How Literature Save My Life by David Shields (2013) This is a book of connected and unconnected short essays, observations and ideas (sometimes really short) about reading, writing, literature, art, life, and maybe anything. It's by the guy who wrote Reality Hunger (2010), if that rings a bell. I heard him on a podcast, and it was much like reading this. I can't remember a single thing, offhand, from this book, but I did take some notes, somewhere. He's a bit of a nut, and I imagine he rubs some people the wrong way, but he reminds me of that friend who you don't always agree with, but greatly value. I've read this book through twice, and I think I might just start it again, because a lot of it is discussing other literature, which can lead you to some interesting stuff. Besides recommending things, challenging you, sometimes enraging you, it can also inspire you to read, and inspire you to write.
Books I've Finished Reading
Roadfood (10th Edition) by Jane and Michael Stern (2017) The first edition of Roadfood came out in 1977, and I became aware of it sometime in the early Eighties when it was my bible for interesting, cheap, regional American food. No guide, no matter how long it's been around, can even scratch the surface of cheap and interesting regional American food—one of my major interests—but Jane and Michael Stern have done it as well as anyone, with countless books, NPR spots, and a website (which makes more sense, at this point, than a book). It's a great book to have along if you're traveling, especially by car—but more for the writing than the guide. Obviously it's impossible to keep up with changes, especially where restaurants are concerned, but your phone will do that. What's nice about this book is the inspiration you get from the quality and passion of the writing. I can't underestimate what a huge influence the Sterns have been on me. A side note: I own three previous volumes of Roadfood, and I keep them and use them for an online project and blog called Restaurant Time Tunnel, where I look up places I find in older restaurant guides and report on what's there now—is the place still open, or has it been replaced by who knows what? At this writing, I have long neglected the Time Tunnel, but if and when I get back to it, I'll include a link somewhere on this website. In the meantime, if you're interested, you can probably find it. You can also find this new edition of Roadfood at your local bookstore, who needs your support.
Donna Parker in Hollywood by Marcia Martin (1961) This is the 5th book in the Donna Parker series, a fairly short (7 volumes, I believe) series for young girls—though judging by this one, anyone might be interested. Donna takes a plane from her home in the East to Los Angeles where she's staying with relatives during summer vacation. The adventure begins on the flight—there are mechanical problems—then a layover in Chicago and an adventure with a boy she met on the plane (who would figure into her LA adventures). She then meets another boy in LA, and spends a lot of time comparing the two. She also meets two film-industry kids, girls her age, who are very different. One is a painter and a bit of a misfit. Here is an excerpt: Donna is invited to a luau, and she's freaked out about what to wear, so she asks her new acquaintance—next-door neighbor to her aunt and uncle—the mysterious Jennifer, a young artist, who then tells Donna, “I never go to parties.” Donna questions her and Jennifer says: “It seems so foolish to spend all that valuable time being nice to a lot of people who who probably don't mean a thing to you, when there are so many more interesting things to do, like reading, or listening to music.” To which Donna wonders, Were all artists like that? There is a lot of stuff like that, young person social stuff, and also a couple of legitimate mysteries. Also, a trip up to San Francisco, and a visit to the now gone Pacific Ocean Park. Based on this book, I'm going to read more Donna Parker!
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker (2017) I can't remember who recommended this book, but I was intrigued by the title; I'd never heard of Morgan Parker, but now I notice when her name comes up. She's a young, black poet, with at least one other book published at this time. If I lived in New York, I could probably go see her at a reading, which was something I did occasionally when I lived in New York. I liked this book a lot. As with poetry I like, it's both macro and micro, there's stuff to hold onto, that jumps off the page, and much is mysterious and beyond my understanding, at least at this time, though maybe not when I go back to it. I think that if I read a book of poetry and felt I “got” everything, it would be a disappointment. I usually jump around in books of poetry—with no particular reason, often using multiple bookmarks, and often re-reading some poems. I don't know how the authors feel about that—after all, they probably put them in that order for a reason. This book is probably much more powerful to a reader that has more in common with the author than I do, as an old, white man who is often at sea with popular culture references. But what we have in common is love of words, love of poetry, and a sense of humor. Plus, I do write poetry, and the best way to do it is be inspired by something you read, and this book worked for me in that way. And it made me feel like reading more poetry, and more by Morgan Parker.
