Friday, February 5, 2016

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: a memoir - Carrie Brownstein (2015)

I first became aware of Carrie Brownstein and Sleater-Kinney when I was a sophomore in college, back when they were touring behind One Beat.  There were a couple girls I met that burned me a copy of Dig Me Out and let me accompany to them to the show they played at Irving Plaza, one of a series of NYU concerts that cost $5 or $10 per ticket.  I would see them several times over the next few years, and collect all of their albums (except their first).  I kind of had a crush on Carrie Brownstein when I saw them, though people seemed to intimate that she wouldn't necessarily appreciate that crush.  I got my hair cut in the spring semester of my sophomore year and a friend remarked that I looked like "that girl from Sleater-Kinney" (that I presumed wasn't Corin Tucker due to our facial features).  I just assumed that Carrie Brownstein was old, because they had been together for so long.  I come to find out that she was younger than I am now when they went on their hiatus in 2006.  She's like, barely older than me (at least to me--and maybe I'm alone, except for Nicki Minaj, when I say that that '06 feels like yesterday), may or may not be single, and has one of the greatest and most unique catalogs of any rock band in history under her belt, and what, six seasons of a seminal sketch comedy show?  She's like, perfect.  Whatever she is on, I want to be on.

I'm only not naming this book one of the Best Books of Flying Houses because I didn't bestow that recognition upon Kim Gordon's Girl in a  Band.  Both deserve to be on the list, but in a way they are too easy: they both had such incredible stories to tell that the books must have written themselves, to an extent.  I feel a little dirty saying this, particularly in light of my previous review of an anthology of the genre, but I think memoirs are easier to write than fiction--except for the requisite "bloodletting" that they generally require.  All the source material is there before you; all you need to do is to decide where to start, where to end, and what to leave out.  You don't need to think up names for characters, or build whole mythologies out of imaginary people.  Having said that, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is probably better written than Girl in a Band, but Kim Gordon has her own separate barometer of authenticity or credibility that renders it more powerful.  Gordon is certainly vulnerable and confessional in hers; Brownstein opens up a lot in hers, but keeps most of her ex-lovers anonymous.  Sonic Youth is a bit more of an institution than Sleater-Kinney--at least, it was, when it broke up, before Sleater-Kinney came back.  Now, who knows, Kim was nearly 60 when Sonic Youth folded, so if Sleater-Kinney goes on another ten or fifteen years, then I would say they're of equal cultural import.  Frankly, though I love Sonic Youth deeply and dearly, so much that they must be included if ever asked to name my top five favorite bands, Sleater-Kinney has a stronger and more consistent catalog, and albums that are generally more solid from top to bottom.  I like them all--except maybe for The Hot Rock--I mean, I like The Hot Rock, I'd prefer the album to music by most other bands, but it's just my least favorite by them.  Maybe the self-titled is my least favorite because I don't have it on my iPod, but I actually don't have No Cities to Love on it (owing mostly to my own cheapness and reliance on Spotify and my unwillingness to load up my precariously aged device), though that album sits comfortably alongside their best work, which, to my estimation, includes The Woods and One Beat.  I love Dig Me Out and Call the Doctor, and All Hands on the Bad One to a slightly lesser degree, and The Hot Rock to a slightly less degree than that--but they're just a band that seems to get better with each new album they release.  I saw them about a year ago in Chicago and they were as good as they've ever been.  I seriously hope they come back every few years or so with new music, but another longer hiatus seems inevitable, particularly after reading about the exhaustion that Brownstein recounts occurring after each album and tour cycle.

So I love the music and I love her work on "Portlandia."  Do you really think I would say this is a bad book?

For a while near the end, I thought she was getting a little bit boring, writing about her pets.  I was like, oh, I wrote about my pets in my memoir, so that's normal.  Regardless, just writing about your pets can sometimes be boring.  However, she writes about her pets, in this segment, to ridiculously powerful effect, to the point that it is one of the most heartbreaking moments of the entire book.  There's a quote on the back from Miranda July, whom I learned was a friend and collaborator of Brownstein's in their earlier days (and more recently if I'm not mistaken)--Brownstein admits at one point that they both wondered if they should be together--as well as a noteworthy artist herself.  Me and You and Everyone We Know is a modern indie classic, and she also has a pretty good book of short stories, from what I've read.  July writes, as the last sentence in her blurb, "I wept."  I wonder if this story about her pets instigated those emotions.

Make no mistake, this is a great book.  It's a must read for Sleater-Kinney fans and musicians everywhere.  But it takes a really incredible memoir (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, for example) to make the Best Books list.  Brownstein is a terrific writer, but I must admit that she doesn't seem to employ the "be harder on myself than anyone else" rule of memoir-writing.  Now she might say, "Come on, I'm pretty hard of myself a lot here!" And truthfully, she is pretty hard on herself a lot of the time.  But she still could have gone harder, more embarrassing, more vulnerable, more revealing.  This is a personal preference for memoir writers, and I totally understand not wanting to give out the most painful, secret, unflattering memories one has of oneself, but it's my personal preference that memoirs are as honest and unflinching as possible.  I would never say this memoir is dishonest in any way, shape or form, but I would have liked to have known more about Brownstein's personal feelings on bisexuality.  I believe she identifies as bi, though in practice mostly sees women, and she keeps a fair number of her exes anonymous and gender neutral.  It would be a generous act, if somewhat unsettling, for a writer to open up about such personally confounding matters.  Brownstein certainly describes her first moments "experimenting," but never really addresses the "choice" that's implicit in identifying as bisexual.  That would be something that I just personally would like to read.

It's also pretty much where my criticism stops, because even in that last paragraph, I had to qualify every blanket statement I made about this book.  It took me about a week to read this book, and I loved most every minute of it.  If you go purely by ease of reading and entertainment and occasional moments of profundity, this book should definitely be on the Best Books list.  It's only out of my snobbishness towards memoirs that it's not.


Carrie Brownstein grew up in the suburbs outside of Seattle--mostly Redmond, WA.  At this point I must make another personal statement: Brownstein's childhood memories are primarily set in the 1980's, and as such feel very close to mine.  At least in the sense that, I had three older siblings who were closer in age to her, so we had some Cabbage Patch Dolls in our home.  Our father also went to Australia on business and brought back a few things.  And we were also in the suburbs of a big city and we also had a dog named Buffy.  The similarities pretty much end there, though.  Brownstein had one younger sister.  Her parent's marriage broke up while she was in high school, her mother suffering from anorexia nervosa and her father suffering from repressed homosexual feelings.  These are delicately detailed in the third and fourth chapters "Disappearance" and "No Normal."

These very personal chapters showcase Brownstein's exemplary talent for writing (as if she needed to be talented at one more thing).  Earlier I've accused her of not being hard enough on herself in this book, but I want to say something else to tip the balance: she is extremely modest in this book.  She never once even seems to admit that she is a good musician, guitarist, songwriter, performer--anything.  Sometimes she admits that Sleater-Kinney is a very good band, but she is always laying the praise on Corin and Janet (in truth, Sleater-Kinney is such a good band because all three of them--like, say, Shellac--are ferocious players).  In writing about her mother's disease and her father's guarded lifestyle, she exhibits tenderness, strength, empathy, and realness.  She doesn't pity them for their troubles and she is very level-headed about she handles them.  She laments that her family was not "together" throughout most of her life, but she really seems like one of the best sisters or children anyone could have.  She learned from these troubles and became a stronger person for it.  (There could be more details about exactly what happened with her mother leaving the family--she briefly mentions staying at her house with her 2nd husband during the recording of Dig Me Out, I think--but I'm not going to push that criticism too hard.)

