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Category: The Reading Life

The Reading Life: J.G. Ballard's stormy weather

This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

"Los Angeles weather," Joan Didion wrote in her 1967 essay "Los Angeles Notebook," "is the weather of ... apocalypse," but late last week, as rain descended on the normally arid summer landscape of Southern California, it was not Didion about whom I found myself thinking, but J.G. Ballard.

Ballard, who died in 2009, is perhaps best known for investigating the erotic possibilities of violence in a world anesthetized by consumerism and conformity. Early in his career, though, he wrote a series of novels ("The Drought," "The Drowned World," "The Wind From Nowhere," "The Crystal World") that address environmental themes.

From the perspective of the present, it's tempting to call Ballard prescient — these novels all appeared in the early-to-mid-1960s — yet as Martin Amis notes in an introduction to the new 50th anniversary edition of "The Drowned World," that's something of a fixed game. "[F]ictional divination," Amis writes, "will always be hopelessly haphazard. The unfolding of world historical events is itself haphazard (and therefore unaesthetic), and 'the future' is in a sense defined by its messy inscrutability."

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The Reading Life: Harvey Pekar's Jewish question

This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

When Harvey Pekar died, two years ago today, at the age of 70, he left behind a contradictory legacy. On the one hand, his "American Splendor" remains one of the most compelling and transformative series in the history of comics: autobiographical slices of life in which Pekar wrestles with his job as a VA file clerk, with his mania for collecting, with the city of Cleveland -- where he was born and where he died -- and perhaps most significantly, with himself.

This is not to say "American Splendor" is self-absorbed, except it is -- in the best and most interesting of ways. When Pekar's on his game, he's like a street corner Samuel Beckett, pondering the absurdity of existence while embracing, in his own curmudgeonly fashion, all the struggles it entails.

I've written before about "Hypothetical Quandary," in which, over the course of three brief pages, he frames a Sunday morning trip to the bakery as an existential meditation, moving from the futility of his own striving and obsession to the sustaining, if fleeting, aroma of fresh bread. As with many of Pekar's stories, almost nothing happens, and yet something important is resolved.

For all that, Pekar spent the last few years of his career focusing on a different sort of story: piece work ranging from graphic histories of the Beats and Students for a Democratic Society to a comics adaptation of Studs Terkel's "Working." I can't say I blame him; he was always short of money, and after a lifetime as a cult hero, the 2003 film adaptation of "American Splendor" opened up a lot of opportunities. At the same time, there's something flat about such efforts, as if Pekar were going through the motions.

Both of these conflicting impulses -- that of the engaged autobiographer and of the freelancer fulfilling an assignment -- emerge in Pekar's final graphic memoir, "Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me." It's an interesting book, if a bit schizophrenic, melding Pekar's lifelong internal debate about his Jewishness and more specifically the state of Israel, with a capsule history of the Jews.

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The Reading Life: The wisdom of Harry Crews

HarrycrewsThis is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

In the latest issue of the literary quarterly New Letters, there's an interview from the early 1980s with Harry Crews.

Crews, who died in March at the age of 76, was a satirist, but, really, he was more than that: His novels emerge out of the dreamscape, offering bleakly funny, exaggerated portraits of America at the brink.

In his first, "The Gospel Singer," an itinerant preacher ends up in a Georgia town more grotesque than any in Flannery O'Connor's writing; "A Feast of Snakes" (1976) involves a rattlesnake roundup. My favorite is "Car," in which a man eats a full-size automobile, four ounces at a time.

The New Letters interview was conducted at a moment when Crews was on (or just coming off) the skids, at the tail end of a decades-long wrestling match with alcohol -- "I drank with two hands," he once said. "... I was drunk every day for 30 years" -- and unsure of what to do next. Nonetheless, he was feisty, not giving an inch.

Here he is on what it takes to be a writer:

One of the things that prevents people from becoming writers is the inability to look at their lives and look at what they believe. They can't look at themselves honestly and say, "Okay, that's how it is." Society makes it damn near necessary to disguise yourself. To appear "normal." To appear like everybody else. ... Whatever people think of me is fine. I made peace with that a long time ago, and realized that I'm not "gone" be like most people, not "gone" be what most people called decent. I'm not like most people, and I don't act like most people. I can live with that just fine and always have.

