I have moved to WordPress. You can still find me at www.dianeprokop.com but you will have to change your RSS feed by clicking on that button on my new site. Thanks!
I have moved to WordPress. You can still find me at www.dianeprokop.com but you will have to change your RSS feed by clicking on that button on my new site. Thanks!
Guitar Zero Author Gary Marcus Was Guitar Hero at Powell’s
Gary Marcus, author of Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, was at Powell’s last night. A couple hundred fans, musicians, friends and family turned out for the psychologist turned guitar hero. Self-professed to be without any musical talent by his fourth grade teacher decades ago, Marcus decided to find out for himself if someone with no rhythm or discernible talent could learn to play the guitar at the “advanced” age of 38. I’m happy to say that what he found out will please every adult who’s ever yearned to play Stairway to Heaven, but was too afraid to try. His book is a delightful mix of science and memoir, and debunks the myth that the window of opportunity is lost if music isn’t learned as a child. Readers also learn that there are definitely brain benefits to learning to play and that, in fact, music rewires the brain - in a good way.
In between Marcus’s reading excerpts from his book and humorous anecdotal tales of his endeavor, local bluegrass musicians kicked out the jams, making it quite a memorable and very enjoyable evening. Of course there was one thing we were all waiting for. Finally, Marcus picked up his electric guitar and showed us his chops. He grooved along with the band and was even tapping his foot in time to the beat. Mission accomplished, I would say.
The Penguin Press, 2012
Running on Hope
Although dizzy with a bad case of vertigo, Naomi Benaron met with me before her Powell’s reading to talk about her debut novel, Running the Rift. It won the prestigious 2010 Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction before it was even published. In the book, Benaron follows Jean Patrick Nkuba from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life. The backdrop for the novel is the ravaged country of Rwanda and its supporting characters are the Hutu and the Tutsi people who were involved in a genocide that resulted in hundreds of thousands of their deaths. Benaron’s Running the Rift is a heartbreaking yet hopeful novel that explores the story of a country’s unraveling as seen through one young boy’s eyes.
What was it like to win the Bellwether Prize before you were published?
That was pretty amazing! On April 17th, I was sitting at my computer. I had been kind of waiting and anticipating and every time I picked up the phone it was not Barbara Kingsolver. At this particular time, I was messing something up on the computer and wasn’t even paying attention when the phone rang and I picked it up and this voice said, “This is Barbara Kingsolver,” and I about went through the roof. I was talking to her for about 45 minutes and I had to keep putting the phone down to scream. I was so excited. It’s really been one of the seminal, if not the seminal, moment of my life. It changed my life in ways I never could have imagined.
You’re very accomplished in many fields and have degrees in earth science, massage therapy and writing. You’re also an Ironman triathlete. When did you decide to write a novel?
I’ve always loved writing. I wrote my first story when I could just barely read and write. I wrote a story about a luna moth. So I’ve always written, but I was afraid to try it as a living because I was afraid of failing. Also, my parents are doctors so it was expected that I would be a doctor, so I went to school in the sciences. I became a geophysicist and then after my father died (1996), I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I really wanted to go to medical school but at that point it was too daunting, so I went to massage therapy school and started writing again.
How did you come to write Running the Rift?
There’s a large African refugee community in Tucson, and I started working with them and became fascinated with people who had survived war. Then my dog trainer was going to Rwanda, so I went with her (2002). I was so touched by the country, by the landscape, and by the people. I’ve never seen people with such beautiful smiles. When I was on the shores of Lake Kivu, my foot hit a bone and I saw that it was a human bone. Then I got down on my hands and knees and I was in the sand and there were bones everywhere. At that point, that told me that I needed to write the story of the bones.
Did you know you were going to write this story when you went to Rwanda?
Kind of, sort of. I was writing a story about Burundi and I’m a very pig-headed person. I just thought that I’m writing this story about Burundi, so I’ll go to Rwanda to see what Burundi’s really like. Then I started talking to people, and people started telling me their stories. When I got back and was still trying to write the story about Burundi, I thought, “You’re really a moron. You’ve just been to Rwanda. You’ve had this incredible experience holding these bones in your hand. This is the time to make the leap.” So that’s how it started.
This book is full of darkness, but there’s also a lot of hope. Is that something you pulled from your personality: you see the dark side, but you also see the bright side? Is that your gift - or curse?
