I just finished…

…”Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the third volume in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. We had been warned it was “too political,” but I didn’t find that so. Sure, Italian social disruptions of the 1960s influence the action, but the center of the book remains the internal lives and relationships of the characters, with Lena coming more into the fore and Lila receding into the background. In fact, by the last quarter of the book, Lena and two male characters so dominate the action, to the exclusion of all others, for the first time, I wasn’t turning back to the front to the Cast List to remind myself who was who. Which was a relief.

Recommended. But read the other two first.

(And Another) Morning at the Cafe

“You an artist?”

A short man with a twisted, grey beard, Eugene Levy-eyebrows, missing two lower front teeth stood by the table with my “Buy Bob’s Books!” sign.

“Writer.” I pointed at the stack. From the teeth, I was figuring, No sale.

He said he was in from Vermont where he moved with his wife, a YA author, after she had banked a huge advance. He told me how important an agent, which I did not have, was. His name was G.

“I write about cartoonists,” I said. “Not your Young Adult type.”

“Do you know Ace Backwards?”

Now there was a question I had never been asked.

“I knew B.N. Duncan better.”

“Duncan still owed me money.”

“I don’t think you’ll get it.”

“I don’t think so.”

He set down his coffee and muffin. We remarked about how good Duncan had been about paying money he borrowed. I had forgotten that quality. I saw Duncan’s wild orange beard, his taped together glasses, the box of books he carried to his corner by Cody’s. Cody’s which was also gone. I saw him handing me a crumpled, folded five.

“You know who had marketing down?” G named a local poet. “Everything she did was deliberate.”

“I haven’t seen her for a while. But, yeah, I bought her books.” Now her long, thick, black coat came to mind. Her black and yellow cap. For a time, she blew soap bubbles to announce her presence. I didn’t think soap bubbles would work for me. Maybe if I sat outside. Anyway, they were her thing.

“She must’ve sold 80,000 books. She did a new one every six months.”

“I suppose you know Hate Man died,” I said.


“Just the other day.”

“What happened?’

“His heart. They were talking about surgery. Then he was out of Alta Bates and into rehab. The next morning he was gone. I guess they decided he was too frail for the operation.”

G. was shaken. “I was going to go by the park today and say ‘Hello.’ I did that every time I was in town.”

The obit was in the Chron. I handed it to him. He read it intently. “He was a lovely man,” he said. “Very smart. Very profound” He read some more. “That’s right, a ‘peacemaker.'” “That’s right too. Not ‘insane,’ ‘eccentric.'”

“You can keep it,” I said.

“The last time I saw Hate, he’d just been told he had prostate cancer. That was all he could talk about.” G shook his head. “I guess he didn’t need to worry about that after all.”

At the next table, a man turned a page in Herodotus.


It occurred to me that the reason I seem to immediately follow one writing project with another writing project is that because, when I am writing, I can spend my time, even away from pen and paper, formulating and refining sentences and paragraphs in my head and that, if I was not filling this space in this fashion, my thinking would dwell in areas of gloom.

Adele thought there was something to that. But she believes most people have something going on in their heads that serves the same purpose.

And that reminded me of a sentence I had copied from “Infinite Jest.” Hal Incandenza, the novel’s protagonist — or one of its protagonists — reflects that “We are all trying to give our lives away something, maybe God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately — the object seemed incidental to giving one’s self away utterly. To games or needles, to some other person.”

I agreed with Hal too.

I Just Quit Reading…

…Marilynne Robinson”s “The Givenness of Things: Essays,” two-thirds of the way through.

Quit kidding yourself, I said.

I had read and liked and admired and been enlarged by all four of her novels, but this one I could not understand.

It was not just the theology. Her novels had that too.

It was how she chose to write it.

Her novels had, maybe, two four-syllable words per page. “Givenness” had eight. Maybe ten. And some of these I needed a dictionary for. “Prevenient.” “Syncretism.” “Marcianism.”

That’s a lot to ask.

So why did Robinson plant boulders like that along the path to understanding? Is she implying what she wants to say is so arcane it can’t be expressed in plainer words? Is she so unsure about what she is saying that she feels the need to back it with this weight.

No question she believes what she is saying. I just wish she would write it simply and directly, so if I could see if I did.

Some additional theology wouldn’t hurt me.

(Another) Café Morning

The fellow at the next table saw my display when he turned to leave. “Did you write all these?”

40ish. Pale. Thin. Darkly dressed. Maybe a Brit.

I said I had.

“I don’t remember the last novel I read,” he said.

“Only two of these are novels,” I said.

“Yes, I do,” he said. “A friend wrote it.”

I pitched, in 50 words or less, total, the four books that were not novels.

He made videos. He did not believe books had a future.

I believed they did.

Adele said, later, “Become his friend, and maybe he will buy a book of yours.

I considered the plusses and minuses.

