30 July 2012

Sellers : Shadow of Night

Shadow of Night
Author: Deborah Harkness
Publisher: Viking Adult (7/10/12)
592 pages

Deborah Harkness is a historian. She teaches history at the University of Southern California and has won both a Guggenheim and National Humanities Center Fellowship.

She is for serious.

Her books center around Elizabethan England. She wrote about John Dee (go read about him, seriously) and England as a center of science. In 2011 she dropped a novel called A Discovery of Witches and every review started out by talking about her credentials. Many went on to discuss at length how this serious woman of history was writing a novel about witches. Many felt condescending.

As if a smart person couldn't enjoy reading that type of book, let alone write one. Here is the description from the New York Times for this sequel to last year's surprise hit:

An Oxford scholar/witch and a vampire geneticist pursue history, secrets and each other in Elizabethan London.

I feel like I need to point out that that plot breakdown sounds a little like she tossed every current trend in commercial writing and shook it until it was a book. I haven't read the novel so have zero evaluation ability of the book. Based on the description it sounds a bit silly, but is probably fun.

I'm thinking about these things lately. Commercial appeal and how that is perceived by the public/critics/friends/family. I'm thinking about it because I am neck-deep in my own novel project that could probably be described in similar ways to how I've talked about Harkness' book above.

And I've had to come to terms with my younger self. The one that defiantly takes artistic credibility above all else. Equates 'cred' as 'not selling out'. Whatever that means. Because you want to be published right? Want words in faces, books in hands. Right?

How else does one do that besides bend a bit to whims. Emotional, physical, mental, cultural.

T.S. Eliot bent to Ezra Pound's whims when it came to The Wasteland. That poem, cultural touchstone that it is, is as much Pound's work as Eliot's. In some ways more so. Literature is full of writer's bending to whim. And I suppose that currently plopping a vampire/witch/detective into your novel about Elizabethan England is that bend.

I don't mean to conflate The Wasteland with something akin to Twilight. Don't confuse my meaning. I'm just pointing out that artistic 'cred' is a lie. A lie of a younger self. Credibility is staying true to yourself in a given moment. I firmly believe that you can do so while writing Ulysses or churning out ghost-written young adult books.

And, honestly, The Wasteland coulda used some vampires.

Sellers is my attempt to examine what books are topping the best-seller list and why. To talk about and understand the trends in popular writing.

27 July 2012

THIS! 7/27/12

THIS! on July 27, 2012

1) Printing Reflectance Functions

So when you print something it becomes a 2-D object. Photos show a moment frozen in time. The light cannot change. Some people at UC Santa Cruz got together with HP and 3M and asked the question: What if the light could change?

That isn't a hologram. The idea is to allow a printed image to change as the real life image would. So you could see 3-Dimensions without 3-D.


3) The Wall by Jose Angel Araguz

Tiger's Eye Press has published Jose's chapbook The Wall. I highly recommend it.

Fair warning, the site has no online ordering and you have to send a check or money order, but the reading should make up for this oddly anachronistic system.

25 July 2012


A guy I work with recently told me that a group of his girlfriends only liked to read books with female narrators. He related that their conversation ended fairly unresolved because he felt this was silly and said that he had no preference as long as the book was good.

It got me thinking about who I like to listen to when I read. What voices I enjoy most. My previous post mentioned how dull I find the ennui of white middle-class middle-aged men. And it is true. The books I listed at the end of that post are all great novels. They are some of the best even. But I cannot get over how dull it all is.

But to say I like a specific voice would be wrong. Looking at the books I've most loved I find that the common thread is a sense of humor. About the characters, the world, the narrative itself. If a book lacks that, I stop caring.

Basically I want my serious reading with a dose of humility.

Michael Chabon, Haruki Murakami, Anne Carson, Marilynne Robinson, Umberto Eco are a few of the ones I think have managed this at least once. The list is much much larger.

What authors do you think have the magic touch? Which annoy the hell out of you?

23 July 2012

White Noise

Middle-aged white men are not the only ones who feel sad.

Let that sink in for a second.