Most of this book, however, is about Sleater-Kinney.  And while the details about their earlier records are interesting (I had no idea they started the band in Australia, and the chapter about that is super weird--I don't know how they survived in the early part of their career, and I would have liked to see a few more paragraphs devoted to their ostensible poverty), it is really the material on the later stuff that is the most compelling.  Because despite their steady growth, they were never "really big" until the end, when they opened for Pearl Jam on the One Beat tour and when they finished up with The Woods.  When they got really big, Brownstein seemed more prone to depression, which seems odd but makes sense in a "Kurt Cobain kind of way" (which she references, and must reference, as this book is also thoroughly a document of the Pacific Northwest scene, K Records, Olympia, Seattle, Portland, grunge and riot grrl).  In fact, the book opens up in a kind of "teaser chapter" (not unlike Girl in a Band) about the shingles she developed on The Woods tour and her increasing frustrations with the band.  It's sort of unbelievable that anyone making what must have been pretty good money, doing what they love, could ever be unhappy with their situation, but Brownstein convincingly portrays the Big Picture and why it wasn't working for them (primarily due, it seems, to Tucker wanting to be a good mother to her children, which Brownstein completely understands).

Here is one example of how Brownstein takes this memoir to another level--her ability to write like a writer:

"The ways that oddity and detachment intersected in the family might best be summed up in the story of the family dog.  Buffy, a forty-pound golden retriever mix we adopted from the pound when I was six and my sister was three, had been smothered with love in her youth.  Buffy, for whom we took a pet first-aid class in order to learn how to be responsible owners, who was the muse for my grade-school poetry exercises ('Buffy is fluffy!'), our sidekick for picnics and outings, on the sidelines for soccer games, and the subject most featured in my first roll of film--posing on my baby blanket and wearing sunglasses--after I was given a camera for my birthday.  Buffy, who followed us around the cul-de-sacs while we engaged in dirt clod fights with the neighbor kids, and trotted after us while we rode Big Wheels and eventually bikes.  Buffy, who suffered the sting of the archaic idea that you could punish a dog by smacking it on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper and whose tail was run over by my mother as she backed the car out of the driveway.  And Buffy, turned back into a stray in her own home on account of the rest of us surrendering to emptiness, drifting away from anything we could call familiar, her skin itching and inflamed, covered with sores and bites, like tattoos, like skywriting, screaming with redness, as if to say Please, please pet me!  But we didn't.  When we decided to put her down, not because she was sick but because she was old and neglected--a remnant of a family we no longer recognized--my father asked my sister to do it.  My sister was sixteen.  She drove the dog to the vent one day after school by herself.  No one else said good-bye." (34-35)

And then beneath that is a hilarious picture of Brownstein as a young girl with Buffy and a Cabbage Patch Doll.  It was moments such as this that reminded me of my earliest memories from the mid-to-late 80's.  The only thing that would have made that paragraph more literary is if the word "the" had been excised before "cul-de-sacs."  Brownstein may as well write a novel whenever Portlandia wraps.

There are great little references to other musicians in this book.  One of my favorites involves Jeremy Enigk, because he's relatively obscure, but not to those that understand what "emo" really means.  I guess I was surprised to read that he was pretty popular.  There is also this shocking anecdote about tour bus listening:

"We smoked cigarettes and weed, when available, ate copious amounts of chocolate and cheese, and fell asleep mostly tipsy if not outright drunk.  On one long drive, in a fit of giddiness and in the spirit of sisterhood and spreading cheer, Corin and I convinced Janet to throw a mixtape out of the van window.  It was a cassette she'd been listening to nonstop, made for her by a friend, a boy she was trying to no longer have a crush on.  That boy was Elliott Smith.  I still think about that tape, flung, and how I urged it to be so.  Gone." (147)

Harsh!  Finally, there is a priceless one about Jack White near the very end.  It's not really worth excerpting, just a funny story.  There is also a funny story about Sleater-Kinney's groupies, or lack thereof.  Brownstein does open up about her personal life here, and it is quite endearing to read about trying to maintain a relationship while on tour.  We will end with another extremely literary passage, this one in the fashionable 2nd person:

"Here's one way not to go about diminishing the distance: Obsessively call your girlfriend, who is eleven years older than you, crying and telling her you hate being on tour.  Rack up more than $1,000 in pre-cellphone calling card fees on various payphones because you are hopelessly in love, willing to ditch everything for this person, and paranoid that she will go back to dating men while you are away.  Get so worried that you walk into a family-run restaurant--perhaps the only restaurant--in the town of Lokev, Slovenia (population: around 1,000), ask to borrow their cordless phone, and call your girlfriend some more (sticking them with an international long-distance bill).  Write lugubrious, handwritten love letters that compare thee to a summer's day.  Drive your bandmates crazy by quoting your older girlfriend all the time and only reading books or listening to music that she has recommended.  Now your bandmates are practically begging you to dump her.  But, guess what, she dumps you.  Of course she does.  This girlfriend, who also plays music but who is not as successful as you in this field, you think she wants to hear how sad you are to have an album that is blowing up?!  She doesn't.  Months later you are still angry and confused and for the first time very, very heartbroken.  You freak out and drive to her house one morning and place a bag containing every letter she ever wrote you on her doorstep.  Then you write songs for what will become The Hot Rock, songs about a love that is so airless, it's suffocating.  Songs about wanting to steal your heart back from someone you never feel deserved it.  And thus begins a cycle, of falling in love and then getting hurt, or hurting someone else by falling out of love with them.  About trying to maintain closeness despite geographical disparities, then finding inspiration from all the ways you feel splintered and separate, hurt and broken.  So, this is one version, and not a pretty one, of being young and in a band and trying to be in a relationship.  This is teh version in which being gone and busy eats at you because you are scared of being left even though you are the one who is technically always leaving." (151-152)

You should read this book, even if you've never heard of Sleater-Kinney.  You will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Why We Write About Ourselves - Ed. Meredith Maran (2016)

For NaNoWriMo 2015, I wrote a 60,000 word shitty first draft of a memoir, to be published when I was 33, to document these first 33 years, with the thought that I might do it again at 66, if I live that long.  This, apparently, would be a horrible memoir, because no one wants to read about every meaningful event of some random person's existence.  No, they want to read about more specific events in your life, things that happened which were extraordinary--pain you suffered--which you can relate on a universal level.

This is the lesson I learned from Why We Write About Ourselves, another rare book that was sent to me by a publicist.  It's ironic to mention two gifts that two of my sisters received on Christmas morning.  My younger sister received a copy of Tales of Two Cities and my youngest sister received a book by Cheryl Strayed, which I think was The Beautiful Things.  My sister hadn't read my review, but she specifically requested the book, and I guess neither had my mother.  It's the only time I was "ahead of the curve" with this blog, and I hope that's the case here again: certainly my youngest sister would be interested in this one, as a fan of Strayed.  And frankly, between this and Tales, this was the better read.

Unfortunately, it won't be named to the Best Books of Flying Houses list, to make for a perfect trifecta with Raymond Carver and Patti Smith, but that is only because the form this book takes.  It is a different sort of book than I have ever read, and it reads more like a very long magazine article.  It's a very good article, but it's written to be read in little candy-sized nuggets.  I think that makes it especially appealing in today's socio-cultural climate of social media saturation and ADHD.  Basically, it is not aiming for canonical status.  Instead, this book is perfect for one of two things: checking out from the library, or gift-giving.  One could certainly purchase this book for themselves if they have made up their mind to write a memoir, but it's more of a book to expose yourself to once and learn from, rather than to pore over and savor for the richness of its language.

Still, I am very happy I read this book, if only because of its ulterior motive: publicity.  There are 20 chapters in this book.  Here are the writers that I knew going in: Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Meghan Daum and Edmund White.  There were some writers I didn't know, but knew of vaguely: Pat Conroy, David Sheff and Sue Monk Kidd.  For the 13 other writers for which I had no direct reference point, I was forced to be exposed to their minds: what they wrote about, why they wrote about it, and how.  And I will definitely be putting a few of their books on my reading list.

As previously mentioned with these anthologies, they make for difficult reviews.  I don't want to give short shrift to any of the contributors, but I don't want the review to go on endlessly.  I suppose the best thing to do is hit the highlights--for me, personally.

