A Potato Reading Virginia Woolf

Your eyes do not deceive you, that is indeed a potato reading Virginia Woolf. You see potatoes love post-modernism and the stream-of-consciousness style of writing. I do as well. That’s why I bought this custom print from Marc Johns, who will forever hold a special place in my heart.

It Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song
I’ve been digging on Pete Seeger today. He’s like  Mr. Rodgers with a guitar. Or maybe like that guy who tells everyone to paint happy little clouds. Anyways, he’s pretty amazing. Here he is on the Johnny Cash show:

“You know these old songs, they never really die out. This song is the whole human race!”

This is the song I remember my parents playing as a kid:

Funny how at the time I just thought it was a fun, silly song with boxes and colors. I thought ticky-tacky was a good thing. It was such a silly word and it was so fun to say. As it turns out ticky-tacky is just the man trying to get me down! Once again, I have been disenchanted. But, you know, in a good way.

Strangers’ (Books) on a Train
Tonight on my way home, the passengers of the J train were reading the following:

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman 

The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

The Imperfectionists really wasn’t too great in my opinion, but only because I really wanted it to be great and it let me down. Sometimes I think the idea of a book is better than the actual book. (You can read my whole Goodreads review here.) The Devil in the White City sounded cool–murders and the World’s Fair. Okay, sounds cool, I’ll bite. And I’ve never read Journey to the Center of the Earth but I absolutely loved the cheesy movie they made us watch in grade school.

And okay, since I’m YouTube happy today, I have to embed the old trailer:

Oh man, that takes me back. How glorious. There’s something completely wonderful about old movie trailers.

Time Does Not Exist. I Ate It.
I’m still reading The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace and it’s still wonderful. Below is a selection that had me laughing out loud the other night. I should have shortened it up for you but I had a hard time stopping myself. (I guess I’m not the only one.)

“Didn’t I say to look at me? Can’t you tell what I am? Listen to me very carefully. I am an obese, grotesque, prodigal, greedy, gourmandizing, gluttonous pig. Is this not clear? I am more hog than human. There is room, physical room, for you in my stomach. Do you hear? You see before you a swine. An eating fiend of unlimited capacity. Bring me meat.”

“Have you not eaten in a very long time? Is that it?”

“Look, you’re beginning to bother me. I could bludgeon you with my belly. I am also, allow me to tell you, more than a little well-to-do. Do  you see that Building over there, the one with the lit windows, in the shadow? I own that Building. I could buy this restaurant and have you terminated. I could and perhaps will buy this entire block, including that symbolically tiny Weight Watchers establishment across the street. See it? With the door and windows so positioned as to form a grinning, leering, hollow-cheeked face? It is within my financial power to busy that place, and to fill it with steaks, fill it with red steak, all of which I would and will eat. The door would under this scenario be jammed with gnawed bone; not a single little smug psalm-singing bagging-skinned apostate from the cause of adiposity would be able to enter. They would pound on the door, pound. But the door would hold. They’d lack the build to burst through. Their mouths and eyes would be wide as they pressed against the glass. I would demolish, physically crush the huge scale at the end of the brightly lit nave at the back of the place under a weight of food. The springs would jut out. Jut. What a delicious series of thoughts. May I see a wine list?”

“‘Weight Watchers?”

“Garcon, what you have before you is a dangerous thing, I warn you. Human beings act in their own interest. Huge, crazed swine, do not. My wife informed me a certain time-interval ago that if I did not lose weight, she would leave me. I have not lost weight, as a matter of fact I have gained weight, and thus she is leaving. Q.E.D. And A-1, don’t forget the A-1.”

“But sir, surely with more time…” 

“There is no more time. Time does not exist. I ate it. It’s in here, see? See the jiggle? That’s time, jiggling. Run, run away, fetch me my platter of fat, my nine cattle, or I’ll envelop you in a chin and fling you at the wall!”

“Shall I fetch the maitre d’, sir? To confer?