I think so. In my own life, my childhood wasn’t the easiest. My mother suffered from bi-polar disease most of my growing up years. She was much more on the dark side than the light but when she was manic she was pretty hysterically funny.
Was it difficult to write this book?
It was very difficult at times, especially reading the testimonials of what people had been through and seeing some of the movies - not Hotel Rwanda - but real movies about Rwanda. Especially when I connected with people and they became close friends and they would tell me what they had been through. It was difficult, but I always saw that they had had the hope and the courage to persevere.
How long did it take you to write it?
I committed in January of 2005. I started it at Antioch University in their low-residency MFA program. I thought I was done when I won the Bellwether in 2010, but it’s a condition of winning that you agree to edit the manuscript with an editor. Being published by Algonquin is also part of the prize. You get the prize money ($25,000), and an advance from Algonquin, and you also have a publishing contract.
How does one win the Bellwether Prize? Does your agent submit it?
No, I submitted it. It’s for an unpublished novel of social justice. You have to have a small, credible publication record, but you can’t have a major publication. I had a book of short stories with a small press, so I had sufficient publications. I submitted it and I was really lucky because usually Barbara Kingsolver has someone else judge the contest, but this was the tenth anniversary and she felt it was important for her to be the judge. I have the satisfaction of knowing that she picked me personally.
Did you have an agent?
I did not. I had been rejected by many agents until I got the Bellwether and then they started writing to me. It was interesting.
What do you think readers will take away from Running the Rift?
Two things really. First of all, I want people to understand what happened in Rwanda. It was not just two tribes rising up and fighting each other. It was a complicated and very well orchestrated event. Someone one once said to me, ‘Don’t you feel silly writing fiction about the genocide in Rwanda.’ I said no, because I think that when you identify with a character, some part of you becomes that character, so I want people in some way to live through the genocide as much as a foreigner can live through it. The other thing I want people to take away is the hope. Here is a people who lived through the most horrific of events and yet they came out the other side. As scarred as they were, they survived. They picked themselves up and they looked forward. That is so much what I love about the country of Rwanda.
Are you working on your next book?
Yes, I’m writing a novel of three generations of Holocaust survivors. It takes place in the present. The grandmother is the actual survivor. She was in Terezin and Auschwitz. She has her daughter and her granddaughter who live with the legacy. The grandmother was told early on not to talk about it - just forget it. So she said okay, nobody wants to hear my story so I won’t tell it. She lived with this repressed horror all her life. She was a dancer and the granddaughter is a dancer. The grandmother survived by dancing. When she came out of Auschwitz, because she felt like she had been dancing on people’s graves, she said that she wouldn’t dance again. But then it’s like all of those genes of creativity went to the granddaughter who is a hip-hop dancer, and then she decides she wants to tell her story in a hip-hop production.
Was that a story you heard from someone?
Yes, there’s an opera called the Brundibar opera - it’s a children’s opera and it was produced inside the Terezin concentration camp. Terezin is a crazy story! The Nazi’s used it as a showcase camp. They built this fake city on the outside of the concentration camp and they paraded the International Red Cross through there. They had all these musical productions, like Verdi’s Requiem and this opera, Brundibar. My nephew was the student producer of Brundibar when he was in high school. We discovered a survivor who would go all around the world to speak about it. She had played a cat in the opera in Terezin. So that’s what gave me the idea for the novel.
Algonquin Books, 2012
Making Sense of an Ending
Endings are hard in life and in books. They’re rarely satisfying. After all, endings are final. Books are mortal creatures. If I fall in love with a book, I don’t want it to ever end. If I don’t like a book, I may never reach the end. But really, does a story end just because we come to the last page? The characters may actually find themselves at a beginning. In fact, they most certainly will, unless of course the author kills them off. Even so, not all of the characters will die and the living will carry a small part of the dead person with them. The memories will affect their lives in big or small ways. The story will continue.
Where and when to start a story is one of the most difficult decisions made by an author. It’s a crapshoot and it’s totally arbitrary. Someone comes into the protagonist’s life and they start a relationship. Should the author start with their first meeting or should they wait until the relationship is past - to begin at the end - with a look back? Should it start with the formative years because, of course, choices made by us and for us in our childhood affect the path taken. Your parents gave you piano lessons at five. At twenty you are studying at Juilliard. You meet a man who is in the audience of one of your performances. You fall in love. The first page of a book is often a deal breaker for the reader. Why? Because the author needs you to step into the lives of the characters at that special moment in time. Pick the wrong place to begin your story and, oops!, you’ve just lost your reader.
