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east bay revisited

journal #8 - East Bay basement REVISITED - Apr. 25 to Sep. 6, 2011     
also: journal #7 - #9 - #10 - #11  

The big differences when I don't own, or work in a bookstore—is where I get my books. I keep up on what's out through many print and online sources. But the number of ARCs in my life goes way down and I'm out there buying books at all these other bookstores. Civilian life.

   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


great frustrationsopenhere and nowlight action in the caribbeanin the garden of beastsgood daughters

The Great Frustration by Seth Fried (F/181 pages) 6.6.11
"Seth Fried's stories are laugh-out-loud hilarious and wonderfully weird...."
   - Dan Chaon, author of Await Your Reply


"Seth Fried has a wildly humorous imagination, but also sharp technical skills and beauty of language that weaves deep examinations of self and humanity into the inner folds of his crazy worlds."
   - Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief


"These powerful and beautifully absurd stories create poetry from the collected voice of those who love and hate and dream and yearn."
   - Alan Heathcock, author of Volt


"These stories are joyful, breathtaking, and ridiculously funny. Yes, there is darkness and violence and the constant threat of unhappy endings, but Fried is such a stunning writer, you actually love the coming disaster because it is so perfectly presented on the page."
   - Kevin Wilson, author of Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and The Family Fang


Why YES, these are strange, clever, odd, funny, and yes, bizarre stories that club you in the side of the head with your own funny bone. There is an active, and slightly troubled mind at work here. It's working overtime. My favorite was the last story - Animalcula: A Young Scientist's Guide to New Creatures, which has a delicious taste to it. Many very different, small creatures inhabit the story. Some have have never been detected before, like the life form named a Bartlett. There is no way to detect them, so, if you can detect anything, you've found them. Others change so quickly that they can't even be compared to themselves. The Kessel has a lifespan of four one-hundred-millionths of a second, so that basically it's being born, procreating and dying at the same time - study that. This was a great story for my friend Keith. The lowly people central to the story, Those of Us in Plaid, had a simple task defined in the story's first line - "Our job was simple: get the monkey in the capsule." Things don't go well. It's just not that simple.

   Seth is all of 28 years-old, has had his stories published in Tin House, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and The Pushcart Prize XXXV, and will be heard from again and again - I'm sure.


p Open by Andre Agassi (NF/386p) 6.5.11
   It could be all the matches from the French Open that I've been able to see lately, or just that I've always been a tennis junkie (I took my first wife to a clay court tournament in New Hampshire on our honeymoon), but I feel it's time for a sports autobiography that was reviewed strongly, and one that will immerse me even deeper into the sport.


“Bracingly devoid of triumphalist homily, Agassi’s is one of the most passionately anti-sports books ever written by a superstar athlete.”
                                          -The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2009

My follow-up message. Don't always trust your feelings. Don't always trust strong reviews of any kind. And, I picked the wrong book for the time.


  So it's clear. Andre is enough of a celebrity, enough of a personality, to get away with a little shock and awe when it comes to writing about the many bad decisions that were forced on him, and then made by him in his high-profile life. Our celebrity-crazed minds will read and praise anything that drops names (Streisand, Brooke Shields, Bill Clinton, and all those tennis players) describes odd behavior and clothing, and tells of pain. My major problem with this book is that I don't feel that strongly that I know much about who Andre is after reading this entire book. Certainly he doesn't seem capable of analyzing his own actions, and is no deep thinker, but is this voice, this book, this man, honest just because it's "open"? I was wondering all through it, if I, as the reader, was being played by Andre and his co-writer.

    His father was a very troubled brute, a frustrated former boxer, that forced Andre into a tennis career after failing to make the big tennis money with Andre's three older siblings. Andre was playing and hating tennis from age three. He walked away from school after the eighth grade. This left Andre doing something professionally for well over twenty years that he absolutely hated. It's a very sad story. There are many descriptions of tennis matches with a huge fear of losing, and no joy for any victory. Becoming #1 meant nothing to him. Agassi was simply hollow, and in pain and agony. He proposes marriage to Brooke Shields because he felt he should. At the same time that he asked her the big question, his inner thoughts were WAIT!  STOP! The marriage did not go well. His career was full of bad choices, injuries, and that sad fact that professional sports figures aren't allowed much time to live and be real people. I hope his married life with Steffi Graf and their children is half as good as is described at the end of this painful book.



