“Why Did I Ever” by Mary Robison

wdieAs if a traditional narrative novel had been mined, and material of value retained and all non-essentials ejected. The remaining ore was enhanced, polished and modularized, then shuffled into a sequence. Each part of the 500+parts has its own impact, its own exhibit or event or revelation.

It makes for disarming reading at first, then one gets into the mood of the narrator, a wry-humored woman teetering on the edge. Our narrator/heroine negotiates a family crisis, drugs, promiscuity, and ADD, and more than a fair share of lousy men in her life (who she relentlessly disses). Much of the comedy derives from her shakey job writing an insipid screenplay, working for an impossible boss in a movie industry for “stupid people.”

I admire and enjoy Mary Robison’s writing (cf. my review of Subtraction). She’s cut her own path in prose. She has the rare combination I like: a poet’s command of words and a cynic’s keen eye directed on America. A Univ. Southern Mississippi and U of H product (and among other places JHU as well) she has been writing and teaching since the early 80s. I wonder if I may have met her in my Houston days, maybe at Rice when Donald Barthelme did a visit-lecture there, and many of us back then hung out in Chaucer’s basement bar inside the old Plaza Hotel.

There’s a good interview with Mary Robison in The Bomb.

Last of the Hector Series – Paco Taibo

rtscThe translator Laura Dail must know her verb conjugations well. That’s extra important in a book written with a Spanish ojalá premise: if only detective Hector Shayne Belascoaran hadn’t died in the previous book. And you may believe the story that’s about to unfold, even to the climax when mariachi bands are employed as frontline troops.

Taibo brings Hector back to Mexico City for one more show, teasing with us about his right to create character immortality. We readers move up another notch in the suspension of disbelief scale, and we do so gladly because we are aficionados.

In many parts of the book the story is related in a variant of subjunctive mode with what if’s, and it would be nice that’s, and it could have happened like this’s. Owing to a good translation job and the brilliance of Taibo as a writer, the narrative is well-presented with a mix of voices from the humorous author and beleaguered heroic Hector. We buy in and feel assured of entertainment with plenty of human truths added.

During the series we sense that Paco and his character are one and the same soul.

This is likely it for one-eyed Hector and his pony-tail girlfriend. That’s okay, we can go back and re-read and enjoy the five other ones (plus there’s the untranslated “Días de Combate” to delve into).

A.E. Hotchner’s “Hemingway in Love”

9781250077486By way of contrast Hotchner’s 1970s biography “Papa” is a great read, as close a look as we can get to Hemingway the man. It’s a good book for two reasons: one, Hotchner is a terrific writer, concise and communicative without being fancy; and two, he and Papa were truly good friends. The candor and respect shown between author and subject creates an eager reader interest and provides veracity to the accounts. Unlike other bio’s I’ve read, I never felt I was getting any bogus or skewed information in “Papa.”

This new one (dated October 20, 2015) was also produced by Hotchner, who’s now in his 90s.  Most all of the Paris players and the last wife are gone. Hotch admits in his intro that he waited in order to not step on any toes, or risk hurting Mary Hemingway’s feelings.  We see Hemingway as a changed person, closer to mortality after his two near-death Africa airplane crashes. Often he is drinking wine in a series of hotel room meetings with his pal Hotch. These were occasions when Papa was either in ostensibly high spirits or he was blue, expressing regret and spilling over with irony and self-effacement.

As good as Hotchner’s writing remains – and despite an unflagging interest and admiration of Hemingway and his circle – I don’t have the same sense of complete trust with this little book. It’s not a matter of doubt about the authenticity of the information, most of which is already known, or the personal portrayals of Hemingway.

Instead it’s a matter of how Hemingway’s dialog is captured in the text. There’s a license to fudge in a memoir, but long sections of Papa’s conversations sound too pat, too prosaic and laden with facts. The author has Papa describe events or people he knew and books they wrote with Wikipedian detail. Not so sure I buy the Midgetape recordings claim.

Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies”

grofEnter knowing the entire universe is about Lotto and Mathilde.

The novel is an overwrought love story presented to us in a most literate and poetic way. It rolls out [twice] the truths and deceptions of a complex relationship between two exceptionally strong personalities. The his and her views are revealed under the watchful microscopic eye of the knowing author, the voyeuristic reader, and some snoopy secondary characters as well (e.g. Antoinette, Chollie, Rachel, and old ESP Bette).