The first section that struck me as quotable came from Anne Lamott.  Now I have mentioned Bird by Bird before on this blog, somewhere, and upon reflection I had to read it for a creative writing class my senior year in high school, and I think it did inspire me at an impressionable age to throw my whole self into the writing thing, which was a huge mistake (however, it was not nearly as big a mistake as throwing myself into the whole lawyer thing--while the law may ultimately provide me with an avenue for an outwardly respectable career, it has impoverished me, robbed me of the last vestige of youth and destroyed my self-esteem and self-respect).  At least a couple times in this book, Bird by Bird is referred to as something of a "bible" of creative writing.  I'll have to check it out again.  Lamott's section in this book is a definite highlight:

"I wrote a piece about my mom in Traveling Mercies, and it really hurt her feelings.  I thought it would be such a great thing to tell the truth about my mom, because my whole life had been about about this made-up relationship, pretending I wasn't mad about the damage she'd done to me.
I wrote this very tender piece about her in her last days, when she had Alzheimer's.  It wasn't even a critical piece.  It just said that she could drive me crazy.  Sadly she didn't have bad enough Alzheimer's.  She read it and went bonkers.  My mom's twin sister called me up and said, 'You will never be forgiven for this, Annie.'
The crisis passed.  Then it turned out it was great to have told the truth about deeply crazily I loved her and that she'd been a handful."  (136)

These sort of themes emerge over and over throughout this book.  What will my friends and family think of the memoir?  How much personal information can I reveal about other people?  Do I have to reveal everything about myself?

Most seem to agree that, you should always make yourself look as bad as possible.  As a person that has often followed this rule without hearing anyone else say it, this felt comforting.  Moreover it feels refreshing in 2016, where our public image has to be so squeaky clean on social media and anything the slightest bit non-PC can end up leading towards ostracization from the in-crowd.

Most seem to follow the rule that, if they write about one of their friends, they send it to them and make sure they are okay with it being published.  I've never really had to do this because I've never been published in any meaningful way.  However my youngest sister became very upset when I made a reference to "wanting to kill my parents" in an unfortunate section of Think and Grow Poor, and upon reflection I should have edited that book more before publishing it in its mostly craptastic form.  You can't say I don't know anything about memoir writing.  I guess I just subscribed to the view that Edmund White expresses near the very end.  Actually, the last sentence:

"In general, I try to be very honest in my memoirs.  If I lose the friendship, so what?  I believe Milosz, the Nobel-winning Polish poet, who said, 'Whenever a writer is born into a family, that family is destroyed.'
On the other hand I sometimes say the best way to keep a secret is to publish it, since no one reads.  My books aren't indexed.  So anyone who wants to know what I wrote about him has to read the whole thing." (254)

Speaking of White, he is the only author to appear in both this volume and Tales of Two Cities.  He also makes this ridiculous, Wilt Chamberlain-esque claim:

"My protagonist in A Boy's Own Story was much less precocious intellectually and sexually than I was.  He was shyer.  If I'd written about myself as the freaky boy I really was, very few people could have identified with that novel.  That book came out in '82.  I don't think that was quite the period yet for my own true story.  In real life, I had had sex with five hundred men, most of them older than I was, by the time I was sixteen.  The boy in the book has one or two experiences, with boys his own age." (250)

My only response to that is, what the fuck dude!
But yeah, I'll probably check out some of his books.


There are a few glaring omissions from this volume.  It would have been remarkable to read a section by James Frey, but instead he is just referenced by another writer (again, White):

"There have been so many scandals about memoirs that weren't true.  The author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil confessed that he'd taken two phone conversations that were crucial to the story and collapsed them into one.  People were very disturbed when the author of A Million Little Pieces, which purported to be a memoir and was directed to a very vulnerable population of recovering addicts, admitted that his girlfriend hadn't really committed suicide.  There were some other events that he falsified, which led to his denunciation on Oprah.
That's a good example to keep in mind.  People do feel cheated when you lie in a memoir because you've broken your contract with your readers." (252)

I've never read A Million Little Pieces and I think most people nowadays would say it's not especially necessary to do so, but one cannot forget the cultural import that the book briefly possessed.  The other writer that should be here is Dave Eggers.  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has not been discredited and seems to defy most of the "rules" that these writers pronounce.  Eggers hasn't written anything like it since, but I still believe it's his strongest work and a true high watermark of the medium.  It's far from perfect, but I still think if I read it again 14 years later, it would make the Best Books list (The Real World interview chapter alone should qualify it).  Then again, this is an unfair criticism to make.  It's not clear if Maran reached out to these authors or if perhaps they could not write outside of their contracts with their current publishers.

I want to mention Meghan Daum.  I first became aware of her in 2008, when I was offered a limited free subscription to the Los Angeles Times.  I read her column every week and looked at her picture and thought she was cute and prayed that she would be my girlfriend.  She was cute and I liked what she wrote and she had a regular newspaper gig--did anything else really matter?  Subsequently I left L.A. and forgot about her.  Then, about a year ago, I came across her name in relation to her new book about making the conscious decision not to have children (Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decisions Not to Have Kids) and my crush was briefly renewed at an even more intense level, until I found out she was married.  Also, she was 13 years older than me.  Not that that's a deal-breaker or anything--she looked good for her age.  I mean, she wrote an essay and then a book about being deeply indebted in her 20's called My Misspent Youth.  She also made me feel better about my newest NaNoWriMo project:

"That thing I said earlier about weighing each detail to determine whether it's worthy of inclusion?  That's for the third, fourth, or fifth draft.  Not the first draft.
The 'morality' of any given project has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  If you're writing about yourself just for the sake of writing about yourself, and other people are going to get dragged along for the hellish ride, it might it might be wise to examine the worthiness of the venture.  If you have something important to say that can only--or at least most effectively--be said through the lens of your own story, then go for it." (86)


Randomly, in here, I'd like to excerpt a brief snippet from Darin Strauss's section, as Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish are still fresh in our memories on this blog:

"Amy Hempel tells a good story about when she was in a beginning workshop with Gordon Lish.  He had the class write about the one thing that most embarrassed them.  The only restriction was that you had to write it as honestly as possible.  She said that out of that class of fifteen people, seven or eight published pieces they wrote in that class.  If you write something honestly, it'll be worth reading.  If you don't, it doesn't matter how good a writer you are.  The reader will feel it." (200-201)


I could mention Ayelet Waldman's contribution as another highlight, or the weird celebrity spouse connections (she is married to Michael Chabon, while contributor Nick Flynn is married to Lili Taylor (ironically another unusual crush of mine)), but the last thing I want to mention is the one bit of advice on which I do not agree.  Waldman mentions it as a piece of advice given by Chabon, but like other tips in this book, it shows up in various forms:

"When I first started writing, Michael told me that if you're not uncomfortable, you're not writing what you need to write.  If your work feels really safe and pleasant, there's a problem." (222)
"If you're not uncomfortable and scared while you're writing, you're not writing close enough to the bone." (230)

David Sheff also adds, "If what you're writing about wasn't intense, you wouldn't be writing about it.  Writing a memoir can dredge up every awful feeling all over again.  Make sure you have the support you need to make it through." (192)

Now of course, a memoir about how your life has been so happy and perfect will make people want to throw up, but there are brighter sides to life as well, and we should know because we've seen them, if not very often.  You know I have always wanted to read Morrissey's Autobiography.  Maybe that's not a memoir, though.

Sorry for that.  Anyways, sometimes when I'm writing a piece of creative non-fiction, there are some wonderful moments back in there that you want to share with a reader, you want to put them there with you, you want them to feel the happiness you felt.  Is that so wrong?

That's really my only criticism of the "wisdom" of this book.  I think it's okay to write about the times when life was good.  It's not a useless nostalgia trip.  It's a document that you were alive, and that it wasn't all pain and misery, even though much of the time it felt that way.

