Book review: Books I’ve recently read all have one thing in common

 

DSC00657

This book review covers five books which I’ve recently completed reading.  At first, the common thread was unintentional.  But after discovering that I was in the middle of reading three books by authors who are Buddhist, I added two more.

Just because they are Buddhist authors, that does not necessarily mean that the topics are Buddhist.  But in this case, a couple of them are.

 

DSC00652In 2013, my first Zen teacher, P’arang Geri Larkin, wrote Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment (Rodmell Press).  Struggling with my commitment of spending Sundays in Detroit, either at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple’s service, or providing service at Cass Park with Friends and the Forgotten Worker, a collection of many different circles of friends, groups, unions and political interests to feed and provide for the poor living in the Cass Corridor of Detroit, I chose to read this as a supplement.  It came in quite handy.

Taking the seven factors of enlightenment from the Pali Canon, Larkin provides a chapter on each with a series of dharma talks which flow seamlessly together, providing a practical understanding of each.  The seven factors are:

  1. Mindfulness:  Attention to what is happening now.
  2. Investigation of phenomenon:  Curiosity about ourselves and the world we live in.
  3. Energetic effort:  Cultivating a high energy for life.
  4. Ease: Being free of resistance.
  5. Joy:  The sweet feeling that everything is okay.
  6. Concentration:  Mindfulness focused on a specific task.
  7. Equanimity:  Calmness of mind and temper.  Everything comes and goes in life.

For me, reading this book was a refreshing reminder of what works in my life.  And the timing of some of it was incredible.  I was reading the chapter on the investigation of phenomenon, questioning the source of my thoughts and beliefs as the chatter on Facebook focused on the United States Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage and of the nature and symbols of racism after a white gunman open fired in a black church in South Carolina, killing nine.  I was reading the chapters on ease and joy when, for the first time since I’ve entered the Michigan Bar Journal Short Story Contest, my submission did not make the list of finalists.  I was reading the chapter on concentration as I was revising a 13,640-word short story that is circulating amongst potential publishers.  And I was reading equanimity after a shocking loss in a court room trial, which hurled me into a state of heavy self-criticism.  Through all this, the right teacher was right there at the right time.  A testament to how well this book applies to every day life.

DSC00655The late John Daido Loori was one of my early influences into Buddhism.  He founded the Zen Mountain Monastery in New York.  I subscribed to the monastery’s quarterly journal – Mountain Record: The Zen Practitioner’s Journal – for a few years in the mid-1980’s.  The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life (Ballantine Books, 2005) has been on my radar for a number of years.  This spring, seeing it on the shelf at Still Point, I started thumbing through it again.  It was there again the next week, and finally, the third week I decided it was time to purchase and read it.

The book is broken down into four sections.  Part One is the story of Loori’s journey to Zen.  Part Two presents the practices which guide the artist to a new way of seeing and creating.  Part Three explains how the Zen aesthetic points to basic truths about how to live freely.  The qualities of simplicity, mystery, spontaneity, and suchness, are embodied in both Zen and the arts.  Part Four brings the book full circle reflecting Loori as an artist and spiritual seeker, and how the creative and spiritual journey never ends.

Photography was the strong artistic expression for Loori, so reading this both as a writer and a photographer kept me interested.  Loori quoted his mentor, Minor White, about photography, which rang true to me.  It is much the way I approach Detroit City FC games that I shoot.

The state of mind of the photographer while creating is blank…[but] It is a very active state of mind really, a very receptive state of mind, ready at an  instant to grasp an image, yet with no image pre-formed in it at any time.

Throughout this book, there are nuggets of deep truths for artists.  But it doesn’t feel like a self-help, positive-thinking, cheerleading book for writers like some I’ve encountered.  The deliberate process which Loori presents holds meaning.  For example, when he writes, “It is important to trust this and to trust the process.  Trust yourself.  Your way of experiencing the world is unique.  And what you’re trying to do is give voice to this unique experience,”  nothing about it feels like someone saying something nice out of obligation or in order to sell more books.  Everything leading up to it adds to its credibility, giving one (at least me) a sense that, “Yeah, he really means this.  I need to trust myself.”

This book doesn’t go back to the bookshelf of writing reference books near my desk, but rather on the small shelf above my desk, where it is easily accessible when I need the reminders and inspiration.

DSC00647Like anything that one makes well with one’s own hands, writing good nonfiction prose can be profoundly satisfying. Yet after a day of arranging my research, my set of facts, I feel stale and drained, whereas I am energized by fiction. Deep in a novel, one scarcely knows what may surface next, let alone where it comes from. In abandoning oneself to the free creation of something never beheld on earth, one feels almost delirious with a strange joy. – Peter Matthiessen, The Paris Review No. 150, Spring, 1999.

I’ve often felt that as a writer and as a Zen Buddhist, I needed to read and like Peter Matthiessen’s work.  Born in New York City in 1927, Matthiessen created The Paris Review in 1951, which has become my personal favorite literary journal.  His life’s work included ten novels, the collection of short stories above, and over twenty works of nonfiction.  He has won a National Book Award in both fiction (Shadow Country, 2008) and nonfiction (The Snow Leopard, 1980).  His 1983 book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, about the  American Indian Movement and the 1975 shoot-out at Pine Ridge in which two FBI agents and a young Indian were killed, brought litigation against him and Viking Press by FBI Agent David Price and South Dakota Governor, William Janklow, for libel.  The book’s publication was halted until 1993 after both cases were dismissed and appeals were denied by the US Supreme Court and upheld by the South Dakota Supreme Court.  Matthiessen became an ordained Zen Buddhist Priest in 1981 under Maezumi Roshi at the Greyston Center of the Zen Community of New York.  He died in April, 2014.