“By all means, fetch him. But warn him against getting too close. He will be encompassed instantly, before he has time to squeak. Tonight I will eat. Hugely, and alone. For I am now hugely alone. I will eat, and juice might very well spurt into the air around me, and if anyone comes too near, I will snarl and jab at them with my fork–like this, see?”

“Sir, really!”

“Run for your very life. Fetch something to placate me. I’m going to grow and grow, and fill the absence that surrounds me with my own gelantinous presence. Yin and Yang. Ever growing, waiter. Run!”

“Right away, sir!”

“Some breadsticks might have been nice, too, do you hear? What kind of place is this, anyway?”

Lovely things found online…

In addition to my usual San Francisco wanderings and adventures, I actually had time to go through all my blogs and news feeds last weekend and found some great stories and things to share. Here are a few:

Life Lessons from Roald Dahl
from Green Apple Book’s blog

Roald Dahl’s birthday was September 13th and there’s a new biography out about him so he’s gotten more attention than usual lately. Green Apple’s list is delightful and brings back some favorite moments from his books. I love, “It’s okay to make your grandmother disappear if she’s really unpleasant,” and “Never let your guard down around an adult with power and a sharp object.” Here are some additional lessons I learned:

  • Never trust a woman in square-toed shoes.
  • It’s okay to steal from rich people as long as they’re mean.
  • If you have super powers, it’s best to use them for revenge.
  • Not all giants are bad.

Fun side note: Roald Dahl’s official website farts.

The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door
Online exhibit

This particular door has been signed by 242 writers, artists, and publishers and now they have this great online exhibit where you can explore all of them. I love thinking of writers and artists gathering in the same physical space. It seems almost magic how these communities get formed. It’s like Stein’s house in Paris. And it makes me wonder if there are any of these places around right now that I just don’t know about. Are all the future masterminds at some random coffee shop signing the back of a bathroom stall? I dunno, but it’s a fun thought. I wish I could get a poster or a print of the door.

Mysterious Paper Sculptures Found in Scottish Libraries
from the Central Station Blog

This is great. Someone is leaving random, beautiful, intricate paper sculptures all over Scottish libraries. My favorite is probably the coffee cup one:

But I love the quote from the dragon:

Once upon a time there was a book and in the book was a nest and in the nest was an egg and in the egg was a dragon and in the dragon was a story…

Sigh. How lovely. I wish all mysteries were about the origin of art and words. People do nice things sometimes. It’s good to be reminded.

Of course all life is a process of breaking down…

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work — the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside —  the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within — that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.

-F. Scott Fitzgerald from The Crack-Up

Wow. Amazing. I read this the other day and it was so beautiful and sad and true that it completely depressed yet enthralled me at the same time. I have to take a moment right now and be a complete great big mushy mess of a dork but can I just say…

I. Fucking. Love. Great. Writing.

Maybe that’s not so mushy (throwing an f-bomb in there certainly helps things out) but it is me overflowing with awe.

I love it when you come across a piece of writing that so perfectly and adequately portrays a piece of the world or an experience of it, an emotion or a feeling, a moment in life, that you recognize and come to understand something you never had before.

For instance…

Maybe you have begun to feel this vague unnameable pain but can’t explain where it came from or what exactly it is. Maybe it is something so small and so subtle that you barely take notice of it. Maybe it is almost nothing, maybe it is the smallest of sensations like an itch or a limb that has fallen asleep. But then, ah, but then… But then this beautiful perfect horrible little passage comes along and spells it all out for you and you realize what it is you have been feeling. Suddenly your pain is not so vague. It is specific and real, it does not have a name but it has words and an explanation. It has been made personal and universal and has connected you to this great big mass of people who have experienced the same thing. Who have read the same thing or written about the same thing, talked about it and created art about it, and really it is put so beautifully and perfectly that it’s not painful at all. It’s just real. It’s just art. It’s just life and art interacting and overlapping and, fuck ya, I love that shit!

