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east bay WINTERS split
journal #12 - East Bay/Winters SPLIT   Jan. 6 to Mar. 8, 2012
also: journal #13 - #14 - #15    
Most every week we're on interstate 80 ... moving between the East Bay and the Central Valley city of Winters. We are splitting our time, 3 or 4 days here, 3 or 4 days there—keeping busy, and, as always, reading. There is always a heavy, over-stuffed sack of books moving right along with us.

more book journals
      what's John reading NOW?      Vicky's Page
crowingbook to crow about    not the best or the worst    special type of book special creative design    p no enjoyment, but no warts



free willas i lay dyingcompletestay awakegrammar girl'sNO image


  Free Will by Sam Harris (NF/66p) 3.8.12

   Sam Harris has always held my interest with his previous books, but this book contained very little I agreed with, and nothing that I wanted to carry forward in my life. I found myself very annoyed (aka pissed) at this little sixty-six page book. His argument, he will tell everyone, is a proven scientific one. This was the closest that I've come to throwing a book, since a cost accounting textbook in college. I will write more once I calm down, reread some of the book, and put my thoughts together.

   Well, I have reread two thirds of the book and I just don't agree with his scientific proof, or many of his other conclusions. I would love to talk with others who have experienced this book. I choose to live my life with my own conclusions, as most of us do. It would seem a hollow life to be going through it thinking the way Harris does. I'm not a follower of any religion or dogma, and I don't wish to entertain the thought that the decisions made in my life are predetermined completely by my previous actions and history—it wouldn't seem as if you were actually LIVING your own life. We all want to do more than take up space, and I think most of us want to exercise free will in our lives. I'm done with this book.  


Here are some maddening words from Sam Harris:

"Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have."

"People feel (or presume) an authorship of their thoughts and actions that is illusory."

"Many people worry that free will is necessary illusion—and that without it we will fail to live creative and fulfilling lives. This concern isn't entirely unjustified."

I can't give the book a p rating, because it did a lot for me—it ticked me off ! It moved me.


  As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (F/267p) 3.5.12

   Well, I must admit that this book, for the most part, did not click with me. Maybe my mind just wasn't set to Faulkner. The last third of the book was starting to come together for me, but the large number of divergent viewpoints, told in rather short segments, didn't work as a literary device for me. I did appreciate that the dead person of the story...got to share feeling as well. I will come back this way again and read it before I find myself dying...or so is my plan. Sometimes the old mind just doesn't find its way to discover the literary gold, sometimes it does.  

   I will leave you with the following wonderful line. "My father said that the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead."


crowing Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor by Flannery O'Connor (F/550p) 3.1.12
   While I was reading Second Reading, a wonderful collection of book reviews by Jonathan Yardley, he started going on about O'Connor, and I realized that I had not ever read much of anything by O'Connor. Sure, I've seen the photos of her and her peacocks, but I had read precious little.

   Now I'm in the know. Her writing is a pleasure. How she does southern dialogue is a real treat, and the occasional use of the term nigger, only in dialogue, is simply a true representation of the times and the people. She has many reoccurring themes, that become quite comfortable—and you would expect them to show up, and when they did, they become a part of the life and the landscape of an O'Connor story. The older white woman who's holding down a once grand estate, with the hired hands she "knows" are taking advantage of her, but to whom she feels some responsibility for, and, yet, bitterness towards, comes up again and again. She died when she was only thirty-nine. I wish there were many, many more stories to read. I have never been to the South, I know visiting Florida as a Vermont snowbird doesn't count, but I now feel a kinship through O'Connor's powerful writing. I can almost hear a peacock crying out in my mind—make that noise stop.


crowing Stay Awake by Dan Chaon {pronounced Shawn} (F/254p) 2.24.12
   This is one very strange and wonderful collection of short stories by a very-talented writer. An author's ability to create so complete a mood, to elicit such strong feelings, simply by putting words together on a page—is what keeps this reader reading. I was moved.

   The first couple of stories are unsettling and close to rare horror. Vicky found them quite disturbing as well. But some the following stories seem to take on almost a sweeter, less threatening and depressing edge. Of course, this change could just be my mind adjusting to the world of Stay Awake. Along with the horror, comes an encompassing darkness that seems to just comes from all the problems that life seems to heap upon certain people—how do you cope with it all? Suicide, contemplated suicide, and the loss of a finger while falling from a ladder, as well as several other events, tie several of the stories together. The last story pulls a number of things into it from many of the previous stories.

   I found all of these stories finely written, and I was sad to feel the remaining pages thinning out—as I got closer and closer to the end of the book. I read several reviews of Stay Awake, and several mentioned the word foreboding. It is such a grand word for this collection. I leave you with another's words on the book. 


