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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Ever since I ran my fingers through my mother's cremation remains, just before sending them sailing into the ocean, I've wanted to know what happened to her body in the gap between the moment I kissed her still-warm face goodbye in the ICU and her transformation into emulsified bone matter. Although I'm not in any rush for it and I really loathe losing anyone I love, I am not turned off by death. It's inevitable and I'm very curious. I realize this is an idiosyncratic thing, but I've found that when someone I love dies, I instantly distinguish the dead body as an object quite different from the being who moments ago inhabited it and lose interest in the container; to my senses, it's suddenly like a well-worn shirt. I also rather enjoy the Buddhist exercise of imagining my own disintegration. So I dove into Caitlin Doughty's book, appreciating it for the treasure that it is: answers!  Read More 

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Artists Fail . . . It's What We Do

I just read a wonderful essay by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner about his many years of failure prior to success. And one of the quotes that especially got to me was this one:
. . . the most stinging responses I heard were along the lines of, "This is one of the most beautiful, well-executed, exciting things I’ve ever read, but I’m afraid that we just don’t do this kind of show." Those comments made me feel as if I were alone in the universe.
I honestly don't think I've ever read that particular loneliness articulated: when somebody actually sees and appreciates you and then they reject you.

In the documentary A Sense of the Sacred, a portrait of Jungian Helen Luke, the revered analyst and author talks about the difficulty of individuating via a path that has never been taken: “If you go a way that is not a conventional way, you have no right to think that on that account you are absolved from the duty of sharing your truth that you have experienced, no matter if it is totally rejected. There may be one person here or there that may be affected—that’s what we base our lives on.”

Both of these statements catapulted me back in my own history:

In 1986, after performing a workshop of the one-woman play that I’d written called Darleen Dances—about a girl who is trying to rock ’n’ roll dance her way into the Guinness Book of Records in order to feel as if she’s mattered by the time she gets “old and decrepit and eventually dead”—I was delighted when the phone started ringing with queries about producing the play.  Read More 
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Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

This is bawdy, spontaneous, poetic writing.

Eugene Henderson, an overblown, twice-married, millionaire pig farmer and violin player is having an existential crisis.

I want, I want, I want, I want, I want!

This is the geshrei that drives fifty-five-year-old Henderson into and through a spiritual quest in Africa. He doesn’t know what he wants, just that “everybody is working, making, digging, bulldozing, trucking, loading, and so on . . .” until it is a form of madness. (I think he would be right at home in our time when value is quantified by how many “likes” we’ve accrued.)

Henderson the Rain King is a quest as complicated as any Haruki Murakami tale, but the protagonist is a bloated, bungling American—a man with “the Midas touch in reverse.” In Africa, his first stop is a village of people whose beloved cattle are dying of thirst because the water reserve is occupied by frogs. On one hand, Henderson wants to rescue everybody; on the other, he longs to be rescued:

This was a beautiful, strange, special place, and I was moved by it. I believed the queen could straighten me out if she wanted to; as if, any minute now, she might open her hand and show me the thing, the source, the germ—the cipher. The mystery, you know. I was absolutely convinced she must have it. The earth is a huge ball which nothing holds up in space except its own motion and magnetism, and we conscious things who occupy it believe we have to move too, in our own space. We can’t allow ourselves to lie down and not do our share and imitate the greater entity. You see, this is our attitude. But now look at Willatale, the Bittah [highly evolved] woman; she had given up such notions, there was no anxious care in her, and she was sustained. Why, nothing bad happened! On the contrary, it all seemed good! Look how happy she was, grinning with her flat nose and gap teeth, the mother-of-pearl eye and the good eye, and look at her white head! It comforted me just to see her, and I felt that I might learn to be sustained too if I followed her example. (74)

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Best Funny Books about Difficult Women

After publishing The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, a funny novel about a 4'11", 237 pound woman with a habit of lying, burgling, and incinerating houses--a woman desperate to be seen and accepted for her talent and inner beauty--I became a little desperate to read funny novels about other difficult women. There are not a lot of them. But here's what I found.  Read More 

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National Novel Writing Month is Here! (And so is Stoner!)

Two Quickie Topics:

1. In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I'm addressing the craft of writing in a blog at Black Lawrence Press. Writing a novel is a healing process for the writer, but the subsequent existence of a novel is potentially healing for readers who are willing to experience the discomfort of having their flaws poked--which The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, the subject of the blog, has been known to do. If this subject interests you, I hope you'll click the link.







2. Also on the subject of craft: I just received my 50th anniversary hardcover edition of Stoner, which I mention in my list of recommended books in the aforementioned Black Lawrence Press blog. (It is currently 30% off at NYRB)

The hardcover doesn't have a dust jacket, but it does have a paper sleeve with praise from stellar people, and at the top, under the title and author's name, it says "The International Best Seller."

