement table of the Café de France – Marie Therese inside making me a sandwich au Camembert. Munching the knob off a fresh baguette as I wander back from Saint-Sabine. The farinaceous smell of the white dust raised by a breeze from the driveway. A cuckoo sounding in the perfectly silent woods beyond the meadow. The huge grey, cerise, pink, orange and washed-out blue of a sunset seen from my rear terrace. The drilling of the cicadas at noon – the soft dialling tone of the crickets as dusk slowly gathers. A good book, a hammock and a cold, beaded bottle of blanc sec. A rough red wine and steak frites. The cool, dark, shuttered silence of my bedroom – and as I go to sleep the prospect that all this will be available to me again, unchanged, tomorrow. (p.479)

I need only the hammock and cold, beaded bottle of blanc sec to supplement this good book.

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Dear Fang, With LoveDear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Our family had been jumbled by history by war, by falling and rising regimes, by escapes across the world, by drives through orange groves and trips to Disneyland and the slow poison of sugary flowers on supermarket cakes."

Thorpe's new novel (despite the awful cover) is even better than her first, The Girls from Corona del Mar, which got four stars from me. Teen parents, Lucas and Katya decide to have a baby, Vera, who Katya raises on her own while Lucas seeks his own way, attending college, teaching, without seeing his daughter. Seventeen years later, Lucas takes Vera on a history tour of Vilnius, Lithuania where his Jewish grandmother was born and escaped after hiding in the forest during the war, Vera's recent diagnosis of bipolar disease is questioned as the two of them explore the ancient city and their own relationship while alternating chapters reveal the emails Vera sends home to her Samoan boyfriend, Fang.

Thorpe describes Vilnius, a place I never even dreamed of wanting to visit but now I do. She takes us on a tour of the city and through the characters, we explore lives and history of Jewish survivors. Grim and intense descriptions of mental illness and the doctors and medication to try to turn it around made me count my blessings. I loved the characters, especially Judith and Susan and impossibly thick Johnny Depp and unwitting Daniel.I had trouble picturing Lucas but I never tired of his struggles, trying to be a father, trying to curb his drinking.

Favorite quotes:

Vera, about the concert singer:
"the singer was an incredibly short fat little man who was shaped just like a teapot, only he was wearing a tuxedo....his voice..was like bronze and chocolate melted together and flung through the air in something stretched impossibly taut, a piece of silk against the sky, and then something that sags, soft and dead, the belly of a shot fox, the clicking jaw of a dying mink."

Susan, in her fifties:
"It's different when you're my age. All the available men are fish that have already been thrown back. Everyone has gotten divorced. They have years of bad habits and resentments built up and you have to try to find someone who is fucked up in the exact matching, complementary way to your own fucked-up-ness. It's very tiring. Excruciating, really. And all the men who want to date me are in their sixties, all the guys my own age are dating thirty-year-olds, and it's like dating Mr. Rogers, I swear to God."

Lucas, who teaches English:
"What I have always loved most about literature was the way it eased my own loneliness. Even as my mother's son, at my most awkward and chubby and sunburned, sure I would never have a girlfriend, there was always Shakespeare. There was the possibility of having one's most opaque yearnings and vague intimations transformed before one's eyes in to the beautiful forms of perfectly expressed thought."

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Friday, August 26, 2016

BilgewaterBilgewater by Jane Gardam
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my failings as a writer is that I begin a book with attention to the author's descriptive details, her dialog, her scenes from beginning to end and I brush the edge of learning but then I lose my critiquing way. I started Bilgewater with much admiration for all of these writerly skills and then became involved in the story such that I never took note again. Every time I put the book down, I couldn't wait to pick it up again. All of my fondness for English life in novels resurfaced and I was right there in the Master's house with Bilgie bemoaning her motherless teen age self. Usually, I don't care for coming-of-age tales, eager to get on with adulthood, but this story beguiled me. She lives with her father, a master in a boy's school in the north of England. In first person (never easy to read), we learn of his absent-minded attention, their steady, funny housekeeper, Paula, her difficult friends and stalwart uncles and her initial reading difficulties. My attention never flagged and I lived with them all for the three days it took to read the story, eschewing tv to jump into bed at night to swim laps with Bilgie on school breaks and play chess with her dad. I shouldn't be surprised since Jane Gardam has never failed me and this is one more feather in her bonnet.

