Monday, January 31, 2011

Off And Running Monday: Tim Parks' TEACH US TO SIT STILL

The above cover of Tim Parks' memoir is the upcoming American first hardcover edition, not the British paperback edition which has been out long enough to gather many solid reviews:

“A searingly honest, viscerally vivid, darkly comic self-examination of the connections between writing, personality and health. Once I started reading it, I didn’t want to stop.” --David Lodge

“Tim Parks is a cool, sceptical observer of the human condition and Teach Us to Sit Still – a quest for relief from chronic pain that begins with relearning how to breathe and ends in something close to spiritual transformation – deserves to be taken with the utmost seriousness.”---J.M. Coetzee

“In a world dominated by cheap self-revelation and quack self-help, I suspect that Teach us to Sit Still may be the real thing: a work of genuine consolation that shows the way out of the dark wood in which everyone, at some time or another, will inevitably find themselves lost.”---Will Self, The Times

This is my first book by Tim Parks, although I knew that his Europa was short-listed for the Booker Prize and I've read both Ka and The Marriage of Cadmus And Harmony which he translated.  I once read a piece by him which dissed Cormac McCarthy and some other noted American authors.  I doubted that he had closely read the books he was denouncing, and it seemed to me that he was simply complaining about the American influence in British letters.

After shaking the faith of his fathers early on, Parks was always equally derisive of any "new-age" or eastern-oriented fads and ideas.  Then he developed a pain in his pelvis that medical doctors could not cure and, in desperation and only skeptically, he began to listen to some people with alternative ideas.  Eventually, he found something that worked for him, he says, through meditation and concentration on the breath.

Parks found this procedure in a book by two American doctors entitled A Headache in the Pelvis: A New Understanding and Treatment for Chronic Pelvic Pain Syndromes.  Once he found this, he became a seeker and a believer in a greater spiritual enlightenment, especially in the relationship between body, mind and spirit:

"Above all it never occurred to me that an illness might challenge my deepest assumptions, oblige me to rethink the primacy I have always given to language and the life of the mind. Texting, mailing, chatting, blogging, our modern minds devour our flesh. That is the conclusion long illness brought me to. We have become cerebral vampires preying on our own life-blood. Even in the gym, or out running, our lives are all in the head, at the expense of our bodies."

Those are words worth pondering, to remind us daily of what, in the rush and tumult of daily existence, we tend to forget.  I don't for a minute think that Tim Parks has found all of his answers, but at least he is on the road.

Tim Parks' bodily exercise of choice has been canoeing; mine has been running--or rather, easy jogging, because I learned long ago that running causes too many injuries.  Runners run for a great variety of reasons.  There is social running, running for health, then there is running for competitive glory, trophies, and personal bests.

For me, running with my wife, for decades now, has always been a social, fun run for cardio-vascular fitness and weight control.  We try our best to run or walk together every day.  Going out on an occasional run alone is a chance to mull things over, and usually that means drawing connections to a book I have just read, rereading it in my mind.  But sometimes a run is for peace and quiet and then it often coincides with meditation.  There is a way to quiet the chattering monkey mind, through practice and concentration on the breath.

Your way may not be anything like my way, nor Tim Parks' way.  That isn't important.  What's important is that you find your own way.

Sunday's Books About Books, Authors on Authors: MY READING LIFE by Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy's My Reading Life is an honest memoir, as memoirs go, 333 pages in a small, handsome volume.  Last year I also read his memoir, My Losing Season, perhaps the best basketball book I've ever read. 

In My Reading Life, Conroy tells of his early foibles, such as his imitation of Thomas Wolfe's writing style which in his own hands became cartoonish--somethng that is painful for him to look back upon.

Conroy says that one of his heroes was James Dickey:  "In 1970 his novel Deliverance was published.  I found it to be 278 pages that approached perfection.  Every sentence sounded marvelous, distinct, and original, and it flowed as quickly as the river it celebrated.  Its tightness of construction and assuredness of style reminded me of The Great Gatsby.

"Like his poetry, no line went in for showiness, no hint of laziness or inattention or loss of control.  For me, Dickey had forged a palace of light for a white-water of words."

Conroy says that, intoxicated with those words, he did a lot of crazy things.  He attempted white-watering himself, with humorous results, then he enrolled in James Dickey's course in modern poetry at Columbia and joined his poetry-writing workshop.  Dickey became his teacher.

"I had stumbled into Dickey's life at the most illuminating and perilous of times.  James Dickey was becoming a celebrity, and I think it would partially ruin his life.  That year, he talked often of Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight and the filming of Deliverance.  I got to watch James Dickey fall in love with being James Dickey, and I believe this helped me as much as anything he taught me."

"The young women in the class were lovely and fresh and sometimes dazzling.  These pretty girls would stare at Dickey with Casablanca eyes, the gorgeous eyes of Ingrid Bergman saying good-bye to Humphrey Bogart at the airport.  It also occurred to me that those young women could offer Mr. Dickey a gift that I wasn't about to offer him, even if he was interested in accepting it."

"When visiting writers from other colleges came that year, I noticed a lot of sixty-year-old male writers married to twenty-year-old girls and...James Dickey walked into a cathedral of worshipers whenever he came to class."

