Book Nook (6)

pile of books

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For the past decade or more, my reading habits have been very cyclical: for months at a time, I can’t seem to pick up a book, and then all of a sudden, something will kick in and I’m reading a lot. So, since it’s been a while since I’ve done a non-magic edition of Book Nook, here are some of the books I’ve enjoyed reading lately:

Government by B. Traven

This is the first of the mysterious B. Traven’s Mexican “Jungle novels” a sharply provocative and humorous set of novels set in Mexico just before the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. This initial book is a masterpiece of dry humor and wry observation. It’s major subject is the petty and not-so-petty corruption of government officials at every level of society. But Traven makes clear that the corruption of the local officials in their drive to exploit every peso and drop of sweat out of the local Indian population is just a reflection of the larger overall exploitative capitalist system happening on the national level. The author pulls no punches and names things for what they are. It’s a system where friends and family catapult you into power, but you must always watch your back or you’ll get stabbed by one of them. The parallels to today couldn’t be more apt or timely. This is a book that shows you the blueprint. Especially remarkable as well is a contrasting passage where Traven describes how the tribe of local Indians choose their leaders democratically, in a way that ascribes grave responsibility and accountability to the chosen one.


Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

I enjoy Anne Tyler’s novels because when reading her books, I get the sense that she is in no hurry.  She’s a writer who knows that after this one’s finished she’s going to write another one, and the current one is a wave in the larger ocean of her work. She doesn’t feel that she has to put everything she knows in one book. So this story is a small one of a woman’s life viewed at several milestone years. Externally, not a lot happens. But we see how a child of promise slowly has her options closed off as life proceeds and what it might take to find some sense of freedom in the end. Tyler’s characters always feel real enough so that you feel a sense of loss when a book is over, loss for the people who you have met in the course of reading the novel.


Radical Walking Tours of New York City by Bruce Kayton

It’s rare that one can read a guide book straight through like a work of fiction, but Radical Walking Tours of NYC is one such book. It takes us on over a dozen walking tours of several neighborhoods of NYC, and vividly depicts the rich labor and political history of this city which has been home and host to so many great figures and stories. Along the way you’ll learn a lot about history they never told you about in school. Whether it’s the location of Allen Ginsberg’s apartment or Emma Goldman’s massage parlor, you’re sure to find out something new here. Bruce Kayton is well qualified for the task as he for many years led such tours through the city.


The Untold Stories of Broadway by Jennifer Ashley Tepper

Years ago, Mary Henderson wrote a seminal work on the history of New York City Theater buildings, The City and the Theater, and now Jennifer Ashley Tepper has come out with an oral history of the people who worked and performed in those buildings in The Untold Stories of Broadway.  The multi-volumed series is organized by theater building, and in each chapter the people who worked in each theater on various productions tell what it was like to be part of that experience. The author has interviewed scores of people. The work is valuable in the 360-degree view that the book gives you of theatrical production. So, for example, in a chapter on the Shubert Theatre, you not only get the point of view of the actors who worked on such shows as Spamalot, Rent, and A Chorus Line,  but you also get commentary from the house manager and even the concession stand operators. You’ll also learn a lot about the physical layout of each theatre, and why some theaters are suitable for one kind of show, while other buildings are better for other kinds.These stories are not necessarily juicy remembrances of gossip, but honest, workaday accounts of people’s experiences from the inside. Many books purport to give a “backstage” view–this one really does it. Highly recommended for Broadway Babies.


A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

For years, my friend Tom has been trying to get me to read Bill Bryson’s books, and now I finally understand why he is such a fan. Bryson is a very entertaining writer and this account of his attempt to walk the Appalachian trail is a fun read. A gentle humorist in the vein of Dave Barry, Bryson takes you along his sometimes grueling hike, and introduces you to a wonderful set of characters, both those who join him to walk the trail, like his unprepared but faithful companion Katz, and the variety of hikers he meets along the way. Bryson is funny, but he also succeeds at communicating the awe-inspiring nature of the path, and the sheer doggedness and courage it takes to accomplish completing the trail. At times, the tale proves unexpectedly touching. For myself, I was very happy to sit in my easy chair and nod my head saying to myself, “Yup, that’s why I’m sitting here.”

Philip Roth’s Ship Of Fools: When She Was Good



Before Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth had already written two very accomplished novels: Letting Go and When She was Good. I’ve previously written about my appreciation of the former novel, and When She was Good is an equally intriguing, though quite different book.

In this novel unpleasant, not one of the eight major characters, neither man nor woman, is someone with whom the reader can sympathize. It is Philip Roth’s Ship of Fools. Each character is deeply flawed, but not in the grand tragic manner—for their lives are far too small, shallow, and petty to be tragic. Their problem is that they are ordinary human beings trying to make a life, dealing the best they can with their inevitable inadequacies.

The novel, set in small town, post-war America of the nineteen-fifties, describes the life of Roy Basart, just back from the service, his future uncertain, a young man of more desire than ability. He is at that awkward age in his early twenties when he is expected to become serious, find a career, marry, and make a family. He meets and marries a young woman, Lucy Nelson, whose life has been shaped by her alcoholic father.  Lucy vows that she will never be the weak-willed woman her mother was, and that her child will have what she never had—a stable home, with a father who earns a steady living. But it is exactly her impatient and uncompromising will that leads her and all in her path to misery.

For her husband Roy is no hero, but an ordinary man with a wandering will who dreams of becoming an artistic photographer, though his head is full of cliches and other people’s ideas. His parents are strait-laced paragons of local virtue, emblematic of small town prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Lucy’s father, the ne’er-do-well alcoholic, beats Lucy’s forgiving mother, and in the defining action of the book, Lucy calls the police on her father, vowing that she will never forgive him.

Roth’s power as a writer is evident from the very beginning. His method of turning on the tape recorder and letting it run is in full effect here, as it was in his previous novel, Letting Go. Roth lets his characters talk—and talk and talk—but it is his brilliance as a writer that it is this talk that reveals everything we need to know about a character’s personality. The talk here is not just the talk between people, but the self-talk used to convince themselves. More than anything else, this book is about the power that we have for deceiving ourselves. There is not a character in the book who is not full of delusion,  misconceptions fueled and propagated by what they say to themselves. Talk, for Roth, is not so much to persuade others, but to persuade ourselves of our own goodness, and especially of the reasonableness of the compromises we’ve had to make. In Shakespeare, it takes the most brilliant evocative words and imagery to persuade others; in Roth, it only takes the most mundane and unimaginative words repeated endlessly to persuade ourselves. The cliches that fill our self-talk are what allow us to continue our self-deceptions.

Not that the characters aren’t transparently foolish to others as well. Lucy can barely contain her sarcasm at the hypocrisy and blindness of her family. She is merciless in her dissection of their faults and expects them to live up to higher standards. She demands that they exert themselves more forcefully. But in her own relentless expression of her will, she comes to disaster. In her uncompromising demand for her own way at all times, she drives away the people closest to her, including her husband and child.

Roth clearly believes that it is inhuman to expect people to live without compromises, to believe in one’s own certainty, and to demand that others live that way, too. But Roth does not let the other side off the hook either. Lucy has good reason to be disgusted at the mediocrity and slackness of others. For much of the book, Lucy seems to be the most reasonable character out of all of them. It is really only in the last part of the novel where Roth chooses sides, and then he comes down heavily against Lucy. As if the reader might miss the point, Roth, in an uncharacteristically overdetermined way, has Lucy die in a frozen patch of snow, a result of her unrelenting obsession. It’s a misstep, I think, by Roth: in real life, such situations don’t usually lead to such histrionic endings, but continue with the dull repetition of recriminations and petty bickering on both sides. It’s surprising that Roth doesn’t just allow that, after being such a faithful observer of his characters’ lives.