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Friday, June 24, 2016


In the early 1980's, when I was managing a large Doubleday bookshop in a mall in Northern California, Mr. Nelson Doubleday himself paid us a visit over the holidays. I am not sure if it was Christmas or perhaps some gift-giving event like Mother's Day, but a new edition of the Joy of Cooking had come out and we were loaded with them. An endcap in the cookbook section was devoted to the fifty or so copies on display with some promo placards. On the shelf, the only other such offering was a copy or two of the Doubleday Cookbook, a similar but not so popular compendium of cooking. Mr. Doubleday had a titan-worthy fit and called the head office to order one hundred copies of the Doubleday Cookbook shipped to us and to the twenty other Doubleday Book Shops by overnight delivery so we could replace the Joy copies with "his" cookbook. But the customers did not want the Doubleday Cookbook. They wanted the Joy of  Cooking. Eventually, we had to send back copies or store them until he reappeared. It was such a misguided effort. He might have gotten publicists and media folk to give him equal time and interviews to create demand but that was not his way. I don't think we sold more than three or four copies of the
Doubleday Cookbook all year although it is a good overall recipe book. It could use an updated cover I thought at the time, and sure enough, by 1990, it had a colorful illustrated jacket as the The New Doubleday Cookbook was published.

So here off the top of my head are my ten favorite cookbooks of the hundreds I own. I do so little cooking these days, you'd think I was working full-time.

Julia Child's The Way to Cook
Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash
Plenty and Jerusalem (two volumes counted as one)- Ottolenghi
The Essential New York Times Cookbook by Amanda Hesser
Gourmet Today Cookbook by Ruth Reichl
The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan
Essential Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy
The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy
Classical Turkish Cooking by Ayla E. Algar
Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax

Vegetarian Cooking by Deborah Madison
The Food of Portugal by Jean Anderson
Lulu's Provencal Table by Richard Olney
The Cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert
Provence Cookbook by Patricia Wells
Time-Life Good Cook Series
Lost Recipes by Marion Cunningham
A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden

The Ottolenghi books are the only new titles I have embraced as his recipes are popular among so many of my friends. My Asian cookbooks are well represented on the shelf, but almost never used, as with the Hungarian, German, Polish and Greek cookbooks. Then I have the single topic collections on soups, cookies, cakes, pies, meat, zucchini, bread, preserving. James Beard is a favorite with the other cook in my household. John Thorne's books like Simple Cooking and Outlaw Cook are favorites to browse, as is Alan Davidson, M F K Fisher or Elizabeth David. Then I have lots of antiquarian cookbooks which are fun to leaf through like Bettina's Cakes and Cookies or Charleston Receipts but which I have never cooked from. Some serious shelf weeding is in order but as soon as I start, I am lost in browsing. Stay tuned for progress reports. Think of the shelf space which could be freed, she said persuasively.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

This Too Shall Pass by Milena Busquets My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This Too Shall PassThis Too Shall Pass by Milena Busquets
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a short, languid novel of the narrator's sadness and ennui in a seaside town in her ancestral summer. After her mother's death, she is stunned by grief using drugs, sex and alcohol to cope as she looks back at memories of her mother, her boyfriends, her two ex-husbands, while contemplating mortality. The author offers some lovely passages: "Nacho belongs to the summer just like the boating trips do, or the naps in the hammock, or the freshly baked bread we buy straight from the oven on our way home after being out all night, kneaded by the arms of drowsy men who watch us devour it with sad eyes." Or "I could describe each and every corner of my mother's house. I know and remember the changing colors of the mahogany shelves where she kept her books, from mahogany to garnet and finally black according to the time of day and when dusk fell. I know the exact temperature of my father's hands, like bread fresh out of the oven, and in a snap I could draw you the half-empty glass of red wine he always kept in the kitchen."

I could smell the Med at Cadaques and the fresh bread. Not much happens, little plot, but moments and musings, yet I wanted to pick the book up every evening and be back in Spain. Maybe it has a Catalonian sensibility, the painful loss she feels, the distanced lovers, her two young sons, close friendships with women, the warmth of the sun, the sleeplessness. Who is the narrator once she is no longer a daughter? "I will never be seen through your eyes again," she says in the imaginary conversation with her belated mother which threads through the book.

"A seductive voice" says the back of the book, a "summery, sexy , cool," "one of the most elegant books you'll read" declares the French paper. So the seductive elegance enticed me enough to finish the book in a day or two.

