The blues, the horror, the everyday, and the I don’t know what

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot lately and I’d like to talk about it now if you don’t mind…

The Blues:

While trying to write the other weekend, I was listening to some classic Appalachian blues and some of the lyrics were so awesome I had to write them down.

With great titles like Hesitation Blues, The Sky is Falling, and Way On the Outskirts of Town how could theses songs not be completely wonderful? There’s something so simple and true about the blues. It’s like reaching down and grabbing something straight out of your gut. What that something is exactly, I’m not so sure but that’s one of the great things about the blues, and most music for that matter–you don’t have to understand it to know it’s great.

Some of my favorite lyrics…

Put your man in your bed, put your husband down on the floor.

I was a playboy, I couldn’t be true. I couldn’t believe I really loved you. But when you left me, oh how I cried. You don’t miss your water till your well runs dry.

See what you done done.

Don’t you marry no concrete man.

Look over yonder, tell me what you see. Yonder come the blues running after me.

I could tell you about my life. And keep you amused I’m sure. About all the times I’ve cried. And how I don’t want to be sad anymore. And how I wish I was in love.

The Horror:

I finished Stephen King’s On Writing a couple of weeks ago and it had some fun stories and good advice. I’ve never actually read King’s fiction (I’ve been meaning to pick up some short stories of his but haven’t gotten around to them yet) but I’ve read his essays and articles before and I’m always interested in how different types of writers approach the craft. King’s book had some good practical advice on how to live and write at the same time. I’m sure there’s some piece of literary criticism out there, or maybe just another blog, that articulates this better but there are writers and there are storytellers. I think you can be such a good writer that you can tell a story about farting (actually farting is pretty funny and entertaining so that’s a bad example) or about um… sitting in a chair, and it will be wonderful. On another note, you can be a pretty mediocre writer but if you have wonderful magic-filled stories then they’ll be wonderful as well. And I don’t just mean Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings magic. I also mean Cormac McCarthy, Jack Kerouac, or I dunno, Steve Tolz magic. (If you haven’t read A Fraction of the Whole yet, oh man, go get that book right now because it’s so much fun.)

But yes, Stephen King is a story-teller more than a writer. But he’s a great writer as well. He’s maybe not my favorite kind of writer but he is quite good.

And, as you can imagine, his writing book/biography had some great tips but it was also just a fun story about one writing man’s life. Some favorite lines…

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops.

Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe.

You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.

The Everyday:

This week I’ve been reading a collection by John Updike, Pigeons Feathers and other stories. I had only read a couple of Updike stories here or there in college or in The New Yorker–I had probably read more about Updike than his actual stories. But, oh man, he is everything everyone said he was. His writing is completely delightful and amazing. Some of his descriptions are simply wonderful. They remind me of why, haha, I want to write. But also why I read. Why I go on reading new things and looking for new authors and stories and words and word combinations to fall in love with. Because maybe, just maybe, in that next book I open I might find and fall in love with something like this…

A barn, in day, is a small night The splinters of light between the dry shingles pierce the high roof like stars, and the rafters and crossbeams and built-in ladders seem, until your eyes adjust, as mysterious as the branches of a haunted forest.

I know just that feeling but I could never express it so beautifully. Or what about this…

What did we say? I talked about myself. It is hard to hear, much less remember, what we ourselves say, just as it might be hard for a movie projector, given life, to see the shadows its eye of light is casting. A transcript, could I produce it, of my monologue through the wide turning point of that night, with all its word-by-word conceit, would distort the picture: this living room miles from home, the street light piercing the chinks in the curtains and erecting on the wallpaper rods of light the size of yardsticks, our hosts and companions asleep upstairs, the incessant sigh of my voice, coffee-primed Molly on the floor beside my chair, her stockinged legs stretched out on the rug; and this odd sense in the room, a tasteless and odorless aura unfamiliar to me, as of a pool of water widening.

Ahh… I love it! Or, okay, so this next passage is best read within the context of the entire story but I simply can’t help myself…

He dug the hole, in a spot where there were no strawberry plants, before he studied the pigeons. He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him. Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests. Into the fragrant open earth he dropped one broadly banded in slate shades of blue, and on top of it another, mottled all over in rhythms of lilac and gray. The next was almost wholly white, but for a salmon glaze at its throat. As he fitted the last two, still plaint, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.