And here, on whether or not alcohol had finished him (clearly it hadn't, since he went on to publish five more books):

Wimps always think that things are destroyed. Wimps see a little blood and bone, and they think the game is over. They don't know you can go out and get taped up real good and shot up with a little dope and get back in and hit somebody. No ... I'm a long way from finished.

 Best of all are his thoughts on whether "all writers are congenital liars, as Faulkner said":

Oh, yes. I think the business of being a fabulist, that is to be involved with fabrication and making things up and living in the world of the imagination, all that spills over into lying even when you don't have to lie, just because you want to tell something that is memorable and compelling. In your own mind, this isn't what happened to me at Daytona Beach, but this is the way it should have happened. You tell it, and it's a great story. It's not true to the facts of the matter, but very true to the spirit of what happened -- truer in spirit than the facts are. When you give someone the spirit of the thing, that's better than the facts.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Harry Crews in 1998. Credit: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun

The Reading Life: Interviewing William Burroughs


This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

The latest issue of Sensitive Skin, a magazine "by and for ne'r-do-wells, black sheep, blackguards, scoundrels and wastrels," features a long interview with William S. Burroughs, conducted by his friend and running mate Allen Ginsberg in the early 1990s, when both men had achieved an uneasy status as elder statesmen of the underground.

Burroughs, who died in 1997 at the age of 83, was living at the time in Lawrence, Kan., where he settled in the 1980s; Ginsberg had come to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony to exorcise "the ugly spirit," a possessing force Burroughs felt had influenced, among other tragedies, the accidental shooting death of his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City in 1951.

According to a note by editor B. Kold, the interview came to him in 1995 by way of Ginsberg himself; it was mislaid when Sensitive Skin went on a long hiatus, and subsequently rediscovered after the magazine was revived in 2010. It is accompanied by a suite of Ruby Ray photographs, originally shot for RE/Search, which ran a special Burroughs issue in 1981.

If all of this sounds like ancient history, that's true in its way, I suppose. But reading the interview, a couple of impressions linger. First is just how prescient both Burroughs and Ginsberg were, talking about politics and advertising as a virus, a decade before viral marketing. Even more, there's Burroughs' diffidence, his taciturnity, even around a lifelong friend. In fact, one of the secret joys of the interview is seeing how it unfolds: Ginsberg asking questions in long paragraphs, which Burroughs often answers in a word or two.

For anyone who ever spoke to Burroughs, this was the challenge. As Charles Platt recalls in Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs: "Burroughs turned out to be almost as difficult to talk to as I feared. He is polite and perfectly willing to tolerate my presence, but many of his remarks are dismissively brief, as if the questions bore him.... Typically, he makes a brief categorical statement, then stops and regards me with his pale eyes as if waiting to see if I really intend to ask any more dumb questions."

That was my experience also, when I visited Burroughs in Lawrence in April 1996.

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The Reading Life: Thinking about Stephen King


This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

On the afternoon of New Year's Eve, I spent half an hour or so discussing Stephen King with my colleague David Lazarus on Patt Morrison's KPCC-FM radio show. The news peg, such as it was, involved the decision by the New York Times to include King's new novel, "11/22/63," on its list of the 10 best books of 2011. But the bigger question had to do with King's merit as a writer, which, almost 40 years after he began to publish, remains a source of conversation, if no longer quite debate.

For the record, I didn't think much of "11/22/63"; I found it meandering and unfocused -- not to mention far too long. And yet, I also believe that, like many a genre writer, King has gotten a bad rap for much of his career, written off because he appeals to a popular audience, when in fact his work exposes, with real acuity, a lot about who we are.

Think about it: Beyond the mechanics, of plot, of horror, what King offers are domestic interactions, slices of family and civic life. He uncovers our anxieties, our worries, our obsessions -- the inner darkness we all know. That's why, for me, some of his most moving works are the most naturalistic: "The Body," "Misery" or the recent novella "A Good Marriage," which anchors his 2010 collection "Full Dark, No Stars." There, King traces a particularly human bleakness, the bleakness of an empty soul.

This is the key to his writing, that when he's on, no one is better at prying open the ordinary reality of evil, the way our nightmares emerge from our daily experience, from our fears and our frustrations, our envy and our rage. It's true even when he's writing about the supernatural; as he observed when I profiled him for The Times in 1998, "Every monster, every horrific situation, every supernatural situation can be taken in a metaphoric way, if you have an interest in normal human life. Or even abnormal human life."