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Thursday, May 26, 2016

EileenEileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Otessa Moshfegh is described as one of the brightest new voices in fiction, an NEA fellow, Stanford Stegner grad, and she is but this book is a hard sale. Her story is suspenseful -- I kept reading avidly late into the night -- but it is a bleak tale (and I love bleak) of a young girl who is trapped living with her overbearing ex-cop alcoholic father, working at a prison for boys, suffering an eating disorder and troubled by her lack of intimate connections until Rebecca comes to work at the prison and provides a "ticket to a new life...She was so clever and beautiful, I thought, the embodiment of all my fantasies for myself." What keeps you reading other than the edge-of-seat shenanigans at the end, are strategic references to the beautiful, loving life she lives now, fifty years later, and the superb writing: "She whirled off her coat as though in slow motion -- this is how I remember it -- and shook it like a bullfighter as she strode up the corridor toward me, hair rippling behind her, eyes like daggers shooting down straight through my heart to my guts." She notes the motto written on a pack of Pall Malls "a shield between two lions -- Per aspera ad astra. Through the thorns to the stars. That described my plight to a tee." The story winds up hopefully "not a direct line to paradise, but I believe I got on the right road, with all the appropriate trips and kinks." I am glad I read Eileen and will read her next book but it's a relief not to be the bookseller for this one.

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And for more bleak titles, Paul Bryant on Goodreads offers a "rich seam of female self-loathing in fiction:"

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirio - the unnamed un-beautiful older sister spends her whole life hating everybody especially herself
A Day Off by Storom Jameson - the unnamed middle-aged alcoholic frump spends a day hating everybody especially herself
Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill - the unnamed (as I seeing a pattern here?) wife spends a solid  year or so hating mostly herself
Dietland by Sarai Walker - Plum Kettle (hey, unroll your eyes, that's her name)spends her entire life self-loathing her own plus-size body
All of Jean Rhys' novels except Wide Sargasso Sea - the variously named alcoholic heroines all of whom are Jean, spend their allotted few months in each book totally hating themselves and pretty  much everything else (the curtains, the breakfast egg, etc.)
 The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek - the gold standard of female self-loathing against which all other self-loathers are to be judged. Erica Kohut spends her entire waking moments hating herself and everything else to such a level of frenzy that the women in the above-mentioned books would only look on in envy and loathe themselves a little bit more because they couldn't quite get to the level of loathingness Erica Kohut achieves with seeming ease.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

That Awful Mess on the Via MerulanaThat Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Baroque, ornate, dense, tangled, funny, brilliant unfinished 400-page rant from Carlo Emilio Gadda which
  Carlo Emilio Gadda
thwarts logical conclusions and forces the reader to go along for the ride in the many-layered, stinky, cacaphony of corruption and magic depicted as 1927 Rome. Ostensibly a detective novel, there's a theft, a murder, and a host of descriptions of Mussolini-era Italy including the memorable references to Il Doochay as "Death's Head," or "Fierce Face," or the Shit...the syphilitic Swaggerer." But the investigation is incomplete, derailed like the train in one scene, and the tale ends inconclusively, indeed an inventive "mess."

The book club discussion was lively and mostly enthusiastic. One member, Dani, even produced a fantastic glossary of the book's elaborate vocabulary.
William Weaver's translation was masterful in dealing with Gadda's imaginative vocabulary, made-up words, puns and double-meanings.

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Books - "Unalloyed, summer had lingered miraculously into 
late September without a suggestion that autumn 
was at hand." Mark Shorer, 1938, "Boy in the Summer Sun" 

I see the headline in an email, a newspaper article, or a magazine piece which says "Summer Reading" and I perk up and zoom in like some kind of addict. Well, not so much an addict as a bibliophile, a reader, a connoisseur of literature. I'm not so captivated by best seller fare so much, but anything from a new literary experiment in fiction, a novel from a favorite author, a forgotten treasure from New York Review Books, a travel story or a long and challenging classic. Or even the 78-year-old short story which provided the above quote. I remember the huge piles of books we'd take with us on family vacations in the narrow confines of our cabin cruiser where we slept, read, traveled and ate together in a space thirty feet by eight feet. I envied the hammock dwellers who stayed put and didn't have to leap up to handle the lines for docking or anchoring in a new harbor. Retired now, the idea of long, lazy vacation days from school or work has a different meaning in a life where "every day is Saturday" but still the reading freedom is constrained. Part of the imagined constraint is that it must be somewhere other than here. Somewhere with a hammock or a outside recliner or a beach rather than my own backyard which needs weeding. But I continue to stockpile the list, order from the library, run to the bookstore, to get ready for summer reading. I now have  High Dive
High Dive, Eileen by Otessa MoshfeghEileen, the new Chris Cleve Everyone Brave is Forgiven, the new Jenny Diski In Gratitudeand have ordered  a whole spate of new novels by women which Bethanne Patrick mentioned in her Lit Hub column today, "Five Great Beach Reads Wherever You Are,"  Even Bill Gates has a summer reading list this year:
In fact, lots of people have lists: or, best of all, Washington Post's Michael Dirda's (Bound to Please)list from last year

