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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture


“Popcorn, or Billiards” is an excerpted story from my upcoming novel, THE JANITOR: or I AM NOT WHAT I AM, in which two friends are talking. Talking about any&every-thing is what friends do, and sometimes they actually “say” things that make sense. Such as: “Is this the best we can do as a species?”

THE AIRGONAUT online ‘zine, publishing flash fiction with a sense of the absurd.

Books … I mean the ones with pages.

Penguin Hardcover Classics have them. So do Collector’s Library. Yes, they have 20th-Century classics and lots of literature going back to ancient texts. Yes, all of those books that you can find free on line, download to your e-reader of choice, and never worry about packing real books in real boxes the next time you move.

Yet what is Book Culture without books? The virtual book, in my mind, doesn’t count. You can’t turn its pages; you certainly can’t smell the ink and paper. You can’t make marginal notes. You can’t design a bookshelf and fill it with books whose spines are colorful, designerly, and have printed titles, and be of various sizes and thicknesses. Now that’s a book!

This is what Penguin and Collector’s and other publishers of fine hardback & clothbound books have realized: there are plenty of people out there that like the physical book. And they’ll always like them. And they’ll pay money for a beautiful edition.

Penguin Classics have various colors, with stamp-printed designs, and complementary colored endpapers; many have illustrations, because Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll and the old fairy tales printers used illustrators’ woodcuts to make these stories come alive ever more. Proust’s Rechercher du Temps Perdu (In Search of Time Lost) comes in three volumes, each a vivid color, a good size for the hand, a volume that makes art on the bookshelf, as much as it holds between the covers. Dickens’s David Copperfield has a chocolate cover, with cream kites as in the sky, printed on its cover front and back.

The Collector’s Library editions are traditional maroon cloth, though newer editions are powder blue (a bit of an odd editorial/sales choice, as it sometime feels as if I’m reading from a child’s prayer book — hardly the effect I sought while reading of a Hemingway character having sex in the outdoors with his paramour under a woolen blanket). They are truly palm size volumes, and fit in most jacket pockets. Perfect for traveling, or being out and about on public trans.

I conceded the flexibility that e-readers offer the consumer. But where is the humanity from yet another robot? Don’t we stare at pixelated type and video screens all day long, and all too much? The book is civilization. The book is humanity. A book brings people together. I bet you haven’t heard much of, “Oh, I love the cover of your e-reader!”

New Year’s Book Total — 2013 Reads

The year 2013 was good for many things, and books also, but not for total books read. At least, not according to my standards. Lots of reasons can be sited, but none particularly worthy of the let-down. I had time, and while not having wasted it, made use of those minutes and hours for other — equally important — passions: food, travel, writing work, loving, thinking.

Yet I did read some good books in 2013, some of them having big page-counts. The statistics hold up well:

22 books read

7,924 pages

3,317,125 approx. words


So without anymore fanfare nor excuses, her is my list, in chronological order:

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Tunc by Lawrence Durrell

2666 by Roberto Bolano

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant

Nunquam by Lawrence Durrell

In the Hand of Dante by Nick Tosches

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates

The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester

 Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

Cordial & Corrosive by Sophie Hannah

Letting Go by Philip Roth

Bleeding Edge by Pynchon (suck!)

Operation Shylock by Philip Roth

The Divine Comedy: Inferno by Dante Aligheri

The Night Train by Carl Purdon

Art & Lies by Jeanette Winterson

Darkness Visible by William Golding

Under the Autumn Star by Knut Hamson

Max, the blind guy by Mark Beyer (pub 2014)


I shan’t give my faves, though you all must understand, I don’t read bad books (ie. anything with vampires, zombies, or sentimental love, and, NO, I am not sorry for that). Please tell me, on FB or in the comments below, what you’ve read, your list, your stats, or just your faves.

Happy New Year!

Books Read Lately: Philip Roth, Jonathan Lethem, Iris Murdoch

For the last month I’ve gone to three authors I trust. I wanted to go out of the year (27 books read) with some strong fiction. Roth is always good, and I ask myself each time I read him “Why weren’t you reading this guy 30 years ago!?” … while Lethem is an author I know through his journalism more than his fiction … and Murdoch always surprises me; I think she must have surprised herself most of the time.

