Category Archives: Books

My own work: 24-32

As a part of the Creative Influences theme, I am also reviewing my own work. This will be in three phases: high school, college and a little bit after, and my adult life. Here’s the first one.

It all started with National Novel Writing Month in 2008. I’d been writing fiction again after a long hiatus, joined up with some other fellows in a writing group and shared some very rough drafts once every month or so. Then came the 2008 election. Working in news, the election was my life for months. It crowded out all other things, all other possibility of creative work. I decided that the month of November, the bulk of which sat after the election, I would try to write the first draft of a novel.

The Collective:
Remember, finishing written work was always my hardest challenge. So the simple goal of NaNoWriMo— to finish a novel of greater than 50,000 words— was a direct shot at my weakness. And so I wrote. I wrote on planes, on trains, in coffee shops, at my future in-laws’ kitchen table. And you know what? On November 30, I finished a rough draft of about 53,000 words. I was elated. So elated that I decided to really finish it, and kicked off an editing process that lasted a full year. That first draft was a mess.

This was my first book, The Collective. In a world where the hottest new accessories are “Squad glasses”, wearable computers powered by outsourced labor, or your “Squad”. It was an idea I’d brainstormed on October 31st, 2008 and finished November 30, 2008. I self-published it to get out in the world, but I’ve never thought it was the best representation of my work. I re-read it with hesitation.

The first paragraph was so embarrassing. But the book redeems itself. It moves fast, keeps your interest. I’ll admit it’s pretty heavy on the exposition, especially at the beginning, but I kept finding myself surprised by new little bits of detail. In the end I was pleased with the creativity of the premise and how it grows. The language could use some work. But it’s easy to make excuses— I wrote it in a month and it’s never seen the touch of a true editor.

Andrew vs. The Collective
This might be my favorite thing I’ve ever written. After publishing The Collective I did a Kickstarter to finance printing a bunch of copies and as a marketing technique. The Kickstarter was itself its own writing project. Yet another time-based challenge for myself: write six short stories in six respective weeks, using 100% of contributions (words, sentences, settings, characters) from my paying Kickstarter backers. It was tough!

But re-reading it, I loved it. Especially the first three stories (before I began to wear down and lose steam). The voice is so good, so full of personality in a way most of my narrative prose is not. I made myself laugh out loud multiple times. There is something for me about challenge writing (see: the 33 project, itself). There was a lot of creativity even outside of the submissions. The second story, about two lovers traveling in opposite directions in time, is something I am tempted to come back to and spend more time with.

“A March Story:
Chronologically, this is my most recent work, but is a direct descendant of Andrew vs. The Collective. It’s a good evolution from AVTC, building on the lesson I learned there. I mapped out a story in advance— a news reporter protagonist living in modern day New York but with one big difference, the city is encased in a giant Buckminster Fuller-designed dome. I really enjoyed re-reading this one. I thought the prose was some of my strongest and the concept really interesting. This work was also written with contributions, though they were details, not substance. And it was also driven by time, I was trying to write each story to be contemporaneous with the real world of that week— weaving the same news stories in.

Drain the Gulf!
And then there’s Drain the Gulf!. After The Collective I wanted to challenge myself to do it for real. The scariest thing I could think of was to wholly dedicate myself to writing a book, to an idea that I invested a lot of time building. No caveats, no excuses. I would try to write a really good book and then I would try to get it published. The result was Drain the Gulf!, a 130K+ word tome in which America tries to decide whether or not to drain the Gulf of Mexico. It’s sarcastic political satire with some really great Louisianan and Floridian color.

I had a lot of fun writing this book. I left my job at the time and dedicated myself to a rough draft for about four months. I was a full-time writer for a little while! I researched, I sketched characters, I wrote practice scenes, I invested in Scrivener. And right before I began my job at Twitter, I called it done. Wrapped it up in a PDF and emailed to an agent. It has since gone unpublished.

I don’t think I realized how much that was weighing on me when I started to re-read this book. This was the first time I’d opened the book in three years. Would I find that it was terrible? Absolutely unpublishable and a waste of all that time I spent writing it? I was paralyzed by the fear that it wasn’t good.

Drain the Gulf! happens in three parts. The first is admittedly the weakest. Which made the reading experience tough. There would be moments that would shine through, individual scenes that I knew just sung. In the second and third parts, though, the book starts to really move. It was still an anxious experience, but I had myself laughing out loud at myself a couple of times a night when I sat down to read. Overall I still think it’s a great book. It needs an editor. For the little stuff I winced at throughout, and for the smoothing out the big stuff, too. It was good to re-read this. To face what feels like failure. I found myself thinking again about the writing experience and wanting to write again. Not to give this up, but to keep working at it.

What’s missing
I worked a lot in this time period. Worked at work. And much of that was generating media. I chose not to include the video work here because much of my work in this period was guiding the work of others, not producing it end to end. I also wrote a fair amount of non-fiction, but no major work. A lot of blogs and one short tidbit in a book called New Liberal Arts. It was in this period that I really re-connected with fiction writing, until I turned 33 and decided to try my hand at memoir.