Authors, being human, often have difficulty with the cult of celebrity.  When Oprah asked Cormac McCarthy why he had always avoided interviews and award ceremonies, he said that he didn't think such things would be good for his head.

Pat Conroy's memoir includes much more of his reading life, of course.  It is a detailing of those works which inspired Conroy to become a professional author--Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind, Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel, and J. R. R. Tokien's Lord of the Rings, among many others--and in doing so, he tells much of his life's story.  He says,

"Often at night I find myself drifting through my library of thousands of books and feel the lamps of wisdom light up the candelabras of my city of books.  Deep within me, I've constructed elaborate museums and labyrinths from those writers whose complete works I have read over the years."

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Saturday's Best Book Diary: DEATH AND THE GOOD LIFE and DELIVERANCE, Richard Hugo and James Dickey

The first novel by poet Jim Dickey and the first novel by poet Richard Hugo have a lot in common, though you might not think so.  I love the uncredited cover on the Avon paperback edition of Death and the Good Life: A Mystery, pictured above, but the first edition hardcover had been issued in a bland beige dustjacket with only a badly drawn axe and the description, A Murder Mystery By The Acclaimed American Poet Richard Hugo.

Didn't any of its editors consider its literary possibilities, even though they may be harder to discern?  Whoever drew that face of a human skeleton on the Avon cover had the right idea.  It is a work of naturalism, at least as this reader sees it.

Deliverance, first published in 1970, is now highly acclaimed both as a thriller and as a literary masterpiece.  It was also transformed into a highly popular and now classic film.  The first edition dustjacket had that wonderful eye.

Epigraph: a passage from the book of Obadiah: "The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee, thou that dwelleth in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high; that saith in his heart, Who shall bring me down to the ground?"
When I was reading James Dickey's novel, Deliverance, and I came upon the archery passages, it struck me that I had read this before.  Indeed, they seemed to have been taken directly from Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery.

I recently sent for the DVD of the movie made from the book.  In an interview on the DVD, Burt Reynolds says that Dickey gave him a copy of Herrigel's
Zen in the Art of Archery on the set.

This DVD has a nice selection of other back segments as well, several interviews with the cast and crew, with Dickey and later with Dickey‘s son.  There was a clash of egos on the set, most importantly between Dickey and John Boorman, but also between Dickey and Burt Reynolds who didn’t like Dickey referring to him as Lewis, his character's name, rather than Burt. Boorman says that macho and egocentric Burt Reynolds was perfectly cast to play the egocentric Lewis in the film.

The biggest clash was a clash of visions. Dickey saw his book and the film as a study in naturalism, while director Boorman saw it as a cautionary film, an ecological film, man raping nature.  Boorman says that at first, Dickey promoted the film by going along lines in front of the theater, telling patrons what a great movie they were about to see. Years later, Dickey wanted to remake the film and do it his way.

I liked the ambiguity as to whether Jon Voight’s character shoots the right man or not. Ed Beatty’s character later asks him, “Are you sure you shot the right man and not just some guy out there hunting?” Neither Beatty or Voight are certain they recognize him, and there is a scene where Voight’s character looks inside his mouth because the only thing he recalls for certain is that the man was toothless. He finds that the man he killed has teeth, but then he discovers that the teeth are false. At the end, he still doesn’t know.

The hand coming out of the lake at the end, reprising the upraised hand of the mountain man whom they buried, was not in the book. Burt Reynolds said that he didn’t like this at the end until he saw the movie with an audience and heard the gasps of people affected by this. The director said that he wanted it to represent both the repressed guilt of the killer inside us and the hand arising out of the unconscious.

Body, mind, and spirit.  Animal man, middle man, and spiritual man.

Drew is the spiritual/civilized man.  We don't see him die but he disappears as soon as the narrator sides with Lewis--or "comes to ground," to paraphrase the epigraph.  Lewis is the animal man.

Ed is the middle man, an everyman, a mind-dominated man who must make a decision between following Drew or following Lewis.

Bobby at first seems to be a civilized man like Drew, but unlike Drew, Bobby has no principled or spiritual depth and without Drew he reverts to an animal man.  Dickey says that he represents "superficial man."

Above is the fine cover of the latest edition of Richard Hugo's Death and the Good Life: A Mystery.

First paragraph:  "I imagine the three men having a good time.  I imagine them singing."

The novel was first published in 1981, eleven years after Deliverance, and its theme is the same, a novel about modern man's denial of his animal nature and the consequences that entails.  Naturalism.  It is all over the novel, symbols of it here and there, with smaller nuances hidden in the descriptive details that you might not notice, such as:

A cat who looked like a superb survivor ran across the street.  He looked tough enough to eat people and smile while he did it.  With the gray sky and the wind and the empty field, I got one of those lonely chills you get when you think you've found a sad, sad, place, a place where loneliness goes when it leaves the cities.
For here, Hugo subverts the formula.  Here is a lawman protagonist who is a poet by avocation.  So gentle is he that he has compassion for the people he arrests, falls for many sob stories from speeders, wants to ignore petty crime whenever he can.  The one law enforcement role in which he excels is in the solving of murders, an activity of the mind.

