Abject apologies for being such an inconstant correspondent. It’s the holiday season, after all, and between celebrating Christmas, visiting relatives, supping and socializing with friends, there’s been rather a lot on my plate.
My preparations for the new year took up two entire days—I have this annual ritual, y’see, cleaning my office from top to bottom, rearranging things, paring it down, etc. etc. I also take time to outline my anticipated schedule for the coming year and draw up a list of resolutions.
With regards to the former, well, schedules are made to be broken. I thought I had 2011 figured out…until a western novel called The Last Hunt announced itself in February and proceeded to hijack the entire year. To be clear: as I wrote out my preview for 2011 on or around December 31, 2010, I had no idea that in the very near future I’d be taking a crack at a western. My Muse can be quite perverse. Don’t get me wrong, I love westerns but I’ve never envisioned writing one. Never even fantasized about it. “Wouldn’t it be cool…” Nope.
As for my resolutions, I generally do try. Most of them I’ll keep to myself but one thing I’d dearly love to work on is enjoying myself more, having more fun with the entire process of writing. Does it always have to be so freakin’ stressful and fraught? Is there a way of easing up without damaging the power and integrity of my work?
Last year I made the pledge to read more, took on the “100 Book Challenge” and managed to make it (105 was my final tally, thank you very much). In 2012, I want to keep up that momentum but this year I was to concentrate on BIG books, fat, smart books crammed with great writing and daunting ideas and notions. I’ve already put a few aside: William Vollmann’s Europe Central, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever, The History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCullough and Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote. Also want to re-read some of my fave Thomas Pynchon books: it’s been a long time and they’re bound to have fresh revelations for me.
Listening to a lot of music in early 2012, tunes by the likes of Brian Jonestown Massacre and A Place to Bury Strangers. Not much in terms of movies so far, though I’m thrilled to announce we’ve already bought our tickets for this year’s “Silence is Golden” event. The 1924 version of “Thief of Baghdad”, projected onto a big screen, accompanied by a live orchestra. The cinephile within is swooning…
Sherron, bless her heart, bought me another book case on December 30th so for the next two or three days I moved books around, expanding my Film and History/War shelves, organizing and pondering. It was fantastic. I know, it’s ludicrous, isn’t it? I am such a nerd. But in the Information Era, where computers and gadgets entice us with their tricks and shiny buttons, it’s nice to reconnect with my library. I’ve spent my entire adult life assembling a pretty decent collection of tomes and I love having them available, on display, rather than stored in our ancient stone basement, vulnerable to all of the environmental hazards to which paper is prone.
Software comes and goes but my books remain—faithful, accessible, relics of other, less hectic, times. I have all the novels and short stories Philip K. Dick published during his lifetime. I possess every golden word the great James Crumley committed to paper. The covers a bit tattered, the spines showing wear and tear. A substantial proportion of my books are used, remaindered; cast-offs and rejects. But they occupy places of honor on my shelves. Most of the authors dead, many of them all but forgotten. Preserved in my odd collection, my assorted odds and ends and incunabula. All of it reflecting the weird, far-ranging tastes and interests in its curator. Eclectic, if you’re being kind, though a true adept might discern much, much more…
Just hit book #50, halfway there and still (barely) maintaining the pace necessary to hit the century mark by the end of the year.
Four or five books of note in the latest batch of reading, including Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (#42) Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (#46), John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance & Survival (#49) and W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (#50).
The latter left me especially shaken.
What begins as an investigation into the dearth of postwar literature devoted to the suffering and deprivation endured by German civilians during World War II, gradually metamorphoses into a meditation on the limits of language. Sebald asks if mere words can do justice to the horror of an air raid, the obscenity represented by Auschwitz, the experience of being tortured. Do certain episodes defy and impoverish description and can any re-enactment, however well-crafted and best intentioned, achieve more than verisimilitude and clever artifice?