Among the appositional statements the author throws into the mix, one of the most interesting appears when Shakespeare’s Volumnia is used as a point of comparison. Volumnia is the bad-ass mother figure in Coriolanus, who controls her son and rants obsessively, guarding him like a lover (her likeness is Antoinette). Coriolanus is maybe the most down and dirty play the Bard ever produced.

I think it’s safe to say Groff’s novel has more than its share of down and dirty: including cruel mothers, pandering perverts, drunk abusers, sleaze bags, con artists, dangerous neurotics, and lots of porn. Plus deceit, extortion, suicide, self-sterilization, betrayal, and vengeance.

Groff writes in language that is powerful and orchestrated with her content. Her imagery is raw and fresh, often hypnotic. Too often the aesthetic is dumbed down with a sudden sex act. The carnal imagery can go too far (or linger in a frat room somewhere) with lingo like, “and he shucked her right there.” When that happens, the narrative trance is interrupted.

Groff can do the atmospheric magic. She offers a fine portayal of caring artists and creativity in the colony-retreat section. The trap is set. Against idyllic venues on the beach and in the countryside or in the Big City and even Paris, she sets down a chilling collection of conniving, cold-hearted types fucking and vomiting and bickering their way through the pedestrian world. The characters wheel about. Back and forth we go: gifts and denials, triumphs and disappointments, comedy and tragedy.

Smelling the worst is the aroma of extortion.

In the long run, beauty and light edges out sordid darkness. The ending is sad and not as tidy as it could be. It meanders too much in time. It tries to offer redemption that seems too late. The dog named God is lost and then found. Conclusions are delivered before we can arrive at them.

As Orwell reminds us, a literary novel brings with it a wave of anarchy, and Groff is not afraid to shake things up, reach for the moon and take chances.

Paco Taibo’s “No Happy Ending”

nheThe title itself is the spoiler alert. Our hero is in deep trouble with the brutal paramilitary gang, the Halcones in Mexico City.

Taibo uses a tidy 12-chapter mystery format in this one. Other than a single chapter dedicated to the backstories of each of Hector’s office mates (for entertainment purposes, we suppose, not storyline), hardly a single word is wasted. Mexico City is laid out before us in gritty detail. It’s shown as a city beyond order and hope, held together by the remaining good-natured fabric of most of its natives. It’s a land of sugary soda pops, dangerous streets, venal policemen, gangsters, whores, and sometimes humorous and endearing characters, like the office crew and Hector’s elusive love interest, the girl with the pony tail.

Since authors can do such things, Taibo brings his hero back by popular demand in a subsequent novel “Return to the Same City,” subject of a future book report.

“An Easy Thing” by Paco Taibo II

paco2It’s the first chronologically in the English-translated series of Hector Belascoaran Shayne detective novels. The Mexican detective is introduced and developed.

The other – the real first book, is “Días de Combate” which Taibo published for Spanish-speaking readers only. I bought a copy and will give it my best shot translating/reading and reporting on it this winter.

As any review out there will tell you about “Easy Thing” (there is no article una in the Spanish title), the book’s made up of three cases that Hector has taken on at once. As he madly juggles the various events, we learn the most about him in the interim scenes when he’s with family, lovers, or his eclectic office mates (a sewer engineer, an upholsterer and a plumber). As in many American hardboiled crime stories, we are more entertained by the hero himself and his interplay and commentary on the world around him than by the actual plotlines.

Similar to his later novel “Frontera Dreams” (review), Taibo gives us realistic observations about the condition of Mexico, its inherent corruption, and the people’s low-key angst. “An Easy Thing” is longer than most Taibo novels and doesn’t exhibit the same kind of streamlined potency that “Frontera Dreams” has. But the gems within the story are well worth slogging through the most tedious of the three cases, the one about factory union murders. The other two cases, one about a porn star and her daughter involved in extortion, and the other a search to see if Mexican hero Emiliano Zapata is still alive, are less political and more entertaining.

Kerouac’s “On the Road” – the Mexico Trip

*an earlier post described the recent movie adaptation road1

Like any great novel, On the Road has classic sections that read fresh and even more powerful when seen again years later. The most re-readable section of On the Road includes Parts 4 and 5, essentially the novel’s last hundred pages. This is by and large the Mexico trip, which can stand alone on its own raw energy.