Finding God and heaven in a pile of dead pigeons? I mean, come on, does it get any better than that? Ha, not for me I suppose. But I love the sublime in the everyday. I love it when authors do that. Find that. Create that. (OMG, it’s like so totally Virginia Woolf.) And, my goodness, there is so much beautiful and perfect in that small piece of prose I can hardly stand it. It’s enough to make me hold a hand to my heart and say things like, My goodness. Ha, like I’m some kind of old woman out of breathe from a walk through the park or a scandalous scene in a move.

So ya, I really like Updike. I recommend him. Go on, go get you some Updike. You won’t regret it.

The I Don’t Know What:

So to supplement my other reading and mix things up a bit I’ve also been reading Barry Hannah’s Airships. I’m not really sure how to describe Hannah but the word raw comes to mind. Raw and maybe dirty. Maybe it just seems authentic. I dunno, something about him and his writing reminds me of the blues lyrics I was writing down up above. Maybe some art comes from the heart and some comes from the gut. Then again, maybe it all comes from the same unknown place and I don’t know what I’m talking about. Either way, here are some passages….

She sat on the rear fender and they went off in the damned most bizarre juxtaposition you ever saw. Similar to a circus tandem but not for fun. This was loyalty and romance, brothers. I know he was leaving blood up the road, though you couldn’t see it at night. The bike was wobbling all over the place, but they were going ahead.

That was some man, that boy.

In the alleys there were sighs and derisions and the slide of dice in the brick dust.

Some of us are made to live for a long time. Others for a short time. Donna wanted what she wanted. I gave it to her.

The old man who’d told his story was calm and fixed to his place. He’d told the truth. The crowd on the pier was outraged and discomfited. He wasn’t one of them. But he stood his place. He had a distressed pride. You could see he had never recovered from the thing he’d told about.

I am her always and she is my always and that’s the whole trouble.

I’m not sure how to end this little post of mine so I’ll sum it up with one more quote from an old poetry professor of mine…

Books are great. I like books. People should get ’em.

Stuff that has happened and stuff I have seen

My cat killed a bird last week. He has never done this before and yet he dragged a headless sparrow into my apartment.  (I am calling it a sparrow because it looks like what I imagine a sparrow looks like but really I have no idea what it was, or if sparrows even live in San Francisco–perhaps it was the only sparrow here, perhaps it was the last sparrow of San Francisco and now my cat has killed it.) It was early in the morning (around 2:00) so I just let him in and he played with his sparrow in the dark–tossing it up, throwing it down, ripping it up–for a good ten minutes before I finally realized that he was romping with his catnip mouse with just a tad more enthusiasm than was usual. I had to scoop the poor bird up and throw it away.

And then, two days later I went to the Picasso exhibit at the De Young and there was a painting of a cat with a bird. This painting:


And it looked so much like my cat, and it seemed so odd and fated and connected somehow that there should be this painting of my cat at this exhibit (and all in the same week) that I had to buy the ridiculous print. It’s hanging above my head now. I kind of love it.

“Maybe he was Picasso’s cat in a past life,” my friend Stephanie, who was with me at the time said.

I always have called Rupert the Hemingway of cats (from an old conversation Victoria and I had about him) so it would not surprise me at all if he had hung out with Picasso. A cat’s life is A Moveable Feast afterall. And everyone hung out in those days. I know because I saw them all together in the movie A Midnight in Paris, that was playing at the Kubuki Theater last weekend. And then they were also all in The Stein’s Collect exhibit that’s at the SFMOMA. (That’s not to be confused with the Picasso exhibit I saw at the De Young or the Five Stories exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.)

I like when all the museums in San Francisco get together. It’s like the whole city is having one big conversation about art.

(I say this like it has happened to me before, like I know all about this connection between museums, but really this is the first time I’ve noticed this supposed connection since it’s only the second month I’ve lived here.)

The man who works at the corner store across the street from me (the corner store across the street, I think I like that) asked me what I do for a living tonight. I told him and then he asked me, “What is marketing?”

I didn’t know how to answer so I laughed instead. The man had just sold me a sandwich I didn’t want or need. (I’m eating it now and it’s delightful.) When I couldn’t explain my position he asked me where I worked.  After I told him in the financial district he said, “Did you know that I have two sons?”

I didn’t know the answer to that either so I laughed again.

This is a common pattern with me–unknowingness and laughter.

