Category Archives: Fiction

Strike Up The Band

Let’s end this week of executions and murder trials and a falling stock market on a joyful note, shall we?

I’m going way back and watching the first season of a 1978 TV series.  What a great soap opera Dallas was.  And guess what, it’s still damned good.

Come on, you know you loved the show and got happy when you heard the intro / theme song.

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Some new books arrived in a box on my doorstep:  The Art of Fielding, The Tragedy of Arthur, We The Animals, Life With a Star, and All the Names.

Like I need more books.

But then I do.

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And you know you’re not getting out of here without puppy pictures.

JoJo snuggling up to Lea, anyway she can. Persistence and sneakiness are fine traits.

A run for fun.

Sisters.

Witness the Execution

I did not sleep last night.  Before padding up the stairs to bed, I turned on CNN and watched those who’d witnessed the execution of Troy Davis step to the podium, big notebooks clutched to their chests.  I listened as each person give his or her account of Mr. Davis’s last hours, last minutes, seconds.  And though I don’t know Troy Davis or his family and I don’t really pray, I said a little prayer for them and weeped my way to bed.

I don’t believe in the death penalty.  Though I admit that, sometimes, when a horrific crime occurs — with witnesses and confessions and undisputed evidence —  I question myself.  OJ Simpson comes to mind.  Casey Anthony.  At 2 and 3 a.m. I was imagining little Caylee Anthony, abandoned in those dark woods, and her mother out in the sunshine living her life.  4 a.m.  5 a.m.  Troy Davis is dead.

In the Davis case, the key witnesses all recanted their testimony.  How do you put someone to death with that kind of doubt?  I can’t sleep, but I figure Casey Anthony is resting in a nice warm bed tonight, and maybe she wakes up thinking she might be due for a salon appointment, should she have eggs or cereal for breakfast?, what will she do with her day….

We have no idea what the hell we’re doing.

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This year my friend Charles McLeod published his first novel in the U.K., AMERICAN WEATHER, a brutal satire on our current way of life.  One of the big events in the book is a public, televised execution.  A fine new way to make millions!  Ask yourself, if significant money could be raised by advertising executions — to invest in our schools, get healthcare for children, to put the unemployed back to work — would you watch?

I’ve only read the first 30 pages of this book, but my husband finished it last week and I hope he leaves his comments here later.  You can read a review here.  This is the publisher’s description:

Meet Jim Haskin. He’s forty years old. He’s worth around thirty-five million. He runs his own San Francisco ad firm, American Weather. AmWe’s image is green, modern and forward-looking: if your product is upcycled or hydro or vegan, they’ll make you an ad. But behind the scenes, Jim manufactures ways to support the old captains of American industry; bleach, beer and guns. But all is not well: Jim’s wife, Denise, has been in a coma for over a year, a state brought on by a drug Jim helped promote. A live-in nurse, a former Salvadorian gang member, helps Jim tend to her. And Haskin’s only child, Connor, has been sent away to a boarding school three thousand miles away, after assaulting a student at his former high school. Orphaned at 14, Jim and his three closest friends grew up at Mr Hand’s Home for Well-Behaved Boys. All have profited from the American dream.

In 2008, on the brink of the Presidential election, the quartet finds themselves short on cash and look to Jim for a solution. The scheme he devises involves a Death Row inmate, pay-per-view television, and most of America’s major corporations. Everything is set for it to be his greatest achievement yet.

Have Title, Will Travel

Over the many lifetimes years I’ve been writing this book, it took ignoring it almost completely for the title to show up.  It felt a bit like walking in on a surprise party.  First, shock and disbelief.  Then letting loose enough to get in there and have some fun with it.

I’ve been working in my head, in my Moleskin notebook, and on the computer screen ever since.  Finding the title has helped me find my way.

This does not, however, mean I’m ready to reveal it.  Sorry folks.  I’ve learned too many times that, once I give up these kinds of prized details, said details slip off into an alien atmosphere and the faith is forever lost.  You’ll just have to trust me on this one.  For now.