Here and Now by Stephen Dunn (F/103p) 6.2.11
I spent a wonderful time this afternoon sitting in an Adirondack chair in the sunshine reading some of the fine poems of Stephen Dunn. This is what reading can be all about - pure pleasure.  


crowing  Light Action in the Caribbean by Barry Lopez (F/162p) 6.2.11
I keep reading great collections of short stories, and this Barry Lopez collection is perfection. Vicky found this used copy on the shelves of that fine new and used bookstore, Spectator Books, on Oakland's Piedmont Avenue. Lopez does so many things right as a writer of nonfiction and fiction that it's impressive to think about, and a joy to read. The settings of the stories are a world tour in themselves, and the range of styles and feelings evoked are just as far-ranging. Sentimental looks at older relatives and the past, give way in another story to icy cold-blooded murder in the Caribbean. Love letters from the 12th century are found locked away in a desk, and then Lopez throws the reader in with a band of horse thieves. He knows how to keep it lively. It's one of the joys of reading good short stories, when you have no idea of what to expect from the next story...the next page. 


crowing  In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (NF/375p) 5.31.11
I'm always ready to read a Larson book, one of the well-written nonfiction ones (Isaac's Storm and The Devil in the White City), not so much of the Gary Larson's boneless chicken ranch variety. This takes place in Berlin with the family of the brand new American ambassador, the former college professor, William E. Dodd. All the while, Hitler is consolidating his power and the evil of the regime is starting to make itself felt. Dodd's daughter Martha is "outgoing" and seems destined to have affairs all over the city, including with several high-ranking Nazi, Gestapo, and Soviet officials. While the "nonfiction plot" isn't as much of a page-turner as some of his other books, the consequences for the world are so much more vast in scale that this story is really sticking with me. He did an excellent job of portraying the rolling out the Nazi terror before a "civilized world" - a world that couldn't bring itself to believe that such cruelty was happening. The side stories of the daughter's affairs, and the ambassador's troubled relations with his fellow ambassadors and the State Department is fascinating, but the major story is the world's ever-accelerating falling towards world war. He portrayed the time and its extremely manned ways, its diplomacy, perfectly. The universal theme of evil in the world and how can other countries change the course of events is so profound and difficult to deal with...when has anyone handled it well? I'm a sucker for a good Nazi book, and this was a real treat...in a truly evil way. He portrays that period so very well tells that story


The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard (F/276p) 5.28.11
We hosted a reading for Joyce when this book first came out, and it's been waiting beside my bed since. After the great impression that her fine book, Labor Day, made on me, Vicky, and so many others, I found The Good Daughters to be a disappointment. The ending is clever and quite emotional, there's plenty of fine writing throughout, but the plot, some stretches of the writing, and the fact that the daughters take so long to realize what the reader has had thrust into their faces for so long...seemed hard to believe. The style and grace of her writing In Labor Day seemed to be absent for pages on end, as if the new book had been written and published quickly. Because there were some very nicely portrayed scenes, and some well-done characters, I can't give this a toad, but I would send anyone wanting to read some goof Joyce Maynard, to pick up her excellent book Labor Day instead.


music for torchingablutionsthe end of alicethe sisters brothersthe doubleman on wire

 Music for Torching by A.M. Homes (F/357p) 5.24.11
My rational mind says - Try something new. Get out of this rut. But my heart says - Try another. Try another. So when Walden Pond Books had a selection of Homes on the shelf, my hand was there in a flash. Music is another funny and troubling Homes novel. Not the disturbing level of The End of Alice, but this is a hard look at modern lives and how devoid of meaning they can become. When there aren't enough hot dogs, and life has you backed into a financially and emotionally deprived corner...maybe you could fine a new, better life by burning down your house. Some things don't work out the way you think, or dream, they might. Homes is in stellar form here. Forgive me for crowing about all these Homes books, but she is really hitting the mark for me. I've discovered a new drug.