While the book is a tragedy of personality, it also exists within a specific social and political milieu. It contains more than a little influence of Sinclair Lewis’s 1920s Babbit and Main Street: rural and suburban America coming of age under capitalism; however, in this later work, the post-world War II context is clearly the McCarthy era with its stilted vision of success, and its strictures on what people may say to themselves and others. The unspoken subtext of the novel is the inability to achieve the American dream: the dream is a fake, shored up by anti-communism. Roy has some inklings that maybe socialism is not as bad as everyone says, but it is no more than a vague thought, ultimately just a talking point for himself, another excuse for his own personal failures.

Strikingly, this is one of the few books by Roth where Jews and Jewish culture play no obvious part. Still, in a way, it’s a parable of Old Testament judgement versus New Testament mercy. Lucy represents the vengeful willful God of the Old Testament, while her grandfather, mother, and husband lean towards the charity and forgiveness of the New Testament. They are in a sense competing strategies for survival. But both ways under American capitalism in this novel lead to tragedy. There is no way to be. Neither ruthless will, nor temperate charity, can insure happiness or survival.

Because Roth as a novelist is as uncompromising as Lucy is as a person, the book can feel pitiless. Roth refuses to turn his head away from what he sees and hears. But the skills with which the 33-year-old Roth delineated the knots of relationship is bracing in its own way. To lay it all out on the table without flinching is a powerful achievement, and left this reader, at least, more sober and in a more reflective state about his own life.

The Same, Only Different


The same, only different. That’s what the people want, so they say. But how same and how different? That no one can tell you.

I’m working on the manuscript of Novel #2. Presently, there is much good in it, and much that is not so good in it. The way the book is presently constructed, it has a frame story that takes place in the present, and a mystery of sorts leads one of the characters back in time to previous events. So a substantial amount of the book takes place in the past. And as I was going through the manuscript this time through, it became very clear to me: the parts that were not so good were mostly in the frame-story portion, the portion of the novel set in the present.

I tried to understand why this was so. It seemed to me that the characters in the frame story had less dimension, spoke more stiltedly, and seemed overall less real to me. When I first had the impetus to write this book, the incidents in the past are what propelled me to start writing. I grafted on the frame story, because I thought I could make a clever plot connection between the events in the present and the events in the past. And that is where I made my mistake. Because clever is very different from true. And what I’m learning now, for my taste at least, is that truth beats clever every time.

Not that there is no place for cleverness in a novel. But it can’t be the sole reason for its existence, unless it’s a genre-specific item, like a sci-fi story or a mystery. As an extreme example of this, I recently read a mystery called The Tokyo Murder Mysteries, recommended on one of the magic forums. It’s an extraordinarily clever locked-room style multiple murder mystery whose answer is literally the same as the method to a very clever close-up magic trick involving dollar bills. Now I enjoy this kind of book, it has a great power to amuse and entertain me, but on the other hand it has little power to move me. And if a piece of literary fiction doesn’t move the reader in one way or another, then for me, it hasn’t done its job.

So what then should literary fiction do, at a minimum? The formulation I came up for myself was that the kind of book I’m interested in reading and writing must speak a recognizable unspoken truth about the human condition. However, that stipulation is necessary, but not sufficient. It can’t keep saying the same thing in the same way as other books. So I amend it to, “To speak a recognizable unspoken truth—in a novel way.”

In a novel way. Oh my goodness, I never—stupid me—never made the connection between the two meanings of the word. A novel is something that talks about life in a novel way. There must be surprise and unpredictability. The same, only different. How much same and how much different? In a genre novel, very likely much of it is the same as others in its genre; if any of the rigid conventions of the genre are broken, it’s quite possible that the reader will feel badly disappointed. On the other hand, the need for surprise somewhere in the book is even greater, because of the necessity of distinguishing itself from the rest of its similar genre-soaked companions. So a genre book depends heavily on one twist, usually at the end, that does all the heavy lifting. If that twist doesn’t work, then the book has little value. To take the murder mystery example above, if the reader doesn’t appreciate the ingenuity of the solution to the multiple murder mystery, then as far as the reader is concerned, the time spent reading has been wasted.

But in literary fiction, the balance is different, there’s much more unpredictability. As a writer I am most happy when I surprise myself as I go along, because I know that if I am happily surprised as I am writing, then perhaps the reader will be pleasantly surprised as well. A tale full of sound and fury that’s been told before in the same way? Well, that signifies nothing.

The balance of those two imperatives—truth and novelty—is  something that I must continually weigh as I continue to revise my manuscript. I can’t allow myself to be seduced by one side to the exclusion of the other. There must be both throughout the manuscript.

A novel should speak the recognizable unspoken truth in a novel way.



If It Were Done When ‘Tis Done…



… said Shakespeare’s Thane of Cawdor about his bloody deeds. Well my deeds are not bloody, but after more than three years of battle with my novel, The New World, and 15 drafts, I have finally said, “enough.” This is it: best I can tell, it’s done. Yes, I could keep tinkering, but I no longer know whether the tinkering is doing any good. It’s time to get on to the next phase.

The manuscript is sitting there in a pile next to me.

Now, to get this published.  I think it’s very good. I still enjoy reading it, even after reading it through for the 100th time. So that’s one person who likes it. I still love my characters, and I still want to keep my promises to them.

I could self-publish, and maybe that’s how this will end up, but I suspect that would seem like a disappointment to me. So the next step—and God knows I’ve only been approaching this one step at a time, but at least that’s got me this far, to a point I would never have thought myself capable of—the next step is to get myself an agent. And in order to do that, I have to put together a query letter and synopsis to send out to prospective agents.

After writing a 90,000 word novel,  you’d think it would be a breeze to write a one page query letter and a two page novel synopsis, but it seems intimidating to me, and here I find myself without much of a compass. I’ve read a bunch of books on the subject, and the query letter is supposed to tell all the reasons that you think this particular book would be the right book for this particular agent, the subtext always being, “Here’s the reason why my novel is going to make you money.” To that end, you lay out what genre your novel is, and how it is just like popular books X, Y, and Z, and here’s the plot, where a, b, and c happen,” and maybe you’re subtly highlighting why this would make terrific movie material, and so on.

I’m not sure that my novel necessarily falls into any of these categories. It’s not particularly plot-driven, and I’m not sure it can fit into any well-defined category. I suppose one could say it’s what the agents call Literary Fiction, but even that designation doesn’t tell you too much. Is it a Domestic Drama? Maybe, but I’d like to think there’s too much humor in it to be considered strictly a drama. Maybe the kind of thing Anne Tyler writes. I recently read her A Spool of Blue Thread which I greatly admired, and thought, “Damn, that’s the novel that I’ve been trying to write!” Well, I’ve got to accept my limitations and understand that I’m no Anne Tyler, but at least I feel some kind of kinship with her book, so maybe the people who like Anne Tyler’s books will like mine.

Anyway, best I can tell, my work is now just beginning, and I’m about to plunge into a whole new world of learning about publishing. I never expected to get anywhere close to where I am now in terms of my writing, so anything else is gravy. I’ll just take the next step and tell myself: screw your courage to the sticking point and we’ll not fail. (Hmmm, note to self: maybe I want to rethink quoting Lady M as my inspirational source.)

Book Nook (4)



And here’s another installment of books I’ve been reading in the last few weeks, all recommended.