There is another, completely different man on my way to work. He works in the hotel that’s connected to the building I work in, but on the other side of it. I noticed him waving at me when I walked by the glass door he works behind. I’m usually kind of out of it in the morning, lost in my own thoughts and walking and daydreaming, listening to music. But I looked up and caught his eye once and he waved at me. At first I didn’t really think he meant to but then the next day I checked and he did it again so I waved back. I started checking every day and he waved at me every day and so I waved back every day. Then I started looking forward to waving back. At first I thought I was special, like I was the only one he waved at, but then I noticed… Other people were waving at him too!

There are a lot of us. I knew for sure what was going on when there was this old woman who stopped in front of his door and waited for a good oh, minute or so (he must have been talking to someone) for him to look over and wave. The sidewalks are busy in the mornings, especially at this spot, but she stopped and she waved and she got her wave back. After that, I started noticing all the others. You can tell who knows about the man because they pause a little bit before approaching his door. And, I have to admit, he’s a great waver. He doesn’t just wave. He smiles. He smiles big and he waves like a little kid–full of enthusiasm. Like a little kid in the back of his parents’ car on a really long boring roadtrip. Huh, and maybe it is in a way.

But it’s just about the best, most beautiful thing ever, his wave. Anyone who knows me at all knows that it’s things like this that get to me. It’s like being in on a secret. It’s such a small silly thing but it makes me smile. And when I think of how many people he must wave at, how many people that must be in on the secret too, it’s like joining some kind of amazing waving club. It makes me giggle to myself every time. It makes me smile like a little kid too.

There is an old woman I met on the J the other night. She wanted to know where I had gotten my New Yorker. “I’ve looked all over the city for one,” she said, “and I can’t find one anywhere.”

I found this hard to believe but couldn’t be sure if she was exaggerating or not since I have a subscription. Still, she told me about how she had just moved here from Florida to be close to her daughter–she had been living with this daughter and her husband but it was “time for her to get her own place.” I told her I had been living with my brother and part of the reason I moved here was that it was time for me to get my own place too.

“Family shouldn’t live together for too long,” she said.

Which I thought was hilarious because isn’t that part of what a family is? People who live together? Not for long apparently.

I met a cab driver who hates traffic. “Funny thing, a cab driver who hates traffic, ” he said, “but I HATE it.”  Seemed kind of expected to me.

I got this print at the SFMOMA exhibit:

It’s by Marie Laurencin and shows her, Picasso, his mistress, and a poet named Apollinaire who was Marie’s lover. How scandalous it all seems and yet how dignified they all look. (Except maybe the girl in the bottom right corner, who is Laurencin the artist.) Something about it makes me happy. Maybe it’s just the story. Or maybe it’s the dog. I like thinking of artists all hanging out and loving and making mistakes with each other. I know it’s me romanticizing again but ha, isn’t what I’ve been doing this entire post? Isn’t that what I always do?

I’ve been reading a beautiful book. Here is a quote:

Because Momik has this gift, a gift for all kinds of languages no one understands, he can even understand the silent kind that people who say maybe three words in their whole life talk, like Ginzburg who says, Who am I who am I, and Momik understands that he’s lost his memory and that now he’s looking for who he is everywhere even in the garbage cans, and Momik has decided to suggest (they’ve been spending a lot of time together on the bench lately) that he should send a letter to the radio program Greetings from New Immigrants, and maybe someone would recognize him and remind him who he is and where he got lost, oh yes, Momik can translate just about anything. He is the translator of the royal realm. He can even translate nothing into something.

All of the kids in Noe Valley dress like princesses and superheros. If you go out on a Sunday, or even a weekday or a Saturday (but always on Sundays), you will see them skipping around the streets or tugging on their parent’s hands–Little princesses in Disney costumes somewhat at odds with their bicycle helmets. Boys wearing spiderman pajamas and crocks. It’s like stepping into another world where everyone is magic and has lots of money.

I’ve been listening to new songs recommended by an old friend. They make me happy and sad at the same time. But then, most everything worth loving usually does. Except for maybe dogs, potatoes, and ice cream. They’re always perfect.

I found a dive bar by my house where the bartender dances, they play Johnny Cash and Bonnie Rait, and the other night when I was walking by on the way back from the grocery store everyone was singing take me out to the ball game during the 7th inning stretch of the Giants game.

That. Is. So. Cool.

I was talking on the phone today, and I wanted to finish my conversation so I sat down on some steps before getting on the MUNI on Montgomery. A man saw me sitting there in my dress on the phone, I might have looked worried though I’m not sure why, and he came up and asked if I was okay.

