I would have bet everything I owned that Charles Schultz wrote Peanuts. He did not. It was Charles Schulz. How did this happen? Truly, this is a disturbing universe.
There are too many books. There. I’ve said it. Stop writing books please. I’m only halfway through The Iliad and now David Mitchell has another fucking book coming out? C’mon Mitchell. Give me a break. Sure, your books are in turns puzzles, elegies, adventures, and epics–but can you slow down a little bit? I haven’t even read Mill On The Floss yet. How has this happened? I mean, it took me weeks to read Middlemarch nearly twenty years ago and I just haven’t had the time to get back to Eliot. And Marilynne Robinson has a new one coming out, too? It’s just generally very uncool of her to put out another book when I’m still thinking about Housekeeping. Bogus move, Robinson. It’s like all these writers are trying to say more words than the world needs. Stop putting your words together. It’s annoying and rude. I’m going right now to start a Facebook group that will demand all writers stop writing books for at least two hundred years so the rest of us can catch up. All except for George R.R. Martin. If that guy doesn’t hurry up and get Daenerys Targaryen up on a goddamn dragon, I’m going to lose my mind.
A fantastic book by a writer that is sure to write even more powerful work. It’s hard to believe a writer as young as Boianjiu could write something so assured and powerful. It’s called a novel, but it could very easily be considered linked stories–many different POV’s–narrators–stories–all centering around three young woman in the Israeli army. The most powerful story, “The Diplomatic Incident”, is an amazing act of story telling. Boianjiu effectively includes nearly half the globe in this story–pulling characters from Israel, Egypt, the Ukraine, and Somalia–switching points of view–bringing people from factories, from the desert, human trafficking, refugees camps, the military, the country, the city–all converging on a small observation post on the Israeli/Egypt border, to one guard tower and one particular moment in two female guards’ lives. In fact, pretty much every story here has the scope of a novel, but the tight control of language required by short stories. Consider my socks knocked off.
I need other writers.
I met Vincent Carrella in line to register for the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference late summer 2001. We had an immediate kinship and although we’ve not been able to see each other too frequently, we maintain that closeness. We share a great deal in terms of experience and sensibilities but our most basic connection is simply a shared desire to write–including the doubt that balances desire.
Vinny and I stay in contact through letters and social media. We follow each other’s blogs. We don’t talk as much as either of us would like. Wrapped (warped?) in our busy lives, we crave the transmission line of the creative space.
A few days ago, we spoke on the phone for the first time in perhaps five years. Why so long a break? I don’t know. Life. But when I heard his voice, it was not simply a friend I was talking with, but someone walking the same narrow path between creative expression and creative despair. There is no need to explain doubt to a writer.
On this blog, I write about my doubt and my non-writer friends and family react to the despondency with alarm, concern, or uplifting “go-get-em” inspirational quotes. They often tell me not to take myself so seriously. I need writers like Vinny for the simple reason that they understand. Vinny and I spoke for about 45 minutes. Toward the close of our conversation, he said, “If you ever need reminding, just call me and I’ll remind you that you’re a great writer.”
Do I think of myself as a great writer? Of course not. I think of myself as a competent writer or, on my better days, a good writer (it’s amazing how brilliant the average person deems a merely competent writer), but it’s nice to know that if I’m in the midst of doubt, struggling with the fear of the blank page, there’s a writer in California willing to tell me that I’m great at my craft.
Writers need writers for that type of fleeting elevation that allows us to return to our work, to the lonely job of trying to get the words on the page to match the images in our head.
Thanks Vinny, for being one of those writers who elevates, for continuing to attempt each act of creation, for putting pen to paper despite the enormous odds against it all, and for being a part of my writing life. Here is a link to Vincent Carrella’s wonderful blog: Serpent Box.