Sebald cites several artists—Gert Ledig, Jean Amery, Peter Weiss—who eschew decorum, ignore taboos, use their immense talents to conjure sentences that are impossible to ignore, that permanently imprint themselves on our consciousness. It is their authenticity that distinguishes them; these men are first person witnesses, their credentials impeccable. They have determined (sometimes after a long period of silence) that they are going to tell what they have seen without embellishment or elaboration. Their courage and honesty simply will not allow them to go into the darkness without making one last fruitless, valiant attempt to communicate to us things we would rather not know, that we’d rather see safely consigned to history’s back pages.
Ledig et al do their best but, even so, words often fail them and images, still shots of destruction, grotesque tableaux, are often substituted; these come in the form of vivid, descriptive passages, devoid of sentimentality, chillingly matter of fact. They bring to mind the stark, silent, black-and-white footage taken in the death camps. Amery chose the personal essay format to unflinchingly document what it means to be dispossessed, cast out and marked for death by fellow citizens. He refused to hide behind a fictional counterpart or allow a contrived plot line to dilute/adulterate his message.
In the end, Ledig/Amery’s efforts are doomed; even the most enlightened, imaginative reader is incapable of gaining more than an inkling of the physical and spiritual agony that can be inflicted by a well-trained torturer…or visualize what it’s like to enter a crammed air raid shelter after it has suffered a direct hit from a thousand pound bomb. We can only, thank God, experience these things vicariously, secondhand, from the safety of a comfortable arm chair. And, though it might pain bibliophiles to do so, we must acknowledge the paucity of language in the face of such incommunicable pain and loss.
Sometimes only a scream will suffice.
We know we can’t possibly understand what they’ve experienced but we feel, in the depths of what passes for our soul, that we owe it to the victims to at least try. Every single day.
My reading has tailed off of late, which means I have to pick up the pace if I’m going to make my quota of nine books a month. Nine books a month times twelve months equals 108 books. Which means Cliff succeeds at the “100 Book Challenge” and doesn’t have to hem and haw and make up a dozen different excuses why he couldn’t keep up and why he isn’t more committed to the celebration and preservation of the printed word, etc., etc., and so on.
Ah, but if only every book was as good as The Risk Pool. I’d take the “200 Book Challenge” and make it with room to spare.
I’m a huge fan of Richard Russo’s work. I think I found The Risk Pool on-line somewhere. Maybe Better World Books. I like dealing with them and their bargain bin is often pretty darn good. Slowly but surely, I’m paring down my “wish list”; it currently takes up 4 pages of a steno notebook I keep handy. Books I simply must own, by writers I admire without reservation. Russo’s on that list, right near the top. He’s a wonder.
The Risk Pool is his second book, an unbelievably good sophomore effort. Mohawk, his debut, was excellent but The Risk Pool eclipses it. It’s comparable in quality to Russo’s That Old Cape Magic and Empire Falls…but not quite up to the lofty standard set by The Straight Man, which I consider to be the author’s finest (and funniest) novel. “Funny” is an operative word when one encounters a Russo tale because as well as being populated by flawed, wounded human beings and blessed by compelling plot lines, his works often provoke bleats of laughter…and that’s certainly the case with The Risk Pool.
Ned Hall is the narrator but, really, the central figure of the novel is his father, Sam. Sam is a legend around the town of Mohawk; he survived the Normandy landing and the Battle of Bulge, fought his way to Berlin…and returned home a changed man. His young, blushing bride swiftly becomes disillusioned with his gambling and whoring, his determination to have a good time regardless of the consequences to those closest to him. There’s a separation but Sam won’t hear of a divorce. He remains a distant presence in his son’s life, at least until his mother suffers a breakdown and Ned finds himself his father’s ward, with all the complications accompanying that status. Sam’s motley assortment of friends—drunks and local characters—give Ned a different perspective on life in Mohawk: the perqs of winning and the cost, in human terms, of drawing the low card.
Looking for a book that is, at once, literary and a joy to read, a novel you can’t bear to part with until you’ve found out how it ends? The Risk Pool satisfies on every count. It is the kind of tome authors dream of writing and devoted readers pine after. Beautiful and sad, subtle and powerful, filled with desperate, hope-filled people, who behave with the courage and foolishness their circumstances require.
