Faithful readers will recall I used to post a brief reaction to each book I finished. I’ve gotten away from that, so, to catch up, here are even briefer reactions to additions to my shelf – or discard box.
Emil Ferris’s “My Favorite Thing is Monsters” is widely regarded as the best graphic novel of 2017. The graphics are, indeed, terrific; my problem is with the “novel” part. When you choose a grade school kid as your narrator, unless she is going to be a “genius,” like Donna Tartt’s slightly older boy in “The Goldfinch,” you may have “charming” and “delightful” and “amusing,” but you are going to be short on “intellect” and “insight” and “wisdom,” qualities I prefer when settling in for a read.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer” won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2015. Its narrator, a North Vietnamese secret agent, was intelligent and insightful – and didn’t work for me either. He was thoroughly dislikeable, except for the final section which grabbed me. His experiences had little connection to my own, and his America-bashing, while well-reasoned and well-earned, was, by now, familiar and tiresome. Also I would have cut that entire movie-making interlude, and I resented Nguyen’s omitting the big sex scene he seemed to have been building toward – but, hey, I never won a Pulitzer.
Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From the Goon Squad” won a Pulitzer too. It was a lighter and more pleasant trip than “The Symp,” until the (post-modern, I guess) time-jumps and narrative breaks got in my way. Call me old-fashioned, but I wish she had stuck with how she had started. A second reading might help, but I doubt I’ll make the effort. I won’t rule out reading her new book though, which is getting a lot of attention.
Jack Walklet’s “Rafting Down the Mississippi” is a self-published – but luxurious – high-quality – self-published coffee-table-sized book recounting a trip he and a dozen friends made in 1972, from Missouri to New Orleans, on a raft they built themselves. It’s quite an adventure and the book is loaded with photos, maps, lots of local history and lore. My one area of discontent is my wish that Walklet had probed more deeply into himself and his crewmates. I wanted to know more about the reasons, needs, compulsions, family and social backgrounds that launched them – and how the socio/political climate of the times. But I guess a sense of discretion and respect for privacies stood in the way.
Julie Hecht’s “Was This Man a Genius?” is an account of the year she spent trying to write a magazine article about Andy Kaufman. It was my third reading, occasioned by my thinking I might write an article about it, which was itself occasioned by my viewing of the documentary about the making of the Kaufman bio-pic, which starred Jim Carey. Anyway, it’s a terrific piece of journalism by a terrific writer about a terrific subject.
Joan Didion’s “We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live,” collects all but her last two non-fiction books into one volume. I’d read them all when they appeared. What can I say? Didion is one of my gods.
One (reported) sale.
A college friend (and retired assistant D.A.) in upstate New York advised in a note with his Xmas (Take that, Donald Trump) card that he’d (a) had prostate cancer (Prognosis: “Excellent”) and (b) purchased “The Schiz.” (He made no mention of having read any, but that would have placed him among a rarer breed.)
In other news, I see two pieces I wrote for “The Comic Journal” made its Best of 2017 list. That was nice, (but I can’t truthfully say they were ones – even among mine – I would have picked).
Also I received an e-mail from an attorney with a Northern California law firm asking if I would be interested in testifying as an “expert” in a copyright case involving comic books. “Let’s talk,” said I.
I have been tagged as both a comics “critic” and a comics “historian,” both of which put a twinkle in my eye – and neither of which are how I see myself (though I understand how others might drape those robes upon me); but being an actual judicially-certified “expert”… Now that would be a step up in weight class. (Not to mention billing-by-the-hour out-performing peddling my wares in cafes. And think of the employment opportunities. I could advertise in the classified pages of the Bar journal, along with the PhDs in structural engineering and chemistry and neuro-biology.)
So while the inquiring attorney and I have been playing “phone tag” (A phrase I haven’t encountered since I was in practice – and hated then), I’ve been mentally bolstering my credentials – and imagining the witty repartee by which I’ll dazzle the opposition when cross-examined.
Of course, I don’t yet know the issue, let alone which side I’ll be on.
No matter. Paladin is I. Have Gun Will Travel.
Sold no books.
But gave away a “Cheesesteak.”
A guy in the café, looking over my books, asked if I was from the East Coast. He turned out to be from South Philly (Southern ‘60), where he played in a combo with Ernest Evans (“Chubby Checker”). After graduation, he split for NYC, where he lived the life of a dancer/actor/artist/carpenter/handyman – and lived in the same apartment building as Sam Melville when he was making his bombs. He came here in ‘84, attracted by the “light” (a very “artist” thing to say) – and driven from the Apple one winter when pipes were freezing and madmen were screaming in the street.
