Recent Work By Jason Chambers, Jonathan Evison, Dennis Haritou, & Jason Rice


JE: It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Stewart O’Nan. His winning combination of pathos, intelligence, curiosity and heroic range, make the dude a national treasure. Like Steinbeck (and Dickens and Twain), O’Nan writes about “the little people.” He’s a bard for the blue collar, reporting on the quiet and sometimes desperate lives of decent folks who may not be making headlines with their heroism, but in whom we recognize ourselves with a clarity that is all too rare in modern literature.

His forthcoming novel, Emily Alone, though it is something of a sequel to 2003′sWish You Were Here, stands on its own beautifully (I know, because I never read Wish You Were Here!) Through the eyes of Emily Maxwell, and elderly Pittsburgh widow, O’Nan offers us, among other things, a portrait of a disappearing America. Since I’m too lazy to write a synopsis myself, here’s one I found among the promotional materials:

“Stewart O’Nan’s intimate new novel follows Emily Maxwell, a widow whose grown children have long moved away. She dreams of visits by her grandchildren while mourning the turnover of her quiet Pittsburgh neighborhood, but when her sole companion and sister-in-law Arlene faints at their favorite breakfast buffet, Emily’s days change. As she grapples with her new independence, she discovers a hidden strength and realizes that life always offers new possibilities. Like most older women, Emily is a familiar yet invisible figure, one rarely portrayed so honestly. Her mingled feelings-of pride and regret, joy and sorrow- are gracefully rendered in wholly unexpected ways.”

In short, it is a story of re-invention. Like his little masterpiece Last Night at the LobsterEmily Alone illuminates the ordinary, until it is nothing short of extraordinary. While there’s nothing much mechanical driving the narrative, O’Nan compels us instead with the accumulation of luminous detail. He puts us inside the skin of his characters, and shows us how they live with staggering authenticity. To read about Emily Maxwell, is to live her life under relatively ordinary circumstances. Errands. Housecleaning. Buffets. Drives through suburban  Pittsburgh. Sounds dull (so did Last Night at the Lobster!), but it is, in fact, a thrilling accomplishment.  O’Nan doesn’t merely create sympathetic characters, he builds characters so three dimensional, that we actually empathize with them, actually inhabit them.

My one complaint about O’Nan is the guy suffers from Joyce Carol Oates syndrome–too damn many books! I wish he’d catch his breath for three or four years and give us one big beautiful novel for the ages.

DH: There are so many wonderful implications, so many indirect hints at meaning in Emily Alone that I’m blown away by them. Here’s one: that Emily got a gift of the Lord Peter Wimsey DVDs from her son. She used to watch the series. Her close friend Louise would come over and they would have wine and watch the broadcasts, make it an event. But now Louise has passed on and Emily doesn’t want to crack open the DVD’s because without Louise to share them, it’s not of interest anymore. Now that’s a great anecdote of mourning, of losses that can’t be replaced.

You sense Emily’s elderly friend, the chain smoking Arlene, is not going to last much longer. You sense that her greatly beloved, stalwart dog, her only house companion, is not going to be with Emily that much longer either. The novel is full of fading images, like the loved ones in an old photo.

But Emily’s absence of self-pity moves your heart: Emily awakened in bed when a passing car smashes into her parked car outside. Sitting bolt upright in bed in the dark. Knowing that there’s no one to help as you trundle through empty rooms, wondering what has happened.

In chapters which subtly vary in length from just a few paragraphs to several pages, O’Nan shows his total mastery of craft. O’Nan is eloquent by his silences and by what he only gently suggests. I want to cite a syndrome too. The syndrome of one sentence or one paragraph too many.

It’s when I’d like to say to the writer: Why don’t you just stop! It was perfect but now you marred your story by running on too much in the mouth, by trying to explain what you should only suggest. Let the reader figure it out. Don’t draw them a diagram. Stewart O’Nan would never make that mistake. What great art!

JC: Not to stray too far from Stewart O’Nan and Emily, Alone, I’m in agreement here. I love a verbose, lyrical sentence, scene, chapter, book, whatever as much as anyone. But, for christ’s sake, know when you’ve reached the end! So many novels… so many I read, and some are nice books, some are great, some are unreadable, you know how it is. And a bad book, well you just throw it across the room and move on, but a good one, nothing annoys me more than reading the last chapter and wishing I could unread it. And you can’t review a book and say: This is amazing, but don’t read the last chapter. That tidy little bow. Everyone will read it anyway. Hell, I would.

Anyway, Stewart O’Nan doesn’t make me do that. This is a great little book. I learned the other day reading JE’s post that it reprises the Emily character from a previous novel, though you’d never know it from the ease with which it stands on it’s own.

Emily has a quiet determination that etches itself with a simple elegance that feels so archaic, almost a period piece. Of course, Emily is the timepiece here. Her days are speckled with melancholy memories, tiny heartbreaks, the occasional small victory. Lovely.

JR: I came to Stewart O’Nan late.  I once saw him read with Richard Russo and barely took notice.  He judged the Hint Fiction contest that I entered last year, which in turn got my story accepted into the book that was edited by Robert Swartwood.  I suppose there is something cosmic going on here.

I loved the movie version of Snow Angels, and felt like I was missing out, like I was ignoring a American master.  I had heard that Songs for the Missing was amazing, and after reading it, nearly in one sitting, I could not agree more with what everyone was saying.  It’s so good, tight, detailed, heartbreaking, and fast paced.  It almost operates like an anti-thriller.  There is such a pungent haze floating over the story, brutal sadness, and simmering anger.  A girl goes missing, not a new theme, but the aftermath, the parents search, will leave you breathless.  I loved how the father was selling real estate, and O’Nan describes the house he is selling, I can actually still see it, as the mailbox gets a few words, which makes the description fit perfectly.  I hoped that the missing daughter would turn up, and I watched in horror as the parents finally realize that the search will always continue, that there may never be an answer.

O’Nan is a true American realist.  A writer who presents a slice of life wrapped in all the weirdness and banality of life itself.

-3G1B


JR: The reason wolves are so strong is because they move in packs. Morgan Macgregor is out in Los Angeles doing her own thing. We thought it might shake things up a bit if we gave her a trial run on the blog. Please welcome Morgan, and tells us what you think in the comments section.

I’d Rather Be Reading by Morgan Macgregor

A writer acquaintance invited me to a semi-high-profile literary event the other day, and when I declined, he called me a cynic. I started to respond, “I’m a critic, not a cynic,” but stopped myself and remembered: I’m in Hollywood. Where cynicism is synonymous with anti-social, elitist, and where schmoozing, “doing lunch,” and playing six-degrees of separation is so ingrained in the socio-cultural structure, particularly regarding work, that staying home to read is a veritable death sentence on your career.

But that’s what I do: read, and write about reading. They’re solitary activities, and I consider them my work. This is incongruous in a place where networking is work. I tell people I meet that I love to read, and spend most of my day reading, and they say, “Oh, you’ve got to meet so-and-so, he’s a reader for this big producer and blah etc,” or “Cool, I should introduce you to my agent’s wife, she’s in with the people at such and such a place blah.” Which is all fine and nice and thank you very much (really! I mean it!), but I lament that my saying that I love books, or that I read all day, rarely instigates a conversation about books and reading, and most always a conversation about making friends and networking. I guess that’s because in Hollywood, you need friends in the industry.

Here’s the thing though. If I’m a reader, then the people in my industry are writers and publishers, and I don’t want to be friends with writers and publishers. I can think of at least two reasons why.

The first, of course, is that friendship negates fandom. I am awed by books every single day, and so I revere the people who write them. One of the offsets of the culture of connectivity is the humanizing (or rather, personalizing) of art and the people who make it. But for me, the romance of literature requires that the writer and reader maintain some significant level of disconnect, of remove from each other. I don’t want to go to parties with writers, I want to interview them. I met Jonathan Franzen recently, and was happy for the autograph table between us. I want my writers to be enigmas, so that I can be their fan.

LA’s got a couple of “cool” independent bookstores. One of them is Skylight, where the readings (due to the friendly, networky, LAish relations between the publishers, booksellers, promoters, writers and readers) are notorious for devolving into epic episodes of drinking and shooting the shit. At a recent Skylight reading, I was invited, by a very endearing writer, to attend a party of bookish people. I declined. This writer is fantastic, the reading was really fun, but I didn’t want to drink with him; I wanted to go home and read his book. And then review it.

Which brings me to the second reason for my hesitance to make literary friends: I want to write reviews that are unclouded by my personal feelings for the publisher or the writer. Literary friendships feel fundamentally wrong to me, in the context of my wanting to be a serious reader (by which I don’t mean a reader of serious literature, but a person who reads books seriously), especially in that I want to review the books that I read.

