Wednesday, November 27, 2013

one man band, one night only

Oh my goodness, What is this foolishness? I don't know, man. Someone convinced me to pick up a guitar again for a night. Never a sensible idea.

Yep. Gonna throw Fiona in the car next week and head up to Boston. I couldn't say no. The Nameless is one of the first real gigs I ever played (talking 1991, y'all). "Real gig" defined as people actually listening to the music and not the hockey game. By the numbers I played across the street at Passim more times over the years, but Nameless always had a special place in my heart. I wrote it into In Hoboken, after all. A whole chapter.'ll be fun. Thanks to ol' pal Amy Malkoff for calling me on this one. And insanely psyched to be splitting the bill with one of my true soul compadres and former Camp Hobokener Linda Sharar. What could go wrong?

What else? I just looked out the window in the darkness. It's snowing, first time this year. If you know me, you know I'm smiling, from that alone. Smiling, and prepared. The brand new woodshed got finished, stocked, and stacked just in time...

Happy Thanksgiving, and may the force be with you. Whoever you are, hope to see you in Cambridge next weekend.

Friday, November 15, 2013

tyrannicides, texas democrats, and the soul of a fictional russian detective

Interesting reading lately, on flights across the pond to Europe and back. (Although, truth be told, shouldn't all reading be interesting reading? If what you're reading isn't interesting, wouldn't you just stop?)

Up top, fascinating book about John Cooke, the lawyer who accepted the "tyrannicide brief" and prosecuted Charles I, sending him to a beheading. Fascinating to me for a number of reasons: one, because the Stuarts onward have traditionally been where I start losing interest in the Kings and Queens of England (I like my royals ancient and weird), and I've known little about them; two, completely unknown to me before how influential Cooke and his actions and writing were on so much of history to follow, in terms of law and rights in general, and also in terms of prosecuting rulers. Really interesting read. And dear Jesus those English were brutal with their executions, weren't they? The whole hang/draw/quarter thing...Christ. Poor Cooke.

But it was actually another point of this book I'm calling out now, and it's due to a connection point with the book I read right after it...the one below, Caro's latest in his seemingly never-ending LBJ series. So what is it that these two books have in common?

It is this: the human dynamic that surfaces in all of us from time to time, in some more than others, where one cannot seem to overcome the evidence in front of you, and a "bad" decision is made that should have been avoided. Now, you could say that's what every person who smokes or drinks or eats too much etc does: continues a behavior in spite of clear evidence that this behavior will eventually cause harm. But that's not what I mean. What I refer to is a particular point in time, a particular decision to be made, and for whatever reason having an otherwise decisive person be unable to make a decision, or make the wrong decision, despite the clear facts and evidence.

So, in the case of these books, what am I talking about?

Chalres I almost certainly didn't have to die. And, in fact, might even have been able to retain his crown, or at the very least secure it for his son. But maybe even keep it.

And LBJ almost certainly could have been the Democratic candidate for president (over JFK) in 1960.

In the end, it worked out for LBJ just fine further down the line. In Charles Stuart's case, not so much.

Both of them were instances of ignoring the clear evidence, the advice, the wisdom, the truth right in front of your face, and by whatever reason being unable to make a decision and then ultimately making the wrong decision.

In the case of LBJ, it was never-ending foot-dragging based solely on fear (which is interesting in and of itself, because he was so fearless in other aspects of his life and career). As for Charles, it was pure arrogance. Royal arrogance, the worst kind.

Anyway, interesting stuff. Oh, and one last point from the LBJ book. On people who REALLY understand politics...which are really very few people. When JFK chose LBJ as his running mate, everyone in the universe was taken by surprise. Everyone. Except two people: JFK and LBJ. They didn't even like each other, but it was a perfectly clear choice to both of them.

What else? I love Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko novels. I read Gorky Park when I was a teenager (distinct memory of the reading this for the first time the year I lived in India), and am so happy he's kept this character alive and evolving and interesting through the years since. What a great character, what amazing books.

This article from the Times this week about MCS was a bit of a shock: he has Parkinsons. But how he deals with it, and how we writes through it...what a story.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

africa, top and bottom

I'll be honest, I have a hard time reading about Somalia. Which is why I almost didn't read this great article in recent New Yorker about a London-based Somali chef who returned home against all odds to cook good food in Mogadishu. Even twenty years later, I can still picture many of the locations and neighborhoods described in here. Good luck, Ahmed Jama.