The best of his stories arouse a feeling of deep foreboding. Then, with the reader’s realization of what’s about to emerge from the shadows, comes a shock of recognition. This is the great guilty pleasure of good horror fiction: the sickening moment when the monstrosity at the heart of the story’s darkness suggests itself to the eager imagination, while still withholding its true shape. “Stay Awake” is a superbly disquieting demonstration of that uneasy power. Patrick McGrath in The New York Times


  Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty (NF/209p) 2.21.12

If you've read much of my writing, you know I could use a tune-up here and there. I have now read the book from cover to cover, taken some notes on many different things, and we will see if this rather well-done (for an Internet-based bit of writing), does me any good. It's up against years of my butchery of the written word.


  Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau (NF/48p) 2.19.12

This slender little volume was also included in that Quality Paperback Book Club box set, in the great house that we were staying in at Sea Ranch. It was a familiar place to have my head, as I have read this work many times. At times, these words caused me to think some about the Tea Party folks, but the ignorant can't ruin such a good, smart bit of writing for me.  


the maine woodssongs of unreasonthe man within my headlike shaking hands with godoff the gridwe wanted to be writers


  The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau (NF/391p) 2.19.12

There I was looking through a beautiful home at Sea Ranch, when I spied a four-book boxed set of good old HDT. Thoreau shared my birthday (that's date, not year), and I have always had a love of his work. There I was, surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscape and seascape I know, and the words of one of our greatest naturalist were practically jumping into my hands. Somehow, I have never read this volume before, and it was a true pleasure to remedy that situation. My favorite works of his, have him studying a landscape day in, day out, but his traveling words were splendid. He was such a wonk for the natural world. Scientific names easily rolled off his pen, yet, it was the straight-out observations of flora, fauna, landscape, and inhabitants that always make him a delight to me. Here was Henry writing about the Indians that were serving as his guides in the backwoods of Maine, and he was keyed into how they were lamenting how much things had changed, and that their young tribal members weren't following the old ways. He also saw how these native guides were amused and embarrassed by how little the white men knew of the land and its plenty. My biggest regret in reading this book—was that there wasn't a damn atlas in the whole house. You see, my family vacationed in Maine every year when I was young and growing up in Vermont. It would have been great to have seen better how this river ran into that one. But as Mick singing-at-the-White-House-for-Obama Jagger sings, "You can't always get what you want." I have little to complain about, I got to stay on a glorious part of the Pacific coast and journey to the Maine woods with an outstanding guide guide.


Songs of Unreason by Jim Harrison (F/141p) 2.15.12

This was a Valentine's gift from my loving Vicky. Jim has such a way with poetry...I'm a happy man. I just read that this book is a finalist for a Los Angeles
Book Prize in poetry, all right Jim. This has become a go-to book for me—I keep it near, and dip into it repeatedly.


The Man Within My Head by Pico Iyer (NF/238p) 2.11.12
This is a strange book to describe. It's a memoir by Iyer, and there is much about his life, his father, and his upbringing...but there is also another man in his head...the author Graham Greene has had a grip on his thoughts for many years.


Like Shaking Hands With God: A Conversation About Writing by Kurt Vonnegut & Lee Stringer (NF/78p) 2.10.12
   At less than 80 pages, this is a small, little conversation of a book, but there are some humorous and moving words within. The event recorded took place in October of 1998, after the publication of Vonnegut's Timequake and Stringer's nonfiction Grand Central Winter. Stringer wrote of the homeless, drug-addled people that lived beneath Grand Central Station. He had been one of them, until one day when he started using the resin-covered pencil that he used in his crack pipe, to write with. He wrote for the Street News newspaper, which was the very first American newspaper sold by the homeless. Eventually he ended up as its editor-in-chief, and solved his homelessness by sleeping on the couch in his office.
   Vonnegut is very supportive of Stringer throughout the conversation, as he was for Stringer's writing, comparing him to Jack London, and otherwise helping to promote the book and the man. Often times with Vonnegut, it's hard to take him too seriously when he's seemingly shooting from the hip in a conversation. When those same words are spread out permanently on the page, one sees that there is much more than a funny rift or some clever word play involved. Though the late Vonnegut's unpublished works are still coming out, as well as several biographies, I miss the man. And, if I were to come across Grand Central Winter, I would give a serious look, he's impressive. I found this book as a $4 remainder at Moe's Books and I'm very glad that I did.