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Interview: Art Spiegelman taps the source

In Sunday's Arts & Books, book critic David L. Ulin talks to Art Spiegelman about his new book "MetaMaus." In it, Spiegelman continues what has been a 20-year effort to come to terms with his graphic memoir, "Maus," the story of both his father's experience in the Holocaust and Spiegelman's trouble grappling with it -- and, by extension, with his heritage. Originally serialized in Spiegelman's "commix" magazine RAW, "Maus" has become a contemporary classic, a work of surpassing complexity and empathy that asks difficult questions about complicity and authority, recognizing that, as Spiegelman has said elsewhere, "As soon as you try to tell the truth, you’re always lying." Here is more of the conversation.

Jacket Copy: Given the digital component of "MetaMaus" -- a DVD featuring the complete "Maus," as well as numerous annotations, or enhancements -- it's interesting that it is so beautifully, and consciously, designed as a book.

Art Spiegelman: I think that, as we move into the new planet of post-Gutenberg whatever, what's required is that everything be thought through. There are some things that are far better on an iPad or a Kindle than they are as a book. There are some things that can't make the transition easily, and there are some things that can barely make the transition at all. Form justifies the various decisions that get made in certain books -- like page dimensions, like those fantastic, cool "Little Nemo" comics printed full scale, on a full broadsheet page. That's not going to fit on an iPad, and it shouldn't fit on an iPad; it's a wonderful thing as it is. It's not a gimmick, it's the only way to get what you really want from Winsor McCay.

In making "MetaMaus," I was as engaged in the design as I was in the text and choice of pictures. So it was a totally graphic work. Not commix, but a co-mix of words and pictures. The idea was to match up the words to the pictures precisely. If there's a picture that I'm referring to in the text, I wanted you to be able to see it on the same spread. That's intrinsic to this particular thing. But also, with the kinds of color separations and printing that are available now, it's possible to make the most beautiful books since the Middle Ages, even though the technology that makes it possible is also kicking the book off into some kind of limbo.

JC: That's the responsibility of any writer or book artist in the current moment: Be conscious. You can't take form for granted anymore.

AS: It's that old McLuhan thing yet again -- which I came across when I was first making comics, the Faustian deal made in the 1970s, which was: OK, if comics are going to survive into another century, they have to become art or die. Because they're not part of the mass mass media anymore. And now the book itself is moving into that territory. So if we're going to go through the incredible labor, the intensive production work, that, for instance, was involved in getting "MetaMaus" to be right, then it has to need to be that thing. Otherwise, why bother?

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The Reading Life: Elissa Schappell's 'Better Girls'

This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

It's been 10 years since Elissa Schappell published her first book, "Use Me," a collection of linked stories about the lives of women and girls that was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. There, Schappell developed a nuanced approach to the telling of long-form narrative: to work by inference, leaving gaps for the reader, making us work to fill them in. The same strategy is on display in her second collection, “Blueprints for Building Better Girls,” which gathers eight pieces of short fiction, loosely connected, about a number of women whose lives intersect -- sometimes directly and sometimes in the most oblique of ways.

Schappell -- who writes the Hot Type column for Vanity Fair -- lives in Brooklyn, but she'll be in Los Angeles on Sunday night to read at Skylight Books. She answered questions about "Blueprints for Building Better Girls" by email as she prepared to travel west.

Jacket Copy: Let's start by talking about structure. The stories here all have individual narrative arcs, but also work in conjunction with one another to create a loose narrative cycle.

Elissa Schappell: I didn't set out with a set idea or plan. What happened was that I was 2-1/2 years into a forced march through writing a novel. It wasn't any good. I had no passion for it. Still, I was sticking with it. It wasn't that I was uncomfortable with the material -- discomfort is good for me -- no, I was bored. While I was slogging through the novel, I was also writing stories.

I've always been interested in proper etiquette and etiquette books, as well as bizarre self-help books. I collect them. The stories I was writing were in response to books like "Mrs. Dale Carnegie's How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead in Business," and "Thin For Him!," a Christian diet book. They were fun, if overly clever, and ultimately just tricks. Nothing in those stories for anyone else.