And in other news, at the bottom of the continent, Kristina returns soon (on a plane now? I think so...) from her second trip to South Africa, first time to JoBerg. Some heady topics, and inspiring folks.

Friday, September 27, 2013

there is no one available to take your call right now...

Danny Torrance is back. I'll be completely checked out for the next few days...

Saturday, August 31, 2013

"ravioli swimming in a lobster juice was my way"

There is little more rewarding and amusing in life than unintended brilliance from a failed translation. Note object one below, the "English version" of the menu offered to me around 9pm this past Sunday night at a cafe buried on a back street in Cassis (on the coast in Provence). Check the ravioli description.

It sounds like the beginning of a poem, doesn't it? Or perhaps the name of a karaoke bar in Tokyo.

Speaking of food and poetry and France: last week when I wasn't eating, drinking, walking, or not-sleeping, I was reading The Raw and the Cooked by Jim Harrison. That's him in the photo, down below. Not entirely sure how I've gotten this far in life without reading this book of food essays; not for lack of knowledge of the volume, Kristina has been pressing it on me for a few years now. But regardless, this past week in Paris and Cassis is when I finally got there. Harrison is one of those writers -- and this is one of those books -- where every page contains a morsel, a quote, something that you want to write down somewhere, or grab a traveling companion by the arm and read it to them, whether they like it or not. This being Harrison's collected gourmand essays, most of the quotables were food-related, like this one:

"The idea is to eat well and not die from it -- for the simple reason that that would be the end of your eating."

But no shortage of non-food, general-life kinda stuff. I loved this thought:

"There's never anything behind a blackboard, just more blackboard, or so I thought back in school, where I never wanted to be anything else but elsewhere."

It's not every day you find a writer of Harrison's stature who failed as miserably at education as I did. Or, at least, admits to it publicly. It's refreshing.

Here's one final quote, I can't help myself:

"After I have written a novel, screenplay, or long poem, I have given away my mind and it is difficult to get it back. Walter Percy calls it the Reentry Problem, while George Romero and the Haitians call it something else."

Plus, he's missing an eye and loves dogs. What's not to love. It was the perfect book for the train trip from Paris to Marseille, etc.

However: as good as the book is, the back cover (of the edition I was reading, anyway) is quite simply one of the worlds-worst ever, period. Really. And it not only offended me as a writer, it made me mad for Harrison, because jesus he surely deserves better than this stinking pile of shit. Whatever editorial assistant or summer intern from Brown that sat at a desk at Grove and wrote this opening line should (in the words of the late Sam Kinison) be made assistant manager of the night shift at Wendys in Tulsa: "Jim Harrison is one of the country's most beloved writers, a muscular, brilliantly economic stylist with a salty wisdom."

I don't even know where to begin in deconstructing that semantic house of crap cards. First, let's just start with "one of this country's most beloved writers"; well, he should be considered that, yes. But...never mind. And then there's that "muscular, brilliantly economic stylist." Oh fuck me. Why does every male writer have to be muscular or sensitive and nothing apparently in-between? I got the muscular tag applied to my first back cover as well, if I remember correctly. I might have even liked it, at the age of 29. Because 29 year-old writers are pretty stupid in general. And "brilliantly economic"? First, I have yet to meet a writer who has been described as "economic" who hasn't cringed at the term (it started with Carver, remember? And I hear he hated it too). More important, though: Harrison is hardly economic. He's a fucking poet. He's wonderfully verbose. He wraps his stories around a flowing language of silver-tongued awesomeness. But...he's an old dude who hunts and shits in the woods, so he must be muscular and economic.

As for "salty wisdom"...I have nothing to say. When I'm old, if anyone ever describes me as having salty wisdom, I'm going to poke their eyes out with a hot fork.

Long story short, take The Raw and the Cooked with you next time you go to France, but rip the back cover off of it.

Final note: the only downside of French travels this summer was missing the Peter Mulvey / Gregg Cagno show in NJ last week. They express their displeasure with me below...

Saturday, August 3, 2013

two from the times

Briefly...first, a coda to last month's post below on the end of Hoboken's Maxwells. The Times here with a fairly decent summary of the final night's events.

And then, who knew this topic could make it to an editorial, but it did: the Times takes a fun poke at the publishing industry (and themselves, as critics). Hey, of those I know and have run across in 13-some years of publishing, this is generally more norm than not. I only know one or two who walked right into their first publishing deal. I got a thick file of rejections for my first novel. Interesting, though; unlike the Times, I sense a leveling of the playing field coming. I don't know why I feel that way, I just do. I guess my feeling is summed up like this: I firmly believe that 99% of the time, good work will out, if you know what I mean. Not always, yes there are exceptions. But generally, in the arts, if it's good, it will find its way. Sooner or later. Eventually. I really do believe that. And what I feel is that the world is getting better equipped to allow that to happen. Maybe I'm just a crazy optimist, but that's what I feel.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

et tu, maxwells?