Back in the olden days, literary reviews were Journalism: impartial, objective pieces of literature themselves. Untainted by the churning pressure to draw attention’s to one’s blog, to ingratiate oneself with publishers, or to pacify the feelings of writer friends, reviews were still opinions, sure, but they were virgin opinions. I’m not saying I don’t think there’s anybody upholding that standard today, but I’m far from being the first person to publicly bemoan the devolution of mainstream literary criticism into starry-eyed, watery synopses and sales pitches. And I can’t help but assume that one of the main reasons for this is that we’re all friends.

I love Los Angeles. I embrace all of the cliches that are a part of Hollywood, and I accept that I’ll always be a reader living in the heart of the film industry. I like LA’s underdog status in the literary world. I like discovering writers likeMaile Meloy and Marisa Silver, who don’t get as much play in New York, and the smug vindication I feel at knowing they could live there, but don’t. I like reading This Book Will Change Your Life and Imperial Bedrooms and knowing where every street is. I felt like those books were full of inside jokes just for me (even if Imperial Bedroomsdidn’t end up being a very good joke.) But I’m going to keep doing things my way, cynical or not.

Thank you for the invite, really, but I’m going to go home and read.

Morgan Macgregor is a reader and blogger living in Los Angeles. She likes
contemporary American fiction and talking about it. Probably because she’s Canadian.

JR: I was once a buyer at Bookazine and now I work in sales.  I bought FSG, Rizzoli, Holt, and Houghton Mifflin.  A few years ago the rep for HM was presenting the new list, and this title Drift shot off the page and I asked for a manuscript, which met with a long stare.  I started tearing through Drift, a wonderful and powerfully written collection of short stories from Victoria Patterson. The collection went on to be nominated for The Story Prize.  This book didn’t have the highest expectations, and I remember telling people about it, but with collections, it certainly goes with the territory.  I started writing blog entries on the stories as I read them, and was absolutely knocked down by how good this collection is.  Victoria Patterson is a fine writer, and someone that I greatly admire.  Her talents are on display in her new novel, This Vacant Paradise, pubbing 3/11.  Over the years Victoria has been a positive and wise advocate of the Three Guys Blog, and a great friend.  We’re thrilled to have her here at the blog, where she’ll be giving us a column once a month (she was the first writer to solicit us with her own When We Fell In Love essay). In the meantime here is an interview she did with Jane Vandenburgh.

Jane Vandenburgh and the Hypothetical Fifteen-Year-Old Girl

“When I first began to write I was much worried about this thing of scandalizing people, as I fancied that what I wrote was highly inflammatory. I was wrong—it wouldn’t even have kept anybody awake…I talked to a priest about it. The first thing he said to me was, ‘You don’t have to write for fifteen-year-old girls.’”

–letter 3/10/56 Flannery O’Connor


Jane Vandenburgh


Jane Vandenburgh is the author of the novels Failure to Zigzag and The Physics of Sunset, as well as the memoir A Pocket History of Sex in the 20th Century.  Architecture of the Novel: A Writer’s Handbook was published September, 2010.

We met at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival in April 2010.  Her husband Jack Shoemaker is the editor of my forthcoming novel This Vacant Paradise with Counterpoint Press.

VP: I got in trouble with my family for writing Drift—well, not for writing it but for getting published.  Lately, I’ve been worrying about my novel’s publication, including my insecurity about the writing itself.  And, much to my frustration, I found myself recently apologizing to my dad for my novel pre-publication, regarding the sex in it.

JV: I’ve never been secure either except in the secret place where I keep my writing self, that something that somehow knows—and who knows how? —what is and isn’t excellent.  By excellent I mean only true. I simply have to work away until I get my writing to exist in at least the vicinity of the truth, otherwise it won’t continue to interest me.

But that box of unease and anxiety has also become smaller since I’ve grown a little older.  Jack says women hit their Fuck You Period at around 50 or so—what a relief to realize you honestly no longer care whether you’re voted Miss Congeniality.

Still it may be true that women, particularly mothers—as you and I both are—must operate in a way that is more dependent upon society’s support. It’s when we have kids that we become truly reliant upon those cork nets that society tosses out that are intended to keep our children and us from drowning. So maybe we, as a class of people— and by “we” I mean those of us who are moms—do simply need society’s approval more than other people do. And one quick way to lose said approval—as I witnessed with my own mom—is to be all the time needing to say the outrageous thing. My mother specialized in being outré, in uttering the true but unpopular thing. She also ended up losing custody of her kids when she was locked up in a mental institution.

VP: While I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the negative reactions to Drift, it bothered me that the complaints seemed to infer that I shouldn’t write about unflattering, gritty topics—especially as a woman writer.  A couple of reading groups “dis-invited” me.  And I’d been asked to speak as part of a fundraiser, only to be discouraged later from coming, when they finally took a look at the book.  What in your writing do you think is considered unpopular—or risky?

JV: What I’ve always wanted to say that is perhaps unpopular—as this is one of the great truths whose utterance goes in and out of fashion—is that female sexuality actually IS different from a man’s. It’s bound up in biology, in temporality, in our mortality and our ability to be generative. It also exists in context, referencing issues of emotional and physical and psychological bonds and the need for safety. What I mean is that our sexuality is vastly more complicated than a man’s, which is more simple and direct, but by simple I ardently do not mean either flat or one-dimensional.

And writing graphically about sex is difficult, because it becomes so quickly emotional, in that it makes you the writer feel things even as you’re making your reader feel things too. The writing itself also gets so easily gaudy or purple or cartoonish. It’s hard to tell the truth. You sit down to try to write about sex and you—I mean me—will instantly begin to reveal yourself, what each of us thinks about our own human bodies and those of other human beings and what this spiritual and physical and emotional connection is and isn’t made of.

And you and I are each trying to write about sexuality in the harsh light of day, that is, honestly, realistically, writing into the face of the received wisdom to say what it actually is and not what it purports to be.

It reminds me of that Flannery O’Connor quote I sent you about writing for fifteen-year-old girls.  And then there’s this as well: Ulysses couldn’t be published in the US from 1922 until 1933 because some youngish female person (described as an unnamed “girl” of unknown age) had read a chapter in a little magazine and was upset by it. The courts found it to be “obscene,” the “product of a deranged mind…” (who upsets fifteen-year-old girls…. but who ARE these people, Tory! at fifteen I knew all kinds of things, didn’t you?) Judge Wolcott’s New York district court 1933 decision was bound into the Random House edition I read in grad school.

VP: Tell me more about the received wisdom?

JV: The received wisdom is—I believe—just as tyrannically wrong as it’s ever been.  A woman’s sexuality is so often used by a misogynist society to accuse her of her inferiority, which serves to subjugate her.  Sex and the City? the kitty-cat, almost childish sexiness of that show strikes me as just such horseshit.  This is where the bodice-ripper has gone, no doubt, women in cute designer outfits eating, drinking, talking about shoes, waiting in their shallow and venal way for Mr. Right to show up to actualize their lives while they carry on achieving multiple orgasms with Mr. Wrong.  Which might be harmless enough except that it commodifies all aspects of these characters’ existences.

What it does say that is honest—I think—is that our sexuality is defined socially, that it is at least informed by Group Think, the degree to which we are social creatures. And that American society is—as ever—almost astonishingly conformist. Added to this is that rapidity with which the manners and mores to which we’re required to conform are almost as mutable as fashion—it makes it hard to keep up.

Group Think—when I was a kid—said sex for women outside of marriage was (morally) wrong. Only Protestant white guys over six feet tall got to have sex whenever they wanted, as long as this was heterosexual sex—witness Mad Men, which is one great show.  Society criminalized my dad’s being whatever degree or variety of gay he was, and I knew that to be horseshit because my mother told me it was horseshit.  And while my mom was crazy she was hardly ever wrong.

So I was born into a world that said—as a matter of our Calvinist inheritance—that we had to deny our human desires, then came the hippy days and poof! we were supposed to instantly get over that. Now a girl was supposed to be enslaved to her wanton desires, which we were being told were natural.  Sexuality had morphed into this untarnished moral good, which was also horseshit.

Fucking various men was now supposed to have become this political act—we now could act out sexually or use our sexuality to stick it to The Man, whatever, which benefited men even as it actually harmed women by trivializing the complexities.  It was confusing: I’d be thinking: But I don’t want to go to bed with you, and not because I’m particularly hung up. It’s because you’re not really that attractive.

So maybe my work has tried to be about what girls and women feel in these moments when they find themselves at those specific junctures, where they are changing or society is changing the rules on them.  I’m just vastly interested in what I think of as speech acts, in finding out what it’s possible to say because what we are and are not allowed to say does change what we think and feel and do.

