Thursday, January 31, 2008

This May Be Getting Out of Hand

More Books to Burn a Hole in my Wallet

Just slalomed home from another trek to the bookstore.

Went out specifically to buy books for my classes; came back with a bag a bit heavier than planned.

Ah, hell. I don't feel guilty, precisely. Just aware that I'm fairly stocked up for now. At least on new books. They'll eat the lining right out of the old wallet if you're not watching. And by you, I mean me. My sin, however venial.

Anyway, here's today's haul:

Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence

The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982

Both picked up for classes. The Lawrence for Advanced Fiction; Oates's journal for Dreams & Fiction Writing. Haven't read much Lawrence, so I'm into that, especially since it comes in place of reading Lolita for the fifth time. (Nothing against Vladdy the Great; you can't beat the "killer prose style" of maybe my favorite book; but stack of haven't-reads is growing tipsy on the shelves here, might as well dive in.) You can't swing a cat in a bookstore without hitting Oates. (I know, Katie: but why would you swing a cat?) And her journal is a great example of how that form feeds process. Hell, is process.

The Best American Short Stories 2007

Tales from Margaritaville, by Jimmy Buffett

What can I say? Borders, you have foiled me again with your Buy 1, Get 1 Half Price table. I probably own too many Best American collections for my own good, but they're always a great read. Katrina Kennison, when she was series editor, probably populated a quarter of my bookshelves with her picks for the annual: Rick Bass, Robert Olen Butler, Sherman Alexie, Corey Doctorow, Alice Munro, Philip Roth are among those I read first in these pages. And I slowed down long enough at the bargain dumps to see Stephen King guest-edited this year's edition -- pretty interesting -- and that after 16 years, Kennison had moved on in favor of Heidi Pitlor. All right. The Buffett book was suggested by my Parrot Head bro, Jake. And it was half price. So I took the bait. Short stories by the Bard of Key West? Well, it ought to be a good antidote, to say the least, for Munro and Oates.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Martian Chronicles

Dandelion Wine

All by Ray Bradbury, natch. I'd only intended to come home with Martian Chronicles, but... . These are the books I read and reread as a kid, checked out over and over from the library. It's a shame Borders didn't stock better, hardback editions, because for keepsakes like these, I would have bought them. But I've always been more about substance than style when it comes to stocking my shelves (hence the trail of broken spines marking my favorites), and I'm looking forward much more to owning these editions and having them at my fingertips whenever I want than helping the Borders cashier make like a Vegas day-tripper dinging the bell in slot row. When you can come home with three Bradbury classics for around twenty bucks, there's no reason to moan.

Not a bad day's haul, all in all.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

We got a Live One Here...

... literally. And fortunately for him.

I was humming along on the treadmill this morning -- not literally humming, mind you, but approximating that humming in the sizzle and burn in my thighs as the belt rolled along about 4.3 mph -- trying to block out the conversations of the women elbowing along in place next to me, talking about how their husbands are the ones who usually "initiate things" and how when they lose the next 14 lbs. maybe they'd be the ones to "get things going," if you know what I mean, when the whole tiring sharade was pleasantly interrputed.

A sweaty slab of a guy, we'll call him Hank, happily wheezing, and sweating there in place beneath the glow of Oprah and Regis broadcast on the health club televisions, blahd something de-blah de-blah blah blah, and the women stopped chirping, and grinned at him familiarly, and I paused in turning the page of the book (in this case, The Name of the World, by Denis Johnson) I cart around protectively in these situations, and I listened for a moment.

He said:

"Guy I know says he keeps fit doing one sit-up a day. (The women were positively rapturous in their attention at this point.) Half in the morning, when he gets out of bed; the other half at night, when he goes to sleep."

The women broke up laughing; I smirked my sort-of puzzled smirk; and Hank ambled down the line, wheezing and sweating.

Well, if that's what it takes to remind you the old heart muscle is still clenching, the blood's still coursing and the body still bends, well, OK.