When I showed the novel to my agent, she called me out on it. There wasn't one tear, not one bloody fingerprint. Which was not the case with the stories I'd been running around with behind my novel's back.

When I showed her a few of these stories -- in an attempt to salvage some part of my ego, I suppose -- she said, Yes, here you go. These sound like you. See, what a good girl I am? How susceptible I am to the opinions of others? I did what she told me to do.

It came together when I started hearing the voice of this college girl (this would be Bender) saying, Write about me. Why aren't you writing about me? Aren't I good enough for you? And my answer was, No. That bothered me. Why not? I started wondering what it was in her story that I was avoiding. I didn't take her seriously. She was a drunken sorority girl, a girls-gone-wild girl. She was a joke. Then I began to feel protective of her. If I thought she was silly, then surely others would too. That [angered me]. Who were they to judge this girl in my head? I thought, She's got a mother, an inner life. If I don’t write about her, who will?

I liked the concept of the stories confronting and pushing back against the messages being hustled to women in these self-help books, but they had to be deeper than that. Etiquette is different than self-help. Etiquette books address a broad range of situations from birth to death, with the express purpose of instructing an entire society in the proper ways to behave. Obviously what passes for good manners, acceptable and unacceptable behavior, changes with the era.

That was when I knew what I wanted to do was create these archetypal female characters -- the slut, the good girl, the bad mother, the party girl, all these women we think we know -- and subvert the reader's expectations of who they were. I wanted each story to in some way confront what would be considered, "a problem" or "female dilemma" that was ages old. So what if you're called a slut? What do I do if I'm raped? I wanted them to be clear and distinct.

JC: In some ways, the frame is novelistic, beginning with a character named Heather as a high school student and ending with her, years later, as an adult. But Heather doesn't factor into the other stories here, except inasmuch as her issues echo those in the rest of the book. Why use her as the frame?

ES: I've always been interested in female sexuality and how it relates to identity and power. It was a theme in "Use Me" and it's definitely one of the connecting threads in this book. I also wanted to explore the ways that society's reaction to female sexuality changes, or stays the same.

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The Reading Life: The New Yorker's grand old game

This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

Over the weekend, as the Yankees-Red Sox series at Fenway Park became increasingly excruciating, I found myself turning off the TV and picking up my iPad, where I had downloaded a digital-only collection of baseball writings, "At the Ballpark," via the New Yorker's app.

Featuring an introduction by Adam Gopnik, "At the Ballpark" showcases 13 pieces, as well as a suite of comics, spanning the nearly nine decades of the magazine's life.

Among the most striking is "The Little Heine," Niven Busch Jr.'s 1929 profile of Lou Gehrig -- not because it is particularly incisive (it isn't), but because of the easy way it recycles all the cliches about Gehrig's relationship with his mother, or, for that matter, with Babe Ruth, proving that even the New Yorker was once susceptible to the most sentimental of baseball myths.

It felt fitting to read "At the Ballpark" during a Yankees-Red Sox series, since eight of the 13 pieces here deal with one or the other of the two teams. Of these, the two finest fall to Boston: John Updike's epic "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," about Ted Williams' final game at Fenway ("Gods do not answer letters," Updike tells us, by way of explaining Williams' legendary diffidence), and Ben McGrath's "Waiting for Manny," a portrait of Manny Ramirez as a gifted headcase, in the twilight of his Red Sox run.

Here's McGrath on Manny:

According to lore, Ramirez has, or had, two Social Security numbers and five active driver's licenses -- none of which he managed to present to the officer who pulled him over in 1997 for driving with illegally tinted windows and the stereo blasting at earsplitting volume. "The cop knew who he was," as Sheldon Ocker, the Indians beat reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal, tells it. "He said, 'Manny, I'm going to give you a ticket.' Manny says, 'I don't need tickets, I can give you tickets,' and reaches for the glove compartment. Then he leaves the scene by making an illegal U-turn and he gets another ticket.

It's a great story, although for all its charms, not the best thing in the collection. That title goes to "Distance," Roger Angell's 1980 portrait of Bob Gibson, written five years after the St. Louis Cardinals' ace retired.

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The Reading Life: Mountain hermit poems

This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

I've been reading David Budbill for better than a decade, ever since "Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse" came out in 1999. There, he invents a persona: a poet, living alone on the side of a Vermont mountain -- a contemporary analogue to the 9th century Chinese poet Han Shan, or Cold Mountain, who took his name from the mountain where he lived.