I believe human sexuality to have everything to do with balancing power and powerlessness.  I’m interested in all this politically, interested in that particular existential edge, where we become alert to all the subtle manifestations of conflict between peoples of various classes, castes, races, genders, peoples, ethnicities.

I’m not particularly interested in what sex is supposed to be like according to the current fashion.  I’m interested in what feels real, what words can be used to describe textures, the inside-outside way the human body feels in moments of profound intimacy.

It is the writers who must get at this particular intimacy; we’re the ones who depict all the many subtle varieties of intercourse, the speaking or not speaking, the touching or not being able to touch. It is in Joyce or D.H. Lawrence or John Updike or Gore Vidal that I’ve gone to find enlightenment.  My theory about why women haven’t written a deep literature of female sexuality is that they’ve been too caught up in the received wisdom of society’s expectations. We’ve also been too busy getting our kids’ lunches packed and them off to school on time.  And up until the 20th century we would just too regularly have died in childbirth or lost a child or be actually worked to death.

Which is why so many of our best women writers have been one or another variety of maiden: Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Conner, Willa Cather. So writing about female sexuality from an adult, post-kid perspective may still be a little bit new. It’s challenging, also interesting. But it’s shocking that the things you and I are saying, Tory, are still shocking, no?

VP: My work is influenced by my family of origin—the alcoholism, depression, suicides, the focus on money, the politics and religion, so forth —and I somehow have lingering guilt for having a somewhat healthy life—for not imploding.

JV: The healthy life! God, such an important topic! Because we—as novelists—need to lead the organized, coherent life in order to write in the way we must, as these are the demands of writing books. The length of a novel will all but demand a bourgeoisified existence. A good book takes stability, quiet, sobriety, as well as years and years of toil.

You and I also have the experience of emerging only partially scathed from profoundly messed-up families, which is probably what shaped us to become the writers we’ve become.

And we’ve needed to do something about that guilt—in my case this is pure raw survivor’s guilt, that cosmic why of how come I get to have the life I have, that I escaped that profound unhappiness, when my little brother did not. My brother George—like Eric in your novel—was a homeless alcoholic. He killed himself almost exactly a year ago.

How come he drew that existence while I…? how sad and lonely this kind of inquiry will make you in the dead of night.

My own happiness used to feel like disloyalty. I’d simultaneously think two exactly conflicting things: that I was both the most sane and stable member of my natal family, and also, concurrently, that I didn’t have the slightest idea who the fuck I was. Coming from the family I did, I believed my sanity to be dishonest. Being sane had this mediocritizing and frightened effect on me. I thought the rest of my family were all just so much better at everything than I was, so much better, at least, at being fuck-ups.  I was a failure even at failing.

And because I have so little respect for the society that despised them, the failures in my family seemed somehow more honorable and attractive, even inspirational than normal people—my spectacularly brilliant and crazy mom? my elegantly messed up dad with his passionate sexual confusions? I just wasn’t much interested in succeeding in the world that had rejected them. Their Republican families seemed like The Textbook Elect, in that their own Personal White Person’s God had rewarded all these tall white emotionally frozen people with this great showing forth of His love and favor, this abundance of wealth and power and height and beauty, as well as Southern California real estate.

VP: There are parallels to our lives and to our work.  Do you think Jack was aware of that when he took my novel?

JV: He mentioned he had this new writer, a woman, a novelist, who’d grown up in Newport Beach, whose work reminded him of mine, in that she was serious and knew about both wealth and poverty. And he kept trying to shove this book of stories at me, and I’d be like, Sure, sure, that’s nice, Honey. My tone was probably dismissive.

And I am equally certain, Tory, that my basic reluctance had to do with the same old crap that plagues the intellectual powerhouses of The East, our society’s profound misogyny, that it infects women as it does men, saying girls such as you and I—those who’ve grown up in the Vacant Paradise you so brilliantly describe—cannot possibly be thinking about our society’s very interesting conflicts, at least not profoundly.

And—as we’ve discussed—you and I look so, well, normal. We look like women who drive the carpool because we have, we do, we will. We don’t necessarily seem like people who are ambitious, driven, discerning, as this has never been expected of people like you and me. But it’s actually important in that our Southern California-ness, this laid back, warm and open aspect is what has allowed you and me to come and go unnoticed, to both survive and even prosper behind enemy lines.


JR: Chris Offutt surprised me one day in the now closed Skyline Bookstore in Manhattan, (the best used first editions in the city were located there and Rob Warren, the owner, was an absolute prince). He was surfing the shelves for fiction, and I was coming down the same aisle. I don’t know how I got to talking to him, but I said I was a collector, and he asked if I collected novels by Chris Offutt, I said I’d heard of the writer, but didn’t have anything. So Chris, (I didn’t know who he was at all, shows what kind of collector I was, or wanna be), reached up and handed me Kentucky Straight, and said, “I’m Chris Offutt, it’s nice to meet you. Read this.” No writer I know would do that, or I don’t know, maybe they would. Chris has been a friend ever since, and he once sent me an inscribed copy of his most recent novel with a letter in it, offering me encouragement, for some personal and professional demons I was fighting at the time.

That was ten years ago, and recently Chris and I have been throwing around the idea of having him contribute to Three Guys One Book. He’s agreed, and the first thing we’ll present is his brilliant When We Fell in Love essay. I think what’s most important about his voice is what it brings to the blog, a fresh perspective from a man full of perspective. Recently we argued of the literary merit of James Frey, Chuck Palahniuk, John Updike, John Cheever, and as it turns out we both have wildly varying thoughts on all things literary. Chris is a hell of a writer, and a good friend. If you have a second, let us know what you think, and welcome him to the blog. Chris should have something every month, more or less, for you to read, so look for that.


**

Loving Harriet – Chris Offutt

I read a book a day as a kid. On weekends and during school vacations I read two books per day. By age twelve I’d read all of Edgar Rice Burroughs, dozens of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew; the myriad legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood; Tales of the Arabian Nights, Aesop’s Fables, Grimm and Anderson fairy tales, the Iliad and theOdyssey. I also read TwainStevensonDafoeDoyleWellsKipling, and Poe.

Strange fare for a boy in the hills of eastern Kentucky, stranger since my grade school lacked a library and the only book guaranteed to be found in my neighbor’s homes was the King James Bible. I suppose I was lucky. My father owned hundreds of books, many from his own childhood in a log cabin, raised by a former schoolteacher. Lucky insofar as my experience was the ideal breeding ground for a writer—a classic over-sensitive misfit, no good at sports, smartest kid in school—living in an isolated world of national forest, dirt roads, trickling creeks, and unemployed men with guns.

Reading wasn’t an attempt to educate myself. I simply wanted to escape into the imaginary world, a safe place where good and bad were clearly delineated, might equaled right, honor and chivalry were paramount, and justice was always meted out to a villain. My reading was a way of living safely. Within the pages of books, I was unafraid: of my father, of aggressive dogs, snakes and the bully across the creek; of older boys who drove cars near enough to make me jump in the ditch; of armed men parked near the bootlegger; of getting lost in the woods that surrounded me at all times. If there had been a movie theatre, I’d have found solace there. Or an art gallery. Or the availability of drugs, sex, and gambling. Or a cleric offering purpose to the young. As it was in the Appalachia of the late sixties and early seventies, I was stuck with literature.

Though my reading was voracious, I only fell in love with one book, and that relatively late, after consuming my father’s classics. I found it at the brand new library in town. My mother drove to town every Saturday for groceries. She dropped me at the library and picked me up after shopping. Initially I ran into a problem: due to limited holdings, the library had a four-book limit for each person. My solution was to acquire library cards in the names of my three siblings and the family dog, which allowed me twenty books per week. I packed these in a paper bag every Saturday and returned them the following week.

One day, quite by chance, I read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I not only fell in love with the book, but also with Harriet M. Welch. The circumstances of her life could not be further removed from mine: Harriet lived in New York City with a nanny and a cook. But she was similar in some ways: largely ignored by her parents who liked to drink, a loner in possession of a single friend, Sport. Harriet wore jeans and sneakers. She carried a knife and flashlight. She wandered her neighborhood, interacting with people at a slight remove—exactly as I did. Harriet differed from me in two crucial aspects. She overtly considered herself a spy, and she carried with her at all times a notebook and spare pens.

I’d always identified with protagonists, fantasizing about being Tarzan, Tom Sawyer, Frank Hardy, Jim Hawkins, Tom Swift, Sherlock Holmes, or John Carter. They were magnificent people with intensely interesting lives. Affairs went their way precisely because they always did the right thing for the right reason. Their adventures, however, were invariably due to external circumstances. With Harriet M. Welsch, I found someone who created her own mini-adventures through spying on her neighbors and writing her observations. In short, she was real, her life grounded firmly in ways that were similar to mine. No one rescued her but herself. She was my first girlfriend.