Here you find Kerouac on a high wire writing super prose, tightly packaged in a limited timeframe. The episode exceeds phantasmagoria and becomes mythic. Characters loom larger than life within the land of ancient Toltecs. Dean Moriarty on the mountain takes on godlike characteristics. The Mexico account delivers the conclusive impressions of all the gang’s journeys. Their experiences have now peaked and they have pushed the envelope as far as they can. They then test their mortality and move close to the edge, near implosion, blindly expecting things to be resolved on their own accord. And, followed by some angels, they are. Mexico City, which they see as a sort of a Bohemian nirvana, quietly becomes the last stop. It’s the last Sal and Dean journey.

The romantic innocence that marked their earlier trips has gone, and they are in dire straits. They part ways, each suffering their own variety of illness (Dean’s is delusional, Sal’s is mortal). Restless Dean leaves, and Sal feels abandoned. Even back in NYC their bond never mends.

Within this last section, Kerouac artfully makes the symphonic tie-in’s with vital themes and major percussions heard throughout the preceding pages of his story. There is a completeness achieved, beginning with the moment the travelers become one with the Mexico earth and its dirt and insects. Then again when Sal hallucinates the end-game’s apocalyptic white horse. Dean the omni-visionary and perpetrator of convenient truths says he saw it too. Kerouac makes us see it as well.

James Lee Burke: “Tin Roof Blowdown”

burkeThere’s hard realism in these pages about the social devastation caused by hurricane Katrina. Maybe it’s as frank and true and graphic as you’ll find anywhere. You’ll read much about the disaster early in the book. Street-level. Then as pages go by, the more particular story tends to float and slog along with the murky waters of the flood. There is only so much one can say about hell and its parallels on earth before melodrama takes hold. Around the chaos of Katrina’s aftermath, Burke weaves a bad-guys-are-really,really-bad adventure. The pair of good guys Dave Robicheaux and his pal Clete Purcell strive to make things right. The storyline has its share of sudden shocks, twists and pitfalls, but I was wishing for the less-gloomy violence and pathos found in his other novels.

The narrative voice jumps from first person Dave to omniscient and back. It’s something crime writers often do, and they usually pull it off (to some extent) without any of their readers noticing. In this case, it may be overdone. I was prone to lose the narrative connection, that familiarity I had on page one when Dave talked about his time in Vietnam and its horrors. Burke’s POV “author” is conveniently all over the place. When we return to our man Dave, all the god-like narration in-between seems odd.

The New Orleans storm account (like the event and the nation’s reactions) is heavily laden with underlying questions of racism. Burke’s writing rides the razor’s edge between sympathy (for the flood victims) and loathing (for those who capitalized on the scene via criminal acts). There are some interesting factoids (and euphemistic epithets) thrown forth. For example: in the moments of urban rioting, there are two businesses that are always spared and not burned or looted (by the “Snoop Dog fans”)- funeral homes and the offices of bail bondsmen. Burke does not intellectualize nor direct this into a statement novel. There is a hint, but no mention of the “disaster capitalism” that Naomi Klein suggested as an intentioned by-product of Katrina. One thing for sure… lots of guns are everywhere, and that seems okay with everyone. In that sense I found the story angle a bit Republican in flavor, and it made me want to put the book down or at best hurry through to the end.

The Robicheaux books are written to be simple and very personal (with the hero’s touching family scenes, etc.). The texts have a salty Gulf Coast flavor, not unlike David Lindsey’s Houston detective books. Difference is, the hero of Lindsey’s series, detective Stuart Haydon, drives a Jaguar and has refined West University sensibilities. Dave R is simple and down-home. Whether in New Orleans or New Iberia, he’s an enlightened blue-collar Cajun type. The story is what it is – a fiction writer’s vision. But the account — the factual witnessing of the atrocious and tragic events during and after Katrina, that’s really what sells the book.

I give Burke a lot of credit for telling us about it without being unfair or sensationally biased (as most of the reporting networks were). Whatever made-up story Burke put around it was to me immaterial. Far as I’m concerned, Dave Eggers successfully cornered that aspect of things in his Katrina novel, “Zeitoun.”

“Writing a Novel: Eight Lessons Learned”

1. You have to know how to work yourself out of trouble.

2. Your novel should have some sort of spinal cord, supporting and relaying things from beginning to end.

3. It’s possible there is a more engaging opening farther inside the first few chapters of your draft. One that can be moved forward to replace the opening you originally had in mind.

4. During revision…To rearrange or re-word problematic parts is normal and safe. To compose something new has risks and can be more rewarding.

5. No matter what, you have to stay on top of your material and be its boss.

6. A good novel has a spine (see #2) and is layered with tension and resolution. If artful, it’s threaded with recurrent themes, and exhibits subtle moments of symmetry like music (or math).