Ha, so yes, obviously I’m being excessively poetic and dramatic tonight. Sorry about that but it’s how I feel so too bad for you.

One of my favorite lines about the desperate power of writing comes from a short story, My Hustlers by Edmund White:

My writing would turn all this evil into flowers.

Writing, a certain type of great writing, can turn something evil into flowers. Or something painful into beauty. Just by putting it into words and arranging them in the right way. It’s such a simple yet completely complicated thing. And then there are other moments, other pieces of great writing, that turn flowers into evil. Or something beautiful into pain. It’s amazing to me sometimes. A great passage in a book or a great piece of art can be completely humbling in the same way the ocean or a mountain range can. There’s a power in great things like that. I haven’t quite gotten far enough in my personal development (or whatever it is you call this growing and progressing as a human being thing) to know exactly what it is I’m trying to talk about, or what exactly that power is. Ha, but I have a vague kind of feeling.

So ya, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff lately. It’s been good and it makes me crazy and awake and just a little bit drunk on words and writing.

But it’s getting late and I’ve probably had too much. Ha, and said too much as well. And if I read one more chapter I just may pass out.

Hmmm… that sounds kind of nice actually. I think I’ll go do that now.

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.)

What I’m reading… And thinking about and looking at…

Who Would Dare
by Roberto Bolaño
from The New York Review of Books

“After that, after I stole that book and read it, I went from being a prudent reader to being a voracious reader and from being a book thief to being a book hijacker. ”

“What I remember best about my visits to those bookstores are the eyes of the booksellers, which sometimes looked like the eyes of a hanged man and sometimes were veiled by a kind of film of sleep, which I now know was something else. I don’t remember ever seeing lonelier bookstores.”

“What book would you give to a condemned man? he asked me. I don’t know, I said. I don’t know either, said the bookseller, and I think it’s terrible. What books do desperate men read? What books do they like? How do you imagine the reading room of a condemned man? he asked. I have no idea, I said. You’re young, I’m not surprised, he said.”

I’ve read Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and the collection The Last Evenings on Earth but it’s been a while since I’ve picked up something of his. This short essay on books and thievery and the dim light of Mexico City nights made me remember why I love him so much. His writing is so simple and yet so poetic at the same time. It has a beauty to it that doesn’t seem forced or flowery but real. I always imagine if I ran into Bolaño on the streets that he would talk just like he writes–which probably isn’t true but maybe that’s the thing about good writers, they write so convincingly that you don’t care if it’s true or not. That truth doesn’t really matter anymore.

Anyway, something about Bolaño gets to me. I dunno, his words and his stories, his short descriptions and how he floods his writing with lists of the authors and poets that he’s devoured over the years–like they’re all a part of his history and his country’s history and all of our histories. It’s powerful stuff.

Postcards to My Peeps
by Carolyn Sewell’s
A fun flickr of postcards she created for her friends. Here are some favorites:

The Imperfectionists
by Tom Rachman

But I assure you of this: news will survive, and quality coverage will always earn a premium. Whatever you want to call it–news, text, content–someone has to report it, someone has to write it, someone has to edit it. And I intend for us to do it better, no matter the medium.

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while now but was able to hold out for the paperback edition to come out. I must say, I’m glad I waited.

The book is a collection of stories about a world newspaper that’s based in Rome. Each story focuses on one member of the staff and then there is a series of short one to two page explanations in between each story about how the paper got started.

There are some stories that are really great. The first two are my favorites–one on the Paris correspondent and one on the obituary writer. The inside look at the newspaper business is fun to read about and I like the setting of a busy office and the details of copyboys and staff politics and the way business decisions affect what we report on. I like the commentary (like the passage above) on where newspapers are headed. But…

For me, nothing is very exceptional about this collection. Overall, the writing just isn’t as strong as I wanted it to be and certain paragraphs and sections of dialog sound almost immature–like something from a cheap paperback.