I finished the book and read it again. That Saturday I rechecked the book out, walked to the drugstore and used my allowance to buy a notebook and pens, my first purchase of anything other than comic books and model cars. I resolved to carry pen and paper for the rest of my life. I resolved to write down my observations and keep my notebooks hidden. I decided to be a writer when I grew up. That was forty years ago. I still carry pen and paper everywhere.



DH: Bound to Last is a quirky anthology of thirty essays on a favorite book. The essays are not necessarily by fiction writers although there are several very distinguished names, like Julia Glass and Francine Prose to be found here.

As for Sean Manning’s Introduction, I don’t know. I wanted to fight against it and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the idea that I am being told that I should be feeling a great deal of sentiment for something. Even if I do feel it, I don’t want to be told what my feelings should be.

In this case. it’s feelings about owning particular physical books, as opposed to e texts, how they become “family” or part of your history. I feel the same way about my friends. I don’t want to explain to you why like them and you shouldn’t care anyway. But I’m going to confess to a strange book-love story of my own at the end of this post, so Manning wins.

Bound to Last is a book that’s an ‘I am as you desire me.” type of read. I don’t think you’re likely to read every essay. You’ll read the ones that speak to you, perhaps because you’ve aways loved the book the essayist wants to discuss or because you’ve never read it and always wondered about it and want to talk to one of its lovers. And believe me these readers do everything but sleep with their favorite book under the covers.

Victoria Patterson, one of my favs and a friend of this blog, writes about the massive Collected Stories of William Trevor, which have now become Volume One since a Volume Two has been released. I’ve never read Trevor but have always meant to, the massive extent of his 30 year storytelling both attracting and repelling me.

I felt awe for VP when she mentions that she’s gotten halfway through the stories and is still going strong. And then she does that miraculous thing that writers can do after they read great art, she turns them into stories of her own. Trevor’s stories become a manual, toolbox, a talisman, of the stories that Patterson will write, inspiring her forward, a personal compass of her own originality. I love how she tells us about her notes: how has Trevor done that? Look at how he introduced that character! I don’t think there is a single story in the massive Trevor volume that doesn’t get annotated by Patterson, every stain and battering of her stalwart trade paper edition reminding VP of a personal story she can tell.

My own book-love story is about a set: The American edition of  The Great French Romances published in 1900 in 20 cloth volumes of which I have 19. I found volumes at the Strand in New York and managed nearly to complete the set by browsing at Powells in Portland one fine and exceptionally sunny morning in October. The set contains novels by Daudet and other wonderful French writers that most Americans have never heard of. But the 20th volume is an edition of Madame Bovary with an introduction by Henry James and I’ve never found it. But that’s okay, I’ve only been looking for it off and on for about 30 years. It’s my Maltese Falcon.

Since I always look at the books on bookshelves in movies, I’ve spotted volumes of this set, with their trademark quadruple fleur de lis bindings topped with a crown, in Melvyn Douglas’ library in Ninotchka and on the shelves of George Burns and Gracie Allen’s home in their great old 50’s sitcom. But I’m not in a position to ask Greta Garbo or Gracie if the Flaubert is among them.

So yes, Sean! I’m guilty! Guilty! I love my e reader. It’s indispensable. But I’m also obsessed with the physical book. If you love the feel of cloth or even trade paper, you should buy a physical copy of Bound to Last and fall in love with the book all over again. You’ll find some inspired lovers within its pages. And yes, it’s also available as an e text.

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DH: For many years now, I’ve been reading Montaigne’s Essays. They’ve won the place of honor on my night table, a highly contested space. And I’ve always dreamed of someday finding someone who could answer my questions about the mysterious M, who is my friend who lives inside a book.  But now that I’ve met Sarah Bakewell, whose new book, How to Live from the smashing Other Press, is all about Montaigne, I find myself tongue-tied.

I think my best course would be to reread Sarah’s book which is so suggestively rich with other literary pathways to follow. Reading How to Live is like wandering in a sun-dappled forest of literature. There are so many paths to take, so many hints of other great writers to explore, that you could never track them all down from one reading. This book’s a keeper, the most literate “self-help” book that you’ll ever find.

But there is one prime question that Sarah Bakewell’s WWFIL is designed to answer. And that is to get into the mind of the bibliophile who is only hinted at in her wonderfully singular  book about Montaigne.

I swear, wait till you read this WWFIL. It’s a pip.

“When we fell in love” – By Sarah Bakewell

Oct 2010

I think of myself as an impatient reader. I’m quick to throw any book aside the second it gets boring.  At the same time, I have a thing about monster-books – the kinds that make outrageous demands on the reader and defiantly outstay their welcome.  Thus, I like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Joseph and His Brothers, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and Michel de Montaigne’s Essays.  You could pile all those up and tie them together with string, and they would make a pretty good full-height barstool.

Of them all, Montaigne is the oldest and greatest.  He lived from 1533 to 1592 in southwestern France, and spent the best years of his life writing a hundred or so elaborate, rambling efforts which he called ‘Essays’, meaning something like ‘Tries’.  He put in everything that came to mind: snippets from his reading, stories about his neighbours, witty anecdotes, political reflections, obscene classical verses, tales of his cat stalking birds or his dog dreaming by the fire, and odd rumours picked up on his travels.  Above all, he wrote about his own existence – about what it felt like to be Michel de Montaigne.  He complained about his bad memory, mused on why his tastes had changed from red to white wine and back again, reflected on what it felt like to write essays, and wondered why his whole attitude to the world seemed to change when he had a headache or a corn on his toe.

I discovered Montaigne by chance twenty years ago, when I was looking for something to read on a train from Budapest.  A selection from the Essays was the only English-language book available in the station bookshop, so I bought it out of desperation.  I was afraid it would be dull, but instead I found myself meeting a person I felt I already knew well – a person just like me.  Since then, I’ve never stopped reading Montaigne. He’s usually by my bedside, and five years ago I yielded to the obvious temptation and began writing a book about him myself.

The Essays is a barstool-book all right: in full, it runs to over a thousand pages.  But you can dip in and out of it to your heart’s content. No one expects you to read it from beginning to end, least of all Montaigne himself. As with any good barstool, you can fall off occasionally, then right yourself without much difficulty or loss of dignity.

But my reading adventures began with much smaller books, and I still love dreamlike miniatures like Kafka’s short stories (skewed gems like “The Cares of a Family Man” and “The Bucket Rider”), or Thomas Bernhard’s collection of 104 micro-narratives, The Voice Imitator.

One of my first loves was The Land of the Thinsies, by a long-forgotten 1940s children’s author called Dorothy Ann Lovell.  It was my mother’s book originally, but it crept on to my bookshelf and I read it when I was about eight.

In my memory, it tells a long and convoluted science-fiction story about a little girl who goes off by herself to catch a London Underground train.  Wearing a red cape and carrying a yellow basket, like Little Red Riding Hood, she enters the station using that strange modern device, an escalator.  (It wasn’t so strange or modern, actually: London’s first escalator had been introduced in 1911.)  She rides down, but fails to step off at the bottom, and so finds herself sucked through the crack into a weird underground world.

A subterranean sun shines above her head, and people go about their business, but everything is oddly different. At last it dawns on her: everybody is flat – and she is flat too!  They have all arrived through the escalator, which has squeezed them like laundry in a wringer.  They have become “thinsies”.

The girl tries to find her way back, but the new land’s geography is confusing, and she meets peculiar travelling companions who only compound the difficulties further. She finds herself on a railway platform, trying to buy a ticket from a flat ticket machine. Later she sets sail on a raft which sinks – but only a few inches, as the lake is flat.  Only after many adventures does she find her way back to the surface, though I forget exactly how.

That’s as much as I remember from my childhood.  About a year ago, I wanted to read it again and tracked the title down at the British Library.  Big mistake!  The experience was so disappointing that I expunged it from my mind, which is why I still can’t remember how the girl makes her escape.  What I’d previously recalled as a great baroque castle of a book, Alice-like in its labyrinthine clarity, is actually about 40 pages long, with a story as flimsy as the thinsies are thinsy.  I still like the pictures, which are unsettlingly large, flat and washed-out.  But the story itself is too small.

I wonder now, though, whether it matters.  A book is what happens in the minds of its readers, after all.  If I can dip into Montaigne’s Essays and Proust’s for a mere ten minutes at a time, and bob around spotting a few bright fish and shells under the surface before my attention drifts elsewhere, then why shouldn’t I keep the Thinsies as it always was – a vast lake, on which I can row for hours without striking land, and forget to come home until long after dark?  Both are just ways of loving a book, and both may have very little to do with the book itself.

