Thursday, December 13, 2007

Moving on Down The Road

Tales of a post-apocalyptic world where survivors must struggle to keep their lives, and humanity, in tact have always been a favorite of mine, and as long as they have an original story and unique voice, they rarely go out of style for very long. The general themes are usually similar; a small group of people fight against overwhelming odds for their survival, and a new beginning for humankind. These stories tend to be deeply metaphorical, turning a mirror on each of us, making us consider just who we really are as people. At bottom, these tales demonstrate to us that what will always survive is not our piles of possessions or monuments to our own egos and intellects, but the indomitable human spirit, and our unflinching need to continue on.

"The Road" by Cormac Mccarthy is just one of these stories. The story takes us on the journey of a father and son making their way west years after the world they knew was consumed in flames. Their journey is slow going, the two trudging through the winter snow and falling ash with their meager belongings stuffed inside a found shopping cart. Each step along the way is carefully chosen, the father doing the best he can to keep himself and his young son out of danger. They constantly teeter on the brink of starvation and death, taking whatever they can scavenge from abandoned towns and homes. While the father carries a pistol for their protection, the single remaining bullet is being saved for a final moment of desperation.

As the story moves on, we see the relationship between the father and son evolve. The young son, at times a regular frightened young boy, and at others surprisingly compassionate and brave, looks to his father for guidance and hope as the road they travel begins to look more and more desperate. The father, who's concern is only for the pairs survival, takes no risks in confronting or engaging the few people they find along the way. The boy, however, in a few surprising moments of bravery, pleads with his father to help some of the destitute people they find along the way, including another young boy they see in the window of an abandoned home. The world the two find themselves in causes the father to see the world in a very fatalistic manner, trusting no one, taking no chances on compassion or charity for the people they encounter. But the boy begins to show him that, even in this world burnt and covered in a thick layer of ash, that the lives they encounter along the way are just as fragile and valuable as theirs.

Something does need to be said here for the prose; after all, this novel did win the Pulitzer Prize. One would expect a story about a gray and barren world to be sparsely written, and this novel is no exception. However, successfully styling prose in this fashion is a tough challenge, and sadly Mccarthy just was not up to the task. For this sort of style to work, it must be sparse yet clearly descriptive in places, which is where the author was lacking in this novel. The writing is sparse to a fault, and Mccarthy's insistence on using short, dry sentences and omitting punctuation borders on infuriating. Because Mccarthy seems to have the magical ability to turn his books into Oscar-winning movies, we will have to wait and see what a screen writer can make of this story, and trust that they can do it justice.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Familiar Situation

Few of us in "Gen X" or "Gen Y" know about the historical conflicts and ongoing strife in El Salvador. Many of us have no idea that our government helped finance and arm revolutionary forces in that country; forces that eventually formed death squads and militias that continue to terrorize the people to this day. It is a situation, sad to say, that is being repeated today in the middle east with the attempted democratization of Iraq. As Peter Maass of The New York Times Magazine said, "The template for Iraq today is not Vietnam, with which it has often been compared, but El Salvador."

I try, difficult as it may be, to remain politically neutral in this blog, wanting to focus on the literature and not my own or any one Else's political inclinations. But when one reads a book like David Corbett's "Blood of Paradise", it becomes impossible to remain neutral. The backdrop for this unrelenting and brutal story is modern El Salvador, where militias and death squads terrorize innocent people and the corrupt government is run by the wealthy minority. This government, by all appearances was formed by "free elections" set up by none other than the US government. When the elections went sideways and the puppet party supported by the US did not win, the US turned its allegiance to the opposing party, made up of many of the remaining members of the former military and dictatorship. The people of El Salvador continue to try to hold free elections, but the militias and death squads terrorize the civilians into keeping the ARENA party in power, or staying away from the polls all together.

Corbett's story takes Jude McManus, an Executive Protection Specialist, or bodyguard, working in El Salvador when he is visited by a ghost from his father's past. This ghost, who may or may not be on the run from the long arm of the US law, manages to talk Jude into helping him in a scheme with dubious motivations. Jude's father was a police officer in Chicago involved a decade ago in a police scandal that left him dead, one officer disgraced, and Bill Mavasio, Jude's ghost, on the lamb. Malvasio is the perfect noir villain; at times likable and sympathetic, but ultimately devious and pure evil. He is, as it turns out, the mastermind villain behind the enormous body count in Corbett's "Done for a Dime".

Jude's assignment is to protect a hydrologist who is studying aquifer draw-down linked to a bottling plant in El Salvador. The parties with vested interest in this bottling plant and the money it represents are the heartless and terrifying people who have enlisted the help of Bill Malvasio to ensure that the plans for the expansion of the bottling plant do not face any opposition. These people, the rich and powerful minority of the country, care only for their own interests, and nothing for the welfare of the desperately poor majority who have no recourse when their resources and livelihoods are threatened. Those that try to use their voice to effect change when their water supply dries up end up kidnapped, murdered, or both. And this is where Malvasio comes in.

