In my recent review of Alvaro Mutis’ The Mansion, I noted the paucity of Mutis’ writing available in English. Basically, there is Maqroll and not much else. From what I understand, much of what would remain of Mutis’ writing to be published in an English-language edition would be his poetry, much of it featuring “Maqroll the Gaviero.”But there is also Mutis’ account of his time in Lecumberri, a Mexico City prison, after being accused of fraud by his employer Standard Oil in Columbia. Mutis would write, “I never would have managed to write a single line about Maqroll el Gaviero, who has accompanied me here and there in my poetry, had I not lived those fifteen months in the place they call, with singular precision, ‘the Black Palace.'”Mutis’ account, The Diary of Lecumberri, was published in 1959 by the Universidad Veracruzana and reprinted by Alfaguara in 1997.In 1999, a journal called Hopscotch translated and published a substantial excerpt of The Diary of Lecumberri, which is available as a PDF. Also included are a petition to the President for Mutis’ release penned by Octavio Paz and several letters that Mutis wrote to the journalist Elena Poniatowska from prison.When things go bad in jail, when someone or something manages to break the closed procession of days and shuffles and tumbles them in a disorder coming from outside, when this happens, there are certain infallible symptoms, certain preliminary signs that announce the imminence of bad days. In the morning, at the first roll, a thick taste of rag dries the mouth and keeps us from saying hello to our cellmates. Everyone sits himself as well as he can, waiting for the sergeant to come and sign the report. Then comes the food. The cooks don’t yell their usual “Anyone who takes bread!” to announce their arrival, or their “Anyone who wants atole,” with which they break the mild spell left over from the dreams of those staggering around, never able to quite convince themselves that they are prisoners, that they are in jail. The meal arrives in silence and everyone approaches with his plate and his bowl to receive his allotted ration, and nobody protests, or asks for more, or says a word.
The Association for Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) met in Chicago this week for their annual conference and book fair. Tin House was there. Granta was there. Every university press known to mankind was there. One Story delivered valentines, and Avery offered lollipops. Many, many writers showed up to network, get ideas, and press the flesh. You wanted to be there.Alas, I wasn’t. L.A. is far from Chicago, and I’m broke, and I had to work. Thankfully, there was an alternative…L.A.D.W.P., which might stand for the Los Angeles Department of Writers and Poets, or, say, Los Angeles Drinking Writing People, hosted its first event on Friday for all us Angelino writers who had missed the events in Chicago. We congregated in the back room at the beloved H.M.S. Bounty, a nautical-themed bar on the first floor of the famous Gaylord apartment building in Koreatown. We wore name tags. We drank martinis, beer, and even the occasional shot (who invited the poets?). There were writers working on short stories, or on their first novel, or their second or third, or, in the case of Mark Haskell Smith, on their fourth. The kids from the Hipster Book Club even made an appearance.We talked shop. The paperback of Janelle Brown’s first book, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, is coming out soon, and we discussed how to get it on the enviable fiction table at Skylight. (Good thing I work there now.) I asked the students at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program if there was a rivalry with the M.F.A. program at Riverside’s main campus; a consensus was not reached. Fiction writer and Los Angeles Times book blogger Carolyn Kellogg suggested we hold these events fairly regularly – perhaps one during the book festival?A painter who had been dragged to the event by her writer-friend asked me what I was reading, and then apologized, saying, “Is that an okay question to ask at these sorts of things?” I told her of course it was, and that I was almost done with Mrs. Dalloway.Antoine Wilson, author of the riveting novel The Interloper, had just flown home from a family trip to Mexico. From the plane window, he said, he had witnessed Los Angeles in its glittering, sprawling vastness, and just driving from his house on the westside, to the Bounty on the east, he had experienced the various, wildly different landscapes and milieus the city has to offer. Between my first and second martini (or, was it my second and my third?) Antoine and I talked about trying to write the L.A. Novel. We both agreed that capturing our hometown on the page might make your head explode. Thinking about it now, I know we’ve got Play as it Lays, The Day of the Locust, Ask the Dust, The Big Sleep, and Their Dogs Came With Them, among many, many others; but can a single book capture the entire city? (And don’t you dare say Bright Shiny Morning.)I asked Karen Moulding, who has recently come from New York, what L.A. was like for a writer. She said, “Oh my God! Writers are so nice in Los Angeles!” Author Janet Fitch added, “Yeah… because there’s so little at stake.” Perhaps YA author Cecil Castellucci had the wisest answer: “Bette Davis said, ‘Take Fountain.’ I say, ‘Take Franklin.'” Everyone agreed.