The same goes with an ending. An unsatisfying ending will infuriate a reader and turn them against you. Most readers want a big payoff at the end. A moral to the story. A reward for the protagonist. Or retribution of some sort. That’s a tall and possibly banal order. If you consult a typical writers’ guide, it will recommend tying up all the loose ends, resolving all the story lines, and lead the reader into a super-duper ending. Some authors have an end in mind when they start but I’ve heard others say they just go where the story leads them and find out what it is when they get there. John Irving says, “I write last sentences first. I work my way backward from the end of the novel…” As a writer, I like that approach. You don’t have to suffer for months or years waiting to find out how it all shakes out. Starting at the end zone gives you a clear goal. Then the story comes forward and the ending, at least for the author, becomes simply a backdrop for what will happen to the characters. Isn’t life all about the journey anyway?
I started thinking about all of this beginning and ending stuff after I finished reading Julian Barnes’, The Sense of an Ending, for which he won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. I was captivated right out of the gate when the thread of an old romance comes to the forefront of a fairly ordinary middle-aged man’s life. His name is Tony Webster and things happen to him, but not on a grand scale. There’s an undercurrent of uncertainty when Tony realizes that his memories may be unreliable. He wonders if what he remembers really happened the way they’d played out in his mind for decades, or whether his perception of it was colored by his reluctance to face the truth. I’ve been there. Growing up with three siblings, sometimes we find that each of us remembers the same event with completely different “accuracies.” So it is with Tony and this is the basis for this quiet story.
Still it’s mesmerizing to watch Tony, as this could easily be my life or someone I know. I could relate. However, when I got to the end, I was flummoxed. Where did that development come from? Had I missed something along the way? I felt I’d been given a plot where some of the essential clues had been left out, leaving it nearly impossible to know what was coming. Kind of like a Hercule Poirot mystery. I even reread parts of it thinking I had missed a page or forgotten a scene. As it turns out, no, I did not. Throughout the story, Tony is continually told that he just doesn’t get it and believe me, he doesn’t get a lot of it. At one point he mentions that his epitaph should read, “Tony Webster - He Never Got It.” Well, I didn’t get it either, at first.
Geoff Dyer, reviewing it for the New York Times, described the book this way: “…any extreme expression of opinion about ‘The Sense of an Ending’ feels inappropriate. It isn’t terrible, it is just so…average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written: excellent in its averageness!”
Well, that reader was obviously infuriated with the whole bit including the ending. (I love Geoff Dyer’s work, by the way.) It’s clear he didn’t expect or want average. A super hero perhaps? Average people make up 99% of the world. Most everyone I know is average, including me. It turns out I enjoy reading about me. Barnes must have realized that he was writing about any Tom, Dick and Harry. Wasn’t that really the point? Could he have smartened Tony up at the end so that we feel all wonderful that he’s figured out his life and found closure? Maybe, but I realized that Barnes chose to have his protagonist stay completely in character all the way through. Clueless, confused and average. Barnes might have been tempted to break character, but he chose not to. The more I thought about it, the happier I was with the story and the ending. A bonus is what it made me do: I’ve spent hours and hours thinking about the best way to end a story. I’ve thought about this average life most of us lead, and what’s left at the end of it. Every average life is indeed unique and may I say “special” in it’s own way. Isn’t a great novel one that makes us think about ourselves in a new light? In this case, this story made me wonder what events I have mis-remembered. A more “satisfying” story and ending might have left us sated, but then could have eventually fallen into the wasteland of generic Hollywood three-part plotters.
How often in our own lives do we figure out where we are and how we got there. Is a real ending one of delineated clarity where we figure out the meaning of life? Rarely. If I understood the impacts various events have had on my life to bring me to this point in time, no doubt the Dalai Lama would be hunting me down for advice. Yes, I do have a small epiphany once in awhile, but I rarely glow with the knowledge of omnipotence.
Fuzzy ambiguous stories with non-endings are sometimes referred to as “European-inspired.” I would say that The Sense of an Ending is Europeanish then. It might not have a leading man who is a super hero or end with a big drumroll finale, but I think anything other than what Barnes wrote would have been wrong. Yes, I heartily recommend A Sense of an Ending to anyone who understands and appreciates the subtleties, ambiguities and randomness that composes an average life. It is a beautiful thing.
