Pete Dexter has been in the news around here lately, and keeping that ball rolling, I’ve contributed a piece to The Rumpus series “The Last Book I Loved” about Dexter’s collection of columns, Paper Trails. Technically, it’s not the last book I’ve loved (more recently there’s been Waiting for the Barbarians, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Shadow Country, A Mercy, and a few others), so let’s just call it “One of the Last Books I Loved.”
The WGA writers’ strike (should that all be capitalized? has it been trademarked yet?) has hit the economy of Los Angeles in a big way, hurting everybody from the top down. Some idiot actually predicted that the strike would be over by Christmas (D’oh!). Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and LA has really suffered. But will anyone actually benefit from the writers’ strike? It seems to me that Fox and the NFL might.With the Super Bowl looming this weekend, it would seem to me that Fox is in a position to demand record prices for its ad time, already the most expensive TV ad time of the year. Networks have been running reruns, game shows, and reality TV for the past three months, leaving TV advertisers with smaller and smaller audiences (or eyeballs, as they apparently say in the biz). The Super Bowl, already the launching pad for many national advertising campaigns, might be the only interesting programming on TV for some time, especially if the Academy Awards end up airing a watered-down version of its annual show (The Academy Awards are set to air on Sunday, February 24), as is planned unless the WGA and the studios reach an agreement by then. Couple this with the fact that there’s major national interest in the game, with the undefeated Patriots facing a team from the nation’s largest media market, the New York Giants. It has the makings of the proverbial perfect Super Bowl storm.On the subject of the writers’ strike, I recommend anyone interested in the history of screenwriting check out Marc Norman’s excellent book What Happens Next. His book provides terrific context for how the entertainment industry has dealt with previous technological changes (which, after all, is exactly what this strike is all about).
On Feb. 9th, the documentary Operation Homecoming: Writing the War in Iraq went into limited release across the U.S. The movie follows the National Endowment of the Art’s (NEA) program to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan put their experience into words. Although the movie itself has gotten mixed reviews, the program has been considered a great success. After workshops across the nation led by the likes of Vietnam veteran and novelist Tobias Wolff and Tom Clancy, soldiers’ writings were collected in an anthology Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. The book includes short stories, poems, letters and essays, arranged by theme and, unlike the movie, has received a considerable number of accolades.Brian Turner, whose book Here, Bullet, a collection of poems on the war in Iraq, was reviewed here last week, was a participant in the workshop, and appears in the movie reading his poem “What Every Soldier Should Know.” Although I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see the movie or pick up a copy Operation Homecoming, I have in the past found great value in the first person accounts of World War II collected by Studs Terkel in his book The Good War, and especially in Haruya Cook’s and Theodore Cook’s Japan at War (an absolutely stunning accomplishment that is a must read for anyone interested in Japan’s part in WWII.) The power of these accounts to educate and inform can’t be overestimated and all indications are that Operation Homecoming will be an excellent resource for those interested in another perspective on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.More information on the Operation Homecoming Program is available through the NEA.Bonus Links: Operation Homecoming mentioned in the New Yorker “War Issue.” And a list of World War II non-fiction compiled with help from readers of The Millions.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading two illuminating books about the Soviet Union. Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum is the first compresive account of the Soviet system of forced labor and random terror. Now that the shroud of secrecy and propaganda is lifted, the reality of twentieth century Soviet Union, and especially the period of Stalin’s rule, is of a catastrophically malfunctioning totalitarian state. At times the horror of the Gulag is almost unfathomable. Applebaum’s research here is clearly very thorough. She makes ample use of survivor memoirs, recently opened Soviet archives, and interviews. Gulag is an unwavering look at a piece of human history that is difficult to behold. Any inclination to sympathise with the Soviets is dispelled by this remarkable book. If Gulag is a book about the rot at the center of the Soviet system, then Lenin’s Tomb by David Remnick chronicles the point at which the rot became more powerful than the Communist Party’s iron fist. Remnick is a storyteller telling the story of a riveting period in history. As he writes, “To live anywhere between Bonn and Moscow in 1989 was to be witness to a year-long polical fantasy. You had the feeling you could run into history on the way to the bank or the seashore.” Lucky for us, Remnick spent 1989 (as well as the years before and after) in Moscow. Reading these two books simultaneously has provoked in me a minor obsession with 20th century Russian history, which is fantastic because in the last year alone several compelling books about the subject have come out. I’ll let you know if and when I read them.Some Good BookfindingToday, on my day off, I went by a nearby Goodwill store and found a mini treasure trove of good reading. The best find was 7 old issues of Granta, each one chock full of fantastic writers, including some of my favorites like Ryszard Kapuscinski, T. C. Boyle, and Haruki Murakami. Flipping through the tables of contents, I can see I’m in for some great reading. I let you know what I find. I also bought an old issue of Story magazine from 1997 featuring stories by Heidi Julavits and Bobbi Ann Mason among several others. I don’t know who is giving away old literary magazines but I was more than happy to find them. I also found two history books that look pretty great: Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan which is about Eastern Europe and The Price of Admiralty by John Keegan, a history of naval warfare. And just in case all these books are too serious I found a copy of The Essential Calvin And Hobbes for only two bucks… yes!Don’t ForgetGo to Realistic Records to get a copy of the Recoys album. And go see them play Friday June 20th 9pm… Kingsland Tavern at the corner of Kingsland and Nassau in Greenpoint (that’s Brookyn by the way). I’ll be there!