7. Writing a brief description or elevator pitch should not be all that difficult.

8 .The ending of a novel is best written all at once in a crazed and feverish state.

Salinger’s Boxed Set

salingerRumor columns say the Salinger estate will release additional works, some of which supposedly pick up characters of yore and take them forward in time. True? Who knows for sure other than a few lawyers?

Meanwhile, I’ve stashed the old and supposedly rare 1969 moldy, pot-smoked, yellow-page boxed set and am replacing it with clean copies. It was time.

If there are new JDS releases. I’ll be ready.  This summer, I’m revisiting the Glass family and Holden and DeDaumier-Smith and Teddy and all the others.   (to be continued)

((())) seymour bouquet of parentheses

JAMES SALTER’S “A SPORT AND A PASTIME”

SALTER It’s bad practice to post a brief book report after reading a few reviews on Amazon, at least in my own writer guidelines. But this time, I did just that. The uneasy sense of confusion I had while reading this Salter book was too much. I rapidly went in search of confirmation. I found that others had similar reactions. One reviewer said it best, that Slater gives us an engaging intelligent narrator in a lovely setting in France and then tosses a monkey wrench into the telling.

In a klunky way, Salter puts his narrator in the role of describing some other guy’s romance.  We sense an odd attraction between the two men. Why, we aren’t sure. This is far from Nick and Gatsby, or that type of clearly executed observer voice. This is an odd hybrid of first POV and third POV. Much of it is unknowable by the first person voice, yet documented in vivid scenes. Since he’s not present, it is impossible for him to document the episodic sex scenes between his friend Dean and this Ann chick. So the narrator says, well, I’m sort of imagining it.  Huh?

There’s plenty of flesh. The book was written in the Sixties (1967) when womens’ rights awareness wasn’t yet raised to the height of the 70s. Still, there is a lot of room for feminist complaint about the objectification of a woman, i.e., Ann being a mindless sperm receptacle, etc. Fact is, Dean is pretty shallow too. Maybe in that sense he is a harbinger of men characters in future women’s novels. The ones in which women’s characters are duly given full development but at the cost (intentional or not) of shallow portrayal of the male characters. In a sort of role reversal the male characters end up as sex objects themselves, like mindless and faceless hard-ons.

This book has been touted as a “writers’ kind of writing” novel, a sort of paragon of styles and language. The writing itself is very good.  Slater has a refined style and immense talent with words. Stretches of it were so well written I went into a reader’s trance. But overall I didn’t like the story and characters and found the novel difficult to digest.

James Scott Bell’s “Write your novel from the middle”

midpoint(from the perspective of having a completed draft)

The premise is that we can find at the center of a novel’s manuscript a scene that defines what the story is all about. And within that scene there is often a particular moment that brings theme, plot, and character into focus, sometimes as bright and faceted as a diamond.  Bell calls it a “look in the mirror moment.” His examples help explain what he means, and they are convincing.

It is this center moment that, during revision, a writer can rewrite towards or away from, before and after. It is a fulcrum point, the center nougat of the candy. Which is why Bell’s book is of considerable value to a novelist stuck in the throes of a long revision, unable to fix the path from page one to The End.  Bell’s little secret finds the heart, if indeed it’s there. I don’t imagine any author consciously produces a mid-point that represents his entire book. It just happens. Bell uses the term magic.

I was surprised as hell to find the middle moment in my own comparatively unstructured draft. I divided the page count by two and there it was, obvious and lucid – my book’s thematic moment. Not perfect and absolute but pretty damn close. This was inspiring to say the least, as some sort of wizardry affirmation that my book does have a heart. This discovery has been very helpful in the surrounding revisions before and after that point. For this magic trick, I’d buy Mr. Bell a drink if I ever ran into him.

Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons, by Herbert Warren Wind

hoganWhat’s a golf book doing among the rest of these literary books? Because it has stylized, lofty, quirky writing. It’s the most interesting and entertaining book about how to swing a golf club that I ever read.

Herbert Warren Wind was a sportswriter, of golf primarily. He wrote for Sports Illustrated a while and for The New Yorker for several decades. He lived to nearly 90 and died in 2005. The Hogan book came out in 1957.

It is the most famous golf instruction book ever produced. Many golf books after it are repackaged derivatives. The language is formal and wordy and over-wrought. Half Eisenhower didactic and half Victorian ornate. The info is still there.

Hogan said he actually meant to understate his golf tips and allow the readers to study and learn by implication. The aha! moments would make them better golfers.  The dense eloquence of Wind’s stern and repetitive instructions makes this difficult. But the advice is there, ready to be mined and refined. There are subtleties if one looks for them. The expert drawings by Tony Ravielli help make the book succeed.

