Archive for September, 2010

You might want an emerald…

September 16, 2010

but if you dig up an onyx, you just have to go with it.

Thinking a bit about writing today. I don’t want to say that I’ve hit a wall, because I’m still reading through a second draft and jotting down notes, I’m still working on the research for another project, I finished one poem and wrote another, I have continued reading (and putting off grading and at least one review to write and some cleanup on a previous review…) but my enthusiasm for what I’m currently re-writing (well, editing/re-reading right now) has ebbed a bit.

It’s not entirely what I had expected, or wanted, it to be. Part of it comes from a sheer lack of skill when I first started putting the whole thing together. Part of it was from lack of preparation. But mostly I think it was from not entirely knowing what the hell I was doing.

This isn’t to say that I think it is bad. It is readable. It gets the pages turned. But it also feels a little light, it lacks a certain critical weight. And this saddens me a bit because I think there was space in there for that. It had some soil that was fertile enough to sprout some insightful/clever/whatever things. But I just didn’t get it tilled enough or I didn’t water it enough or maybe I just didn’t spread enough shit on it.

So it doesn’t appear that I have pulled from the earth of creativity the precious stone that I had envisioned. But I did pull something out, and it’s shiny, it’s nice, and I still like it. And I am trying to make it the best whatever it is that I can.

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The Grifters by Jim Thompson

September 14, 2010

Hardboiled crime novels have never been my cup of tea but, for a project I’ve been kicking around, it’s something I have started researching. The Grifters was on the dollar rack at Half Price (yeah, I do get 90% of my books there it seems), along with some Elmore Leonrad, so I grabbed it. It’s a gritty read that touches on the life of a con, some bizarre oedipal urges, and has all of the expected beatings, killings and loving.

What stood out the most was the character Carol Roberg. In a book centered around cons, she is the antithesis of the con and has endured a hardship and horror the other three characters can’t approach (she was in a German concentration camp where she was subjected to sexual experiments by German doctors). She’s the character Lilly comes the closest to and the closest thing Roy comes to a relationship where he is emotionally invested. Her recounting of what she experienced in the concentration camp is also what upsets Roy the most in the story, while Lilly avoids a conversation about it altogether.

The avoidance by Roy and Lilly, as well as their strong attractions to Carol, says something about them. One, they are not as hard as they make themselves out to be, though Lilly proves she a bit harder when the end rolls around. Another is that it emphasizes how similar they are, though at different points in the road of the life of the con. They both seek the same thing, though it’s clear Lilly understands this more than Roy. They both want normality, the opportunity to lead a life that doesn’t involve being hit with a ball bat or burned with a zippo. The chance to settle into a routine. We see Roy continually strive for this, even while working his cons and against the advice of other cons. He settles down in LA and moves around the town a lot through a sales job, and quietly and quickly stockpiles a large amount of cash. He continually dreams of saving enough for retirement, which is really the same as a normal life just without the working.

For her part, Lilly wants Roy to go for this life as much as she wants it herself. And she works to place Carol in Roy’s path with the hope that he would take it. Which he does, but which may also lead to Lilly’s later hardness towards him.

Being what it is, the ending comes hard and fast and leaves little to question. It’s a quick read that isn’t shy about meeting the expectations of the genre, but at the same time it exceeds them. Beyond being merely a crime novel with throw away characters as placeholders in the plot, they stick with you afterwards. Despite the briefness of the work, they feel complete. You feel you know them and they don’t do anything out of character.

While I’m still not wholly won over to the form, and prefer Haruki Murakami’s forays into it quite a bit more, it’s still quite a bit more than your run of the mill pulp novel.

Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner – Review

September 14, 2010

It’s a meandering novel of people, unknowingly relatives of each other, have their lives swirl around each other for a moment, occasionally finding themselves in each other’s company, but usually caught in little whirlpools of their own. In short, all of them find themselves drawn to Montreal. Joyce runs away to Montreal, goaded on by the tales of pirates in her family that she absorbed from long hours sitting with her grandfather. Noah moves to Montreal for college to pursue a degree in archeology –  a field that sounds odd and offbeat enough to be enjoyable. And the unnamed first person narrator, who runs a bookstore, and is pretty much good with whatever life brings him.

