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Reading the right road, traveling the right book

By themselves, reading and traveling are two of the greatest pleasures in life; combined, the effect can be, well, transporting.

We all have our favourite passages. I once spent an idyllic afternoon on the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm, amiably accompanied by Henning Mankell, the great Swedish mystery writer.

Pierre Berton and his fine book Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, kept me company while I toured Alaska. Charles Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities illuminated my vacationing footsteps to London and Paris, and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea struck the perfect note for an afternoon at the beach in Cuba. 

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

Books can do what no tour guide can – by providing resonating detail and bringing different times, places and people to life. You can’t look out on the Cape of Good Hope without thinking about its mythical place in the briny literature of sea-faring adventure – that is, as long as you’ve dipped your oar in that particular writing current.

I also take great delight in purchasing books – good, bad or otherwise – in the places in which they are rooted. I’ve picked up A Town Called Alice, by Nevil Shute, in Alice Springs, while cruising through the Australian Outback; I bought Sarum, by Edward Rutherford, in the little gift shop set up near the site of the ancient settlement near Salisbury; and most recently, I risked missing a ferry ride to buy Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela, at Robben Island, the former South African prison turned museum.

Maybe I’m alone in this. Maybe for other people it doesn’t matter what sort of reading material they pile into their carry-on, or what sorts of books they cart back home. But such indifference will never work for me. It’s been said there are really only two rules of the open road: make sure you have good shoes on your feet, and keep your bowels open. To those I’d add a third: make sure you’re packing a book that tells you something interesting about the place and its people.

What are your most memorable passages?

Happy trails; happy reading.

Time-traveling with Harlan Ellison

When you return to a writer you loved in your youth, it is also in some sense to return to the person you once were. If you’re lucky, the cringe factor will be slight in both cases.

I’ve had the opportunity to do a little literary time-traveling with the recent release of the bio-doc Dreams With Sharp Teeth, which is an entertaining look at the life and world of science fiction author Harlan Ellison. Has there ever lived a more pugnacious, irascible writer? ‘Prickly’ would be another apt word. (The film’s trailer is embedded below — you’ll get a pretty good sense of the type of guy he is in two-and-a-half minutes.)

It’s been said that if we’re really lucky, not only do the books from which we will most benefit find their way into our hands, they’ll do so at exactly the most opportune moments of our lives. I’ve always thought Ellison had pretty good timing that way. I was a geeky, outsider adolescent in the 1970s when I first stumbled on his work and I was immediately transfixed by that voice: clear, angry, fearless, smart — and with a conscience.

Here was another apparent outsider who felt the same way about many of the things I did. I nibbled at his short fiction but positively devoured his essays and other non-fiction, such as his scathing indictments of ’60s and ’70s television, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. I can remember buying his short story anthologies just so I could read his introductions; now and then I’d finish one of the stories, too, but more often than not I’d put them away until the next impassioned diatribe came along.

After watching Dreams With Sharp Teeth I thought I’d dip back into his work and see how it’s held up. Tellingly, despite the many culls my book collection has undergone over the years (seven boxes punted before the last move), I’ve never quite managed to let go of the handful of Ellison books I own. These now have faded, creased covers, missing dust jackets and some with a shaky name inscribed by a 14- or 15-year-old mini me.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the short story collection Approaching Oblivion, which encapsulates both Ellison’s tone and worldview. He refers to a letter he received from a James Chambers, who has described the four Kent State university students who were killed when the National Guard opened fire at a demonstration as “communist-led revolutionaries, hooligans and anarchists.”

Now that scares the piss out of me.

That is approaching oblivion. It is reaping the whirlwind of half a decade of Nixon/Agnew brainwashing and paranoia. It is a perfectly apocryphal example of the reconditeness to which The Common Man in our time clings with such suicidal ferocity. I won’t go into my little dance about the loathesomeness of The Common Man, nor even flay again the body of stupidity to which “commonness” speaks. I’ll merely point out that the Ellison who believed in the revolutionary Movement of the young and the frustrated and the angry in the Sixties, is not the Ellison of the Seventies who has seen students sink back into a charming Fifties apathy (with a simultaneous totemization of the banalities and mannerisms of those McCarthy Witch-Hunt Fifties), who has listened long and hard to the Chambers letter and hears in it a tone wholly in tune with the voice of the turtle heard in the land, who — when the defenses are down in the tiny hours after The Late Late Show — laments for all the martyrs who packed it in, in the name of “change,” only to turn around a mere five years later and see the status returned to quo.

I still find that compelling, but maybe not quite as much as I once did. Can any indignation burn as hot or self-righteously as adolescent indignation? And the angry writer, angry Jew schtick in Dreams With Sharp Teeth strikes me at times as simply wearisome. OK — everyone in the world has their heads up their butts except him. Whatever.