Highest possible recommendation.
The titles I tackled reveal the diversity of my tastes/interests: Michael Palin’s latest set of diaries, Halfway to Hollywood, along with some readings on cinema (Dark Knights and Holy Fools), history, science fiction, theology, a novella by Roberto Bolano (Monsieur Pain)…
Yesterday I finished a collection of stories by one of the best English language writers on the contemporary scene, Jim Shepard.
Love & Hydrogen brings together close to two decades of Jim Shepard’s magnificent short fiction. Here’s the citation I wrote up for Love & Hydrogen in my book journal:
“Jim Shepard is a marvel. He and George Saunders and Ken Kalfus are the kind of writers who make you want to sweep everything off your desk and apply for a job as assistant manager at the local Dairy Queen. Aesthetically, they make no mistakes, the scope and diversity of their work dazzles.
Love & Hydrogen displays scope and diversity all right: in spades. The stories transit spans of time, the subject matter encompassing everything from the final flight of the Hindenberg to ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon’. To my mind, any number of these tales could be included in an anthology of the finest writing of the past fifty years. I’ve read that Shepard’s research is meticulous and that is evident in historical reconstructions like the title story, ‘The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich’, ‘Krakatau’, ‘Batting Against Castro’, etc.
There’s a shiver of authenticity present in all of his fiction, an emotional honesty that defies sentiment and still manages to be heart-wrenching. No one in Jim Shepard’s universe is blameless, everyone complicit; perhaps it’s his version of original sin. We quickly recognize ourselves in Jim Shepard’s peerless short stories and novels and that (among numerous other things) is what makes him so great.”
* * * * * *
…and along with that reading I’ve been spending most nights of late snuggled up on the couch with Sherron, watching one or two episodes of the first season of “Mad Men” (a Christmas gift from my sons). Intriguing and addictive. A little bit more of Don Draper’s past swims into focus with each episode, some of the murkiness dissipating…and a very scary picture emerging.
Next month: the first season of “The Wire”.
After “The Wire”, my friend Gene assures me, everything else on television pales in comparison.
We shall see.
This is the view from my window. Notice the old, dessicated oak tree struggling for life alongside our big maple. It’s a “witch tree”, all right, look at it. Entangled in the strangling roots of its neighbor but somehow surviving, year after year.
Cold this morning, with a nut-cutting wind chill. A good day to stay inside, build a fire and read. Yesterday, I finished the new Lee Child novel, Worth Dying For, in about five hours. Just tore through it. Give Child credit, he’s got a sweet franchise going. Sometimes his “Jack Reacher” novels are suspenseful, sometimes they slip into formula. Reacher the unstoppable superman (yawn). This one is better. The story hums along and there are good supporting players.
January 1st, if you recall, I start my “100 Book Challenge”. I’ve already set aside 18 first-rate tomes, fiction and non-fiction, that I’m hoping will get me going, build up some momentum that will carry me through the year. These include some of the smashing great books Sherron, er, Mrs. Santa left under the tree for me. Stuff I’ve wanted to read for ages. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Jim Shepard’s Love and Hydrogen, Ken Kalfus’s first short story collection, Thirst, and Huston Smith’s autobiography, Tales of Wonder.
I’ll be spending most of the next two days finishing my year-end cleanup. A ritual that goes back many years. Remove all material related to last year’s projects and prepare for new work. New Year’s Eve, sometimes pretty close to midnight, I clean and vacuum the crappy old carpet in my office and that’s it: I’m ready for whatever comes.
I know, my family thinks it’s weird too.
And there are my resolutions to prepare, a roster of promises I try very hard to keep (and usually end up batting around .500). Then I write out a list of “pending projects”, big and small jobs I’d like to focus on in the coming year. Need to straighten up in the basement too; the workbench overflowing with crap that has to be put away (or shit-canned).
