I had my first day at the races today when I went to Santa Anita and bet on the horses. The San Gabriel Mountains hover over the far side of the track. It’s a beautiful track and it was a good time, despite the fact that I lost some money. In fact my only winning bet of the day was a trifecta that paid $15.40. My excitment about this was much tempered by the old Filipino lady sitting behind me who was laughing her ass off at me about how small the pay off was. But it was a nice enough day at the races.
Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote has been on my reading list for a long time. Upon Max Magee’s suggestion I picked up the recent translation by Edith Grossman sometime in January 2004. It took me a good 11 months to work up the appetite, desire and guts to indulge in this phenomenal piece of writing. Described by many as the beginning of modern novel, Don Quixote relates a crazed Alonso Quixano’s sallies from his native La Mancha to various provinces of Spain. Beyond the usual adventures of the windmills, freeing of the slaves, and fair Dulcinea – all of which are a part of every child’s introduction to fairy tales and literature – lies the second part of the novel. Cervantes published two Don Quixote novels, and whereas the first one colors our imaginations as children, the Part II – published ten years after Part I, in 1615 – brings forth Cervantes as a witty author who employs Don Quixote’s insanity to illustrate the genius of his loyal servant Sanco Panza; the trivial entertainments of the Duke and the Duchess, whose cunning knowledge of the first novel, which is referred to numerous times in Part II, provide for the creative and chivalric plots that the nobles employ to ridicule Don Quixote; and a grand finale of sobriety that settles for once and all the history of Don Quixote. Cervantes ends the illustrious misadventures of Don Quixote to prevent new issues of fake Don Quixote novels from appearing. Cervantes’ answer to authors who attempted to profit on the first Don Quixote’s success, one Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda in particular, is derisive and rash – bordering on self flattery through his diatribe on other authors. Don Quixote opened a new window in my mind with its accessible language – thanks mostly to Grossman’s spectacular translation – and cunning use of word plays, romantic approach to the bygone days of knight errantry, mockery of social dogmas, integration of tangent plots – oh yes, you read at least 3 unrelated short stories in the novel – and eternally modern style. The novel’s mix of fantasy and reflections on society definitely place it in the pile of books the are must re-reads, albeit not in the short term – it will certainly take me a while to put aside another chunk of time for the second serving.I was distracted at times from reading Don Quixote by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings. Matt Clare, a close friend and literary fiend, was kind enough to present me with this magnificent work that captures a unique time period in British society. Clare’s inscription on the cover reads “no Baron [on the Trees, by Italo Calvino, which I had presented to him earlier] to be sure, [but] the Lord may still have something to teach us.” Indeed, Lord Henry Wotton quickly became a new idol of mine, decadent and lost, with no particular interest in anything that the London high society of the 1880s held dear, nor any high aspirations that provided for the chatter at tea parties. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of The Picture of Dorian Gray presents vain struggles and trivial issues in an intentionally serious tone, which mocks the core of British culture at the time. There is much to be said about the twists and turns of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which keep the reader on his toes and makes the story an amazing, insightful and philosophical page turner. What follows in the 4 plays and final ballad also collected under the same volume (Lady Windermere’s Fan, Salome, An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Ernest, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol) is not as intense as the opener, but nevertheless very entertaining and universal. Oscar Wilde’s only drawback is the limited nature of his subjects, but he does a phenomenal job in conveying the stuck up nature of the crowd that he once was a part of.Related: Max’s thoughts on Don Quixote
Buzz Poole’s Madonna of the Toast documents the mysterious appearance of icons sacred and profane, in rock formations, housewares, and foodstuffs the world over. A potato chip shaped like Bob Hope? It’s here. Vladimir Lenin on a shower curtain? Likewise. And it wouldn’t very well be Madonna of the Toast without the titular grilled cheese, which – you guessed it – NEVER GOES BAD.Poole has launched a blog where observers of related paranormal phenomena can document their encounters. If you’ve recently run across a Charlotte Bronte-shaped underarm stain, or a puddle that looks like William Shatner, we can only suggest you head over to the blog and share your experience… Inquiring minds, after all, want to know.
Those of you out there who have your own websites have probably noticed how the sorts of things that send people your way from the search engines is very unpredictable. In July I wrote about a fantastic poem called “The Clerks Tale” by Spencer Reece which appeared in the New Yorker new fiction issue this past summer. So many people have come here looking for it that I thought it worth mentioning again, and also because it really is a terrific poem. Here is my original post. Here is the poem, and as an extra treat, here is a link to Reece reading the poem.