I remember, back in the 1980’s, picking up Race Rock, Matthiessen’s first novel.  For whatever reason, it did not draw me in.  Hoping that my sensibilities had changed, I decided to return to Matthiessen’s work with this collection of short stories.  On average, I liked the stories I read (I haven’t yet finished the final two stories).  What I discovered about myself as a reader is that I am more interested in characters than environments.  For example, my favorite story of the collection is Travelin’ Man, which was written in 1957 about Traver, a black man who escaped from prison and was running and hiding along the Carolina coast from his jailers who were hunting him.  The language is harsh (as it is in the earlier stories, using the language of that time in the South, in particular the epithet for African Americans), and the situation and the character kept me in it.  On the other hand, Matthiessen was also a wildlife writer and naturalist.  On the River Styx  – one of the two I had not read – opened with the following paragraph:

On the pale flats the lone trace of man was a leaning stake marking some lost channel that a storm or shift of current had filled in.  On the end of the stake perched a ragged cormorant, its drying wings held wide in a black cross against the wind.  The archaic bird, the rampant mangroves, the hidden underwater life raising ghostly puffs from the white marl dust of ages of dead creatures, deepened Burkett’s sense of solitude, of pointlessness.  Earlier that day they had seen a silver horizon off the the west, where the Ten Thousand Islands opened out onto the Gulf, and this window of light, for a little while, had dissipated a vague dread that had been gathering for days.

This just doesn’t move me, I’m afraid, even though I think it’s supposed to.

I do have an interest in reading the Watson trilogy – probably as the revised, single edition Shadow Country, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.

DSC00646Susan Dunlap has been a Zen Buddhist since the first time she walked into a zendo in the 1970’s.  A founding board member of the Sisters in Crime, an organization dedicated to supporting women mystery writers, Dunlap has created four series characters and has written twenty-four novels in the genre.

This is the first in a series of three Veejay Haskell novels. At first blush, I thought the character was Indian. But Veejay is a nickname for Veronica. It is a cozy, in that Veejay is a meter reader for the electric company, and she has to solve the mystery of Frank Goulet’s death. Goulet was found shot dead in his bar, and Veejay was the last person to see him alive (or second to last, to be more accurate). With the sheriff suspecting her, she is incumbent upon unraveling the mystery before the cuffs are fastened to her wrists.

It was a quick read, a relative easy read, which the genre is apt to be. I liked the book enough to see my way through to the end.  Though there are two more books in this series, I’m more interested in delving in the Darcy Lott series, which I understand is more openly Buddhist.

DSC00654

I read this book in the early 1990’s, then again sometime in the 2000’s.  The beat-up, paperback edition had survived moves from Novi, St. Clair Shores, and Harrison Township.  In November, 2012, I was in John King Books in Detroit, and came upon first editions of this, and David Guy’s earlier works; The Man Who Loved Dirty Books (New American Library, 1983) and Second Brother (New American Library, 1985).  His fourth novel, Jake Fades was published by Trumpeter Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications in 2007.  I decided it was time to read it again.

I really should do a separate entry on him.  Guy, a Buddhist and writing instructor at Duke University, is a writer I have enjoyed.  At least three of his four novels I have.  Second Brother I cannot say I enjoyed only because I have not yet read it.

The Autobiography of My Body (Dutton, 1991) is about Charles Bradford, a writer surviving a divorce, returning home to Pittsburgh because his father, whom he refers to as The Senator, is recovering from a recent heart attack.  His mother, to whom he refers to as The Duchess, is concerned about her husband’s health, and links it to a situation at his firm – he is a prestigious Pittsburgh lawyer.  Charles stays with his sister, Helen, a lesbian, who he is closer to than their younger brothers who followed the Senator into the practice of law.

The homecoming is a recollection of his sexual discovery, a compelling drive which defines his life’s compass.  While in Pittsburgh, he connects with Andrea, a feminist and political activist from his past, who also experienced the end of her marriage.  Passion, emotions, and family dynamics give Charles an opportunity to examine the autobiography of his body, and to recall and experience sexual encounters, some of which sway into the fetish realm.

This cluster of books I’ve recently read all resonated with me.  Was it because they were all Buddhist writers?  That could definitely be the case with Close to the Ground and The Zen of Creativity.  But the other three did not express Buddhist locations or characters, or even indicate that the writers themselves were Buddhist.  As Charles Johnson wrote in the foreword to the anthology of Buddhist short stories, Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction (Wisdom Publications, 2004), “The Buddhist experience is simply, the human experience.”

One million words

Remember these high school assignments: Write a 500-word essay on _____.

The struggle.  The agony.  Five hundred words?  How many pages is that?  You’d write something, then count the words.  Only three hundred and ten?  How am I going to add another one hundred and ninety words to that?  (Yes, I know.  Today’s word processors have the ability to tell you the word count.  For me, this was back in the day where the electric typewriter was high-tech!)

In high school, being a writer was not on my radar.  But then college happened, and well, getting these kinds of assignments became challenging in a different way.

Write a short story under 2,500 words.

The rough draft would come out to be almost twice that.  How am I suppose to cut all this?  The same would happen in law school and as a law clerk, only with page-count restrictions.

Briefs cannot exceed 25 pages.

When the factual details in the case were intricate, and faced with conflicting legal theories, I wondered how I was going to tighten up the brief in order to make the strong argument within twenty-five pages.  Shrinking the font to an unreadable size was not an option.