It’s been a moment since my last post, and I am here to apologize and explain. Ever since the fifth grade, when I took my birthday party to see the movie Outbreak and then read The Hot Zone thrice a row, I have been terrified of epidemics. Two weeks ago, my beloved and I returned from a week’s holiday in Mexico and immediately commenced moving our household to the other side of the country, in an automobile. We had spent the holiday in points around the state of Oaxaca, and then the last day we were in Mexico City, larking around the metro and holding hands with everybody.I know that currently public opinion finds the Swine Flu to be very passe, and we’ve all been reminded several times that regular flu kills a third of Americans every year, but three days after we returned from Mexico it was very scary to receive a phone call informing us of the new flu that was killing all these young people in the place from whence we came, and it was more scary when my beloved shortly thereafter developed a sniffle. What with my intense paranoia and the terrifying reportage on every website, I insisted we spend two days sitting in a seedy motel, taking our temperatures with a Hello Kitty thermometer which cost ten goddamned dollars yet recorded our temperatures at a steady ninety-six degrees. It was truly a long, dark teatime of the soul (for me, that is. The invalid was remarkably cheery about the whole thing), but it was only a cold that he had, and we are fine. However, all the furor, and the move and all, has limited my brain function; furthermore, most of my books are still packed away. So, friends, excuse this post, for it is budget, as budget, perhaps, as the motel in which we awaited our deaths. Here is my holiday/cross-country move reading list:1. The Magus. I have read and really enjoyed this book about four times. This time it sort of soured on me (or did I sour on it? I can never remember how that expression goes). The narrator Nicholas is, in the crude parlance of our times, a “douche.” This never bothered me before, but this time I found him sort of boring. Maybe it’s the fact that the novel, which is about a big elaborate game perpetrated on the narrator by some crazed rich people, is very mysterious and fast-paced and racy when you don’t know what’s going on, and once you are familiar with the plot you have more gray matter available to ponder how annoying the narrator is. Maybe it’s just not holiday reading. I do find it bizarre that it is on the Modern Library List (#93), while The French Lieutenant’s Woman is recognized only on the Modern Library Reader’s List (#30). The French Lieutenant’s Woman strikes me as an incredibly elegant and complex jewel in the crown of twentieth century literature, while The Magus is just kind of thrilling and has sexy twins in it. Am I being unfair here?2. The Things They Carried. Kind of contemporary for me. During my phase of reading about sad things I read a lot of novels about Vietnam, but it has been a long time since I revisited that period of American history. I thought these stories by Tim O’Brien were wonderful, but I don’t have a lot to say about them. I wept. War is awful. I don’t understand why anybody would want to send a young person off to kill people and die. We should stop having wars. Full stop.3. Garden of the Gods. The sequel to My Family and Other Animals and Birds, Beasts and Relatives. It pains to say this, but this third in the trilogy was kind of rubbish. The writing was careless and I got the distinct impression that Durrell needed to raise money quickly and decided to dash out something along the lines of the earlier successes. Although, in his defense, he probably needed the money to save a rare pink-footed equatorial mongoose, or some such. So, while disappointed with this third effort, I do not hold it against him.4. The Rise of Salas Lapham. I always wanted to read something by William Dean Howells, and now I have.5. The Bonfire of the Vanities. We stayed in a hotel in Oaxaca that had a classic example of the hotel/hostel library of books left behind by guests. Most of the books are in Dutch or German, the ones in English either have something to do with the Dalai Lama, or are by James Michener, or are a Tom Wolfe novel with the first sixty-three pages ripped out. I’ve read this before so I wasn’t worried about the first sixty-three pages, but I did miss them once I had gotten underway. I really get a kick out of Tom Wolfe. Everyone is reprehensible and there is no justice, but he doesn’t make me feel sad. Possibly contributing to the downfall of civilization, but super holiday reading.
Mark Kurlansky is one of the primary practitioners of an interesting type of history book in which he takes a specific type of object or group of people and uses it as a lens through which he views history. Kurlansky has recently gained notoriety with three books that followed this sort of historical exploration: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, and The Basque History of the World, all of which are clever and very readable and which, with their success, have spawned a sort of cottage industry (see: The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization by Iain Gately, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman, and many, many others.) Kurlansky, meanwhile, has a new book coming out that is a new twist on the one subject history book. It’s called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and it’s thesis is that 1968 was the year when the world grew up, so to speak. A book like this will probably be pretty fun for a couple of reasons: Kurlansky is a skilled writer and historian, who is sure to produce the sort of engaging history that is always a thrill to read; at the same time, it is always fun to take sides along the way when a writer decides to choose a such a specific thesis, one that will undoubtedly prove difficult to defend against claims of selective inclusion and omission of events in order to prove the point. I’m curious to see if he is able to pull it off.