The New Yorker, in its weekly concert listings, used to describe Maxwells as the coolest music room in New York, and of course it isn't in New York. It's in Hoboken. But the description was dead-on, for a certain era anyway. It was the best music room in the New York area. That's it, down below, in a decade-old photo. And now, it is no more. Did I love the place? Well, shit. I wrote a book about it. Or, rather, a book set there. Jesus, everything I wrote about in that book is dying. Me too, probably. We're all getting old.

I played there a lot. It's where Gregg introduced me to Don Brody for the first time. I worked there, for a while. When Don gave up hosting Folk and Fondue on Tuesdays, I did it for about a year. Here's a timely, fun little collage below. Don and Con: The Marys. Rich Grula: Big Happy Crowd. Y'all, with Linda sneaking in on the side. Cags. Me and my hat. When were these photos from? 1996? Probably.

When we did the book release party for In Hoboken, we of course did it at Maxwells. The last time I was on the stage there. This would have been 2008, I think. Down below that's Eddie Fogarty at the wheel, with Carol, Gregg, Connie, and little Fiona Bauman backing him up.

Cags and I took a turn around the block that night, as well.

And finally from that night, down below, the last known appearance of Camp Hoboken, dodging the tomatoes, taking our bow. If we were going to do it one last time, Maxwells was the place to do it, right? And more Maxwells. And perhaps it's for the best. Hoboken ain't what it was.

What else? Just finished construction on a new man cave in the New Hope north 40. And by "finished construction" I don't mean to insinuate that I did it. A great crew of fellas from out in Amish country put it up. Room on the first floor for vehicles and tools and other manly things. And on the second floor? Nothing but my thinking chair and a view to think by. Time to go get to thinking...

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

hardy owls

Is that the best picture you've ever seen or what? That's my cousin, Jon (or, as he's introduced in the article, "Dr. Slaght"), as he appeared this morning in all his owly glory in The New York Times, in a great article you can find here. I'm very fond of Jon, although I have not seen him in a while (well, you know, he's in Russia, saving owls). I think the last time I saw Jon was almost a decade ago, on some book tour or something, one night in the Twin Cities with ol' friend/fellow writer Joel Turnipseed, an evening that I believe may have been spent huddled over many, many Scotches. Very hazy memories of that night, so I'm not sure. Scotch with long-lost cousins will do that to you. More on Jon and his wonderful owls here.

What else? Brian Rose has written a wonderful remembrance of Jack Hardy here. Connie sent me the link. A very honest, thoughtful assessment/memoir. Brian quotes me in there, and I meant what I said. I cannot overemphasize what Jack's encouragement meant to me emotionally, and what it did for me in terms of forward momentum. Almost seems silly and simple to say, but sometimes simplest is what does it best: man, I miss Jack.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

people on their way to abeline might as well be on their way to hell

Everyone's got a happy place, right? The pic above is on my top 5. Also top 5 places most likely to bug out to when it all goes bad. (Those two lists are not identical.) Nestled up high at the top of a box canyon about 10 minutes north of the village of Stoneham, which is itself about 20 minutes north of Quebec City. So, now you know where to find me when it all goes bad. Not a zombie apocalypse, mind you. Would be no good for that. But bad in other ways? Yeah. I'll be up there with a bottle of wine and steaming mess of this:

That's poutine, Quebec's gift to all humanity. Fries, gravy, and cheese. Oh mama. With a lipitor on the side.

What else? I've resolved to be a good literary citizen and reengage with Goodreads. Not today. But soon. I always liked the site, and hopped on early. But life gets in the way, you know. And I don't know about you, but when you average about two books a week it gets cumbersome to document it all. And do I really want to document it all? Well, anyway, I'm going to try again. Soon.

In the meantime, my unintentional winter focus on memoir and essay continues. Totally blown away by Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? (a gift from daughter Krissy) immediately followed by its predecessor Fun House. Both of them shut me up and shut me down, for different reasons respectively. Fun House was pretty great, but Are You My Mother? was transcendent (whatever that means, but it must be good). In the same week I finally read a tome Krissy gave me a year ago, the latest from one of my favorites, Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, which he claims is not memoir but feels more memoir than novel. Either way, doesn't really matter; a wonderful book. Ondaatje makes me feel like the world's worst hack of a writer and a general all-around fraud. Very few can touch him.