Ablutions: Notes for a Novel by Patrick deWitt (F/164p) 5.20.11

Enter the dark world of a California bar that's seen better times and has a group of damaged and lonely regulars. This was de Witt's first novel and it's so very different than his western The Sisters Brothers. Both novels are dark (Ablutions is much darker), funny (Sisters Brothers is much funnier) and have an edge of threatening violence (Sisters Brothers ARE hired killers after all). Our main character works the bar and has trouble with alcohol and drugs. Life is lonely for most everyone in this book. Our man does have a plan, and things move on at the end. Vicky found this book terribly depressing, but after reading The End of Alice, it didn't seem that bleak in comparison.


crowing  The End of Alice by A.M. Homes (F/270p) 5.19.11
After her strange and funny LA story, This Book Will Save Your Life, I have entered a very different part of the A.M. Homes world of fiction with this book centered on pedophilia. Of course, since this is only the second novel by Homes I've read - what do I know of the Homes world?

   I always find it very interesting to read reviews of edgier books to see how reviewers choose their words for mostly general consumption publications. Mustn't offend too many sensibilities. With a book as dark, sometimes violent, and as sexually graphic as this, dancing with words was taken to new heights for many reviewers.

   With The End of Alice, it is such a rush to have Homes great writing talents describing the action. Through her words, we are looking at how the world works from within a pedophile's mind. Abusive and deviant behavior is the name of the game, but the viewpoint is not victim-based. The reader is getting a view that brings a reasoning, some motivations, and a logic to these characters' actions from within their thoughts. What they do and who they are, doesn't seem deviant to them.

   The story centers around a male pedophile who's been sitting in prison for 23 years, and has been carrying on a correspondence with a 19-year-old coed who's "taking advantage" (here's that stupid review language I spoke about) of a much younger boy. The two compare actions through many letters, and this allows Homes to flash back to describing their acts with a sympathetic voice...their own. This book is certainly disturbing at times. It pulls the curtain back on a dark world, that gets much darker at the novel's conclusion, but she has really created a unique view of these people that I found fascinating. It's a clever, sometimes uncomfortable, and brave work that's carried off perfectly. This novel will stay with me for a long time. 


crowing  The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt (F/325p) 5.17.11
This is one VERY funny, VERY dark western. I loved it! The man can write with skill and has created a very strange plot that kept me quickly turning the pages.
 This is like no other western I've ever read. I'm still chuckling and have to wait till I stop before I can write more.



crowing  The Double by Jose Saramago (F/324p) 5.16.11
I'm into author fixation - Egan, Homes, and Saramago. What a great place to be...what a strange place to be.
This is fine study of identity, paranoia, and superb writing...all contained in one fine book.


Man on Wire by Philippe Petit (NF/239p) 5.15.11
Mrs. Dalloway's bookstore comes through again. After reading Let the Great World Spin, that has Petit's high wire walk between the twin towers of the WTC in 1974, as one of the many stories woven into that fine novel, it was perfect to be browsing their biography section and come across his personal story of that high altitude stroll. This is a well-done description (in words, sketches, and many photos) of the planning, execution, and aftermath of his walk - 1,300 feet up and about 200 feet across at the World Trade Center. 


let the great world spinthis book will save your lifementorsmall memorieslook at methe sheltering sky

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (F/352p) 5.12.11
This book came by way with huge praise from Vicky. I just finished it, and it has a fantastic ending, and I'm still thinking about it.



crowing  This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes (F/372p) 5.8.11
Imagine a book with blurbs like -


"An absolute masterpiece...."


"Hilarious...Homes writes in the tradition of Kurt Vonnegut and has the talent to pull it off."


"I think this brave story of a lost man's reconnections with the world become a generational touchstone, like Catch-22, The Monkey Wrench Gang, or Catcher in the Rye...And hey, maybe it will save somebody's life."


AND the killer blurb for me, the one that got me to the register buying. -


"A scarily human, kind, and alarming epic of second chances.
If Oprah went insane, this might be her favorite book."

       - John Waters


I loved this book! I can't believe this hasn't been made into a movie - it would be perfect and hilarious. All the time I was reading it - I was thinking about some bizarre cocktail of Two and a Half Men and Californication.