Anyway, he made no move to purchase, so…
In other news…
Okay, it’s not the same as an editor at a notable NY publisher saying she’d read your short story, do you have a novel she can look at, but, as things stand, pen-and-paper ledger-wise, having a publicist at a notable NY publisher ask if you would review a book about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, recently translated from the German, is a kick. When you stand this far from the literary red hot center, any approving nod is a ticker tape parade.
How did you get to me, I asked. Usually it is some off-the-wall, transgressive, outlaw cartoonist, thinking, well he liked _____. Maybe he’ll like me. (Which I also, let me quickly add, welcome.)
It turned out to be my otherwise-ignored panning of “The Boys in the Boat” as manipulative, manufactured hogwash in the not-widely-read broadstreetreview.com a year-and-a-half ago. She hadn’t read the book but my review “fascinating and the criticism valid.”
So I checked “Olympia” out of the public library for Deep Background.
Toss stones into ponds and you know where the ripples lead – even if sometimes it’s only a free book.
Sold one Schiz and one Cheesesteak. Both went to a stocky, balding middle-aged fellow, whose hair was slicked back like Jimmy Hoffa’s. He turned out to be an ex-Alameda County employee, who had worked with the homeless, schizophrenics, and the abused, and was now in in a doctoral program on social change, believing the best way to improve people’s lives was to improve their environment.
A few days before, my Checkered Demon “Buy Bob’s Books!” sign had caught the eye of a 30-something woman and her older male partner-of-10-years. Her parents had fled Peru when she was 13 to avoid the violence of the Shining Path. He was from Colombia but had been sent to Valley Forge Military Academy by his parents (who later moved to Miami) to avoid the violence of the drug cartels. She was an abstract artist, with an upcoming show in Richmond, and he ran a start-up working toward “clean” electricity. We discussed “Narcos,” the Free Speech Movement, my 45-year marriage, whether he should move his company to Mexico or Florida, his hyper-tension, my heart attacks. (I know we didn’t discuss the Warriors and I am pretty sure no one mentioned Trump, both of which were a relief.)
The conversation was fun and engaging and so warming in its humans-can-be-good-folks connectivity, not slaughtering anyone, not kicking others further down the economic ladder, it barely occurred to me to note that they hadn’t bought a book.
In other news, I have been notified that the distributor has only two copies of The Schiz in its warehouse. Who, I thought immediately, bought them?
Well, one person I now know of. A cartoonist in Toronto, about whom I have written, said he purchased a copy at The Beguiling (but had not yet read it). Only 6-700 more for which to find homes.
My contact/guide says we should await post-holiday returns before ordering a second printing. But what about an e- or audio book. (He has the equipment.) I liked the later idea particularly. I am to be the reader. Can Adele do Tisa? I ask. Or must I do all the voices? Do I differentiate between speakers by lapsing into (probably offensive) dialect?
I was a great reader aloud in elementary school.
Sounds like fun.
But my college roommate e-mailed he “loved The Schiz.”
Your college roommate, you may say.
But his taste does not run to mashed potatoes. The last novel he recommended to me was by David Mitchell. And I bet he was the only athletic director in America with a collection of first edition Nabokovs in his office.
True, it was a Div III university, but still…
In other news, a friend in Manhattan has offered to copyedit Cheesesteak before its second edition for a less-than-nominal fee. She has professional credits in this field and, as befits a credited copyeditor, is a tad obsessive, as witnessed by its taking about 40 e-mails and two days to get past p. 1.
But now we are cooking, and have reached 12.
Finally, O, the artist who had been impressed enough by my promotional activities in the café to ask me for tips, invited me to the opening of his show. He gave the address and date.
“What time?” I said.
“9:30,” he said.
“Can’t make it. Too late”
“Don’t you go out at night?”
“We go to Bob Dylan concerts.”
He nodded. He could see that.
“Sometimes we go to house concerts at a friend’s, but we leave by 9:00, after the first set.”
“What time do you go to bed?”
“8:00. Get up at 5:00.”
“Even if I offer inducements. There will be cookies.”
I imagined how that would play with Adele. My expression must not have been encouraging.
“I guess it won’t work. But can you be there in spirit?”
“I can be there in spirit. Sure.”
“That is the important thing.”
I had the date. I had the address. If I woke up around 9:30 to urinate, which was not out of the question, I would give my spirit directions.
My writer-friend Z came into the café. He had bought a “Schiz” two weeks ago. “You’re an excellent writer,” he said. “Those caterpillars. I couldn’t have written that.”
I felt honored by the compliment. Z thrives on literary feuds and back-stabbings. He has been none for not talking to people for months over slights others might have countered with a “Glorioski!”
But not so honored to not say, “That’s on page two.”
“I’ve been skipping around,” he said.