Okay, so there are actually places to send you here. If you want to read The Collective, you’re in luck because that’s available for sale on Amazon. If you want to read A March Story, that’s on Medium.

Surprisingly, someone is also offering Andrew vs The Collective for sale on Amazon. It “appears to be signed and inscribed by the author”.

And if you want to read Drain the Gulf!, email me and I’ll send you a PDF!

White Noise by Don DeLillo

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 10, New York: This was one of the first books I read for pleasure after I graduated from college— it was a college book, so many others had read it in classes and for whatever reason I’d read The Odyssey twice and never White Noise. And so I read it and so I loved it. It was an inspirational book, something to aspire to, to take thought and sound and general aural environment and weave it together into prose that so naturally fits the reality around the characters. I wanted to write, author, novelize, scribe, describe, transcribe like Don DeLillo.

White Noise was also humbling in that I never expected to actually write in this style. I could love reading it and be inspired by it, but not mimic. That happened accidentally. All work with which I’d strongly connected prior to this book I’d sought to mimic. This stood apart. Made me want to develop a voice this strong, a voice of my own, and spew forth the prose. I don’t know if this was a function so much of White Noise as it was my age, a number growing slowly larger.

From a purely critical point of view, White Noise is also interesting because it is so technologically focused and in a moment of transitional technology. Tape decks, VCRs, terrestrial television— these are all things that future collegiate readers will struggle to understand. Half the teaching of this book will become explaining the setting of the 1980s. An argument for (and perhaps against) writing books that are timeless, technologically.

I read this book on a piece of technology that did not exist at its writing, but if it did, would have been a part of the story for sure. You should too.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

December 28, Lafayette, LA: I really did love me some Hunter S. Thompson as a teenager. I started, like most, with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But that work never really captured me. I didn’t really get it. I didn’t care about the drug stuff— I wasn’t titillated by the laundry list of pharamcological horrors in the trunk of the Red Shark. The subversion I loved most was the writing. And really, my favorite Hunter S. Thompson was the political reporting in The Great Shark Hunt. Anything with him on the campaign trail with Nixon and especially peeing next to him at a urinal.

Why did I love Hunter S. Thompson if I didn’t give two shits for drugs? His was some of the first writing I read that jumped and skittered across the page like a monologue. You read not just the voice, but the intonations of the voice. The emphases were never implied, they were always explicit. As a verbal storyteller from a long line of verbal stroytellers I longed to capture that in the written word. And here, Thompson could do it. I wanted to write that way.

I became, in my late teens, that worst kind of teeange copycat. I poured out paragraph after paragraph of Thompsonian prose. Truth was, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure all this gave me license for was to be sloppy and argue that I was never in need of a good edit. (I was arguing against editing deep into my early twenties.) What escaped me then is that while Thompson’s style may read like it was the first draft of a stream of consciousness ripped from the brain of a drug-addled crazyman, the truth is there was a lot of work put into this prose. I learned the put-a-lot-of-work-in thing far later.

Re-reading this book now I realized my strongest connection to it was the movie. And man, did Gilliam really capture this book.

But the book makes a lot more sense to me as an adult. I didn’t understand seventy percent of the drugs referenced in my first read. And I had no comprehension of the historical context. Now, I get it a bit more. This is the book you read after Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. After Wolfe warns you that the LSD experiment might not, in fact, shift a global consciousness into higher order thought, it is Thompson (who appears briefly in those pages) who shows us its corruption and utter failure. That America’s beating heart has moved from Haight Street to Paradise Boulevard and its population has gone from longhairs to crew cut drug cops.

Oh what the hell, take a weekend and re-read Fear and Loathing.

“Cold Journey in the Dark” by Parke Godwin

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

December 26, Baton Rouge: When I left the wrestling team in high school (yes, I know) it was for Drama Club. I stuck with theater for three year of high school and then I dabbled a little in college. At some point in there, I took an independent theater class in downtown St. Petersburg (my parents won it in an auction) and the instructor gave me this scene to do with a partner.

“Cold Journey in the Dark” is the only play published by science fiction author Parke Godwin. In it, the ghosts of Jesus and Judas meet again for the first time in a modern day cathedral (the play should be performed in a church) and argue over their shared legacy. Jesus is the misunderstood teacher, the intellectual leader caught up in the emotions of his emotional followers. Judas is the follower who needed a leader and found his choice to be wanting. It’s a pretty great conversation. I chose Judas.

Later, gearing up for State Thespian competition I needed a dramatic monologue. This one from Judas was the one I chose. I got real good at this.

From Cold Journey in the Dark
Everything from “I didn’t want to understand…” to “Dead, you’re a god.”

The play tickled at some threads of memory as I read it, but this monologue sang in my heart. I couldn’t recite it from memory today, but I know every single word as I read it. I knew this thing so well. I remembered the various intonations I tried with it. I remembered the ones that stuck. All the unwritten enunciations and emphases. The material is fantastic, too. Solid, polysyllabic material with multiple builds to crescendo and then that perfect final line: “Alive, you were nothing but a troublesome ethic. Dead, you’re a god.” Ah, it’s so good.