Fresh off of shilling the latest feel good tome from Mitch Albom in its thousands of locations, Starbucks has taken a more serious turn with its follow up selection. Soon to appear at the many Starbucks undoubtedly near you is a memoir by a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. According to the AP’s Hillel Italie, Starbucks sold nearly 100,000 copies of Albom’s book, meaning that this selection represents a huge windfall for both Beah and his publisher FSG.Interestingly, the book’s selection continues a mini-trend in the popularity of books about or based on the tragic lives of child soldiers in Africa, including Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala and What is the What by Dave Eggers (reviewed recently by Garth). Starbucks is also, of course, part of the larger trend, several years old now, whereby entities outside of the book industry bestow bestseller status upon a book, and publishers and authors all wrangle to, in effect, win the lottery. At least in this case the lottery is being won by an unknown rather than an overexposed bestselling author like Albom. Meanwhile, the ultimate king-maker, Oprah, will later this month be making her first new book club selection in more than a year.
How do I occupy myself during the hours upon hours that I must spend in my car each week? My boredom with the music offered on commercial radio stations and (sadly) LA’s current array of noncommercial radio stations has led me more and more to listen to the various talk radio outlets, both public and commercial. The fact that my car doesn’t have a cd player exacerbates this situation, and the selection of tapes scattered around my car, under seats and wedged in pockets, is a sad bunch, indeed. And too often, in fact there are several blocks of time during the day when this occurs, there is nothing the least bit compelling on the talk outlets. In this situation I am resigned to listening to either music I don’t like or talk I’m not interested in, which is why listening to the audio version of James McManus‘s Positively Fifth Street last year was such a revelation. Having a good book to switch over to when radio went bad was a lifesaver. And you must understand, driving in Los Angeles is a life and death situation, and often your sanity is the first thing to go. Many people I know here have complicated arrangements which keep them entertained. Some have industrial-sized binders of cds that they rotate in and out of their cars, always fearing that a criminal might wipe out their entire music collection by breaking just a single pane of glass. Others resign themselves to staying on top of every trend in car and/or portable audio and month after month discmen give way to mp3 players followed by cd/mp3 players followed by iPods and the inevitable satellite radio, the current savior of all who must spend hours in transit. I fit in to neither category, and books on tape and cd are both costly and bulky, so I am always searching for my own solution to the mobile entertainment dilemma… Here, maybe, is a solution: an interesting article a while back in the New York Times about the digital revolution in audiobooks caught my eye. It’s already in the pay-to-read archives at nytimes.com , but I found a mirror of it here. Of course, in order to take advantage of this I would have to purchase some sort of digital audio device (an iPod would be pretty sweet), but the fact that I could use it to listen to books as well as music makes the idea much more appealing. Digital audiobooks are much more convenient and much cheaper than their cd and tape counterparts, and with the proliferation of portable digital audio devices, I suspect that this will be big trend in books this year.
A literary storm has been brewing here in Canada in recent weeks over the publication of the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories. (Maybe “literary storm” is pushing it – but there are at least three people weighing in on it). Here’s what seems to have happened: Novelist Jane Urquhart, who was asked to edit the anthology, has put more than a few noses out of joint not just over who was or wasn’t included, but over what she feels constitutes a “short story.”Now, any anthology is inevitably going to leave something out, displease some and enrage a few others, but Urquhart, who by her own admission isn’t an expert of short fiction, chose to include excerpts from memoirs, and, apparently, at least one chapter from a novel, all for the sake of pushing the boundaries of the definition of a “short story”. Which to my mind would be like taking Act 2 of a three-act play and putting it in the same context as distinctly one-act plays. The length isn’t the entire issue, in my mind. A sense of completeness is. A chapter or an excerpt from a novel may indeed have stand-alone properties, but by its very nature as part of a bigger thing, it is incomplete on its own. A finely-crafted short story, however, is complete. And a piece of a memoir? Despite recent memoir/fiction crossovers, a memoir is still a different animal than short story.Why Penguin, in its attempt to publish a definitive collection, didn’t place this editorial task in the hands of a short fiction connoisseur, or, better yet, a panel of connoisseurs who could at least bounce ideas off of each other, is a mystery to me. But, if nothing else, this little tempest has gotten Canadian readers engaged (a few of them fuming, and another leaping to Urquhart’s defense). And with the fairly high-profile press given to the backlash, the omitted authors are getting at least some attention. Shame it had to be on the heels of exclusion from a major anthology.
