Some Readings

Course of Mirrors (Ashen Venema); Beer in the Snooker Club (Waguih Ghali); Southeaster (Haroldo Conti); Envoy and Ward’s Fool (Caleb Crain)

I was cured a couple of years ago of making unsolicited reading recommendations. Having pushed a couple of suggestions into the hands of a suspecting neighbor, who initially faked appreciation but later made me realize he despised being told what to read, I decided to relax into my own reading and leave well enough alone when it came to the reading or non-reading of others.

I remind myself there are books I once loved and re-loved I’ve since dropped into the free library share box on the corner, always full of suggestions of what we might read. Likewise, there are books I once started reading but could not “get into,” as the old reading saying goes, but on a later look did fall incomprehensibly in love with, which is to say reading is not always placed before, but sometimes after. Before or after what? Something draws us to a text – what? why?

In any case, I’ve decided to talk a bit of some recent readings. A book review, mind you, is not the same as a book recommendation, nor is it the same as a kind of what “I’vebeenreadinglately.” Nick Hornby used to write a monthly column for the Believer magazine called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” At the top of each column he listed “books read,” followed by “books bought” [during the month], discussion following that may or may not cover all the books read in any kind of traditional review. It was a personal reading column. I enjoyed it, and always went to it first, to see what was there, even if I but rarely followed up with reading the books myself. The lists may or may not have matched, usually did not match exactly. Also in the Believer, Greil Marcus contributed a monthly column called “Real Life Rock Top Ten,” a personal Billboard of his monthly music experience, a perfect column, a ten paragraph countdown full of Greil’s unique style where Edmund Wilson takes over “At the Movies,” talking about popular music not as sub-culture but as the culture, which means it can be read into, in to, too. I don’t know if Hornby and Marcus are still writing for the Believer, my subscription of a few years having been let lapse. It now appears the old Believer, out of San Francisco, is giving way to a new life at Black Mountain Institute at UNLV.

My reading experience with Ashen Venema’s “Course of Mirrors,” a book of contemporary mythical fantasy, a coming of age story, a memoir disguised in allegory, was enjoyable. Sometimes, a reader must let go and simply read what’s there and stop underlining and marking up the text with marginal notes as if he too were going to write something brilliant in the Believer. That is called reading for enjoyment. I remember reading somewhere Harold Bloom saying he never underlined or marked up a book, he remembered everything, he “internalized” the text as he read it. I have to read up and down, back and forth, settle in and settle up, spend time in the dictionary, if not in the loo.

Maybe readers enjoy books most they discover on their own. Lists, which can be useful, lead to argument. Rely on the list in that link, for example, and you’ll miss Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac. There are lists and anti-lists, counter canons, counter intuitive lists. Good reading is often subversive to one’s own assumptions and preconceptions.

Youssef Rakha recently mentioned (in a tweet or at The Sultan’s Seal – I can’t find the reference now) “Beer in the Snooker Club,” which I bought and read. It’s a coming of age story of a mid-century Egyptian who is impoverished by the privilege he’s born into. It’s about identity, alienation, love, and the economic and intellectual frustration of compromise amid what Thoreau called in a different time and place the “quiet desperation” of the lives most men lead. It’s both heavy and light. The setting is Egypt and England around the time of the Suez Crisis. The first person narration is witty and sharp, literary and sarcastic, self-aware and penetrating. The characters are real, the events depicted clearly and with a detached empathy that brings world events close to home and headlines into one’s mailbox. The narration employs styles that mimic without becoming parody – the Hemingway set piece, for example. You see it coming, realize you’re there, but in case you missed it, are given his name. It’s a great book. I’m glad to have read it, and I’m going to turn around and read it again.

“Southeaster” I first heard about at the Boston Review, where Jessica Sequeira gave a thorough discussion of the book, its setting, author, and times, and with a focus on the translator, Jon Lindsay Miles, including an interview. I might be one of the North American readers Jessica refers to, though I read “Southeaster” not as exotic literature, although I did think of “The Old Man and the Sea” in more than one place, but also I thought of Steinbeck, but I read “Southeaster” as an old surfer might, aficionado of water flow, enjoying the very similar way of being on the water, though not, given the crowds these days, as solitary an experience as Haroldo Conti’s river. This book sat in a stack for over a year before I finally gave it a proper reading.