Unchanged: this is how she thinks of herself. Fresh as ever at forty-three, legs long and strong under the business slacks, tight midriff under tight waistcoat, lustrous chestnut hair with only a couple of strands gray. She takes unearned pride in her looks.

Really? Uck… I hate these types of paragraphs–where an author feels like he needs to give you a quick summary of a character before he dives into the main story  so he does it through clichéd descriptions of the character’s physical attributes. Sure, these descriptions have their place–in the first page of a romance or a male adventure novel for example–but to find such a passage in a book that I felt should have held itself to higher standards was disappointing.

I dunno, maybe I’m becoming more of a snob. I just felt like it was a good idea, and there was good content, but the execution could have been stronger and the book as a whole could have been a much stronger, more enjoyable, even powerful read if the prose were more… what’s the word?… mature? strong? better? Yes, that’s it more better. Ha.

But the collection is still worth reading and I’m not going to abandon it. I wouldn’t recommend it but it’s nice to have something light to get into (but not get into too much) before bed.

The Very Nervous Family
by Sabrina Orah Mark

She doesn’t like that phrase. Dead bolt. It reminds her of getting shot before you even have a chance to run.

Mrs. Horowitz gathers her very nervous son up in her arms, and gently explains that families who ice skate become the ice they slip on. The cracks they fall through. The frost that bites them.

I love this poem. There are some beautiful phrases but there’s also this great contradictory tone. Everything being said seems somewhat absurd–Afterall, they are a very nervous family. So things are exaggerated. Milk is not spilled in their house, or even dropped, it is killed.

All they ask is that they not starve, and now their only son is killing milk.

It’s such a ludicrous thing to say. And the parents come across as silly for thinking in such extreme terms. And yet, there’s something very real and disturbing about their fear that speaks to a reality that may not be in the poem itself, but lies just outside of it.

And oh, how I love that. I love it when poems do that.

The New York Trilogy
by Paul Auster

Stories happen only to those who are able to tell them, someone once said. In the same way, perhaps experiences present themselves only to those who are able to have them. This is a difficult point, and I can’t be sure of any of it.

What he did not know is that were he to find the patience to read the book in the spirit in which it asks to be read, his entire life would begin to change, and little by little he would come to a full understanding of his situation… But lost chances are as much a part of life as chances taken, and a story cannot dwell on what might have been.

To be inside that music, to be drawn into the circle of its repetitions: perhaps that is a place where one could finally disappear.

Oh man, I loooooved this book. I could easily have written out every passage in here and relived the entire thing again.

You may have noticed that I like to quote things. I keep a reading journal of my favorite passages from the books I read. I find it helps me remember what I’ve read but it, I dunno, helps me internalize things more too.

Either way, sometimes this habit of mine makes me think of Holden’s lament in Catcher in the Rye and how he never understood why people read books and highlighted certain passages and not others. Didn’t the author write it all down for a reason? Isn’t it all important and not just some of it?

My favorite books make me feel this way. I used to write in my books (I stopped because it annoyed the people I lent them too) and just about every single line in my copy of The Waves is underlined or starred or has brackets around it…because it’s all so good. It’s all amazing.

And The New York Trilogy made me feel this way. Though it isn’t my new favorite book, it is my favorite book I’ve read recently. Auster is just so, so very good. And every line, every word, is so packed with meaning and it’s all put together so perfectly. (Hmmm, maybe I shouldn’t have been so hard on Rachman up above since he’s what I read after finishing the Trilogy–a hard act for anyone to follow.)

But yes, I am completely devoted to Paul Auster now.

Stories: All-New Tales
edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

And in talking, we realized that we had something in common: That all we cared about, really, were the stories. What we missed, what we wanted to read, were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. And yes, we wanted good writing (why be satisfied with less?). But we wanted more than that. We wanted to read stories that used a lightning flash of magic as a way of showing us something we have already seen a thousand times as if we have never seen it before. Truly, we wanted it all.

I picked up this collection a while ago and have just started breaking into it. And, okay, can I just say this?…

So. Much. Fun.

