My latest piece is up at First of the Month. You can read it here.
Bob Reads Two Books (Part One)
If you are a Patti Smith fan, you probably know the events at the core of M Train (Knopf. 2015), her beautiful and brilliant memoir. In 1980, Smith married the MC 5 guitarist, Fred Sonic Smith. In the prior five years, she had released four albums and published three books. In the next 14, she released one album and published one book. She and Fred settled in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, had two children, settled into bohemian domesticity.
…”String Theory,” a collection of David Foster Wallace’s articles about tennis.
Besides having written one of the most (deservedly) acclaimed novels of the last 50 years, Wallace was a good regional (and so-so Div. IV) tennis player. His volume-concluding “Federer Both Flesh and Not” has been considered, with Updike’s “Kid Bids Hub Fans Adieu,” one of the great pieces of sports journalism, scaling (like Roger Federer and Ted Williams) beyond genre into genius, into art. The other efforts in this book — on Wallace’s “career” on mid-western courts, on Tracy Austin and the disappointments of athletes’ autobiographies, on the then-journeyman, now-coach Michael Joyce, and on a particular U.S. Open, esp. the economic aspects thereof — are rewarding, each in its own way, as well.
Wallace seems incapable of presenting sentences for print that are not eye-opening, smile-inducing, and/or mind-bending. His understanding of the game is deep and his insights into its play novel. His player portraits apply admiration (mostly) and malice (occasionally) as Sargeant applied pigment. The inventive curiosity of his mind leads Wallace away from the clichés, sentimentality, and sheer repetitiveness that burdens most sports writing into explorations that are fresh and dangerous both on and off the tournament grounds. It wasn’t until I finished the book that I realized he hadn’t reported (or I’d missed) how Federer’s match came out, and it hadn’t mattered.
No sales again.
Not only that but the last two “customers” at the café have avoided eye contact entirely. This I could understand if “The Schiz” was the book in question, but “Cheesesteak”…
And my Manhattan-based efforts have constricted. Only partly from choice, Logos will have an exclusive east-of-Berkeley sales dealership on “Best Ride” and, until my actual distributor kicks in, a temporary one on “S” and “C.” I understand there are flyers and a display. This could be fun.
In other news, at the suggestion of my entrepreneurially-inclined friend Budd, I have e-mailed honchos at the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiologists hoping for an endorsement of “Heart” which will make it more attractive to agents and/or publishers. No responses yet, which will be kept in mind when it becomes time for charitable bequests.
Finally, I was interviewed by two fellows who hope to make a documentary film about Dan O’Neill and the Air Pirates. This seems an entirely DIY, low-budget operation, but of the half-dozen folks who’ve expressed similar interest, it’s the only one to actually get cameras rolling. Since they wouldn’t tell me the questions they’d be asking in advance, I’d prepped by skimming by book, which I hadn’t read since it came out. Boy, it was good! Maybe if the film is released, there’ll be a second edition. Maybe an NYRB Classic.
So a lot is going on. Still, there are moments just after wakening when I lie there thinking, Just what am I doing?
But they pass and I get up and do it some more.
…”Some Rain Must Fall,” volume five of Karl-Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle.” It picks up shortly after volume four ended, with Karl-Ove entering a writers’ program, and concludes several years later when, not without much intervening drunkenness, despair, and shattered relationships, he has one book out and, after a period of blockage, a second on the way.
The conception — and execution — of this work continues to be compelling. There are passages of stunning power. Unlike earlier volumes, there are no disconcerting time shifts but there continue to be the annoyances of frequent references to Norwegian writers unknown except to other Norwegians and the reappearance without identification to characters who have been encountered before but forgotten. I found it cool to have events that had been explored earlier, like the death of his father and its immediate aftermath to be re-explored from a different point in Karl-Ove’s life, and I liked encountering characters whom, in a traditional novel, you expect a lot more of than what happens here (or in life); but some might find this annoying.
If you’re looking for a 5-600 page novel to read, this would not be a good choice. But if you wanted to read five or six of them by the same guy, start with volume one and keep going.
…Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.”
I had read a couple of reviews of a recently published biography of Carter, and the strangeness of her life had intrigued me. The New Yorker’s called this her best book, and Moe’s had a used copy.
TBC is a collection of fairy tales, reimagined by a wild feminist consciousness and retold in a fever-dreamed style. (For those tales I did not recognize or for which I required a refresher to recognize the changes, Wikipedia helped.) The tales feature humor and homicide, twisted endings and sex that will make any kid who shivered and chuckled at EC Comics’ “Grim Fairy Tales” nod with special pleasure at this goof’s ascension into High Art. But the writing, the word linkage, the thought processes that coined the sentences and motivated the actions’ movement… Well, this is something unfathomably beyond Al Feldstein — or just about any of the rest of us.
Here, for example, is one sentence, the book’s final one, in fact:
“Little by little, there appeared… like the image on photographic paper that emerges first, a formless web of tracery, like prey caught in its own fishing net, then a firmer yet still shadowed outline, until at last as vivid as real life itself, as if brought into being by her soft, moist, gentle tongue, finally, the face of the Duke.”
What an ability! What a triumph!