The short stories in Approaching Oblivion are uneven. (Yes, all these years later I’ve managed to read all 11.) Despite the strange and bleak futures they depict, they serve as strong indicators of the age in which they were written. Many carry the burdensome freight of a really important MESSAGE. Some show signs of quaintness, a susceptibility to which science fiction, as it ages, seems particularly prone. For example, in “Hindsight: 480 Seconds,” one man is left alone on earth to record for posterity the death of the earth when an asteroid hits. And what does he record his thoughts on? “Memory cassettes.” I guess at least they weren’t “Memory Eight-tracks.”

In “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty,” a successful man travels back in time to visit the persecuted boy he once was. Like re-reading Ellison, the experience is tinged with various parts excitement, nostalgia and sadness. You really can’t go back again. Sometimes it’s the memories of things that are best savoured, and not the thing itself.

But I’m still not getting rid of his books.

Can you ever read too many novels?

A while ago I wrote a blog post about research published in the May Scientific American touting the therapeutic value of writing. Now, research published in the June issue of New Scientist says longtime readers are more empathetic and have better social skills than their less well-read peers.

Interesting. Describing someone as being well-read connotes a certain worldliness that may well encompass social graces that are above average. It’s curious that even though film and television have been around so long, we never refer to people as being well-viewed. Despite its immediacy, film still can’t show us the hearts, minds and souls of others as effectively as fiction.

On the other hand, why do so many bookworms sometimes seem nerdy and maladjusted? I guess this particular research assumed a broad reading base and not an exclusive diet of SF or fantasy.

Here is a link to an interview with one of the researchers; the article on the New Scientist site is not available for free. For other interesting psychological research on reading and writing, check out the researchers’ blog On Fiction.

Photo credit: Moriza, Creative Commons

It’s hard not to gush about Price’s Lush Life

Lush Life by Richard Price is flat out one of the best books I’ve read. I’ve always loved his novels for the windows they open on urban life, for their rich portrayals of people caught in awful events, and for their sheer propulsive drive. Clockers, Samaritan, Freedomland — these are books one can’t help but guzzle in a few long, greedy gulps; Lush Life is no different.

But calling it a page-turner or crime novel devalues its abundant artistry, and there is much here to admire. I’m painfully aware that trying to tease apart all the different strands that go into fine writing is a difficult and clumsy business. Focusing on narrative pacing leads to a discussion of scene construction and before you know it, to plot, with several branching threads like tone and setting emerging at the same time. And can you really separate character development from dialogue, description and plot? The sum is definitely greater than the parts.

Nevertheless, Price’s greatest gifts may be with dialogue and in rendering character in a few deft strokes. Here’s his introduction of one of the main characters, Eric Cash, 35, who runs the front of the house at a restaurant called Berkmann’s:

He had no particular talent or skill, or what was worse, he had a little talent, some skill: playing the lead in a basement-theater production of The Dybbuk sponsored by 88 Forsyth House two years ago, his third small role since college, having a short story published in a now-defunct Alphabet City literary rag last year, his fourth in a decade, neither accomplishment leading to anything; and this unsatisfied yearning for validation was starting to make it near impossible for him to sit through a movie or read a book or even case out a new restaurant, all pulled off increasingly by those his age or younger, without wanting to run face-first into a wall

Why is it so many writers still insist on providing physical details like hair or eye colour? Are those details ever important? Price, in just one sentence, situates his character within the arc of his own life — and then gives us the character’s response to that.

Even the relatively minor characters in Lush Life have lives that are rich and textured. Making the most of  the walk-ons gives a novel heft and authenticity; it makes the world being created seem deeper and therefore more believable.

Realistic dialogue is another technique that aids in the portrayal of character, but also keeps the narrative humming along.

“See you din’t live round here back in the heyday, so no way you’d know, but about ten, twelve years ago? […] Man, it was, there was some bad dudes up in here. The Purples on Avenue C, Hernandez brothers on A and B, Delta Force in the Cahans, nigger name Maquetumba right in the Lemlichs. Half a them got snatched up by RICO for long bids, the other half is dead, all the hardcores, so now it’s like just the Old Heads out there sippin’ forties and telling stories about yesteryear, them and a bunch of Similac niggers, stoop boys, everybody out for themselves with their itty-bitty eight balls, nobody runnin’ the show.”

“Maquetbumba?”…

“Dominican dude. Dead now. My brother told me him and his crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight.”

“What kind of name is that.”

“I just said. Dominican.”

“What’s it mean, though.”