Some examples of Wind’s eccentric writing style (based on Hogan’s SME input, of course):

“It may seem that we have gone into unwarranted detail about the elements of the correct grip. This is anything but the case. Too often golfers mistake the generality for the detail.”

“While it is dynamically important for a golfer not to depart from his plane at any time during the second part of his swing, being consciously attentive to it does not help him the way a consciousness of his backswing plane promotes a fine, functional backswing.”

“Interestingly enough, drinking some ginger ale, because of its effect on the kidneys, seems to prevent the hands from feeling too fat and puffy.”

“Consciously trying to control the face of the club at impact is folly. You cannot time such a delicate and devillish thing.”

“Don’t groove your waggles.”

 

 

February Toast (reprise)

Pip pip cheerio and saludos cheers –
Let’s drink to ancient presidents
and torturous valentines,
moving trucks and red red wines –
snowstorms on Sunday, flesh in the tropics,
neighbors we hate, incomplete biopics,
Atlantic-striped ties stained by nicotine,
bluesy friends whacked on Benzedrine,
boys soaked in hormones with guises and roles,
girls cloaked in perfume, spongy dark souls.

Bang one down for month two.
Within its four hazardous weeks
before the lion wheezes and creaks,
all left sane will likely go mad
Locked in cabins, no relief to be had.
We will try free verse with carriage returns
Fading like this – as our memory burns
Laughing hee hee at the wiki watchee
snacks on our knee, worshippin’ tee vee.

Whoop whoop and down the hatch –
Here’s to dinosaurs ever thirsty in museums,
to randy sailors and plump manatees,
to untended graves, the frigid north breeze.

The Joads drink gin on freeway exits,
Elephants stampede an invisible nexus.
The sirens of fate sing a bitter bolero,
while demons dance al contrario;
Between the poles of the morally upright
Lovers speak their clever lies at night.

Blinky winky mix me a stinky –
Another round for tavernous ghosts
Mythical heartthrobs and misguided boasts,
Black leggings over soiled pink lace
Reproduction rehearsals of the human race.

Wise are the beaten the noble the dying,
Into our beers lost chances go sighing,
By our breath and brain we’re fogged,
Our Febby pipe frozen and clogged.

Cold bad luck and electrostatic hugs,
tyrant landlords, someone else’s bugs,
Bad trombone, influenza, and wat’ry stew,
Roll a joint doobie doo,
Get us past this month, please hurry too.

from my book “February Toast,” published in 2014.  

Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster

aspectsThe wisdom and knowledge in Forster’s essays are revealed in direct proportion to the reader’s experience as a novelist.

Published in 1927, it is definitely not a book of quick-reference tenets set in boldface font, like we see in contemporary writing guides. Forster’s aspects are just that: aspects or features employed in famous novels that can be perceived and patiently considered, even modeled, by the growingly astute (and eventually graying) reader-slash-writer.

The range goes from what is story to the necessary ingredients, such as the required vitality of rounded characters and their expression through actions, to the intent of the whole and its weight by design. We get a few instructive gems along the way:

“The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.

Consider what Forster discusses in the “rhythm” of a novel. Similar to the repeating “dididdy dum” of Beethoven’s Fifth, prose can have a recurring beat (cf. Kerouac and jazz). In masterwork novels, deeper rhythms are also at play and harder to recognize. These are persisting images or actions that play to our cognizance of theme, like symphonic leitmotifs in language. Proust, as shown in an example, does this sort of thing with food and plants and snippets of a sonata, items that are weaved into the overall product as touch-points to something resonant and more centrally important – something artfully made familiar to us.

Forster says there are novels of fantasy and novels of prophecy, and the second is higher in his regard because it addresses universal themes and reaches mythic proportions. His commentary and examples are intriguing, He invites us to read the great books and brings them alive by argument and illustration.

Forster dishes about major novels of his time and some prior to, including Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights with a brooding milieu that is itself the ultimate mythic character; Joyce’s Ulysses (he calls it mud-slinging at traditional novel values); DH Lawrence (gets his high esteem as “prophecy” writing); character Scheherazade (the ideal story presenter using cause and effect plus suspense); George Eliot (grand, but valued more by quantity than artfulness); Melville (immense and grand, and the novel Moby Dick is a whaling yarn sandwiched by poetry).