The good civilized life, dominated by the life of the mind, is what the protagonist, Al Barnes,  yearns to continue.  But one of the three men, mentioned in the opening line, is killed while out fishing.  One witness who may have seen the murderer is Shelly Percy Bailey, a drunk and cartoonish professor/poet.  James Crumley-like, you might say.  Or James Dickey-like.

The witnesses describe a tall woman, "a Big Mother," an old Amazon-like woman with green eyes and wild gray hair, some six feet eight inches tall and carrying an axe.  At one point she's described as "a force."

Richard Hugo was too fine a poet not to mean this "Big Mother" as symbolic of the violent forces of Mother Nature, the dark side of the Eternal Feminine.  Just when you think the case might be solved, and everything explained away, it isn't.  This is a killer that strikes randomly, and in different guises.  It is not one particular killer but three, the furies, and you cannot solve the problem by jailing or killing anyone in particular, because the force is karmic, and one act of violence leads to another.

After the hacked body of the second man mentioned in the opening lines is discovered murdered, the town grows hushed and tense.  Barnes feels the need to connect with his animal nature,  the only way he knows how.  He goes to see his lady friend, a bartender:
Arlene poured me some coffee.  We forced grim smiles at each other.  In our minds the same thing was going on, I was sure.  We were both glad we were alive and had each other, and we were both feeling a bit guilty that we were feeling that, instead of grieving about Robin Tingley. .
"You know what?  The whole business makes me want you more and more, like all the time, like right now."
"Me, too.  It makes me feel exactly the same."
  We went into the back where she kept a small single bed and gave the world our only answer to the horror that had struck the little town of Plains.
So, the first two men in the trinity of the three mentioned in the opening line of the novel have been killed.  Where does that leave the third man?

I'm not saying that this novel is the equal of Deliverance, but it is a novel with a great many literary merits.  And the lesson in both of these cautionary tales is the same: that we should not live in denial of our animal nature, we should not live in denial of death.

Say your life broke down.  The last good kiss
you had was years ago.  You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn't last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up.  The local jail
turned 70 this year.  The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he's done.
---from "Shades of Gray in Philipsburg"

The prisoner, in Richard Hugo's poem above, is everyman, under a sentence of death.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday's Little Known Gem: Michael C. White's A BROTHER'S BLOOD

A Brother's Blood: A Novel by Michael C. White, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, New York, 1996.  This is a splendid literary mystery and a haunting crime novel but also much more.  It features an anti-war, anti-bureaucratic slant, with beautiful writing and a strong female protagonist.  This was a first novel, and the author has since written several other fine books, but none of them grabbed me like this one. 

Dustjacket: A human hand reaching out between double strands of barbed wire, a blurry human form can be made out beyond, glowing as if in a luminous spotlight or maybe a spiritual being.  Design by Nina Gaskin.

Epigraph: "The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground."

During the time of the first Gulf War, a German named Wolfgang Kallick comes to Maine in an attempt to learn the obscure details of his brother's death, his brother having died there during World War II.  His brother's letter back home serves as the prologue, and it is a very literate letter, quoting Goethe and ending with the closing lines:  "Sometimes I feel I am little more than a caged animal, a beast prowling back and forth in a pen.  Like Rilke's panther."

Opening lines of Chapter One:  "Saturday morning, early. The road up ahead is quiet and dark.  The headlights slice through the darkness like a sharp filet knife cutting fish.  But what spills out isn't the gleaming entrails of morning but only more darkness.  In the rearview mirror it closes seamlessly together again and goes on forever."

The first few sentences are a metaphor of the theme of the novel, cutting open the past and exhuming the buried crime. In the first paragraph we discover that the narrator is a woman and we get the feel of the strength of her character; we learn that she is not skittish, not prone to the fear of dangers real or imagined. She is aware of dangers around her, bears she can hear, and she smells them too, "a smell as hard as axle grease."

The rest of the first chapter is packed with good things: beautiful language, moody asides, foreshadowing and subtle revelations of character. The narrator is a 61 year old woman (she sounds younger, but 61 is not as old as it used to be).  She runs a roadside cafe that caters to truckers, loggers, hunters, and tourists. We like her immediately.

There is a nice bit about the radio, loneliness, the cover of darkness. "I slam headlong into that darkness, hoping that if I go fast enough I'll shatter it like a piece of smoked glass. And on the other side? Maybe morning."

The glass symbol is reprised later in the chapter, when the red-faced man looks in her car window at her, startling her out of a sleep, "as if I'd fallen asleep during those war years and just woke up."

Sleep is a metaphor, as it is the lack of sleep, she says, "that finally begins to hit me--makes me feel my age like a heavy woolen coat that smells of rain."

And the red-faced man has parallel symbols in "the solemn red face of the alarm clock, waiting for first light." Then later the oil light in her car comes on, "a red demon eye staring back at me." Luckily, she finds a Shell service station open, and there is an interesting exchange with the young cat-eyed man who works there.
Comments on war, oil, the control of government, the lies, the play of masculinity and femininity. And this is all in the first chapter.