DSC09018

On August 1, 2012, I finished reading Dinty Moore’s little book, The Mindful Writer – Noble Truths of the Writing Life (Wisdom Publications, 2012).  It is something that was written in the Afterword that clings to me today.

It is said that the writer Andre Dubus would end his writing session each day by marking down his word count.  How many words had he managed in those four hours?  After the number, whatever it was, he always wrote the words “thank you.”

So, on August 1, 2012, I took a small spiral notebook, and began tracking.  Fifteen-hundred and twenty-two words were written that day (no “thank you’s” written due to space, but thank-yous were said).

After finishing my writing work today, Thursday, May 28, 2015, adding 2,621 words to the tally, I have hit one million words (1,000,109 to be precise).

Two years, nine months, and twenty-eight days of writing can get you 1,000,000 words.

The thing that surprises me the most is that in order to get to that million words, I averaged writing 970 words per day over the 1,031 days.  Journal entries, writing exercises, blogs, first drafts of short stories and novels, and their revisions, all of it has added up.

The question is, did those one-million words amount to anything?

  • The final revisions of The Y in Life.
  • Two short stories published in Legends: A Literary Journal from Grey Wolfe Publishing  Summer, 2013.
  • A finalist in the 2013 Michigan Bar Journal Short Story Contest.
  • Two short stories and an essay published in Legends: A Literary Journal from Grey Wolfe Publishing  Autumn 2013.
  • One short story published in Write to Woof 2014 (Grey Wolfe Publishing, 2014)
  • A 50,000 word rough draft novel completed during NaNoWriMo, 2013.
  • The first draft and first revision of the novel I am currently working on (not the NaNoWriMo 2013 novel), at 91,540 words.
  • Four unpublished short stories with one currently entered in the 2015 Michigan Bar Journal Short Story Contest, and two others circulating amongst publishers.
  • 2,377 pages of journaling.
  • Everything written on this website, excluding this entry.

Not bad.

Being a writer requires one to write.  It is evident that I do write.  However, I still get stuck in Moore’s Four Noble Truths for Writers:

  1. The writing life is difficult, full of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
  2. Much of this dissatisfaction comes from the ego, from our insistence on controlling both the process of writing and how the world reacts to what we have written.
  3. There is a way to lessen the disappointment and dissatisfaction and to live a more fruitful writing life.
  4. The way to accomplish this is to make both the practice of writing and the work itself less about ourselves.  To thrive, we must be mindful of our motives and our attachment to desired outcomes.

Too often, I focus on writing to be published, because my ego wants that.  As an actor wants to see his or her name in lights on Broadway, I want to see my novels in bookstores, my stories in The New Yorker and The Paris Review.  This twists me into the self-defeating spiral of questioning whether I’m a writer.

A million words, Mike.  C’mon.  You’re a writer.

I start to argue with myself, that I’m not a published writer, but, there’s a whole page on this website that puts an end to that debate.

DSC09019

I read The Mindful Writer back in 2012, but it really didn’t sink in until I came across another Four Noble Truths for writers.   I found Gail Sher’s One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers (Penguin Compass, 1999) just before we left for New York City last summer.  I read it while traveling to and from New York City on the train from our Trenton, NJ hotel.   Her Four Noble Truths provided the key to unlock Moore’s Fourth Noble Truth for me.

  1. Writers write.
  2. Writing is a process.
  3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.
  4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write.

The combination of Sher’s book and visiting New York City for the first time, brought it home for me.  Her short pithy chapters read while in a city where a day’s walking and subway travel can get you to more book stores than are located in Macomb County, had its effect.  The 732 days before the NYC trip, my average words per day was 883.  Since NYC, 1,183 words per day.  I’ve been getting out of my own way, working on the exercise, journal entry, or project for what it is, losing myself to it.

Writer, Nick Hornby felt that his formative years as a writer was hindered by the prescriptive advice that experienced writers gave him.  His advice is the following:

Walk into a bookshop and you will see work by writers who produce a book every three months, writers who don’t own a TV, writers with five children, writers who produce a book every twenty-five years, writers who never write sober, writers who have at least one eye on the film rights, writers who never think about money, writers who, in your opinion, can’t write at all. It doesn’t matter: they got the work done, and there they are, up on the shelves. They might not stay there forever; readers, now and way off into the future, make that decision.  (Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books ( McSweeney’s, Believer Books. 2013)

A million words?  The work is getting done.

DSC06526

Book review: Charles Bukowski

DSC07680Over the last several months, I have noticed on my Facebook feed, friends have been posting memes featuring quotes from a writer named Charles Bukowski.  I found myself in alignment some of them, such as:

bukowski charles-bukowski Charles-Bukowski-Quotes-7 Charles-Bukowski-Quotes-8 thats-the-problem-with-drinking

Well, maybe not necessarily the drinking one.  🙂

Still, it intrigued me to look into this writer.  And as fate would have it, my ritual of visiting New Horizons Book Store in Roseville on Thursdays before bowling revealed to me the three novels reissued by HarperCollins imprint, Ecco; Ham on Rye, Post Office, and Women.

According to the books’ About the Author page, Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany to an American soldier father and German mother in 1920, and brought to the United States at the age of three.  The three novels feature Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, which fictionalizes periods of his life.

I thought I was being clever, reading them in the order that they were published – Post Office (1971), Women (1978), and Ham on Rye (1982).  However, to follow through his life chronologically, the way they are photographed above would be the proper order.

DSC07712

Ham on Rye covers the youth of Henry Chinaski.  It could not be said that Chinaski had the ideal childhood, growing up as the country was moving out of the Depression.  It’s raw, it’s gritty, and it’s real.  Chinaski makes no bones about his condition.