Even though there’s snow on the ground, I look out to my garden and imagine this year’s crops. I know that in a couple of months I’ll be able to plant my first seeds and it comforts me to know that, eventually, the gray Northwest skies that blend night into day, will eventually turn to sun. But right now, I need something to start me thinking about garden logistics: the chores that need to be done to prepare the soil, removing sod to enlarge the garden, figuring out what I did wrong last year, remembering the crops that were a success, and discovering the new veggies I want to try growing.
Over the years, I’ve bought more than my share of gardening books for inspiration and guidance. Most have been tossed aside for a more laissez-faire approach, because it all seemed so complicated and most were so boringly dull. That is, until I got the recently published book, Grow Cook Eat: A Food Lover’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening, by Portlander Willi Galloway. One glance at the cover told me that this was no ordinary how-to book. Its beautiful jacket would make any bookstore browser pick it out from the rest of its brethren.
Galloway is a garden wizard who writes about gardening and cooking on her popular blog, DigginFood.com. She also gives vegetable gardening advice on Seattle’s NPR call-in show, Greendays. I should mention, too, that she’s a former editor at Organic Gardening magazine. She’s the real deal.
Her book is divided into nine chapters: Gardening Fundamentals, Herbs, Greens, Legumes, The Squash Family, The Cabbage Family, Roots, Tubers and Bulbs, Warm-Season Vegetables and Fruit. Those fundamental categories hold the promise of everything a successful gardener needs to know.
The best part of this book is that, not only does it tell the reader how to prepare the soil and plant the vegetables, it also provides recipes so you know what to do with them after they’re harvested. And lots of tips. The tips - wow! I’m marching right out to buy myself a soil thermometer, and I have to say I’m pretty excited about it. I see now that soil temperature is the key to solving a lot of my growing problems. Plant too soon and the seed will whither; plant too late and you won’t get any veggies. Also, did you know you shouldn’t till nutrients into your soil and never, I mean NEVER, take a shovel to your frozen garden soil - it will ruin its structure. Want to know how easy it is to lengthen your growing season? Galloway can tell you. Does your basil go to seed faster than you can say “pesto?” There’s not a problem she can’t solve.
I expected the recipes to be pedestrian vegetarian fare but here again, Galloway steps up to the plate to knock restaurant-worthy dishes out of the park. How does Crispy Pot Stickers with Garlicky Asian Greens sound? What about Steak Sandwiches with Gorgonzola Chive Sauce and Caramelized Onions? For dessert try, Strawberry-Basil Ice Cream. I want to try each and everyone of them.
I should mention the other reason why this is the perfect book for every gardener you know: the photography of Seattle-based Jim Henkens. It’s sublime and makes this book beautiful and decadent. Even if you don’t garden, the photos are so gorgeous, you will be tempted to cut them out and frame them.
Grow Cook Eat is equally as valuable for gardeners with years of experience under their belt, as it is for the novice who’s been wanting a vegetable garden but was too overwhelmed to start. It is easy to follow, inspiring, and a valuable resource for all.
Sasquatch Books, 2012
Amid the din of thousands of people and dozens of literary events, Anne Enright speculates as to why there are so many great Irish authors. It’s funny, of course.
If you’re interested in taking a behind-the-scenes look at my life as a book reviewer, check out author Valerie Brook’s interview with me. CLICK HERE.
An Interview with Anne Enright
When Booker-prize winning Irish author, Anne Enright, came to Portland a few months ago, I had a chance to sit down with her to talk about her fantastic new novel, The Forgotten Waltz (W.W. Norton, 2011). It’s a story of family relationships and love amid a backdrop of the recent boom and bust economy of Ireland. Gina is married to Conor as she begins an affair with Sean whose own marriage is failing. His daughter is twelve-year-old Evie. It’s a spectacular look at ordinary people muddling through their middle-class lives.
At first glance your new book, The Forgotten Waltz, appears to focus on adultery as a major theme. But really that’s just a minor chord, right?
Yeah, the hidden story that runs all along is the story of Evie and the unexpected love at the end.
What is Gina’s relationship to love?