The summer issue of “The Paris Review’ arrived, with a story by Caleb Crain, “Envoy,” just a few pages, but an extraordinary narration by a first person who lies twice about his age and almost misses the epiphany of a flattery. The appearance of “Envoy” reminded me I had yet to properly finish Caleb’s story, “Ward’s Fool,” in the Winter 2017, n+1. “Ward’s Fool,” set in some non-specific future, appears to be a kind of phrase writer’s bureaucratese, until another epiphany slowly dawns across another river.

I enjoyed a beer yesterday late afternoon with a few colleagues from my past. Not fiction readers by vocation or avocation, they were nevertheless aware of my “Penina’s Letters,” and had even read the Amazon reviews, and had perhaps glanced through the “look inside” Amazon feature. I was not offended, but happy they had showed any kind of interest, shared any kind of mention. I thought of audience and occasion and the discipline of respecting both. Marketing can at times rival literature for its subversive practices. The marketing of literature might be doubly subversive.

p-1: The Evil Hill on Mariposa

n+1 vs The BelieverIf print does disappear, I will be only partially responsible. I’m doing my part to keep a few print publications healthy. But I can’t subscribe to everything. The question is always the same: what to read and how. A loyal subscriber to The Believer, alas, my subscription has lapsed, and just prior to the 2013 music issue, which turned out to be jazz inspired. Bummer.

I’ve been comparing the cover changes over time of the New Yorker with the cover changes of the Rolling Stone. “Time is real,” Cornel West reminds us. But a few weeks ago, finding myself reading, with interest, no less, in the New Yorker, a “Tables for Two” eatery review of a restaurant I’ll never eat at, I decided I’d better augment the New Yorker and replace The Believer with something new. Meantime, I had discovered Kirill Medvedev, and noticed that n+1, which I follow, sporadically, on-line, was giving away the Medvedev “It’s No Good” book with a new subscription, so I went for it. And last week, the Fall 2013 n+1 print issue arrived, red dressed, calling itself the Evil Issue. Evil? Really? I felt the proverbial wince of buyer’s remorse.

I sat down and opened my n+1. I glanced guardedly through the table of contents, not one for haunted houses, horror films, that sort of thing. Something here by Marco Roth on politics, on drones – ok, that’s evil. A drama piece titled “sixsixsix.” Why do folks think Satan evil? Consider Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at Uberty [a lot] when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Still perusing the evil issue’s table of contents and glancing through the articles to see what I might want to start with, I came to something from the Stanford Literary Lab, titled “Style at the Scale of the Sentence.” I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve decided it’s at the heart of the evil issue for a reason. Then I saw this, which took me by surprise: Alice Gregory’s article titled “Mavericks: Life and death surfing,” and soon found myself into the evil issue in earnest.

If the entire evil issue was instead titled “Mavericks” and filled with Alice’s writing about surfing I would be a happy reader. The only problem with the article is it’s only ten pages, which means back to the Literary Lab’s “Sentence” article too soon. Maybe I should have renewed The Believer, after all, seen if they’d send me the music issue I missed. On jazz! Jazz in the evening can turn an evil day good. Wondering about the etymology of the word evil, I found this in Wiktionary: “from Proto-Indo-European *upo, *up, *eup (“down, up, over”).” Ah ha! That’s a definition of surfing. One of the best pieces of journalistic writing on surfing I’ve ever read came in the New Yorker, back in 1992, written by William Finnegan, himself a surfer. “Surfing is not a spectator sport,” he says in the second of the two-week, long article. In the first week, Finnegan had said, describing the surf at Ocean Beach, off San Francisco, “The waves were big, ragged, relentless, with no visible channels for getting through the surf from the shore.” Conditions in the water, often fast changing, are difficult to read from the shore. Waves always seem bigger to the surfer in them than to the spectator watching from the beach or from a cliff high above the water. I read the long Finnegan piece twice before mailing my two copies with the articles to an old surfing buddy, not much of a reader, who later called me, totally stoked.

Preparatory to surfing, back in the day, hey-hey, kids growing up in South Santa Monica Bay rode skateboards: literally, the wheels removed from old roller skates and nailed to the bottom of a two by four, crude vehicles compared to today’s boards. I lived on Mariposa, at the bottom of a long, steep hill, followed by a short straightaway, then an easy hill ending at my house on the corner. The houses on Mariposa backed up to railroad tracks (since removed). Between the railroad tracks and the back fences was a path the local kids called “Devil’s Path” or “Devil’s Pass,” a shortcut toward downtown. We regularly rode skateboards up and down the mild Mariposa hill, but to ride a board from the top of Mariposa was considered a daredevil feat.