At The Morning News, Robert Birnbaum interviews Jonathan Safran Foer. In his email announcing the interview, Birnbaum tries to elevate the current level of discourse surrounding Foer, who seems to have a target painted on his back these days: First, a word about what you will not read here – no reference to Steve Almond’s kvetchy and disingenuous hand wringing about Jon Foer’s new novel (at MobyLives.com)or the exponentially vile and bombastic heaving by Harry Siegal about the same at the loathsome and vile NYC weekly that produces journalistic marvels such as “50 Loathsome New Yorkers” and includes novelists on that hit list.The interview is long, and once again portrays Foer as thoughtful and unwilling to respond to criticism or praise, preferring to concentrate on just the reader and the writer:Foer: Really good books are books that have two authors, the reader and the writer. Or maybe the idea of an author is actually just a combination of two people, the reader and the writer? So when writing you use the word “tree.” Four letters. Very, very short word. Fits a couple millimeters on a page. But in the reader’s mind it becomes a kind of idealized version of a tree, and that tree is different for each person who reads the book and because of that a book is customized for each person in a way a song never could be and as a painting never could be.
Here are some more books coming our wayBack when I worked at the bookstore, Elizabeth Crane’s When the Messenger is Hot was one of the books my coworkers liked to evangelize about. Read “The Daves” and you’ll see why. Crane has a new collection of stories coming out in a couple of weeks called All This Heavenly Glory. Here’s one of the stories from the new collection, an amusing take on the personal ad which becomes much more impressive when you realize that the whole long piece is one sentence (unless you think using semi-colons is cheating). Three other reasons to like Elizabeth Crane: She lives in Chicago, the city I currently call home. She was interviewed in Tap: Chicago’s Bar Journal. She has a charming, unassuming blog called – for reasons I cannot discern – standby_bert.You may recognize the name Achmat Dangor because his novel of apartheid and its aftermath, Bitter Fruit, was shortlisted for a Booker Prize in 2004. Although the South African novelist missed out on any Booker boost his novel might have received here in the States, the book, which hits shelves soon, will likely garner some prominent reviews. In the meantime, here’s an interesting piece by Dangor about South African literature from the Guardian, and here’s a brief excerpt from Bitter Fruit.Alicia Erian’s debut collection of stories from 2001, The Brutal Language of Love was described as “seductive, erotic, smart and tartly humorous” by Publishers Weekly. Now Erian is returning with her first novel, Towelhead, a contemporary coming-of-age story about a half-Lebanese girl who moves to Texas to live with her strict father. The novel’s title comes from the epithet she hears from other residents of her less than enlightened suburb near Houston. A long – and very compelling – excerpt of the book is available here. And for a different taste of Erian’s writing, try this story from 2000 in the Barcelona Review.In 2002’s Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, Marc Estrin conjured up a second life for Kafka’s transmogrified protagonist. In his new novel, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Estrin wonders: what’s in a name? Saddled with an unfortunate surname, Arnold is at the mercy of preconceived notions and receives the attention of many unsavory characters. A brief excerpt is available here. Estrin also has a blog that is in its infancy.Look for more upcoming books in this space over the next few days.
Brian, one of my more well read and more ebullient friends, sent me this email emoting about one of the more underappreciated writers of the 20th century, Joseph Roth. Roth’s reputation and body of work were recently addressed in a New Yorker piece by Joan Acocella. Here’s Brian’s reaction:took the advice of the New Yorker and started reading Joseph Roth’s collection of short stories and am totally overwhelmed. read “Stationmaster Fallermayer” from the collection on your next break. amazing. i just ordered Radetzsky March from amazon (along with seamus heaney’s translation of Beowulf) –j. roth is one of those writers that was meant to write as we are all meant to breathe and move and sleep — his prose is beautiful: perfect constructions and his sentences convey much human truth — one of those guys who writes a line and immediately we ‘know’ it as we have felt it a million times but have never been able to articulate it the way he does… i look forward to pillaging his oeuvre…. He makes it sound pretty great. Unfortunately I didn’t get to read “Stationmaster Fallermayer” during my break at work yesterday, but I certainly intend to soon.