This long book grabbed me very slowly. I didn’t feel for many pages that I would continue reading, but after maybe 200 pages I fell under its spell. The last 150 pages are quite beautiful and surprising and fulfilling in the way that only great novels can be, full of all the joy and heartbreak one could hope for. I feel as though I ought to begin again, to see what I missed. I finished it last night at eleven and find myself this morning still in that post-reading haze, still wanting to return to the last pages, wanting to continue the transmission line between the characters and myself that Zafon created. This is the reason I read–and supposedly the reason I write–to help foster that feeling again and again. That gets lost for me sometimes as I read books that have different sorts of pleasures. The pleasures of Faulkner, for example, are not the same. When I finished Absalom, Absalom, I was not overcome with waves of chills, did not I weep for the beauty of the language nor the lives of the characters, but when I finished The Shadow the Wind, I did both of those things. I will return to read more Faulkner, or Woolf, or Joyce, or Miller, or O’Connor, because the satisfactions of a full reading life require a magnificently large palette of writers, but at the same time, I am grateful to be reminded by Zafon of the sheer joy of reading and finishing a novel with a different sort of impact, one that provides an emotional uncorking often lost when I pursue literature for different reasons.
What in the world is Lydia Davis up to? If she were up to one thing, the thing she might be up to if she weren’t up to other things, we might know her better, or think we know her better, or not. But if she is up to other things, things of which we are unaware, then we are lost in what we believe. These things: words and not words; space and not space; what comes next and what comes not next; what comes next when we are expecting the first thing, not the second thing, and when the second thing come first; the long stories and the short stories and the stories that are not stories at all but are fiction. The stories that are not stories but are not poems are something, but that something is lost as it comes through first, or maybe second, or maybe not at all. We keep reading, trusting Lydia, or not trusting her, but allowing ourselves to be thrust into this space of not trusting and trusting at the same time. There are the stories that are longer than poems, but lyric, and some of us think of poems while reading the long stories and think of stories while we are reading the short stories which are not really stories but poems. These things: cats in jail and the men who kill them; Lord Royston and the unknown reasons for his travels and all the things that are not said in the travels and all the long and sacred moments and the majesty and the light of the land and the fury of the sea; thinking not thinking; mice; what is story and what is not story and what is the center of stories and what lies on the outskirts of stories and what we believe might be a story, or not, or a poem, or a bit of both, or of neither; a country of people who watch Othello every single night; this condition of being and not being; of our shallowness and our skins and how we are not the people we are, and do not do unto others as we would have them do to us, or we do exactly what we would have done to us, but is not what we thought it might be. What is Lydia Davis doing in these worlds that are not worlds, stories that are not stories, in language that rises and sinks and crests and pulls us along in swift currents when we do not want to be pulled along, but perhaps do, perhaps finding solace in these shifting things?
I was reading about authors and the books that changed them or if not changed them, then at least stayed with them over the years, captured some part of their imagination and wouldn’t let go. I have many books like that. Many of them look like this:
I loved this book. Polaris. And I don’t remember a single thing about it aside from the cover and the title. Before I wrote this post, I hadn’t seen the cover since probably 1984 and yet I could conjure it very clearly in my mind. I felt very comforted when I went searching for the image and found it quite easily. I’m sure the book–5 & Dime Sci-fi at its finest–is no great shakes. But I bet I’ll remember that cover until I’m old & demented.
There are so many great books I’ve never read. I keep writing, trying to add more books to the pile (unsuccessfully, to date) and I wonder why. Wouldn’t it be easier to try to read the great books instead of laboring to add a tiny voice to the pool? I doubt I’ll quit, at least not this year. A few days ago, I started reading Henry Miller. He is both profane and sacred, vulgar and cerebral, deadly serious and gut-busting funny. Here is a paragraph t makes me laugh every time I think about it. It just seems so ridiculous and perfect that he says “fuck a duck” here. Enjoy.
I’m not a reviewer of books, merely a reader. I read carefully, of course, as someone who writes must read. But I’ve never been much of a reviewer. For the most part, I don’t really read a lot of reviews either. I tend to find new books through recommendations and quite often, through acquaintances. That’s how I found Matt Bell’s new book In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. I know Matt through Facebook and Twitter. I’ve met him once for a few moments at the Dzanc table at the AWP conference. I heard about his new book through social media. And then my friend Michele Filgate–a writer’s champion like no other–tweeted one day that Matt’s new book, his first novel, was stunning. Since then, I’ve seen easily a dozen reviews about the work. Nearly all of them are deserved raves. When I finished reading the novel myself, I wanted to write something, but what can a non-reviewing reader write about a book that hasn’t already been said in a dozen or more reviews by qualified reviewers? Here’s what I stumbled onto:
Clark’s Top Ten Thoughts on Matt Bell’s first novel ITHUTDBTLATW:
- When I pick up a book, I want to have my socks not off. When I finished ITHUTDBTLATW, my socks had been obliterated.