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Jason Rice: For those of you who don’t know about it yet, read my review of The Fates Will Find Their Wayhere.  I came across this book earlier this fall and absolutely fell in love with it. This is a wonderful debut novel that goes on sale at the end of January 2011. I’m sure everyone at Ecco is tired of hearing about it from me…meanwhile; Hannah Pittard has been kind enough to answer a few questions.

JR: Fates has a really unique narrator, can you describe it for us?

Hannah Pittard: It’s an intimate first person plural, and the idea is that either it’s the collective subconscious of this specific group of boys or it’s simply an unidentified member of the group. What appealed to me about the voice was that I would get to speak anecdotally to my audience; I would get to speak intimately, as if the people reading were already familiar with the events.

JR: Is there really a Nora Lindell? I mean there is, but is she really there? Or is she just something that is simply conjured by your narrator? Everyone in the book talks about her, and she has a sister, the spooky Sissy, but is this just a story of how a town is affected by a lost teenager? Some of the mothers in the book repeat over and over that she’s dead, and no one needs to worry about her…so what’s the reality?

HP: So many people have asked me about what really happened? Which is funny. What happened is what’s on the page. The point is, what actually happened doesn’t matter because what matters is the boys and what the boys believe happened. What matters is that this group of boys focused their entire lives on someone else rather than on themselves…

JR: I’m sure this book has been compared to The Virgin Suicides, which is also an equally impressive debut novel, but with Fates you take it to a much higher level and reveal all of the characters, slowly, sliding back and forth across time, over the course of their lives, but you never really solve the main themes of the book. What were your initial intentions with this story? Where did it set out to be, and how did you get to where it is now?



HP: I’m not sure I agree that The Fates reaches a higher level than The Virgin Suicides, though I thank you for the compliment. That book, to me, is absolute perfection. It was one of those books where I just kept thinking, Oh man, I didn’t know you could do that…

It’s hard to talk about what my initial intentions were with The Fates. I write without ever really knowing where anything is going. More, there is a feeling, an essence that I’m usually after, or there’s a line that’s triggered the entire event. But I do think I’ve mostly captured what I was initially after, albeit an amorphous feeling. That said, I also remember there was a day when I looked up – some where close to halfway through – and I thought, oh, it’s a love story. And once I’d made that realization, things got a lot easier. I will also say that when I first sat down, the voice was meant to be bi-gender. I’d originally thought to tell it from the perspective of all the kids who had grown up with Nora – the boys and the girls. But somewhere very early on – page ten or so – the boys just took over. I think it was when they were in Trey Stephens’ basement trying to imagine Nora Lindell shaving. I don’t know why, but that image was like a gift to me, and I knew after that that it had to be about the boys’ longings, because so much of what I wanted to write about was going to deal with sexuality, which I also didn’t fully realize until I got to that moment in the basement.

JR: You capture small town life and small town aspirations quite well with almost all of the cast, but in some respects your characters long to be well traveled, read, and well spoken.  But somehow they all stay put.  What do you think is holding them back? And which characters did you love the most, and which ones did you hate?

HP: What holds them back is what holds anyone back, maybe: Comfort, contentedness, familiarity. I don’t want these men to be thought of as having pointless lives. More it’s that I want them not to see that they have perfectly wonderful lives, it’s just that nothing is ever enough – whether you get away from where you started or not. In which case, maybe one of the points I’m making is that we’re all always being held back to a certain degree. Or there’s always the argument to be made. Because as long as we aren’t moving forward or doing something different, then it’s hard to stop ourselves from imagining – even if we don’t want to, even if we believe we’re really happy – something a little bit more, a little bit better. Ugh, it’s exhausting just thinking about it.

Well, I love Mundo, the Mexican, because what’s not to love? Sissy and Danny were also favorites. That’s probably obvious. I don’t know really how to answer this question, because there’s a soft spot for everyone of the them. That’s why I wish I could just make a career writing about these characters for the rest of my life. In some ways, they are all my Rabbit. Except that I’m not Updike, and I’m not ever going to write about these boys again…

JR: Sex plays a focal point for everyone in the book. It’s either a rite of passage that must be achieved, or it’s a pot hole that some characters wished they’d avoided.  The parents of Nora and Sissy are normal, until one day they’re not. The main events of the story conspire against them.  At the same time you describe the extra marital affairs going among the parents, presenting a series of character flaws that embellish to story.  How difficult was it to etch these characters? They all seem like they could walk out into the world, or I would run into them at the corner store.

HP: I think quite a few of my characters originated as stereotypes – you know, the hot mom, the crazy mom, the charming dad that doesn’t know when to quit – but the exercise was to take the stereotype and make it unique, make it believable, like maybe here could be the person who started the stereotype.

I’m glad these characters seem real. They became very real in my head, and after a while, their attitudes just presented themselves to me – especially with regard to the boys. When I first started writing the book, I didn’t necessarily understand that the boys would each have personalities of their own. More, I assumed that they would stay a sort of gelatinous mass with the occasional individual name thrown out here and there for good measure. But after awhile – and after I thought I’d maxed out how many different names a reader could possibly keep up with – I started going back, finding a name I’d already used, and saying Okay, the kid who picks his face is probably also the kid who takes pills, maybe he’s also the kid with the suicidal mom. And once I’d done this enough times, I suddenly realized that I had these very distinct personalities on the page. And then, once I realized that, I realized that the story – in some ways – was about the individuating of these boys all along.

JR:  While you were writing Fates was there a favorite novel you kept on your desk that you gleaned inspiration from?

HP: I can tell you that I deliberately stayed far away from The Virgin Suicides. Like I said earlier, I adore that book. But it had been years since I read it, and I wanted it to remain an idea rather than something to be imitated. Once, when I hit a particularly dry spell, I picked up a Donald Antrim novel. Then I had to read them all. Another time I picked up Bright Lights, Big City, and I swear to god I was so inspired by that book that I finished my own probably within a month of finishing McInerny. I also read Gate at the Stairs while I was working on The Fates. And from this book I realized that occasionally the ending is what makes everything worth it. I think I wrote the ending to my book the same day I finished Moore’s book, and I was only halfway through mine at the time. Sometimes just touching Lolita or Anagrams or The Sun Also Rises is enough to get me writing again. Sometimes listening to John Prine or Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits. Sometimes I walk around the room like a character from a Whit Stillman movie and read poems from the Norton Anthology of Poetry aloud, but this is as much about wasting time and listening to my own voice as it is about anything else. Sometimes I need my brain to go dead in order to write my way through a scene, so I’ll sit with my boyfriend while he’s watching a basketball game, which drives him crazy, but provides enough of a distraction for me to get through the hard parts.

JR: Are you writing anything new?

HP: Yes, and I’m really in with love the narrator, and also very terrified to talk about it. When I finished The Fates, all I wanted to do was write another book in the same vein. Maybe The Fates Are Still Waiting to Find Their Way. But it’s probably good that I go away from that voice – or that style – for a little while; it’s probably good that I not get comfortable in my small town and forget that there’s more to be had.

JR: Do you think what happens to everyone in your story is fate? Or it just happened? And it happened to happen to them? You and I have talked about the ending, and how perfect it is. When did you decide that was how you were going to end it? At the end of the day its all about telling a good story, one that you want to think about for a long time, and Fates achieves that in spades.

HP: So, right, I think I’m going to intentionally ignore certain parts of this question! I wrote the ending when I was about halfway through with the book. I’d been reading Lorrie Moore’s new book – not that they have anything in common – and I think I was stalled about where to go with some integral plot point, and so I decided to write the end. In some ways, this shows my hand as a writer. I get bored or I get intimidated by writing, and the only way for me to keep going is to know that there’s an end in sight. Once I had the ending, that would mean all I had to do was match up two points. At least that’s how I sold it to myself. I remember one afternoon just looking up from my computer and saying to my boyfriend, “Well, I’ve just written the ending,” and I think he shook his head, half in disgust and half in amusement. He’s always telling me that I can’t just sit down and make things up. And I’m always saying, but that’s exactly what I can do. At any rate, once I had that ending, things did just sort of fall into place. It’s like I finally understood what the book was about – it’s about regret, adulthood, childhood; it’s about the choices we make as children, the choices that will inform the rest of our lives, and how unfair, but also how inescapable, that is. It’s also about that terrible ability we all have to imagine that what we don’t have, what we didn’t get, must be better than what we do have or what we did get. I’ve heard so many people reminisce about a woman or a man they once saw on an escalator, in a bar, at the tennis court. And how there was this insanely intimate moment shared between them, and how if only they could go back and be with that person. But, of course, what makes that person perfect is precisely the fact that they are relegated to memory. If they were alive, in front of us, for real, they would be disappointing. Everything is always disappointing, or rather, nothing is ever as good as we think we deserve. God, I sound like such a pessimist! I’m not. I swear it. That’s why this subject fascinates me. I see so many people living vicariously through their fantasies or at least coping with life by tapping into their memories on a daily basis, and I think, How can they possibly go on? It’s too much.