It wasn’t the last thing I ever performed, but this monologue was probably the height of my theater career. I poured myself into this one. And after my Dad died, this was exactly the right tenor to leech out the complex of emotions around fury and betrayal and deep, lost loneliness. Throughout that time of my life, theater was a great release, but I didn’t want to be an actor forever. I would rather write the stories then act them out. I tried a couple of times in this time of my life to write similar material, but the best I ever did was a one act play (in desperate need of an a few edits) about a bastard son of Jesus shot through with similar themes of betrayal and anger.

I did well at State competition with this monologue, but the comedic monologue paired with this one dragged my scores down and I didn’t quite make Nationals. It was fine. This is what I needed from the stage: emotional release. Stand up in front of a crowd and purge the worst. And how better to do that than as Judas, yelling at Jesus?

I had to buy a used copy of a collection of plays to find this again. There’s one in there by William Gibson!

“The Toynbee Convector” by Ray Bradbury

This post is the first in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work.

December 25, Westford, MA: I’ve always loved to spin stories. When we lived on the sailboat, my mother would keep me up late with her on night-crossings and tell me to tell her tales. Just the two of us, in the pitch black ocean twilight, my little mind spinning out fantastic kid-fictions to keep my mother awake. I began to write stories as soon as I could write— starting with attempts to write my own Hardy Boys books.

Throughout my life I’ve written continuously. Bad things, good things, very few of that latter, very much of the first. A thousand disposable works have passed through these typing fingers, it feels like. Mostly half-finished. Finishing has always been my greatest nemesis.

Throughout high school and into college I lacked writerly discipline of any kind. I would throw myself mentally into the excitement of an idea, write as hard and fast as I could and the idea would blossom and explode around me, spiraling out to the size of an epic (always that size, never modest) and when I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore I would lay down on the bed and toss and turn and continue to build the story (and imagine its wild success). The next morning, most times, I would wake up and hate the story. Convince myself it was garbage. Never work on it again. That was my process for years.This was mostly a problem because I always wanted to write things that would take me longer than a single night. I could never be satisfied with a short story— only a novel (or a trilogy!), because that was all I read.

Well this here was the first time I read a short story that really astounded me. The incredible thing about “The Toynbee Convector” is that it is an epic world but contained within a very short story. This is something I thought impossible before I read this. In it, a time traveler has shown the world a beautiful future and the world has rushed to meet it. It’s a beautiful utopian picture with a hell of a twist. And in a few short pages, you dip in, you see the wonders, you soar out.

Buy a whole bunch of Bradbury in the book of short stories that carries the story with this name.

Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch

December 24, Westford, MA: My grandfather lived in Louisiana much of his life. For where he lived, I’d consider him fiscally conservative, socially moderate. He was exactly the voter in play when the South flipped from Democrats to Republicans, the upper middle class white male. We would, from time to time when I drifted back to Louisiana for a holiday or a visit, talk politics. And I’ve always remembered that one time he told me something along the lines of: the South would have integrated in time, we just weren’t ready yet and pushing us to do it made things dangerous. Well, yes, Papa, but the folks who were on the other side of segregation were long past ready for integration. And whose perspective is more important in that decision?

I originally read Parting the Waters for a job. I’d been assigned to help produce Black History Month coverage for the high school audience news channel I worked for and we were doing some pieces on the civil rights movement and I don’t mind being thorough if it involves a big, thick book. This book is certainly big and thick, and what’s more it is the first of a trilogy. So the total tale is massive in scope (and wordcount).

I was really excited to re-read this in 2014. Particularly the first volume which delves into the roots of King’s philosophy of non-violence. I’d felt like I’d glossed over that in the past. And the book is so engaging; it reads like a historical thriller, capturing all the tension of the age. It covers the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Rides, Birmingham and the Letter from its Jail, and culminates in the March on Washington. It’s not just King, but the whole movement. You get to know Bob Moses and a very young John Lewis. You spend time with the Bobby and Jack Kennedy, struggling to comprehend what’s happening in the South. It’s the perfect detailed and surprising re-telling of a story you thought you knew so well.

The first time I read Parting the Waters I thought about how far we’d come. This time I thought only about how much further there is to go. I was deep in these pages as the grand jury decisions came back on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. I was reading about white southern juries necessitating federal civil rights legislation as contemporary northern grand juries were inspiring debate about whether we needed to invoke those laws again. The former felt so far away in the past— lynching can’t happen any more, can it? But the present day stood up and mocked this at every turn. Our playfield remains far from level.

Buy and read this book because it is so important to understand how we got to where we are today and what it might take to move us even further.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

December 21, Amtrak from New York to Boston: The first time I read Catch-22 it blew my tiny teenaged mind. That lazily drifting prose that could bring you from tale into another like the shifting of a beach dune— I loved it. An oral history delivered by a fast-talking, easily-distracted scatterbrain. Today it felt a little less revolutionary. My colleague Victoria and I had a conversation about this this past week and she remarked “That’s why they assign you a book like that when you’re a teenager, because it will blow your mind.” Today, of course, it doesn’t quite.