The chapter ends with a reflection on Time: "Time seems to have lost its texture, is able to expand or contract, to take on new shapes like a cloud on a windy day."

The panther, cat, wolf, bear and other hunter allusions intrigue me. But all men aren't predators. Leon, for instance, has rabbit eyes.

Back to that wonderfully multi-leveled and understated scene where Libby is driving in the snow and nearly runs out of oil. Her old car has a degenerative ailment, like cancer. She finds the yellow Shell station (not a Gulf station) in the fog and the young blond man comes out to help her in orange overalls. He has nocturnal eyes too, and he works "with the slow fussy movements of a raccoon."

He checks the oil and brings the dipstick back to show her, "pointing it at her the way a matador aims a sword at a bull." But he doesn't want to hurt her, just to warn her and not just about the cancer in her car. He wears the orange overalls of the oil company, but detests the ongoing Gulf War where men are asked to die for oil.

He tells her the story of his father who fought for them in the Viet Nam War and was sprayed with Agent Orange, and got cancer from it. He is angry about this, not so much about the dying as about the lies, "We're just looking for the bastards to tell us the truth."

This thread, the individual vs. the lies of the military-industrial complex, is mocked when Libby mentions that the souvenirs she sells tourists actually come from the Smokey Mountains. "What do they know?"
And the question is reprised again when Libby discusses the newsreel propaganda pictures of goose-stepping blond giants wearing swastikas and jackboots. But it turns out that these German kids look like kids anywhere. "What do we know?"

Know this: this is a little known gem of a mystery novel that looks into the human condition with verve and insight.  As this is a cold weather novel, I prefer the moody windswept cover that adorns the Harper trade paperback edition of the book.  I prefer its easy-to-read print size too.
This is a tag-along to Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Book series which is to be found
here, and here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

JAWS and MADAME BOVARY and ZEN: Thursday's Critical Anaylsis

You can see John P. Anderson's excellent Flaubert's Madame Bovary: The Zen Novel at google books, at this link.

Anderson gives the classic a wonderful Zen interpretation.  Gustave Flaubert drew from several influences when writing his great novel, including Flaubert's own family and the historical Delphine Delamare, the real Madame Bovary.

Flaubert invented new literary techniques to subvert reader expectations in order to bring them to a new awareness, not just of literature, but of their own daily lives as well.  One way he does this is through the counterpoint of style and plot.  "The style of the novel is grounded in Zen-like detachment and freedom whereas the plot is mired in desire, illusion, and determinism."

"Flaubert finds a principal enemy of human freedom [free will] deep in the guts of mankind in the tapeworm of desire.  The desire tapeworm feeds on freedom and excretes dissatisfaction.  Emma (Madame Bovary) is not free because she has the worm.  Emma wants, Emma gets, but she is quickly dissatisfied and then the worm wants more.  Emma could be a poster girl for our 21st century credit card society."

For a definition of Zen, Anderson uses the one in the Encyclopedia Britannica:

"...the Buddha-nature, or potential to achieve enlightenment, is inherent in everyone, but lies dormant because of ignorance.  It is best awakened not by the study of scripture, the practice of good deeds, rites and ceremonies, or worship of images but by a sudden breaking through of the boundaries of common, everyday thought."

This sparkling study is nearly line-by-line and is 229 pages long, full of insights and wisdom.  Many authors and philosophers are cited, but in particular Anderson uses Schopenhauer's The World As Will And Idea and Parerga And Paralipomena: A Collection of Philosophical Essays.

Anderson says that the first chapter of Madame Bovary is about the establishment of the self.  The change in the narrators, between Charles and an anonymous "we" and an anonymous "I" leads to the detached observer with a Zen perspective.  The observer is free, while Madame Bovary is a slave to mindless desire:  "Me me me.  More more more. Shop shop shop.  These are the call signs for Emma Bovary."

So what do JAWS and MADAME BOVARY have in common?

A lot.  The insatiable will to consume especially.  Dean Sluyter, in a marvelous essay entitled "All You Can Eat," draws a fine Zen interpretation from Jaws

As with Flaubert's novel, the movie of Peter Benchley's Jaws opens with the point of view of the shark, "the shark-as-self" established with an underwater camera, nosing through the seaweed as if looking for prey with that dualism of its driving music in the background.  The collective "we" of the audience looks through the shark's eyes, traveling through the ocean.  Consume, consume, consume.

The shark is the great white, the great blank, the great nothingness.  It is an emblem of what the Buddhist's call "the hungry ghost," the all consuming desire.

Sluyter says, the first victim is the long-haired girl who runs off from the beach party to skinny-dip at sunset, a naked Eve calling to her impassive passed-out Adam to join her.  "Shown in a long shot, she swims tranquilly in the twilit water, which glows with a jewel-like radiance and fills the screen with its vast expanse, a tiny figure easily at one with the ocean of wholeness."  As in Tim Winton's Breath: A Novel and all the other such transcendental works I review here, the ocean is a symbol of the collective Oversoul in this interpretation. 

Then the shark approaches and we see her from below, from the shark's point of view.