JR: Thank you for the time Hannah.

HP: Thank you, Jason. You are officially my first interview regarding The Fates. Now watch as my answers change over time!


Tony O’Neill suggested Mark SaFranko‘s novel to me, and lately I’ve been a huge fan of anything that comes out of Harper Perennial trade paperbacks (the fine folks over there have been sending things my way left and right, and I’m grateful). Tony is the author of the August release, Sick City, and wrote a When We Fell in Love essay for us, and Mark will follow later this week with one of his own, plus I’m going to have an interview with Mark next week. Hating Olivia goes on sale, 11/16.

This book didn’t go the way I thought it would, I was thrown by the title, as hating someone is very serious. Sure, I hate people, some people, and they know it, and I think that kind of hate is a good thing, keeps things in perspective, which you’ve all heard before.  But when I read this book, I thought it would be about a relationship that was piss and vinegar, don’t get me wrong, SaFranko certainly lays it out that way, but I thought it would be kitchen sink and all, it’s a slow burn, and flesh melting at that. This is a story that takes a while to get going, but when it roars, you have no chance but to get sucked in.

Max Zajack is an updated version of Charles Bukowski, there really isn’t getting around that comparison. Where Bukowski left off, with say, Post Office, SaFranko continues on in the adventures of a gainfully unemployed writer, this time tossing in a drowning woman.

Olivia is falling down the elevator shaft of life, and Max just happens to reach out and grab her hand, and she takes him down him down with her and before we know it Max’s former life of shitty jobs and lousy digs turns into a ray of sunshine in the form of Olivia, who not surprisingly to this reader nearly fucks Max to death.  At first there is a been there done that vibe coming off Max, and Olivia seems only slightly unhinged, an episode that is vividly rendered in a shopping mall which would set alarms off in most men I know. But not Max, he can’t keep his dick out of Olivia, and she can’t stop herself, from being, well, herself. She spends recklessly, drinks and eats and fucks, and raps about life, and seems to be taking it all in with two hands.

Max is a writer, and has been stumbling along the road to a novel, and I was excited to see how SaFranko handled this, and when his career as a writer goes up and then down, I was happily suprised that the cliche which was hanging on the line for Max to grab was quickly tossed aside. I liked Olivia, in the way anyone likes how a woman can sometimes lull you into a false sense of security, usually because their game is so good, but when she shits the bed she does it royally. Max isn’t a prince either He can’t hold a job, and even fucks up delivering the local newspaper. SaFranko does a fine job portraying the grind that is life, how men just don’t have it in them to go to battle every day, and the ones that do have lost their souls in the process, or never had the minerals to do what they really wanted with there lives.  Max can’t do more than wait around to get laid and hope the muse comes with it, Olivia in all her bad ways lights the fire under Max, frees him from thinking about the novel so he can actually write the damn thing. I don’t know why a man with such limited aspirations wants to write, especially a novel, why anyone would try that is beyond me. Safranko bucked my expectation with this fine story, and even though Max says he and Olivia have been together for years, the book only feels like a few minutes.

This story is almost a memoir, well, it has that feel anyway, like a rememberance, and it has such an efficiently light touch when it comes to comedy and even when his characters run out of room with each other, SaFranko locks the door on them and keeps them together to see what will happen when the oxygen runs out. You’ll admire the restraint when it comes to detail, it’s easy, and doled out evenly, but never too much, just enough to give you a taste of Max and his world. You’ll be hearing more from Mark SaFranko, not only here on the blog, but out in the real world, and I’m happy to be the one of the first ones to tell you about this novel. -JR

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This is a dramatic collection, the weight of the book alone makes you feel like you’re holding something substantial.  I’ve never been a huge SF fan, I love Alien, and Blade Runner, anything about the end of the world, that stuff gets my attention.  Jonathan Lethem wrote a really great essay on J.G Ballard recently (here), and it reminded me of Lethem’s roots in the genre, and he made a point that the stories aren’t all flying saucers and alien’s eating human flesh.

My own mother loved the story in The New Yorker that came out the week J.G. Ballard died,  “The Secret Autobiography of J.G.B.” and after reading it I was convinced that this guy might have more in store for me than what I knew, or should I say hardly knew.  Crash, and Empire of the Sun are both great movies, at least until Spielberg puts his soft sticky stamp on one, and the sickness known as David Cronenberg who with his adaptation unsheathes a thirteen karat zirconium train wreck on movie goers.  It’s interesting to see how filmmakers take to Ballard’s harder stories, and I could see many modern cinesates frothing over this collection, casting the rolls as they read the book. “The Secret Autobiography of J.G.B.” convinced me that the world had ended, and this was the only place “to be”.  If that makes any sense.  There was a something very attractive about the desolation, it’s the adhesive quality of that story, for sure. How life can start again after everyone is gone, as long as everyone doesn’t include you.

“End-Game” is nothing more than a man doing the same thing over and over and expecting something to change. Which is the long way of saying Constantin, the jailed hero of this story, is insane. Malek, his personal executioner is there for the long haul.  They are both confined to a villa without any furnishings, it’s just them and a chess board. Over time, and many games of chess, you get an ear full from Constantin as he discusses his circumstances, at least how they relate to his imprisonment and his death, soon to be, at the hands of Malek.  This is like watching a drowning man reach for anything that will save him, or a crook say anything to get out from under the point of a knife. Ballard sets his men apart by good and evil, looming death plays a part too.  I’d like to think that the theme here is that life is short, and none of us know when it will end or how, and Malek, or a man like him, will come to our homes like an unwanted visitor.  Constantin almost succeeds in convincing the reader that he should get another trial, but Malek proves otherwise, not with a death blow, but with the words of a wise old man.

“Minus One”, is the next story in the collection and falls suspiciously into your lap, it’s not there for long, but it’s an effective example of what Rod Serling was trying to do with The Twilight Zone.  To be honest I don’t know who influenced who, I can’t see how it matters, but there is a connection, especially with this story.

Ballard takes us into the throat of a sanitarium, asylum, dry out ranch, whatever you want to call it.  Immediatley there is something wrong, a patient is missing. Mr. Hinton has gone away, disappeared like car exhaust.  He was there and then he wasn’t. People are blamed, the people in charge, and suddenly common sense prevails. Watch as Ballard proves the impossible, if Mr. Hinton can’t be found, did he ever really exist? Could it have been a typo on the registration of another patients intake forms? Was he imagined? Of course, that’s the answer. I wouldn’t be doing you any favors if I told you what really happened.

Christmas is coming, you can make someone happy here.

-JR

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The Tiger's WifeDH: The most remarkable thing that I know about writing is that you never know what you are  going to say until it spills out. Of course, first you discern a kind of fog and then some inchoate  ideas drifting around in that fog with which you try to anchor the page so it doesn’t just drift off like a vaporous cloud of white.

I’m getting back to my idea that The Tiger’s Wife is a rite of mourning. But it seems to be a process of recovery from what the writer couldn’t know. Tea Obreht’s book reminds me of another story of emotional excavation, The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer.

Both novels take place in central Europe, where neither writer happens to live.  And both novels tell the story, not even of grandparents but of great grandparents, since both writers are too incredibly young to have experienced the older 20th century era for themselves.

This is the literature of the children of immigrants. And it’s conservative in the best sense of that word, drawing up the best that can be taken from the dark waters of the time-well.

Invisible BridgeIn Orringer’s case, pure idealism, it’s a tribute to her honorable Jewish ancestors. In Obreht, the picture is bleaker since you can’t see the figure of the Tiger as a benign presence. The striped beast, an impossible thing, can’t be accommodated, tamed, or pigeon-holed, ever.

Yes, I’m typing the writers…as…young women who are the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves from central Europe, part of a larger family or trying to understand their separation from that family. This is part of what contemporary American literature is about. It’s not just about wasps coping with upper middle class angst in the suburbs. It’s publishing itself that’s about wasps coping with upper middle class angst in the suburbs. That’s not all the fiction is about. There is no “real” American literature and I object to there being any.

There’s a double-think in Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. The doctors confront superstition and folk wisdom which is literally devouring people, since it prevents the undereducated from seeking the medical aid that could save the lives of their children. But then it’s as if TO turns over the fabric of her story and reveals the stitching on the other side, since folktales and village legends devour the realistic novel that I at first thought I was reading.