In short: read this book if you have any designs whatsoever on writing a memoir.  It's a quick read (less than a week), it's entertaining, and it should help put you in the right frame of mind to accomplish your task.  Also it lists all of these writers' Twitter accounts so I'm going to start following them right about now.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Just Kids - Patti Smith (2010)

Let's go old school with this review.  Oeuvre rule: I first became aware of Patti Smith 13 years ago, when I took a course called "Writing New York" at NYU.  The syllabus was interesting: it primarily consisted of a big anthology of essays and stories about New York written by famous authors over the previous 200 years, starting with Washington Irving's descriptions of the city as it existed in the financial district at its birth.  "Bartleby, the Scrivener" by Herman Melville (1853) was also included, and moved me deeply.  There was some of the usual stuff by the Beats, and some ultra modern stuff, like the entirety of "Angels in America."  There were three even greater curve balls: The Dark Knight Returns, which I skipped at the time and would love 9 years later, The Velvet Underground and Nico, an album I already owned, and Horses by Patti Smith.  Our professors told us that Patti Smith was a poet that became a musician.  Later when I did mushrooms with a friend that year, he put on Horses and said that everyone had it wrong--psychedelic jam bands were not the preferred musical accompaniment to such an experience; Patti Smith was.

Fast forward 8 years and I'm doing an internship in law school and I see one of the co-workers with a copy of Just Kids under his arm.  I was aware of the book at the time and was interested to read it, but then I went on a dating website and "expanded my options" and who should visit my profile but some person announcing that they were currently reading Just Kids and I quickly realize this is the same cubicle neighbor I know and I "narrow my options" again in fear and embarrassment.  After a few weeks, I realize it's just one of those things and nothing awkward comes out of it but I've got to admit that it colored my impression of the book.  After M Train was released last year, I figured enough time had passed.

I've written previously about Patti Smith regarding her excerpts in Please Kill Me  and if it's not clear, I consider her a national treasure.  According to interviews, she wrote most of Just Kids and M Train at Caffe Reggio.  When I lived in NYC it was very exciting to think of who you might run into, but Patti Smith was probably right there the few times I went in that coffee shop and didn't even notice.  What would you say to such people, though?  I wouldn't know what to say until after reading this book.  It won the National Book Award and while I really don't like naming back-to-back reviews "Best Books," this is just such a charming story, with authenticity in spades, that it would be wrong to say a Raymond Carver biography is more worthwhile: this is the more digestible volume.

When I took that course, the professors made much of Smith's adulation for Rimbaud.  Now here, Smith finally writes about how she traveled to Rimbaud's hometown and stayed in the attic of an inn on a horsehair mattress and tried to summon his spirit:

"After a time, I left, and returned to the warmth of my hotel room and its provincial flowers.  Tiny flowers spattering the walls, just as the sky had been spattered with budding stars.  This was the solitary entry in my notebook.  I had imagined that I would write the words that would shatter nerves, honoring Rimbaud and proving everyone's faith in me, but I didn't." (230)

Smith writes of her worship of great artists and heroes from the past, such as Joan of Arc, Baudelaire and Jean Genet.  And it occurred to me gradually that Smith has achieved the status of a living legend.  Not only is she a national treasure, but a world treasure.  Her musical contributions stand on their own, but with Just Kids she adds another medium to her wheelhouse.  One expects that her versatility and passion will be worshiped by future artists.


Just Kids is as much about Robert Mapplethorpe as it is herself.


Okay I just want to say I can't really go on because yesterday marked the death of David Bowie and it's just way too emotional to be writing about artists from this era that shared so many similarities, particularly as I was situating Smith into a context as one of the Great Artists of our Time.  I don't want to say Bowie is any better than her (they were quite close in age and also worked in a variety of mediums) but I don't recall his being mentioned in Just Kids.  Many other musicians of the time appear (Bobby Neuwirth, Bob Dylan, Allen Lanier from Blue Oyster Cult (a pretty serious boyfriend of hers), Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, etc.) but not so many from the so-called "punk era" (Tom Verlaine excepted), and perhaps M Train will have a Bowie story or two.  Smith did post a photo on Facebook yesterday of her and Bowie singing together in 2004 or 2005.  She seems to have a penchant for covering other artists' songs, so I would not be surprised if she shows up at some kind of NYC memorial for him, not unlike her rendition of "Perfect Day" after the death of Lou Reed roughly one year ago.

Sorry but the moment just needed to be cataloged.  I don't think I should write obituaries or elegies or memorials or remembrances or tributes because they don't get a lot of traffic, the exception being Roger Ebert because of his extraordinary influence on my critical work.


But yes, this is book is decidedly about Mapplethorpe and my knowledge of him went no further than  a few friends in college steeped in the art world trying to make me uncomfortable by shoving certain racy photos in my face.  That, and a brief snippet from Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, which considered a self-portrait he had taken.  That, and the last track from the AIDS benefit compilation No Alternative which ended with Patti Smith dedicating an ode to him.  Finally, of course, the stories already shared in Please Kill Me.

I pretty much knew he was gay, but he really comes off as being straight in the beginning, bi in the middle, and gay at the end.  That's not the way it always is, but that's the case some of the time, and probably a lot more often in the 60's and 70's.  He basically was Patti Smith's boyfriend for a couple years, and they lived together almost like a married couple.  Mapplethorpe's mother, actually, believed they were husband and wife up until the point of his death in 1989.  He came from a devoutly Catholic family and his parents did not believe a man and a woman should live together as they did unless they were married.  Even though he started going out with another dude, they continued to live together.  Patti continued to see other dudes, too.  In between, they were sometimes still intimate.  Their bond is a truly beautiful thing to behold.  If everyone was lucky enough to experience the love that they shared for one another, the world would probably be a much better place.


It's quite remarkable how Smith is able to pinpoint the exact date (Memorial Day, 1967) when both she and Mapplethorpe, states apart, committed themselves to the pursuit of art.  Also remarkable is the fact that Mapplethorpe is seemingly the first person that Smith meets a couple months later when she ventures out to make it on her own in NYC.  I've got to be honest here: I feel like she's stretching the truth just a tiny bit.  Like, I'm sure the events happened as they are described, but come on--Mapplethorpe probably did trip on acid that Memorial Day and make that drawing and Smith probably did genuflect before that statue of Joan of Arc in Philadelphia--attaching a greater significance to the situation is what one is supposed to do in a book like this.  And maybe she had a meaningful conversation with someone other than him that day when she tried to find her friends at Pratt, but whatever.  This is a super petty criticism.

While we do not live in New York in the 1970's, the great value of this book is its portrayal of "the artist's life."  They are poor and they live together and they support one another and they have moments of great luck and they network like crazy.  They live in the Chelsea Hotel and they go in the back room at Max's Kansas City and basically try to hobnob with the post-Warhol crowd.  Mapplethorpe sort of wants to be Warhol, and Patti tries on a variety of guises before settling into the one that fits.  Maybe that last sentence is inaccurate: Mapplethorpe also goes through a variety of experiments with different mediums before he is given a Polaroid camera as a gift.

Along the way Mapplethorpe is reduced to doing dishonorable things for money.

"He went to a placement service to get part-time work but nothing panned out.  Although he sold an occasional necklace, breaking into the fashion business was slowgoing.  Robert got increasingly depressed about money, and the fact that it fell on me to get it.  It was partially the stress of worrying about our financial position that drove him back to the idea of hustling.
Robert's early attempts at hustling had been fueled by curiosity and the romance of Midnight Cowboy, but he found working on Forty-second Street to be harsh.  He decided to shift to Joe Dallesandro territory, on the East Side near Bloomingdale's, where it was safer.
I begged him not to go, but he was determined to try.  My tears did not stop him, so I sat and watched him dress for the night ahead.  I imagined him standing on a corner, flushed with excitement, offering himself to a stranger, to make money for us.
'Please be careful,' was all I could say.
'Don't worry.  I love you.  Wish me luck.'
Who can know the heart of youth but youth itself? (135)

Another pleasure of this book is the effortlessly beautiful prose.  Smith is economical with her words and describes a vast array of events.  I can only imagine that she kept quite detailed diaries throughout these years.  Either that, or she is blessed with a photographic memory.  Actually, there are many photographs in the book, so perhaps it is a mix of the two: the photograph as diary.

There really is nothing "fancy" about this book, and its sheer modesty is responsible for a great deal of its charm.  Smith certainly could be said to be "artsy," but she is never arch or snobbish.  She comes off like an enthusiastic teenager, and her sincerity has an infectious effect on the reader.