For a novel that spans ten years in the lives of three different people, I guess I just expected a bit more.  Dicker pushes the novel along with ease, at a pace that never allows the novel to become a drudge but also doesn’t allow it to sink into the rhythms it continually hints at making up the undercurrents of life. In the end, you want to know more about the brothers who run the fish store, you want to know more about Maelo, who Noah rooms with, you even want to know more about the janitor/landlord who Joyce rents her room from upon arriving in Montreal.

Two characters stand out the most for how rarely they appear in the scope of the novel. The first is Noah’s mom. In a certain way, the dynamics between Noah’s mom and dad and, later, between Noah and his mom are the embodiments of Dickner’s thrust that life is interconnected in ways strange and bizarre and which we can occasionally tap into if only we’re open to them. Having her disappear early on after Noah decides to go to school in Montreal, and his apparently total failure at ever contacting her again, just feels off with the general thrust of the work.

The other is Professor Thomas Saint-Laurent, garbage researcher extraordinaire. He pops up to briefly be a powerful figure in Noah’s life and then Dickner simply disposes of him through a convenient protest to allow Noah to run off to South America. If Dickner had created a litany of interesting characters who pop in and out, making quick indelible impressions before vanishing off into the ether, it would be okay. But he doesn’t. And most of his characters end up serving somewhat more of a purpose. So Saint-Laurent feels a bit wasted. Perhaps Dickner was using him to illustrate how life occasionally takes you down blind alleys, but that’s not the impression you get because Saint-Laurent isn’t the one who takes Noah down the path towards a career in archeology, it is something that Noah had decided well before and just happened to run in Saint-Laurent through classes. Which arises the possibility that maybe, as we eventually come to see with the narrator, Noah hasn’t been entirely honest with himself and has actually led himself down the wrong path.

But there is a certain existentialism to this scenario that doesn’t entirely jibe with the whole “everything is connected” idea.  Looking through the Saint-Laurent story arc and I don’t see anything that screams “necessary!” Which is a shame because the character is interesting, he is fun, and I want to see why he’s there or see him more often.  But it just doesn’t seem to have anthing spin off of him.

Which, oddly, doesn’t take a whole lot away from the work. It’s still an enjoyable read, Dickner’s point (or what I take to be his point) still comes through, and it still holds together in the end. Could it be a bit more refined? Sure, but it’s not exactly a tree stump with a couple of axe chops to it stuck in the corner and being called an end table, either. But it leaves you wanting a bit more, not necessarily answers but just a bit more of a trip to get to the ambiguous journey it leaves us on the verge of.

Kerouac Letters, left on the shelf

September 5, 2010

Went to Half Price Books yesterday. They’re having a sale, 20% off everything, which doesn’t sound like much but, considering everything is already discounted, it adds up. Enough to make it worth going. My girlfriend found a couple of things off the clearance rack and grabbed something about knitting off the shelves. I had a more difficult time. What I came the closest to buying were a couple of books of letters of Jack Kerouac. They were the books from the 90s that Ann Charters edited. nice, big hardbound things, in excellent shape and things I have taken out of the library in the past and read bits and pieces of.

But I just couldn’t bring myself to buy them. There’s something about having his personal correspondence put out there to buy and paw through that turns me off a bit.  I’m curious, I kinda want to read them, but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t want my letters put out there like that. Considering he’s dead, he doesn’t have that choice.

At the same time, I can see how such things might be really interesting and helpful for scholarly work. And Kerouac wasn’t exactly shy about putting his life out there in his writing. And it’s not exactly hurting anyone since damn near anyone who could be mentioned in the things have to be either at or nearing the end of their lives. The media doesn’t exactly clamor after authors, anyway.

Still, I left the things on the shelf. Maybe I’ll go back and buy them anyway. It wouldn’t be the first time I ventured back to a bookstore to snap up something I had previously left but I doubt I will this time.  I understand their value, I understand why and how they could be interesting to people, but it still feels invasive to me. I don’t, personally, need to know what he wrote to his friends and confidants. I’ve become happy with his books. It’s all I need.