                                          ...her website



Mentor: a memoir by Tom Grimes (NF/242p) 5.6.11
This book was on a display at Mrs. Dalloway's, where it caught my eye, I read a little, and it had me. When you have cover blurbs by such wonderful writers as: T.C. Boyle, Tim O'Brien, Robert Stone, Jayne Anne Phillips, Elizabeth McCracken...and the list goes on...you know that there's something purring under the covers. Tom Grimes was at the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop and became good friends there with its long-time leader, the man who becomes his mentor, the writer Frank Conroy. Their relationship and writing IS the book.


crowing Small Memories: A Memoir by Jose Saramago (NF/139p) 5.3.11
In a review of this book, it was mentioned that his grandfather, when he knew his death was near, went into his yard and hugged the old trees that had given him shade, fruit, and comfort for years, thanking each one. This is just perfect. For me, things like this are what's so wonderful about reading. It's these odd little happenings that I read about, ones that instantly bring a smile to my face and warm my heart, that keep me always reaching for another book. My memory has never been outstanding, and I don't retain plotlines and character details for long, but the feel of something heartfelt, clever and unique, keeps me constantly reading. It is just so powerful IN THE MOMENT.

   One way I might describe it, and I will do that now - is to say it's as though your own grandfather was in the room with you, looking back and describing his childhood, not getting it perfect in the details, maybe having to go back and add something to a previous story here and there, but giving you an intimate feeling for what his life was like at each of the moments recounted. It's informal and there's little ego involved. In his telling, memories aren't science, cold and factual, they're what a real person remembers. And some of it is in the HOW someone CHOOSES to remember a time, a person, an event. When writing about the death of his four-year-old brother, he says - "I don't really believe in so-called false memories, I think that the differences between those and the memories we consider certain and solid is merely a question of confidence, the confidence that we place in the incorrigible vagueness we call certainly. Is the one memory I have of Francisco false? Perhaps, but I have spent the last eighty-three years believing it to be true."

   In several reviews of Small Memories, I've read of the possibility that it was his dementia causing him to retell and revise the events, but I discount that. He has written such a fabulous memoir of his childhood and adolescence in Azinhaga and Lisbon...and I want to give the writer in him full credit. There's an innocence operating here, it's as a child that he's retelling these events, these stories. It's not simply a very old man looking back across those many decades. There's a sweetness and a respect in his words. "Next to it, so close that its branches touched the topmost part, was the big fig tree, or, quite simply, The Fig Tree, because although there was another one, it never grew very large, either because it wasn't in its nature to do so or out of respect for its veteran companion." When as a very young boy racing through a cornfield with a friend, he picks an ear of corn out of his friend's row after his friend missed it, it weighs on him, and he writes of his own Judgment Day - "...when my good and bad actions are placed in the balance, it will be the weight of that ear of corn that sends me down to hell..."
   His childhood was so utterly poor that his mother pawned the family blankets after the cold of winter passed. Come the cold nights of fall, she would then pay the interest to get them back. And, when that same cold weather was too much for the piglets his grandfather was raising, the simple solution was to wash them, and let them sleep between his grandparents in their bed. His grandparents, though they were illiterate, had lessons to teach him as a child.

   Once the last page of text is gone, there's a whole series of photos in the back of the book that show Jose and his family. Make sure you read the captions. Saramago often writes with a sly humor and he didn't miss this opportunity. My favorite was one of him as an adolescent that reads - " By now, I had a girlfriend. You can tell by the look on my face." Another caption reads - "I'm not sure what to make of this gentleman. His face is that of my grandfather Jeronimo, but the suit isn't him at all."
This is a gem of a book! At 140 pages, it's a small book, and while $22 isn't cheap per page, to me it's well worth the cost. This little book is something special that won't get packed away, as I am sure I will want to return to again and again. Keep an eye out for Small Memories.   


Look at Me by Jennifer Egan (F/415p) 5.1.11
I just can't help myself - I've become Egan-obsessed. In my defense, when we saw Charles Baxter recently, he told us that this was his favorite Egan title. So here I am, defenselessly reading. 

                            ...she has a very interesting website


The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (F/318p) 4.25.11
This is a fantastic novel. My only problem with it, is my own mind. I just saw the film again a few weeks ago, and film before book never works for me.
I can't lose the film's images to create my own. I see another reading coming in a few years, after the film has faded some.





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