One day, my friend Pete Ponopsko, a few years older than me, took a skateboard to the top of upper Mariposa. He was going to ride down the big hill and would pick up enough momentum to carry him through the straightaway and down the lower hill all the way to the bottom. A small crowd of skateboard aficionados positioned themselves mid straightaway, where we could watch Pete whiz by on his way to the lower hill.

One of the problems with early skateboard technology was shakiness. At fast speeds, the boards wobbled side to side. Another problem had to do with the metal, roller skate wheels. A pebble might catch under a wheel and brake it, stopping the board and throwing the rider forward. We never knew for sure what went wrong with Pete’s ride down the upper hill. Some said the board shimmied so severely he simply could not keep his balance. Others said he hit a rock and pearled. Still others said Pete chickened out and tried to jump off. Whatever the cause, the effects included a startling array of raspberry red scrapes and bruises along one side of Pete’s body, from his ankle to his ear. It was said Pete slid on the sidewalk a distance equal to the length of a 1956 Ford station wagon. It was an evil wipe out, and it was a long time before anyone tried to ride upper Mariposa again, but by then skateboards were wider and thinner and longer and fitted with smooth rubber wheels and stable wheel bearings, and Pete was already an old-timer.

Joe at the top of an evil wave. Well, an evil photo, anyway.
Joe at the top of an evil wave. Well, an evil photo, anyway.

Follow Up: n+1 has put the Alice Gregory Mavericks piece on-line, 9 Oct 13.

|||||| * The Believer * Ninety-First Issue: The Music Issue * July/August 12 * ||||||

The ninety-first issue, the annual “Music Issue,” July/August 12, of The Believer magazine arrived via snail mail yesterday. The snail was slower than usual. The music issue always comes with a CD, a surprise I look forward to, but this year there’s a cassette tape (no, not an 8 track tape, though that would really have been a surprise), and there were apparently a few problems with the tape, the tape taped to the cover, the cassette tape taped to the cover of the magazine, coming off in route. (Remember when cassette tapes got eaten by the player?). Anyway, my copy never came, so I sent a polite email, asking “what’s up?,” and the good folks at McSweeney’s sped a special delivery of the issue, which, as I said, arrived yesterday. I’ve not subscribed since the beginning, but almost. There’s a stack of them (I never toss them out) on the top shelf.

I was reading Silence by John Cage when the issue arrived. The tape is titled “The 2012 Believer Tape: Love Songs for Lamps.” At first I thought it said, “…for Lambs.” But no; it’s, “…for Lamps.” I was reading John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing,” from Silence. In the “Notes and Apologies” section of the magazine, I read, “In the event that you don’t own a Walkman….” But I have a tape player in the old used car, so no worries, but I did pause when taking out the Dylan tape (“Highway 61 Revisited”) that’s been playing non-stop for months, as if I’m going for some sort of record. But I did also download the “Lamps” songs to iTunes, feeling somewhat with it, it being conversant with contemporary technology. And then I listened to the first “Lamps” song, “Leave Me Alone,” by Hysterics. My first reaction was that it’s a mercifully short song. But I was listening to it on my computer.

Today, Eric and I were heading out, and I told him about The Believer cassette. I had the magazine open, and I read him the list of bands included on the tape: Hysterics, The Memories, Shana Cleveland and the Sancastles – you get the idea, and he had not heard of any of them. And his antennae are never retracted when it comes to this sort of thing. So I was surprised. Then I read, in the magazine, that these bands “…release their work as cassette-only.” How cool is that? I said, cooly. Eric’s the one who ejected the Dylan. And as we headed out, the Hysterics yelling “Leave Me Alone,” I thought, this is a perfect cassette, perfect for the car. Cassettes should have short songs – it makes it easier to find them if you’re searching for just one. But we let it play, and then we heard The Memories doing “Higher,” and I’m sold. Good issue, the ninety-first issue of The Believer. There are also some good articles, an interview with Lucinda Williams, for example.

