This time I thought I’d rank them, bottom to top, based on a jambalaya of how well written they were, how interesting, how informative, how challenging, how enjoyable, all percolating in my brain, some predominating in one judgment, some in another, topped off with brief comments ranging from the judicious to the block-headed.
10. Alexander McCall Smith’s “44 Scotland Street.” Recommended by a guy at the health club. He has sound politics but his literary taste I will never seek again. As for the book, what can you expect from an author whose goal is to recreate “Tales of the City” in Edinburgh?
9. Mark Herron’s “Slow Horses.” Recommended by a friend whose politics are suspect but who otherwise has good cred. He compared Herron to Le Carre. But I’d given up Carre after “Drummer Girl.”
8. Ben Schwartz’s “The Truth of Their Life.” I’d known Ben casually (perhaps an overstatement) since the early ‘70s but never knew he wrote. This is his first book, a novella/ short story collection. He sure has mastered what it takes to write fiction – a lot more than I have – and his the longest is better than that.
7. Patti Smith’a “Year of the Monkey.” I much preferred “Just Kids” and “M Train.” Her poetry and imagination are here, but I would have liked more reality. Would probably benefit from a rereading but I won’t bother.
6. Kate Atkinson’s “Big Sky.” Atkinson’s my favorite crime writer – the only one I read now that Elmore Leonard’s gone – and I’d been rereading her Jackson Brodie books in order. This struck me as the weakest but is still darn good.
5. William Vollman’s “Ice Shirt.” Had to work too hard to get stuff out of it. Still, Vollman is always worth chewing on.
4. Kathleen Thanos’s “The Truth of This Life.” Its co-editor swapped it to me at the café for a “Cheeseste4ak.” It is always good to filter the day through a little Buddhism.
3. Anne Tyler’s “A Patchwork Planet.” I used to read every Tyler. Then I stopped. This is the second I’ve picked up off the café’s “Free” shelves, and both have been delightful.
2. Larissa Macfarquahar’s “Strangers Drowning.” I recalled portions from “The New Yorker” and wanted to see what the whole book was like. An intriguing, head-shake inducing look at the quest for living a moral life.
1. Vollman’s “Fathers and Crows.” This completed my reading of his series of novels about the coming of Europeans to North America. This one covers the French, the Jesuits, and the eradication of the Hurons. A clash between madnesses, it seemed. My second favorite in the group, behind “The Dying Grass.”
My latest piece is up on-line at The Comics Journal. Here’s the link:
Sweating the Small Stuff
A painter who proves his ability to render the human form competently has flashed me a valid passport.
William T. Vollman. Imperial.
Vollman had asserted this in, it had seemed to Goshkin, a digressive discussion of the work of Mark Rothko, about one-sixth of the way through a 1200-page study of the exploitation and ruination of the land and people in and around a geographically inexact region encompassing both sides of the California-Mexico border. This study itself had seemed primarily digression, though digression as an all-encompassing, all-swallowing, all-explaining miasma of fact, fiction and surmise. His point, Vollman’s, that a painter who hadn’t mastered this basic aspect of drawing could not be trusted when he elected to communicate through “blotches and squiggles” seemed a bit close-mindedly retrograde but perhaps held a truth. We were all but human, Goshkin knew from 77-years of being, the last eight of which having been particularly instructive since his badly damaged heart had made every day of them a constantly informative surprise; and if a painter, whose job it has been since the Renaissance was to get us on canvas, could not be bothered to learn to render limbs and noses, he might arguably lack the connection to deliver any knowledge worth sharing about our cradle-to-grave existence.
And it seemed a matter of near-divine cosmic connivance that Goshkin had come to this passage only the evening before Ruth and he were to visit an exhibition of the “micro-paintings” of Guy Colwell at Berkeley’s East Bay Media Center
A fellow with a white beard, knit cap, wire-rimmed glasses, work boots looks me over.
“Wanna buy a book?” I say.
“Just spent all my money on coffee and a roll.”