I will say I found it in a poem.  Which reminds me that so many of my favorite books got their titles from the world of verse.  Here are just a few …

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Wallace Stegner’s CROSSING TO SAFETY (from these lines by Robert Frost)

   I could give all to Time except — except

   What I myself have held.  But why declare

   The things forbidden that while the Customs slept

   I have crossed to Safety with?  For I am There

   And what I would not part with I have kept.

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William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY  (from Shakespeare’s MACBETH)

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

    To the last syllable of recorded time,

    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

    And then is heard no more: it is a tale

    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

    Signifying nothing.

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Cormac McCarthy’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN  (from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”)

   That is no country for old men. The young

   In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

   – Those dying generations – at their song,

   The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

   Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

   Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

   Caught in that sensual music all neglect

   Monuments of unageing intellect.

Read Like A Man

One of the best opening sequences I’ve ever read is in Denis Johnson’s TREE OF SMOKE.  The first few pages are a jolt into the quiet realities of war, as 18 yr old Seaman Apprentice William Houston Jr. stalks alone through a jungle in Vietnam.  Three years after first reading this, my heart still aches — and I mean literally here — just to think about it.  (If you never saw the NYT review, read it here.  I’ve rarely seen such worthy praise.)

That said, I never got going when I tried to read this 600 pager.  (I’ll spare you my list of lame excuses.)  Now Johnson has a new book out, a 128 page novella called TRAIN DREAMS, and all I can think about is going back and reading TREE OF SMOKE.  Yesterday I saw the review of TRAIN DREAMS in The New Yorker and it brought to mind all the reasons I picked up Johnson’s big Vietnam epic in the first place.  “Johnson’s fiction has always turned on questions of vision. His characters are often weirdly privileged noticers, for whom reality will confess slightly esoteric pigments and details.”  Weirdly privileged noticers.  And “realism in Johnson’s fiction often seems, like the Savoy Hotel, to be about to dribble away into a dream, and what brings it back from the looking-glass world is the exactitude of Johnson’s language.” 

I met Denis a couple of years ago when he visited my grad program (here’s a fun article about him).  He gave a big reading and then sat around the conference room table the next day and, for lack of a better phrase, shot the shit with about 10 of us.  I remember I asked him a couple of questions and, though I don’t recall his answers, I can still see him looking me right in the eye, answering seriously and at length and with appropriate flippancy.  Definitely a shy guy, but comfortable in, and even caustic about, his writing; a guy who seems not to care what anyone else wants from him; an artist who’s not all that comfortable talking about his “art.”  I left there wanting to read everything he’d ever written.  He’s one of those writers I think of when people ask, “should I go to an MFA program?”  Reading Denis Johnson is some damned good schooling.

I don’t know if I’m in the mood for another 600 pager just now, having recently finished Barbara Kingsolver’s THE LACUNA, but the arrival of Johnson’s latest serves as one of those kicks in the ass I often need.  First, I’m getting my hands on a copy of TRAIN DREAMS.  I can squeeze in 128 pages, right?  And second, I was looking at my shelf of “to read” books and most of them are by women.  Not to cause a feminist uproar here, but come on … maybe that’s one reason I’m a little bored with my reading list lately.  I need to hear a different voice.

What are your favorite “man” books?

Simple Girl

This was our 3rd year renting the same cabin on the North Coast of California.  It sits right on the cliffs of the Pacific Ocean.  Most days were socked in with a cold fog, the occasional electric blue sky peeking through.  I brought just one sweater and one sweatshirt.  For 11 days.  Nothing like being prepared!  Still, when that coastline emerges from the mist, it doesn’t even look real.

I brought this stack of books and figured I’d make it through at least half of them.  I read none of them.  I started WOLF HALL and had a hard time keeping the characters straight.  This is the 3rd time I’ve tried to get going with THE KNOWN WORLD.  Not much reading got done this year.  No time.  (more on that later …)

I did manage to read this one.  Less than 150 pages, and my introduction to John D. MacDonald and his Travis MacGee books.  This is not your standard crime thriller.  The man can write.  I can’t wait to read #2 in this long series.