“Maquetumba? Man, you should know, you Dominican.”

“Puerto Rican.”

“Same shit, ain’t it?”

Tristan shrugged.

“Sss,” Little Dap sucked his teeth. “Like, ‘he who drops the most,’ some shit like that.”

“Drops what?”

Little Dap just stared at him.

And so on. I love the omission of question marks in some of those questions — it’s pitch perfect. Price manages to capture the speech sounds of these two without resorting to an overabundance of annoying word contortions. He gives us one “din’t” for didn’t, but doesn’t overdo it. “My brother told me him and his crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight,” is just as strong and less distracting than something like, “Ma brother tol’ me him ‘n’ ‘is crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight.” Our ears are already filling in the speech patterns by that point.

Lastly, Price’s lower eastside Manhattan also figures as a character. Here’s a nice bit of rendered setting — a description of a desanctified synagogue that now serves as a condo — which also gives us some detail about the main character:

“But for all this reborn carriage house’s ingenuity, its artful attempt at appeasing its own history while declaring itself the newest of the new, it was the double layer of evicted ghosts — pauperish tenants, greenhorn parishioners — that still held sway for him, Matty having always been afflicted with Cop’s Eyes; the compulsion to imagine the overlay of the dead wherever he went.”

One of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing is to leave out the boring bits that readers tend to skip over. There’s nothing boring here; this is a riveting account of what happens after a routine mugging turns fatal when a twitchy teen holding the gun overreacts at a victim’s bravado. So rich. So believable. I recommend it without reservation.

Incidentally, there’s an interesting interview with Price about Lush Life at Amazon, here, and another from NPR’s Fresh Air, here.

Eat veggies, get exercise, write blog…

…or write novel, or diary, or grocery list. Evidence mounts for the therapeutic value of putting thoughts into words, sentences and finally onto a page of some kind, whether it’s papyrus or html. An article in the May Scientific American reports on the health benefits of writing as a possible reason for the boom in blogging.

Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. But besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism, expressive writing produces many physiological benefits. Research shows that it improves memory and sleep, boosts immune cell activity and reduces viral load in AIDS patients, and even speeds healing after surgery. A study in the February issue of The Oncologist reports that cancer patients who engaged in expressive writing just before treatment felt markedly better, mentally and physically, as compared with patients who did not.

Haven’t the behaviourists long recognized the positive impact of this sort of thing, what with all the different kinds of art therapy? But perhaps soon the neuroscientists will pinpoint exactly why and how it works.

Recent functional magnetic resonance imaging studies have shown that the brain lights up differently before, during and after writing, notes James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. But Pennebaker and others remain skeptical about the value of such images because they are hard to duplicate and quantify.

Writing lights up the brain? What a beautiful image. Right now I’m bashing this out pretty fast, so I’ve probably only generated some kind of generic strobe. But later? When I get back to writing that novel?

Zombies: at last lurching into the limelight?

If we can say Bram Stoker’s Vampire, Count Dracula, personified fears of unknown perils and unchecked appetites when if was written in 1897, then the Zombie seems to be a fitting trope for our Wal-Mart world of rampant globalization fostered by sociopathic corporations. The Vampire mesmerizes, plays on repressed sexuality, and “vants to drink your blood.” The relentless Zombie, together with gazillions of his friends, just keeps coming at you — “brains…brains,” he moans.

Zombies have pursued the living up on the silver screen since the 1950s, well before George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Since then, comic books, video games, many more movies — and novelizations of movies — have followed. But the Zombies have never quite cottoned to the printed page like the vampire. A Google search for “Zombie fiction” yields 18,400 matches, while “Vampire fiction” delivers 155,000. The difference in the number of fictional titles at my local library is even greater: Zombies – 15, Vampires – 301.

There could be many reasons for that. Books were the dominant entertainment medium when Stoker popularized his Vampire, while the Zombie is very much the child of cinema. (Even so, numbers from the Internet Movie Database also indicate Z. has a long stagger to catch up to V.) Zombies have little, if any, personality, intelligence or sex appeal, so it’s pretty much impossible to create an engaging character out of one. Reanimated decaying corpses are just too conceptual and machinelike and can’t capture the imagination like those charming, shape-shifting vampires can.

But perhaps a new day dawns for the dead with the publication of World War Zby Max Brooks. And yes, I freely concede I’m betraying a certain snobbery by suggesting Zombies haven’t fully arrived until they’ve broken into the bookstore and mainstream bestseller lists. So go ahead — bite me. I mean, as long as you’re not a Zombie or anything.