Partly the book is disappointed by memory. If you know Snowden’s secret, waiting for that reveal doesn’t hold the same tension. If you remember where Orr goes, you don’t miss him when he’s gone. Or that gruesome scene on the beach, every time you’re at the beach you’re dreading it. The book is also ruined by movies. Not necessarily the film adaption— I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. But the 101,000 absurdist comedies that completely replicate the tone and frenetic energy of the novel. You can’t not see this as a film in your head and you can’t not imagine Bill Murray in the lead. I would venture 75% of successful 1980s comedy was Catch-22 in a different setting with different characters.

All of that said, I really enjoyed reading it again. I love the prose. I would giggle at the funny bits. The heart-wrenching parts still proved just as heart-wrenching. And the perspective shifted as my age passed their immortal twenties and they went from faraway adults to kids in my eyes. Kids in the worst of situations in the worst of ages. I pitied them completely.

Read Catch-22 again. It’s totally worth it!

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

December 6, New York: How powerful the reversal of dominant narrative perspective? Such a simple idea and yet in Things Fall Apart, so expertly delivered. This was one of the few novels I was assigned in high school that really shook me. They’re all supposed to; they shoot these books at you like buckshot and hope that one or two break through to each of you, even if they’re not the same ones. It as Achebe for me. It was the absolutely tranquil village and the perfectly human and complex Okonkwo and the vast bulk of the book you spend getting to know and love it all before the swift decline. It’s important to seek different perspective, I learned then from this book. It is important to question dominant narratives.

If this book was not one of the ones the shot you through with perspective when you first read it in your teenaged years, you should buy it and go back and try again. It’ll be worth it, I promise.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

November 17, Flying from JFK to SFO:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

That first line gives me shivers it’s so good. And when the end of this book came, sneaking up on me like the cyclone its pages describe, I had chills too. I cannot imagine a better written book. A book that succeeds in being so satisfying, so true, and so beautiful all wrapped up in itself like a perfect gift.

I started reading this book for the first time in a patch of warm sunlight in the grass of Golden Gate Park. The sun was warm in the chill air, the scent of eucalyptus was all around, the book itself had roughly-cut pages and a worn cover, a totally satisfying tactile experience. It was one of the few moments in my life marked for feeling perfectly content. I’ve done encyclopedic journaling of the low points, but this moment sticks out as a clear-headed happy brief second. This was right before Jill and I began dating. It was important to be happy on my own, and I was, alone in the park that day.

Jill began reading One Hundred Years of Solitude not long after we started dating. She picked it up in my apartment and started to make her way through it. One day, near the end, we had a cataclysmic fight and very nearly broke up. I forbid her to finish the book. Still to this day, there is a prohibition on completing this book.

That’s the beauty of this novel. It not just pulls you into that world of solitude, but Marquez’s world bleeds over into your own. The fantastical, the cyclical nature, it pulls its way from the pages into your everyday. Dangerous in that way like all the best books. And don’t we all need a little magic in our lives?

I like to remember enjoying this book so much because it came with that happy moment. From the fore, I neglected to think of this book as one of my favorites, because I assumed it was situational. I was wrong. In this case it is a reversal of the Thirty-Three Project narrative. I went into this full of suspicions about the temporal satisfaction of my first read, only to find that this is the perfect book. Rock solid in the top five of my canon.

You need a little magic in your life. Buy this book and read it or re-read it in the sun.

The Odyssey by Homer

November 9, New York: The Odyssey was that rare schoolbook that was assigned multiple times over multiple years. I read it once in high school and then I think twice in college. I was fully sick of it on the last reading, rolling my eyes mightily and gesturing with my brows. That final reading was by far the best.

At USC I enrolled in the honors program called “Thematic Option”, which offered cross-discipline classes by extraordinarily talented professors. (One of those classes read Lolita.) The Odyssey was taught in one of these classes, paired with The Iliad and taught by Professor Anthony Kemp. The class was designed to give us as much context around the epics as possible. It was incredible. And all fueled by Kemp who, despite being the mightiest of classics nerds, was one of the most animated professors I’ve ever had and would, in fact, reenact sections of these stories like Hector being chased around the walls of Troy, screaming with a high pitched voice around the classroom. We went deeply into the Greek in these classes, and learned words like nostos or homecoming, the thing Odysseus desires most above all things.

The Odyssey is a masterfully constructed narrative. We are introduced to the story through a supporting character, the goddess Athene, who brings us to our hero. We meet him near the end of his story, and we see it all unfold in flashback. Meanwhile there is the parallel story of the Telemachy and then the final story with the suitors. This is no hard-driving tale from start to finish, it is stories within stories and timelines folded back on themselves.