This plaque adorns the door in the cabin’s kitchen.  I wonder, where did it come from?  How did it get here?  What the hell does it mean?  Are you talkin’ to me?

I also started this book (IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS) which I picked up at the local independent bookstore, The Four-Eyed Frog.  I love buying books here.  In fact, I’m going to try and remember to order from them.  It’s the kind of place where the owner greets you on your way in and offers you a cup of tea or coffee.  And then he actually gets up and gets you the coffee or tea and brings it out to you while you’re browsing.  The perfect place.

And in other news ….

“Thank you” is not nearly enough for the local, small town veterinarian, Dr. Bohn.  The day we arrived our puppy had a urinary tract infection.  Simple, right?  We saw the good doctor twice.  Then, this past Friday, dear puppy got into something toxic (fertilizer, we think) and got very very sick (an understatement).  When I called Dr. Bohn — at HOME — at 9:00 on Friday night, he met us in 10 minutes and saved our puppy.  As for me, see Kitchen Plaque above.

(p.s.  puppy is healthy and back to normal)

“What do you think?” I asked my new friend, Dr. Bohn.  He replied, “I think maybe she’s just not a simple girl.” 

There’s a lot to be said for disconnecting from cell phones and the internet and whatnot, all the modern conveniences of “home.”  And maybe, just maybe, if our disconnected vacation would have lacked the canine medical dramas, I’d have been more relaxed about it all.  But.  I’m not sure it’s possible to describe how thrilled I was to get home to my washer and dryer after the pup lost her bladder too many times.  I could stand up and cheer for cell phones, a door that locks properly, modern toilets, an oven that heats to the right temperature, our fenced in yard (no matter how miniscule), the pizza delivery service, and an internet that can look up, instantaneously!, “common pet toxins, symptoms and treatment.”   No matter how much I might fantasize about being Laura Ingalls Wilder, the reality is I’m not such a simple girl either.

But I will miss this sunset.

The sun going down over Seal Island.

Fear of Fat

I have a fear of fat books.  I don’t mean the 500 page kind; I love those.  I’m talking about the fattest-ass books around, the thousand pagers, the ones you can’t balance with one hand.  What’s the reading strategy?  How do you commit to a story that long?

Here are a few of the fatties I’ve always wanted to lay into, the ones I talk about reading ad nauseum — Big Talker! — but never ever pick up.

The Lacuna

“An imperfectly remembered life is a useless treachery.  Every day, more fragments of the past roll around heavily in the chambers of an empty brain, shedding bits of color, a sentence or a fragrance, something that changes and then disappears.  It drops like a stone to the bottom of the cave.” 

When was the last time you fell madly in love with a novel?  The last time the story was as good as the writing as good as the structure as good as almost every single sentence on the pages?  The last time you — completely unawares — brought your fist to your chest or held your breath while reading?

I’ve picked up (and put aside) Barbara Kingsolver’s THE LACUNA so many times this past year.  Should I buy this book?  What’s it about?  The title was off-putting:  what is a “lacuna?”  The description on the back cover was too short and too vague to give me a reason to buy it: 500 pages of what?  At Book Club last week, my neighbor picked this book with the strongest endorsement I’ve heard in a long time.  She didn’t want to tell us too much, didn’t want to spoil the story, just that it’s one of the best books she’s ever read, better than Kingsolver’s masterpiece THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, so good she can’t wait to read it again.

My heart went boom boom pow.

“The most important part of a story is the piece you don’t know.”  This sentence is a key throughout the book, and it’s about all I want to tell you.  You deserve to experience it for yourself.

Admittedly, for the first 30 or so pages, I wavered.  I thought about putting it aside.  I’m glad I kept on.  The seemingly nebulous beginning will gain it’s heat and gravitas by the end — Barbara Kingsolver, you are brilliant — and I beg you to stick with it.