In those first years the roads were filled with refugees huddled in their rags. Filthy anoraks, torn and dustshraffled Starterjackets. Masked and mittened, tatterslumped on the macadam. Ruined hitchhikers on a boak and godless freeway. Their barrows heavy with shoom, dented pails of dirthat. Towing carts or wagons. On tandembikes and tricycles, eyes wild and heedless. Husks of men shuffling towards a charred and empty nothingwaste. Feverdreams of turkey on rye, barrelpickle on the side. Good, thick tomatoslices. But their ravenous mouths were sandwichless, the frail lie exposed. A cracked and empty cicadashell. The new world gray and skeletonboned, heavy with reckoning. No barrelpickles anywhere, not even Polish dills.
Late in the year and growing colder. The mountains looming. He told the boy that everything depended on reaching the coast, yet waking in the night he knew that there was no substance to it. There was a good chance they would die in the mountains and that would be that. Their rotting bodies found by the bloodcults, flesh boiled in great pots and eaten from wooden bowls. Their bones whittled to rude spears, hair made as twine. Hands dried and hollowed, worn as gloves. Skulls for soccerpractice. You had to hand it to those bloodcults. They really knew their way around a corpse.
They pressed on through the withered highcountry. Peckers small and anxious against the cold. Scrotes rocksolid, scrunched to the taints. In the afternoon it began to snow and they made camp early and crouched under the tarp. The cold gripped merciless, a silent oblivion. The man made a fire with a few meager branchscraps but it gave little heat. Camping, the man said with a grin as the snow came down all around them. Gotta love it. No response from the boy save a chattering of teeth. A tear frozen to his windreddened cheek. Kids these days, the man thought as he peered out at the steadyfalling snow. They never appreciate anything.
He woke whimpering in the night and the man held him. The boy. The man was holding the boy. Shh, he said. The man was saying that. Shh. It’s okay.
I had a bad dream.
I know. Your pants are wet.
Should I tell you what it was?
Please do, he said. He was lying though. He didnt want to hear it at all. He’d rather do almost anything.
Okay Papa. So we were in the house that we used to live in, and I was eating a pancake for breakfast. But then it wasnt really a pancake. It was more of like a car that uses syrup instead of gas. But there werent any wheels on it. It kind of lifted off the ground and hovered around? But only when youre singing the pancake song.
Interesting, the man said. For dreary grinding months, he had pushed a balky shopping cart through a numb and deadened land. Not a sound, nothing to see besides lowhanging fog and immolated ruin. Yet he had never been this bored.
The boy went on.
And mommy was driving me to school in my pancake car. She was singing the song, about pancakes being tasty and theyre better with blueberries in them. And the seats were big pieces of banana but they werent that sticky even though they were big pieces of banana. And then I told her that I forgot my mathbook and we’d have to go back but all of a sudden her head wasnt her head. It was a baseball player’s head.
Was it Sid Bream’s head?
Yes Papa. It was Sid Bream’s head. I dont remember what happened next. But it was really scary.
I know, the man said, hugging him closer. But he was lying again. He didnt think the pancake dream was scary at all.
In the morning of the day following they heard a low steady thunder that grew louder as they walked. Soon they were before a waterfall plunging off a high shant of rock and falling eighty feet through a gray fleen of mist into the pool below. They stood side by side calling to each other over the din.
Is the water cold?
Yes. It’s freezing.
Would you like to go in?
No. Thats okay, Papa.
Are you sure?
Yes Papa. It looks really cold.
Oh, come on. Lets go for a swim.
Okay Papa. If you say so.
The man took off his clothes and walked into the water. Snausage retreating like the head of a boxturtle. The boy undressed too and tarried at the edge, paleblue and wracked with shiver.
Come on in. It’s not too bad.
Are you sure Papa? It looks really cold.
The boy took a breath and dove in, screaming from the shock of it. He hopped up and down, bony arms hugging his thin chest. The man smiled, paddling to keep his head above water.
Are you okay?
Yes Papa, he said, jaw clenched tight. It’s really fun.
I knew youd like it.
Just then, the man saw movement on the swackened hillcrest up along the road. He swam to the boy and pulled him towards him. What is it, Papa? The boy said. The man said nothing and paddled them to a low bunt of stone behind the waterfall. Shh, he said as they settled in. We must be quiet.
It was a group of four, a man and three women. They were talking quietly. The man’s eyes widened. He knew what they were. If they saw the boy they would surely snatch him up. Never to be seen again. He cradled the boy to his chest.
Who is it, Papa?
They carried filefolders and clipboards, wore sweaters and cheap haircuts. The man looked away. Theyre from Protective Services.
Never mind, the man whispered. His heart ached as he watched them pass by. If they see us here they’ll take you from me.
Really? the boy said. He watched them with interest as they trod through the haze.