Like Han Shan, Budbill's hermit writes in straightforward but poetic language about the paradoxes of being alive. "When I was young, I believed my work and passion / would get me where I wanted to go," he explains in the short poem "No Trail":

Now my hair is falling out and I know
nothing I have done amounts to anything.

My life is like the bird's path across the sky.
It will leave no trail.

Budbill's new book, "Happy Life," represents, in many ways, a continuation of the themes in "Moment to Moment," themes that have defined Budbill's poetic life. He is, after all, his own version of the Vermont hermit poet; with his wife, the painter Lois Eby, he has been a solitary (or nearly solitary) mountain dweller since 1969.

In "Happy Life," however, Budbill speaks directly, without the filter of another voice. He takes as a frame the idea of the seasons, breaking the book into five sections that together trace the inexorable flow of a bit more than a year. As always, he is funny, pointed even, in a sardonic way.

"I've spent most of my life / pissing and moaning about / never having any money / not being known, never / getting any honors, not / getting to travel," he observes in the collection's opening poem, "Chia Tao Begins a Poem to Subprefect Li K'uo of Hu County by Saying," before acknowledging how little these things matter in the end:

And yet,
for more than forty years
my days have been my own.

It takes a long time for some people
to realize how lucky they are.

There we have it in a nutshell, the defining terms of Budbill's vision, the tension between worldly desire and quiet wisdom, the intent to be here now. It's a focus that infuses nearly every poem in this collection, whether he is writing about nature, or chores, or celebrating his occasional visits to the city, where amidst the "[c]rowded and noisy streets," he feels "the solitude of / the quiet mountainside."

Such resolution is difficult to come by, and more difficult to maintain. It requires both self-awareness and a touch of self-deprecation ... or, at least, the ability to see yourself plain. For Budbill, this comes together in "Fake Hermit," which opens with a revelation: "I'm not the mountain hermit I pretend to be."

Still, for all his attachment -- to "a wife who's been here with me for more / than forty years, and a grown daughter // who lives down the road, a dead son, and / we've got lots of friends around here, too. / I'm not the hermit I pretend to be" -- he manages to find a point of integration, concluding that "I like my life this way: mostly, // but not entirely, alone."

This is it, the key idea of "Happy Life," the way solitude returns us, in some fundamental sense, to ourselves. Or, as Budbill writes in "To the End," one of the closing poems in the collection:

I've been here forty years.
I'd like to be here forty more.

The longer I'm here the less
I want to go away, the less

I want to be known. I'd like to
disappear into these mountains,

and never be seen again. I just
want to do my work, make my

poems, and be left alone.
I want to stay here to the end.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Vermont mountains. Credit: Barry Pouseman via Flickr

The Reading Life: Notes from underground

This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

I don't have much use for driving. Growing up in Manhattan, I wasn't raised with it, and even after 20 years in Southern California, I view it as a necessary evil, one of the compromises I've had to make with where I live. It's not that I'm uncomfortable behind the wheel; in fact, I tend to be more uncomfortable when someone else is behind the wheel. No, for me, the issue is that I have to pay attention, which (paradoxically, I suppose) feels like a distraction, pulling me away from things I'd rather do, like read.

I've been thinking about that this week since I've been in New York, where I travel everywhere with a book. It's like a dream: Get on the 4 or 6 or E train and read for half an hour, and then (miraculously) you are there. Such an experience is available in L.A. also -- but I don't commute by Metrolink, and the Metro doesn't extend to where I live. For me, then, the art of subway reading remains particular to the first city I ever lived in, and when I'm here, I re-experience it with a mixture of nostalgia and glee.

This week, I was reading a book about New York in the 1970s. Its touchstones were scenes that resonated for me -- the fiscal crisis, the early punk days, the sense of the city as a broken landscape, not so much apocalyptic as shattered, to borrow an image from the Rolling Stones song ("bite the Big Apple / don't mind the maggots") of the same name.

Thirty-plus years later, New York is very different, an urban theme park, Times Square like the Grove on steroids -- although, as of this spring anyway, there were still bedbugs uptown. But reading this book as I subwayed back and forth beneath Manhattan's pavement brought back my earliest experience of the city as public space, with a force that I can only describe as visceral.

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