I told him I was great but it was nice of him to stop and check.

I like it here.

I know she’s a bit much at times but…

I know she's a bit much at times, but I like Miranda July

She’s like that friend who you sometimes forget why you’re friends with–She says really annoying things sometimes and she’s always trying so hard. She’s trying so hard that everything seems forced and people notice and it’s uncomfortable. Maybe she  says something or does something like this and it embarrasses you in front of your friends. Or maybe you’re at dinner and she’s putting on her normal little show, and you like her show, you really do, but you’re also thinking to yourself that it’s still a show, that it still doesn’t seem real. That it’s fake and (there’s that word again) forced somehow. And you’re thinking, Damnit Miranda, can’t you turn it off for like five seconds so we can eat?!

But then… Ah, but then, you’ll be hanging out and she’ll say something so perfect and sweet, or she’ll make you laugh, or she’ll respond to something in a way that makes you look at the whole situation differently. That gives you a new perspective that’s meaningful and profound in a way you wouldn’t have expected from such a silly creature. And suddenly you’re reminded of how great she can be. How she really gets you in a way that other friends don’t, and maybe even can’t. That despite all her annoying tendencies–her not being able to turn it off, her theatrics, her whole shtick, and her “too-muchness”–she is actually pretty beautiful and real. And maybe it’s her too-muchness that gives her this weird power, that makes her what she is and allows her to see things and express them in ways that others can’t.

And then you smile, laugh, and love her for what she is.

Not everyone, in life or literature, is easy to love. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth it.

I pressed my lips to his ear and whispered again, It’s not your fault. Perhaps this was really the only thing I had ever wanted to say to anyone, and be told.

Do you have doubts about life? Are you unsure if it is worth the trouble? Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person’s face as you pass on the street: those faces are for you. And the street itself, and the ground under the street, and the ball of fire underneath the ground: all these things are for you. They are as much for you as they are for other people. Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you have nothing. 

You always feel like you’re on the only one in the world, like everyone else is crazy for each other, but it’s not true. Generally, people don’t like each other very much.

This is a picture of me taken in 1996. I am opening a letter from a stranger and no doubt my heart is pounding in a way that is uncalled for. I am 22 and I am just dying to know what this stranger has to say and I’m hoping it will turn my world upside down. Not that my world is so horrible, but I know it will be better upside down and understood by a stranger. It is this desire, to be transformed by understanding, that has pretty much propelled me through every single day since 1996.

She’s been in the literary news a lot lately and the articles have been kind of annoying too but I understand. She CAN be annoying. But she’s also herself. And she probably hates silly commentaries about her like this–thoughts on how she’s cute and annoying but still great.

Ha, but it kind of gives me hope for myself so too bad for her. Oh no… wait… Maybe I’M that friend! (Though I can’t imagine having that much insight.)

The question is the story itself…

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences. Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined with the first word that came from the stranger’s mouth, is not the question. The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.

What an amazing first paragraph. I started Paul Auster’s, The New York Trilogy today and, once again, have been rendered completely useless by a good book.

Recent Reading: Not-So-Great House

So I’m a big Nicole Krauss fan, and like a lot of people, I absolutely adored The History of Love.

Actually, adored is putting it lightly. I was crazy for it.

There are some books (that I find more rarely than you might think by my crazed ramblings in here) that I just devour. I started The History of Love thinking it was going to be a leisurely yet enjoyable read and I soon became enthralled. Each page was just so, so very good. I had to finish it. I couldn’t wait to get to the next page, the next passage, the next sentence even. I couldn’t put it down. It was the only thing I could think about. I was obsessed.  It was funny and poetic and thoughtful and creative and sad and happy and lovely at times and so very very beautiful at others. Sigh…

Yes, I think it’s safe to say, I ate that shit up. I loved that book. I still do.

But this is all old news. What’s new ?

Well, mostly this:

Naturally,when I heard that Nicole Krauss’s new novel, Great House had finally arrived I was thrilled. I even went and bought the hardcover edition. (Unless it is a particularly beautiful book like The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet or something on sale I can usually wait for the paperback.) And, well, I really really wanted to like Great House. Really I did. But I just couldn’t.

Here’s the thing:
It was not good and I would not recommend it.

I’d much rather talk about books I love instead of books I do not love quite so much (I can’t say I hated this book, but no, no I did not love it) so I’ll try to make this relatively quick…

Great House is similar to The History of Love in a few ways…

  1. It’s a combination of stories, different people’s stories, that are connected.
  2. The thing that connects the stories is an (arguably) inanimate object—In The History of Love it’s a book. In Great House it’s a desk.
  3. One of the stories is about a writer.