Now think about the books we hold up as 'best' and 'classics'. I don't want to rail against dead white men. I'm not about to attempt a dismantling of an ivory tower. But the majority of books are about middle-aged white men who have ennui.

I've been reading White Noise by Don DeLillo. It is the second book of his that I have tried to read. I picked through 20 pages of Underworld in 2005 and put it down with it leaving no real impression. I came to White Noise with few expectations. It was a book on my shelf that was unread.

DeLillo reminds me of Philip Roth. They both trade in a sort of suburban distopia full of bored men and women that is meant to equate to depth of story. The main difference is that I don't find DeLillo as preachy and in some ways he even seems aware of the absolute obnoxiousness of his characters.

White Noise centers around the fear of death. There is even a pill presented that is meant to defeat this fear. Is this the only remaining fear middle-class America has? That is takes 300 pages to explore the idea and manages to say little on it is telling.

The book is full of beauty. I don't want it to be thought that DeLillo is a bad writer. He and Roth have moments of sheer brilliance. DeLillo manages to come up with insane non sequiturs that hang together like a beaded curtain and make the plot of his novel. That the majority of the actions in the novel are designed to keep the characters in stasis belies the use of plot as a description.

A group of professors talking at lunch about where they were when famous deaths occurred. A speech about how both Elvis and Hitler were mama's boys. A young child riding a tricycle across four lanes of traffic while elderly women watch in horror. The noxious cloud of black that chases out protagonist to the point of driving his family in their station wagon off-road and across a stream at full speed.

That you cannot glean a plot from any of those moments is my point exactly.

These are vignettes masquerading as novel. They are partially related moments that feel like an author coming up with 'cool' things that should go into a book. Then they are hung onto a message of melancholia and death in the mid-west, in a man-made environmental disaster, in popping pills and cheating on spouses.

This is the problem with these books about middle-aged white ennui. They are loose arrangements of things that sort of make up a story. We hold them up and call them great because they reflect us so clearly yet do little more.

Ulysses, Portnoy's Complaint, White Noise, In Search Of Lost Time, Love in the Time of Cholera, A Farewell to Arms, The Great Gatsby. I would argue that all are about wealthy or well-off white ennui. Even Marquez, who manages to fall headlong into this trap. Just read Memories of My Melancholy Whores for proof.

It's all over other film as well. Look at A Single Man or A Serious Man...both men are the same really. A Serious Man, a Coen Brothers film, is at its heart an adaptation of White Noise. They are both about the mid-west. About college professors. About unhappy marriages and nostalgia for the past. Both seep in unfocused sadness while giving their characters undefined terminal health problems. Both have a disaster at their core. One in the middle, and one at the end.

Neither manages to clarify anything. Both have moments of brilliance bracketed by yawning expanses of 'why am I paying attention to these sad terrible people'.

22 July 2012

Update will be late tomorrow. After 2. Sorry for the delay. I'm getting back into the swing of things after my trip.

20 July 2012


I'm on vacation until tomorrow so here are three things to look at and enjoy.

1) Candy that looks like rocks!

2) Ghee Happy!

3) Cupcakes with top hats! Made from Tootsie Rolls!

18 July 2012

Books On Film

When books are turned into movies there are two possibilities: 1) The movie is a made into a separate artistic endeavor and can be viewed on its own merits; or 2) The film makers are too slavish to the text and the film ends up a needless retread that is only there to milk $ from the party faithful.

Could have been so good.

The 1986 film version of Umberto Eco's 1980 novel The Name of the Rose is an example where the film manages to stray just far enough. The novel is a basic whodunit set in an Italian monastery in 1327.  The novel is at its core a Sherlock Holmes book wearing robes. The plot involves several murders inside the walls of the monastery that are linked to a shocking mystery buried within the walls of the monk's library.

The movie involves Sean Connery as an Italian Monk and Christian Slater as his side-kick. Below is the first 9 minutes of the film. Just look at it. Really.