“It’s intricately plotted,” I said.
“Sort of. Yeah.”
Awhile later, Y, my former secretary, came in. She bought a “Cheesesteak” and a “Schiz.” She had been a hold-out for months, but I gave her a deal.
I also gave her too much change for her fifty.
When I called her, she said, “Should I bring it back?”
“No,” I said. She was going to Kenya for a month. “It’s a sign from God. Buy me a bracelet. I have a seven-inch wrist.”
My latest piece is available here: http://www.firstofthemonth.org/with-reservation/
“Wild River,” recently available on pay-per-view, centers around the gang rape-murder of a young Native American woman on a Wyoming reservation.
Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, the film begins with one of those take-notice “Inspired by…” or “Based upon actual events” tags and closes with the chilling notice that no “missing person statistics… exist for Native American women.” Much of what is depicted is extraordinary: the wintery, desolate but beautiful rez; the striking presence of some of the supporting actors. But much is familiar: the damaged, loner male avenger (Jeremy Renner, more appealing than had been Benicia del Toro in Sheridan’s “Sicario), and the in-over-her-depth female (Elizabeth Olson, less traumatized than had been Emily Blunt); and the climactic where-is-Sam-Peckinpah-when-you-need-him shoot-out. So I wondered how much exactly was “actual,” its authenticity deflecting what might otherwise seem cliche.
I had been re-reading Julie Hecht’s book about Andy Kaufman, and every morning, after I had finished the “Times,” I would read a chapter, like a meditation, and, with Julie Hecht’s rhythms in my head, look out the window of the café like I was witnessing an Andy Kaufman show.
I even heard a customer behind me say, “Thank you veddy much,”
I wondered if God was Andy Kaufman.
It would explain a lot.
Like maybe Tony Clifton was president.
No sales in the café, again.
But two of my high school classmates, one of whom lives in North Carolina and one in France, let me know they had taken advantage of The Schiz’s wider availability to order copies – and the Tar Heel had his snatched away by a friend as soon as it arrived.
Word has also reached me that only 29 copies remain in my distributor’s warehouse. I am aware this does not mean they will be sold, but I am flabbergasted. Just that morning I had come away from Stephanie Ruhle and her CNBC panel thinking, Boy, did you pick the wrong time to release your book. (Later, I reassured myself, At least you killed off your predators and didn’t elect them to the U.S. Senate.)
And word reached me that Outlaws, Rebels…, (Fantagraphics. 2005) has sold out. This news surprised both me, who had been trying to restock his supply on hand with a half-dozen copies, and my publisher, who had been promising for months to send them. This was, we agreed, good news, but it made him no more eager to publish my new collection. (Forthcoming, from Spruce Hill Press. 2018).
And finally, the NYC friend, who had arranged six months ago for several of my books to be handled on consignment by a neighborhood book store, advised me that they “have their own south wall counter section.”
“Take a picture,” I said.
“You need the store owner’s permission,” she said. She is a stickler for etiquette and formalities. “Describe the purpose of the photo and how it will be used.”
“The purpose of the picture is so I can look at it,” I said. “You think I’m gonna splash it on a billboard?”
“There should be a business arrangement,” she said. “Confirm if the photo should be printed and sent by U.S. mail at the author’s expense, or via a digital file.”
“I can’t even get this guy to pay me,” I said. (See earlier Adventures.)
So if you’re on the Upper East Side with an I-phone…
Among my favorite reactions to my writing was the guy who launched a thread at the old Comics Journal message board: “Why Do You Keep Publishing Articles By Bob Levin?”
It meant, I realized, that not only had I written something he hated, but that I had written it so distinctively that he could connect it to something I had written months before which he’d also hated.
Which meant I had a style and approach – an identity – going for me.
Now I’ve had another emphatic line drawn.
“Bob Levin is a great finisher,” wrote a First of the Month responder about my recent “Fox and Foes” (Nov. 12, 2017), a piece in which I had reflected upon a 45-year-old, barely-known memoir by Stanley Robinson, a Chicago police officer:“His pieces always end well…,” that responder wrote. “I’ve learned to trust Levin’s process.”
This one made me smile. It recognized that I can sometimes take a circuitous route to arrive at where I’m going, a route which, in this case, began with my musings about literary style and ended, 3000-words later, linking to contemporary headlines which had been nowhere in my original contemplations. In fact, when I’d learned of Robinson’s book, I’d known I wanted to write something about it, but I did not know what that could be. In fact, when I began writing, I still did not know. It was only when I reached the last line, I thought, AHA!
The point is that it does not take much to firm up one’s resolve to keep doing what one believes is worth doing, as both my recent responder and that forgotten poster firmed up me.