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (1995) This is the first book I've read by Michael Chabon, and I really liked his writing a lot—it was a pleasure from beginning to end, and kept surprising me, even though I knew much of the story from the movie, Wonder Boys (2000), adapted from the book. I've always had mixed feelings about that movie, yet I'll watch it, or parts of it, whenever it's on TV. It's about writers (my favorite subject), and full of good actors, but what I think always brings me back is the Pittsburgh locations in that time of winter hanging on, freezing rain early spring-time weather. Sometimes I think that all I really want from movies or books is weather. Anyway, it was impossible to read this book without thinking about the actors' creations of these characters—kind of too bad—but that's the danger of seeing the movie before reading the book. In this case it was worthwhile, because the book went so much deeper (which a book can do) and further into the characters' lives (including some great characters that are omitted from the movie). There is probably no subject I like more than a struggling novelist, and this is that story and then some. I also liked how the novel ended, much more than the movie (which always kind of bugged me), so all in all I'm feeling pretty good about the Wonder Boys universe—and its intersection to mine.
Triple Trouble for Rupert by Ethelyn M. Parkinson (1960) A follow-up to Double Trouble for Rupert, and more of the same—short stories, some originally published in magazines—focusing on Rupert Piper and his small circle of friends, their teachers, parents, and some small town characters. I believe that Wisconsin author Ethelyn M. Parkinson was never married and had no children, so it's interesting that she chose to focus on boys in her books—I mean rather than girls. She has a fascinating take on family dynamics, though, with a very warm and wise portrait of Rupert's mom, which reminds me somewhat of my own mom, which is maybe why these books appealed to me so much. Plus, Rupert is an instigator, which I was as a kid. In most of these stories the boys learn a little bit about maturity, in tackling some problem, anxiety, or misconception. The oddest story is the last one, where the boys make a fake “Univac” computer out of an old piano box, with blinking lights and a kid hidden inside with a typewriter. They feature it at a charity event and charge five cents to answer questions. I didn't realize that computers were so much in the popular conversation this early; people really had to wait for a long time before they were able to have all the fun we have these days!
The Ghost of Dibble Hollow by May Nickerson Wallace (1965) This a Scholastic Book Service paperback, though not one I read when young. I often buy these SBS books when I see them because they have a great look to them, and are often worth reading. This one was surprising as it's a pretty mature story, and also about an actual ghost, but not a scary one, and while it is a mystery, it's more about social issues. A family moves to a summer home and the young boy, Pug, learns about a long-time, ongoing feud, and with the help of the ghost of a boy (a relative) who died tragically young, he sets out to try to make things right. There is a point, a little past halfway, when things start heating up, when Pug goes to town and confronts one of the old-timers (a respected rich guy) on his greed and insensitive policy (too complicated to really go into it here). It's a great scene and actually gave me chills. The rest of the book is then very satisfying—and even though it wraps things up a little too neatly to really feel like reality—I had to remember that it's still a kids' book, not a 1970s movie—and I bet this was a favorite of some people when growing up.
The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket (1999) This is the first book of the series (of 13, naturally) called A Series of Unfortunate Events, written by Daniel Handler under the pen-name of Lemony Snicket. I think it was pretty popular, and I think of this a a contemporary children's book series, but I guess 1999 already puts it at a generation-ago old. I have started work on a children's book series (we'll see how it goes) so I'm reading a lot of kids' stuff for research, but I truly love reading kids' books. After reading this first volume, the question is, will I continue, and the answer is no. I did enjoy it; it was no chore, and is a slim volume, but I also felt that it was pretty tedious. It's the story of some newly orphaned children who are pretty absurdly mistreated. I quickly tired of the repetitions, the humor involving language, for the most part. I don't think kids find humor involving repetition any more funny than adults do. And though I'm sure the misfortunes of the children, as subsequent volumes keep raising the bar, promise to be imaginative and skirt the level of what you'd even want a kid exposed to, I'm feeling—as an old guy with limited time and unlimited books—that I pretty much get the picture with this first volume. Fans of this series are welcome to tell me that I'm wrong.