The book is darkly humorous and the movie manages to stray more into silly territory, but it works. If you're going to make this movie and make it borderline hilarious, put 007 in there. Just look at the poster:

"Who, in the name of God, is getting away with murder?" Indeed. That poster and the clip above do not really seem to go together. If I told you that this was a film where you see an under the legal age Christian Slater naked, where monks kill each other in gruesome and strange ways, where the plot hinges on Plato and a labyrinth...you would tell me I'm full of shit.

If I said that it was the little-known sequel to The Princess Bride, you'd believe me.

It's a shame that the film is no longer on Netflix streaming, but it is available on disc. I highly recommend a night in with it. And you should also read the book. It's quick, smart, and manages to keep you slightly in the dark to the outcome.

There are so many book films these days that it's hard to weed out the crap. What are some other book to film adaptations that you would endorse?

16 July 2012

Re-Read : The Witches

The Witches
Author: Roald Dahl
Publisher: Jonathan Cape (1983)
208 pages

I was 9 when The Witches was turned into a movie by Nicolas Roeg and Jim Henson. It was 1990. It was Jim Henson's last film. If you've never seen this film, you should. Angelica Huston is great in it. And, talking mice!

Talking about Jim Henson makes me all misty-eyed and sad. It's like a very real and raw wound. At the age of 9, Jim Henson dying was like a family member dying. It was an odd first real moment of dealing with death.

The Witches is not particularly sad, but it is definitely dark and it for real touches on death more than once.

What I remember loving about Dahl is that he never once takes children for not understanding complicated concepts, like death. He assumes they understand. He expects them to. Reading Dahl is being taken seriously for the first time.

For those who've never read this book here is a quick run down. A boy is orphaned while on vacation in Norway and goes to live with his grandmother there. She tells him about witches. The parents' will requests the boy be raised in England because which is what he is used to. The grandmother and he move. Once there she becomes ill and her doctor recommends a vacation tot he seaside. Once there they uncover a plot to kill all the children in England by turning them into mice. The boy is transformed and must save the day while a rodent.

At the end the boy is a mouse and he and his grandmother decide to spend their remaining years alive fighting the witches of the world.

That ending is what I have always remembered about the book. The boy and his grandmother have a very frank discussion about her being old and probably near death. He asks how long mice live and a really sad talk about a few years follows. Both are upbeat though, because neither wants to go on without the other.

Sad and beautiful.

It gets me misty-eyed the same way talking about Jim Henson does. If I had to pick two people, who are not relatives, who shaped my world-view they would be Henson and Dahl. Henson taught me about kindness, education and love. Dahl said that was all well and good but there are dark things out there so be ready to kick their asses.

Re-reading The Witches reminded me of the simplicity of the work. And how good a writer Dahl really was. He manages to take a very basic story of children taking on the world and infuse them with a magical sense of realness. Close to what the world feels and looks like to a child. Scary and amazing.

And that's what we lose as we get older. The amazing is replaced with more scary. I think we all would do good for ourselves to remind us of the amazing. Everyone go pick up a Dahl book. Read it. It will take you only a few hours. Then go watch an episode of Sesame Street or The Muppet Movie. Then watch the video below. It will make your day better. I promise.

Re-Read is a sometime article where I go back and read a book from my childhood over and examine the threads that I find in my current adult life.

13 July 2012

The Ten Thousand Things

I've been listening to Azealia Banks' new mixtape Fantasea all day while I vacuum and mop. You can download it for free. There's a link in this MTV article.

All week my headaches have come and gone, so I'm writing very little. I did read The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût.

Dermoût was not published until she was 63. The Ten Thousand Things was released in 1955 and then translated into English in 1958. Time named it one of the best books of the year alongside Breakfast At Tiffany's, Doctor Zhivago, and Lolita. She is still considered one of the great Dutch authors.

She was born in Java and her work could be viewed as a precursor to post-colonial writing. The novel follows a woman as she returns to her ancestral home with her young son. The island is a world of magic and danger. The book reminds me of Gabriel García Márquez, Murakami and specifically of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.

The worlds of Ten Thousand Things and Housekeeping are of women wrapped in, and dealing with, life. In Robinson's book we have two girls orphaned and descending into a world of water and drifting boundaries of 'home' and 'family'. Dermoût's book gives us a woman coming home after being abandoned by her husband/lover. She comes back to a world of myth, ghosts and superstition.