In the movie, the forces of material consumption live in denial.  They want to cover up the truth with illusions and salesmanship.  The three men who resist the denial and set out to hunt the shark represent a trinity, and the way Sluyter uses it is consistent with the way it is used by Emerson, Melville, McCarthy, Conrad, and so many others frequently discussed in this blog.

Sluyter says that the shark is the main character, that Hooper, Brady and Captain Quint "are supporting characters who exemplify three different ways to confront the hungry self."  Sluyter says that the three approaches are what Buddhists could call the fundamentalist, the Hinayana, and the Mahayana.  These approaches yield three different outcomes.

1.  Quint has the fundamentalist, eye-for-an-eye approach.  "It is the way of an aggression rooted in dualism."  You might say that Quint is  a basic man dominated by his animal-nature.  He is the body in the body/mind/spirit trinity.

Quint's fundamentalism is driven by a perpetual struggle against any adversary conceived as Other than the one who struggles.  This is reflected in everything he does, the song he chooses to sing, the destruction of the radio, in everything he says.  His consuming hatred of the shark becomes self-consummation. 

2.  Sluyter says that monkish Brady represents the Theravada/Hinayana branch of Buddhism, the "smaller vehicle" as befits the small cage in which he descends in an effort to kill the shark.  If Quint is the body in the body/mind/spirit analogy, Brady represents the mind, the scholar, the shark expert always seeking more knowledge, a better understanding.  It is Brady who, after confronting the shark face-to-face, declares, "You're gonna need a bigger boat."

3.  Sluyter says that Hooper represents the Mahayana or "greater vehicle" of Buddhism.  Hooper contains metaphorically the spiritual force of our common humanity that finally blows away the shark, the nothingness blown to nothingness.  The last scene shows Hooper and Brady paddling together on two of the buoys lashed together.  Hooper, representative of the spirit, says that he believes that the tide is with them.  Brady, representative of the mind, tells him to keep paddling.

Mind, body, spirit.  You should read Dean Sluyter's entire essay, which runs a long twenty pages and is collected in Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wednesday's Western: Elmore Leonard's HOMBRE

Hombre by Elmore Leonard.  My copy, scanned above, is the first printing of the hardcover Armchair Detective Library edition, published in December, 1989.

Dustjacket:  A snakeskin appears wrapped fore and aft against the black of both front and rear covers.  Against the skin, the author's name is high on the front cover in black.  The title is in a eclectic mixed western font on the bottom half, the capital "H" protruding into the blackness in a blocked blood red.  The standard western accoutrements are overlaid on a board in the middle: two guns in holsters, silver spurs, saddle and saddle blanket, but sideways rather than at a normal angle.

A great dustjacket resonating with the text, suggesting a nonconformist naturalism and the blood of darkness.  Below the title in small print: "Selected by the Western Writers of America as one of the 25 best westerns of all time."

Indeed it was, and still is, though it is quick read, a rather short novel with lots of dialogue.  It would make a fine play.  The print in this edition is large and easy to read, yet it only runs to 190 pages.  In the introduction, written thirty years later, Leonard says that he finished it in 1959, that it was then rejected by publishers for two years before Ballantine bought it for 1250 pounds and brought the book out in 1961.

"Five years later 20th Century Fox acquired screen rights and in 1967 Paul Neuman appeared as the taciturn hero no one understands.  It was Richard Boone who came up to the assay shack with the white flag tied to his Winchester, and Neuman who asked him, "How are you going to get down that hill?"

After decades of institutionalized racism, Hombre seemed a very relevant novel in the sixties.  The novel was not only a reaction to the conformist and cliched television westerns of the fifties, it plays today as a constant argument weighing the relative values of altruism and individualism, civics and existentialism.

The movie follows the book, though the book is told in the first person by an everyman who observes for us all.  Leonard doesn't stop short of showing the hypocrisy and corruption in the human condition, yet the ending has an abiding faith in the law as a vehicle that can make things right--or at least better.

He might change a word here or a word there if he were writing it anew today.  Still, even after fifty-two years, the book stands as a small masterpiece.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Transcendental Tuesday: REINCARNATION and COTE DE PABLO

The January issue of Prevention has Cote de Pablo on the cover and a lovely Kate Hahn interview with her inside.  She is best known for playing the NCIS agent, Ziva David, on television.

Her character is a former Israeli Mossad liaison, but Cote de Pablo herself is latino, having arrived in the United States from Chile when she was ten.  In the interview, she says:

"I had literally forty-eight hours to learn a monologue in Herbrew.  That was terrifying.  I used to look down on people who were, for example, playing a Latin role, because I could tell that they didn't speak Spanish.  It would get on my nerves.  Then I realized, Oh, God, I'm in that place right now.  Everything I had judgments on has turned around and bitten me in the butt."

In the interview, she describes the warm relationship she has with her mother, despite a difference in religious views.  "I always tell my mom, 'My gosh, when I see you in the next lifetime, how much fun are we going to have?'  But because she's Catholic, she just turns her head away.  She doesn't believe in any of what I think."

Cote says that he believes in reincarnation, but that she doesn't try to fit her belief system under the label of Buddhism or anything else.