I'd much rather get myself all worked up in a fierce froth and pile crunches atop running atop a healthy bedtime tussle atop the large bowl of tortilla soup iced by the extra cupcake besides and then hit the pillow in a pleasant snore only vaguely undercut by remorse and then wake to the alarm bell to do it all again.

But I do know from now on I'll give myself credit for at least one sit-up. Nice to know that if you just make it through the day breathing you can count yourself in the plus column on that.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Fortune Smiles on the Barter-minded

Fortune Smiles on ME


Barter-minded. Did I really use that in a subject line?

OK. Here's the poop. Purveyors of fine oriental cuisine have never been stingy with the fortune cookies, and in a household with two adults and one baby more prone to SMASHING said fortune cookies to dusty bits rather than eating them (though just give him the chance to gum that strip of paper), we often have an excess of good mojo (or the Chinese equivalent) to go around.

You, too, I'm betting.

So how to decide who gets which fortune? Can't you just feel the heavy gears of fate hinging on our decision?

Well, not exactly.

I made an executive move the other night over sweet and sour chicken and General Tso's and swapped my fortune, from a cookie already opened and almost devoured, with my wife's. I can't remember what my original fortune said, but hers was:


Which, assuming your average Wok Hut doesn't follow Associated Press style, and seeing as this was Friday, I took to mean Jan. 28, my first day of classes for the spring semester. I figured -- I can use all the "opportunity" I can get.

Which is funny, because we read so much into those inch-high strips, don't we? Opportunity means... what, excatly? Opportunity to be an asshole? Opportunity to cross the street? Opportunity to drive a sensible family sedan with a sometimes-kicking V-6 under the hood? Opportunity to eat the extra cupcake?

Well... check (shamefully... but we're talking ONCE all day here -- what's your record?), check to the checked power, check and check, and check (Mmmmmm... Hostess from the freezer).
I'm not about to take my on-duty Wok Hut representative to Vegas or anything, but not bad for $20 on a snowy Friday night.

And excess fortune cookies mean you can get another glimpse at the fates on the reheat. Mine was:


Ah, Wok Hut. Flattery will get you everywhere! And for the sake of ancient fast-food tradition, I will agree with you.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Putting the Sag in my Bookshelves

Trips to the bookstore are probably for me what some deep-sea diving expedition is like for someone in the Jacque Cousteau mode.

I know my way around the stacks and the dumps (those bins at the ends and in between aisles for which publishers pay big, big Benjamins), but I allow myself to get lost a little, to forget the names of authors or titles I may have scribbled on my memory, for later use (this isn’t the grocery store, after all; my intellectual life is not likely to suffer in the same way, say, my diet will if I forget the weekly supply of roughage), and get entranced by the glossy spines all lined up, the intoxicating scent of ink on paper.

I know that whatever I discover and pull off the shelves to take home is likely to occupy me for a few weeks, in the manner a queer shell or monstrous mollusk means work for the marine biologist. Books are one thing in my life I don’t get neurotic about, needlessly piling on the pressure of what I will do with the knowledge I acquire from them. I look at books as transportative for the sake of motion, little more. As a writer, most of what I absorb from reading is by osmosis. I don’t want to think about it too hard. I want to cherish the state of mind a good read puts me in, the natural and incremental way savored pages tip me toward my own filling of the blank space on the screen, the netting of phrases and sentences I’ll send marching along in my own due time.

It’s an easy way of becoming inspired, of acknowledging what I read as a corner of my writing process – a cozy one, warmly-lit and waiting for me to return, but a corner only.

It’s like the innocent joy you used to take in learning. The way you could eyeball a syllabus and come to a later week in the semester, a week in which a 30-page practicum were due, say, or a completed story draft, and rather than getting sweaty-palmed and wigged-out about it, you got a charge instead, thinking, “hey, by then I’ll have written a full story” or “wonder what the story will be like.” Not – hey, can I do it? Or, God, only eight weeks until the nightmare assignment is due. As acceptance and confidence that if it’s called for, you’ll deliver. You’ll learn how to along the way.