Morning at the Cafe

The Asian woman was neatly dressed and had a stylish short hair cut. Her lap top’s screen showed Chinese script, Beside it were an Anita Shreve trade paperback and a lurid 50-cent copy of “Murder, Inc.”

I would have bet money I was the only person in the café to have read that in hard cover a half-century ago. I would have bet my house I was the only one to have learned about Abe (“Kid Twist”) Reles in “Crime Does Not Pay.”

“Excuse me,” I said. “But I was curious…”

She was not an English major.

Nor in Comp Lit.

Semiotics had nothing to do with it.

She was a micro-biologist.

She had not heard of “Kid Twist” or Burton Turkus.

She had not eve known it was a true story.

“I like to read book,” she said, “and it looked interesting.”

I thought, When she uses the rest room, she will walk past my table and see my “Buy Bob’s Books!” sign.

But she was still at her computer when I left.

Adventures in Marketing: Week 46

Note: Keen-eyed, unmemory-impaired, numerically-obsessive readers may note there has been no Week 45 in this space. Do not worry. It shall appear. Meanwhile…]

Sold, via this very web site — where all my books are available — one “Outlaws…” The buyer identified himself as a fan of “Pirates” — and a publisher, who invited me to write for him. His e-mail proposed a 40,000 word “primer,” on a subject I took a shine to, for a figure on a check which would be more than I’d seen in a while but, per word, wasn’t. So I responded with an inquiry about royalties, on what I envisioned as a stand-alone pamphlet, inquired about a series,…

“He only wants 4000 words,” Adele, with whom I share the e-mail address, said.


“You probably think I’m n idiot,” I followed up to the publisher. “But I’m in.”

Adventures in Marketing: Week 44

Sold two “Best Rides.”

That Berkeley author/publisher (See earlier blog) wanted to check me out. “Give me the one from the New York publisher.” (Since BR doesn’t reflect how I write now, I threw in a free “Cheesesteak.”) Then that UC English major (See even earlier blog) lived up to his promise to buy a novel once he had some cash with him. (Given what I hear about his department, I suspect he wanted to see what Old White Men have been up to,)

In other news, the home answering machine picked up one of those “I’m trying to reach the Bob Levin who wrote ‘XYZ'” messages. (These are less frequent, though more exciting, than those hoping to schedule an appointment with Bob Levine, the acupuncturist.) My mind immediately swung into its usual fantasy, which, tellingly, involves my receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars fro Hollywood rather than, say, an inquiry as to when I might be free to pop over to Oslo to pick up my award. Since the caller did not identify his purpose, I Googled his name and found he might be an assistant secretary general at the UN, a defensive tackle for the University or Arkansas, or a fellow who shared his Twitter photo with a monkey.

Stay tuned.

[Bob’s books are available at this very web site.]

Adventures in Marketing: Week 43

Sold three books. (I hate to say it, but Donald Trump may have the economy booming. Trickling down to my café table anyway.)

An M.D. at Café One bought a “Best Ride” and a “Schiz.” (He’d already bought a couple of my other books, so he must be a true fan, not just being polite.) Then an aspiring writer at Café Two, with whom I’d previously bantered “career guidance,” bought a “Cheesesteak.”

My display at Café One also drew into conversation a more accomplished and better known, while still under-appreciated Berkeley writer. We talked Commerce and Art. (He has his own non-profit publishing house to which he kindly invited me to submit my next manuscript.)

And in yet another testament to semi-unconscious networking, this fellow with whom I had played basketball for over a decade without knowing his surname, let alone that he had studied with John Barth before becoming a regular contributor to national magazines and author of several books, graciously gave me contact information for his agent and okayed my using his name as a referral.

I may have to start looking more kindly upon my fellow man.

[Bob’s books are available from this very web site.]

I I just finished…

…”The Sightseer’s Complement” (Lord Cadieux, ed. Rotland Press,) purportedly Number One in a series of “excursions into filth and absurdity.” A “pleasure reader” tipping its hat to Olympia Press’s Travelers Companion books of the 1950s and ’60s, contributors include Tristram Tappertith, Alfred Prue, Fatty Jubbo, Pearl S. Fuck, Agatha Tarbox, and Dr. Nelson Leathercherry. Works, both prose and picture, bear titles like “The Dreadful Apotheosis of the Frothing Charger,” “Do I Like Assholes,” “The Passionate Soiling pf Petra Peter Putridapolis,” and “Blow Job.”

Tongues-in-cheek abound. Winks flutter. Desire and erections are doubtful.

The book is a gem. Trim, tidy (4″x6″ — or so — 40 pp.), well-conceived, exquisitely executed. Ironic and appreciative, twisted and fun. (A perfect gift for the proper connoisseur.) Pornography as art — why not? If, as Kenneth Tynan has noted, it is honor-worthy to stimulate the eye or oar, what do we have against the pelvis?