We learned also in our class that one prevailing theory of The Odyssey was that though Homer may have written all this down, these stories were of an oral tradition, sung by the singers with their lyres. We even see, in the house of the king of the Phaikans, one such singer tell stories of The Iliad as one if its heroes listens and weeps. There were these epics, but in a given night the audience would hear only some part. “Singer, tell us the about Odysseus sailing unscathed past the Sirens!” Like a favorite pop song demanded from the wedding DJ.

The theory then extends that the oft-repeated phrases like “his armor clattering thunderously around him” or “resourceful Odysseus” or “white-armed Nausikaa”, these were all syllable fillers to help the singer keep thr rhythm. It’s not that the story was memorized as we read it in Homer, but rather the singers knew the thrust of the narrative and wove together these building blocks of syllables. In that way that you would always follow a “Throw your hands in the air” with a “and wave them like you just don’t care.”

Oh sure, you’ve read The Odyssey. But it buy it and read again. Buy the Lattimore, only the Lattimore, and Zeus, son of Kronos will look upon you with pleasure.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

November 4, New York: What I remembered most vividly about Invisible Man was the setting of the Prologue: in that forgotten subbasement, surrounded by the blindingly bright white lights. And the declaration of invisibility, I remember that clearly as well. But most of the rest of the book was a re-discovery and a thoroughly enjoyable one.

I was particularly taken with how funny the book was. Sure, it’s a bitter funny, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the entirety of the scene in the paint factory. Mixing the black in to make a perfect white. The lone black man in the basement who is the only one who knows who to make the perfect white paint. And of course the twinned lines: “‘If it’s optic white it’s the right white.’ If you’re white you’re right.”

You cannot overstate the importance of this book. And particularly, in reading it, to think about the millions of college kids who found this on their reading lists and saw the world from the invisible perspective. But it’s also such an enviably well-written book. The thematic threads that track throughout are so powerful (the pocket and then the briefcase, filling up with hated artifacts like the broken chain gang link and the Sambo paper doll). And the striking visual scenes Ellison conjures are indelible. The final fight with Ras, for example. Or the mayhem in the Golden Day. Ellison writes in the Introduction that he wrote the Battle Royale scene (augh, what an incredible and bile-inducing scene) and had it published as its own story, but was then worried that he couldn’t recapture that magic. He needn’t have worried.

There have been and still are plenty of things wrong with this country (as learned in the recent re-reading of Howard Zinn’s book), but I do thoroughly appreciate that our culture can produce, then appreciate, then teach from a book like this. That, in the end, a beautifully rendered human experience can capture the imagination away from prejudice.

Buy Invisible Man, which you read once long ago, and re-read it. Trust me, you’ll love it even more.

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

November 2, An Amtrak from WAS to NYP: I love history. It was one of my favorite subjects (turns out it’s just a narrative) all the way through middle and high school. So much so, in fact, that even when my high school didn’t offer an AP World History, I studied for the test and took it anyway. (I think I got a 3.)

Having had all that history schoolin’, I remember it as an unalloyed treasure to discover Howard Zinn’s essentially alternate history of the American story. Flipping the perspective on the big moments (what did it look like from the beach as Columbus sailed up) and highlighting the events that didn’t make the AP US History test (we spent very little time on the Wobblies, for some reason). This is such important data. Even if you don’t agree with Zinn’s politics, he is writing about topics that in their time shaped our country but have since been left out.

It was great to re-read this today and is exactly the type of book I want to return to.

Read this book! It’s interesting!

Control of Nature by John McPhee

October 18, New York: I am tempted to take a whole year and read every single John McPhee book. I love his writing. (I love it so much that when he wrote about writing for the New Yorker, I made copies to distribute to friends.) And I love his subjects. He could make anything fascinating, but his true genius is in finding the things that surround us that are already endlessly fascinating. Control of Nature is special because it gives us not one but three of those stories.

I connect strongly with each of these stories, can imagine them visually and experience them viscerally. “Atchafalaya” is about the fight to keep the Mississippi River in its current path through Louisiana, where I am from. “Cooling the Lava” is about beating back an emerging volcano in Iceland, where I’ve visited. And “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” is about the battle with landslides in the neighborhoods on the north side of the city where I’ve lived the longest in my adult life.

I first read Control of Nature as a college sophomore (this and another McPhee book specifically about California) in a class that took us exploring around California’s varied geologies. It was a wonderful class with some great texts. A few of which remained in my library, still bearing their yellow “Used” stickers. This one stuck in my mind the most. Possibly it was the pre-existing Louisiana connection? Or that combined with the fact that every clear day I could look north to see the San Gabriel’s of Los Angeles’ enmity in the third piece?

Whatever it was, this book had the eerie power of remaining near to the top of my mind, always in accessible memory, not in the dusty difficult-to-reach bits like most books. And it inspired adventures. I once cajoled my uncle to fly me over Louisiana’s Old River Control Structure in his six-seater plane. I once traveled to Iceland and walked over the lava fields. And when a good friend’s house in the Glendale hills was threatened in a big rain, I insisted to come over and help him dig ditches in the mud. He declined in the end.