All girls know what love is. Love is this amazing catastrophe that sweeps us away so Gina’s kind of discovering something beyond the catastrophe - that is, romantic love.
Why does she start the affair with Sean?
There’s something enjoyably wrong-headed about Gina. She knows it’s the wrong thing and she’s doing it anyway. But she’s driven by a desire that she doesn’t quite understand. Also, from the beginning of the book, we know she’s not going to do the suburban 2.4 kids thing. She’s on the brink of it - the mortgage, the house, the jobs - and she just swerves.
Why do you think she swerves?
Various things are involved in it. She’s a passionate person, and she wants to live a big life. But, also there are things in her childhood that predispose her to chaos. Namely, a drinker father. There was a lot of denial about the father’s drinking. The denial of what it is feeds into Gina’s general denial and state of unknowing. It’s like someone talking to you who realizes what they’re saying as they speak. The realization grows in the book. There are hints and intimations all the way through. She starts to realize what her story actually is toward the end.
It seems like Gina could be anyone one of us at some point in our lives. The quest for love is such a powerful drive. It’s hard not to relate to her narcissism at least a little.
Yeah, she’s doing something desperate and interesting. I’ve never seen anybody be wise in love. Maybe in a book. Maybe that’s why I don’t trust them a lot of the time. Because we’re not wise. Our motivations are mixed and we don’t know why we’ve done what we’ve done. We don’t know how we arrived at this place in our lives. How did I end up here?
Children are a major theme in the book, but Gina doesn’t have much of a maternal instinct. She doesn’t seem interested in having children of her own, does she?
No, Gina’s not going to go there. She finds the whole pregnancy thing freaky, which it is. That’s not said often enough - it’s a very freaky thing. If I were writing a more journalistic book, I would make it clear that Gina doesn’t want to have kids because she wants to stay in the game. It’s a kind of function of her ambition. She’s not going to be saddled. I knew when I had kids that you’re out of whatever that jostling thing is, that getting ahead thing.
I found a lot of humor in your book - dark humor. I thought Gina said some fantastically funny things. I’m guessing that came from your personality?
Yeah, I suppose. There’s a lot of me in Gina for sure, but there’s a lot of me in all my books. I don’t have anyone else to write from. So sure it comes from me. I’m having a lot of fun with the reactions to this book. I feel that readers are mirrors, somebody who’s funny, will find it funny. Somebody who’s miserable will find it a really miserable book. Somebody who’s been cheated on will fling it away and think that Gina is just the worst kind of creature. So you look at reviewers and you can tell quite a lot about them from their comments. That’s a lot of fun.
When you sat down to write this book, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to say? What was your process?
I did. I wrote it as you read it. I wrote the preface about Evie first and actually wrote it linearly, because it is sort of a cause and effect. I thought it would be interesting to do that step-by-step. I had been kept from the desk for a year so it was pretty much all there in my head. It took me nearly two years. The economy was falling for those entire two years. I decided in January of 2009 that I would sit down and do nothing. I wouldn’t go out or do anything. So I would sit for three months and sink into the book. But the beginning of a book is always the same - a lot of staring at the wallpaper before you get going. So it’s not pretty. I’ve done this so often now that I know that that’s just how it is.
It was handy that you had the economic boom and bust as a backdrop.
Yeah, at least I got a book out of it. There’s always an upside to an economy completely destroyed.
The name of the book and all the chapter titles are musical but there are very few references to music in the book. I was hearing artists like Diana Ross in the chapter titles. What’s that about?
Sheet music is a great way of conveying love. The thing I like about the pop music in the book is that it’s great for being unashamedly foolish.
There was a lot of sex in the book, but I wouldn’t call it a sexy book. Sometimes sex is described as “too interesting” or “a bit too actual” or “kisses are better than actual sex.” Most of the sex takes place in hotels. What are you saying about sex?
My last book, The Gathering, is full of explicit sexual references because I think it was true to what Veronica was experiencing then - that she was very aware of the physical world. She was very aware of men’s anatomy. We didn’t know what she desired at the end of the book, but she certainly didn’t desire any men in the book. I thought that was really sad that in a book that was full of this sexuality she didn’t have a thing she wanted. So I thought Gina would be someone who really knew what she wanted, and who was full of desire and very clear about her desire. Someone asked me why there were so many male members in The Gathering. I thought, what’s wrong with that? Why is that a problem? Why are women not supposed to write about this very important part of the male anatomy? It causes a lot of bother in the world one way or another, and a lot of good things too, and women are encouraged to think about it in more romantic terms. You know the weird thing that nobody’s mentioned is that Gina has a really active and real sex life with Conor. The fact is that it’s too real for her because it’s about to involve babies. With Sean, we don’t even know if he’s good in bed. Gina would never describe Sean in bed - it would be taboo.