Impossible Vacation by Spalding Gray: Monologist Spalding Gray for years went around performing a one-man show called Monster-In-A-Box, his attempt to wrestle his unwieldy manuscript into a novel. The result was Impossible Vacation. I’d been in a period of non-reading recently, but I picked this up in a used bookstore, and it got me reading again. It’s a first person account of the life of a narcissistic and badly depressed actor/performer (a thinly disguised Gray), and while the language is not distinguished, this portrait of a would-be artist in the 1970s rang a lot of bells for me.  You can see Gray trying to wrestle meaning out of this, and it ends fairly arbitrarily as if he needed to stop somewhere, but I found the book to be truly affecting in parts and often funny.

Trouping With Dante by Marion S. Trikosko: In this memoir, a teen-age boy gets to troupe with the great magician Dante’s large illusion show throughout the country, while learning the inside story about show business and magic. It’s a difficult life, but he seems to have a lot of fun along the way. Decades later, Trikosko’s account confirms that Dante was a generous but exacting taskmaster, and Marion’s enthusiasm allowed him to gain, in a relatively short period of time, more and more responsibility in assisting the show. The author does a great job of setting up the context of the rigors of touring a large illusion show at a time when that way of performing life was starting to come to an end, and for magician readers there’s lots of inside information about the workings of the show. If you’ve ever wanted to run away and join the circus, or become Blackstone’s assistant, you’ll be charmed by this book.

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle: I can’t think of an author whose work I enjoy reading more.  Doyle, like most of the authors I admire most. has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and the language is vivid and memorable. While it’s a slight story—the limited rise and limited fall of a thrown-together Dublin bar band—the characters are humorous, sympathetic, and fun to read about. The short novel is a very quick, well-paced read, and I don’t even fault it’s feel-good ending. It feels like a film treatment, and of course it was made into a film, which I will immediately put onto my Netflix cue.

Williamson’s Wonders by Richard Kaufman: David Williamson is one of my favorite magicians, and here he tips some of his best routines, including “51 Cards to Pocket,” “Torn and Restored  Transposition,” and the real work on “The Striking Vanish.” Kaufman’s written descriptions and illustrations are very good, and while these are not beginner’s tricks, most of them seem to be attainable by the average magician after some work—at least the mechanics. Kaufman does a good job of laying out the nuts and bolts, but to really get the full potential of these items, it really pays to look up some of Williamson’s performances;  not to copy him, but to get an idea of the entertainment that can be wrung out of these items.

Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton: This is a follow up to Stanton’s Human of New York. This time the portraits of New York City street life are accompanied by descriptions of the people photographed, accompanied by the subjects’ own words. They present a fascinating and sometimes moving collage of the life of the city.

Mix and Match


Sometimes when I tell people that I’m writing a novel they ask, where do you get your characters from?  Is character X in your story actually person Y in your (somewhat more) real life? Did this really happen? Which character is supposed to be you?  Am I in it? And so on.

So I thought I’d talk a little bit about character. As always, I’m only speaking for myself. I’m sure there are many writers who don’t do what I do at all.

First off, I want to be able to recognize the characters I read and write about. Now, I grant that this is just a personal preference; but I don’t think I would ever want to write a book that takes place on the planet Zaurus and concerns the Great War between the Alliots and the Beloggotians. The advice about writing that I have taken to heart the most is this, by Grace Paley: write about what you don’t know about what you do know.

Now this is very different from: write about what you know. That charge may be fine for non-fiction, but for a novel I feel that if I know everything about it beforehand, and I’m not discovering anything new as I go along, then there’s a good chance that the reader will also find it predictable, and that’s not interesting at all.

On the other hand, my charge is not just to write some random nonsense, a string of words put together. If I’m going to bring some kind of revelation to the reader, then what I hope for most is that in the act of writing, my conscious plan will become subverted, and the beak of my unconscious will crack through the egg of my surprised will.

An example. A while back, I was slogging through my day’s idea for my current novel, and it was really tough. But then it turned out that one of my characters was going to bed, falling sleeping in the same room as his brother, and all of a sudden, a whole flood of memories of sharing a bedroom with my brother came rushing through me: I realized that this was a whole section of my life that I had never really explored before, but something of the truth of my life. The relationship of the brothers in the novel could be revealed in that one little scene. Those night time experiences had been incredibly important to me, but I had never really looked hard at them before. All of a sudden, I began to ask: What was it like, really, to go to sleep in the same room as my brother, night after night? What was it like for my brother? What was the importance of that relationship at night? How did it form who we were? More concretely, what were the sounds, words, rituals, shadows?

Now I am not saying that my brother or I am in this novel. We’re not at all— that would be uninteresting. I’m a very boring person. That’s not the way it works. What I’m doing instead, on a primarily unconscious level, is taking different parts of relationships  and pieces of my life and putting them together, like those mix and match flip flap books I had when I was a child. Do you remember them? They had five or six faces that were cut horizontally in thirds and then you could flip the separate sections so that you could create a new face with one person’s hair, another’s eyes and nose, and another’s mouth and chin. Composites. You take different truths and pieces of imagination and then mix them up in new and compelling ways.

What’s interesting about the truth in fiction or acting is that you don’t have to have the complete truth to establish the reality of a character or a scene. A drop of cream in the coffee, as Lee Strasberg once said, is enough to change the nature of the coffee. In acting, as in writing, you pour out different drops of yourself and other people which you know to be true, and then you stir and combine those aspects in new ways. In that sense, every character is unique, but every character is also one’s self. So each brother in the example above contains parts of myself and others, but where the characters truly come alive is when I put them into a situation and watch how they handle it.  I rarely know beforehand what will happen, but I try to focus on what I don’t know about what I do know about the situation and the characters. That’s where the juicy part is.

So, yes, you’re all in it, and no, none of the characters are you.


Book Nook (3)


This month’s Book Nook covers one book that’s taken me ages to finish, and then a few other quick short books.

First off is The Marxists by C. Wright Mills. Sociologist Mills is probably best known for his seminal work, The Power Elite, about the role of the rich in the formation of US policy and their usurpation of the democratic process. The Marxists, however,  is much less well known and not always easy to find.

Mills was a lapsed Marxist when he wrote it, but I think his project here is very useful, even today. His idea was to make a readable survey of the different varieties of Marxism that have evolved since the Russian Revolution. So here you’ll find descriptions of the myriad forms of socialism and communism variously championed by  Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, the Social Democrats, Tito, and Che Guevara, among others. Mills has an opening essay where he details what specifically belongs to Marx, and then, largely through primary source material quotation, he allows the various tendencies to speak for themselves.

I found it tough sledding, but worth it. By contrasting the different strains of communism, I was able to get a real grasp on what the key features of Marx’s philosophy were, and the subtleties of his thought. It also helped to explain for me the sometimes bewildering alliances and betrayals within the history of the left. Definitely recommended for those who want to get a further grasp on what Marxism means or could mean.

Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry is a series of essays by famous and not-so-famous authors concerning their brothers. The book opens with David Kaczynski talking about how he idolized his brilliant older brother while growing up, only to realize later on that the handwriting of the Unabomber’s letters was that of his brother, Ted. Gutwrenching. Other entries are touching and humorous, with Frank McCourt’s introductory essay about his brothers at a long postponed Christmas get-together a comic gem.