By book’s end we have taken a survey course on Essentials of a Novel and can re-join Forster’s class and learn more on each annual visit. Provided we re-read carefuly and study in light of our own writing. His afterword contains anxiety about the future of the form, which of course still exists nearly ninety years later. Maybe the ongoing strength and perpetuity of the novel is due to on-going honor paid to many of the aspects described. Forster’s documentation is therefore, among other virtues, heroic.

Mosley’s Added Lesson about Fiction Narrative

From Walter Mosley’s writing handbook, it’s an exercise ostensibly to get rid of flat prose or to create something out of nothing. Mosley doesn’t like non-contributing sentences. It’s the only specific workshop type of lesson he includes in his book. It’s subtle. At first I wasn’t sure where he meant us to go. Then I did. It has power and nuance, this lesson of his.

Example of flaccid prose Mosley presents:

I went to the store and bought a dozen apples. After that I came home and decided to call Marion. She told me that she was busy and so she couldn’t make it to the dance.

Exercise Mosley proposes: “…Take these three sentences and turn them into something more. Consider the character who is speaking, the potential drama behind Marion’s reason for not going to the dance, the missing details, and the misconnections. From this, make the lines into some kind of beginning for a novel. Don’t write more than a page. Pretend that it was written by some writer friend who wants to tell a story but is lost somehow.”

(from p. 92 “This Year You Write Your Novel,” Walter Mosley, Little Brown, 2009)

The Toluca Crime Report

toluca-cover

Short story collection available on LULU and AMAZON  

Copyright ©2013 by William P. Moore

Originally published as “Circular Afternoons” in 2009 and revised with one replacement story. Several pieces are set in Mexico, including the title story about an excursion to the Toluca marketplace. Other topics are wide-ranging, from love and terror to an imaginary game of eight-ball with Norman Mailer.

Raymond Chandler – Selected Anthology

raymond-chandler-later-novels-other-writings-lady-in-hardcover-cover-artVenerable black-cover anthology from Library of America. I’m not much on detective stories and mysteries and have a low threshold. I always return to it because Chandler was such a terrific writer.

I keep going back to read “Red Wind.” Not for the story as much as Chandler’s writing style, especially in the opening scene.  As with most of Chandler’s stuff, there are clever, memorable lines and a succinct presentation of California ambience surrounding the characters.

Some of Chandler’s narrative tone can sound dated now, co-opted and twisted by years of TV detective shows and b-grade movies. Chandler is much better than that sort of tough-guy stuff. He was an artist, not merely someone who produced pot boilers. The guy could crank out great sentences and imagery. His narrative talent is legend among California’s struggling writer types, so a West Coast correspondent informed me. Chandler is someone to emulate on the path to a movie script.

Of the shorter pieces in the collection, I think the best is “Spanish Blood.” It has all the right ingredients of a short story and is more straight-ahead and satisfying.  It’s not so puzzling and convoluted like the majority of mystery stories tend to be.

Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station”

lernerIt’s a druggy and brooding account of a young man’s experiences abroad. Our narrator in Madrid is an insecure poetry scholar away from home with an at&t calling card and an unease about his conversational Spanish abilities. He’s also a pothead, as evidenced in his vivid and introspective descriptions of getting high in strange places and vice versa. A trick in parts of the storytelling is the narrator’s concern about language, which enables him to zig-zag and restate phrases as if trying to interpret the Spanish and present the possibilities of what he hears in English. So there is wiggle room in stating things with precision, a circumstance that suits our intelligent but often stoned-out and shy narrator. As the novel progresses we see he is much better at communicating than he himself believes.

Lerner’s prose can sparkle.  For example he has a nice description of the nights typical to many tourists and Madrileños: sidewalks where there is the endless racket of plates and silverware on metal cafe tables, a constant thrumming of traffic, and couples meeting as the city comes alive late at night. The revelers go from bar to bar then to disco then to make-out sessions. At night’s end they share an iced chocolate before going home. The narrator describes the smell of Madrid as “wet stone.”

I’m prejudiced as far as finding keen interest this book. I was a student in Spain long ago myself. Doing drugs at that time (before the country was Westernized and still under Franco’s Guardia Civil grip) was not as prevalent and also very risky business. One of Lermer’s scenes presents a woman who makes gin and tonics “as a Spaniard would,” with a glass of ice filled with gin and a mere splash of mixer. That sounds more like the Spain I visited.