Why is this happening? I think Noah had the right instinct when he expressed an interest in improving his feel for village life. The heart of this story is the village of Galina and what happens to it during WWII. That’s gives us another tie to Orringer who writes so eloquently about the fate of a Hungarian city during the war. It seems like a struggling nativism is trying to free itself from the snares of the past, from guilt.


I & the Village - Marc Chagall-Wikipedia


There’s a fine little anecdote that tells how the village apothecary ends up as the village leader. He wanders into town, just passing through from his extensive back story, treats a villager and ends up staying for the rest of his life. The village is a fairy tale of communitarianism. Every resident is a piece of the puzzle that is the mountain village of Galina. The only puzzle pieces that don’t fit in are the Tiger and the Tiger’s wife. It’s like watching a Marc Chagall painting come to life. I think there’s a famous one called “The Village” at MoMA. Go look at that picture. That’s Galina.

There’s a hidden nostalgia, as well as revulsion, for the communtarianism that failed, for the totalitarian community spirit of fascism, where everyone either belongs or is excluded, both groups paying a very heavy price but the excluded paying more. I guess I’m demonizing the spirit of belonging that we all want to share. But there’s a darker side to conformity.

What a dicey mind Obreht has! I celebrate her doppelganger spirit. There is another great mythical tale in Tiger, a ghoulish one about a “Deathless Man” who seems to trace the steps of Natalia’s grandfather. This amazing tale takes up just as much space as the story of the Tiger, perhaps more, but it’s a tale of the shadows and it doesn’t get title billing. The Deathless Man is a respectful obeisance, not only to what we do not know, but to what we can never know.

How Tea Obreht loves the old stories and how she loves telling tales like them! There’s so much of the Thousand and One Nights in some of TO’s digressions. These side-stories are narrative caviar. They seem to go on forever but who the fuck cares? From the deep time coulisse of the past, the stories, more realistic, of our time lead back to other stories, more primitive but perhaps wiser, of our respected ancestors, our homeland. Tea Obreht has fashioned a complex wonder machine of story. If you’re not a half-dead reader, it will dazzle you.

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The last time book this good came along it was The Imperfectionists, a debut novel that has since become a household name in the literary world (everyone on this email alert remembers my calls about that book).  Hannah Pittard’s brilliant The Fates Will Find Their Way, is certainly the best book of 2011.  It’s very difficult to hold back my praise, as this novel demands your attention, and will stay with you for a long time.

I want to tell you this book is just like Songs for the Missing, but the missing girl never…well…I can’t spoil it for you.  In Fates, Pittard uses a sparse and cliché free prose to deliver a widely expansive dissection of suburban life very similar to John Updike’s Rabbit series.  At the center of this story is a very interesting unknown male narrator who tells the story of Nora Lindell, a girl who on page one has gone missing.  In the first fourteen pages we find out about every single other person who has had contact with Nora, seen her on her last night, while our narrator describes her most intimate details.  She might have been pregnant; the father could have been Trey, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who in the end…gets his…

Sissy, Nora’s sister, is a bit of a tart, and so much is revealed through Sissy, she is almost as important to the story as anyone else.  What really impresses me is the voice that hints at the truth, but never really tells you what happened.  Nora might have gone to live in Arizona, and this is where Pittard disappears from the novel, (she never really shows her hand) and we become completely engulfed in what could have been.  The narrator also imagines the other boys in the town, a mass ejaculation (it is a great scene, funny, and so much a part of what it’s like to be a teenager), and then imagines that Nora went to another part of the world, and lived another life…but maybe she just died under the snow that piled over her body as she hid from the man who abducted her on page one?

There isn’t a neat path lined with white stones that will help you figure out what happened. Pittard wildly and with mature skill navigates a story told from all directions, different experiences and countless points of view.  All the while, she tells us about life, and how much it can suck, or in some cases, be revealing.  Would a teenage boy ever be the same if he once allowed a middle age woman to take advantage of him? What happens if your mother tells you to steal the family dog back from your father? These questions are asked and sometimes answered, and become part of the overall fabric of this incredible story.  I savored the last ten pages and put them off as long as I could, but then I realized I could just start the book again when I was done, which I did.  Will you ever find out what happened to Nora? Maybe…

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JE: I was stoked to get my hands on a copy of  The Wilding from Graywolf’s Marisa Atkinson when I was in Denver for the Mountains and Plains Indie Booksellers show a few weeks back. A lot of people are talking about this book -people I listen to. Some of them are comparing The Wilding to James Dickey’s spare and creepy masterpiece, Deliverance.

Percy’s muse is central Oregon, an area I’m quite familiar with, having spent a lot of time down there (between Bend and the high desert in Christmas Valley to the south). Like Dickey’s fictional Cahulawassee River Valley, Percy’s setting for The Wilding, Echo Canyon, is a rugged wilderness slated for destruction. Because I hate writing exposition, here’s a short synopsis of The Wilding from PW’s starred review of the book:

The plot concerns a hunting trip taken by Justin Caves and his sixth-grade son, Graham, with Justin’s bullying father, Paul, a passionate outdoorsman in failing health who’s determined to spend one last weekend in the Echo Canyon before real estate developer Bobby Fremont turns the sublime pocket of wilderness into a golfing resort. Justin, a high school English teacher, has hit an almost terminally rough patch in his marriage to Karen, who, while the boys camp, contemplates an affair with Bobby, though she may have bigger problems with wounded Iraq war vet Brian, a case study in creepy stalker. The men, meanwhile, are being tracked by a beast and must contend with a vengeful roughneck roaming the woods.

Maybe what I like most about The Wilding is this: something actually happens! Some might even argue too much happens. This novel is full of adventure, suspense, and horror. Sometimes when writers juggle points-of-view it serves mostly to divert the reader from an otherwise static narrative. It’s a little trick we use in a pinch. But Percy, like Dickey, like Jack London, knows how to move a story. The Wilding is a page-turner in the best sense. There were moments when I was tempted to skip ahead. Nothing wrong with that kind of narrative momentum. But also I wanted to linger, because Percy writes well, in language that is crisp and nuanced, but not overwrought or self-congratulatory, and because Percy’s characters beg me to understand them, to follow them into their dark places. Though he overplays his hand at times with the club and fang theme, and the action is owing to a convenient wealth of wildlife at nearly every juncture (rattlesnakes underfoot, bucks moseying by, owls all over the place, vultures loitering, grizzly bears, and rednecks stalking them), it is Percy’s well-drawn self-conscious characters, and his tremendous writing which shine through. The Wilding is a highly compelling read, by a writer who is going to be around a long time.

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DH: It’s like having Sam Clemens back with us again, resurfacing after 100 years to give us the   once-over. I think he would have loved that idea and love the idea of creating such a stir with his avant garde Autobiography, the first part having just been released by theUniversity of California Press. And it’s amazing that a writer 100 years ago can plan a century-delayed release with every confidence that it will come to pass and with the full support of his publisher who is willing to wait 100 years for the release date. That kind of cultural confidence is missing nowadays!

I loaded the bulky volume onto my Kindle since I can hardly carry it around otherwise. It was the president of Harper and Brothers, Twain’s publisher, George Harvey, in 1900, who proposed the terms that “the agreement would, of course, provide for publication in whatever modes should then be prevalent, that is, by printing as at present, or by the use of phonographic cylinders, or by electrical method…” So the president of Harper’s in 1900 anticipates the electronic reader. By God, they had publishers in those days…and writers!

The Autobiography is the most distinguished release in American letters in many decades. I’ve just read the scholarly introduction, an account of how the edition was put together, and that’s what this post is about.

The intro is like listening to an account of how a thousand piece puzzle was assembled. It was probably much more absorbing to do the puzzle than talk about doing it.

I remember seeing a YouTube video of JE’s writing desk, hundreds of papers it seemed, scattered over the floor by his chair. How does JE work like that? But being a writer involves a toleration of chaos.

Twain struggled for decades over form. He sliced and diced articles, essays, character portraits in a struggle to come up with a fresh, non-narrative way to construct his biography. He wanted to lay down an account of his life as he felt it, as it came to him, in a kind of non-linear time, a storytelling that jumped and perched, like William James description of consciousness, leaping from point to meaningful point. “…start it at no particular time of your life, wander at you free will all over your life, talk only about the thing that interests you at the moment…”

I go to my keyboard knowing the topic that I want to write about but having no idea how the post, like this one, is going to be constructed. Then the writing seems to sprout like a plant, or maybe a weed.