Where we go from Greil Marcus to Humpty Dumpty

I bought two books at the Rose City Used Book Fair last Saturday, the Li Po of the previous post, and “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N’ Roll Music,” by Greil Marcus (1975). The Marcus is a first edition hardback in excellent condition, though it’s apparently not worth much to a book collector; I paid $5 for it. In his “Author’s Note,” Marcus says he felt an affinity for history writers who felt through their work that they belonged to a part of the struggle they wrote about, even if that struggle was long past. “Mystery Train,” Marcus says, was written from “the fall of 1972” to “the summer of 1974,” a time when the struggles of the past merged with the struggles of the present. I’ve not read it, but I’m putting it on the top of the stack. I don’t know why I didn’t read it at the time it came out. I suppose because at the time I was struggling with a few other writers, and, like Dylan said, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” (“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” 1965).

I have read Marcus, though. I liked his “Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads” (2005), 225 pages on a single song written and recorded by Dylan in 1965. The song is on the “Highway 61 Revisited Album,” which I listen to almost every day if I’m out in the Ford, since it’s usually the only tape in the car. “Once upon a time,” the song begins, and you know you’re in for a story, and the rimshot gets your attention. Dylan said, though I can’t remember where, either in “Chronicles” or in the 60 Minutes Interview, it might have been, something like, that guy [Marcus] went a little far. Sure he did; that’s what’s so great about Greil Marcus.

I’ve also enjoyed Marcus’s “Real Life Rock Top Ten: A Monthly Column of Everyday Culture and Found Objects,” his Believer magazine article that began, according to Marcus in a Powell’s interview (2006), in The Village Voice “around ’86.” It moved from Salon.com to The Believer, I believe, in 2008. Anyway, I started reading it regularly in The Believer at some point, though I confess I don’t always get the contemporary references (“You never understood that it ain’t no good, you shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you…,” Dylan again).

I like the way Marcus blends culture and music, and though he probably doesn’t think about it as literature, he might be a kind of contemporary American Roland Barthes. He certainly does not think of rock lyrics as literature. In a 2002 “Online Exchange with Greil Marcus” at RockCritics.com, Marcus had this to say about his “approach”:

“You’re right about my approach, which is a matter of affinities – what I’m drawn to – and learning to follow affinities where they lead – in other words, to trust your affinities. I have no background in poetics. The difference between poetry and ‘rock lyricism’ – if by that you mean song lyrics – is obvious and complete: except for people who think they are poets, like Paul Simon, lyrics are meant to be sung, come to life when they are performed, take their weight and muscle and ability to move from music, and true songwriters understand this. They understand that the most intricate allusive subtleties will be lost in performance, superseded by another quality altogether, and that the most impenetrable banalities can reveal infinite possibilities of thought and emotion when sung. In this sense I think the best songwriters are less afraid of words than poets can afford to be.”

In the film version of Roddy Doyle’s “The Commitments” (1987), in a scene not in the book, Jimmy, who frequently fantasizes success by interviewing himself, toward the end of the film, has his fantasy interviewer ask him what he’s learned from his time as manager of the rock band The Commitments, and he replies with a quote from Procul Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” When asked what the lyrics mean, the particular sticking point, according to a BBC analysis, being “the light fandango,” Jimmy responds, “I’m fucked if I know” (the film faithfully captures the flood of F words that fills and overflows the pages of the book).

Words have meaning, too much meaning, suggested Lewis Carroll. Indeed, one should not let another get one’s kicks for one, which is to say one should follow one’s own affinities. Just so, whenever I come across lyrics or poems I can’t seem to get, even after giving them the old college try, I think of Humpty Dumpty’s conversation with Alice about the meaning of things.

“I can explain all the poems that were ever invented – and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet,” Humpty says, and he helps Alice unpack the portmanteau words in “Jabberwocky.” Then later, Humpty offers this:

“‘The piece I’m going to repeat,’ he went on without noticing her remark,’ was written entirely for your amusement.’ Alice felt that in that case she really ought to listen to it, so she sat down, and said `Thank you’ rather sadly. `In winter, when the fields are white, I sing this song for your delight – only I don’t sing it,’ he added, as an explanation. `I see you don’t,’ said Alice. `If you can see whether I’m singing or not, you’ve sharper eyes than most.’ Humpty Dumpty remarked severely. Alice was silent.”

