Archive for September, 2009

In the middle of an Amy Hempel story, a perfect line, from this perfect poem:


Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

–Galway Kinnell

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in progress

My current book stack is ridiculous. Eleven inches high. Only two not hardcover, and those two are massive. My hands ache from holding books open. At night, when I pick up the pile to transfer them to bed, I need both arms, and sometimes they tip towards me from the edge of the bed while I’m sleeping and poke at my ribs.

I remember a time during which I only read one book at a time, would tear through a single work in a few days even if I disliked it in order to get to the next book. Maybe college changed that? The every-quarter mess of heavy reading classes? Since at least 2000, I’ve had multiple books going. As long as they don’t overlap too much in theme or setting, it’s not a problem keeping track of them, but with this many, and so many of them good, it’s like being mobbed by a litter of really cute puppies—I want to pick them all up, but I don’t have enough arms.

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. I just borrowed this from a most awesome and well-read member of my writing group. The short story in the New Yorker was nice, but it stalled at “nice” for me. The first handful of pages of the novel contain most of that story, but includes background and context that the excerpt cut. They shouldn’t have cut it. It’s much better than nice. I would like to spend all day with this book.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. Why oh why has no one ever pushed Hempel on me? These stories, most of them short-short and spare, are all sharp-fisted gut punches, dense with fresh detail and animals and these final sentences that tie up the pieces into clean knots right around my throat. I would like to spend all day with this book.

Underworld by Don DeLillo. I think I’ve been reading this book since Clinton was in office. Or at least five months. Two or three pages a night, over and over and over. I’m up to 480 (out of 825), and I only recognize a handful of characters. I’m not sure they are connected to each other, or if there is really any plot happening. There are some beautiful vignettes, patches of gorgeous writing.

“Pain is just another form of information.”

I would like to not have to spend any part of today with this book.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Still chugging along on schedule (see the right sidebar: it’s not too late to start!). The first few days weren’t so great, but I’ve found my footing. Instead of researching and note-taking and attempting to follow what might be happening (as opposed to what is probably a hallucination), I’m letting the prose wash over me and focusing on the images. Because my god, the images. Disgusting, obscene, vivid. He’s doing things with setting that more than justify the time it takes to get through ten pages a day. I wish more people in the Bay Area were doing the group read—I met Quinn on Wednesday to talk about it, and though we skipped around a lot, it was good times, and I’d like to share the experience more, especially with people who are doing the researchy bits I’m not.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. Been on my shelf for years, never got past the first 30 pages. I’m more than half through now and enjoying it. It’s interesting to read a book that has been through the promise/hype/backlash/serious-double-strength-backlash cycle. It’s not what I was expecting, either from reading Eggers’s fiction or the considerable amount of criticism lobbed at it. I’m enjoying it, and if I had nothing to do today and no other books going, I’ll finish it in a long sitting.

Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk. My first book by him. That seems strange, that I’ve avoided him this long. I picked it up based on Jade Park’s
brief review
—I’m a sucker for books that blow you away on the last paragraph or sentence. This is a fast, hooky, entrancing read. I’m finding it very hard to put down, but all those other puppies, so soft, so demanding. I suspect I’ll lose some sleep in the next few days to get this one finished.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke. Only a dozen pages in, but I’m already stopping myself from taking great chunks out of this. What a charming premise, and in the midst of several books which aren’t about plot, I sense a good solid one here. Possibly recommended by Jen. I need to start noting on the list who said “read this now!” so I can thank/blame them when I finally get around to the book.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. I’m still not entirely sure what is happening in this book, but I’m digging the hell out of it. I can see where some people could get bored with it all, and I wonder if I wasn’t reading Underworld and Gravity’s Rainbow at the same time, if I would be able to handle all the strange and cold ambiguity. The sex helps. As do the frequent scenes of almost unbearable horror and inexplicable plot turns. I have absolutely no idea where this book or its characters or the themes are going, but I would like to spend all day with it and find out.

Books I had to stop myself from starting yesterday because they are calling to me from my shelves: The Master by Colm Tóibín, The Position by Meg Wolitzer, and The Path of Minor Planets by Andrew Sean Greer. I sublimated that urge by requesting stuff from the library, so next week will see the arrival of: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, Light Years by James Salter, and, if the current patrons get off their asses and return the books, Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link (at long last) and The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq. You have no idea how many times I just had to look at that name to get it spelled correctly.

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Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Within a week of the recent elections in Iran, I picked this book up free on the street. I couldn’t recall hearing anyone talk about it in person, but it seemed like I had heard good things from somewhere. So when I got to about page 20 and started to grit my teeth at getting to the end of each paragraph, I figured it was just me. I mentioned the book to a few of my heavy reader pals. They all hated it—I think only one of them had finished it. By this point, I was a quarter in, and man, I hate wasting reading time, so it went on my force-read pile.

Some of my previous force-reads have been classics I’m having a problem with (Middlemarch) but most of them are books that I started and would really like to get rid of. There is something in me that stops me from just tossing a book that I’ve invested more than a couple of days in, and if I’m motivated to get the thing out of my house, it has to get read. I try not to have more than one of these going at a time, but Underworld is going to be there for at least another several months, so two it was. For both of them, I would push down two pages a day. You can get through anything at two pages a day.