If I would just vanquish the tv with its summer movie collection of film noirs and newest releases, if I would not doze off in the summer sun or post dinner evenings with doors and windows open, I would read every book on my list and still may do so. My book club offered heavy reading this year, ten novels many of them dense and challenging and listed here:

Kelly Corrigan wrote this hymn to summer reading last summer at

  "To the summer reader who snorts with laughter at Tom Perrotta, Tina Fey and P.J. O’Rourke and mops up tears reading Toni Morrison and Frank McCourt, who has walked Rajasthan with Salman Rushdie and the Sudanese desert with Dave Eggers and the New England backwoods with Stephen King, who learned greed from Tom Wolfe, fear from Tobias Wolff, advocacy from Naomi Wolf, who collapsed with Elizabeth Gilbert or cringed with Jeannette Walls, who has thanked God for David Sedaris, Anne Lamott or Anna Quindlen, I say, 'Me, too.'”

I look forward to not reading for purpose and discussion, just soaking up as many books as I can. And we do have a cabin in July on an island. What more does one need?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It TakesThe Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes by Joan Silber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes is a craft book for authors, but Silber also has a stellar book list with descriptions of the use of time in fiction. Even without concern for how to use time in a novel or short story, you could read the titles in her bibliography and know what good writing is all about. From Chekhov's "The Darling" to Henry James ("The Beast in the Jungle"), some Proust and deMaupassant, all the way to Denis Johnson, Alice Munro and Arundhati Roy. Many short stories are included but novels as well. There are translations from Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, French and Italian. There are books I have never heard of (Ya Hua's To Live) and short stories I've missed, even a challenge such as Kiergaard's Diary. I want to jump into a hammock with this list and forget my current fiction pickups at the library. Her clarity and love of literature underlies an informative and helpful discussion of time as it is handled in story, how it is slowed down or speeded up, or made circular or fabulously upended but, quoting Kierkegaard, "life can only be understood backward but has to be lived forward." Any which way it moves in time, read Silber's succinct thoughts and explore her bibliography.

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Monday, March 21, 2016

Get Pocket Tells Me What I Thought I Wanted to Read is one of those consolidators of web articles which occasionally alerts me to an article I've missed online. Do you too get  "suggestions" for your reading pleasure? My favorite so far has been which I would have seen if I were diligent about reading my New Yorkers, but I'm not. Thank you, Get Pocket.

Today's entries included a piece by Heidi Isern, who reeled me in with a funny article on Quartz called "Almost Everyone Who Is Single Is Single for the Same Reason." She quotes her dad at the end:

"My father once told me that the secret to his loving 40 year marriage with my mother was simple. “We just like hanging out with each other doing nothing. And trust me, as you get older you have a lot of time together doing nothing.”
Wise words from her father.

Today's gem? I got as energized over this as I did over the task site last week which I just noticed fell off my toolbar and hence out of my life.

"Tell Me What You Did Today, And I’ll Tell You Who You Are" by Benjamin Hardy on The Medium.
I am seduced by this type of article. Maybe there is just that much of my business degree left in me? One, two, three and your whole life gains clarity, perspective and satisfaction. The author is working on his doctorate in industrial psych and it's all about setting goals and sticking to them. Isn't everything? So you imagine your ideal day (so much time spent with family, exercise, prep, reading, writing, working) and then see how close you come to achieving it.

"To ensure you not only achieve your goals, but radically exceed them, put substantially more effort in than seems needed. And plan for the worst. Rather than underestimate how much time and effort something will take, overestimate those things.

We are all in complete control of how we spend our time. If we don’t believe we are, we have an external locus of control (i.e., victim-mentality) and will remain so until we claim personal responsibility.

What does your ideal day look like?