Gathered around me were the weak instead of the strong, the ugly instead of the beautiful, the losers instead of the winners. It looked like it was my destiny to travel in their company through life. That didn’t bother me so much as the fact that I seemed irresistible to these dull idiot fellows. I was like a turd that drew flies instead of like a flower that butterflies and bees desired. (Pg. 155)

Graduating from high school, he found a job working for a department store, which was short-lived, then decided to go to college to get a degree in journalism.  Kicked out of his home by his father, after having read the short stories Henry had written and hidden in his room, he moved on, renting a room in the Bunker Hill section of LA.  The first night there, he pondered his future.

Maybe I could live by my wits.  The eight-hour day was impossible, yet almost everybody submitted to it.  And the war, everybody was talking about the war in Europe.  I wasn’t interested in world history, only my own.  What crap.  Your parents controlled your growing-up period, they pissed all over you.  Then when you got ready to go out on your own, the others wanted to stick you into a uniform so you could get your ass shot off.

The wine tasted great.  I had another.

The war.  Here I was a virgin.  Could you imagine getting your ass blown off for the sake of history before you even knew what a woman was?  Or owned an automobile?  What would I be protecting?  Somebody else.  Somebody else who didn’t give a shit about me.  Dying in a war never stopped wars from happening.  (Pg. 265)

I read this book after the other two, because of its pub date.  I wonder if I had read it first if I would have been interested in continuing with the other two.  Harry Chinaski is not likeable, but sympathetic.  Only glimpses of compassion seep through the anger and resentment that fuels Chinaski’s anti-social behavior.  Still, it was a compelling read.  I purchased all three of these books in early February, and finished them by the end of March.  I tend not to get through 770 pages in that quick a timespan.

DSC07710

Spoiler alert:  This is the conclusion of Post Office.

“In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.  Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought.  And then I did.”

Post Office is about a period of his (Henry Chinaski/Charles Bukowski) life when he worked for the post office, first as a letter carrier, then as a clerk. It’s about three different relationships as well, the first with a woman he referred to as his shackjob named Betty. He eventually resigns from the post office and Betty gets a job as a typist. She becomes jealous of him being home, with the whores around the neighborhood making themselves known to him. He had become friendly with two of them, and he ended up leaving her, and the other two women, behind. Next, he meets and marries the daughter of a wealthy family, Joyce, who was thirteen years younger than him. To keep up appearances, she made him get a job, so back to the post office it was, and she got a job with the police department as a clerk. She met a nice gentleman, who she fell in love with, and thus ended the marriage. Betty once again enters his life, which becomes the end of hers as she dies. Enter Fay, a war-protester/writer, who wanted to save the world. He gets Fay pregnant. Fay had the baby, then took the child to a hippie commune in New Mexico.

This was Bukowski’s first novel, published in 1971, and the first I read of the three, because it was the first written, and because my father is a retired letter carrier.  Detailing Chinaski’s employment with the post office (“It began as a mistake” – the opening line), we are privy to the thoughts of the man as he toils as a letter carrier, gambles at the race track, and ambles through relationships, all the while consuming alcohol as if it were the air he needed to breathe.  Chinaski wanted freedom, and the post office did not provide that.

After dinner or lunch or whatever it was — with my crazy 12-hour night I was no longer sure what was what — I said, “Look, baby, I’m sorry, but don’t you realize that this job is driving me crazy? Look, let’s give it up. Let’s just lay around and make love and take walks and talk a little. Let’s go to the zoo. Let’s look at animals. Let’s drive down and look at the ocean. It’s only 45 minutes. Let’s play games in the arcades. Let’s go to the races, the Art Museum, the boxing matches. Let’s have friends. Let’s laugh. This kind of life like everybody else’s kind of life: it’s killing us. (Page 74).

His relationship with women is anything but politically correct – this during the period of the early 1950’s to his departure from the post office in 1969.

God or somebody keeps creating women and tossing them out on the streets, and this one’s ass is too big and that one’s tits are too small, and this one is mad and that one is crazy and that one is a religionist and that one reads tea leaves and this one can’t control her farts, and that one has this big nose, and that one has boney legs … But now and then, a woman walks up, full blossom, a woman just bursting out of her dress … a sex creature, a curse, the end of it all. (Page 138)

But there are signs that Chinaski feels and aches, such as when Betty returned to his life after his divorce with Joyce.

It was sad, it was sad, it was sad. When Betty came back we didn’t sing or laugh, or even argue. We sat drinking in the dark, smoking cigarettes, and when we went to sleep, I didn’t put my feet on her body or she on mine like we used to. We slept without touching.

We had both been robbed. (Page 96).

DSC07714

Women, published in 1978, picks up with his relationships with women after achieving writing success. There were several; Lydia who weaved in and out of the story, coming back to him, then leaving him because he shacked up with another; and so many others that it would take some time to go through. The final section occurs when he meets three women at once;

Sara was 32, a classy wench, good style and a heart…Debra was Jewish with large brown eyes and a generous mouth, heavily smeared with blood-red lipstick…I guessed she was somewhere between 30 and 35…Cassie was tall with long blond hair, very young, expensively dressed, modish, hip, “in,” nervous, beautiful. (Page 201).