When She was Good by Philip Roth

Philip Roth accepts the notion that there are many ways to see a particular incident, or life. Evaluation is all about point of view. A young woman finds that her life must be made acceptable, even livable, through her own strength, intelligence, and management. But what happens when other people become part of that life, or when people from the past reenter? Who’s at fault if things go wrong? I must admit that, by the book’s end, I could accept most of the different points of view, when looked at from only it’s angle. So the question erupts: who are we to judge someone’s course in life?

The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem

This collection of Lethem’s book-culture journalism (with smatterings of his short fiction) has a central theme of “those books/authors/events/things that influence a writer’s work/thoughts. The title is a riff on Harold Bloom’s once-seminal “The Anxiety of Influence” (1973) in which Bloom argued (in terms of poetry) that every writer’s precursor creates a particular anxiety in him/her that makes the new poetry find uniqueness, or fail. While that argument has its detractors, Lethem takes the tack that any influence should be yearned for, accepted, and used to a writer’s greatest advantage. Most of the essays are writerly-centric, and not exactly fit for the general audience, but the good thing about Lethem is that his language is always accessible within its literate scope.

The Good Apprentice by Iris Murdoch

Iris’s 1985 story of “being good” and “finding goodness” is of course half-ironical because her characters can hardly get out of their own way. How very human, I kept thinking, though the drama of fiction keeps that thought kindling. In this story, Edward Baltram has accidentally killed a friend; his brother, Stuart, wants to drop out of society and into a monastery; and meanwhile, their father is having an affair with a friend of the family. Each character is in search of, or already thinks he/she’s living a good life. Irony abounds. Characters witness their own failures and others’ triumphs. What we learn is that no set plan can make life good, per se, but the half-righteous desire to simply live is … pretty damn worth living.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

The Thoughts between the Images

I’ve been reading “The Kindly Ones” by Jonathan Littell for a couple weeks now (it’s 975 pages!) and every bit of it is filled with contrasting images. From the Ukrainian forests overrun by Nazis, and used to hide the slaughtered “enemies,” to the garish nightlife of war-arrogant Berlin’s privileged aristocracy, Littell is intent on showing his audience life in Nazi Germany through the war years.

At first I was disconcerted with the story — not for its prose, or the character; both are compelling works of literary imagination — because the description of the atrocities inflicted on the civilian populations by the SS killers was a lesson in repetition of the striking image. This were as much a blitzkrieg to the senses of readers as war is to soldiers. Then he tempered these images by getting into the mind of the narrator, whose own careful observation of other soldiers brought about a picture that goes far beyond any film or war-time documentary can illustrate.

This is where “The Kindly Ones” took hold of me, and has not let go since. And here is found the focus of this column: the need for the author to get the thoughts of his character at just the right time; sometimes woven into the descriptive narrative, and other times coming abruptly, through memory or sense-triggering. Here’s where we writers can draw the reader along, after whipping her back and forth through the carefully developed labyrinth of images created to tell the story.

For example, after several such “actions” in which this narrator-cum-SS-Officer has watch in horror how (this is early in the war) regular soldiers were used to shoot civilians point-blank in the head and let them fall into a hastily dug trench, he sees what this has done to soldiers:

As brutalized and habituated as they may have become, none of our men could kill a Jewish woman without thinking about his wife, his sister, or his mother, or kill a Jewish child without seeing his own children in front of him in the pit.

Without this internal struggle, this book would have quickly become a “war book” filled with dirty language, “band of brothers” camaraderie, and sentimental feelings for home or family (or both). But this SS Officer is not so different from officers in other armies who have witnessed home-grown atrocities, and this makes all the difference.

In another episode, on the Russian front at Stalingrad as the Nazis are surrounded and being pummeled by the counter-attacking Russian army, under conditions known only to rats, weasels, and other rodents, our newly promoted (to captain) narrator is about to meet a partisan officer on the front lines, hiding in a room whose walls look like Swiss cheese from all the holes blasted through them:

What could this officer, cut off from everything, teach me that I hadn’t already read in some report? True, I could see for myself the miserable condition of the men, their fatigue, their distress, but that, too, I already knew. I had vaguely thought, on my way over there, about a discussion on the political involvement of the Croat soldiers with Germany, on Ustashi ideology: now I understood there was no sense in that; it was worse than futile, and this Oberleutnant would bprobably not have known how to respond; in his head there was room only for food, his home, his family, captivity, or his imminent death. All of a sudden I was tired and disgusted, I felt hypocritical, idiotic. “Merry Christmas,” the officer said to me as he shook my hand, smiling.