I'm at a loss for what else to say about this book, except that, I wasn't going to add it to the Best Books list until I got to the end.  The ending is undoubtedly the most powerful section of the book:

"There was no one present save his nurse and she left us to ourselves.  I stood by his bed and took his hand.  We stayed like that for a long time, not saying anything.  Suddenly he looked up and said, 'Patti, did art get us?'
I looked away, not really wanting to think about it.  'I don't know, Robert.  I don't know.'
Perhaps it did, but no one could regret that.  Only a fool would regret being had by art; or a saint.  Robert beckoned me to help him stand, and he faltered.  'Patti,' he said, 'I'm dying.  It's so painful.'
He looked at me, his look of love and reproach.  My love for him could not save him.  His love for life could not save him.  It was the first time that I truly knew he was going to die.  He was suffering physical torment no man should endure.  He looked at me with such deep apology that it was unbearable and I burst into tears.  He admonished me for that, but he put his arms around me.  I tried to brighten, but it was too late.  I had nothing more to give him but love.  I helped him to the couch.  Mercifully, he did not cough, and he fell asleep with his head on my shoulder.
The light poured through the windows upon his photographs and the poem of us sitting together a last time.  Robert dying: creating silence.  Myself, destined to live, listening closely to a silence that would take a lifetime to express."  (275-276)

One could only pray for such a beautiful tribute from a friend.  Over the past week, I've seen tributes and homages like I've never seen before.  Bowie touched millions of lives and will be remembered as long as music is recorded.  Mapplethorpe doesn't possess quite the same cultural cache, but he was very close in age, and left this world far too early.  He will be remembered by anyone devoted to the art of photography, but he might have accomplished so much more.  Regardless, Smith has done her part to keep his memory alive to the wider public.  There are few better gifts that a human being may bestow.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life - Carol Sklenicka

Go back to the year 2000 with me, if you please.  I'm in Wilmette, IL at my parent's house, home on break from school out east, getting ready to apply to college, sitting in an armchair in the living room (designated "the library") leafing through an anthology of American literature.  I'm vaguely familiar with Raymond Carver from Roger Ebert's review of Short Cuts, which I read a few years earlier, and I see the story "Cathedral."  I decide to read it, and it's beautiful, a sketch of a blind man being helped to draw a cathedral from an image in his mind of which he can have no reference.  It's a pretty quick read, but enormously moving, and I decide this might be a writer worth checking out.

Fast forward a year and I'm at NYU in a Prose Composition class and our professor gives us a xeroxed copy of Carver's poem "Fear," a list poem about things he fears.  I've seen Short Cuts at least a time or two by now (even going so far as to call my favorite movie at the time (Magnolia) a rip-off), and I go to one of those used book tables in Greenwich Village and pick up a copy of Where I'm Calling From and I read the stories sporadically throughout the course of my freshman year, all the while hearing praise of Carver from anyone the least bit connected to any creative writing class.  I pick my oldest sister for Secret Santa for Christmas that year, and though she has never really expressed an interest in so-called literary fiction, give her a copy of Where I'm Calling From, asterisking all the stories in particular that I think she should read.

So yes, I love Raymond Carver, and this biography easily makes the list of the Best Books reviewed on Flying Houses.  It's not a perfect biography, but it's very close.  It's so painstakingly researched that a reader can almost observe Carver's movements on a day-to-day basis.

Also, Carver went to the same high school as Justice Douglas.  So two of the graduates of Yakima High School would go onto lives worthy of biographies listed as Best Books on FH.  Therefore I believe my friends Byron Johnson and Erin Ecklund will be moving on to live great lives (though I think they went to a different high school).  Boarding school was a waste of money.  Families should move to Yakima to go to this school.  Then again, it would be inadvisable to base one's child's future on a career in the arts, or the law...


The book is subtitled "A Writer's Life" and indeed the first half of the book lays out in excruciating detail all of the obstacles that Carver had to overcome to become an author worthy of publication in The Best American Short Stories series and The New Yorker.  He marries quite young to Maryann Burk and they have their first child before he turns twenty.  Even before then, he had developed enough of an interest in creating writing that he paid $25 to the Palmer Institute of Authorship in Hollywood at the age of 16.  Sklenicka cannily observes that some of the correspondence has a ring of destiny about it--the first lesson is aimed squarely at the short story and reads:

"In becoming a Palmer student you are taking an important step in establishing yourself in a profession that enjoys the respect and esteem of all classes of people, a profession you may be proud to claim as your own...This may be the vital turning point in the course of your life...." (39)

Later, Ray goes to the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, several times, in varying guises--never quite earning an MFA, but sometimes taking credit for it.  In the meanwhile, he works at sawmills and barely earns enough to support their family.  Their continual poverty is a constant theme of the biography.  However, what struck me most about their family was Maryann.  She just seems awesome.  This is a biography of Raymond Carver--but there is so much Maryann in here that it might as well be a biography of her, too.  And this was the surprisingly compelling aspect of the book to me: they have this beautiful relationship, but also an extremely difficult one, and they stick it out for so long.  He owed his early career to her.  He would not have accomplished what he accomplished without her.

His first stories were published in the late 1950's and early 1960's, but he seemed to hit his first stride in 1964 with "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" Eventually that would be the title story for his first collection, which would be released thirteen years later.  More than any other book I've read, this truly depicts the "writer's life" of living your life for your work and spending a considerable amount of time submitting to journals and magazines for publication.  The "second stride" probably came with the publication of "Neighbors" in Esquire, where Gordon Lish served as fiction editor.

There are several literary friendships depicted here.  First there is John Gardner as Carver's writing professor at Iowa (though he is only a few years older).  Second, there is Lish, who certainly comes across as one of the more entertaining (and ruthless) characters in the book.  Third, there is Tess Gallagher, and later Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford.  There is also an entertaining and sad section where a 61-year-old John Cheever drinks and teaches alongside Carver at Iowa in 1973 (Chapter 18 "Drowning," which is not quite rock bottom for Carver, but very close).

Alcoholism is another major theme of the book, and it is written about with such precision and empathy that I thought Sklenicka must have battled demons of her own on that score.  He would drink for three more years after the episodes with Cheever up until the publication of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?  Roughly a year after that was published he would become sober and remain sober.  It is quite harrowing to read about his plight during these times, all in the "Celebrated and Homeless" chapter.

One quick side note:  one of his earlier stories is called "Are These Actual Miles?"  This is just an awesome title for a story:

"One of those new stories configured the rock-bottom days of the Carvers' lives in Sacramento when they were forced to sell their convertible.  'Are These Actual Miles?' is about bankruptcy, suspections of infidelity, and suicidal depression.  Ray pushed into new territory with this story, and it proved to be exactly what Lish was waiting for.  Late in November, Lish telephoned to say that Gingrich and Hayes were 'wild' about the story.  Not only that, but Lish planned to include both 'Neighbors' and 'Miles' in an anthology of fiction from Esquire that he was editing for Doubleday."  (214)

But they change to the title to "What is It?"  Worst title change ever!  Ray is upset about it and Maryann calls him a "whore" for selling out, but Esquire gives them another boost in credibility and they accept it.

I really shouldn't give away the whole story--I'll speak in generalities.  It is an impressive story.  You know, people think that writer's lives are boring.  This is anything but a boring life, but I do not think anybody in their right mind would ever want to live it.  It is filled with so much uncertainty and chaos and desperation that no one should set their sights on a literary career unless they are willing to sacrifice almost everything in favor of that pursuit.


This is a really hard review to write because there's so much to say.  This is a big book--not quite as big as the Ernest Hemingway biography that holds the record for longest gestation time on FH--but at 496 pages a hefty read.  I tore through it.  It took me less than 2 months.  Maybe a month and a half.  It was a little slow going in the beginning, but within the first 100 pages Carver is publishing his first stories.  It seems that the period up until say, Cathedral, is very tightly documented, and that the last five years of Carver's life, when he finally began to taste the fruits of literary success, pass a bit more quickly.