He starts with Cassie, then days later, Debra, then Sara after that (and had sex with Debra’s assistant, Tessie, in Debra’s apartment in between). Sampling each, if you will. But Cassie ended first because he called her and a man answered the phone. And Sara was committed to Drayer Baba – a spiritual guru – and a healthy living style, which included marriage before sex. So he partnered with Debra until she had enough of his philandering, then continued seeing Sara. There definitely seemed to be something to his attraction to Sara, though he challenged it by having sex with another fan or two. In the end, there is a sense that he is willing to make a commitment to Sara as a nineteen-year-old fan wants to get with him, and he declines.

But it’s not only the relationships that made this novel interesting to me, but also his life as a writer and thoughts about writing.  For example, inspiration:

There was something to be learned about writing from watching boxing matches or going to the racetrack. The message wasn’t clear but it helped me. That was the important part: the message wasn’t clear. It was wordless, like a house burning, or an earthquake or a flood, or a woman getting out of a car, showing her legs. I didn’t know what other writers needed; I didn’t care, I couldn’t read them anyway. (Pg. 101)

And discipline:
I’ve got to get back to the typewriter, I thought. Art takes discipline. Any asshole can chase a skirt. (Pg. 107)
And writers in general:
There is a problem with writers. If what a writer wrote was published and sold many, many copies, the writer thought he was great. If what a writer wrote was published and sold a medium number of copies, the writer thought he was great. If what a writer wrote was published and sold very few copies, the writer thought he was great. If what the writer wrote never was published and he didn’t have the money to publish it himself, then he thought he was truly great. The truth, however, was that there was very little greatness. It was almost nonexistent, invisible. But you could be sure that the worst writers had the most confidence, the least self-doubt. Anyway, writers were to be avoided, and I tried to avoid them, but it was almost impossible. They hope for some sort of brotherhood, some kind of togetherness. None of it had anything to do with writing, none of it helped at the typewriter. (Pg. 140)
And the low self-confidence we writers tend to feel about our work:
“‘Buy me a drink,’ I asked her.
She nodded to the barkeep. He came over.
‘Vodka-7 for the gentleman.’
‘Thanks…’
‘Babette.’
‘Thanks, Babette. My name’s Henry Chinaski, alcoholic writer.’
‘Never heard of you.’
‘Likewise.’
‘I run a shop near the beach. Trinkets and crap, mostly crap.’
‘We’re even. I write a lot of crap.’” (Pg. 181)

There is one statement that touched me.  After reading it, it hit something at my core and the reason I write fiction.  Chinaski was asked “What is fiction?” His response?  “Fiction is an improvement on life.”  (Pg. 197)

A book can be read and enjoyed.  A really good book can make one want to read more books by and about the author.  Maybe because I’m a writer who still feels like he’s finding his voice and honing his craft (which probably 99% of all writers feel), I found these novels to be interesting because of the writing.  The language is coarse, and perhaps even offensive to some.  I almost feel guilty being drawn to it and reading it.  But the narrator feels real because he is being honest about himself with us.  It makes the characters real.  As he states in this interview, reading Ham on Rye, Post Office, and Women his writing is very much bim-bim-bim, bim-bim-bim.
In finding the interview, I also found this video which reads Bukowski’s poem, So You Want To Be a Writer?.
In the Paris Review #212, Hilary Mantel was interviewed and said,
Among writers themselves, the question is not who influences you, but which people give you courage. When I began, the female writer who gave me courage, among our contemporaries, was Beryl Bainbridge.  I don’t write like Beryl, and never have, but when I began to read her, her books were so off the wall, they were so screamingly funny in a black way, and so oblique, that I thought, If she can get away with this, so can I.  (Page 62)

This is why I will be reading more Bukowski. Back in November, while in Traverse City, I found a few of his books at Landmark Books, and decided upon Notes of a Dirty Old Man. It was blurbed to be a collection of his columns from the underground paper, OPEN CITY, and I have a bookmark about sixty pages in.  I recently found Hollywood at Book Beat.

Charles Bukowski died on March 9, 1964.  On his gravestone are the two words he lived by.  Don’t Try.

A book lover’s first visit to New York City

It was in my hands.  Its soft cover pressed firm against the pages between.  Its title and author matching one of the many listed on the two index cards in my wallet.

Then, there was the other one.  Another soft cover.  It was not listed on my index card.  I had come across the Detroit-area author’s book in the used section of the store.

Two books.

Neither were from the author or classics I collect.
Neither authors were present for a book reading/signing event.
I was not in New York City.

About six weeks ago, I took a vow; one in which I would not purchase any new books until I have read 3,000 pages of books I already own.  On Saturday, I was tempted to break it.

The compulsion and desire to add to my library had waned while focused on reading three thousand pages.  Then it was the last week of July when I vacationed in New York City.  That was one of the exceptions of the vow.  I knew myself too well.  There was no way that I was going to enjoy a vacation in the Big Apple, trolling the miles of aisles of book stores, and come home empty handed.  And in New York City, book stores are a plenty.

The first visit was to The Strand.

DSC06540

We found it on Friday – our first day in the City.  Earlier in the day we took  a 2 1/2 hour boat cruise around Manhattan Island.  From there we walked to the New York Public Library and viewed the Literary Walk.  On 41st Street between Madison and Fifth, leading to the library, plaques are embedded into the sidewalk – both sides of the streets – with literary quotes.

DSC06498

We then hiked Fifth Avenue down towards Union Square Park, finding the store at the corner of Broadway and 12th.  Needless to say, the legs and feet were tired.  And though The Strand boasts eighteen miles of books, chairs are not among the furnishings of the three floors and basement level of the store.

And, of course, I added to my personal library.  They carry new titles and a great amount of used titles.  The third floor is reserved for their old and rare books.  Despite the fatigue and soreness, we spent a good amount of time, and a little bit of change on some titles I had on my ‘to get’ list that I have not found anywhere else.  Of course, there were a couple surprise additions, as well.