I’ve been attracted lately to short books! To that end, I recently completed Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano. In 1988, Modiano came across a small 1941 French newspaper notice which reported that a young girl, 15, named Dora Bruder had gone missing. Modiano attempts to find out who Dora was, and in so doing leads himself through a trail of memory of both the horrific French Occupation and his own childhood memories.  In this seemingly artless book made of scraps of information, Modiano weaves a fascinating tale of the ephemeral nature of historical experience.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an eloquent recounting  of Coates’s realization that as a Black man, his entire life has been spent worrying, literally, about the safety of his Black body. As he explores this theme under the guise of a letter to his teen-age son, he recounts both his personal experiences and the larger role of White Supremacy’s need to subjugate Black bodies as the central fact of United States history. Though some have seen Coates’s work as nihilistic, I don’t agree with that. He is suspicious of alliances with whites and insists that whites of goodwill will have to find their own path; he wants to spend his time relating to the wide spectrum of Black life he encountered once he was able to leave the confines of his Baltimore streets. My biggest issue with the book is that there is not much of a class analysis, but Coates’s point is that, in the US at least, notions of race are even more constricting than that of class. I think it’s arguable, but his own story provides strong testimony.

I had read Albert Camus’ The Stranger when I was in high school, but picked it up again because my wife was recently reading it in French. I’m probably an outlier here, but what struck me most about the book was how funny it was. Yes, there are all kinds of issues about personal responsibility and colonialism, but I couldn’t help but fixate on the notion that it was a story about a man whose actions were subject to the ridiculous interpretations of everyone around him for their own ends, while the man himself was erased. For me, the key scene is Meursault in the courtroom, on trial. Both the defense and prosecuting attorneys come up with all kinds of clever explanations for Meursault’s actions, explanations meant to bolster the strength of each side, respectively; but, instead, what both sides showed they had in common with each other was the complete irrelevance of their ingenious theories to the actual truth of the man standing before them. I laughed out loud at times.

Next time: Life in wartime France in Trains of Thought by Victor Brombert; Stephen Stern’s novel of Jewish life in a fantastical surreal Memphis, The Pinch; and When Strangers Cooperate by David Brown, an investigation into how social conventions are formed. And, for magic related items there will be a separate post soon where I cover some interesting magic videos and ebooks.








WBAI radio

Audacity Open Source Software


Iced Green Tea

Genii Magazine

Buster Keaton

The Commons Cafe

Sony PCM Recorder

The New Yorker cartoons

Summer Fruits

Spring, Summer, and Fall

An open window

Holly, Gordon, Parker, Avery, Amy, and the rest of my fictional family


Laundry pick-up

Canon Elph cameras

The Catskills


Snail Mail

International High School

Fresh decks of Phoenix Playing Cards


Ella Fitzgerald


Amazon Prime

The Magic Cafe: Not Very Magical, Still forum

A good poem


Charlie Parker

Low-stakes acting

Talking crap




The Road to Hell…and Back




It’s been about a month since I spent any substantial time working on Novel #2. Lots of excuses—dental surgery, friend died, working on some interviews, the book sucks, worried about Novel #1—but none of them are any good. My schedule for this book was three days a week, 800 words a day. Seems innocent enough. Here’s a little outline of the road to hell.

  1. It starts with me feeling lousy in the morning. For a few days I procrastinate and finally do my scheduled writing in the evening.
  2. Next, I miss a day entirely and make it up the next day, on the day I’m supposed to have the day off entirely from writing.
  3. Next, I miss a day and don’t make it up, feeling very guilty about it.
  4. Next, I miss another day and don’t make it up, but now I don’t feel so guilty about it.
  5. Next, remorselessly, I miss another and another and another day. Soon, it’s almost a month since I’ve written any of my 800 words a day.

And back:

  1. Friend calls, says she can’t write, the muse isn’t visiting.  I tell her to hell with the Muse visiting, you have to visit the Muse.
  2. Today is approaching, and I know I want to write this particular post about getting back on the wagon. I’ll feel like a terrible phony if I write about getting back to writing without getting back to writing.
  3. I open the file for the novel, and start reading, and realize I have no idea where I am in the plot.
  4. I write anyway, not caring whether it has any coherence or not. It’s more important to get the 800 words in.
  5. I do it, and it’s still pretty awful.
  6. I know it’s awful, but allow that there just might be some little thing that will make it into the next draft. That’s reward enough right now.
  7. I write this post, so that I can remember the arc of what happened.

For the future:

  1. Stick to my schedule whether I feel like it or not. It’s like what those money gurus tell you about saving money from your paycheck—pay yourself first; writing that book is my first obligation.
  2. It doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. What matters is 800 words.
  3. If I don’t do it, it won’t be done by anyone else. My years on this planet as a functioning human being are quite finite.
  4. If it doesn’t seem worthwhile, maybe it’s not. But it’s not like I’m doing anything better with the time.
  5.  Okay, maybe I’m fooling myself, it’s all worthless. True, but there’s nothing wrong with fooling myself, if it helps me keep going.
  6.  Whether I write or not, time is going to pass anyway. I can let it pass with a book, or without it. I’ll be happier if I have a book—even if it sucks.
  7. I remind myself about the magic of revision. I can’t revise unless there’s something to revise.
  8. When I see myself slipping down the ladder, get back to the very first rung again, back to the original schedule.

Hope this is helpful to someone out there—but selfishly, I hope this is useful to me!

And Then…And Then…And Then…


A little update on a few things:

  1. Novel #1, which used to be called The Longest Winter of Holly Walker, has a shiny new name. At least for the moment. The spine of the novel keeps eluding me, but it’s become clear the character who I thought was the protagonist cannot carry the story herself. Will it be a problem that the thrust of the story is told through several pairs of eyes? Maybe. But I think the way I’m telling this story is integral to the novel, and I can’t force it into being what it isn’t. It’s an ensemble piece with several strong characters. If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work.  I’ve gotten some excellent advice from recent readers, and I’m working to incorporate their feedback into the latest revisions.
  2. Novel #2 is really a mess. I understand why it’s a mess, but it’s a mess nevertheless. I started #2 as a way to keep myself distracted while I awaited feedback from revisions of #1. Now I fully expect a first draft to be awful, but I’m only halfway through the first draft, and its already 100,000 words. That’s 100,000 words of awfulness—which I could accept, if I knew that I could start revising now, but, as I say, I have another 100,000 words to go before I can even begin to re-write. So I’m stuck in this awful place for a long time more, and I don’t know how long my patience is going to hold out. The novel moves around in time and depends on an important historical event, and my lack of knowledge about the period is really a problem. I did do some research before I started, but clearly not enough. I figured that I would go back later and fill in the context, but now I see that without the proper context it’s an empty shell. Of course, I could stop writing and do more research, but I’m afraid that if I get wrapped up in research, it will be too tempting and I’ll get lost in it. So I’ve decided that what I have to do is just grin and bear it, know that this is bad, and hope that in revision, I can fill in and re-write what needs to be taken care of.
  3. I wrote last week about Steve Brundage’s Rubik’s Cube effects. I’ve been going through his material and I can now reliably solve any mixed Rubik’s Cube in under six minutes. So having achieved that, I have moved on to Steve’s second DVD where he talks about his magic effects. The key sleights involved are one-handed, and while not difficult, they do need careful placement and analysis initially, and then a lot of repetition to get it into muscle memory. To me, it’s a lot like learning a coin sleight such as a Tenkai pinch or a coin roll. You have to train the muscles of your hand and your fingers to do things which they have not done before. So I’m at the repetition/muscle memory stage now.
  4. Sunday I posted the rules to my first ever CONTEST! Win cool prizes! I’m keeping the contest open for the next week or two, so don’t be shy, send in an entry!

Cheating at Magic, Mindreading, and Writing

Cheat 1

While most people understand that the performance of magic requires deception, they generally have no idea of the range of deceptions possible. Mirrors, sleight-of-hand, threads, trapdoors, yes, these are known, of course. But, really, these are only a small number of the methods—not that they can’t still fool even those who know of them.