Both books deal with the world overtaking the main characters. Taking them in then altering them to fit within. And both have similar, swirling voids of an ending. The main character left staring into the abyss, whether the view is negative or not is up to the reader.

What does this have to do with Ms. Banks?

Well. She's part of the supposed resurgence of the female rap star. And she's already come head up against the culture and in response said she wanted to be considered a vocalist, not a rapper. And her new album is themed around water, around the ocean. And she seems interested in creating a world for herself outside the one that people have made for her.

Basically, it's connected by feminism, post-colonialism, and the fact that I have a headache and am mopping. Just go with me, OK? Thanks.

11 July 2012

Poem-A-Day Reprint : Gut-buster

This is an edit of an earlier poem-a-day.

Gut-buster 7/11/2010

A horse walked into a bar
            on hind legs

The subtle arching

            below knees to hoof
is what caught my eye

            That this was a real honest-
to-god horse

            It had balls and cock
and the whole wax
            of mane running Fabio

He sat alone in the corner
            ordered some horsey
drink – I watched all night

            Dark oil pool eyes
blinking at me

09 July 2012

Dust Jacket : Women With Men

Women With Men (1997)
Designed by: Carol Devine
Photo by: Ernst Haas

The cliche of photos telling a thousand words is easy to roll your eyes at. A moment frozen in time is ripe for the projection of the viewer.

This photo by Ernst Haas is no different. And also is an example of the cliche being proven true.

Look at the face of the woman. Really look at her expression. The man is kissing her cheek? Whispering in her ear? She grasps his jacket tightly. Behind them is a train. Which explains everything and nothing. Is she leaving him? Him leaving her?

The simple title and author treatments put center focus on the image. This is a book about relationships. Complicated relationships. Ones that may need more than a thousand words to explain.

Haas' photos are strange. There is always a mystery. His most well-known works are purposefully left out of focus and blurry. He used dye-transfer to create saturated colors and enhance the moods. He was all about the question behind the image. About that story that isn't being told. If a picture says a thousand words, his speak only riddles. Beautiful riddles.

On the set of The Misfits 1960.

Within 12 years of becoming a photographer, Haas had a solo show at MoMA. In 1964 he created the opening sequence for John Huston's epic film The Bible. He also worked on the sets of The Misfits, Hello Dolly!, Little Big Man, and Heaven's Gate.

I love photography on book jackets. There is something visceral about a photo. Great paintings or text or illustrations are fine, beautiful even, but a photo gives you real people to deal with. Emotionally. Those people exist. You must deal with them in relation to the book in your hands. That woman and man in a train station felt things. And now I am looking at them.

Photography implicates us in our viewership. It points a finger back at us and says, You are witness to this. The Haas photo on Ford's book reminds me of the cover of Antony and the Johnsons' album The Crying Light:

The photo is of Kazuo Ohno in mid-dance. Ohno was a seminal modern dance artist in post-WWII Japan. He is most well-known for his butoh choreography. Butoh is a dance form that rose in the 50s to  deal with taboo or grotesque subject matter. You can see it as a reaction to the devastation of war, to cultural upheaval, to life itself.

They are actions that say a thousand words. Actions that the viewer must fill in. With emotion, with themselves.

Dust Jacket is a sometime article about the design and art of book covers. The idea is to shine a spotlight on the work of the designer separate from the author. Literally judging a book by its cover.

06 July 2012


What does the name Stephen King make you think of?

I bet it's something scary. For me it's the face of Pennywise. When I talked about John Grisham on Monday I mentioned how some writers are put into boxes. Grisham is in the lawyer box. King seems to have been placed firmly in the horror box.

Horror Box
This is an unfair description. Since the early 90s King has written mostly psychological books with fantasy or horror elements. His last straight horror novel was probably Needful Things in 1991. In general he is looked at as a 'commercial' author. A non-literary author. He certainly sells a ton of books. He has sold more than 350 million copies of his 60+ books. Which makes the claim of 'commercial' ring very true.

