"Doing nothing, contrary to what people rather simplistically imagine, is a thing that requires method and discipline, concentration, an open mind." - Jean-Philippe Toussaint

May 25, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...a smiling helplessness was his best protection from work..."

From John Steinbeck's East of Eden:
Joseph was the fourth son - a kind of mooning boy, greatly beloved and protected by the whole family. He early discovered that a smiling helplessness was his best protection from work. His brothers were tough workers, all of them. It was easier to do Joe's work than to make him do it. His mother and father thought him a poet because he wasn't good at anything else. And they so impressed him with this that he wrote glib verses to prove it. Joe was physically lazy, and probably mentally lazy too. He daydreamed out his life, and his mother loved him more than the others because she thought he was helpless. Actually he was least helpless, because he got exactly what he wanted with a minimum effort.
Though I love character sketches like this, there are a few too many of them. I'm seventy pages into the book, and Steinbeck is still meandering his way through the introductions. He really needs to finally move the story forward. I sense that the Hamilton and Trask families will eventually converge into a major confrontation, but for now they're still on opposite coasts and Steinbeck seems in no hurry to bring them together.

May 25, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Happy birthday, Mr. Trevor!

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201bb0905fb8d970d-pi

"People like me write because otherwise we are pretty inarticulate. Our articulation is our writing." - William Trevor

A happy 88th birthday to one of my favorite writers. I haven't seen any new writing from him for a while now. I hope he's still in good health.

May 24, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Steinbeck

Though it's still only late May, I've already started my annual Summer of Classics, which this year I'm calling Summer of Steinbeck - I'm reading nothing but John Steinbeck's fiction. (This is the second time in two years that I've devoted my summer reading to a single author. Though last year's Summer of Melville was underwhelming, it did give me a broad and rewarding overview of Melville's work - and also the realization that I'll probably never read Melville again, other than Bartleby the Scrivener.) The reason I started early is that the first book on my list is the epic, 778-page paperback doorstop East of Eden, and since I'm a fairly slow reader and don't want to spend most of the summer reading just one book, I figured that I can't afford to waste any precious time. I also had the perfect setting for diving into the book - on an airplane, flying home from a family wedding in Washington state, with a big block of downtime and the steady hum of the jet engines blocking out most of the ambient noise. I read forty pages throughout the flight, which is one of the longer page counts I've ever managed in one sitting.

Those 778 pages might go faster than I had anticipated - the writing flows easily, and isn't heavy at all - but the book will still take me well into July. After that, I'll move on to Steinbeck's short novels - Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, etc. - which might feel like a reprieve after East of Eden. And I'll be skipping The Grapes of Wrath - I read (and loved) that ten-plus years ago, but given my woefully limited reading of Steinbeck, I really can't see re-reading that this summer instead of something new.

May 23, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Until the age of twenty-four, I was in all departments of writing abnormally unpromising." - Kingsley Amis

May 22, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"I love thee, infamous city!"

I've long been vaguely familiar with Charles Baudelaire's "Epilogue" (Nelson Algren used part of it as an epigraph for Chicago: City on the Make) but didn't finally read it until just now. And I really like it.

With heart at rest I climbed the citadel's
Steep height, and saw the city as from a tower,
Hospital, brothel, prison, and such hells,

Where evil comes up softly like a flower.
Thou knowest, O Satan, patron of my pain,
Not for vain tears I went up at that hour;

But, like an old sad faithful lecher, fain
To drink delight of that enormous trull
Whose hellish beauty makes me young again.

Whether thou sleep, with heavy vapours full,
Sodden with day, or, new apparelled, stand
In gold-laced veils of evening beautiful,

I love thee, infamous city! Harlots and
Hunted have pleasures of their own to give,
The vulgar herd can never understand.
"Epilogue" appears to have been included in several Baudelaire translations. The version on Project Gutenberg is from Poems in Prose (1913), a twelve-piece volume translated by Arthur Symons, but it's originally from Le Spleen de Paris (1869), which has fifty-one prose poems, so it's not the same as the Symons volume. My interest in Baudelaire was piqued over the weekend at B&N where I saw the New Directions edition of his landmark work, The Flowers of Evil, which includes fantastic cover art by Alvin Lustig. Baudelaire is now definitely on my radar.

May 16, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Why don't you write?"

Yesterday, at a garage sale, we bought a pile of issues of The Workbasket ("Home and Needlecraft for Pleasure and Profit") from the fifties and sixties. Alongside the usual ads for self-improvement (learning shorthand or the accordion) and get-rich-quick schemes (selling greeting cards - really?), there were a handful of shady appeals to aspiring writers.


The ad above, from the Newspaper Institute of America, offers something called the New York Copy Desk Method to teach housewives (note the specific reference to "newspaper women") how to write. Of course it involves a mailed-in aptitude test - which I'm sure resulted far more in applicants getting on marketers' mailing lists than actual writing gigs.


This ad, from the Palmer Institute of Authorship, is much more blunt about all the money the writer will supposedly make - the bold headline, the $240 that Ms. Wenderoth made for her first published story, the claim that writers can "cash in" on all of the lucrative opportunities out there. (The fact that "cash in" appears in quotes suggests the phrase was not yet common in 1956.) Incidentally, Googling "Harriet F. Wenderoth" brings up only five results, all of which are ancestry or death records, and none that reference a writing career.



This publisher promises to do all of the publishing dirty work (with italicized emphasis on "sell"), and even offers good royalties. Interestingly, the ad doesn't mention what all these wonderful services will cost the author. And not surprisingly, the fourth Google result for "Comet Press Books" involves a 1960 lawsuit in which a Sol Kantor was suing the publisher for fraud. On the other hand, it looks like Comet Press did publish quite a few books in its day, so maybe it didn't screw over every writer that signed on.



This ad is my favorite of the bunch, and not just because it's a Chicago guy. Benson Barrett will tell you what to write and where to sell your work, apparently without offering any writing instruction. (It's just as well he isn't teaching, given the fragmentary second sentence, the incorrect semicolon in the third sentence, and the redundancy of "in a hurry" and "adds up quickly" in the fourth sentence.) And all of that money will start rolling in from nothing more than short paragraphs! Because everyone loves to read short paragraphs, right?

May 15, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it." - Madeleine L’Engle

May 13, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I honestly think that if you put Trump in a novel before last year, it wouldn’t work. It would seem too far-fetched. You would be accused of writing farce; you would be accused of being condescending about the American people. You’d also be criticised as a novelist for not coming up with a more beguiling demagogue. This guy is crude, he’s a buffoon, he can’t string a grammatical sentence together, he’s unappealing. I can just hear the editorial lunch now: 'You’ve got to do something about this guy, there has to be something appealing about him otherwise he wouldn’t have this constituency.'" - Lionel Shriver

May 11, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Literary moms


On this Mother's Day, you might consider hoisting a dark-colored libation with your mom - Tennessee Williams certainly did. He also shamelessly appropriated her life when creating the matriarch of The Glass Menagerie, but I'm sure he was good to her otherwise.

May 8, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)