- Here is a sentence from early in the book: By the time the foundling began to sing my wife’s simplest songs I had learned to restrain the fingerling, but always he watched for his chances, and soon all my angers were ulcered inside me, and one by one the fingerling sought their increased company, in whatever pits they burned their slow language. Read that aloud. Read it slowly. You MUST read it slowly.
- Speaking of reading slowly. Is anyone reading slowly any more? Stop speed reading, people. I keep entering that Goodreads contest where you challenge yourself to read a certain number of books each year. I can never keep up with my own expectations. It’s too much pressure. I read slow. Get over it. How can you not want to read a book like Matt Bell’s ITHUTDBTLATW slowly? If you read this book and you read it quickly, you didn’t read it.
- I’ve never read anything quite like this book. Each review I’ve seen of Matt’s book tries to reference a few other books like it. There are no books like it. I tried to think of a book like it. I failed. There is a fantastic book by Stanley Crawford titled The Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine born from the same unreachable cosmos, but it is nothing like Matt’s book.
- With apologies to Faulkner, this may be the best piece of American fiction ever written about a bear. But the book isn’t really about a bear. Nor is the bear always a…oh, just go read it. Trying to explain it takes the magic away.
- Many people use the word mythic or myth when writing about this book. I think that is the wrong word to use.
- Many people have called the prose lyric, too. Lyric seems too small a word. I was trying to find a word that was closer to “music” but failed. Music might be the right word. Certainly, the language concerns songs and singing. Certainly, the prose has it’s own lyricism. But none of those words really fit.
- I’m by no means a Carl Jung scholar, but I’ve read his book Man and His Symbols. In that book, written for the lay-person, he says that there are certain symbols that bubble up from man’s unconscious. Not his subconscious. Deeper than that. Further away than any piddly ol’ subconscious. Way down deep in the ooze. The primordial soup. Jung says those images appear to us in our dreams. That idea fits Matt Bell’s novel better than myth. Myths are only as old as man. ITHUTDBTLATW, while about the realities of the flesh, comes from a place before man. Before our stories.
- There is no way a review or a blog post can adequately summarize this book for you. If you see someone try, run the other direction. I went into this book with only the barest hint of an idea about the path the story would take. And that hint was shattered in the first ten pages. After that, I was just along for the ride.
- Primal. That’ the right word. Not mythic or lyric or post-post or meta or absurdist or magically realistic. None of those lit-class words fit. It’s primal, before the dawn stuff.
- It’s haunting, too. And beautiful. As violent and fierce as some of the sections are, there is also just a lot of beauty. The whole book is beautiful. The last fifty pages are so beautiful it will hurt your feelings.
- I talk to my writing students all the time about taking risks and following their creative paths wherever they lead. I can think of no better example of such a thing happening as Matt Bell’s novel. He followed his imagination and recorded this primal music. That makes it sound like it poured out of him in one sitting. I know that’s not the case. I know he worked his ass off getting this book right, getting the words and sentences right. He worked so hard on this book that it looks like he never had to work on it.
- I closed the book and the first thought that ran through my head: I want to write better stories. I don’t want to do what Matt’s done, but his book made me want to make strong art.
- I don’t know if this book is for every reader, but it’s for me. I like that it’s difficult and rewarding and that I can’t stop thinking about the final moments. I’m going to tell everyone about it. Matt’s an incredibly nice person and a pretty tireless citizen in the writing community. He deserves all the good things being said about him. This work deserves all the good things people are saying about it. Go read it. But read it slowly. Who cares if it takes you, like it did me, three weeks. Sometimes I read the same page two or three times. It’s that damn good.
- Thank you, Matt Bell, for this book.
- And yes, I know this was only supposed to be a top ten list. Sue me.