“Maybe next time.”
“I like your titles though. You do all right here?”
“If I sell one book a week, I’m doing good.”
“That’s more’n me.”
“No. That’s why.”
We both laugh.
Michael and Audrey stop by. They say they are on their way to an OLLI course. “You know OLLI?” Michael says.
“Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee?” I say.
“Different Ali. So what’s your best seller here?”
“I sold a ‘Cheesesteak’ last week, so I guess…”
“You think of collecting your ‘Adventures’ into a book? I know, ‘performance art,’ blah-blah, but you ought to.”
“I’m not sure I’ve got the market. Like, my cousin’s photos of her rattlesnake beans with sundried tomatoes and broccoli got seven times the ‘Like’s as my last one.”
. “It’s hard to beat photogenic rattlesnake beans. But think about it.”
“I’ll run it up the so-to-speak flag poll.
Actually word of one sale reached us.
The wife in the family next door, with whom we are friendly but not so’s any of us would say we are actually “friends,” e-mailed that she had read “I Will Keep You Alive.” “I couldn’t put it down. I read it in one sitting. The story is my dad’s story, my mom’s story, it’s our story, it’s a life story. The emotions that you shared relate to everyone’s life.”
We thought that was pretty nice.
Sold a “Cheesesteak.”
The buyer was the abstract expressionist painter I mentioned an “Adventure” or two ago. When he’d come into the café, I’d offered condolences on the passing of Jolly, his activist/artist woman of 30-years, and he’d sat down with me. He showed me some of her photographs and poems and said he had so many stories he ought to write a book. I showed him how I’d gone about turning stories into a book, and he said, “How much?” Since Jolly’d lived in Powelton Village several years before I got there, it seemed fitting.
And I – indirectly – gave away a “Best Ride.” I’d picked “Franny & Zooey” off the “take-one; leave-one” “Free Book” shelves, figuring, “Hey, it’s been over 50-years, why not?”; and even though I had credits-to-burn, the “Ride” on my table had a torn cover, and I thought it might be a loss-leader, stuck in a card, and left it. Next time I came back, it was gone. I have so many, I may keep this up. Johnny Appleseed, me.
In other news…
My copy of “Happiness is Luxury,” the New Zealand journal whose editor’d asked me to contribute, arrived. It had been so long, except for the subject, I’d forgotten what I’d sent him and was delighted to see it contained an early Goshkin. (For those of you who actually read me, this must have been his second or third manifestation.) It’s a handsome volume, with classy fold-out art, some contributors I’ve even heard of (Max Clotfelter, Dame Darcy, Clay Geerdes, Paul Krassner, Willie Mendes) and others whose names alone make me want to make their acquaintance (Ducklingmonster, Sarah Fisthole, Biljo White, Zigendemonic). If you want more information: https://independentwomanrecords.bandcamp.com/merch/happiness-is-luxury-2
So, New Zealand, Croatia…
I guess it’s fair to refer to me as “the internationally renowned…”
The first two-week stretch in which I did not sell a book.
Not even a conversation of note. One street person stopped by my table. (Later he came back because he had found a book by someone named “Levin” on the “Free” shelf and wondered if we were related.) So did the most soft-spoken person I have ever met in my life. If I leaned forward and said “What?” I could barely hear him. He was a “programmer,” tall, thin, bald but bushy bearded. He said – I think – he would return after he settled his cappuccino and pastry but he did not. He sat two tables away and acted like he never saw me before in his life.
Maybe it is because UC is on vacation.
Maybe I have saturated the market.
Maybe I need another new sign.
Maybe it is the nature of the business. This week someone posted at the Authors’ Guild Message Board that Lightening Source has 18,000,000 different POD books available, and Ingram another 750,000 titles in its warehouse. This is not surprising. Two years ago, the median income from writing for a Guild member was $6000, down 42% from 2009. (Income from book sales was $3100, down 50%.) “Full-time” authors’s median income was $20,000. I do better on Social Security – and I took my money early.]