Finishing a book is a great accomplishment, but does a writer revel in it? A rock star plays the last note and the crowd roars, a gymnast sticks a landing and thrusts her arms into the air, and an actor walks on the stage to take a bow. How about a writer?
As I embarked on the project of asking writers how it felt finish a book, I was reminded of what Kurt Vonnegut said about a reviewer who rages about a book, “He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” Vonnegut speaks to the post-publication feeling of being reviewed, often hot and gooey, but also goes some way to describing the feel of publishing a book from writer’s perspective.
How did it feel to finish your book? I asked nine writers.
What I found was a group of people who seemed to have put on full armor — broadly acknowledged to be the minimum protective gear needed to get through a book length project — only to be tackled by a hot fudge sundae. They were in various states of recovery. Most had chocolate sauce still dripping from their chins.
Bream Gives Me Hiccups, actor Jesse Eisenberg’s book of stories, will be published September 8. As one who has stood under the lights, he might carry a sense of a finale into fiction. When I asked, though, he said, “I mainly write stage plays, so most of what I have written has been intended to be performed. In that way, finishing a book of short stories feels, by comparison, incomplete because there is no cathartic performance of it.”
Patrick deWitt might agree as catharsis remains elusive. His novel, Undermajordomo Minor, comes out on September 15 and he remains in a restless state, “I still find myself considering the galleys, almost daily, reviewing this or that section, thinking of little things I might tweak.” He made clear, however, that the book is actually finished, “I’m not prepared to say goodbye to it yet.”
How long will this continue for deWitt? Sonya Chung pointed out that the flaws in a published novel might be, “fundamental flaws of the self.” She went on to say, “like the self, a novel is never really finished: pencil markings abound throughout my copy of my first novel Long for This World, which has been in print and between covers since 2010.” There could be trouble.
I found small relief in Lori Lansens’s mix of emotions. The author of The Mountain Story said, “typing those final lines — doesn’t bring a sense of euphoria for me, but relief, supplanted by fear merging with pride, upended by grief.” She also acknowledged the personal connection, “I imagine I’ll feel exactly the same way when I send my son off to college.”
It could be that Nicholas Ripatrazone has already sent a kid to college in Texas or somewhere close, as he felt a release after finishing his novel Ember Days. For him, “place comes first in the genesis of a story.” As New Mexico and Texas dominated the narratives, now that the book is published it has freed him up, “to reach beyond the Southwest and allow new settings to guide my fiction.” When my kids leave the house, may I also fly free.
Hannah Gersen showed wisdom in allowing the finish of her as yet untitled novel to sneak up from behind, “I wrote the final sentence of my novel without knowing that it would be the last one.” Perhaps this is why she was able to find a quiet and peaceful place. “That was it. I was done. My mind got really clear and calm.”
I wouldn’t exactly describe Mark Schatzker, author of The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor as clear and calm, but he was enthusiastic as he talked about the experience of writing non-fiction. He sold the book proposal first and then set out to write the story. “The world, as always, turns out to be stranger and more amazing than you imagined. And you lose yourself in a story — a true story — that has never been told before.” That sounded fantastic and couldn’t wait to hear what happened, was it a triumphant end? “Then I pressed send,” he said. “And it was over.”
I did find jubilance in Jonathan Evison who talked of his novel that will publish on September 8. “Finishing This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! felt triumphant.” But where there was a now party, there had once been pain: “The early drafts were a mess. They were stultifying in their linearity. I didn’t have my ‘aha’ moment until very late in the game. Once I re-imagined the structure, the final draft wrote itself in two weeks.”
Naomi Jackson said of finishing: “ending was also a beginning.” She described how triumph and pain came together, “I knew that finishing The Star Side of Bird Hill meant giving it over to readers, and allowing something that had been private for so long to enter the public sphere. This moment of opening myself and my book up to the world was thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.”
How does it feel to finish? The answers range from delicious to messy to many things in between. Schatzker, as a food expert, was able to precisely describe the sensation in a way that could double for the feeling of being tackled by a hot fudge sundae. “It’s relieving, it’s gratifying, it’s sad, but above all, it’s weird.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy Page.
Though I’m a little late in getting around to it, I wanted note Scott’s recent essay on literary nonfiction at Conversational Reading. Inspired by the recent discussion of Ryszard Kapuscinski following his death, Scott highlights three notable practitioners of the form: Lawrence Weschler, Jonathan Raban, and Geoff Dyer. I am a huge fan of literary non-fiction (or long-form journalism), so I enjoyed Scott’s in depth look at these three writers.Those who are interested in this form and who are looking to fill out a “to be read” pile with some literary non-fiction should take a look at couple of fairly comprehensive booklists that have been posted here in the past. The first is a list inspired by Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism a collection of interviews of some of the top names in literary non-fiction. Ours is a companion reading list of the books by the writers featured in Boynton’s book. We also have a reading list from a class at NYU taught by Lawrence Weschler. Millions contributor Garth took the class a couple of years ago and jotted down titles and names that the class delved into or just touched upon. It’s a terrific resource.
A brand new blog called The Happy Booker has arrived on the litblog scene, and its proprietor Wendi is wasting no time jumping in to the fray. Also worth noting: I Read a Short Story Today in which Patrick reads and discusses a new short story (almost) every day. It’s pretty entertaining so far, but he should add comment functionality so we can get some discussion going.