But the performance of magic actually entails a very large collection of often interlocking discrete methods, and even magicians can be fooled by another magician. Each time I learned about a branch of magic different from those with which I was already familiar, I would be surprised at the new tools brought to bear—“Oh, they’re really doing that!—I had no idea!” Sometimes ideas and methods from one branch of magic are carried over to another branch, but cleverly adapted to the limitations and possibilities of the other field; on the other hand, some methods really are unique to one particular branch of magic. For a magician it’s kind of a thrill to learn that the method was not method a, b, or c, or even method x, y, or z , but the unconceived Ψ, Ω, and Σ. (Most spectators on the other hand, as previously discussed, do not feel delighted at all when told of a method. They generally just feel stupid and suckered. Contrary to magic ads of the 50s and 60s, it’s not “Fun to be fooled!”)

I have in mind, for example, the mentalist practice of miscalling. Now I’m not at liberty to explain what that is here, but it absolutely shocked me when I first came across it. It filled me with surprise, disbelief, scorn, and then ultimately admiration. Probably not many in the general public know of the use of the technique. But what I can tell you is that that class of methods was totally off my radar.

Now writers deceive all the time, too, but not much attention is paid by the general public to the methods of deception used. Unlike in a magic performance, with writing the deceptions are not the main course, but the means to a different end. You can take lots of literature courses in college, intensively studying a work, but the facts of deception are almost always glossed over in favor of focusing on matters like theme, plot, character, and so on: the deceptions fade into the background and become invisibly transparent.

I know this, though: I feel more of a cheat as a writer than as a magician. At least most people understand that a magician is using deception even if they don’t understand the means. On the other hand, I don’t think that many readers understand the range of deceptions that the writer brings to the table. Perhaps the deceptive technique that slides by readers the most is that of revision. It’s a huge cheat. Readers see the final artifact of a novel as if it were created at once in a coherent linear manner. But that’s almost never the case. It’s not even true of this essay; I’m writing this now on Tuesday, September 15, 2015. But I have no intention of publishing it now. I know that by the time that I do publish this essay, I will have revised it, and it will be very different. In fact, I have no idea what this essay will look like ultimately when I do finally publish it. I am trusting right now that despite my first incoherent draft, somehow, sometime later, I’ll be able to pull something out of it. It really is an act of faith, but the reader will never know what this piece once was. I have all the time in the world to make this be just what I want it to be. So, I’ll be seeing you sometime later—who knows how much later?—just don’t tell anybody when I really wrote this (wink).

Demian, Herman Hesse, The Banal, and The True


When I was a teen-ager, most of my friends were reading something by Hermann Hesse—the most popular titles then were Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. The books appealed to the dreamy, druggy adolescent sense of self-involvement that naturally arose at that age. Later, in my twenties, looking back, I thought of them as silly and somewhat banal. From time to time I would eye the thick pages of Magister Ludi, but I would always demur, not ready to deal with that much woo-woo at once.

The other day, I saw Demian sitting on my bookshelf, one of Hesse’s shorter novels, which I hadn’t read since I was a teen, but which I remembered as being my favorite of Hesse’s novels. I was in the mood for reading something short, and I thought I would look at it again for a few reasons: 1) to see whether the book held up as a novel;  2) to see if I held up as a reader, and 3) to look at it from a writer’s point of view to see how it was constructed. Would I still think it was worthwhile, but for different reasons from when I was a teen, or would I, as I did in my twenties, see it as New Age-y nonsense? Okay, so I’m being impolite.

I was surprised by my reactions to reading it this time. The first surprise was that I found the book absolutely compelling. From the first pages, I was drawn in to the story of a youth who was trying to understand the darker forces of his own and others’ natures. And though at times I had to put the book down for awhile, I was eager to pick it up again. I wasn’t putting it down because it was boring, but on the contrary because it was too interesting, and I felt I needed time to digest it as I went along. At the same time, the book’s shortcomings were very clear to me—the lack of any political analysis, the Jungian simplifications of life that teeter on the edge of, and sometimes fall into, the well of banality, the repressed homoeroticism that is never really addressed, the stubborn refusal to ground sexual feeling into sexual action, the German Romanticism of the period which today seems hopelessly sappy, all these are glaring, and my getting older didn’t make them go away.

But here’s the thing. I was still compelled to read. And I was compelled by the kernel of truth that the novel contains, so deep and so important that it stays and lingers as a feeling not able to be articulated, but a feeling that something of life that was known yet previously unsaid or pushed out of consciousness was brought back into view again. Exactly like a drug trip or an a-ha moment of meditative or otherwise enlightenment.

And now with my being older, and being interested in the writing process itself, I wanted to know how Hesse was doing this. The thing is so simple—about forty thousand words, and yet its impact is considerable. I wanted to pull it apart like a child pulls apart a favorite toy, and yet when I did that with this novel I felt like I was pulling apart a dandelion, for there doesn’t seem to be anything to see.

The book is, for all its apparent mysticism and near banality, transparent. There is no hiding behind words and sentences. As a writer, over the years I have become so much more conscious of word selection and the crafting of sentences and paragraphs, and yet here, it seems like nothing. There is no memorable vocabulary or phrase; no structuring of sentences or elements that seems to be writerly. It is seemingly just a story, that is all. A story that a boy might tell. There doesn’t seem to be any art in it. And yet it is as compelling as someone sitting across the table from you telling you this extraordinary thing that has happened to them. There is no apparent sense of craft.

And yet at the same time, there is no clumsiness of craft that distracts from the story, either, and that causes the reader to stumble.  It is writing that is decidedly (at least in the English translation that I read) pure; it never calls attention to itself, it never shines, but like an ordinary staircase it leads you along. When Hesse first published the book, he published it under the name of the storytelling youth of the book. It’s a craft of apparently no craft.

The particular lesson I take as a writer from this book is this: for all the attention we pay to words, sentences, paragraphs, the kernel of real truth about life is what ultimately determines the true power of a story. There is not only one way to do it, there are many; but in reading Demian I was forced to confront how powerful words can be when there is strong truth and revelation underneath them, and they are put out in plain view.

Celebrating Sentences


A first look at Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon might make you think that it’s as dry as an organic chemistry manual, and in some ways you would be right. This book of sentence building, sentence making, sentence improving is simultaneously a taxonomy and textbook of the humble sentence. And if that seems like an off-putting combination, it sometimes is—but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.

The special case that Building Great Sentences pleads runs counter to much of the advice about writing one finds in many modern manuals—or at least the advice I’ve been reading. These books revel in the celebration of Hemingway-like simplicity, the ruthless eradication of the extraneous word, the superfluous modifier, the unnecessary adjective and adverb—prune them, sentence surgeon!—and let the verbs and nouns do the brunt of your heavy lifting. Indeed, when I first took that simplification advice to heart, I believe that it improved my writing immensely. So what to do with a book that takes precisely the opposite tack: a book that tells you that good writing is about complicating things, about moving the basic clause forwards and backwards, about explaining, about explaining again in more detail, about adding modifying phrase on top of modifying phrase, about culminating in some final periodic unforeseen conclusion, or, finally, to allow for the scope of thought to find its way, to take pleasure in the very movement of thought, as in this moment, this sentence?

Yes, this was new to me.

And yet reading through the book’s example sentences, sentences that I wanted to rail out against, argue against, defend against, even as I had to admit their power, because what, I screamed to myself, could a sentence possibly mean outside of the context of a paragraph, a page, a story, a novel? How could you devote a whole book to the sentence? The particularity of words I understand. But sentences? The whole project was foreign to me.

It reads like this: anaphora, epistrophe (at last, I knew where that Thelonious Monk tune got its name!), polysyndeton; if this was the stuff of writing then perhaps I should be studying Linnaeus.

But. But.