The only response to this post was from a fellow urging members not to give up. All you had to do, he counseled, was publish four novels a year and, in your spare time I suppose, promote them relentlessly.
In other news…
“I Will Keep You Alive” garnered Adele and me a rave e-mail from musician/author (“Rock Folk,” “Ray Charles: Man and Music”), and – in interest of full disclosure – friend of over 40-years Michael Lydon. “So good… so funny… a truly great accomplishment… Super, super, super… Amazing.”
From his lips to the Editor of the NYT Book Review’s ears.
Sold two copies of “Cheesesteak.”
The buyer was that folk musician from Detroit who hangs at the cafe to whom I’d given one last week. The first was for a fellow who runs a recording studio in Philly. The second for a guy who lives here and whom I know because his father was our family doctor back in the days of house calls and because I waited on his bunk’s table at Camp Tacoma. (See p. 45.) He was a sweet 10-year-old then who came to Berkeley around when I did and, now with a pig-tail down his back, sold pretzels from a food cart near Saither Gait before becoming a major hippie entrepreneur. His guitar shop (new and used), still psychedelic painted, is known world-wide.
And gave an “I Will Keep You Alive” to the fellow who’d helped Adele and meI move stuff from my office after I retired. (See p. 113 of that one). Then he’d sold “Street Spirit,” a newspaper for and about the homeless, outside the café because he’d been laid off from Chevron.
Now he was doing it again, laid off due to ill health (CHF) and trying to get back on his feet. Even though it had been eight years, he recognized me.
Also got an inquiry – but no purchase – about “Schiz” from an unshaven, skinny fellow in a raincoat and camo cap. “Wanna buy a book?” I said. “Can’t afford it,” he said. His name was “Solanoo.” “I made it up. It means ‘New Sun.’”
In other news, it’s been a good period for words-of-mouth.
1.) Leif, the mathematician, came out of the corner table where he usually sits bent over his papers to say he wanted to tell me how much he’d liked IWKYA. “Terrifying,” he said.
2.) Then Joseph (or whatever I called him before), the retired assistant library clerk, e-mailed augmentation of his earlier praise by comparing it to an operatic aria between a man and woman, with “the sweeping emotions” of my and Adele’s alternating voices overwhelming him.
3.) Finally, Jean-Paul, the founder of Berkeley’s first co-operatively owned record store and the most knowledgeable person about pop music I know, read my seminal article “Dylan: The Man, the Moment, the Italian Meats Sandwich.” I have always considered it the best thing ever written about Bob, a view not widely shared, and it was nice to hear him call it “Evocative, hilarious and profound. PHENOMENAL!”
Reports of two sales (one actual, one contemplated).
That one, of “Outlaws, Rebels…,” would be of its e-book version, if that even exists, since its buyer would be to an artist/cartoonist in Serbia, who contacted me via Facebook, because she is a friend of another artist/cartoonist in Serbia, who recommended it, and the cost of postage makes a direct purchase from me unappetizing.
The other sale (“Most Outrageous”) went to a woman in Virginia who, having learned her reputed father died more than 10 months before her birth, has come to believe, for reasons unexplained, that her true dad, if not the subject of my book, is likely to have been his brother – or their father. She e-mailed me a request for any photos in my possession obtained during my research which might aid in her Visual Recognition study.
That both these events occurred the same week that a jackass I’d known in Powelton Village showed up, fictionalized, in a “New Yorker” story, and, after I’d mentioned to a fellow I had just met who had graduated Haverford College in 1964, the only two classmates of his I’d known, and he turned out to have roomed with one and baby sat for child of the other after he’d returned to school following an expulsion for heroin use, led me to ponder the mysteries of connection that string the web or our lives.
I may have also said, “It’s a small world.”
I also gave away two books.
An “I Will Keep You Alive” went to my optometrist, who was retiring after 40 years in practice. She is devoted enough to Ram Dass, whose favorable quote adorns our front cover, to have sat at his feet in Hawaii within the last year. She also knocked to cover price of books her patients gave her off their bill. Alas, this deal seems to have ended since my last book landed.