The Art, Woe, Slop, and Toe of the Book Review

In an era of sinking readership, closing bookstores, the disappearance of newspapers, and Google making us stupid, who cares about book reviews? The book review is the grownup version of the book report, the nefarious writing assignment where students first learn to plagiarize. Publishing is in a hard market, as they say in the insurance trade (rates up, coverage down), but book reviews have softened, a bummer for the pros, happily for the amateurs. We tried our hand at a book review the other day, having read the book with a review in mind, The Last Storyteller, by Frank Delaney.

Reading with writing in mind changes the act of reading, for we are no longer Salinger’s coveted general interest reader, who reads and runs sans comment. We loiter in the margins, jotting down questions we’d like to ask the author. We’re going to have to say something about what we read, or say something about how we felt while we were reading, but putting into words how we feel about a book is like putting on a tie, and we drift away from the text, ignoring the general book review rubric, if there is one.

The book review is as good a place as any to begin to think about purposeful writing. Writing with a purpose implies an audience, and if one is to stand before an audience, particularly a hostile (or perhaps worse, an indifferent) group, with any hope of persuading, some strategic plan might prove useful. To some, writing with a purpose might take all the fun out of the sails.

Ah, but what’s the purpose of the average book review – to wrestle the writer to the ground? A book reviewer might think like a reporter, an investigative reporter, even a detective of sorts, trying to solve, not a crime, but a puzzle, perhaps. Some readers don’t like puzzles. Puzzles can make one feel stupid, and, as Rene Char said, “No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.” But how much worse for the bird when what the reviewer wants to do is shoot her from the tree with a slingshot?

A brief summary of one aspect of contemporary book reviewing may be found in an SF Gate article by Heidi Benson (untitled, on-line version, July, 2003). I’m familiar with The Believer book reviewing philosophy she describes, having been a Believer subscriber since almost its inception, but I’d not heard of Dale Peck, quoted by Heidi as an example of a snarking, negative reviewer, so I read Peck’s review (referenced by Heidi) of Rick Moody (Moody I’ve read only in The Believer – I’ve not read his novels), which begins, “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation,” and continues, later, “I mean to say only that he [Rick Moody] is a bad writer. But bad writing has consequences.”

But, in part, it’s those consequences that Peck’s review is about, not Moody. Though Peck does a professional job of explicating samples of Moody’s prose, what he really wants to argue is that the modern novel as developed by the later James Joyce and company is responsible for what Peck sees as today’s literary mess (exemplified by Moody). In short, I assumed, Peck values realism, maybe naturalism, and for a good reason: he thinks literature could be more instrumental in solving contemporary problems if it were more purposeful and accessible, if, in short, it were more meaningful, if it were about something other than itself. Peck concludes with a vengeful rant against the modern novel, as follows:

“All I’m suggesting is that these writers (and their editors) see themselves as the heirs to a bankrupt tradition. A tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon’s; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid—just plain stupid—tomes of DeLillo.”

Fine, but I’d never heard of Dale Peck, so I looked up one of his books on Amazon, but I was so appalled, nay, horrified, by the excerpt from the Publishers Weekly review showing on Amazon that I had to shut down my computer and go for a walk. I’m back now, from the walk, but I still can’t believe that the Peck who wrote Body Surfing is the same guy that wrote the New Republic review. And, of course, since I am an actual, real, natural, old-time body surfer, boogie boarder, and surfboarder, I’m more than horrified at Peck’s book, I’m annoyed and disappointed, for he has, literally, defiled the surfing term with his title over that book. (And there’s my review of Peck’s book, which I’ve not read and will not read.)

Still, though, there’s a lesson there too, for the reader and the book reviewer in me (if he’s still there, after all this), for wouldn’t we agree that Stephen King is a terrible romance comedy writer? Of course not, because King doesn’t try to write romantic comedies. But one’s preference for romance comedy doesn’t make Stephen King a bad writer. Nor does my being appalled by the Amazon review make Peck’s book a bad one. We shouldn’t criticize something for not being what it was not intended to be. But if that’s true, then we shouldn’t fault Peck for criticizing Moody’s intentions. But this is where things get hard, for we don’t have time to read everything, so what should we be reading? Some criticism can be helpful. Criticism should help us understand the author’s intentions. And, once that’s done, help us understand how effectively those intentions were carried out. Good writing then becomes that which achieves its objectives, even if we don’t happen to like those objectives. n+1 wrote something up on Peck in April of 2004 which would seem to have put the matter to rest. Once again, of course, I’m way late to the party, and I’m not sure if I’m catching up or falling farther behind.