Why did you divide the book into three acts like a play?
Yeah, everything I do has a kind of three-act structure. I’m almost worried about it now. It’s a kind of Hollywood structure. People don’t notice that The Gathering has a kind of Hollywood-style structure, which is, something happens a quarter of the way in, something happens half the way in, and then again at three quarters in. You crack any book of literary fiction and say it’s 300 pages long, for example, what happens on page 150 will be one of the crucial moments no matter what the book’s about.
Were you always a big reader?
Books were always interesting to me. My mother used to bring me to the library every week, and I’d go to the library after school and she was a huge reader. When I was in my twenties, I would sit on the sofa and I would read all day. I would forget to eat. I would read until I had to switch the light on. I read voraciously up until I had kids, and then my reading just sort of fell apart for awhile for various reasons. I wasn’t finding what I wanted in the books. This life is so difficult and amazing and I wasn’t finding that in the books. Slowly, I’m getting my reading back together now. Now I’m really a very slow reader and I get very impatient with books because they make me think of my own books. I read until I have to write the thing.
You have two children. Did you always want to be a mother?
No, that was all a bit of a shock to the system really. I thought I’d lose a book for every baby - somebody said that to me. But that turned out not to be true for me. I didn’t write much while I was pregnant. It’s like writing when you’re waiting for a bus. It’s really hard to write while you’re waiting. I wrote like crazy when they were born because I really needed the money. I thought everything was going to fall apart, so I wrote to hold it together. Really wrote all the time for ten years. I thought it was such a blast when I had them. I wish I hadn’t started so late. If I hadn’t put it off so long I would have had five. I was 38 when I had my first and 41 for the second.
I see my friends who have children who are now having children of their own and it seems like a big cult that I’m not part of.
It is a cult - that’s a very good word. Having a baby is like becoming a member of a cult because like a cult, you’re woken up at random hours of the day and night and you have to placate and worship. That’s what they do in the Moonies, they wake them up in the middle of the night and make them pick beans in the field. That’s what they do in re-education camp when they break people down to try and make them believe in something. Having a baby is a perfect example of how well it works because you end up loopy and talking about these human beings endlessly and alienating everyone else. Yes, cult is a good word for it.
Anne Enright was born in Dublin where she now lives and works. She has published two volumes of stories, collected as Yesterday’s Weather; one book of nonfiction, Making Babies; and four novels. Her novel, The Gathering, won the 2007 Man Booker Prize.
Next Extinct Mammal by Ruben Quesada is his debut collection of poetry published this year by Greenhouse Review Press. I find them nostalgic, romantic and mournful.
He received his Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside in 2007. He is completing a Ph.D. in English at Texas Tech University, where he teaches literature and creative writing. His translations of Luis Cernuda and Pablo Neruda have appeared in Stand Magazine and Third Coast, as well as in a chapbook, Exiled from the Throne of Night (2008), from Aureole Press at the University of Toledo (Ohio). His poetry has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Palabra, Rattle, The Packinghouse Review, OCHO, Southern California Review, and others. Ruben’s awards include residencies at Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Lambda Literary Foundation Retreat, Vermont Studio Center, Santa Fe Art Institute, and Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.
He is currently at work on a second manuscript of poetry, The Personality of the Planet, and on a collection of essays about the Digital Age.
Here is one poem from the collection:
From my bedroom window, driving
through town, everywhere I sit,
the blue like Picasso’s player
swells overhead, blue behind strings
of clouds which lengthen
like loose ligaments into the horizon.
you should breathe in deeply
for the fireflies and the crickets; watch
the constellations of moths choke
on the glowing street lamps and the yawning
cockroaches before the sun flushes away.
My interview with Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Dirda is up at the Portland Book Review. Read why his childhood made him a voracious reader, why Conan Doyle is a master storyteller, and much more. Click here.