I find I’m feeling pretty good as 2010 draws to an end. Two books released this year, a number of solid shorter efforts…plus there’s the music I’ve created with Garageband, two disks of weird ambient tunes that still make me smile. I’ve discovered I love noodling around and experimenting with different media—Sherron has infected me with her belief that making art shouldn’t always be work, there can also be an element of play involved. In 2011, I want to do some photography, stills and short videos. Sometimes I get tired of working exclusively with words and need a break. A chance to explore non-verbal, non-narrative concepts. I’ve even tried my hand at painting. I hope to do more visual experiments in 2011 (and beyond).
But the main focus, of course, continues to be improving as a writer, growing and developing, moving the bar ever higher with each book or story I take on. I’m certain the “100 Book Challenge” will introduce me to different influences/perspectives and it will be interesting to see how that affects my work. God, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I started writing more like Italo Calvino or with the ferocity and power of a Celine?
Er, I forgot. Louis Ferdinand Celine’s not exactly a popular figure these days. Very difficult to find his work. Awful man…but even Beckett admired his writing and those two were miles apart, ideologically speaking. Celine’s malign nature is as undeniable as his genius. They probably went hand in hand. But anyone who denies themselves the opportunity to read Death on the Installment Plan or Journey to the End of the Night because of his personal failings (however despicable) is missing out on some of the finest writing of the 20th century.
All that said, the first book I’ll likely tackle in the New Year is Michael Palin’s Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-88. A volume I can zip through in less than a day. Something fast and breezy and fun to get me started.
And then only 99 more to go…
Where does time fly? Over two weeks since my last post and, in that interval, I’ve been occupying myself with hours of scribbling. Filling dozens of notebook pages…unfortunately, very little of this material will ever make it to publication. Lots of meditations, strange aphorisms, gleanings from the subconscious. Here’s one example:
“How many failures turn out to be posthumous geniuses? Not very many, as it happens, the proportion disappointingly low.”
What does that mean? A subconscious dig from my wily Muse, a nugget of wisdom…or mere prattle? And there’s pages and pages of the stuff, much of it spiritually oriented. Many of the entries make for uncomfortable reading, nakedly honest and personal. What should I do with these raw ramblings? This is material not intended for public consumption…but at the same time some of it packs undeniable power. Save it for the archives, hope someone will find it interesting or insightful. Bury it deep, amid old tax receipts and early drafts of stories.
The end of the year is always a time for reflection for me; I settle into introspective fugues where I consider the past 365 days and look with anticipation (and trepidation) to the year ahead. What have I accomplished? Where do I go from here? Point me to the next mountain to climb…
A few things have become clearer to me during this time—the first is that I’d like to make the act, the process of writing more fun, not bear down so hard, subjecting my system to so much abuse and stress. I’m obsessive-compulsive by temperament, a perfectionist in every aspect of my life. Everything has to be done just right or I go ballistic. No half-measures, no band-aid solutions, no excuses for failure. That’s the kind of cat I am.
But that has to change. I’m older and my body is starting to manifest some of the punishment it has absorbed over the years. My fingers, neck and shoulders. My back—Christ, my back. The mental and spiritual damage has been even more substantial, but I won’t get into that. A different approach is required…and I’m not exactly the best person when it comes to new approaches (see: aforementioned obsessive compulsiveness). Maybe voice recognition software is part of the answer, I dunno. I recently bought myself a better office chair, adjusted the height of the monitor so it’s more ergonomically placed, added padding under the keyboard—that will, hopefully, allay some of the physical symptoms. But in terms of approaching my vocation/obsession from a healthier psychic perspective, well, that requires an effort of a whole other magnitude.
I need to write in order to feel settled, sane. But how can I make writing more of a pleasure, less of a chore? I’ve devoted a lot of thought to that over the past while and I think I’ve come up with a few answers, partial solutions. Some of it involves very personal mini-epiphanies that presented themselves to me, insights that are, frankly, too private to share. They relate to my spiritual beliefs, the ridiculous expectations I place on myself. The pain that causes. It’s also about deriving a sense of accomplishment from some of the fine writing my pen has produced over the past quarter century. I don’t have to keep trying so hard to prove my worth, establish my artistic credentials. The work speaks for itself. Stories like “Invisible Boy”, “Daughter” and “Bedevilled”; the novellas and prose poems. And, of course, my two novels.