The number of books involving reincarnation far outnumber those involving Buddhism, and of course not all Buddhists believe in reincarnation or life after death.  In this space in the last week, I reviewed Raymond L. Atkins' Sorrow Wood, and a long annotated list of other such novels using reincarnation could quickly be compiled.  I'll post one soon.

Anyone looking for a scholarly history of the concept of reincarnation should peruse Joel Bjorling's REINCARNATION: A Bibliography.

Cote de Pablo, by the way, is interesting all the way around.  You should read the complete interview.  She is also an accomplished singer.  Her torchy rendition of "Temptation," from an episode of NCIS, can be found on Youtube at this link. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Off and Running Monday: Good Advice Is Where You Find It.

In case you missed it, 73-year-old Jane Fonda was on the cover of USA Weekend.  Inside, she offers some good advice for seniors.  Stay active, she says.  In town, I saw several people reading it over their coffee, a couple of them grumbling about her stand on Viet Nam long ago.  Never mind that, what this exercise guru says about the importance of staying physically active is absolutely right.

Then today came the news that 96-year-old Jack LaLanne has passed away.  It was just last year that he was giving interviews all over the place, working out with Vince Vaughn, promoting a book, celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife Elaine.
Ninety-six is a lot better than three score and ten, especially if you can stay as vital as he was.  But even if being a Jack LaLanne or a Jane Fonda is unrealistic for you, your health will be greatly improved if you can just find some time to exercise every day.  Walk, jog, swim, lift light weights, or whatever.  Just keep moving.  Make it a daily practice and be mindful about it.  Treasure this body that is the temple of your mind and spirit.  As Jack LaLanne was always saying to seniors, it is never too late to begin.

Sunday's Book About Books, Authors On Authors: Writer's Dreaming ed. by Naomi Epel

Writers Dreaming edited by Naomi Epel, Carol Southern Books, New York, NY 1993.
This is an antholgy of 26 writers discussing the nature of dreams and the degree of impact dreams have upon their work.  This was published way back in 1993 and is now out-of-print and not that easy to find for less than $35.00.  Babies born that year have already graduated from high school.

You'd be surprised how many authors use their dreams in their writing, and at how forthcoming they are about it as well.  The authors are:  Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Clive Barker, John Barth, Richard Ford, Sue Grafton, Spalding Gray, Allan Gurganus, James W. Hall, Charles Johnson, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Leonard Michaels, Bharati Mukherjee, Gloria Naylor, John Nichols, Jack Prelutsky, Reynolds Price, Anne Rice, John Sayles, Maurice Sendak, Anne Rivers Siddons, Art Spiegelman, Robert Stone, William Styron, and Amy Tan.

The first edition hardcover has 288 pages plus a comprehensive index.  There are pictures of every author, and a picture of Naomi Epel on the dustjacket flap.

Sue Grafton, then early in the alphabet, had only had a touch of gray in her hair.  Her contribution on her dreams runs fifteen pages.  Like many others here, she says that whenever she reaches a point in her writing when she is blocked and has a problem she can't solve, she gives herself a suggestion and sleeps on it, and when she wakes a solution appears.

"If I am very blocked or very confused or frustrated I will drink coffee late in the day, knowing that it's going to wake me up in the dead of night.  So I get to sleep perfectly soundly and then, at three a. m., when the left brain is tucked away, not being vigilant, right brain comes out to play and helps me."

She says she writes letters to the right brain all the time, and includes an example.  She says that if you are honest and use it all, holding nothing back, "the water will soon be replenished."

Sue Grafton has a mystical side and meditates, and in here she tells a personal ghost story.  She's not all that certain of the validity of this belief system, but she is certain that it works.

Robert Stone, the author of many fine novels and a solid memoir, then the winner of the National Book Award for Dog Soldiers, also says that dreams are very important to his work.  "The process of creating is related to the process of dreaming, although when you are writing you're doing it and when you're dreaming it's doing you."

"I'm experiencing something that maybe is below the level of language, or prelinguistic, but I'm giving it an expression that is language."

Robert Stone, a former sailor, says that often his dreams involve the ocean, often finding himself on it or in it, often alone or alienated on shore.  He cites several specific dreams and shows how they were reworked into his novels.  Stone's early memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, was published in 2007, and I hope more of his memoirs will be published.  He is an interesting man.

One of the more interesting contributions here is from secular buddhist Charles Johnson, winner of the National Book Award in 1991 for his novel, Middle Passage.  Here he details how images from his dreams played significant roles in turning the rough manuscript into a major literary work:

"And sometimes one of those images resonates on more than one level.  Even the ship itself, the Republic.  From research I found what those ships were like and how the water would tear them apart, and how the sailors had to rebuild the ship.  That's why they had carpenters on board.  Everybody had to be able to help in chores other than the one that they had signed on for.  And it suddenly hit me, this is a process."

"And on top of that, since I'd named it the Republic, that meant, okay, that the government institution that we live under is also similar, being rebuilt and torn apart from day to day.  So the specifics of the ship became, then, this other metaphor for politics.  That's what I'm always looking for when I'm writing.  I'm looking for different levels of meaning."