I love reading about self-discovery and pushing one’s boundaries, especially when it involves getting back to nature. That’s what Steve Edwards does in his book, Breaking Into the Backcountry, when he wins a writing contest that awards him seven months of “unparalleled solitude” in the wilderness. As caretaker of a ninety-two-acre homestead along the Rogue River in Oregon, the recently divorced English teacher from Indiana chooses to leave the safety of friends, family and a comfortable life behind to test his mettle living alone with only bears and cougars to keep him company. The solitude becomes a meditation on life for Edwards, and he shares his journey with beautiful prose and windows into his most intimate thoughts. He’s always aware that he is out of his safety zone and could be in deep trouble unless he keeps his wits about him and learns to trust his instincts.
“In my heart of hearts, I know it’s ridiculous. I should be able to point to a tree and identify it as a redwood. I should be able to take a stroll in bear country without a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. But right now - just a day before meeting the owners of the homestead and getting set up to live in bear country for seven months - I just can’t. I’m afraid. There is an actual lump in my throat.”
As it happens, he is without newspapers or TV when the events of 9/11 unfold, and his realization that the world has shifted becomes tangible only when he looks up to the sky and sees no planes or contrails. This is a quiet but powerful narrative on one man’s search for himself and the meaning of life. I highly recommend it!
University of Nebraska Press, 2010
My Christmas Book Pick
Confession: Up until this week, the only book by Stephen King I’d read was On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft - I liked it a lot. However, I’m not a fan of horror, fantasy or science fiction genres - I didn’t get that gene and yes, I do feel badly about that every so often. Also, I wonder about the large number of books and short stories he’s written. He’s so prolific; he’s like a book factory! What’s up with that? Can an author be that productive and still be taken seriously? Shouldn’t there at least be a few fraught-filled years between masterpieces? In my small and insular world of literary fiction, I patiently await the latest work from my favorite authors, who I know are suffering in self-loathing and angst-filled solitude while they purge their souls to pound out that story that will give new meaning to our lives. Sometimes it never comes. It’s the price you pay for genius, right?
For about a decade, I’ve heard a lot of scuttle about the respect King has garnered. He’s doesn’t write pulp fiction - he’s a master. He’s crossed genres, or genre-less. He’s raised the bar. He’s jumped over the bar. He’s won all sorts of awards. Whatever, I still ignored him. Increasingly, though, I have felt suspiciously out-of-the-loop when I’ve had to admit that no, I’m not a King fan. I did buy a couple of old King classics such as The Stand, and Cujo, a few years ago, but never cracked their spines. Back when I lived in Sarasota, Florida, a friend, who has since passed on, gave me his treasured 1982 copy of Creep Show. I protested saying it would be wasted on me, but he insisted - he wanted it to be in the hands of someone who would take good care of it. (I have — it’s wrapped in Mylar.) Soon after that, I caught a glimpse of King himself at a local electronics store. He is tall with a very serious face, and I gaped at him from afar. Looking back, it was prescient of my friend to hand over his treasure to me, and good fortune on my part to have actually seen the semi-reclusive King, because today I finished 11/22/63 and can now declare myself a huge fan. As the main character Jake would say, “I’ve closed the circle.”
When I heard that King’s latest book was about traveling back in time to when JFK was still alive, I realized I’d found my rabbit hole into his work. I grew up in an Irish Catholic house, so we were rabid fans of Kennedy. My grandmother had two things on her walls: crucifixes and pictures of JFK. Getting him into the White House was like the Second Coming for us. The time travel theme, which has always been an interest of mine (Who wouldn’t give everything to have a do-over on at least one choice they made?), tipped the scales and so I bought the doorstopper of a book as soon as it hit the shelves.
I started reading it and, at first, the language seemed plain compared to some of the beautiful prose I spend my days reading. There’s just nothing elegant about King’s writing style. I was ready to give it up. But about 20 pages in, the power of the story took hold and once it did, everything else fell by the wayside. Best of all, I came to appreciate the spare wording because it never stood in front of the story. The dialogue became seamless, which to me is the true measure of an author’s talent. I read that he sat on this book for 30 years and researched it down to the nth degree. It shows. A voluminous amount of detail drenches this page-turning behemoth. Everything’s there, from the chenille bedspread in a sad little motel, to haircuts with Aqua Velva, the music, and the Ban-Lon pants. I simply sat back, relaxed, and let myself be transported completely, happily and harmoniously to another time. Although the book is a hefty 849 pages long, the story just flew down the tracks and, as with any terrific story, I was sad when it ended.