I'm about halfway through Larry McMurtry's memoirish Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (a gift from colleague/friend Sam Hoar), which has this delicious line in its opening pages: "People on their way to Abeline might as well be on their way to hell." And another colleague/friend (sounds like an affliction) Deirdre Dempsey is responsible for the collection of Harry Houdini writings I'm fixing to dig into any day now.

Now that I think on it, I'm reminded that Ms. DD also gave me the other memoir I just finished: Patti Smith's Just Kids. I wasn't sure what I would make of this. I was never a big PS fan (except in a mega-nerd way of knowing her role behind the scenes of Blue Oyster Cult); and the last time I ran into Robert Mapplethorpe in a book it was in Bruce Chatwin's biography by Nicholas Shakespeare, when Chatwin bounces from Mapplethorpe's arms into Edmund White's. I have to say, though: I tore through this book as if on fire. I loved it. Unabashedly. Why? Couple reasons. Part was Patti's voice, which I didn't love in the opening pages but came to adore as the book moved forward: passionate, transparent, urgent, empathetic. Part of the love was also some of the gossipy before-they-were-gods stuff of others I admire: like I said, Blue Oyster Cult, and Janis, and Jimi; Lou Reed and CBGBs; and very funny section where Ginsburg tries to pick her up because he has mistaken her for a boy. Great stuff. What else? Their relationship, or at least Patti's side of it. The love of two friends for each other. And two other important things from this book:

First is the breadth of being an artist that Patti both pursued, and that was more accepted then. None of this "this is your little box to live in" shit. You could be a poet, a lyricist, a painter, and actor...all of them, with no malice.

And second, the other main character in this book after Patti and Robert: weird New York. Freakazoid 1970s New York, playground of hedonists and aliens and werewolves and junkies. I remember that New York; I was a kid who saw that New York, and then lived it personally in its waning age of the 1980s. By the time I came home from the army in the mid-90s, it was gone. All gone. I spend most of my days in and around Chelsea and Meatpacking now, and you would never know. Patti's book brought it back. Fabulous. I'm trying to touch just a little bit of that with what I'm writing now, and reading Just Kids was a good charge to the creative batteries.

Okay, great, so now what the hell am I going to post on Goodreads? Next group of books. Next group.

Oh wait, one more thing: Stephen King wrote a sequel to The Shining, coming this summer or fall. I. Am. Psyched. Danny Torrence was on the short list of King characters I would love to visit again, including Ben Mears, Charlie McGee, maybe Stu Redman. Bring it, Steve. And don't let me down. (He won't, I'm confident.)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

feeding the creatures of imagination

Among a long stretch of generally very satisfying reading lately (since about xmas week, and that makes sense, doesn't it? no better time of year for reading than this, when it's frigid outside and there's a fire in here and sleepy dogs with which to find an afternoon's fellowship of not moving) have been two books of essays, two very different books of essays. First was Katie Roiphe's In Praise of Messy Lives; the fact that Gawker seems to hate her is reason alone for me to love her. I didn't agree with everything in there, but agreed more often than not, and more than anything just like her attitude. And honestly, not to oversimplify, but has any great art ever come from a non-messy life? For real.

And then just the other day I finished When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson, which, like much of what I eventually read, I bought when it was published a year ago but didn't find the right mood and moment until now. Although I haven't read her nonfiction before, I love Robinson's three novels, especially the more recent two. My friend Becky Sassi originally guided me to Robinson, and I remain thankful. Anyway, one passage from this new book of essays, just as a thought starter, and let me be clear I'm taking it completely out of context...this isn't an argument for or against what Robinson wrote, simply one out of context passage that got me thinking about what I like to read and what I like to write. Here it is:

"As a fiction writer I do have to deal with the nuts and bolts of temporal reality -- from time to time a character has to walk through a door and close it behind him, the creatures of imagination have to eat and sleep, as all other creatures do. I would have been a poet if I could, to have avoided this obligation to simulate the hourliness and dailiness of human life."

I love the nuts and bolts, myself. Take me through them. Show me how he lights his cigarette or how she scratches the itch on her wrist. Paint me the picture. Slow me down and make me see. For me, feeding the creatures of imagination is one of the most pleasurable aspects of being head zookeeper at this dysfunctional and questionable institution.