How often do you live your ideal day?

If you were to consistently live your ideal day, where would you be in one year from now? Where would you be in five years?"

So I've plotted my ideal day:

coffee & breakfast with a brief look at the papers 60min or 8%;
Write My Words on 50min or 6%;
pool or walk 120min or 16%;
lunch, 60min or 8%;
writing and submitting 100min or 13%;
reading, responding or sorting 90min or 12%;
crisis mgmt 30min or 4%;
cooking/eating dinner  90min or 12%;
tv, papers/magazines or Scrabble 150min or 20%;
walk round the block with the dog, 15min or 1%.
Total minutes: 765 or about 12 hours of the day.

To achieve this, I need to be up at 7:30 each morning. Today I got up at 8:45.

It pencils out well with a total of 765 minutes allotted in a standard 1440-minute day less eight hours of sleep minus my dedicated 765 minutes gives me a whopping 195 minutes to screw around, do housework, toilet activities, etc. and there are places like tv which can be shifted into productivity if needed.

It I consistently lived this way, in five years I'd have written a number of articles, maybe even the whole bloody memoir. I can see stealing from reading time for writing time. My writing time, including 750 words, may be a tad unrealistic since I often sit here for hours scribbling away, critiquing or doing book reviews.

Some people in this household might find this hilariously contrary to actuality, the thoughts of a fool or an optimist, but I find it comforting. One can have an agenda. One can stick with it. But most of all, it can be adjusted, expanded or altered to fit reality. Or my idea of reality. My manager friends are going to love this, and by posting, I might be forced to accountability.

 I am reminded of this classic book on time management by Alan Lakein, recommended by my favorite writing teacher, which I can always stand to reread.

How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Slightly Foxed what pleasure I get when this charming British quarterly with paintings on the cover arrives by mail, bearing its discoveries from writers describing treasures from the past. The latest volume brings Autonauts of the Cosmoroute (1983) by Julio Cortazar and his wife, Carol Dunlop, about a month-long journey they made in a red Volkswagen camper, named Fafner after Wagner's dragon, from Paris to Marseilles on the autoroute, stopping twice a day "at every one of the route's 65 motels, cafeteria. lay-bys and picnic areas" without leaving the highway. Sarah Bakewell (How to Live: A Life of Montaigne and At the Existentialist Cafe) calls the book "one of the most adventurous and wide-ranging travel books ever written." Next, a treatise on wilderness manuals from Gaylen O'Hanlon while Robert McFarlane (Landmarks) writes about Lexicographer-Poet James Stout Angus's A Glossary of the Shetland Dialect (1914) and the poetry within, i.e. "ABER, adj., sharp, acute, as an edge tool; clear, well-defined, as a cloudless sky; eater, as a hungry fish at a bait; secure, as a knot on a line, ardent, severe; v. to sharpen as a knife; to stir up and make bright, as a fire." More amazing entries cited on the sea (ADNASJUR, BAA, UTSHOT), and on flora and fauna (BARK-LEAF, 'the blade and blossom of tormentil' and SWABBI MAA, 'the great black-back gull.' Margaret Drabble extols the contradictory and moving life of James Joyce as illuminated by Richard Ellmann in the biography of 1980. And so many favorites written about with charm and panache: Evan Connell's Mrs. Bridge, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Alison Lurie's Real People, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, and authors Brian Moore, J. G. Farrell, Penelope Fitzgerald with titles we may have missed. Not that title choices are a problem for me, "so many books, so little time," but what fun to read these contributors who have a light touch and deep appreciation of good tales, for instance one note on a writer says: "retiring from 36 years as a Fleet Street sub-editor, Patrick Welland invested in a huge chair in which to drink red wine and read books." I've done the same.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The Sound of Things FallingThe Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 The story is set in Bogotá, Colombia and the reader learns that much of the city is recovering from severe PTSD. Citizens who lived through the Eighties in the time of Pablo Escobar have symptoms not unlike war veterans, having spent a decade living in fear, not going out to public places, restaurants, cafes, etc. and never knowing when a family member or friend would go missing. The narrator grew up in the era and suffers irrational fears and despair after he is wounded while walking with his friend Roberto who is shot and killed, leaving him obsessed with trying to understand the death from the man's surviving daughter. The book becomes a mystery tale and spurs the reader on to discover what happened. The writing is beautiful in translation. Kudos to Anne McLean - I want to read more of her translations and am looking at The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-Five Minutes in History and Imagination. One memorable setting of the ruined and abandoned animal park/zoo owned by the drug lord is so real you can hear the squeak of a broken sign hanging by one hinge in the oppressive ever-present heat. The pace is almost dreamy for the first section of the story but picks up rapidly moving forward to other events, further puzzles.
A favorite quotation from the book:
"There is just one direct route beween La Dorada and Bogotá...You turn south and take the straight road that runs by the river that takes you to Honda, the port where travelers used to arrive when no planes flew over the Andes. From London, from New York, from Havana, Colón or Barranquilla, they would arrive by sea at the mouth of the Magdalena and change ship there...long days of sailing upriver on tired steamships...From Honda, each traveler would get to Bogotá however he could, by mule or by train or in a private one has able to explain convincingly, beyond banal historical causes, why a country should choose as its capital its most remote and hidden city. It's not our fault that we Bogotanos are stuffy and cold and distant, because that's what our city is like, and you can't blame us for greeting strangers warily, for we're not used to them."