In fact, these stories are so much fun I think I’ll get back to them now.

Hopefully, I’ll have more to say later. It’s been a rainy week here in Santa Cruz. The power went out one night, and though I didn’t read by candlelight (which would have been much more romantic) curling up in bed with my headlamp, a glass of wine, a scared dog, and an overly-cuddly cat was just as much fun.

Rain is good for reading. So are lazy Saturday afternoons. I almost hope it doesn’t let up.

Ha, almost…

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.

Sunday Reading About Reading

I’ve been going through my news feeds today while sipping coffee and doing laundry (typical Sunday) and found too many wonderful things I couldn’t help but share.

1. One woman’s quest to smell 30,000 books in the New York MoMA library.
How silly and fun. The best quote from this whole piece: “It’s a daring idea because some of our books smell really bad.”

2. True Stories Told Live
This is great—There’s this group in London that meets at a pub to get up and tell stories in front of a crowd. The way the article is written it sounds almost cathartic (but not in that annoying, My Name is Megan and I’ve Been a Story Teller for 15 Years, sort of way) and reminds me of The Onion Cellar in Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, where people get together to peal onions and cry.

What did the onion juice do? It did what the world and the sorrows of the world could not do: it brought forth a round human tear. It made them cry. At last they were able to cry again. To cry properly, without restraint, to cry like mad. The tears flowed and washed everything away. The rain came. The dew.

I dunno, now that I’m revisiting this passage, I’m not sure why this group reminds me so much of the cellar, but perhaps it’s just that they are both communal outpourings of a sort. Telling a story, a true story, out in the open like that can be just as brave and difficult as crying in public. But then, a story can be a lot of things I guess. And onions have their uses too. Too bad I don’t live in London. I’d love to go and listen. I’ll have to settle for my usual barstool for now—it’s less organized and official but I imagine the stories are just as good.

3. 10 of the Best Noses in Literature
I’ve never heard of some of these noses or these works of art, but I love that this list exists. Totally fun. (Kind of goes with number 1 by the way.)

43. Why Criticism Matters
The New York Times Sunday Book Review asked some of today’s leading critics what they do and why they do it. (Essentially why is literary criticism still important.) It makes for interesting reading if you’re into that sort of thing, which I am. Of course, some of the critics made me feel a little small with their comments on book blogs and Amazon reviews and how there’s all this crap out there from the masses mucking up the conversation. I agree with most of that assessment. It’s why having critics and “experts” on literature are important. It’s good to get information, especially on such subjective topics, from a source that you trust.

But, I dunno, I think there’s room for both. As odd as it may sound, sometimes I want to know what some smartypants literary critic has to say about a book, and sometimes I want to know what some 14-year-old amateur blogger has to say. Both are interesting to me and both inform my reading. (Ha, sorry if that’s insulting to anyone.)  And then there are other times when I ask my mom what she thinks, or my friends Leslie and Victoria, or the old guy sitting at the corner of the bar, the stranger on a plane or in line at the coffee shop who’s holding a book I’ve just read about. It’s good to hear what other people from different backgrounds and perspectives have to say about what they’re reading. I think it’s not just important to have all these various opinions, it’s fun.

That’s part of the magic of reading, that different people can read the same thing and it can mean something so different to them both. And then, the same person can read the same book twice and it can mean something different both times. Reading is fluid. A book is a living thing.  At times this whole concept is so crazy to me, I can’t even begin to describe it without sounding like a total idiot.

Luckily, there are critics, who are far more knowledgeable and articulate than I, to talk about it. (Saucy wink goes here.)

But yes, I must say, I particularly enjoyed Adam Kirsch’s piece and Katie Roiphe‘s was great as well. Oh, and Sam Anderson was delightful. I love the term, “textual healing.”  And the line, “The critic’s job is to help amplify that conversation. We make the whispered parts of it audible; we translate the coded parts into everyday language,” is beautiful. His piece did a lovely job of illustrating his idea of what criticism should be.