Here are a few quotes taken at from their conversation:
 KURT: "The common ground? We have written out of our own lives, and being writers was easier for us because we had something to write about. Thank God I was in Dresden when it burned down." [Laughter]
"Joe Heller said to me one time that if it weren't for World War II he'd be in the dry-cleaning business."
KURT, on why write: "Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don't care about them. You are not alone."
"People will continue to write novels, or maybe short stories, because they discover that they are treating their own neuroses. And I have said about the practice of the arts that practicing any art—be it painting, music, drama, literature, or whatever—is not a way to make money or become famous. It's a way to make your soul grow. So you should do it anyway."
LEE, on if he helps old friends still on the streets: "You know I barely rescued myself. And one thing I noticed from being on the street is that, looking the other way, all of us are really—everybody in the room—is really just groping their way around in life. We grab things that tell us we've got it all figured our, but if I ask for a show of hands of people who have just the littlest bit of doubt that they don't have it all figured out, I bet you everybody would raise their hands. So in that context it would be kind of presumptuous to know you could save the next person—at least for me. This may surprise a lot of people to hear me say it, but it's an honest answer.... Saving myself is going to be a lifetime job, so I don't know what's right for you. And I wouldn't presume to tell you right now."


Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America by Nick Rosen
(NF/292p) 2.9.12
   It's called a growing movement that's going on across the country and around the world. In this book, it quickly becomes quite obvious that there is little coordination and structure to this "movement." Possibly calling it a movement is overstating it. A good argument could be made that many of these people arrived at living off-the-grid simply because the situations of their lives pushed them there. Many of the others in the book, really went out of their way to live out of the way, in a way not connected to our ever-consuming society.
The writing of this book bothered me. The author is involved in living part-time off the grid himself, but in his book, he seems to always be inserting himself into the middle of many of the stories he is relating about some very interesting people. That's not interesting. Not that all the people he meets are interesting either. The author also doesn't seem to be able to discern who to concentrate on and who to briefly mention. The book is filled with some very different people, people you aren't going to be running into at the grocery store tomorrow. Some of them are very serious off-gridders, some are part-timers, and some I honestly had no idea why they were in the book. The politics, philosophies, and lifestyles are all over the map—that I found very interesting.


Here are a couple of Thoreau quotes that were highlighted in the book.
"Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new."
"Things do not change; we change."
 And one to ponder from Dr. Seuss, "America is a society of obsolete children."
I will leave you with some thoughts I do quite like from the author.

"Most of the people I met on my tour of America are losing faith in the grid, in both its literal and metaphysical sense. They don't feel a sufficient advantage to being inside the fabric of society. This led me to conclude that living off the grid is more than a lifestyle choice. It is a political act, with benefits way beyond the individual off-gridders."


crowing We Wanted To Be Writers: Life, Love and Literature at the Iowa Writers' Workshop by Eric Olsen & Glenn Schaeffer (NF/305p) 2.6.12

   I am a sucker for just about anything on writers. That condition has brought me to this very interesting collection of observations on the Iowa Writers' Workshop, by the people who taught and learned many things there. There's a lot of name-dropping, but that comes with the territory when you're discussing the top banana of writing programs in the country. So let me drop some of the writers that have gone the Iowa way: John Irving, John Cheever, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, E.L. Doctorow, Norman Mailer, Raymond Carver, Jorge Luis Borges, Stanley Elkins, John Hawkes, Donald Justice, and on, and on, and on. Many times the program, the university, and the state, where not big enough to handle the egos.
The book is made up of sections on a general topic, and then the writers are quoted in segments about their personal experiences. There does seem to be a general consensus that much, to most of the learning, was brought about by their fellow students. According to many of the students, the people running the workshops and classes, often seemed less than helpful, to entirely drunk (John Cheever's name is mentioned). Jane Smiley said of her time there, "Our teachers were writers, not teachers. They knew a lot about writing, but hadn't given a lot of thought to how to communicate what they knew."
   The time covered by the book was a time of numerous drugs, plenty of alcohol, and quite a bit of sexual activity. A fun time was not had by all. Some people look back on the experience as not helpful or healthy, but most were impressed by the quality of the people involved. Simply getting this much talent together was a learning experience in itself.
The insights into the personal styles, lives, and works of these major literary names was a thrill to me. Reading about John Irving telling his students everything about how he writes and to be writing The World According to Garp while he was there, is pretty cool. 
I will leave you for now with the following from Sandra Cisneros, "What's the worst mistake a writer can make? Thinking too much. Don't think. It's not a bout thinking. You think when you edit. When you create, say yes, yes to everything. When the bell rings and it's the Jehovah's Witness folk, answer the door and say yes. The guy at the door might be in your story."
   Oh, and another gem, from a stoned séance that was held with Jane Smiley, Leonard Michaels, Brenda Hillman and possibly others that nobody could remember, and passed on by Doug Unger, "...we determined that writing poetry tends to make you more physically beautiful, and that writing fiction would tend to make you ugly."
   This was a fun book to read. Don't expect a great deal of structure, or certainly any lessons of how to write or get published, but it's a book full of great quotes (I filled up many pages of my book journal) and stories about the many moments that these fine writers involved—will always remember.



the lakethe best american essayscaribou islandpassages of h.m.blueprints of the afterlifethe map of time