If anyone wants to start a John McPhee book club next year, I’m in. We just might have to do some traveling, too.

You can buy this and all the John McPhee books from that big bookstore in the cloud.

The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 1, New York: I can easily say Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Genet’s mastery of the prosaic meditation is extraordinary, even in translation. The book, an autobiography of a life’s moments, travels the synapses of recollection and reconsideration in the most gorgeous sentences.

I can also easily say The Thief’s Journal is one of the gayest books I’ve ever read. In it, Genet recounts his life as a thief and as a homosexual, the latter in extraordinary physical detail. It was published in a time when a first person account of both of those was shocking. And it is the beauty of the book crossed with the supposed vileness (let’s call it “other-ness”) of its themes that make it a work of genius.

When I first read Genet, I was in Europe with a group of male friends. I don’t remember who brought this book, but we all passed it around and read it on trains and in bus stations. We all shared the experience of being seduced by Genet’s depiction of his life as a homosexual. On every third page, it seemed, was another exquisite and explicit portrait of gay sex. We all shared the experience of our faces turning pink behind the cover of this book in public places. And more, unlike most young, heterosexual American men, we had provided ourselves with a readymade discussion group to talk about how the book affected us. None of us discovered we had been gay the whole time, there was no closet-exiting or drunken experimentation, but we all grew a little closer to a conceptual Other.

The book is still beautiful, but that experience was hardly revelatory on this reading. I think it made the book less interesting then I remembered it. There was more of a struggle to get through the 268 pages of lengthy meandering meditations, albeit beautifully inked, to follow the plot. I found myself more intrigued by the other Other Genet offers: the thief. I don’t think I’ve ever seen villainy in homosexuality, but it’s certainly the character I would ascribe to the muggers and pimps and burglars Genet describes. And he wraps them in this exquisite lace, these beautiful anti-heroes (barely -heroes, even), gushes with true and honest love for them and dares you to love them too.

Do. Go ahead and love them all. Buy a copy of the Thief’s Journal.

City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 30, New York: I’ve never been very good at reading poetry. I don’t say I’ve never liked poetry or that poetry has done me some offense, no, it’s just that I rarely have the patience for it. I do not read and reflect, I read for volume. I read for progress made. I consume prose, rarely do I marinate.

One of the few times I broke that was hurtling around Europe on trains at 19. I kept this book tucked close to me in a man purse (a camo green Army surplus bag) next to my writing notebook and whatever novel I was reading. No matter how often the novel changed, this book remained a constant. The pace of life for that six weeks was different; there was much time to kill across Europe. For once, I was happy to spend much of it reading these poems.

The City Light Pocket Poets Anthology is a compilation of beat and post-beat poems spanning multiple decades of City Lights’ history. There is Ginsberg and Kerouac, and also Frank O’Hara and Pablo Picasso and Malcolm Lowry. This little book is a treasure. When I first thumbed through it I still had never been to San Francisco; I hardly knew what City Lights was other than I knew Kerouac and Ginsberg and had heard Lawrence Ferlinghetti had been named the city’s poet laureate. The very first time I ever made it up to SF, long before I moved there or even thought of it, I made a pilgrimage to City Lights. Originally, it was for this book, but I fell in love with the store. When I moved to San Francisco, I’d try to go at least once every couple of months.


Photo by Ris Rosko, from here.

This time, I read this book all wrong. I am in the middle of a reading sprint! I am measured by books completed! So I would open this guy up on the subway, struggle with a poem or two and then just begin to page through, scanning. Terrible poetry reading! Ultimately I focused on reconnecting with old favorites.

“Mexican Loneliness” by Jack Kerouac: “And I am an unhappy stranger / grooking in the streets of Mexico—”

“Why I Choose Black Men for My Lovers” by La Loca: “In 1967 I stepped through a windowpane / and I got real / I saw Mother Earth and Big Brother / and / I clipped my roots which choked in the / concrete / of Sunset Boulevard”

“Why is God Love, Jack” by Allen Ginsberg: ” Because I lay my / head on pillows, / Because I weep in the / tombed studio”

I discovered a handful of new poems this time around, which is actually one correct way to read this book. Of course, my Neal Cassady theme made a heart-shot out of “Elegy for Neal Cassady” by Allen Ginsberg: “Kesey’s in Oregon writing novel language / family farm alone. / Hadja no more to do? Was your work all done? / Had ya seen your first son? / Why’dja leave us all here? / Has the battle been won?”. And I loved Kenneth Patchen and Jacques Prévert and really, really liked “Room 5600″ by Ernesto Cardenal, all about the Rockefellers: “They had a happy childhood on the banks of the Hudson / on a 3500-acre estate / with 11 mansions and 8 swimming pools / and 1500 servants / and a great house of toys / but when they grew up they moved into Room 5600 / (actually the 55th and 56th floors of the tallest skyscraper / at Rockefeller Center) / where hundreds and hundreds of foundations and corporations / are managed like / —what truly is— / a single fortune.