Brooks gives us a future history describing the global conflagration known as “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” or simply “World War Z.” The real genius of his novel is to appropriate the journalistic technique pioneered by Studs Terkel, in which the event is told from a multitude of different voices and perspectives. Just as Terkel’s war reporting ranged across time, rank and theatre of operation, Brooks covers the progress of World War Z from Sydney to Jerusalem, Manitoba to Tokyo. And then some.

Through more than 50 different voices we learn about the early days of the conflict, The Great Panic, pivotal battles like Yonkers, cleaning up frozen Zombies in the north and the rationale for key decisions by world leaders.

It’s all very richly imagined and capably told. Although the narrative structure precludes the development of any genuine suspense, Brooks does register a reasonable creepiness quotient. Consider this scene told by a Japanese man about how, as a teenager, he managed to flee his infested apartment building by climbing down the outside, balcony by balcony. (Note: he uses the Japanese word for Zombie, siafu.)

I looked up at my balcony and saw a head, the one-eyed siafu was squeezing himself through the opening between the rail and the balcony floor. It hung there for a moment, half out, half in, then gave another lurch toward me and slid over the side. I’ll never forget that it was still reaching for me as it fell, this nightmare flash of it suspended in midair, arms out, hanging eyeball now flying upward against its forehead.

It takes a very special ear to be able to particularize the speech of more than 50 different speakers and if I have a quibble with World War Z it’s that many of the accounts wind up sounding much the same in tone and diction. Brooks sets himself a formidable challenge and does succeed admirably with several memorable accounts — but one wonders what might have been achieved by a more gifted ventriloquist. For example, here is an excerpt from a novel I’m reading now, Lush Life, by Richard Price:

See you din’t live round here back in the heyday, so no way you’d know, but about ten, twelve years ago? […] Man, it was, there was some bad dudes up in here. The Purples on Avenue C, Hernandez brothers on A and B, Delta Force in the Cahans, nigger name Maquetumba right in the Lemlichs. Half a them got snatched up by RICO for long bids, the other half is dead, all the hardcores, so now it’s like just the Old Heads out there sippin’ forties and telling stories about yesteryear, them and a bunch of Similac niggers, stoop boys, everybody out for themselves with their itty-bitty eight balls, nobody runnin’ the show.

I didn’t tell you anything about who was talking or where, but I bet the dialect and detail helped you form a pretty reasonable picture. Although I know nothing about this milieu, it sounds pretty authentic to me. And I guess that’s the trick – capturing the specific cadences, slang, attitude and character-appropriate imagery to create a believable portrayal.

Those misgivings about World War Z aside, there is still much to enjoy and shudder about. On the macro level it attains resonating plausibility. We’ve already got a brimming Pandora’s box with global warming, illnesses hopping species to species, and humanity’s clumsy and dangerous interference in so many areas. Is a Zombie-like plague really so farfetched?

So if you want to see how it all might go down, check out World War Z. If nothing else, you’ll know what supplies you might want to think about laying in….

Incidentally, if you care about this sort of thing, Brooks is a former Saturday Night Live writer and the son of filmmaker Mel Brooks and actor Anne Bancroft, according to the World Wide Web, which is never wrong. A movie based on the novel is in production for a 2010 release by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment.

What Yann Martel is doing…

…is beyond delightful. For the past year, the Booker Prize-winning author of Life of Pi has been sending a book to the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, and lovingly documenting his choices on his web site, What is Stephen Harper Reading?

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Denis Sinyakov/AFP/Getty Images)Harper is well-grounded in economics, conservatism and hockey — and pretty much nothing else. Unkind observers say, “stuffed shirt” or “automaton.” The conservative government’s parsimonious approach to arts funding precipitated Martel’s efforts, but many would argue the Tories have a record of other short-sighted and soulless policy choices since they took office back in February 2006. (Has it really only been two years?)

Martel’s choices aim at “expanding stillness.” Thus far Harper has been the recipient of everthing from Kafka to Lindgren, Acorn to Tolstoy.

Truly I say to you, there are only two sets of tools with which the rich soil of life can be worked: the religious and the artistic. Everything else is illusion that crumbles before the onslaught of time. If you die having prayed to no god, any god, one expressed above an altar or one painted with a brush, then you risk wasting the soul you were given. Repent! Repent!

The very first book Martel sent, The Death of Ivan Ilych, netted a perfunctory response from a prime ministerial assistant, but since then, nothing. But no matter — Martel’s charming introductory essays may be falling on deaf ears at 24 Sussex, but I’m sure they’re being savoured by lovers of literature worldwide. You should check a few out…

Martel has vowed to send Harper a book every two weeks for as long as he’s prime minister. For Martel’s sake — and ours — let’s hope that’s not much longer.

Photo credit: Denis Sinyakov/AFP/Getty Images