It is worth telling how I found this book, because it is quite fortuitous.  I live in a very bad apartment building, but we do have a free washer and dryer in the basement.  The machines themselves leave something to be desired.  The room is disgusting.  No one ever cleans it, except for me the one time my landlord took $40 off my rent one month when I agreed to do it.  Despite this atmosphere, it also becomes a kind of dumping ground for unwanted items that could be used for other tenants passing through.  You see, my landlord does not rent out three, 3 BR apartments--he rents out 9 rooms.  Each of them is around $600, so he is making over $5000 per month off us.  But we live in relative squalor.  Some of this is the doing of my roommates, but it is mostly the doing of the 1st and 2nd floor tenants, over the years.

Sometimes though, a treasure appears.  I had noticed a very good book collection laying on the ground.  Sometimes I would flip through the Williams S. Burroughs compilation Word Virus while waiting a few extra minutes for a garment to be dried.  But this one particular day in late October or early November, I saw the Raymond Carver biography and I thought it was such a quirky book to have that I had to seize the opportunity and read it quickly and return it in case the person that owned it moved out.  Finally I talked to two of the basement neighbors and asked whose it was and they said somebody who had moved out had left it and I could keep it.  That took the pressure off, but I read it quickly regardless.  At a certain point I read "Fires" out of Fires (which is the only Carver collection I own) and a description of a scene in a laundromat stands out as imminently moving:

"The dark heart of 'Fires' is a two-page anecdote about doing his family's wash at a laundromat in Iowa City.  The laundromat was on the corner of Burlington and Gilbert, around the corner from the writers' favorite beer joints.  Canadian writer Clark Blaise sometimes chatted with Ray while their clothes spun at this laundromat, as Blaise and his wife, the novelist Bharati Mukherjee, struggled to keep up with their baby's diapers.  But Carver is alone in the laundromat epiphany he reports.  Maryann is at work, the kids are at a birthday party, and Ray is waiting for a dryer.  It's Saturday afternoon and crowded, so he is becoming frantic. Another dryer has stopped, and Carver is moving toward it, ready to replace the other clothes with his own, when the owner of the clothing decides to let it go for another cycle:

     ....I remember thinking at that moment....that nothing could come anywhere close, could possibly be as important to me, could make as much difference, as the fact that I had two children.  And that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction.
     Like that it came to me.  Like a sharp breeze when the window is thrown open.  Up to that point in my life I'd gone along thinking...that things would work out somehow--that everything in my life I'd hoped for or wanted to do was possible.

Is Carver writing fiction here?  Could this one moment encompass so much?  The essay dramatizes a situation that had smoldered for years.  Carver admits in the essay that many writers have overcome 'far more serious impediments to their work, including imprisonment, blindness, the threat of torture or death...'" (96-97)

Later, Carver's children come to resent him for "Fires" and a few other stories and poems throughout the years.  Perhaps he should have kept his mouth shut, but you know, we all need little anecdotes about the petty frustrations involved with laundry.  Most strikingly though, Scklenicka adds that, in this scene, Carver is 25 and halfway through his life.


This review is getting long as it is.  There are just too many little details that I'd like to reference.  One of the cutest, for me, is Ray's favored non-alcoholic beverage:

Okay unfortunately that's not in the index so I can't find it, but at one point his children notice that he always drinks RC Cola.  He likes it because his initials are R.C.  The image of him sitting around drinking R.C. and presiding, like, "Yep, that's my cola," is hilarious.

There are several details about other writers, but the big gaping hole in this biography that we've left so far is Gordon Lish.  Lish's anecdote about J.D. Salinger is worth excerpting (as is almost any anecdote about that controversial legend).  I also wish Obama/whoever wins in 2016 cared more about people like us:

"No project Lish undertook was too humble to become a vehicle for his prodigious personality.  For the Job Corps, a Kennedy-era program for unemployed young men, he created a box set of reading folders called Why Work.  Instead of gathering already published materials, Lish sent telegrams to thirty writers he admired.  One of these telegrams went to J.D. Salinger, who had been in seclusion for more than a decade.  Lish followed his telegram with letters--numerous letters--to Salinger that show Lish inventing himself as a literary impresario.  A few months later, he received a telephone call at work from Salinger himself.  When he understood who was calling him, Lish reports, 'I was grinning so hard that my brain could not have had any room left over in it for one speck of business.'  As Lish tells it, Salinger said, 'I'm calling because I was worried about you.'  Salinger again refused to write for Why Work.  But Lish was not unhappy: 'I mean, forget that it was animating him all four months later, it worked! had worked!--because there he was, J.D. Salinger, the impeccably reclusive J.D. Salinger, calling me--.'" (151)

It is necessary to take a detour into Lish, and relate one final personal anecdote in two pieces.  First, on the day I finished this biography, the Winter 2016 edition of the The Paris Review (#215) arrived at our apartment (I don't subscribe to it; my roommate does--one of several reasons why I will be sad to see him go).  One of the interviews was of the now 82-year-old Gordon Lish, who is cantankerous as ever.  Lish donated his papers to Indiana University, and he encourages all Carver fanatics to visit this collection to see just how responsible he is for Carver's acclaim.  Now it is very true that Carver is widely imitated and extremely influential, and Lish's labors cannot be diminished.  However, Lish makes it seem like Carver is a stumbling drunk who can barely form a sentence, who spits out a couple dozen pages of gibberish, which Lish then cuts by more than 50% to emerge with a prize-winning story.  Lish is just a very heavy editor, and other writers, such as Barry Hannah, acknowledge how deeply he changed their work for the better.  Carver, on the other hand, was sheepish about this, and fought the accusations that he was really just Lish's puppet.

For Christmas, I got my mother a copy of Beginners, which is the manuscript Carver sent Lish of the stories that would comprise his second book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which is certainly one of the most famous short stories he wrote.  I haven't read it yet, but it's one of those gifts where you are really getting something for yourself--though I know my mother loves literature and I was just trying to turn her on to Carver.  Maybe it will be weak, though.  I am afraid.  I looked at the opening of "What Is It?" from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?  in the Barnes & Noble and it starts off like a rocket--"First thing, we have to sell the car," or some other such opening.  Lish would remove characters, remove names from characters, cut out whole scenes, remove neat conclusions and leave stories to end on an ambiguous or dark note.  Carver is often defined as a minimalist, but I think it is quite clear that Lish is responsible for that reputation.  Reading this biography reignited my interest in his work, and I hope to read the Lish-edited books and then perhaps Beginners once my mother is finished with it.  Really one would need to read them side-by-side--or at least focus on the story "Beginners" itself--to determine if that 2009 volume, positioned by Tess Gallagher as truer versions of the stories, is responsible in the least for Birdman, which I feel like put Carver back into the national consciousness.   To be sure, Birdman is an achievement all on its own--but would it really have been the kind of Best Picture type film it was without the Carver motif?  I'm sure plenty of people watching didn't know a thing about "WWTAWWTAL," but those that did understand why the film is such a powerful statement on artistry and fame.

Carver never became "famous" until he stopped drinking, though it was his many drunken misadventures that became the stories of "Bad Ray" which "Good Ray" would then write in his sober years.  There are so many little things in this book that are just hilarious; there are just as many that will break your heart.

A brief word on domestic violence: Ray beat Maryann, and Sklenicka does not shy away from describing it, though she does perhaps whitewash it a bit--but understandably so!  Because Maryann would beat him back, too, and often drank as much as he did.  There is one shocking incident though, where Maryann is nearly killed by a bottle of wine broken on her neck, which opens an artery.  They have a volatile, tempestuous relationship, and it nearly kills them.  One does not get the sense that Ray is the typical abuser and Maryann is the typical victim.  It never seems like she is "scared" of him, though she is remarkably loyal to him.  I will not spoil what happens when they finally divorce, and the alimony arrangement they reach, but let's just say, as I've intimated above already, that Carver owes his career to Maryann.  He owes a debt to Lish as well, but Maryann most of all--because she nourished and cared for him and supported him through the worst times most human beings are ever made to suffer.