"The name Republic was there from the very first paragraph.  That's all I had in the beginning. . .I didn't know until later that I would use that Republic to represent the ship of state."  Johnson says that the story kept opening up in ways that weren't initially clear on a conscious level.  "Part of it is mysterious.  As you go along, the job for the writer is to clear up the mystery."

Just this week, I read a new essay by Charles Johnson, now a professor emeritus at the University of Washington, in the current issue of the Shambhala Sun, about his new music-loving neighbors but also featuring his wife and his dog and the wisdom of his years.  I hope he'll be publishing a memoir soon too. 
Not every author in Naomi Epel's anthology believes in their dreams.  Richard Ford, award-winning author of  The Sportswriter: Bascombe Trilogy and other books, does not.  In fact, his contribution trashes the value of the rest of the Writers Dreaming book, saying that he ignores dreams entirely, that he considers them irrelevant junk along with metaphors at large, that metaphors just get in the way of the actual, the material, "the real."

I've read a couple of Richard Ford's early novels and found them promising if superficial.  And I can now better see where he's coming from.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Saturday's Best Book Diary: SORROW WOOD by Raymond L. Atkins

Sorrow Wood by Raymon L. Atkins, published by Medallion Press, Inc., printed in U. S. A., 2009.

Dustjacket:  This is one where the scan does no justice.  The dustjacket picture is beautiful and surreal, a broken down tobacco barn, personified if you look closely with loft windows for eyes.  The metalic blue floral designs yinning up and yanging down on either side of the title help add to its almost telepathic southern gothic vibe.  The cover design is credited to Adam Mock, the book design is credited to James Tampa.

Opening line:  "Wendell Blackmon considered the dead dog lying before him and wiped his sweating brown with a white handkerchief pulled from his back pocket."

I enjoyed the book, but I had misgivings about the opening sentence and indeed about the killing of the dog.  Mindless cruelty to animals is a jarring opening note, unless reincarnation and karma is involved or at least implied--such as when the monkey dies in the opening pages of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke: A Novel.  Two fine novels involving dog reincarnation immediately spring to mind:  Pam Houston's Sight Hound: A Novel and Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel.

Premise:  This novel is a love story involving a secular view of reincarnation.  The book creates its own mythic universe and is true only to its own rules.  There is a mystery but not one that whines and pulls you ahead like a greyhound on a leash.  The significance of the "murder mystery" may not even dawn upon you until the very last page.  But here the love story and the slow unfolding of character are everything.

Sheriff Wendell Blackmon and his wife, Reva, are the protagonists.  Reva is a church-going Methodist who remembers bits and pieces of their past lives together and it is important to her that they find each other again in the next reincarnation.

This sets up the main tension in the book for this reader.  The rest was just slow, ambling, southern story-telling, both corny and gothic, subtle and wordy, troublesome and compassionate, the unfolding of history and character and destiny, and character is destiny.

I found the book easy to read, but a lot of readers might have to adjust their reading tempo a bit.  As I say, the narrative voice and the pace of events is southern and in no particular hurry and the story is often told with humorous circumlocution.

I recall years ago recommending T. R. Pearson's Cry Me a River (another little known gem).  Some otherwise fine readers I know told me that they just couldn't get into it, that they couldn't get their minds around the narrative voice, that the prose was just too slow for them.  They said much the same about John Dufresne's excellent and wildly humorous southern novels, Louisiana Power & Light and Deep in the Shade of Paradise.

Many northerners have not yet learned to see any difference between southern accents, of which there are many.  Not all southerners speak with a slow drawl.  Think of the casting of the remake of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men--with one or two exceptions, the accents were terrible, as if they had deliberately cast foreigners to play those parts--and except for Linda Clarkson, they did.

On the other hand, my wife and I recently listened to the amusing Joan Hess story, "Hillbilly Cat," read by actress Jean Smart, best known for her role in television's Designing Women.  The lady speaks fast and southern naturally like dozens of other women we know, and her nuanced voice added greatly to the humor of the story.  About a cat who seemed to be Elvis reincarnated.

It might take an actor or actress with the talent of Jean Smart to do justice to an audiobook of the novel at hand, Raymond L. Atkin's Sorrow Wood.  Reading it, you'll have to find a voice to hear it in that makes it comfortable for you.  Here, the natural way the story is told is a part of its charm.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday's Little Known Gem: DOGS OF GOD by Pinckney Benedict

Good grief, what a novel!  A richly written, darkly funny, terrifying country noir.  Part southern gothic, part murder mystery, with elements of a classic western parable in parody.

Dogs of God, published by Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, New York, New York, 1994.

Dustjacket: a dog coming out of a dark background, surreal and out of focus as if crazed or in motion.  The title is in some graveyard gothic type of font, in small letters and in halloween orange.  Likewise, low in the picture and in smaller letters, "a novel by pinckney benedict author of the wrecking yard."  The same dog appears on the spine of the jacket but looking sober and in focus.  The photo is credited to Barry D. Marcus and the jacket design credited to Kathy Kikkert.