Perhaps then, it is not that I read this book the wrong way, because this is how I believe one can appreciate poetry: groping around for the gem that catches you. To be between 34th Street Herald Square and 28th Street on the N/R and suddenly be bowled over by a line like “See how those stars tramp over heaven on their sticks/Of ancient light” (Patchen). Now if only I was reading poetry on the subway every day. I hereby resolve to have a bit more poetry in the 66 Project.

Buy the City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology straight from the source itself.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 21, New York: When I was 19, I went to Europe. It had been a bad year, maybe a bad couple, and the summer rolled around and my high school friends and I had scraped together and borrowed enough money to take a six week trip to Europe. We had plane tickets, Eurail passes, big backpacks, and wild ambitions. Our great inspiration was The Sun Also Rises, so we had to go to Spain and we had to bring some Hemingway. This was the book we chose.

Our itinerary, loosely recalled: Joey and I flew into Madrid; took a bus to Pamplona where we walked the medieval walls and drank far too much red wine; took a bus to San Sebastian and the TGV to Paris then a train to Cherbourg and a ferry to Portsmouth and a bus/ferry combo to Dublin; in Dublin we picked up Jonathan and kissed a girl or two and then we flew to Amsterdam; we did the thing 19 year old Americans did in Amsterdam at that time and we left; in Paris I moved in with a French girl for a week (this is not a lie) and Chris joined us and then things didn’t really work out with the French girl and I fled; by train we went to Prague, which was amazing, and two spots in the Czech countryside; then a whirlwind through Vienna, Florence, and Rome, where we were ripped off by a hotel but took baths, glorious hot baths, and drank ice cold red wine on a hot summer night; then back to Madrid after a brief French Riveria stop and Joey and I had one final night together in the Spanish capital and we got shitty drunk and relieved ourselves on some government property while guards yelled and gave chase and we ran away as quickly as we could to America.

It was a hell of a trip.

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One of the most important packing decisions we made was what media to consume, what books to bring with. A Moveable Feast was on the top of our list. It was one of maybe a dozen books we shared between us and all read by the end of the trip. And it was exactly the magic of what we wanted from a trip to Europe. Seeing Paris and reading about Hemingway’s Paris, together, is magical. (It is also, to my adult eyes, the very definition of cliché, but we forgive our younger selves some things.)

I half blame this book for nearly not coming home from that trip. The French girl I met, fell in love with, and moved in with— she was going to support me while I wrote books in Paris. In her top floor apartment in Montmartre. I mean, come on. Ripped from these pages. I wrote my mother a beautiful letter explaining that I wasn’t coming home and my wise friends forbade me sending it until it had been at least, I don’t know, a week. And it turned out to be unsurprisingly tempestuous and that was all a part of it until it ended. (On her side, she was on the rebound from a multi-year relationship; we were both playing out narratives on one another.)

Reading A Moveable Feast today still has the same power, the same impact, to make me want to move to Paris or to move to any place in exile and live there in the truest possible way. I’ve never known exactly what that means— “truest”— other than I hope I’d know it when I felt it, sort of like Hemingway did. The great lesson I took from the book and from the trip on which I first read it was how powerful a change of scenery can be. To be in a new place, in a foreign place, is inspiring in so many ways. And reading this book again, today, I want it again. I want that right now. For real.

Buy, own, cherish this book.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 16, New York: Oh Lolita, Lola, Lo. This clever little book that so many have loved and hated. I read it in college, like so many others, and instantly fell into ironic love with its premise and actual love with its prose. It’s a perfect book for cocky nineteen year old pseudo-intellectuals to whom “banned book” is about the funniest phrase in North America. How sweet it was to offend. My college class was called “Deviance” and in it we discussed “the monster” in various forms, scattered across a steady drumbeat of books, discussed by the class weekly. Lolita was supposed to occupy two or three weeks of class time. We easily spent six dissecting it. We spent one entire class period debating, as a group, whether or not Humbert Humbert achieves orgasm in the scene when Lolita first sits upon his lap.

Reading this as a full adult the answer is clearly yes. It’s obvious that he, stealthily concealed behind flowery language, does indeed climax and then hide it from the child. And it is terribly uncomfortable to read. Which ended up being much of my experience of reading Lolita this time around. It started off so clever (and so well-written!) and then it became an absolute horror. Exceptionally disturbing.

This is a part of Nabokov’s genius— and I think he does so very consciously— to draw the reader in with such beautifully gilded prose and then from time to time remind with a brutal, physical detail. Paragraphs of love showered upon Lolita with a quick sentence or two that hints at awful rape, almost so slight a mention as to be missed. The beautiful American scenery marred by the horror of the nights spent in motels; the pastoral time spent at Beardsley College blackened by the monetary exchange for child sex.

Yes, it was still worth reading and yes, it’s an incredible book. But I no longer felt titillated. I was no longer gleefully in on the secret that was Lolita; there’s a big difference between the ironic indifference of 19 and the sympathies I’ve developed at 33. Mercifully, Nabokov gives us a scene toward the end where Humbert himself recognizes the monster in himself, and that makes it a bit better. But man oh man, this was a hard book to read.