These paragraphs are instructive for any writer: in a world where so much imagery is dark, colored only by the red of blood from torn apart soldiers, we have the thoughts of an intellectual-turned-soldier to interrupt our own horror (a living nightmare few of us have witnessed). This is the humanity we seek within war’s theater, often left out, and unexplained; and these are the thoughts that make fiction the truth of humanity’s struggle with itself, no matter what conditions of splendor or squalor, heralded victory or murderous failure.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Three Ways to Start Your Story

Story beginnings are like looking at fingerprints — each is unique, yet we feel a familiarity in them all. Among the many possibilities to start a story, three serve writers particularly well because they help readers “get into” the story flow: 1) narrative of a recent or “in the moment” event; 2) dialogue between two or three characters; or 3) a simple monologue to set character personality, story tone, intent, and voice.

As a young writer, I used to stand in front of my bookshelf, looking at the few hundred spines (later, thousands) with their titles embossed in silver or gold or blue or black, wondering how all these writers wrote their books, how they finished their “story” and, more importantly for me at the time, how they started the story that would become this bound book. Then, with as much randomness as I could make my hands feel out a title, I would draw out a book and read its first paragraph (or half page). Then I would put it back, draw out another, read its first paragraph, replace it, and move on. Sometimes I stopped at ten books, other times I read on and on, sometimes for an hour. And while I read these opening paragraphs, reading quickly but with concentration and interest, I developed a sense of “the beginning” of a story. I noticed a couple patterns that would serve to help me start, and finish, several novels in the years to come: start the story where it needs to be started, in a way that your tone for the novel comes through best; and, no one knows how to do these things but you.

But given the personal nature of story writing, there were the techniques used by all these authors that let me in on a way to begin:

Story narrative of a recent or “in the moment” event helps set the scene, the place, who is there, and why they are there (known by the end of the scene, at least). Sometimes it’s as easy as writing, “Ben stepped out of the car, looked across the street, and saw his father dead on the sidewalk under the white burning streetlight.” Boom! Here we go; we’ve got the person, the time & place, and conflict. Easy, right? Well, maybe … just as long as you have the next sentence, and the next, and the one after that. Is this going to be a long scene or short scene? With dialogue b/w characters, or an internal monologue? Is something going to happen, or are you teasing the audience with a “sketch” and some “information”?

Beginning a story using only dialogue, you’re dropping the reader into the middle of something — usually an argument — that they don’t understand, but you’d better make them get it inside of a page or so. This is the risk. The reward of opening with dialogue is that you’re letting the characters lead the story from the get-go, and they get to introduce themselves through their voices, expressed thoughts, and attitudes towards one another. It’s effective storytelling, but not for every novel, nor novelist.

Perhaps the riskiest method of the three is the character monologue. One person speaking to you, the audience, needs to have something in his or her voice, and in what is said, that makes you believe this story is worth your time. Leave the voice flat, the idea a cliché, or the message too vague (or worse, a riddle), and you’ve lost the reader inside of the first paragraph.

Examples of these story-starts are everywhere. Try looking through your book stacks, but just the first paragraph of randomly chosen books. See what you notice (especially in the books you’ve already read). And as additional examples, take a look at the following:

(story narrative)

“Dr Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse. He had attended a surprisingly easy calving, lanced one abscess, extracted a molar, dosed one lady of easy virtue with Salvarsan, performed an unpleasant but spectacularly fruitful enema, and had produced a miracle by a feat of medical prestidigitation.” — Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres



“Of course we have to do with two madmen now, not with one.”

“You mean Marcus is mad too?”

“No, he means Patrick is mad too.”

The first speaker was Gildas Herne, the second was Alfred Ludens, the third Jack Sheerwater.

“I mean,” said Gildas, “that by now Patrick is mad. That Marcus is mad goes without saying.”

“Marcus is not mad,” said Luden, “and Pat is very ill, not out of his mind.”

“Gildas is just expressing his frustration,” said Jack.

“We are certainly frustrated.”

Gildas who was sitting at the piano, played some melancholy chords. The open window of the flat admitted smells of springtime from not too distant Regent’s Park. — The Message to the Planet by Iris Murdoch



“Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened. I am not your brother, you’ll retort, and I don’t want to know. And it certainly is true that this is a bleak story, but an edifying one too, a real morality play, I assure you. You might find it a bit long — a lot of things happened, after all — but perhaps you’re not in too much a hurry; with a little luck you’ll have some time to spare. And also, this concerns you: you’ll see that this concerns you. Don’t think I am trying to convince you of anything; after all, your opinions are your own business.” — The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell



What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.