I finished THE LACUNA yesterday while sitting in the airport waiting for my flight.  After the last page, I closed the covers with care and looked up, looked around me, certain that so many strangers could see it:  the important part of the story, the piece they don’t know.

A Tale of Three Voices

In The Huffingon Post, Anis Shivani has an essay that says, in part:  “What the fuck does voice mean? I’m clueless. This is just another of those fakeries writing teachers–or writers forced to sit on panels and not having the intellectual honesty to talk about the tough work of writing rather than writing as the festival or conference-goer wishes it–pull out of the hat when they have nothing else to talk about.”

Let’s talk about voice, bay-bee, let’s talk about you and me.  I’m reading 3 books:  I’ve got the memoir of the dying mother, the novel about a millionaire Ad Man, and the memoir about an Iranian family that reads in a very non-memoirish way.  What I’m noticing most, however, is not the difference in the genres.  I’m focused on the trichotomy of the narrative voices telling the stories, and what that means to the reader.  To Me.

I finally got around to Jasmin Darznik’s THE GOOD DAUGHTER, a story written mostly in the 3rd person.  I like that it’s different (who writes memoir in 3rd person?).  I like that Darznik’s prose flows like she’s a natural storyteller.  I like that she takes 10 audio tapes made by her mother about her secret history of growing up Iran and teaches me about a culture I know little about.  The one problem I have is the suspension of disbelief.  It’s a memoir, after all, and I keep thinking about the narrator’s voice, the narrator’s truth: “how does she know what the flowers smelled like?” and “how does she know how her grandmother looked at that schoolgirl?”  Still.  Do I recommend the book?  Yes.  It’s a wonderful story, well-told.  I enjoy listening to the voice telling this story.

I met Charles McLeod in school — he was a Steinbeck Fellow; I a student — and didn’t know him well, but I liked him, and I heard lots of buzz about what a brilliant writer he was.  (There’s a great article about him in the May/June issue of Poets and Writers).  His novel AMERICAN WEATHER was recently published in the U.K.  This might be the smartest, most original, story I’ve read in a long while.  It’s like a brutal mirror that stares you in the face and shows you what a hypocrite you are.  What hypocrites we all are, no matter what we like to think of ourselves.  The prose — the voice? — is exhausting in the way that our real lives can be exhausting: paragraphs that go on for pages, repetition on steroids, one man’s obsessive obsessions.  A voice so damned smart it makes me bright emerald green with envy.  Recommended?  A resounding Yes!

Then there’s Meghan O’Rourke’s THE LONG GOODBYE, a young journalist’s account of her mother’s cancer diagnosis and reflections on their relationship.  I’ve been looking forward to reading this book since I read the first excerpt in The New Yorker, and though it kills me to say this, I’m disappointed.  The narrative voice is so cold and flat.  It’s very this happened, and then that happened, and then, well, that’s what it was, on to the next event.  All these pages in, and I have no idea why she’s telling the story, what makes her take on grief something new and insightful, what makes this a story I need to read.  Where is O’Rourke’s daughterly voice?  (whatever “daughterly” means to her)  What is this about????  I don’t know if I can even finish it.

So back to Shivani’s essay and his comment about fakeries and whatnot.  He pokes great fun, and I love his twist on it, but I also think he’s full of shit.

The voice is what pulls me in or shoves me off.

The well-tuned voice makes me decide between reading the book or throwing the damned thing across the room.

What are you reading?  What is it about the voice that’s turning you on or off?

I Don’t Like Spiders. Or Yetis.

1.  Remember that song from the 70’s?  I Don’t Like Spiders and Snakes, and that ain’t what it takes to love me.  You fool, you fool. 