Other events and attractions took up our Saturday and Sunday, so Monday we toured the City by going from book store to book store, starting from Zuccotti Park where Occupy Wall Street took place.

First stop:  McNally Jackson.

DSC06787

Located at 52 Prince Street off Lafayette in Soho, this independent book seller had two floors. It was interesting how they arranged their fiction. Not alphabetical by author, but rather by country of origin, then alphabetical by author within that. An interesting and diverse way of doing it, providing awareness of the national origin of the authors.  I bought two books here, both craft related, both of the Gray Wolf Press The Art Of series books I hadn’t seen around here. The Art of Recklessness by Dean Young and The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber. Just being here in New York was charging my writing battery. I had been working on a short story on the train back and forth between Trenton, New Jersey, where we were staying, and NYC, but it was difficult because the movement made my already bad penmanship worse. I was also reading on the train One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers by Gail Sher. New York was not only feeding the book addiction, but fueling the writer.

Not far away was Housing Works.

DSC06789

Located at 125 Crosby Street, just a couple blocks east of McNally Jackson, this two-storied book store and bar is a fund-raising center to combat AIDS and homelessness. Books are donated and sold here, and the store is run by volunteers. Really a cool place that I could have spent some quality time in, especially if I had brought my laptop. But we were getting hungry, and so my shopping had to be decisive.  Of course I purchased a couple of novels for the cause.

We then made our way up to 14th Street, took the L across to the West Village, and made our way down to Left Bank Books.

DSC06795

Located at 17 Eighth Avenue, Left Bank Books was a small rare and fine book seller. A lot of first editions in a rather small space, I spent more time walking to it from the subway than I did inside of it. We then pushed onto Three Lives and Company.

DSC06792

This is a quaint little book store at 15 West Tenth Avenue in the West Village. Heavy with fiction, I was impressed with the selection despite the square footage.  No fiction was purchased, but a book on the care of old books and a sale on some older literary journals ($2 for a 2012 copy of The Paris Review – what a deal!) left their shelves and made my book bag a little heavier.  A nice cozy place tucked away in a cool little neighborhood.

The final stop of the day was Barnes & Noble.

DSC06797

NYC is the birthplace of the book chain, and this store was four floors of books. If you’ve been in a B&N store, this one is just like them.  Just a larger selection of titles.  I found a copy of Finn by Jon Clinch that was recommended to me by Karen Dionne at the Detroit Working Writer’s conference a few months ago, which, again, I had not seen anywhere else.  So, yeah, the book bag got a little heavier.

I should state that yes, I do carry a list on index cards in my wallet.  Of course, I could order the titles I’m looking for online.  But the fun of growing a library of material to both collect and to read is in the hunt, and to reward the book store that already has it on their shelves.  (To the best of my knowledge, if you want to reward a book seller carrying The Y in Life, visit Paperback Writer in Mount Clemens, Purple Tree Books in Cheboygan, and Brilliant Books in Traverse City.)

That covers book stores carrying new/used books.  On Tuesday, after walking through a portion of Central Park, we visited three rare and fine book stores.

Here’s a good distinction between rare and fine books.

Fine books, that is books well printed on high quality paper and handsomely bound so that the mechanical components of the book work well together, are different from rare books since fine books may be rare, but rare books are not always fine.  Rare books might be printed on newsprint, which contains damaging chemicals and has a short life expectancy (paperbacks and comic books, for example).  Such books are rare because of their fragility and therefore scarcity.

Fine books stand a much better chance of survival than fragile, rare ones, but in both cases deterioration can be slowed (it can never be stopped completely) with proper housing and handling…

The Care of Fine Books, Second Edition by Jane Greenfield.

Our first stop:  Bauman Rare Books.
DSC06881
This was a different kind of book store experience. More a museum than a book store. After standing there in awe for a moment, the host of the store – and I hate calling it a store, because it seems to cheapen the experience -asked me if I needed any assistance.  I asked him, “can I take a photo?”  He said yes.

DSC06879

If you’ve ever watched Pawn Stars on The History Channel, you know that when a rare book comes into the shop, Rick calls on Rebecca Romney to give an appraisal.  She is an employee of Bauman Rare Books at their Las Vegas location.

The New York City location is at 535 Madison Avenue, between 54th and 55th Streets – in the Midtown East or Diamond District.  They had three showcases; children’s books, fiction, and nonfiction.  Below is a photo of the fiction display.

DSC06880

I asked the gentleman at the gallery (a better description of it) about the satire of Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and AleGin and Butters by A. Riposte. He couldn’t locate it. I asked about Maugham, and he said that they may have editions of his books in Philadelphia or Las Vegas, but I didn’t want him to explore. He guided me to a shelf of fiction that could have Maugham novels. There was no order to it – not alphabetical by title or author. I picked up a Jack London novel.  Carefully opening the book, its cover in protective wrapping, the first thing I noticed was the price:  $5,500. I didn’t need to go any further and gently put the book back.

I did walk out of Bauman with something; it’s free book catalog.

It was just another world.  Garbed in a Detroit City FC jersey and shorts, I felt extremely inappropriately dressed as well.  Felt like I needed to be in a suit.

We walked up the block to visit another rare and fine book store that I had on my list.  It was called Ursus up at 699 Madison Ave., between 62nd and 63rd. But my wife found another on her GPS called Argosy at 116 59th Street between Park and Lexington. We decided to stop there, first.