Sold zero books. But…
…through the efforts of my semi-volunteer publicist, two of my books, maybe three, are now for sale in a Manhattan bookstore, and stores in Manayunk and Dobbs Ferry have said, “Well, maybe…” And the announcement of this surge has led one FB Friend to offer to swap his (unpublished) novel for one of my published ones. (He turns out not to have an actual copy of his book but will e-mail me a couple chapters.)
Then while I was writing that very paragraph, M (not her actual initial), a heretofore unknown-to-me regular at the café, eyed my display and suggested I sell books at the Ashby Flea Market, where, she said, many writers did, including one who had spent 30 years wrongfully imprisoned because of evil perpetrated by the FBI. This led to a 20-to-30 minute conversation, in which I learned she was in her 60s, a free-lance tour guide (Bay Area locales and parks), and which touched upon such matters as holographic wills, her travels along the Silk Road, Plymouth-Whitemarsh, Simmons College, her unfair firing from her position at the UN 30 or 40-years ago, the commune she joined in Berkeley (sex, drugs, and one phone for eight people), and concluded, when she asked “So why did you come to Berkeley?” with my handing her a copy of “Cheesesteak” and saying “If you promise to read this…”
In other news, our pitch of “Heart” to a mid-western publisher resulted in an a response two-hours later, which, tellingly perhaps, asked not to see sample chapters, but to hear our thoughts about our audience, organizational contacts, and sales program.
… “Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes, which I picked off the Free Books shelf in the café and, for which, I left “Masters of Sex” in exchange. (It went quickly too.)
Hughes is a fine writer and a smart guy. He seems to have read everything written about and visited every place relevant to his history of Australia, which begins about 1787. with its colonization by England, and ends about 1868, when it stopped dumping its criminals there.
That was the original idea. (The French liked it so much, they followed suit with Devil’s Island.) Take a (to the beholder) desolate chunk of land in the middle of nowhere, with weird plants, weird birds, weird mammals, some beings that barely qualified as human, and ship your bad guys (and gals) there. (You didn’t even have to be that bad. Petty theft got you seven years. Political agitation got you 14.)
Send a few guards, (where could they escape too?); barely house or feed them; work then till they dropped; scrimp on medical treatment or any other amenities; beat them bloody when you wanted. (Insolence got you 50 lashes; something worse 150 — or 500.) It was cheaper than building prisons.
Do me a favor. Don’t let Jeff Sessions hear about this.
Sold a “Schiz” and a “Fully Armed” to an old friend/retired psychologist in Philadelphia. Sold a “Cheesesteak” to a stranger (contractor) in the café. Sent a “Schiz” and a “Cheesesteak” to a recently resurfaced fellow who’d helped me a lot on my Air Pirates book. (He send me a pdf of his new book on Darwin.) Sent a “Cheesesteak” to a rock guitarist who’d given me a copy of his CD when I visited him in the hospital on my Mended Hearts rounds.
In other news, a woman with whom I attended 4th through 12th grade has offered to pitch “Best Ride” and “Cheesesteak” to bookstores in Manhattan, where she lives, Brooklyn, and Philly. (She expressed discomfort with “The Schiz” but is willing to look at it.) Her other activities include playing the harp at and singing in the chorus of her church (Episcopalian)and being an on-again, off-again booking agent for a chamber music group so this endeavor sounds adventurous and amusing to us both.
And the Berkeley indie author/publisher said he would do “Heart,” except he wasn’t publishing anything for the time being. But maybe when he secured his next grant… So pitches to agents and publishers continue there.
[Bob’s books remain available from this very web site.]
“You must be the food critic for the ‘East Bay Express,'” the fellow said as he sat down at the next table. He was about my age, a straw fedora and string tie. The morning before he had made his presence known by loud, angry declarations to an audience sized somewhere between himself alone and the world at large. So this showed an improvement in, if not mood, medication.
But how he had arrived at my assignment in life was unclear. True, I was marking yellow pad with ballpoint pen, but I had no vittles within reach. And my black leather motorcycle cap and Kelly green Penn Relays t-shirt did not scream, I would have thought, “Taste buds!”
It took me a couple hours to figure it out. “‘Cheesesteak,'” I told Adele, “was one of the books I had out for sale.”
“And the other was ‘The Schiz,'” she said, “so he must have thought you spoke his language.”
…a few books, two of which I have thought about reviewing at length but haven’t, so let’s see what I can encapsulate in the meantime.
The first of these is “We Told You So” (ed. by Tom Spurgeon, with Michael Dean), an oral history of Fantagraphics Books. The best part is the first third or two which provides the near-plot tension of “Will this plucky band of outsiders” survive, and dramatizes it thru warts-and-all depictions of colorful characters. (Among the partially blemished — believe it or not — is your humble reporter who — FULL DISCLOSURE — has had three books published by Fanta — all available from this very web site — and continues to be a contributor to its “Comics Journal”) The weakest part is the rest which settles into a sea of self-congratulatory pats on the back by those still employed or published by the company in question. Not that I begrudge them a single pat. Not that I don’t still proudly wear my “Fuck You I’m With Fantagraphics” t-shirt. But from a pacing/
variety/gratification of one’s baser desires POV, this seems lacking.