Just write. Write without a sense of self-consciousness; write from instinct, letting the words flow unimpeded from their original source.
It’s all about the words. The right one in the right place. Over and over again, sentence by sentence, until something precious and timeless has been created. The masters of language show us how it’s done. They showed me. It was reading that made me want to compose stories of my own, tales no one else has told. I read voraciously, learned my craft at the feet of giants. Books were entertainment and professional development all at once.
But something’s happened over the past decade. I’ve read less and less. In the past few years I think I averaged between 60-65 books a year and that’s a pathetic number for someone who fancies himself some kinda hotshot author. I’m talking about books read for my own enjoyment, stuff not related to research or my work.
So one of the other changes I’m making for the new year is that I’m resolving to read more.
I’m taking my own, personal “100 Book Challenge”. I want to recommit to the printed word in a big way. It means switching off, tuning out. “Off the grid” days, spent hunkered in my rocker recliner, reading a novel or collection of stories.
Because I have no doubt all the hours I’ve spent reading on-line, scanning news articles and items of interest, has screwed up my concentration. I find it hard to focus on a book for more than ten pages at a time without needing to get up, make some tea, stack the dishwasher…and then come back for another crack. Ditto movies. How many times has Sherron complained because I’m pausing a film to go to the john or grab myself a drink? Okay, part of that has to do with a pea-sized bladder but I also think all that time in cyberspace has had a deleterious effect on my attention span.
I read an article in the Manchester Guardian that talked about similar matters so I know I’m not alone in this feeling. The piece quotes me old chum John Miedema, who is a noted proponent of the “slow reading” movement and I found myself nodding along at various points. And then a chap in my LibraryThing group posted a lecture by Susan Greenfield in which she talks about learning and brain plasticity. Fascinating stuff. Ms. Greenfield makes a distinction between the information one finds on-line and “in-depth knowledge” that can only be gained from reading a book. I hope folks out there are apprising themselves as to some of the new theories that are emerging relating to how computers are fundamentally changing the way we think. I think the evidence is absolutely compelling and parents, in particular, must be educated re: how all those hours playing video games and “World of Warcraft” are rewiring their kids’ brains.
Years ago, when we were still living in Iqaluit (on Baffin Island), I gave a presentation on books and reading to an audience of about twelve people. I remember becoming quite emotional as I spoke about how books had literally saved my life. I believed then—and believe to this day—that was not mere hyperbole. My childhood was hardly idyllic and my love of reading gave me, at once, an escape from worldly travails and spurred and fired my imagination.
I want to recapture that, the allure and beauty of the printed word. The thoughts and visions reading inspire in me.
A hundred books in one year? Can I manage it? Will my hellish work ethic fight tooth and nail with my desire to settle into an armchair with some Jim Shepard stories or the latest David Mitchell effort? I’ll let you know via periodic blog posts how I’m doing. My progress (or lack of same). I won’t cite every damn book I’m reading but I’ll drop in the occasional review (maybe even resuscitate my “Burning Moonlight” column, you never know). God knows, I’ve got enough good books lying around, gathering dust. I search them out, I buy them…but can’t seem to free up the time to actually, y’know, read the f***ing things. Pathetic.
But no more. I’m turning over a new leaf. 2011 will involve a serious reboot. I’ve made my resolutions and I firmly intend to keep them. Ease back on the throttle. Stop trying to impress. Create for the sheer love of creating. Rediscover the joy and wonder of my craft through reading the best contemporary authors and the finest of past masters. Work to improve myself through a process that doesn’t involve self-flagellation.
I wrote in a blog entry a couple of years ago that after more than two decades as a professional author I finally felt like the apprenticeship period was over.
But, I amend, that doesn’t mean I’ll ever be too old to go back to school.