DSC06889 DSC06890 DSC06885

A very cool place with used interesting books, as well as fine and rare books. We only accessed the street level and basement, where there were a plethora of old books.  The basement, specifically, had shelves of newer used books of quality.   We ended up coming back here Wednesday to pick up a signed edition of Book Collecting 2000 by Allen and Patricia Ahearn, especially after what happened next.

We walked back to Madison and 62nd where the Ursus Books and Prints were.  It was a business on the third floor of a building. As we rode the elevator, we saw that another rare and fine bookseller had an office on the 7th floor. Ursus, to me, was a waste of time, as its few rare books had a focus on art, and the prints were more prevalent.  We decided to ascend to the 7th floor to check out the other bookseller. A woman entered the elevator with us and said she was going up, and so were we. We happened to be riding with the photographer for both booksellers.  She keyed us in.

James Cummins had quite the selection of Somerset Maugham books.  The studio was heavy with shelves and Mr. Cummins was helpful to these two tourists from Detroit.  The Maugham books were all on a top shelf that he had to climb a ladder to retrieve, but before I knew it, there were a good dozen or so works of the English author’s works before me.  As I looked at prices, some were beyond my budget.  However there were a couple that fell in a range that I could justify – an amount less than what I get paid for a single felony court-appointment out of Macomb County.  Torn between two of them, I ended up buying  Liza of Lambeth, a Jubilee Edition celebrating the 50th anniversary of Maugham’s first novel, signed and numbered, #991 out of 1,000.

Awesome.

Before heading out to Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, there was a final stop to make:  The Center for Fiction.

DSC06903

The Center for Fiction is at 17 East 47th Street on the Upper East Side. Novels sold at up to 50% off, used books in the back, and a library for members. There is also a writer’s studio that can be rented. I can imagine it;  you’re a young writer, living in a small studio apartment, needing a place to write, but there’s not enough space at your place.  The Center for Fiction would be quite helpful.  Cool place, indeed.

It’s almost trite to claim that my first visit to New York City was life changing.  It fed my total literary life – enhancing my reading of novels set in New York; deepening my understanding on how to strengthen my writing skill; and fine tuning the development of my personal library – with a consciousness to maintain a balance among the three so that I’m well nourished in the joy of the written word.

So on Saturday, as I held the book in my hand while at a local B&N, my memory returned to NYC.  Since I took the vow, I’ve read 800 pages.  Having to start over would be difficult.  It took me six weeks to get to this point.  I was even writing more.

I placed the book back on the shelf and walked away.  It would be there another day – 2,200 pages from now.

Book-collecting.  It’s a great game.  Anybody with ordinary intelligence can play it; there are, indeed, people who think that it takes no brains at all; their opinion may be ignored.  No great amount of money is required, unless one becomes very ambitious.  It can be played at home or abroad, alone or in company.  It can even be played by correspondence.  Everyone playing it can make his own rules – and change them during the progress of the game.  It is not considered “cricket” to do this in other games.

A. Edward Newton, The Book-Collecting Game

10479089_10152167946405826_6898173262751492297_n

Monday Musings: June 9, 2014

– It’s that time again.  Every four years, the world’s thirty-two best soccer teams meet in a predetermined county – this year it will be Brazil – to compete for The World Cup.  The opening match is Thursday, and the World Cup final will be held on July 13, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro.

This is the world’s sport, which captivates citizens across the globe.  Over a billion people – yes, billion with a “b” – viewed the final match of both the 2006 and 2010 World Cup finals.  So, for the next few weeks, I will certainly be musing about the beautiful game’s largest tournament.

Americans aren’t drawn to this massive world event.  According to a recent poll, 86% of Americans know nothing or little about the World Cup, two-thirds won’t be following it, but 7% will be following it closely.   

I’m not going to hypothesize why that is.  I’m sure there are several reasons.  I’m one of the 7% who will be following it closely.  And I’ll likely be musing about it.

If you’re one of the 86%, let me start you out with how this works.  I’ll do this slowly as the tournament proceeds.

The first step is the Group Stage.  The 32 teams that have spent the last couple years qualifying in their regions for a place in the World Cup, are randomly drawn (with some rules to evenly distribute teams by national regions) into eight groups of four teams.  Each team plays every team in their group once.  The winning team gets 3 points, and if the match ends in a draw, both teams get 1 point.  The top two teams in each group advance to the next round.  If there is a tie in the number of points, goal differential (goals for minus goals against) is the first tie-breaker, and if goal differential is tied, then whichever team has the most goals breaks the tie.

The groups for the 2014 World Cup are as follows:

Group A:  Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon.
Group B:  Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia.
Group C:  Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan.
Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy.
Group E:  Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras.
Group F:  Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria.
Group G:  Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA.
Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea.

The United States is in Group G, which you’ll hear referred to as “The Group of Death.”  This is because most groups have one or two dominant teams which should advance, however Group G has four quality teams which means two quality teams will be eliminated after this round.

Thursday the tournament begins with Brazil vs Croatia.  ESPN and ESPN2 will be televising the matches, so check your local listings for times.

– I seem to have a lot of premiere’s on my calendar this week.

On Wednesday evening in Troy, Grey Wolfe Publishing is holding a Summer Launch Party for a number of books in their line.  I will be there to sign copies of my novel, The Y in Life.  For details, go to Grey Wolfe Publishing’s website.

On Thursday evening in Detroit, Lolita Hernandez will be releasing her new collection of short stories, Making Callaloo in Detroit.  Details HERE.