Taxonomy is not necessarily a bad thing. Taxonomy, naming things, allows one to see better, more, differently: a bird’s call is heard because that was a Northern Cardinal; sounds that were unheard are heard; the seed-eating bill is not the insect-eating bill; beaks I had never thought to look at before, beaks I had never seen before, sentence structures I had never seen before, I now see.

There’s a ton of interesting, useful information here. I especially liked the section that talked about binary structures and serial structures. We all have a rhythmic sense of these things if we do any of it at all, but the explicit statement of forms here is eye-opening. Landon quotes Winston Weather’s theory of the rhetorical effects of serial constructions: the balanced binary form speaks of authority and expertise—“on the one hand, on the other”—it’s a commanding structure. A triple series, however, “has connotations of the reasonable, the believable, and even the logical.” But the four-part series rhythm is indicative of “the human, emotional, diffuse, and inexplicable.”

Writing is, in a sense, looking through one side of the telescope and building things up by accretion, one little thing on top of another little thing. This book is an excellent guide to the accumulation of such effects. Like most advice of this kind, it has to be absorbed, forgotten, and made to dwell wherever such knowledge lives unconsciously and automatically. Otherwise, like the centipede who tried to verbalize his process of walking, there is the danger of getting entangled in explanations and losing the ability of taking action.

A Warning


See I went into this under false pretenses. Well, partly false pretenses. I had heard the stuff about writing being a calling, and I thought, well that’s not me, it had never called to me, I was never one of those people who as a teen wrote by flashlight under his bed covers in small scrawly pencil in a locked-with-a-key diary, one of those who just had to write; nope, not me.

And neither was I the kid whose imagination was so capacious that he had written seventeen science fiction novels by age fourteen that detailed the lust and ligaments of a planet existing but not existing at exactly the same time as this one, but in a parallel universe at right angles in a direction that we here on Earth could not even begin to fathom.

Nor was my memory so eidetic that I was compelled, as some of my high school contemporaries were, to give a scene by scene description of the latest Italian spaghetti western movie watched, down to the camera pans and the dialogue of the characters played by Strother Martin and L. Q. Jones dying in the desert. That wasn’t me. No, nor did I carry a memo book at all times on my person, the better to record all the wonderful observations to be made every day as I wandered through the vast, immense, carnival and wheel of life, The Great Mandela, making sure I missed nothing, the follies and foibles of my fellow human beings chronicled in the unblotted scribblings of my quill.

No. Not me. I understood that. I was more wary. I entered with fewer stars in my eyes, or so I liked to think.

Writing a novel was, I thought, just a challenge. Not an earth-shaking one, but a mild challenge to myself. Something interesting, something to occupy myself in a somewhat worthwhile way, I thought. I had some time, why not? You understand? That’s all it was. And, um, no, not poetry or short stories, I figured a novel would keep me more engaged for a longer amount of time.  I was intrigued by the sheer length of the thing, the need to sustain. Heck, a poem, a short story, anyone could toss that off—right?—that was no challenge. That was like learning to play the tuba or do the shot put. You heaved a bit, put forth some effort, and boom you made your mark on the world. Seemed much too easy.

So the siren call was this: not as a calling or a sacred duty, but as a task. That I could understand. The length was the point of it. I understood it as I could understand the lure of the marathon. A sprint told of your speed, but a marathon spoke to something else. And then, too, I could understand that maybe it’s not the final product, the ten pounds of paper in my hand when I finish the thing that was important, but the journey. All those little steps accumulating into distance covered, pages written, miles tracked, chapters completed. Oh, Kumbaya, Oh, the journey. Who will I meet on the way?— the process, not the product, the opportunities for self-discovery and enlightenment. The promise (by whom?) that by writing I will access sides of myself that I had never looked at before. I would learn discipline as well. Who cares what the final outcome is, I will have traveled the road, pilgrim, I will have Machado-ed a path of my own, and I will be able to look back to see the gentle grasses tamped down by my insistent nudging through the brush. It is good, even of itself.

No, no, no, no, no. it’s a trick, it’s all a trick. I’m putting up the warning sign now. Disregard at your own peril. It’s like those bamboo finger traps, don’t you see? You put your fingers in, and the harder you try to pull them out, the more stuck you get.

After eight drafts of one yet unfinished novel, and 90,000 words of another novel that’s still in first draft, I can see what they’ve done. If you think it’s like running the marathon—here’s what they didn’t tell you: this marathon isn’t twenty-six miles. You get to what you thought was the end, and now you have to turn around and run back for another twenty-six miles. And the worst part is that there’s really no choice—you’ve come this far, and you’re stuck. You’re stuck with these thousands and thousands of words, and dozens of incomplete characters who haven’t a way out, no chance, and if you abandon them, if you dump them in a pile by your side, there’s no one to help them. So, you’ve got to throw them on your back and carry them across your shoulders, without even the benefit of Gatorade, and really at this point you’re the last person in the world who should be doing this, because frankly, you’re exhausted, and sick of the world, and certainly sick of the very ones whom you’ve been carrying. It’s not fair, and you want to drop them off right now, let them roll down onto the ground, but the problem is this: if you do, you will have nightmares every single night and even in the day, but worse than that, without them, there’s no way you can find your way back. Yes, I forgot to mention this: that place you ended up at, when you thought you had reached the finish line, turns out it was the middle of the freakin’ desert, and all memory of how you got there has been erased. It’s as if you were blindfolded, herded onto a bus, and then thrown out the back door without food or water in some insane survivalist experiment. So there are no markers back. The only thing you know is this: if there is to be any chance at all of you getting back alive, it’s only because somehow the movements of the bodies you’re carrying across your back will guide you there.

Abandon hope all ye who enter here. The only cure for a novel is another one. It doesn’t say anywhere in the myth that Sisyphus was a would-be novelist. But then again, it doesn’t say anywhere that he wasn’t. You’ve been warned.

Attention, Attention, Attention

attentionA while back, I posted a photo of an intriguing street mural called “Wordscape” that I had come across while strolling in Brooklyn; at the time, I had no clue as to who the artist was, other than the name on the mural. Fortunately since then, I’ve been in phone contact with the artist, Don Porcella, who now lives in California. I had a great conversation with him, and in the near future I hope to post the audio of the interview here.

Until then, I just wanted to comment on one thing that Don said to me: when a person goes to a museum or gallery, the average time that the viewer interacts with a piece of art is just three to seven seconds—that’s it. The artist may have taken months or years bringing a project to fruition, but that three seconds could be the entire length of time that a viewer engages with the piece of art. So the artist’s  job, as Porcella sees it, is to somehow persuade or seduce a person to stay and engage and interact a little longer. He wants people to see through the surface, and then take the time to go a little deeper.

That resonated with me, because it seems as if in all the arts, there’s that obligation of baiting the hook for attention. It seems almost whorish. But the novelist is taught that the first few sentences have to grab, or no one’s going to read the rest; a musician has to have a musical hook that gets the audience humming or singing along; the old vaudeville maxim declared that “you gotta have a gimmick.” The great British actor Ralph Richardson once stated that the art of acting consisted of keeping the audience from coughing for two hours.

In magic, too, the first obligation is to get the audience’s attention. Indeed, it’s doubly important in magic: not only do magicians need your attention so that they can perform for you, they need first to receive your attention, so that later they can deceive your attention. There’s the story about a teacher of coin magic—I wish I could remember who it was!—who would stop his students’ rehearsals of coin sleights barely before they had begun. He would admonish them that they were attempting magic when they hadn’t even made eye contact with their spectators yet. Without engaging the audience’s attention, there is no hope of manipulating it.

There are crude ways of getting attention and more subtle, artistic ways. Attention is deeper and longer lasting when the viewer makes that decision without coercion. But without attention there can be no art either on the part of the artist or the part of the viewer.