I shop for books now the way I used to buy music in the days of cheap cassette tape stockpiling at the local Hills and Hecks and K-Mart. Back then, I’d pluck five or seven albums at a time from the bargain rack, unearthing the rare and the weird and the influential: obscure Harry Nilsson, Jack Johnson, Joe Walsh and The James Gang, used Jackson Browne, solo Sonny Bono, vaguely battered Pixies, and dropping maybe a week’s allowance for the privilege of popping them in the tape deck of my VW Rabbit – or whatever friend happened to be driving – for the ride home. There was a joy in discovering the clumsily orchestrated or puzzlingly recorded tracks, and also the gems that could stump music school audiences later, when I did that gig, or at least serve as Happy Hour trivia. “Hey, does anybody know the B-side to the original release of this?” My wife, then merely a work buddy, would always chime in, “YOU know.”

It’s different now, filling out the – ahem – CD collection, which with the switch to the portable digital of the I-Pod generation is already obsolete. For me, books have the definite advantage over fingernail-picking the cellophane wrap and making three or four tries to peel away the damn sticker gluing the top of the case together. Who wants to cradle a plastic rectangle, anyway? Nothing beats the feel of a brand new book spine, the pages crisp as you finger them, the back unbroken as you flip to the opening pages for the first time, allow the opening sentences to beam the voice of that writer into your brain.

Or maybe this is all a long-winded excuse for why I come home to my wife every season having dropped around a hundred bucks on books at Borders or Barnes & Noble, or why when we came across a leaning wooden sign pointing down an alley to a used bookstore in Lahaina, Maui during our fifth-anniversary, she knew what happiness I’d experience weighing how many finds I could cram in our luggage for the return trip.

And hey, didn’t I sound this rhapsody only a few weeks ago in this very space?

So… what I came home with yesterday:

A lot of short story collections. Even though I’m digging into novel projects on my own work desk at the moment, I have a backlog of short fiction I want to get back into in revision. As I mentioned above, I didn’t go hunting for more short stories as a means of assigning myself work in that form, because my reading and writing are connected in a more intuitive way. Or at least I’d like to think so. It’s more of getting the music in my head for later, I guess. And more importantly, tunes I haven’t heard before.

So, along those lines:

The Toughest Indian in the World – Sherman Alexie
Runaway – Alice Munro
Drown – Junot Diaz
Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
The Whore’s Child – Richard Russo

I’ve liked just about everything of Alexie that I’ve read, but never picked up a full collection. I’ve read one story from the Diaz and Lahiri collections elsewhere, and both of these collections were debuts – and greatly acclaimed. As for Munro, hell, everything she publishes ends up in The New Yorker; might as well check it out in a forum other than the “Best of” collections. I loved Russo’s Empire Falls, and thought I’d give his short stuff a try.

I also picked up:

Tender as Hellfire – Joe Meno
Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir – Joe Meno, again
The Name of the World – Denis Johnson
Lyra’s Oxford – Philip Pullman

This is where the short story binge begins to break down. I picked up Meno because, again, what I’ve read I’ve liked, and I wanted to get some of his short stuff. But I hadn’t read Hellfire yet, a novel about adolescent guys growing up together, a bit like the platform for my Hell’s Darling Boys, but maybe too close to the bone as I get into that novel? I thought about putting it back, but didn’t. Johnson’s book is a novella, and I love his work in the “longer” short form. (It was also cheaper than paying the full hardcover price of his recent National Book Award-winning novel. Funny, Borders, how Tree of Smoke was 25 percent off before the award announcement!) And the Pullman rounded out my recent circuit of the His Dark Materials trilogy; something short, and something to stash away for my own kids someday. If Jonah is able to move from The Golden Compass, etc., to shorter stuff by uncovering the 40-odd-pages Lyra’s Oxford, well, that’s great. I’ll take it.

All this should keep me busy, polishing mollusks so to speak, as the new semester gets underway Monday. And I haven’t even bothered checking what I’ll be buying for classes.

Good thing, then, when I came home to my wife, I also came home with groceries.