On Friday evening, the Cass Cafe in Detroit will be opening the art exhibit, Marie Mason: Prison Work, which runs through June 21st.  For now I’ll say that Marie Mason graduated from Plymouth Salem High School in 1980 with me, and is currently serving time in Carswell Federal Prison in Fort Worth, Texas.  I’ll write more about her story on Friday.  For now, here’s the info on the opening, and a song by the fabulous folk singer, David Rovics about Marie.

Cass Cafe
4620 Cass Avenue
Detroit, MI
July 13, 2014
7PM- 10PM

Where Are The Men?

What I’m Thinking About Wednesday: May 21, 2014

On Monday, I attended the 84th Bi-Annual Book & Author Luncheon of the Metro Detroit Book & Author Society.  One of the best and largest one-day author events in the country sponsored heavily by local area libraries, this was my fourth luncheon in a row.  The book room opens at 11:00, where people gather to purchase the speaking authors’ books and mingle until the main doors open to the nearly one hundred round tables circled by ten seats each.  Lunch is served, then the writers speak about their book and/or writing career.  At the end, the authors are escorted to tables back in the book room where attendees seeking autographs line up to meet them.

DSC00411

It is blatantly obvious to anyone who attends these luncheons that women outnumber the men.  By a significant margin.  A huge margin.  Each luncheon I have attended I was either the token male at the table, or there would be another who was the spouse of one of the other eight women.  Scott Lasser, who signed a copy of “Say Nice Things About Detroit” in October, 2012, joked with me that this is why more single men should take up writing.  Greg Iles, who signed a copy of “Natchez Burning” on Monday recognized me because I sat at a table three rows from the stage simply because I was one of the few men in the room.  “We’re a rare species at these things,” I told him.  “Women read more,” he replied.

In a 2012 survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, it found that 56.1% of women, versus 36.9% of men, had read at least one work of literature (novel, short story, poem or play) in the past year.

Gleaning from my own experience, I have found that women tend to read more fiction  Many women friends and acquaintances have talked about books they’ve read either on their own or as a part of their predominantly female book clubs.  When it comes to the men I know, very few of them read, and if they do they are usually works of nonfiction or fantasy fiction.  The garage and estates sales I occasionally visit that have books reveal whether the woman or man of the home was the predominant reader.  Military history, general history, sprinkled with a few espionage or thriller novels, usually by best-selling male authors, fill a male dominated library.  General and literary fiction, as well as romances, adorned the woman-dominated shelves.

Back in 2007, Eric Wiener wrote for NPR his theory about why women read more.  He posits that the fiction gap is a result of women’s higher level of empathic feelings.  “The research is still in its early stages, but some studies have found that women have more sensitive mirror neurons than men. That might explain why women are drawn to works of fiction, which by definition require the reader to empathize with characters.”

I tend to agree.  I admit, I’m a male.  I have my moments where I don’t get where someone is coming from.  I can’t understand their experience and their thoughts and actions based upon that experience.   The few male friends I know who read consume plot-driven works about the stagnant protagonist outwitting or overcoming enemy agents, walking dead, dragons, or empirical rule.  Especially if the gadgets and gizmos are cool.

My favorite writer is Lawrence Block.  A grand master of mysteries, Block has created a number of series characters such as the alcoholic private detective Matthew Scudder, the used book store owning burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, and Keller, the hit man with a heart.  He is my favorite because his was the inspiration for my writing style.  However, his novels are mysteries which are for the most part plot-driven as opposed to character driven.

In literary fiction I am carried into the experience and mind of the protagonist.  I figuratively walk a mile through three to four hundred pages in a character’s shoes.  It not only entertains me, but also forces me to understand humanity.  It is also the fiction I prefer to write, hoping to connect my reader to the heart and soul of my protagonist and characters instead of relying on a clever plot.    Recently, I read William Kent Krueger’s “Tamarack County” which is a character-driven mystery novel.  I still enjoy the fun and style of Lawrence Block’s novels, but Krueger’s novel opened me to the possibility of how to write a literary mystery novel.

I also think reading is a personal endeavor.  Especially when one reads character-driven novels.  And let’s face it.  We guys don’t open up easily.  We prefer results to ambiguity.  We will gladly talk about the weekend’s soccer matches and the performances of our favorite teams and players, but would be less comfortabel to discuss the tragedies that formed Etto’s young life, and how Yuri Fil, Ukranian soccer star, and his sister Zhuki, use soccer to help heal the young man in Brigid Pasulka’s “The Sun and Other Stars.”

Yes, the Metro Detroit Book & Author Luncheon is a Monday daytime event, which prohibits people who have traditional careers to attend.  Yes, the great majority of the attendees are the 65-74 year olds that the NEA found to be the age group with the highest percentage of readers.  And yes, I may be that rare species of male that enjoys reading and writing fiction that is character-driven.  I just have to have the presence of mind which crowd I’m in when it comes to conversation starters.  The table at the luncheon wouldn’t understand much if I shared the fun I had at the Detroit City FC match over the weekend, and my bowling team would give me blank stares if I told them I had attended a book signing with Colum McCann.

Personal anecdote:    My wife and I are the reverse image of this.  She reads nonfiction almost solely, whereas I read far more fiction than nonfiction.  I write fiction so that should be obvious, eh?  In the NPR article by Weiner, he included this quote:  “”We see it every time in our store,” says Carla Cohen, owner of the Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. “Women head straight for the fiction section and men head for nonfiction.””  I found this to be funny because Literati Book Store in Ann Arbor has two floors, and when my wife and I go, she heads directly downstairs where the nonfiction is, whereas I browse the fiction shelves on the main floor.

DSC05168 DSC05164