The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto (F/188p) 1.28.12

It is always good to return to a writer with whom you're comfortable with. Every since the beginning of Bananamania, with The Kitchen, I have been a Banana fan. With The Lake, she has a serious fantasy element at work, and combined with several other elements in the book, I was reminded in a way of 1Q84. I have often wondered about works in translation and how that could possibly change the feel and the emotion of a story. Yet, over the years I have read many Japanese works, and there is so often a distant, a formality almost, of feelings between lovers and friends. If it's not a cultural thing I'm sensing—it must be a conspiracy of Japanese writers. At the same time, Banana always includes characters, who for various reasons, can't help but speak very bluntly, directly, and honestly, at the times when most people would be uttering those polite, little, white lies that are meant to make nice. This directness is very refreshing and cuts so quickly through the bull. It also tends to give the other characters something to think about, and Banana handles these situations so well. Her critics label her lightweight, but I think they aren't seeing how well she portrays her characters and their emotions so directly and cleanly...maybe...they just don't get it. In the meantime, she is appealing to enough people that her books have sold more than six million copies worldwide.


page 63 on the death of her mother (This is a feeling much like my own. - John)

"All along, just because I lived away from my mom, I thought I had achieved independence, but now that she was gone I finally realized how much, in my heart, I had depended on her."

"Ms. Yosimoto has an effortless ability to penetrate her characters' hearts." — The New York Times
"Beguiling." — Library Journal


crowing The Best American Essays edited by Christopher Hitchens, series editor Robert Atwan (NF/256p) 1.23.12

I took my time, but I just finished this superb collection of essays. At first, I was jumping around in the book, reading the ones that caught my eye. And then I just started at the beginning and read every essay in order. I will find my notes and give you some details very soon.


crowing Caribou Island by David Vann (F/293p) 1.21.12

This was a recommendation from Vicky and I'm glad I followed her lead. This was incredibly well-written, really engaging, thoroughly depressing. Caribou Island paints a pretty bleak picture of this Alaska. Some of the characters are fascinating and deeply disturbed—maybe that's fascinatedly-deeply-disturbed. It's a book that keeps you reading the next page, and the next page, and the next page ... and sadly you soon find yourself out the last page. Thoughts and images of this book keep following me around. It could be a really impressive movie, with the right screenplay.


crowing The Passages of H.M. - A Novel of Herman Melville by Jay Parini (F/454p) 1.19.12

I am found this novel a fine read. Much about Melville's life is not known, but Parini fleshes him out by using alternating chapters of his life's story, and personal reflections "told" by his practically unknown wife Lizzie. She came from a wealthy family, which was most welcome as Melville saw no literary success during his lifetime, and she quickly became aware that Herman was a troubled, intense man. Some critics have found fault with Parini's language ("too modern") but I am most enjoyed this fictional history.


"I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is all covered with snow. I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship's cabin; and at nights when I wake up and hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, and I had better go on the roof and rig in the chimney."

— Herman Melville, December 1850 about Melville's one-time home,


Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot (F/427p) 1.15.12
Tilt, Tilt, Void, Void ... I may have tempted fate by returning to the science fiction world yet again with Blueprints. It was a most strange book, but when it came down to it, there were some most fascinating scenes, but the whole novel just didn't click for me. There is a brilliant, short bit about a massive killer-glacier, covered with hungry polar bears, that destroyed major city after major city throughout Canada and then the US. I will return with more comments.


special type of book The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma (F/609p) 1.7.12
This novel has a lot going for it, but I just found myself losing interest whenever the H.G. Wells character wasn't involved. This could all just my problem. The other characters don't seem that well-drawn, it sheer length needed cutting, and the plot was juvenile at times. Once again, this from a guy who's not much of a science fiction reader (a couple of times a year...at most) but I had hoped for so much more. Physically, it has one of the best covers in a long time—very clever use of a silvered look behind the cover's shadowy figure, and the endpapers are top-notch as well. This is Palma's first translation to hit America from his native Spain, where he has won major literary awards. The book is divided into three parts, involves H.G Wells, Jack the Ripper, The Elephant Man, Henry James, Bram Stoker, and more I'm sure to be forgetting. The most-interesting central theme is the concept of time travel. There are some very interesting philosophical conversations within the novel, on the possibility and reality of this type of travel, and I won't say more about that—so as not to ruin the clever twists and turns in the plot. Others have found, and I'm sure will continue to find, this a grand read...and I may just be left with the fact that I just didn't get it.

There was a touching quote from Merrick, aka The Elephant Man, about why he would love to travel back to ancient Egypt—"Because the Egyptians worshipped gods with animal's heads..." Other interesting trivia, Herbert George Wells was called Bertie by his friends. Another Ripper/Wells novel, and then movie, was Time After Time (1979) by Karl Alexander.


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