The Missing Chums by Franklin W. Dixon (1928) This is the 4th volume of The Hardy Boy Mystery Stories and starts with Chet and Biff going on an outing in Biff's new boat. The Hardys and Tony, in their boats, see them off across the bay until a huge storm arrives out of nowhere and the Hardys and Tony barely make it back. It's one of the best descriptions of a boat caught in a storm I've read (and it happens a lot in these books)! Chet and Biff are lost at sea. It's pretty harrowing. This is also the volume that introduces Aunt Gertrude, who comes to visit—accompanied by a cat!—“a lazy yellow cat by the name of Lavinia”—which is the only time I remember the mention of her cat. A letter comes from some criminals addressed to Fenton Hardy (who is out of town, as he often is) and Aunt Gertrude has a premonition that it's something sinister because, she says: “I dreamed about haystacks last night. Haystacks! Whenever I dream about haystacks it means band news.” This book probably has the best Aunt Gertrude parts of any Hardy Boys book. It's also one of my favorite premises: some criminals, out to get Fenton Hardy, have a plan to kidnap Frank and Joe, but they kidnap Chet and Biff mistakenly. It's almost comic. I pretty much stole that whole plot for a part of my forthcoming novel, The Doughnuts.
Land of 1000 Diners – A Guide to Greater Cleveland's Greasy Spoons, Family Restaurants, and Diners (2015) Another subtitle: (52 diners in 52 weeks by one crazed girl). Although I know the name of the author, her name is not published (or is well hidden), so I'm respecting her anonymity. This was given to me by my friend, Jeff Curtis, and might technically be considered a “zine” (self-published, stapled) but as it's not a periodical— it's a one-time thing, I'm calling it a book. Also, it's more useful and beloved than most of my thousands of books. Also, maybe hard to find—but if you looked around Cleveland's used book and zine stores, you might find a copy. I'm guessing 2015 as the publication date, because the year in question—when she decided to visit and write about one diner per week—was 2014. That's the year after I last lived in the Cleveland area. It sounds like a fun project, which I'm sure it was, but try it sometime, something like that—it's a lot harder to do—both the searching out new places and the writing—than you can imagine. There are also some ranking lists, an interview—but mostly it's reviews, ordered by geography—and besides being an incredible guide to locating diners in the Cleveland area, you also get a lot of the personality and greasy spoon philosophy of the author. Because I cannot resist, and have spent a little time in the area, I'm going to list the places written about that I have personally visited: Big Egg, Dianna's Deli, Coffee Pot, Shore Restaurant, The Place To Be, George's Kitchen, Borderline Cafe, John's Diner, Shay's, The Whip, Midway Oh-Boy, My Friends, Diner on Clifton. Which is only a handful, and would leave me with a whole lot of exploring to do if I still lived there. I would love if she decided to do a revised edition, someday, but sometimes these kinds of projects are a once in a lifetime thing, during a magical year.
Generation of Swine by Hunter S. Thompson (1988) Subtitled: Gonzo Papers, Volume 2: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80's. I felt compelled to read some soothing words from the unmistakable voice of Hunter S. Thompson after last year's presidential election, thinking it would maybe help, or at least put things in perspective. This book is made up of SF Examiner columns, and is mostly about politics, Reagan, the Iran-Contra Affair, Oliver North, etc., leading up to the 1988 election. It does kind of put things in perspective, but I don't know if it cheered me up as much as made me feel more hopeless. I guess the one thing you could take from remembering that time period is that things don't change that much, they just run in cycles, and if anything we just keep raising the bar on greed and stupidity. Personally, in order keep getting up day after day, I have to believe that human beings are slowly, if not always surely, advancing in terms of humanity, at least, but that's often a hard position to support when you look at the whole world, and very deep into any society. But then, what I think, anyway, matters little, except maybe to me. My favorite parts of this book, and any of Thompson's writing, is when he talks less about politics and more about some crazy adventure he's been pulled into, with well-drawn portraits of bizarre individuals that you know, from experience, are only slightly exaggerated. I always liked the title, too, “Generation of Swine”—I'm not sure when that generation ends, exactly, and if he came up with a name for the even more heinous successor.
The Mysterious Half Cat by Margaret Sutton (1936) This is Volume No. 9 of the Judy Bolton Mystery Stories. Thinking about trying out some other, old series books, I picked up this one, with the intriguing title. A little research told me that it's one of the few series books written all (I mean, the entire series) by a single author (as opposed to ghostwriters). There are some huge Judy Bolton fans out there, and they even hold a conference. Anyway, I started reading to see if I liked the style, and did immediately, so I decided I might try to read them in order, but by then I was so caught up in this very odd story that I couldn't put it down. Now I'm wondering if this book might be an anomaly, or they're all this good—regardless, I'm going to read more. It has a different feel than Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. I won't go on about the story, but here is an excerpt, to get an idea of the writing style: from chapter XII—“An Appointment At Midnight”—when the kids go out late at night on an investigation. “The night was perfect for hiking. A breeze that sounded weirdly through the trees blew Judy's hair about her face and gave her an exhilarating sense of being free to do exactly as she pleased. She leaned against the gate and drank in the night.” If that doesn't make you want to get out and explore the world, you'd better investigate your own pulse!