And a “Cheesesteak” went to a fellow drawn to my table by me new (See previous “Adventure”) “Meet the Author” sign. A leading member of the café’s acoustic music gang and a veteran of the Village and Bay Area folk scenes, I’d gone up in his estimation, once he’d learned I’d actually written the books I was peddling. He wa from Detroit and a couple years older than me, but by the time we’d connected around comics and early rock’n’roll, I knew he’d be a perfect reader. We’d gotten around to basketball – and his playing against Dave DeBuscherre and Togo Pallazzi – when I had to leave.
My latest piece has gone up at http://www.tcj.com/ming-ming-ming/
Pythons didn’t seem to come in Goshkin’s size, so he clicked “Eel Skin.”
“Vintage,” the ad said. “Pre-owned.”
He liked the idea of stepping out shod like a Mexican drug lord. A 77-year-old Jewish one with a bad heart at that. He wondered how someone came up with the idea of making cowboy boots from eels. He only thought of eel at Party Sushi. Weren’t they too skinny to stick feet in?
Sold one “I Will Keep You Alive.”
The buyer was my former associate, one of the attendees at my boontz-lunch a few weeks before. (See previous “Adventure.”) She paid a surprise visit to the café, and we had a nice chat, involving Colorful Clients We Had Known, going back 40 years to the People’s Temple cases, which we’d worked on together. Then her husband’s two M.I.s came up and then Adele and my book.
The week’s other notable encounter came about because of my new sign. I’ve subbed out the S. Clay Wilson Checkered Demon’s “Buy Bob’s Books!” for a commissioned J.T. Dockery, based on an old “New Yorker” cartoon. A down-and-out wino, unshaven, frazzled cuffs, holes in his shoes, sits crumpled on the sidewalk, upturned hat between his legs, books beside him, a sign on the wall he leans against: MEET THE AUTHOR!
It has drawn its share of looks and smiles. “Wanna buy a book?” I asked one of these gawkers. “No,” the gentleman said. “But I can help you out with a couple bucks.”
“He must not have appreciated your eel skin boots,” Adele said, when I told her.
Sold one “I Will Keep You Alive.”
The buyer was a woman from India, who worked in I.T. We had noticed each other at the café but had not spoken until we met at the salad bar at Whole Foods. (“Romaine is back!” I’d said.) She said she read Wayne Dyer and Wayne Dyer often mentioned Ram Dass and Ram Dass had written a cover blurb for our book, so the next time she saw me at the café…
When she did, it turned out she wanted a book as a gift for a friend. “He likes science-fiction.”
“Not too long ago,” I said, “this would have been just that.”
I also gave a “Schiz” to a Croatian woman who lives in Slovenia. (You know what it costs to send a book to Slovenia? $24, that’s what.)
She had sent me a “Friend” request at FB. When I messaged her “Why?”, she said it was because we both loved comics, and, if I would give me my address, she would send me some of hers. They turned out to be three minis and a full-size anthology she’d edited, all of which she’d also published. (That cost her 6.90 euros.) I was so struck by them, I said I would like to write about them – and she said she would send me two more.
I may have said – but will say again – among the great and gratifying experiences of this writing thing, especially in this internet age, are the connections it brings and the odd conjunctions of which they often consist.
And I’m a kid who, when growing up in West Philadelphia, the only non-Americans he knew were two brothers from Puerto Rico.
Oh yeah, there was also Chinatown.
In other news…
1.) A political consultant acquaintance on “Cheesesteak”: “Delightful… witty and well-written.”
2.) A basketball buddy on the same: “Really good. A 40-foot three-pointer.”
3.) A woman from the health club on IWKYA: “Wonderful. The only book I leave out on my coffee table for visitors to pick up.”
ALL BOOKS AVAILABLE FROM THIS VERY WEB SITE.