His prose can also nail the elusive aspects and feelings of a relationship, especially when one party (our lead character and narrator) is less than truthful. In fact he makes up some whoppers: dead mom, fascist dad, he’s rich, etc. As the story gets deeper, he has to contend with his own lies. In a terrific stretch of writing he compensates by acting out another lie. Unable to afford it, he takes a girl to an exclusive restaurant and buys everything in sight, then beds with her in a pricey room at the Ritz Hotel. All of the damage is run up on his parents’ credit card. Meanwhile, terrorists have blown apart a train at the Atocha station, and as a result protests are occurring throughout Madrid.  While his friends and love interest are participating activists, he is on the sidelines, a self-absorbed lump. He fails romantically with two extraordinarily patient and adorable Spanish women. You want to shake him. His poems are his only grace.

“Reminiscences of a Stock Operator” by Edwin LeFevre

Reminiscences_of_a_Stock_OperatorI’ve found no stock trading book as fun to read as this one. Cramer’s first Mad Money book is the only one I’d rate as even partially enjoyable. This one happens to be 100% enjoyable. It’s a novel, a memoir, incidentally a manual, and a bit of philosophy all rolled into one. The narrator is Livingston, a boyhood wonder with a keen memory for figures and an intuitive eye for fluctuations. His career tale is about boom and bust, reputation and ostracism, the constant ups and downs, the cycle of repeats and his need to secure and then raise the stakes. The author LeFevre presents the stock operator’s account in a conversational 1st person voice that is likeable and durable.

This book was written in 1923. Of course the technology and forecasting game has been vastly affected by computer technology, but many of the fundamental rules of playing the market remain the same. The novel presents advice in the context of the story. For example:

“…after making and losing millions of dollars I want to tell you this: It was never my thinking that made the big money for me. It was always my sitting. Got that? My sitting tight!”

It’s a fine novel with an interesting story, even without the aspects of being a lesson book in Market wisdom and attitude. It demonstrates by action as much as it tells. Livingston believes there is nothing the stock market hasn’t already experienced. It’s up to a trader/investor to read the signs and take some risks in order to be a profitable player. The reader will need to be willing to extrapolate in time and find the underlying market dynamics and psychology of traders as applied to Now. This story can make you want to lay out a stake, open a wildcat portfolio, and play the ticker with a Zen sort of knowing recklessness.

Proust “Swann’s Way” & Other Books: Fall Blogarama Complete

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A great read, though there were plenty of parts I skimmed. Swann’s Way,”  A Proust initiate’s reactions so far….Streaming syntactical parades loaded with the narrator’s sentiment. Dozens of sensory images. The first section involves the recollections of his sleeplessness as a boy, and his persistent attachment to his mother in order to sleep. Raised rich and privileged, boy Marcel’s stuck in his bedroom with a sort of childhood Brian Wilson syndrome. There are lots of food smells and tastes and lots of plants meticulously described. Of course the big deal is the infamous memory-provoking madeleine cake with tea made by the house cook-servant Francoise (cf. old theme of hired help and the dominant power thereof). When boy Marcel turns to fiction, Proust includes some interesting digressions about novels. The comments are erudite and expressed by the author. On returning more specifically to boy Marcel, the author describes the unaffected joy of reading books in one’s youth. It’s Part I in Combray. Towards section’s end, about 150 pages deep, the writing picks up pace and is more engaging. Our narrator has emerged and is an observer of the people around him now, outside his bedroom. There is a lot of content about Legrandin who is emblematic of  effeminate and pompous bores. Proust may have set him there to make the appearance of  Swann look even better by contrast.  The young narrator (I imagine him now as being ten to twelve) expands his horizons and takes long walks away from his aunt Leonie’s property. We learn that there are two walking routes, one of which is the more scenic and interesting – “Swann’s Way.”  As he roams, he begins to think of nymphs and women’s bodies.  He meets a love object, the strawberry blond daughter of Swann, Gilberte.  Mlle Swann is contemptuous of  him at this point and gives him an obscene Paris street gesture (which begs for research).  Further firing the adolescent fantasies of our narrator is the by-chance sighting of Mlle Viileul meeting with her lesbian lover. Strong stuff for a novel dating back so far.  But this is the rich and luxuriant canvas Proust paints of decadent bourgeois France.  Near the end of Part 1 we see young Marcel the narrator present us with his first serious attempt at writing, the famous “Three Steeples” scene.  When Part 1 ends, he is awakened by the rosy finger of dawn (right out of Homer), and the Combray section ends as if it had been a long night’s sleep ever since the insomnia and Mom’s kiss and the smells of tea and madeleine. Apparently, M. Swann himself has a bad rap for marrying beneath his station to the demimonde Odette, and this is the central story of Marcel’s more omniscient voice narrating Part 2.