Here’s the problem with Reading Lolita in Tehran: I cannot stand the author’s voice. This is a huge and impossible problem in a memoir. She is even aware of it:

I am too much of an academic: I have written too many papers and articles to be able to turn my experiences and ideas into narratives without pontificating.

Yup. What I was looking for—some further insight into what it was like to live as a woman and an academic in Iran—was there in only the flattest of ways. The way the book jumps around in time was confusing, the characters flat, and it was nearly impossible for me to feel an emotional investment in anyone. The discussions of the books tended towards her acknowledged pontification, almost like she had pulled directly from papers she had written, inserting a phrase or two (see italics, mine, below) to keep them from being too obviously yanked into memoir. Like this, which is a nice thought and one I marked, but a paragraph that sounds excerpted from an essay:

Every fairy tale offers the potential to surpass present limits, so in a sense the fairy tale offers you freedoms that reality denies. In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world. Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life. The perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter.

One good thing comes out of the months that it took me to chip through this book. I’m inspired to read The Ambassadors by Henry James now. When I was typing up my notes, I realized my favorite quote in the whole book was from another book—how could I not pick that one up now?

Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had? I’m too old—too old at any rate for what I see. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. Still, we have the illusion of freedom; therefore don’t, like me to-day, be without the memory of that illusion. I was either, at the right time, too stupid or too intelligent to have it, and now I’m a case of reaction against the mistake. For it was a mistake. Live, live!

I will release the free book back to the sidewalk today and hope that its next home appreciates it more than I did.

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it starts with a lie

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

I haven’t read this, and it will be weeks before I can get to it (I’m 17th on the waitlist through the library, and the single copy is still in processing). The Rumpus posted a fabulous interview with him today, and his description of his own short stories (“You know, sad people from the Midwest who are disturbed in some sort of existential way.”) reminded me of how much I loved his first novel and the collection Among the Missing.

The creepiest bird in all of literature lives in the second story from the collection, “I Demand to Know Where You’re Taking Me.” I don’t have great retention of short stories, even ones I love, but I remember nearly every scene from that one—frightening, layered, tense. Even the end scared the hell out of me. That entire book impressed me: big themes about parents who are inadequate despite their best efforts, mysterious losses, relationships that are short a piece or two that the people involved are unaware of or powerless to fix. All with taut, image-heavy writing.

Looking back at my book lists for the past few years, Among the Missing was one of the earlier story collections that I finished, and I’m thinking that it helped smooth the way to my easier and more enjoyable time with them now. You Remind Me of Me, his first novel, was also amazing: my total notes for it are “fan-fucking-tastic.” I attempt to be a little more detailed nowadays.

Chaon Twitters at @DanChaon (does that count as a double “at”?), and following him has been worth it if only for the little tidbit he dropped a few days ago: it’s pronounced “shawn.” After years of alternating between spelling it out in every book conversation he came up in or mangling it (kay-on, chown, chon), I can finally recommend his work without feeling like an idiot.

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quote wall

By request, and in order to defang some residual shame, the quotes stuck to my desk:

“Action precedes motivation.” (No author attributed, and it’s old. Might be on its second Post-It by now.)

“Work is its own cure.”–Marge Piercy (The next and final line of the poem, which I have written down nowhere but will never leave my head, is “You have to like it better than being loved.”)

“The truth will set you free. But not until it’s finished with you.”–David Foster Wallace

“There is no remedy for death–or birth–except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall.”–Jim Crace, from Being Dead

“We must travel in the direction of our fear.”–John Berryman

“Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”–Goethe (First heard in “Almost Famous”? I think I saw the movie before I actually read any real-life Goethe.)

“The most beautiful thing in the world is, of course, the world itself.”–Wallace Stevens (It’s that “of course” that really works for me.)

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”–T.S. Eliot

Time-Bound” (How to make SMART, get it, goals. Also, how to make mopie pull her hair out.)

“will, drive, cunning” (A friend’s core traits, all mentioned when I mentioned the ones I remind myself I have when I get earthquake panic–brave, strong, prepared. I would like more of those three.)

“…but the pleasure of finding the thing you are best at, and devoting yourself to it with abandon. If you make a mistake, learn from it, then forget it.”–Ariel Levy in a New Yorker article about Julia Child

“I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire.”–Gordon Lish

“The dream was always running ahead of me. To catch up, to live for a moment in unison with it, that was the miracle.”–Anais Nin (from the maudlin corner. Along with . . . )

“I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.”–William Stafford (I have a stack of poems clipped from here and there, and a few that I’ve written out, that all follow the woe model. Whenever I am in a big emo sobfest space, I think about taping them to the walls. Then I feel better and decide against it. A few times, they’ve made it to the backs of doors, to blank spaces near my writing areas. I haven’t regretted having them up, but I hesitate when thinking about seeing them when I’m not searching for them.)