2.  Last night I went to bed thinking about writing a letter to my 16 year old self.  I’d seen a video earlier in the day on this subject and of course my labyrinth of a mind chose now to mull it over.  What would I say to that girl?  She does look like she needs a talkin’ to.  I would tell her she’s smarter than her test scores.  I would tell her to apply to colleges far far away, out of state.  Colleges with real names.  I would tell her she didn’t need a man to define her.  I would tell her to wear 50 SPF sunscreen on her face instead of baby oil mixed with iodine for tanning.  I would tell her to travel.  Travel to countries where they don’t speak English, countries you’ve never even heard of.  I would tell her to try it, just try it!, try anything, and don’t be afraid.  I would tell her to eat more sensibly, to stop drinking beer every weekend, and to play sports.  She would be good at sports.

3.  Back to last night.  My dogs got to spend the night in our room.  On Maybe-There’s-A-Bad-Man-Outside duty.  On Yeti Alert (an old childhood nightmare).  At 12:14 a.m., Lea the Lab woke me up, yelping about some squirrel she was chasing in her nightmare, and I had to come-to long enough to shush her.  In that very instant, a spider — a big hairy spider — jumped onto my shoulder like a cat.  I kid you not.

4.  Who can sleep after that?  Thankfully I was already 30 pages into a fine book:  Jasmin Darznik’s THE GOOD DAUGHTER.  So far I love everything about it.  Except … except it’s a memoir, and it’s told in the third person, and it opens in an era in which she did not live.  How does she know her great grandmother looked at her sister this way or that?  How does she know what her great-grandfather was saying?  In other words, what makes this a memoir vs. a novel based on a true story?

5.  I got up and wrote a couple of dialogue scenes without worrying whether I had it right or not.  This kind of thing — is the dialogue exactly 100% true and right — makes me nuts.  Last night I felt free of it.  I write better at night.  Always have.

6.  Yesterday I re-watched the Oprah / James Frey interview, the kiss-and-make-up one, from last month.  Here’s what I heard that I don’t remember hearing the first time:  he said he originally wrote A MILLION LITTLE PIECES without regard for genre or rules.  That he was merely trying to tell a good story of defiance, that he thinks all memoirs are fabrications anyway, and why do we need to write in a box of “novel” or “mystery” or “romance” or “memoir” and worry about how it will be marketed. (not his exact words; my interpretation)  I couldn’t help but think, The man’s got a point.

When you write, are you thinking about your genre?  About staying in your box?  If you could write a letter to your 16 year old self, what would you say?

431 Years — or, When Fact Meets Your Fiction

Last summer, when I sped-read through ROOM in a couple of days, I couldn’t help but think about the Jaycee Dugard case.  In fact, I assumed Emma Donoghue had found the spark for her fiction from this newspaper headline.  I later learned that she had, indeed, been inspired by the real news, just not this story.

Still, I started reading this book with Jaycee’s story in my head.  This made it tough going.  At first.  I remember taking a breath when I found myself deep enough into the fiction of Donoghue’s novel — relieved by it being so much more about the mother/child bond than the kidnapping and sexual abuse — that I let it go.  Only then did I appreciate the originality of Donaghue’s story and her discipline and style in the writing of it.  A year later, I still remember lines from this well-crafted book; it was that original, that engaging, that good.

Yesterday, Emma Donaghue gave a reading at Kepler’s Book Store here in Northern California.  The same day, a few miles away, Jaycee’s kidnapper was finally sentenced to 431 years for his crime, a crime that began with his stun-gun abduction of an 11 year old girl and fell into 18 years of evil and abuse.  When I first saw this number, my gut response was, even 431 years doesn’t sound long enough.  At the sentencing, Jaycee’s mother read a statement from her daughter telling her kidnapper, in part:  You do not matter anymore. 

The real facts of this story, however, do matter.  Next month, Jaycee’s memoir about her abduction and captivity will be released by Simon and Schuster.  She wrote the book herself — no ghost writer — and I think she is so brave to tell it.  Yet I don’t know if I can read it.  Which makes me feel guilty.  Guilty, like it was okay when I was reading what I thought was the fictional take but I lack the heart and courage to hear the real words.