Amidst all the messiness of life, Carver eventually succeeds.  Really, here we have someone--in the generation of the "post-Beats" or the New Journalism (or "the New Fiction" Lish curated)--who grew up wanting to be a writer, who did all the things that people still do nowadays (like go to Iowa, submit to journals, etc.) and who made it, but not without extreme difficulty.  It's just such a true story that it has to be one of the Best Books.  Even with a few weird moments--I admit that a few of Sklenicka's rare exclamation points are quirky--this is an incredibly valuable tome for anyone that wants to be a writer.  You cannot help but smile at certain passages.

Okay I had a good one to end with, but we have to keep Thomas alive, too:

"In Zurich, a friend secured them entry to Thomas Mann's archives and Mann's large study with its fine mahogany desk, parquet floor, couch, and easy chairs.  They opened Mann's books and handled his fountain pens and Asian figurines.  'Who couldn't work well with a study like this?' Ray wrote on a postcard, before grumbling that Zurich had 'more Japs than Swiss' and more gays than straight people.  Tess's journal indicates that Ray felt anxious about getting meals at specific times and taking a nap in the afternoon.  Those difficulties were somewhat offset for him by the availability of Swiss chocolate.  After making their third visit to the cemetery where James Joyce is buried and studying several funerary sculptures there, they dined at Kronenhalle, which Joyce had frequented.  Lectures and meetings with publishers in Rome and Milan closed the trip at the end of April.  Weary of media attention and foreign food and foreign languages, Ray gratefully returned to Port Angeles."  (456)

But it's a scene from Syracuse with his son, Vance, that may have touched me more than anything else:

"When Vance took Tobias Wolff's survey course in the short story, he said to Wolff, 'My dad's really good, isn't he?'  Wolff said, 'Vance, your dad is one of the greatest short story writers who ever lived!'  And that had some meaning for him because he was learning about this art form that his father pursued so single-mindedly.  He could see him in this landscape of art." (365-366)

Biographies can be tedious and disappointing.  They can also make you love their subject even more.  Raymond Carver was far from a perfect human being.  In fact, he is downright dastardly at times, but it's the humanity peaking through such moments that give this book its heart.  Not everyone will love it--it seems targeted at Carver's fans, of which there are many--and though there are many writers one might care to emulate if they hope to "make it" in short fiction (Joy Williams comes to mind as she pops up throughout the book as a sort of contemporary female counterpart to Carver), one ultimately must find greatness within themselves.  This book portrays that process beautifully.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Pale King - David Foster Wallace (2011) (MM)

Seven months after I published my review, the person who requested that we start a book club sends his.  It is not a traditional review by any stretch, and he asked that I edit some of the more epistolary elements, but I prefer the off-the-cuff charm of informality.  I'm sure his review will be much more useful to you than mine.  I think I was a bit easier on the book than him.  Enjoy.  -JK

I have to tell you: like The Pale King, a couple of the cookbooks in our kitchen come from Little, Brown and Company. We like them and use them a lot. Simple, no-fuss recipes for long day office workers the likes of us. Loads of practical application. I read not long ago about a lifestyle book about cabins they put out and maybe it's okay, too, not really my thing, but I suspect there is an audience for it. It must have been hopeful news for the literature division there when David Foster Wallace (DFW) died and left this book unfinished because 1. Hello Sales Appeal of Posthumous Work!, and 2. The Last Tycoon all over again, Dead on the West Coast at a young age--quick, to the presses! A literary happening!

Finishing the book took a lot longer than I thought it would on account of it being so tedious. I wanted that experience to sink in before forming an opinion. Once I did, I had guilt over it, worrying I was being too harsh: Don't speak ill of the dead...just their art?

The Pale King should not be as difficult to read as it is. Did DFW intend it that way? Was that the point? Working as a federal tax analyst is terrible so reading about it should be, too?
Why am I so preoccupied with his motive, anyway? Usually I don't let biography cloud my impressions of a story, but DFW's celebrity ghost haunts any reading of The Pale King. I expect more from a dead contemporary author, especially one whose genius is so well advertised. 

The Pale King
 is a terrifically boring read, 547 pages of seldom-funny, excruciatingly detailed tax-memoir-fiction. I kept thinking, "Ah, put it down! Read ANYTHING ELSE!" But I pushed on, reminding myself this is one of the great writers of our time. Really, though, DFW is one of the great essayists of our time. As a novelist, to put it charitably, he is under-edited. For example, chapter 9 of this book would have made a great essay on free speech and government, how the law can stifle expression and creativity, even a massive intellect like DFW's. It reveals an interesting paradox in that DFW once worked for the IRS but legally may not publish the experience as non-fiction:
"For as everyone knows, whether consciously or not, there's always a kind of unspoken contract between a book's author and its reader; and the terms of this contract always depend on certain codes and gestures that the author deploys in order to signal the reader what of book it is i.e. whether it's made up vs. true. And these codes are important because the subliminal contract for nonfiction is very different from the one for fiction." (Page 73)

The Pale King is a not-so-vivid melding of the legal, capital, and creative process of publication, a portrait of end-of-the millennium American artistic frustration. It could not exist as fiction or non-fiction, and so it succumbed to market force concerns and censorship mania that are linchpins of our present national reality. As a reader I hope for better, and am compelled to blame someone for this outcome, which is an attitude itself symptomatic of our age: art consumerism. Give me more and give me better! I'm in my chair with nothing to do! Entertain me or else. Still, I know selling books is no easy task these days, especially high-brow stuff like this. I root for publishers even when a book disappoints me.
A 100-page essay on censorship, something in the tone you find in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, some wit and cultural criticism blended with casual humor and sharp observational reporting, his true bread and butter, would have been more valuable in print than this entire book. Here we have 50 chapters of alternating points of view, unrealized characterization, minimal plot, lots of tax code narrative, and at times amusing though ultimately pointless speculation on the personality types drawn to tax work. Here again I question whether or not this book would've been published had DFW not died and left the decision to others. Couldn't have Little, Brown just held off until 2016 and issued a 20th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest
Once someone told me we've grown up when we realize we don't have time to do everything we thought we could do in our lifetime. I was thinking about that when I started reading The Pale King on a flight from Burbank to Las Vegas to celebrate my birthday. Nothing like a dead author and an aluminum tube 20,000 feet in the air to inspire mortality angst, right? An hour later as I was checking into the Golden Nugget, the concierge saw the king of clubs cover of The Pale King sticking out of my luggage and asked if it was about gambling. An apt question in Vegas, but I politely smiled and told her "No". A reader has to bet on gaining something from a book. In choosing to read this one I lost that bet.
When I got back to LA a gift had come in the mail, a book by Thich Nhat Hanh called How to Love. At 125 3x4-inch pages, including illustrations, I immediately bet it had more to offer than The Pale King. A reflection from that book titled "Opening the Door":

"Once you know how to come to yourself, then you can open your home to other people because you have something to offer. The other person has to do exactly the same thing if they are to have something to offer you. Otherwise, they will have nothing to share but their loneliness, sickness, and suffering. This can't help you heal at all. The other person has to heal themselves and get warm inside, so that they will feel better, at ease, and can share their home with you." (70) 
There is indescribable beauty in the experience of reading great literature, something approaching ecstasy and miracle. It is a simple truth. You only have so much time to gather it up in your heart; spend in on something other than The Pale King

Friday, November 27, 2015

Spectre - Dir. Sam Mendes (The Bond Project #24)

Spectre (2015)