And yes, how did they ever make a movie out of Lolita, which was this movie’s tagline?

Buy Lolita. If you’re reading it again, know it will have changed on you. If you’re reading it for the first time… well, I warned you.

The Immoralist by Andre Gide

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 13, SFO-JFK: Andre Gide begins his book with an author’s note that apologizes for his main character. Or perhaps, preemptively defends. He pleads with the reader that the character and the author’s purpose have been misconstrued. Not hard to imagine. The Immoralist spins a tale of Michel, a disaffected young man who is unimpressed by the norms of society at the start and has no desire to get close to God. As the book unfolds, he descends into immorality in a first person narrative that brings you through it with him.

The trick of it all, of course, is that Gide writes beautifully. That Michel’s narrative is easy to internalize because of the beauty of his description. And of course, through our modern lens (in which so many of us have an unfamiliarity with God) Michel’s ‘descent’ can also be seen as a ‘journey’ of self-discovery.

Oddly, the narrative of the monster is not what I took from this book. That place in my canon is held by Lolita. This was my “tuberculosis is romantic” book. Both Michel’s illness and then his wife Marceline’s, both so beautifully rendered in prose, were the first I’d read of the romance of illness. A ridiculous sentiment. In reading this book now, the biology of their suffering is so crisply detailed and thus frightening.

Buy The Immoralist from the Internet.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 8, JFK-SFO: Didion writes an exquisite exploration of deep, deep sadness and depression. Maria (“Mar-eye-ah”) Wyeth is a beautiful film actress with a director husband and a house in 1970s Beverly Hills. She is also in the midst of a slow, slow slide into absolute catatonic depression. Her daughter is very sick, her marriage and friendships offer no succor, her career is at a standstill, and she has already made a habit out of spending each day just driving the freeways of Los Angeles before she has the abortion that then begins to plague her mentally.

I identified with this book when I read it. This was the sort of absolute rock bottom I thought I was aspiring to. Another of the badges of sadness I wanted to hang on my lapel. This is a dangerous book. Weaponized in the hands of the lonely and depressed. Do not lend this book to your friends who you think will identify with it. They will.

It’s also a fantastic book. Such a sharply illustrated picture of the emotional emptiness of the sex-and-drugs Hollywood glamor lifestyle. Of course Maria Wyeth is depressed: her family is a wreck, her friends are all terrible people, their libertine lifestyle is completely empty and destructive.

There was a beat at the very end that I missed in my reading until this time. In the final pages, as BZ readies to off himself, he explains to Maria that the two of them know something special: what it is like to feel nothing. At the end, Maris explains to the reader that BZ saw nothing and wanted to quit. But she learned, while learning craps from her father, to play it where it lays. And so she’ll keep playing, staring that nothing in the face. The strangest of up-notes to end this book on.

Play it as It Lays is available for purchase at your local internet superstore.

History of Sexuality, vol. 1 by Michel Foucault

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 7, New York: This is one of those books that has hung around in my collection since the first reading. And a good one for it, because my copy is full of notes. Notes of a young mind! Sadly, this book feel victim to a rainstorm. I read it in this condition but I’m afraid this will be its final read.

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If only this had happened to my copy of Paper Machine, I could have written a whole thing about it.

I love this book and Michel Foucault in two separate ways. First, let’s be honest: I love this book as a nineteen year old pseudo-intellectual who felt so proud of himself reading lines like: “An entire medico-sexual regime took hold of the family milieu.” Yeah! And perhaps most importantly, who loved telling the ladies he was into Foucault. It was, in this sense, a sort of shibboleth of pseudo-intellectual hooking-it-up.

But I also love Foucault as a reader. The first book of his I read was Discipline and Punish, which for once presented a thesis that was built upon an multiplicity of sources, few of which were academic. He wove works of art and poetry into a contemplative tome about prisons. This was the way I’d always aspired to write academically. By the time I finished college, my best papers were a pastiche of source texts from pop culture to history to tarot cards. But I first read Foucault before I had a professor that would let me write that way. So he represented a great hope for me.

With History of Sexuality, I had another totally different experience. As I struggled to maintain focus enough to follow the polysyllabic logic from page to page, I suddenly realized I completely grokked the theory of power Foucault was presenting. And better yet, I’d seen it elsewhere: the final chapter of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I felt like the smartest little motherfucker on campus. (It was then that I was introduced to The Hedgehog and the Fox.)

To be honest, the first way of loving Foucault persisted long after the second. I would read a book on occasion for pleasure (actually finding pleasure in it) but more and more Foucault, like Baudrillard and Debord and Zizek— I wanted to be a man who identified with these authors. And I was always a sucker for the women whose bookshelves they adorned.

Married now and reading this book, I was content to enjoy just the prose. And you know what? I did immensely.

Buy yourself a beret, an espresso machine, and a copy of The History of Sexuality, volume 1.