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Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a FistYour Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As powerful as its advance reviews, I revved through this book like a racing bike barely pausing to enjoy the fine writing, biting description, well-wrought main characters (three activists, three cops and a WTO delegate from Sri Lanka) caught up in downtown Seattle for the 1999 demonstrations. From time to time, I'd stop to take issue with some small geographic detail about my home town (a city by the Sound, not the sea as the author writes) but mostly I just barreled through the story, remembering the smell of tear gas as I drove back up to Capitol Hill that fateful day. I particularly enjoyed the passages with the delegate, concerned about his agenda and not grasping the enormity of the protest as he tries to make his way to the convention center. The police were harsh characters but their overreaction is well drawn in keeping with actuality. My sympathies were naturally with the protesters and how ill-prepared any were for the extent of violence encountered. The author's economic background slipped in nicely to explain issues without dampening a beautifully written story.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Feeling a tad guilty about taking so many writing classes at such expense and even toying with the idea of $1,000 for three days at Hedgebrook -what? So as I noodle about with my daily practice, I wanted to reiterate to myself what Heidi Julavits said about writing classes. She was talking about learning to water ski as an adult and how really hard that is. She tried repeatedly and couldn't get up. I identify completely. And all of the people in the boat kept yelling suggestions at her:  "bend your knees" or "let the boat pull you" or "try it with one ski first" but finally, out of the cacophony of orders, she heard "Lean Back!" She did and up she went skimming over the waves. So by taking these classes, I am waiting to hear my "lean back." Everyone has much to offer and lots of suggestions, but eventually someone will have the one that resonates with I will race atop the waves along with the boat.

A lot of what I have learned, I ignore or forget about. I am not sure how actually useful the Lexicon book is although it can't help but expand my vocabulary. I never use Christine Hemp's little cut out window. I haven't really tried Erik Larsen's cut and paste with chunks all over the floor although it might do wonders for the Nicaragua piece. If I wrote fiction, Elizabeth George's character studies sound invaluable and would spur a fiction piece forward in that you'd have fully developed characters before formulating a story. I do try to read out loud everything I write and find that helpful. I do circle all of the adjectives, adverbs and verbs and try to improve on them. Martha taught me that as well as to PAY ATTENTION TO TENSES with which I still struggle on every piece. I use the thesaurus a lot. Maggie Nelson's class was amazingly educational about gender studies and "writing about the body" but doubt that I'll do a trans-gendered character anytime soon. I can't even remember what I learned from Mona Simpson. Wendy's classes are good but it's been a long time and I've pretty much changed what I write about so completely, who knows how I can benefit from the class on senses. I always appreciated her in depth critiques. No one can hold a candle to Martha's critiques though for thoroughness. Nick's are oh-so-terse and journalistic. His classes teach me a bit but have greater value in the assignments and the outside lectures, last quarter from Gary Luke, publisher of Sasquatch and last week's talk by Brier Dudley, Seattle Times editor, who was encouraging and fun to talk with.

Page or Curtis or someone said recently that all of my classes are tax deductible. There's a good excuse, i.e. including the ten days in Nicaragua? Well, all right. I was thinking but I haven't published but that doesn't really matter for five years or so. You can just keep deducting without selling anything at least that long as I understand it.

So I'll keep taking the classes awaiting that lucid cry to "lean back," meanwhile enjoying each one immensely and continuing my daily scribbling, Or, as Michael would say, fuck the money,