Blofeld Is Back 
by Jay Maronde

                Despite all the hype about Star Wars Episode VII, the biggest movie of this holiday season is easily Spectre, the 24th James Bond film. Once again the excellent team at EON productions has returned with a seasoned cast and crew to deliver a movie that fails to disappoint. Spectre marks director Sam Mendes second foray into the world of James Bond and the fourth time that Daniel Craig has donned the world’s most famous tuxedo. But more important than the return of these two figures central to the movie, Spectre is a return to a very classic and historically significant villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
                Blofeld is not a new villain; he’s one of the original James Bond villains and appears in several movies before this one. However, in one of the most obscene examples of copyright wrangling ever, he was legally barred from appearing in the EON productions James Bond movies for several decades, but recent Hollywood mergers finally have him returning home. For those of us who are younger, you might be more experienced with the Austin Powers Dr. Evil, who is a parody of Blofeld. Waltz is terrific as the world’s most evil super villain: iconic, evil, and capable of making your skin crawl and toes curl; a Blofeld not soon forgotten. The decision to cast Waltz was absolute genius and in interviews Waltz describes how, having known Barbara Broccoli for a long time, she personally asked him to take the role. While on the topic of villains one can’t help but comment on the outstanding performance of Dave Bautista as Mr. Hinx, the evil brutish iron finger nailed henchmen that just won’t seem to die. Given the history behind Blofeld, I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Hinx or Blofeld return to the big screen to tangle with Bond again.
                Waltz's sly, shrew, sneering genius is perfectly offset once again by Daniel Craig’s cold, cool James Bond. Grittier and more determined than ever, Bond triumphs in ways only he can--from escaping a building disintegrating around him with grace, to bringing down a chopper in the middle of London with a single bullet, Craig coldly shows how easy James Bond would make this look. Craig is excellent, and despite all the talk about this being his last Bond film, I suspect we will see him in at least one more, mostly because he got almost $40 million dollars to make this movie and that type of money makes people change their minds pretty quickly (ask Sean Connery).  Pairing with Craig in this movie are two beautiful new Bond girls with Monica Bellucci starring as Lucia Sciarra and Lea Seydoux starring  as Dr. Madeleine Swann. There was a great deal of hype before the release of this film that Bellucci would be the oldest Bond girl ever, even older than the actor playing Bond.  This hype was all over blown. Bellucci is a gorgeous radiant woman, and was almost cast in Tomorrow Never Dies in the role that eventually went to Teri Hatcher, her beauty is undeniable but her part in Spectre  is so short she couldn’t have detracted from the film even if she was 120 years old. The real gem of this movie is newcomer Lea Seydoux who plays Dr. Madeleine Swann.  A seemingly endless bag of surprises is contained within her character and her beauty only serves to magnify Craig’s rugged masculinity. Her on-screen chemistry with Craig could be the best Bond has with any woman in any movie.
                 Returning to reprise their Skyfall roles were Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Eve Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw as Q.  Moneypenny and M are very likable allies for Bond. Once again Q has a very substantial role and Whishaw plays the role masterfully.  As usual the Q branch has cooked up some gadgets for Bond including a very rare Aston Martin DB10 Prototype. The car and the chase that it's used in are stunning examples of the caliber of clout James Bond movies acquire: that car is so rare it will never be made again and the chase required huge sections of Rome to be shut down for filming.
                My one complaint about this movie is simple and almost completely irrelevant: the Sam Smith title song is terrible. Slow, boring, long-winded, almost the entire song I thought to myself, “Well, let’s get on with the show.” There’s a good chance you’ve heard this song on pop radio, so I really don’t need to talk about it more, but there’s a rumor that Rihanna was considered and maybe recording the next title song for the as yet unnamed BOND 25. Worth further note: this movie is long, very long--by four minutes the longest James Bond movie ever, so use the rest rooms before you sit down. I found myself hoping it wouldn’t end, because it was just so good, but I definitely made straight for the bathroom as the credits rolled.
                James Bond #24, Spectre, is a holiday blockbuster and a good time for everyone. The return of Blofeld is an excellent plot twist, and Sam Mendes seems to have done an even better job the second time. Spectre is globe-trotting action packed good time.  I would highly advise seeing this movie in IMAX, as I did, because a movie this huge and outrageous certainly deserves a viewing on an outrageous screen.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Soft Machine - William S. Burroughs (1966)

I'm having a really hard time reviewing this book, so I'm just going to be completely honest: I got this book in 2006 or 2007, I think, and when I read it, I thought it was better than Naked Lunch.  It made more sense to me.  However, now after reading it eight years later, it makes less sense to me.

Am I losing my ability to experiment, or appreciate experimental fiction?  Not a chance, but sometimes I need an author that's at least going to give me a little hint about what it all means.  Burroughs does this in the chapter titled "The Great Mayan Caper," but the rest of the book is a puzzle that I'm not sure many readers will be willing to re-assemble.  Rather, the book becomes a sort of poetry (and I would assume this happens in most of his "cut-up" novels) where the story is secondary to the sensory nature of the language, which, oftentimes is uncomfortable and surreal.

It appears that the book is about a technology that allows a person to switch bodies and/or travel through time.  Moments of lucidity in this novel are rare, but here is one:

"At the end of the three weeks he indicated the time has come to operate--He arranged us side by side naked on the operating table under floodlights--With a phosphorescent pencil he traced the middle line of our bodies from the cleft under the nose down to the rectum--Then he injected a blue fluid of heavy cold silence as word dust fell from demagnetized patterns--From a remote Polar distance I could see the doctor separate the two halves of our bodies and fitting together a composite being--I came back in other flesh the lookout different, thought and memories of the young Mayan drifting through my brain--" (86)

So in a sense you could say that Being John Malkovich rips off The Soft Machine, but that's really not fair because the film does something entirely different with the concept.  Burroughs doesn't seem interested in plot or action--though there certainly are moments sprinkled throughout.  On another note his use of the em dash is without parallel.  It produces a feeling in the reader that they are not reading a traditional book, but some weird kind of transmission conveying non-quantifiable information.

Of course there will always be critics that consider his work absurdist shock pornography, and one is hard-pressed to defend it as anything more, but at times it does seem to be an allegory rather than an actual sci-fi story:

"Biological parents in most cases are not owners of the property.  They act under orders of absentee proprietors to install the indicated stops that punctuate the written life script--With each Property goes a life script--Shuttling between property farmers and script writers, a legion of runners, fixers, guides, agents, brokers, faces insane with purpose, mistakes and confusion pandemic--Like a buyer has a first-class Property and a lousy grade B life script." (154)

So there are moments that can inspire a moment of reflection in the reader, but they are generally few and far between.  This is a pretty cold emotionless book that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, so don't pick it up expecting any easy answers.

However, this is a very good book if you want to read it on the CTA and freak everybody out around you.  It has a nice, sharp pink cover, and Burroughs's name, for me at least, inspires thoughts of college and mind-exploration and experiments with form and philosophical conversations fueled by chemical indulgences, as does much of the writing of his coterie.  But where Kerouac relentlessly grounds his observations in actual events from his past life, Burroughs is content to fuck with you endlessly, almost daring you to give up and start a new book that will remind you that you know what words mean.

In this sense, The Soft Machine is based in the English language, but told in such a way that one must consult other sources to arrive at a reasonable conclusion to draw from it.  Most people can say Naked Lunch is about heroin addiction and withdrawal, and the easy response is to say The Soft Machine is about that too, but it feels more focused and less scattershot, if still ultimately confounding.

Increasingly I have needed to consult Wikipedia to supplement my own inadequacies of intelligence with regard to certain books, and no more was this true than here.  I suppose after reading this review, one wonders whether I will ever revisit Burroughs, or could even be said to truly "like" him.  To the latter ponderance let me respond that I will always hold a special place in my heart for him, and appreciate him greatly, particularly in his more "terrestrial" moments; as to the former, I share the same uncertainty.  But in a certain sense that does not matter: the exposure to Burroughs in the first place is what matters (I'm not sure, but I think if I review Nova Express or The Ticket That Exploded, I'll say some very similar things).  I think I'd be more likely to check out Junky or The Wild Boys.

For the "cut-up trilogy," at least, the draw of the material is the rare moment of lucidity or profundity.  In this sense, the prose is dreamlike, and aims to tap into a different set of of  a reader's perceptions.  Unfortunately, while the style may be original and bold, if the "cut-up method" is still in vogue, I have not seen an effective use of it, other than to disorient.  I think you could say that sometimes David Foster Wallace seemed to be using a different sort of cut-up method (where the language is much more lucid but the sequencing seems almost random), and while I'm sure Burroughs was far from the first writer to experiment with chronological uncertainty/confusion, he has left his mark on the canon of American literature, and will continue to be required reading for future generations of writers.