There is a classic Zen Buddhist story that goes like this:

A student goes to a Zen Master: “Master, will you please write for me the essence of Zen?” The Master immediately takes out a brush and writes the word “Attention.”

“Is that all?” asked the man. “Can you explain more?”
The master then writes: “Attention, Attention.”

The bewildered student says, “I don’t understand.”
The master writes: “Attention, Attention, Attention.”

A Questionnaire


I was nominated by Catie Robbins at Catie Robbins’ Writing to complete this Reading Questionnaire. Thanks, Catie! My Rupert Pupkin-like fantasies have finally come to fruition!

Do you have a certain place at home for reading? 

Nope. Everywhere and anywhere. I try to have an inside book (for reading at home), an outside book (for the subway and waiting in line), and a bathroom book. (Uhhh…self explanatory!)

Bookmark or random piece of paper?

Anything. Lots of those advertising cards and jokers from the various decks of playing cards strewn around the house. Also electric bills. Note to Con Ed—how come you didn’t send me a bill this month? Oops—never mind: page 183 of The Goldfinch.

Can you just stop reading or do you have to stop after a chapter/a certain number of pages?

Given my lousy bookmarking system (see above), I try to stop at a chapter or at least at the top of a page. But usually the bookmark falls out and I end up re-reading the same fifty pages over and over. As I’m in training for my coming dementia, I feel like it’s a good use of my time.

Do you eat or drink while reading? Multitasking: Music or TV while reading?  

Magazines, yes; books, no. Also, I’ve tried to have particular mood music play while writing, but so far that experiment’s been a disaster. It just distracts me.

One book at a time or several at once? 

See above. Usually lots going on at once. Then I buckle down and concentrate on one at a time.

Reading at home or everywhere?

When I can just leave my damn smartphone at home, I surprise myself by how much reading I can get done on the subway, or waiting for a license renewal at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Reading out loud or silently in your head? 

Mostly in my head, but when I’m reading my own stuff for revision, reading out loud is a must. It used to be, in the old days, that if you were seen talking to yourself in public, you were considered a crazy paranoid schizophrenic. Now people just think you’re talking on your Bluetooth.

Ha! The laugh’s on them. I’m a paranoid schizophrenic.

Do you read ahead or even skip pages? 

No, never. I’ll abandon a book first, if I feel as if I want to skip parts. Maybe I’m not ready for it, or it isn’t the time for it. I’ll give it another try some other time in my life. (Yeah, right. I’m looking at you, In Search of Lost Time.)

Breaking the spine or keeping it like new? 

“Books are your friends,” said my mother. We don’t break the spines of those we love. Except if you’re a professional wrestler and your name is The Crusher. Then it’s okay.

Do you write in your books? 

I underline and mark off passages in the margin so that a few decades later I can go back and ask, “What kind of idiot marked up this book?”

And now my nominations for this exciting chain letter-like project that will annoy and flatter the nominees into answering:


O at the Edges


Favorite Books (2): Insurgent Mexico by John Reed

insurgent mexico

Before John Reed chased down the Russian Revolution and wrote his eyewitness account in Ten Days That Shook the World, he rode with the legendary Pancho Villa in 1914, during the Mexican Revolution. His dispatches from the front were gathered together in an exciting account called Insurgent Mexico.

And what an account it is! The reporting is startling vivid, and Reed instantly puts the reader in the middle of the action, the words and images poetically visceral. His portrait of Villa, an uneducated but wily outlaw turned revolutionary, is both an ode to the common man and the power of personality. Reed rode with, drank with, sang with, danced with, but above all, fought with the peon revolutionaries who sought to wrest a little piece of land for themselves from the giant Hacienda landowners in that feudal-like society.  Villa was the Revolutionary leader of the Northern army, while the more politically sophisticated Emilio Zapata controlled the South of Mexico. The history of the Mexican Revolution is littered with betrayals and leaders jumping from one side to the other, but Villa was always true to the peons he served, and to their revolutionary fervor. While Villa was untutored, his instinctive cunning saw that it would be good for the Revolution to have such a reporter as Reed send back dispatches to the United States, and so he welcomed Reed’s company with open arms.

Reed slept, ate, and fought with Villa’s troops. While Reed’s account is non-fiction, the strength and immediacy of the prose is something that any fiction writer could envy and learn from. Here’s a passage that describes the revolutionaries encountering the Federal troops:

We could see them now, hundreds of little black figures riding through the chaparral; the desert swarmed with them. Savage Indian yells reached us. A spent bullet droned overhead, and then another; then one unspent and a whole flock singing fiercely. Thud! went the adobe walls as bits of clay flew. Peons and their women rushed from house to house, distracted with fear. A trooper, his face black with powder, and hateful with killing and terror, galloped past, shouting that all was lost…

Apolinario hurried out the mules with their harness on their backs, and begin to hitch them to the coach. His hands trembled. He dropped a trace, picked it up, and dropped it again. He shook all over. All at once he threw the harness to the ground and took to his heels. Juan and I rushed forward. Just then a stray bullet took the old mule in the rump. Nervous already, the animals plunged wildly. The wagon tongue snapped with the report of a rifle. The mules raced madly north into the desert.

Reed said himself that when he wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, he was striving to make his prose as objective as possible. But fortunately for us, in this earlier work about Mexico, Reed was not afraid to let the full force of his literary talent be displayed. This is a fast read, and a pleasurable one, and it makes me sad to think that the talent that produced this work at the age of twenty-six was lost at his premature death, only seven years later. But this book is a testament to a great journalist and a great writer.

Progress Report


It’s draft number eight of my novel, The Longest Winter of Holly Walker. I’m thinking, two more drafts to go, but I thought that about half a dozen drafts ago as well. The good thing is that I can see the improvements clearly; the annoying thing is that the remaining inconsistencies and clumsy craft stand out even more; I’m like a cabinet maker whose cabinets have misaligned hinges.

The major characters are more delineated; the minor characters have been put back in their boxes, so that they can stay minor characters and not pull focus away from the major ones. Weather and time continuity errors have been eliminated for the most part. And for good measure, I’m halfway on to changing the title.

So what is it that remains? A comedy/drama of several generations of middle-class New York City dwellers trying to survive love and family. People fighting for a future that they can’t control. The attempt to stay human in the midst of the unknowable. The ridiculousness of needing and wanting others, despite the impossibility of living up to others’ expectations. It’s about opening up, beginning to feel again, about parents and children, about figuring out how to get up in the morning.

So the manuscript is printed out, and into the drawer it goes for another few weeks so that I can get some perspective on it again. I’ll probably look for more readers, although I wouldn’t want to ask the same readers from before; I want people who are knowledgeable about writing, but fresh to this piece.

Meanwhile, novel #2 is about half way through it’s first draft…

Marcie At Work

Work_in_progressHere’s another outtake from my forthcoming novel, The Longest Winter of Holly Walker, that was broadcast on radio station WBAI 99.5FM yesterday on Arts Express. They had to cut out a little bit that was too sexy for afternoon radio, but you can hear the unexpurgated version by clicking on the grey triangle below.

You can hear an earlier excerpt here.

I Can’t Remember To Forget You: Proust and the Mother of All Descriptive Novels


Description. It doesn’t come easily to me. Other writers have spoken about this–there seems to be a definite divide among writers: some agonize over dialogue, while others have trouble with description. As a reader, I have to admit, I don’t like to read long passages of description. Okay, I admit it: sometimes I just skip pages and pages of the damn descriptive stuff. Does this make me a bad person? I only hope God doesn’t throw those skipped pages in my face at the final reckoning.