At this point, before starting “Swann in Love,” I turned back pages to read the intro by the translator Lydia Davis. It confirmed some things — it let me know I was getting it. My reading had not been that haphazard.  Proust is very readable. Brilliant and digressing, with layers of symbology (e.g. plants and flowers, hawthorn for one). At times I skim over passages of the narrator’s vagaries, then a section comes along that pins me word by word to the pages. Davis says to be patient. Everyone has a different reaction to the book. But I’d say anyone who has not read at least 200 pages deep would never understand her intro, much less what Proust is gifting us with.

In Part 2, the superficial relationship between Swann the Dope and Odette the Sponge is grating my nerves. The pretentiously unpretentious circle of friends has set the chapter’s tone, which is flippant and slightly sour. Proust goes metafictional or at least self-author-referential in one passage that describes how one character in the inner circle (the artist) is such a talker and can go on and on and riff on any topic. Really? Meanwhile, the Verdurin crowd’s patience is wearing thin with the Teflon nature of M. Swann who is dodgy and attends not to join the group as a kindred soul but only to play his absurdly transparent love games with Odette. The group sees her as a shapely bundle and a male agitator, and Swann as a stick man with no point of view, and both as lacking keen wit or conversational vigor. We’re told rich Swann’s funds are sinking low as he pays out to “keep” her.  It is not clear if he is fucking her, but he is johnny-on-the-spot to both appease and manipulate her. When she goes her own way he falls apart at the seams and sinks into a juvenile state of insecure curiosity and exaggerated concern over losing her. It’s pathetic, of course, but the beauty is in Proust’s command of words to depict Swann’s sorry condition. The section title is now dripping with irony. Swann is in love only with the game of behaving like he’s in love. The reader soon sees Swann’s “cattleya” goo-goo sexual approach and his piano sonata heart-throbbing …all of it is pathos. It remains to be seen how this unfolds. Or crashes. Meanwhile M. Swann is losing ground as Odette has her way with him and keeps him at a distance. The original “I” narrator vanished in Part 2 and became 3rd person narrative god (little Charles/Marcel becomes author Marcel Proust).  In the last part of the novel, the “I” voice returns. Young Marcel seems still pre-teen though it isn’t specified, and is a reflection of Swann who he admires and emulates. He develops the same sort of fawning lovesick behavior towards his daughter Gilberte, who in turn is a reflection of her mother Odette (an unhappy surprise…Swann married her) by way of her aloof and cold disdain for the affections of boy Marcel. There is an implication he also has a thing for Odette and can sense her allure even at his early age. These will be topics in Proust’s second volume, In the Shadows of Young Girls in Flower. Not sure I’ll ever go there, but this first volume turned on the lights about a famous writer and the works that I have avoided and kept in the dark for years. A fine revelation and worth the reading effort.

SIDEKICKS  (novels also stacked by bedside for longterm reading, and only parts have been read so far. Maybe will split out into their own reports later)

mutfriendOur Mutual Friend,” Dickens’ last novel. Dark. More oblique and complex than his name novels. Opens at night with rival boats dragging for a body in the river. Gritty characterization of people in London the poor family kids, the dust heap hustlers, the wealthy consumer-conformists, greedy counselors and venal inheritance seekers, strange street dudes and informational posers of all varieties. Not far in, we get  Twemlow the human furniture piece and the funny Veneerings who are as superficial as their name sounds. lonesomedove

Lonesome Dove,”  McMurtry’s writing in this one is like rodeo-talk mixed with the campy voice of “Dodge Ram tough.” Events can sometimes be absolutely trifling. But when the author shifts to events of more substance the writing comes with an accomplished ease. McMurtry’s material can be both banal and sublime, but he is always skilled and literate. There is no short-changing. He gives us honest prose. Enormous writing energy is required to create scene after scene over 700 pages, weaving the motives and desires of characters, making them vivid, and placing them in a setting and milieu that we can see and experience. Larry Mc is getting up there now. What a treasure he has been over the years in American fiction. fandj

“Fortunata y Jacinta,” a novel studied in part when a Spanish language student many years ago. My professor hauled me along to an academic seminar at Mary Washington College. A series of speakers read esoteric papers about Benito Perez Galdos. I learned he was long since dead.  A strange osmosis took place. My Florida novel has two Spanish-speaking sisters as characters, who I named after Galdos’s dos casadas. Full report on this great novel when I’ve time to read it all, maybe next year.