“It is always the same: once you are liberated, you are forced to ask who you are.”–Jean Baudrillard

“It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.”–Diane Ackerman

“Fearless is an interesting word, for in fact, in being fearless you are not without fear, rather you are withstanding fear. You are moving forward in spite of it.”–Meredith Pignon (She continues to talk about how this relates to short stories, both reading and writing them, but I both didn’t need the further explication and ran out of room on my half-sized Post-It.)

“Artists just need to shut the fuck up and listen to exactly what is coming from inside. You just have to find exactly what you should be doing, and if you didn’t have that thing, you would die. Perish, slowly or quickly, or violently or like a chump. And every chance is made from that. I have to do this, I’m made to do this. I can’t do anything else. I tried. I don’t really feel fulfilled any other way. Maybe when I get older, it will change. I’m sure it will.”–Jeff Buckley (From a lovely piece on The Rumpus. Two notes worth!)

I also have a long (double-sized Post-It) quote from Merlin Mann’s “Better” post that I guess counts because I can see it from my desk. But it’s not stuck to my desk, so I’m not typing it.

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Schlock: a Food-Service Melodrama by me

I dug up a copy of my ridiculous first novel (written and finished through NaNoWriMo, but a plot/characters I’d had around for much longer) last week to send to a couple of friends. It’s not edited at all, no typos fixed, no hyphens added where I had left them out on the days I was feeling pinched for wordcount. I’ve read it once or twice since I wrote it, but it’s been a while. It remains a punchy over-the-top mess, one that I enjoy reading and even handing out with disclaimers.

During this last read, it was the same: fun, silly, overstated. It’s always nice to visit and find that my initial impressions have held up. Except they haven’t. I conveniently forget the wretched standard amount of suffering I went through while writing it, even as I told myself that it was okay that it was absurd and bad. My wrists hurt the entire time, I had to fight the urge to never write again before and after each day, and I was convinced that not a single sentence would make sense by the time I was finished. I don’t see a trace of that suffering in the writing, only the tiny sparks of excitement I had over getting to write about salad bars and kink and freckled girls and bad roommates. I’m not sure where the rest of it goes, but I hope it continues to go there regardless of how awful it feels at the time.

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David Foster Wallace, quotes

He killed himself on the 12th, but I didn’t hear until early evening on the 13th. I called people; people called me. One of my bosses called on his night off, from home, because we’d had a couple of great chats about Infinite Jest, and he wanted to send his condolences (as though I had known the man in person). There are hundreds of tributes online, and I can’t improve or add much to them. He wrote one of my favorite books, and I loved his writing. I know more about myself and the world because of his work. Here are a handful of quotes that I’ve dug, all of them from first reads years and years ago:


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charts, paper

Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill

I’m going to want to come back to this collection at some point—there is more than one stellar story in here, and the couple that are bad are so far off her usual work that I want to talk about that too. One story in particular is stuck to me right now, though: “Descriptions,” the second-to-last story. I read it, I loved it, and since I’ve been revising and trying to work out a piece with more than a couple of active characters, as soon as I considered what Gaitskill had pulled off with the complexity of the relationships, I reread it. My brain was starting to ache trying to analyze it, so I pulled off a chunk of the masking paper* and diagrammed the characters.

(*I bought a roll of this stuff—slightly waxy, paper-bag brown, three dollars for a fat roll of it, 8 inches by something like 180 feet—to scribble on, draw polar bears when I might happen to get obsessed with drawing polar bears, use for plotting or whatever. It’s fantastic stuff. It takes pencil and ink beautifully and there is something liberating about feeling free to tear off a sheet of any length or toss it in the recycling bin if something like a polar bear doesn’t work out. Plus, I’m in favor of expanding my office-supply shopping habit to the paint department at hardware stores.)

Gonna SPOIL this thing like someone else’s child, here:


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2009 goals

Now that I’ve got that resolution revelation out of the way, time to share.

At the beginning of this year, I decided to not read as much as I had been. HAHAHA. I think I’ve read more books this year than in any year since I was a kid and was reading shorter works and was grounded all the time. So much for cutting back. I decided instead of having a big number (like last year’s aimed-for 50 novels and achieved 80 total books), I would have a few smaller specific goals.


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cheating, isolation

My reading list comes with strict rules, rules I do not remember making. I have to finish an entire book for it to count—no skipping the prologue or acknowledgments or the boring pointless part of War and Peace when I finally get to it. It counts as a book if it’s published on its own, but some books don’t count (know ‘em when I see ‘em). Graphic novels count, but not as novels. Poetry collections that consist of many whole books of poetry in one volume only count as one book. I can add new goals for the year, but I can’t discard or change the previous ones.

So why, I wonder when looking down the list, am I counting Stefan Zweig’s story collection, The Royal Game, as finished given that I didn’t read the last two stories?

I picked up the book based on a recommendation by Anthony Swofford (who I trust for many reasons) here, from a list that has served me well so far. The library didn’t have the modern copy, which is translated as Chess Story and comprises a thin novel, but they have the older collection, anchored by the short story (novella? novel?). Ohh, I bet that’s it right there: I meant to read a single novel-length story, and when I read that plus two long short stories, it felt like a legitimate read. It stands.



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