I mention this because this edition includes letters from John Williams to his agent in which he seems to foretell the luminous future of this book, despite massive discouragement. These letters are so wonderful because they give you a feeling for John Williams, the man. How clear, savvy, and aware he was of exactly what he had created—with almost no validation:


From his agent, Marie Rodell
Now, from a business point of view: I may be totally wrong, but I don't see this as a novel with a high potential sale. Its technique of almost unrelieved narrative is out of fashion, and its theme to the average reader could well be depressing. . . .

From John Williams
I suspect that I agree with you about the commercial possibilities; but I also suspect that the novel may surprise us in this respect. . . . The only thing I'm sure of is it that it's a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one. A great deal more is going on in the novel than appears on the surface, and its technique is a great deal more "revolutionary" than it appears to be. Despite this, it is, I think available to the ordinary reader; or at least I hope it is. One afternoon a few weeks ago, I walked in on my typist (a junior history major, and pretty average, I'm afraid) while she was finishing typing chapter 15, and discovered great huge tears coursing down her cheeks. I shall love her forever.


I shall love John Williams forever. If you are interested in the craft of writing, he is the master.

 






 

 

 



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Apostroph'itis: An Editor's Primal Scream

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Haruki Murakami's KAFKA ON THE SHORE

I'm interested in the grotesque—so interested I devoted a whole book, The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, to a grotesque character. I was impelled to do this because I believe what Zelda embodies—fear, craving to be known, envy, desires that overwhelm her—is what we all, every one of us ego-driven humans, most try to hide. My feeling is that if we can acknowledge these things inside us, even laugh at them—engendering compassion for our human condition—we can grow into the best of us. My epigraphs for the book (and there is a whole page of them) focus on "exile." Why? Because I believe either not knowing these grotesque parts of ourselves or knowing but hating them puts us in a state of exile from who we really are.

An earlier blog on Flannery O'Connor's work gives O'Connor's take on the power of writing the grotesque: ". . . you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."

The following review of Haruki Murakami's wonderful book offers a different definition of grotesque—one that makes even more sense to me. Read More 

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Original Voice: Jeffrey Euginedes, Amanda Filipacchi, Bradley Somer


About a year ago I attended a Jeffrey Euginedes lecture on the subject of writer's voice (Columbia University School of the Arts, Heyman Center for the Humanities Creative Writing Lecture series). If you have about an hour, by all means listen; it's rich. [He stops reading and turns loose, funny, and charming during the Q&A which starts around 40:00. (My questions are at 52:58—about the nature of the personal "starter yeast" that brought him to commit years of life to researching Middlesex. His wonderful answers involve Latin class, Ovid's Metamorphosis, whether men or women enjoy sex more, and having a hopeless existence.)]{POSTSCRIPT: THIS VIDEO HAS BEEN PRIVATIZED. I'M SO SORRY. BELIEVE ME, IT IS WONDERFUL}

I start reading a lot of books and nothing makes me abandon them faster than a generic voice; to my eyes and inner ear, it's like fingers with no fingerprints. Not only is something off, but there is no feeling of surprise for me when I hit that kind of writing; no pulse. And the majority of books fall into this category. Why? Probably for the same reason so few of us generally and regularly express who we really are from our deepest essence. Which makes me all the more grateful when I land on a writer with a voice like no other—as unique as their fingerprints, so resonant with pulse that the words vibrate off the page and throughout my physical/spiritual system. I recently discovered two such writers: Amanda Filipacchi and Bradley Somer. Here are my reviews of their magnificent new novels: Read More 
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Taking Dead Mom to BookExpo America

It all started at BookExpo America (BEA) 2013, arguably the largest book publishing convention in the U.S., so it seemed fitting that I asked my mother, Edna Robinson, whose debut novel, The Trouble with the Truth, found a copacetic agent there, to accompany me to BEA 2015. The fact that she has been dead since 1990 is inconsequential.

"Mom," I said, "things have changed since 1958 when you wrote your coming-of-age book about a lost but funny girl named Lucresse in the 1930s, (called by Booklist, 'a gem of a book') [No, of course I didn’t really say all this, but I’m trying to make this conversation both comprehensible and appealing!] You thought getting a word processor in 1989, a year before you skedaddled, was wild. Just wait till you see what’s going on now!"

Edna Robinson: "I can hardly contain myself. Are you really going to wear those shoes?"  Read More 

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My Dogged Life

For a nine-pound Maltese, Rosie had a big life. For her first two years, it was her job to keep my sick mother company and refuse to be paper trained.

"You have to say 'No!' like a bark," I’d tell my mother. "Use a deep, sharp voice."

"No!" barked my mother, but still Rosie urinated on the carpet.

She learned to sit for a treat and to run under the bed on command whenever the visiting nurses came. "Heel" and "stay" where not really relevant.

"She's not happy," my mother would say when she phoned. "Can you bring Daisy over to play?"

Rosie lived for our visits, and she and Daisy would play for ten hours straight, and, although she adored my mother, Rosie would beg to go with us when Daisy and I left.

When my mother died, it was Rosie’s job to take care of me. "I can't," I'd moan at the whole mess of life and death, and, cuddled in my lap, Rosie would lick away my tears.
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