Epigraph: "I will appoint over them four kinds, says the Lord. the swords to slay, and the dogs to tear, and the fowls of the heaven, and the beasts of the earth, to devour and destroy." -- Jeremiah 15:3

Opening lines of the prologue:  "I'm waiting there to see if they've got a bell they're going to ring to start the bout, and this weedy bastard I'm fighting skips right across to my corner and hits me in the face.  Only he's taller than me and doesn't get the point of the jawbone.  Instead, he catches the side of my head, on the ridge of the cheek, which smarts like crazy and takes some skin off, but it doesn't level me.  I guess he figured he could end the whole thing right there.  Hell, I thought he was coming over to shake my hand."

The fight in the prologue (in italics as if a dream) sets up what's to come later in a marvelous way.  This book is funny quirky, prose and plot, and, as with the fighter in the opening paragraph, it is full of surprises you won't see coming.  Don't read it if you can't take a punch.

Opening lines of the text:  "Goody knew the stench.  It had been growing steadily denser, more malignant, in the week that he had occupied the rented house.  It wafted over him as he lay in bed, borne through the open bedroom window on a hot gust of wind.  It pulled him gasping from sleep, from another of his frequent fight dreams."

The stench is the smell of death.  This book has one of the most darkly humorous openings ever written (chapters one and two together), a portent of things to come.

Telling paragraph later in the book:  When he asked where he could change out of his street clothes and into his trunks, Goody was pointed back to the jakes again.  He chose to disrobe in the shadow of the barn near the toilets, rather than inside one of them. . .Yukon followed him out into the barnyard, and Goody tensed himself for trouble.  Then he saw that Yukon also carried trunks and tennis shoes.  Yukon said to him, "They tell me your name's Goody."  Goody nodded.  "What's that?" Yukon asked, smiling.  "Some kind of cookie?"  He laughed and made for the first of the jakes.

"I wouldn't go in there if I was you," Goody called out.

That last line was a Cormac McCarthy joke, a line from Blood Meridian, but you needn't have read Cormac McCarthy to get the humor in this one, though it is often the same kind of humor.

Pinckney Benedict was compared to Cormac McCarthy long before Cormac McCarthy became popular.  Hell, now it seems like almost any new author is compared to Cormac McCarthy.

But McCarthy would have been the ideal author to blurb this one--if he ever blurbed a novel, which he never has.  Instead, they got blurbs from Elizabeth Dewberry Vaughn, Lee K. Abbot and two heavyweights, Barry Hannah and Madison Smartt Bell.  Bell said: "dogs of god is an invocation of dark, chthonic forces, a book which almost literally takes no prisoners.  It's a page turner for sure, but also worth reading slowly. . .elaborate, gorgeous writing."

You probably never heard of this one, even though it was published to high acclaim everywhere and the author won both the Nelson Algren Award and a James Michener Fellowship.  A mighty yet little known gem.

This is a literary string-along to Patti Abbot's FRIDAY'S FORGOTTEN BOOKS series, here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Thursday's Critical Analysis: Ross MacDonald's THE THREE ROADS

Ross Macdonald's  The Three Roads (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard), one of his early novels which had been long out of print, has recently being reissued along with several of his other more arcane works.  The first edition hardcover dustjacket, pictured above, had an interesting Dali aspect to it, more in keeping with the consciousness of the novel than the sleazy sexual cover on the first paperback edition, pictured below.

The 1991 Bantam paperback edition had a much better cover: the lipstick on the suggestive cigarette smoking on the heart ashtray.

The title of The Three Roads is taken from Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, and Macdonald overtly uses both the play and the Freudian interpretation of the myth in the novel, much more explicitly here than in his other novels.  The title also suggests a metaphoric interpretation involving a trinity, and Macdonald gives us one in the text when a character waits in a new train station across from the old one:

"It seemed to her that the two buildings were symbols of historic forces.  On the one hand was the giant mass of the power and utility companies that actually dominated the life of the state; on the other, the Spanish past that California plutocracy used to stucco its facade.'

"The shining metal streamliner waiting beside the station added the final touch to the allegory.  It was the impossible future superimposed upon the ugly present in the presence of the regretted past.  There was no continuity between the tenses, she thought.  You passed from one to the other as a ghost passed through a wall, at the risk of your own reality."

Past, present, and future.  Superego, ego, and id.  The father, the son, and the holy ghost.

Mcdonald's protagonist has lost his past through amnesia.  Like Oedipus in the myth, he has to piece together the mystery of the past piece by piece, not knowing whether it is best to know or not know, but compelled to do it in any case as if through fate.  One of the doctors states the case as, "Past and present are so intertwined that you can't abandon the one without losing your grip on the other.  Loss of the present is a fair definition of insanity."

As with the myth, the solving of the mystery of the past leads to unseen consequences and ironic implications.  The book ends with the protagonist guilty but wiser, finally understanding that what he needs is not justice, but mercy.

A large amount of critical literature has naturally grown up around Ross Macdonald's works.  Jerry Speir's Ross Macdonald is a good one, especially for its detailing of the Freudian influence.  Robert L. Gale's A Ross Macdonald Companion,  and Peter Wolfe's Dreamers Who Live Their Dreams: The World of Ross Macdonald's Novels are both excellent reads

An excellent tandem read to Macdonald's The Three Roads is Salley Vickers' Where Three Roads Meet: The Myth of Oedipus, a thoughtful and novelistic rendering.