Since the novel I’m writing could benefit from better description, I figured that a good way to learn how to do it would be to read the great novelists who are best at it. So after a lot of temporizing, I made the plunge and picked up the first volume of the Mother of All Descriptive Novels, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. When I say picked up, I should point out that at over a million words and seven volumes, the novel is difficult to pick up at all without straining yourself. But anyway, I’ve started reading the first volume, Swann’s Way, and well, how can I put it delicately? It’s freakin’ torture! It is requiring a real act of will to continue reading. Someone I know, a Proust fan, says blithely, “Oh, yes, the first volume is like that. It only starts getting good halfway into the second volume.” Oh, joy.

Yet it is oddly compelling in its own molasses-like way. Right now, I’ve made it to page 100, and here’s one example of what I’ve run across so far:

All these things and, still more than these, the treasures which had come to the church from personages who to me were almost legendary figures (such as the golden cross wrought, it was said, by Saint Eloi and presented by Dagobert, and the tomb of the sons of Louis the Germanic in porphyry and enamelled copper), because of which I used to go forward into the church when we were making our way to our chairs as into a fairy-haunted valley, where the rustic sees with amazement on a rock, a tree, a marsh, the tangible proofs of the little people’s supernatural passage–all these things made of the church for me something entirely different from the rest of the town; a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space–the name of the fourth being Time–which had sailed the centuries with that old nave, where bay after bay, chapel after chapel, seemed to stretch across and hold down and conquer not merely a few yards of soil, but each successive epoch from which the whole building had emerged triumphant, hiding the rugged barbarities of the eleventh century in the thickness of its walls, through which nothing could be seen of the heavy arches, long stopped and blinded with coarse blocks of ashlar, except where, near the porch, a deep groove was furrowed into one wall by the tower-stair; and even there the barbarity was veiled by the graceful gothic arcade which pressed coquettishly upon it, like a row of grown-up sisters who, to hide him from the eyes of strangers, arrange themselves smilingly in front of a countrified, unmannerly and ill-dressed younger brother; rearing into the sky above the Square a tower which had looked down upon Saint Louis, and seemed to behold him still; and thrusting down with its crypt into the blackness of a Merovingian night, through which, guiding us with groping finger-tips beneath the shadowy vault, ribbed strongly as an immense bat’s wing of stone, Théodore or his sister would light up for us with a candle the tomb of Sigebert’s little daughter, in which a deep hole, like the bed of a fossil, had been bored, or so it was said, “by a crystal lamp which, on the night when the Frankish princess was murdered, had left, of its own accord, the golden chains by which it was suspended where the apse is to-day and with neither the crystal broken nor the light extinguished had buried itself in the stone, through which it had gently forced its way.”

You may have noticed that that was one sentence. There evidently was a period shortage in France at the time. But there is still something fascinating about it.

As I was reading it, I was trying to recall of whom Proust reminded me, and then it hit me: Samuel Beckett. Now this may seem an odd choice. Beckett is so stripped down, while for Proust everything is decoration, and yet what struck me were two things: first, the total obsession of the two authors in detailing the inner mental processes of their protagonists, and second, the absolute commitment by each author to put down the entire mental process on paper, no matter how tedious, incoherent, or repetitious. Now it may sound like I am criticizing them, but I’m not. It takes a kind of ferocious courage to be so committed. As a reader, I am thinking, oh, are they really going to do this, is Beckett really going to describe how his protagonist moves stones from one pocket to the other and then to his mouth for page after page after page? Is Proust really going to go on and on and on with his description of what every nook and cranny of the town’s church meant to his protagonist? And after a while, the answer becomes apparent: yes they really are. And for me, my numbness turns into a kind of wonder at their bull-headedness. I remember once when I was eight years old I had decided to write down a million circles. I don’t remember how far I got, but if I had finished it, it would have been really cool. That’s how I’m feeling about Proust right now.

It’s interesting to think about how at the turn of the twentieth century, the cultural air of Europe was filled with the explication of mental process. Freud and the flowering of psychoanalysis; Stanislavsky on the inner motivation of the actor; Chekhov, Strindberg, and Ibsen writing plays where the true realism resided in the innermost recesses of the characters’ psyches; expressionist painters who depicted the inner states of their subjects in outward form. And, of course, Proust. The drive was always to make the inner explicitly outer, open to be read and seen.  And equally important, to reveal the connection between inner and outer, and to show how the inner was the prime motor of the outer.

I’m not sure what I can learn from Proust explicitly about writing description, but I have a feeling that if I can make my way through the novel–or at least this first volume (my years on the planet are limited like all of us, after all)–then I might gain some descriptive power by a kind of osmosis. By bathing in it, I hope to benefit from the residue.

That’s the theory, anyway. If it doesn’t work out, at least I can say to God that I feel the Proust pages I did read should offset all those pages of description that I skipped over through the years. If She’s got any sense of fair play at all, I figure She’s got to give me a break on that. And there better be plenty of madelines up there.



I’ve gotten back feedback for my novel from the few people to whom I’d sent it. I can’t thank them enough for how helpful they’ve been!

They gave me such useful comments, big picture and little picture. They told me what worked for them and what didn’t work.

I’ll try to summarize the feedback, especially when the same comments were given by more than one reader.

The biggest thing that was not clear to the readers was: whose story is this? The character, Holly, who I want to be the protagonist is not yet carrying the story. That feedback makes so much sense to me because of the way that I wrote the book. I didn’t start off with any plan in mind—I just wrote. Sometimes I’d sketch out one character, and then I’d move on to another, not necessarily related, character. It wasn’t until a few drafts in, that I even understood how the characters were related. In fact, it wasn’t until the most recent version that I understood who the protagonist would be. At that point, it still felt like an ensemble piece, and not a story with a lead character and supporting characters.  I had attempted to fix it by cutting certain scenes starring minor characters.  I liked those scenes and those characters, but I had given those characters too much time, so they had to go. You can listen to one such scene, which I broadcast on the radio, here. But despite that, what I’ve learned from my readers is that I’m still not there yet. My protagonist, Holly, is not yet the spine of the story. And that’s valuable to know, because I couldn’t judge that accurately by myself.

The second point that my readers made, was that it was difficult, at first, to sort through and get a fix on all the characters. It takes too much time to understand who they are and what their role in the story is. In addition, I need to introduce the major conflict, which should drive the book, much earlier on.

Readers also caught all kinds of logical mistakes in the time line and elsewhere. Those are also difficult to catch on my own. And several readers mentioned, too, that they thought that I could add more visual elements in setting a scene.

But the other wonderful thing that they did, was to tell me what they liked. That was really important for me, too. I don’t expect that everyone will like everything that I’ve written; I know that people’s tastes vary too much. But I do want to feel that for the people who are my “ideal readers,” that certain key moments worked for them. I sent this out to these particular readers because I had a feeling that we had some shared literary sensibility. So it was exciting when they liked certain scenes, or were amused by certain lines, because I was writing those scenes and lines, in some sense, just for them. That they responded positively tells me that I’m heading in the right direction.

This has been a very happy experience for me. I feel like I can go back to the novel and work. I know what I need to do. Whether I have the skill to do it is another question.

I feel an obligation. But the obligation—is this strange?—is not to myself, or even to the book, but to the characters. I can’t let them down. They want their story told. I have to see this through to the end, for them.

Michael Potato

Because: waste not, want not;

Because: the Indians used every part of the buffalo;

Because: children are starving in China;

I took a scene that I had to cut out from the last draft of my novel in progress, The Longest Winter of Holly Walker, and recorded it as its own little set piece. It was broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express program on radio station WBAI 99.5 FM NYC. You can listen to the audio as it was broadcast by clicking on the orange button above.