It is a label that is meant to diminish his abilities as a writer. And many consider him to be not very good. Harold Bloom famously decried his National Book Award Lifetime Achievement by saying, "The decision...is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life." The full article is amazing for it's hatred. He goes on to say that King is terrible on a word-by-word basis.

Bloom's screed led Orson Scott Card to respond with:

"Let me assure you that King's work most definitely is literature, because it was written to be published and is read with admiration. What Snyder really means is that it is not the literature preferred by the academic-literary elite."

I agree with Card. King has consistently proven to be a Big Name author. He sells a lot of books, but is clearly outside the box of literary fiction. Personally, I find these distinctions to be silly. My main concern is always - Do I enjoy reading it? And I always enjoy King's work.

He continues to push the walls of the commercial box outwards. He experiments with the form and process of getting the book to his readers frequently. In 2000 King was the first Big Name author to make a book available exclusively on the internet. His novella Riding The Bullet was sold for $2.50. He also published a serialized novel The Plant on his website the same year. In a nod to pre-20th century publishing, he published The Green Mile in 6 parts in the summer of 1996. In 1999 he published Blood & Smoke as an audio book.

Many would say that these things are gimmicks, and they are, but these are the types of things that make King interesting. He wants to deliver a good story and also to package that story in an engaging way. He is the type of author that keeps people interested.

If anything I'd compare him to Philip K. Dick. They both use genre to reveal character. The fantasy/horror elements are there to show the truths of the people involved. To say something broader about the worlds they live in. Both are also often underestimated as writers.

One final note: King's books are all interconnected. He has spent a huge portion of his career tying his novels into his Dark Tower series. The threads connecting the books are legion.

If that idea blows your mind a little, it should. He's worth another look.

03 July 2012

On Monday I talked about John Grisham. Specifically, his attempts at stepping out of the lawyer novel box that he has put himself into.

Today I was going to talk about Stephen King. But I am tired. So you will all have to wait until Friday for that discussion.



02 July 2012

Sellers : Calico Joe

Calico Joe
Author: John Grisham
Publisher: Doubleday (4/10/12)
208 pages

Writing ebbs and flows. Sometimes it feels good, easy, like magic. Other times that magic fails and the whole thing honestly goes to shit.

I wonder if writers like Grisham have these shit days. He currently is turning out two books a year. Three if you count the young adult series he recently started. Almost every single one has the same basic plot - lawyer, unbeatable/confusing case, miraculous solution.

He is the definition of 'commercial'. And here he is giving us a book about baseball. About a pitcher purposely hitting and injuring a batter. About a son reuniting these two now retired players years later.

If this sounds like the plot of some terrible movie, you would probably be right. I wouldn't be surprised to see this popping up any day now since 9 of his books have been turned into films. The Firm was recently re-imagined as a TV show.

I haven't read Calico Joe so am not in a place to judge the writing. I can only guess how this 208 page book lays out this decidedly well-trod story.

When I have a block I try to write outside my comfort zone. In 2004 I started writing long-form poetry intensely studying one object. Exhausting my abilities to describe in an attempt to jump start the muse. It worked. I'd like to think that this little jaunt afield (HA!) from the law is a similar thing for Grisham. The difference is that mine don't sell millions of copies.

Grisham has sold more than 250 million copies world wide. He is one of three authors to sell 2 million of one book in a first print run. Tom Clancy and J. K. Rowling are the other two.

These authors are above critique. It is useless to say that clearly Grisham writes the same story over and over, useless to point out that this 208 page book is not worth my $20. To call Grisham vapid, dull, predictable or anything else is beside the point. The point is that he wrote a book about baseball instead of lawyers. And that should be exciting. But it just feels like a calculated effort to get people to write headlines like 'Grisham Strikes A New Pitch' or 'Bottom Of The 9th And Grisham Fakes On The Fly'.

In other words. Yawn.

On Wednesday I'm going to talk about another author who seems to write outside what's expected of him but with very different results.

Sellers is my attempt to examine what books are topping the best-seller list and why. To talk about and understand the trends in popular writing.