And okay, there are probably more ways, but that’s all I can think of right now. (Like I said, trying to make it quick)

So here’s one way they aren’t alike…

Great House isn’t funny. There is little or no comedy in it. (If there was comedy in it, I don’t remember any of it.) It was mostly a lot of different people talking about how sad they were… which sometimes can be really cool. But for the majority of the book I didn’t know what they were so sad about. It was almost like the sadness and the reason for the sadness was the mystery driving the story forward. Kind of like this impending sense of doom hovering over things but the doom is already there and you’re left wondering what made it impend (new word that makes no sense out of this context) in the first place.

And this too can be really cool at times.

But here’s the thing (the other thing, that is different from the first thing mentioned above):

When I finally found out why the characters were so sad, it was disappointing. And maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think you should read a novel wanting something bad to happen to the characters. Or wanting something bad to have happened to the characters.

Well, okay, sometimes that’s cool too but I don’t think that’s what Krauss was going for in this case.

Most of all, one of the characters that took up the most narrative time was a woman named Nadia, who reminded me a bit too much of the heroine in Eat, Pray, Love. (And I hate that book.)

The History of Love, on the other hand,  is hilarious. It’s fun to read. The characters can talk about something sad and painful yet still make me laugh. Krauss can be covering  the heaviest of subjects and yet (and  yet…and yet…and yet…) it still comes across as light… and yet, not too light. Because of course the novel gets heavy at times but the comedy and the laughter gave me, the reader, a way to access the seriousness of the novel in a way that not only felt real and genuine, but was enjoyable.

I definitely don’t think every novel should be funny. There are infinite ways to tell a story and sometimes the tone a writer takes shouldn’t be funny. I’m not saying Great House should have been, but it might have helped. And Krauss is so good at it that I’d love to see her do it more.

I dunno, all this backtracking on my own opinions has me thinking…

I think the main thing was that it didn’t seem genuine to me. I didn’t connect. There was no Leo Gursky or Alma. There was just Nadine and then this other girl who’s name I don’t remember because she didn’t even become enough of a character to make me remember her, and this other guy and his sister, who okay were kind of cool but not around that much and I never got to hear anything from them, and then there was this old guy and his son, who were my favorite characters but I wish I could have learned more about them. They were pretty interesting actually.

Which goes to show, the novel had it’s moments. But, I dunno, I guess it just didn’t do it for me.

I guess, “I’m just not that into it.”

Either way, next time I write in here I hope it’s about a new love. I’ve had bad luck with novels lately but it’s been a good reading year overall. One of my best actually. So for now it’s back to short stories.

(I started Joe Meno’s, Demons in the Spring and it’s amazing so far.)

Over yonder

So I have this old Believer planner that I made it to the end of recently, and before throwing it out I went through the pages and found some old notes and quotes and random thoughts. Somehow I can’t throw them away completely so I thought I’d toss them out here instead…

The shape of his head, the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes, the richness and breath of his manners, These I used to go and visit him to see.  – Whitman, I Sing the Body Electric

His is still my favorite dialog, the dialog that rings truest, that’s at once very naturalistic and musical; it’s really remarkable how difficult it is to do what he does between quotation marks. – Dave Eggers on Salinger

Don’t you sometimes sit down with a book, pour yourself a glass of wine or a mug of tea, and just feel unbearably smug? – Deirdre Foley-Mendesohm

The incredible journey that is consciousness

How foul a creature I am. I hate my fellows. I am thin and wasted by this consuming passion, my reason is gone and I feed myself on dreams. – David Garnet

It’s a thrill, imagining his onward journey – on book-swapping

One factor that unites the literary homeless throughout the ages is libraries.

It is true we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth. – East of Eden

This is a great place to wait for Godot.

Do we brave the hazards of feeling–the whole messy spectrum of it–or play it safe, forsaking the sensitivity we possess as children to live a life that Holden famously calls “phony”?

I’ve been in my own head all day, which is kind of fine since I like it there.

“A real adventure. That’s what I want.”
“Well then you’re going to have to do something stupid. It’s the only way to make sure you’re in a real adventure. You have to smack yourself in the face with it.”

Where exactly is yonder? And why is it always way over or down over? Why not up over or diagonal over? Why not right in front of our faces?