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996) Too much is made of how long and difficult this book is; there are longer novels out there, and much more difficult ones. But for a legitimately slow and unfocused reader like myself, it was a challenge to get through, and I won't even admit, here, how many years it took me. But I've finished it, and I feel the journey was worthwhile. There are points where you want to risk hurting your back and throw the book across the room, say, “Enough already with the tennis,” etc., but overall it's an immensely entertaining, sometimes shocking, and intensely sad story. Part of the pure joy of this book is being fully immersed in DFW-land, which is, I guess—like certain cuisines and lifestyle choices—either you have a taste for it or you don't. It is, of course, a much different book going into it knowing that David Foster Wallace committed suicide, as much of it deals with depression, addiction, and suicide. As for it being set in the very near future, now is a fascinating time to read it, being that we are essentially living in the time he predicted, in the novel. In essence, he gets a lot very, very right, spookily so, but if he was here with us now I'd imagine he'd admit that even his most bizarre and disturbing imaginative predictions don't exceed the world we are presently living in.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884) For some reason, this is often considered a book for kids, and while I'm all for kids reading “above their level,” it would be helpful to have an adult along with this one, if for no other reason than to put some of the history and language in context, in regards to race and slavery, and discuss some of the ironic complexities and the examination of societal hypocrisy. But also, even if you've read it when very young, like I did, doesn't mean you won't find an entirely different book when reading it later in life. It took me this long to re-read it, but I'm glad I did, because I now feel it's one of my favorite books of all time, if not favorite. There is a good reason it's considered one of the greatest American novels. It's hard to briefly, if at all, explain why good writing is just good writing, and if I could do that, I'd just sit down and do it (explain it and write like that). Anyway, on one hand, the adventures depicted are vivid, exciting, and hilarious, and on another, there is harsh social commentary and biting satire throughout. That this novel, first published in 1884 feels like it could have been written this year says a lot both about the far ahead of its time quality of the writing, and also, sadly, that as a society, we have advanced far too little.
The Secret of the Old Mill by Franklin W. Dixon (1927) This is the third of the Hardy Boys mystery stories, most significant in it's the volume in which they get a small motorboat, the Sleuth, which they will use in many books to follow. On their very first outing they misjudge the weather and get caught in a storm (something that would happen nearly every time they take their boat out in subsequent books). Also, they give a guy a lift, who turns out to be involved with the mystery at hand, and he ends up holding them at gunpoint, until he gets seasick and they disarm him. When they get back to Bayport it turns out he's someone the authorities are after, including their dad, Fenton Hardy, who confronts the guy: “They tell me you were 'shoving the queer' down in Barmet Village this morning.” Of course, the Hardys know from their dad that “shoving the queer” refers to passing counterfeit money, which is the criminal subject of this volume—which starts out by the Hardys being taken in by a counterfeiter. Later their mother sells an nice rug from their house to a “dark and swarthy” foreigner for $800!—cash, which turns out to be counterfeit. Also of note is another odd chapter which is totally from the point of view of Con Riley, who is kind of a lazy, dimwitted cop. The Hardys and their friends, especially Chet, are always tormenting him. They butter him up and he totally falls for it, then Chet gets him to “guard a package” for him, which he does, but falls asleep, and the package contains an alarm clock which goes off and freaks out the poor guy. The chapter has nothing to do with the book except that it's a funny aside, and further illustrates how useless the police are in these early books.
Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders (2013) I used to read a lot of short stories, and then I got to a point where I just didn't want to read short fiction anymore—almost none—and I'm not sure why. Maybe it was because I used to write short fiction, then stopped, and just became more interested in longer forms. I had heard a lot about George Saunders, as a very highly regarded fiction writer, but I hadn't read anything by him before this book. The stories were all published in various magazines, mostly The New Yorker. I used to subscribe to The New Yorker—initially because of the stories—then I realized I read everything but the stories. It seems like, as with poetry, stories are kind of hit or miss; either they connect with you or they don't. I suppose novels are like that, too, but I don't continue with a novel that's not connecting with me. The first few stories in this book I liked okay, but they didn't do much for me—then I got to “Escape from Spiderhead” which pretty much floored me. I remember telling someone that it was the best thing I ever read “about love”—I don't remember why now, but I'll return to it some day. I did like all ten of these stories okay, but that one, and then “The Semplica Girl Diaries” were stories that I felt compelled to tell other people about and encourage them to read, which is pretty much the highest compliment.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963) I had not read any of James Baldwin's books in their entirety at the time I saw the documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016) in which I found him fascinating, so now I want to read more. I'm not going to do a good job of summarizing this book, or that movie, here, so I'm just going to wholeheartedly recommend both to anyone unfamiliar with them. This book is short, it's in your library, and it reads like a soothing voice from a friend whose intelligence you know you'll never match, and that makes him a most beloved friend. It's comprised of two essays, written in the form of letters, and it makes me think how the loss of actual letter writing in my life has not been good for my soul (not to mention the loss of so many individuals who I used to write letters to). Facing the mainstream embrace of hatred, racism, sexism, and fear in my born into USA home, as of late, I've found myself on one hand numbing myself with drugs (not the drugs you're thinking of, those who don't know me, but drugs nonetheless), and on the other, searching for new friends, mentors, leaders, intellectually and spiritually, living and dead, in person and in work they left behind. With this book, which I feel I will be compelled to reread soon, too, and other work as well, I will continue to look to James Baldwin.
The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene (1930) This is the first of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, and it introduces the girl detective and her world as she attempts to find the missing will of a recently deceased man in order to help the rightful heirs. As with the Hardy Boys “author” F.W. Dixon, Carolyn Keene is a pseudonym, and 23 early Nancy Drew books were written by Mildred Wirt Benson. Also, as with the Hardy Boys, the early books went under a wholesale revision process, starting in the late 1950s, in order to update them for a new audience. I haven't read enough of the original text vs. revised text Nancy Drew books (as I have with the Hardy Boys) to have an opinion about which I prefer, though based on this one, I perceive the earlier incarnation of Nancy, like the Hardys, as bolder and more anti-authoritarian than her revised version. Adults, particularly the social climbing antagonists and small town police, are portrayed as buffoons. You hear about the offensive racial stereotypes in the older books, and until this one, I'd really encountered much besides the derision, somewhat, of the servant class, but there is an entire chapter here with a comically portrayed “negro” watchman who had been lulled away from his post by the criminals and alcohol. Nancy scolds the man, but then shows some compassion, too—though is clearly disapproving. Much of this story is fairly dull, with Nancy mulling over possibilities and the mystery mentally, but when there is action, as with Nancy's run-in with some hardened criminals, it puts her in real danger and is quite harrowing.
Nine Lies by Randy Russell (2013) This is a book I wrote (published only at Kindle store)—so I know it's a little weird to have it on my book list, but I wanted to try to read it with an open mind after some time had passed (I finished it in 2012 or so). I am happy to say I liked it a lot. I work really slow sometimes, and other times really slow—and that was the case here. There are 10 stories and some I started as far back as around 1990. Over the years I did a lot of revision and finally worked them into something I like. The stories all work together in a way, so even though they are stand-alone pieces, I feel like they work together to make something that is closer to a novel than a collection. The themes are: love, mortality, work, addiction—all the usuals—and it's 100 percent fiction (for the most part). In a way I'm happy to say I am not the same person as the person who write this; I feel personally close to it, but I also feel that I've moved on.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970) This novel focuses on some African-American kids and their families in Lorain, Ohio—I guess the time period is post-Depression. This is near where I grew up, as well as my parents, who were kids around the time of this story—so I was interested to get the feeling of that, having heard accounts of that time period from them. This story involves incest and cruelty and racism and extreme poverty, and is told from multiple points of view. The writing is so good it is consistently a pleasure, despite some very sad and depressing subject matter. This got me thinking about the incidences of racism in my school, growing up, and even more about people's hardships and kids' cruelty, much of which I witnessed. And it got me thinking more about something I've been thinking about a lot lately, how I have been conscious of and critical of racism, unfairness, bullying, and cruelty though much of my life, while not really feeling anything about it. Why is that?—I suppose it has to do with falling on the easy side of luck and privilege—and it doesn't make me feel so good to only be realizing this now, as an old man. Anyway, as upsetting and sad as some of the events in this book are, it is powerful art and a pleasure to get enveloped in.