I can do that for a 900 word post. JE can do it for a 600 page novel, like West of Here. Twain did it for 250,000 words, his Autobiography. It’s tolerating chaos with the faith that the chaos will clear, that you will find a way to put in the last piece of the thousand piece puzzle and see the whole picture at last.

There’s a veracity crisis in American culture. Looking for role models for his bio, Twain greatly admired Casanova’s and Benvenuto Cellini’s. I’ve read Cellini’s and it’s great. BC may have an ego as extended as the Renaissance Italy that he lived in but it’s refreshing to read about someone who thinks so well of themselves.

Twain admired the candor of both writers but found he couldn’t emulate it. When he prepared excerpts of the bio for magazine publication, he soft-soaped, removing harsh judgments of contemporaries. His more trenchant remarks on politics and religion weren’t excerpted at all. That would have to wait until the full Autobiography release, which is what we get to read.

Twain hoped that delaying publication would mean that he could be brutally honest about himself and others. But it didn’t work out that way. Even a delay of a century in publication was not enough personal space for him to reveal his darker side. He settled for complete honesty being practiced only between the lines. But this crisis of veracity occurred within the genius of the writer. He struggled with the revelations he felt unable to deliver. I think at least part of him wanted to be the beloved Mark Twain, American folk hero. Part of him wanted to be Disney-like.

Reading the introduction to the Autobiography, Volume One, I grew to love Sam Clemens. I loved him for this honest crisis about his own honesty, the internal struggle for the integrity of an American writer, perhaps our greatest, our most daring. “You cannot lay bare your private soul and look at it. You are too much ashamed of yourself.”

But Sam, if you’re in heaven now, lookin’ down at all the fuss you’re still making in American letters, I have to try to be honest as well. I love you now more than ever. I love you no matter how caustic, how bitter you can get sometimes. I love you especially for not being “nice”. But I have to break it to you Sam, you’re no James Frey.

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DH: I have been spending the week with Mowgli the Frog Boy. This is not someone I picked up in Chelsea last Saturday night, I wish it were. Mowgli is the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, a classic of world literature.

I’m trying to get to Mowgli not because I’m interested in him. I’m interested in his enemy,Shere Khan, the Tiger. Is there a name in literature that conjures up more magic and awe than “Shere Khan”? Okay, ‘Moby Dick” but Melville was no poet. Kipling is, and it shows to his advantage in the names of his characters. We have Mang the Bat and Rann the Kite. This is great naming, a neglected skill among our writers.

“Shere Khan roared still in the night, for he was very angry that Mowgli had not been turned over to him.”

SK disregards the Law of Jungle which never ordains anything without a reason. He hunts in other animals’ territory without giving fair warning, he hunts domestic animals and he hunts man. He demands what is his due rather than earn it. And he hangs out with sleazy friends like Tabaqui the Jackal. the Dishlicker: “and the wolves of India despise Tabaqui because he runs about making mischief, and telling tales, and eating rags and pieces of leather from the village rubbish-heaps.”

Kipling never mentions Shere Khan without rushing, almost breathless, to defame him. It’s as if the most important thing he has to tell his readers is who to hate.

Kipling can be wonderfully generous in describing animals. Here he is on one of Mowgli’s mentors, the other being Baloo, the Bear, another great name. “It was Bagheera the Black Panther, inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk.” Now that’s beautiful.

You may not realize it, but no beast can look at man in the eyes. That seems to be one of the Laws of the Jungle. Mowgli’s brother wolves can’t look him in the face because he is of the tribe of men. But nobody told my cat that one, since I get stared at all the time. But Kipling has a great conceit to bridge the gap between man and beast. It’s sort of a call signal, unique to each species and if you know it, you can be accepted. It’s something like: we are all brothers, of one tribe. Harm me not.” The Three Guys have a call signal something like that between themselves.

So Kipling’s Jungle Book weaves a great spell, which I loved despite my misgivings about its racism and colonialism. Here’s what I’m giving Kipling credit for, confronting otherness. Perhaps that’s part of his late imperial feeling, trying to understand the other, symbolized by the animals who live by names and rules, sort of like us superior white men, the whole crap white man’s burden thing, but in a more primitive way, which we are for a second tempted to think is maybe better than what we have in civilization.  (Yes, that’s what Kipling wants to think. What he is afraid not to think.) Still Kipling knows what it means to stick by your friends. And I’d very much like Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the Black Panther as my friends. What kid wouldn’t?  And even Kaa the Rock Python. I think especially Kaa the Rock Python.

It seems to me that societies that inherit imperial power get dumber as a result. Maybe that’s a lesson for some other countries. Mowgli, our hero in the Jungle Book, hates Shere Khan. In the end, he can wear his skin and Shere Khan is not even allowed to put up a good  fight. It’s as if Kipling is afraid to have Shere Khan die noble. Afraid that you might love and admire the tiger. But if Shere Khan is so contemptible, then why does Mowgli want to wear his skin, be Shere Khan? Perhaps we would feel too guilty if Mowgli killed something beautiful. There’s a hidden guilt in the pages of The Jungle Book.

After Shere Khan, I turned away from The Jungle Book and am trying to dissipate its spell. I read it because it’s the book within The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. Natalia’s grandfather carries it around with him from childhood until his last days when it finally plays out its fate in the story.

And I’m believing that Shere Khan is not dead but somehow has turned into the tiger in Tea Obreht’s story. Doppelgangers in fiction are common enough since E.T.A. Hoffmann, I believe, first came up with the concept in one of his weird stories. But Obreht may be the first writer to have an animal doppelganger and that one taken from another writer’s literature. She has taken the animal that I lost in one story and saved it in hers. Shere Khan is still alive, an object of awe and terror, and if we dare, an object of love. He’s our tiger but he’s not, because he won’t have us. Just splendidly himself, the other, vanishing beyond the tree line in the drifting snow.

Just one more thing:

Three Guys One Jungle featuring:

Booey, the Old Possum, who chases after his own tail

Thunder, the Bear, whose roar no creature can withstand

Lightning, the Hare, who no snare can contain

Brown Wing, the Young Hawk, whose eye encompasses all


“Boys Town” by Jim Shepard from the collection You Think That’s Bad

I’ve always come across Jim Shepard’s work, he pops up every other year or so, sometimes I find myself reading his stories, other times I completely miss them. When I miss his collections I feel horrible, but this time around the nice people at Knopf sent me an early copy of his new collection, You Think That’s Bad, which will be published in March of next year. Books are rarely sent to me unsolicited, Harper Perennial and Knopf are the exceptions, I like what they publish, they know what I like to read, and both houses recognize the power of early buzz from the blogsphere. That being said, when I do get something sent to me, I usually tear right through it. With this collection I read a few stories and then more things got sent my way, and before I knew it, this book was sitting in a pile.

Then the New Yorker published “Boys Town by Jim Shepard”, one of the finest stories I’ve ever read, in last week’s issue. It’s nice to see someone who is not on the “chosen list” of writers getting his due in those pages.  They also ran a great profile on Elvis Costello, and I toggled back and forth between the two, while I worked my second job at the gas station. “Boys Town” will take your breath away, it’s quick tongue, fast and nasty conversations will keep you wondering when things will break open. The narrator has just returned from the war, the only war that matters to anyone anymore, Iraq.  Something is wrong with him, as his days are spent at home with his mother who is fed up with his bullshit, and has only a few nice things to say to him when she’s not tearing him a new asshole for being a lazy bastard. You’ll be drawn to this man’s point of view, he’s not someone you can like, but without a doubt he’s someone you can fear, and I suspect you’d cross the street to avoid him. He’s become a survivalist, or at least brags that he can live in the wild, and tells stories about his cache of weapons he keeps stashed in the woods. From the outside world our narrator gets calls from his ex-wife who is looking for child support, and heartbreaking messages from his son who is trying to connect with his father.  I was instantly drawn to this man, even though it seemed he was on a path of destruction, or self isolation. He has returned from battle to a world that’s forgotten all about him, and hasn’t really changed since he left, but certainly, something has changed inside him.

There is a scary turn of events that unfolds so fast you’ll have to go back and read the story again.  As things quickly fall apart for our war hero, he begins to use his gun to gain the attention of everyone around him. There are very few stories in The New Yorker that hold on as tight as this one did, and kept me hoping that things would work out for the best, but like life, things sometimes end badly. I was looking ahead to see if he died, or was beaten to a pulp, and wished he’d be able to disappear in the woods like he planned. The last time I felt this good about a story, or a collection of stories, was Sam Shepard’s collection Day Out of Days, and the story that made the pages of the New Yorker, which I talk about here. Wait I lied, of course, there was Vanishing and Other Stories, which I also loved, but ultimately unless you’re on a star map, you don’t get a shot at The New Yorker.

-JR