Tagged: Halfway to Hollywood

“Love & Hydrogen: New & Selected Stories” by Jim Shepard (Book #9)

I managed to read nine books in the month of January, which (barely) keeps me on pace for the “100 Book Challenge”.

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.

Looking ahead (2011 & Beyond the Infinite)

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…