All I will say about the story is that it stars Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old newly divorced English teacher, living in the present day. Jake’s good friend Al, who owns a diner, calls him one night to let him in on a little secret. The secret shakes Jake to his roots and he begins to wonder if he could possibly change the course of history by going back in time. That’s it. I read the book without any spoilers, you should too. To say anymore would take all the pleasure out of it. Suffice it to say, King’s novel is loaded with a great cast of characters - good and very bad - suspense, intrigue, and adrenaline-filled chase and be-chased scenes. There are deeper issues below the surface: good and evil, love and loss, the butterfly effect. That’s the theory that says every action has a reaction, no matter how small and insignificant it is. There’s also an old-fashioned love story and a surprise ending. What more could you possibly want?
If you’ve been on the fence about whether Stephen King is the right read for you, please take my word for it and make the leap. If you’re already a King fan, then you will be very happy.
Now that I’ve broken the King barrier, I will have to read more, of course. Where to start - there’s so much to choose from! I’m so glad that although “the past may be obdurate” as we are told many times in 11/22/63, fortunately, I am not. I’m calling it my Christmas pick for 2011. It’s got absolutely everything you need to make your holidays complete.
On Conan Doyle author and Pulitzer Prize winner, Michael Dirda, talks about the aura of physical books at his Powell’s reading. (11/16/2011)
There’s Nothing Elementary About Dirda
The affable and erudite Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda was at Powell’s the other night to promote his new book, On Conan Doyle: Or, the Whole Art of Storytelling. He was wearing his Baker Street Irregulars’ tie, which is kind of like owning a secret decoder ring, only cooler. He earned the right to wear it when he was inducted into the elite society in 2002 after establishing himself as a Sherlockian of special merit.
Dirda referred to his latest effort as a “cute little book that is part of a series that Princeton University Press has, called Writers on Writers.” In it, he reflects on Doyle’s role in his life and how he discovered The Hound of the Baskervilles in the fifth grade leading him to eventually devour all of the Sherlock Holmes novels. He points out, though, that he has not read all 21 novels and 150 short stories of Conan Doyle, so technically he is not a completist. And he explains that his book is not a work of scholarship, nor is it a biography. It is simply the story of “one writer reflecting on another writer’s importance in his life.”
He read for awhile and then proceeded to mesmerize the audience with his encyclopedic knowledge of all things related to Arthur Conan Doyle. His thoughts were annotated with asides and segues that meandered down the most interesting paths and then, amazingly, eventually, made their way back to the original point. He doled out detail after detail about the inventor of Sherlock Holmes, describing Doyle as the “greatest natural-born storyteller of the ages.”
Dirda revealed juicy nuggets such as the fact that Doyle wanted to kill off Holmes almost as soon as he had invented him, but his mother begged him not to. Thankfully, he acquiesced. Apparently, Doyle felt that his historical novels were more intellectually worthy. Lucky for us, mom knew what was best for her son. He also talked about Doyle’s infatuation with spiritualism and his belief in the occult despite being mocked for it.
Dirda told a bittersweet, but mostly funny, story at the end of the reading about winning the Pulitzer Prize. He said that he came from a very working-class family and his father “thought he was a failure.” Apparently, his father was “greatly disappointed” that he was not a multi-millionaire. Dirda says, “I worked hard and was nominated by the paper three years in a row before I won, and as the way these things go, my father died six months before, so I never got to impress him. My mother is a wonderful character - she’s still alive. She’s kind of a peasant in a lot of ways, in a good sense, she’s wonderful, she taught me to read when I was very little. But she believes that the universe is in balance… if something good happens to your family, then something bad is going to happen. So I call my mother. I say, ‘Mom, mom, I won the Pulitzer Prize!’ and there’s a long pause on the phone. Then she says, ‘Guess there’s no point in going to bingo tonight.’”
Michael Dirda pictured above with Renee James, Powell’s Event Coordinator, and flanked by Portland fans, Rob Nero and Jon Lauderbaugh.
My interview with Michael Dirda and a review of his book will soon be posted on the Portland Book Review site (www.portlandbookreview.com).
Rolling Stone says that Irish lass Lisa Hannigan is an Artist to Watch. I say she’s better to listen to. This is her singing Knots. I like it a lot!