Tag Archives: Tobias Wolff

My Favorite Literary Experiences of 2010

(what can I say … it’s the end of the year and I love lists)

#1   Seeing Michael Moore accept the John Steinbeck Award

The award is for artists who capture “the spirit of Steinbeck’s empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of the common man.”  I had no expectations, and it ended up being so entertaining, so endearing, and so poignant, I felt like I’d cry.  Michael read with such depth of feeling from Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath. It was heartbreaking to hear how the passages he chose spoke – sadly – to today’s troubles in the United States.

And if Thomas Steinbeck looked any more like his dad … Wow.

#2   Attending the Aimee Bender reading

Man is she charming.  I’d never read any of her work, but by the time she was finished reading that Potato People short story I was ready to buy her books.  What a quirky mind she has.  I’m looking forward to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which has been waiting on my shelf for at least a month.

#3   Visiting the Robinson Jeffers Home:  Tor House

Admittedly, it was my fourth visit.  But this time it was evening, and I was with non-literary friends.  It was heartwarming to see how fascinated they were with Robin and Una’s life story, as well as his poetry, even though they’d never even heard of him.  If you have a chance to visit this place, don’t pass it up.

#4   Having lunch with Ayelet Waldman

We met at one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants – Betelnut – for lunch.  I’ve appreciated Ayelet’s work – and admired Ayelet as a person – ever since she was raked over the proverbial coals on Oprah (and everywhere, really) in 2005 for that teeny little essay where she said she loved her husband more than her children.  She was absolutely crucified, but she did not back down one bit.  I was so proud of her and I didn’t even know her.

#5   The Tobias Wolff reading

It was a small gathering, and he didn’t talk very long (a disappointment) but all these months later I still think of the short story he read about a man and his dog.  Simple, powerful prose, well-read by the author.  A treat.




Wolff’s “Old School”

I hate to admit this, but  I’ve given up on this book half way through.  It’s short (less than 200 pages) but after 100 pages I was still not engaged in the story.  I found myself scanning, thoughts drifting, not caring.  I’ve heard Wolff say that the short story is his specialty, and I believe that’s true.  His memoir, This Boy’s Life, was good enough.  But this book did not hold up.

McCarthy and Wolff

Yesterday was the Lit Sweepstakes.  An afternoon discussion panel on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and an evening with Tobias Wolff to support the Center of Literary Arts in San Jose.

First, The Road.  I think I read this in 2007 and still remember so many of the images.  I had been wanting to read Cormac McCarthy but was intimidated at the prospect.  I’d tried to read All the Pretty Horses and also his masterpiece Blood Meridian and was scared off.  The violence, the dense language, the need of a dictionary.  So I initially picked up The Road because it seemed accessible and might get me in the door, so to speak, of McCarthy’s work.  I read The Road in 2 days and loved it.  McCarthy gets you with a simplicity of prose (so unlike Blood Meridian) that drives you smack into a post-apocalyptic world.  In the end (no pun intended) it’s the story of a father and son’s bond and so compelling you cannot (can not) stop reading until it’s over.  And I’ve since read — with the support group of a literature class — Blood Meridian.  And while I understand how and why this book is a great piece of literature, it is also one of the toughest books I’ve ever read (in subject matter, in vocabulary, in just getting through).  I’m glad I read it, but I think once was likely enough.  I just heard that Mary Karr loves this book so much that she listens to it on her iPod.  Wow.  She is one brave soul.  If I did that, I would not be able to sleep at night.  Kudos to you, Mary Karr.

Then last night …. Listening to Tobias Wolff reminded me what a great short story-teller he his.  He started with the books and influences of his early reading / writing life and was just charming as hell.  He read “Her Dog” which grabbed the attentions of every single person in the room.  He had us right off.  I know I never took my eyes off him until the very last word.  Loved the story.  Loved his reading of the story.  As happens every time I see a writer in person, I am compelled to read his work.  Right now.  So as soon as I finish Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley I think I’m going to try Wolff’s very short novel Old School. I’ve read some of his short stories (albeit not enough) and his prize-winning memoir This Boy’s Life but never a novel.  I have Old School on my bookshelf but have never read it.  Now must be the time.

Happy reading.