Malvasio's devious plot to eliminate the hydrologist Jude is protecting, keep his bosses happy, and protect his own hide pulls Jude into a roiling quagmire that will force him to make heartbreaking sacrifices and ultimately fight for his life. The story culminates in a brutal shoot-out with tragic results. The story of Jude's unfortunate path and internal conflicts is told with stark clarity by Corbett, who adapted it loosely from the Greek tragedy "Philoctetes" by Socrates. Corbett's language is heartbreaking, brutal and uncompromising, forcing the reader to turn each page faster and faster as the pace of the story quickens. Every so often a book comes along that makes you sweat with anticipation while you read it and itch to get back to it while you are not. "Blood of Paradise" just so happens to be one of those books.

David Corbett is a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, and can be seen at literary events and readings around the city. His other two novels are "The Devil's Readhead" and "Done for a Dime", both available in trade paperback.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Quake, Rattle, & Roll

Last week saw the 8th annual Litquake, a festival of literature, books, words, and oh so much more. We didn't get to see all the events, that would have taken the ability to be in many places at once and probably more hours than there are in a day, but we made it to a couple quality readings that will, inevitably cause me to purchase more books. Not that I needed another excuse.

Noah Levine is a Buddhist teacher and counselor who has found his path through a life of trials and tribulations. He is exceptionally traditional in his take on Buddhist teachings, but you would not know it by looking at him. Levine's head is shaved to the skin, he is covered head to toe in tattoos, and can be seen riding around the freeways of L.A. on a motorcycle. He has spent most of his life in the Punk Rock scene, and has reconciled the angry rebellious angst of that movement with the revolutionary teachings of Buddhism and has begun sharing his own message, both through meditation groups around the country and especially in juvenile halls and prisons. His first book, "Dharma Punx", is his autobiography, detailing how, from a youth spent as a law-breaking punk he found a new path in the teachings of Buddhism. His second book, "Against the Stream" is the world of Buddhism as seen through Levine's eyes, a traditional message delivered by a exceptionally un-traditional man. We saw him at the Roxie Movie Theater in conversation with the Chronicle's columnist Mark Morford, who questioned Levine on everything from his past, his present, and both of his books. Time to find enlightenment.

That was Thursday. Skip to Saturday, to the culminating event known as Lit-Crawl. With a cold Anchor Steam in hand, we settled against the wall in the standing room only Casanova Lounge to listen to travel writers share their adventures abroad. We heard stories ranging from braving a blizzard in Antarctica, to the market places in Timbuktu, Mali, Africa, (yes, there is such a place as Timbuktu), to the back alleys of Saigon. Next, we jumped to one of my favorite places, 826 Valencia, where just inside, past the pirate store, the kids of 826 read some of their pieces in the new 826 Quarterly. The kids were great; such amazing imaginations and such a variety of styles for people so young.

Last, but certainly not least, we settled into a booth at the Makeout Room for the authors of Mcadam Cage, one of San Francisco's top independent publishers. I was really there for just one writer, Craig Clevenger, but found a couple more authors I might need to check out soon. Clevenger, author of "Dermaphoria" and "The Contortionist's Handbook", is working on his third novel, titled "St. Heretic". Unfortunately, though, he did not read from this unpublished work, but from a short story he had written. It was, to say the least, very Clevenger-esque. The effect was most clearly expressed on my fiance's face, a look that just said "What?" He has that effect sometimes. For those interested in historical lit, Janis Cooke Newman's debut novel "Mary" tells the story of Mary Todd Lincoln after her husband's assassination. May be a little dry for some, but could be a great story for those who like to revel in the past.

A few beers down and the night over, we trudged back up to our car and out of the mission. It was a good night, all in all, a bunch of authors, a pile of books, some good, some not as good. I've got a lot of reading to do.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Does Memory Serve?

How much of your memory is truth, and how much of it is imaginary? Are the details of your life, how you met your first love, the first time you rode your bike on your own, or the first time you stole something, a creation of your imagination, or did it really happen that way? Could those memories that have shaped your life up to this point be, at least in part, completely fictional?

In "Dermaphoria", Craig Clevenger's sophomore effort, the lines between truth & fiction, memory and imagination, past and present become tangled and twisted into an inscrutible mess. As the book moves along, the memory of its main character becomes clearer and clearer, but you can never be sure if what he remembers is truth, or if the pieces of the puzzle are falling into the wrong places.

Eric Ashworth, a brilliant mind who's path leads him into clandestine chemistry, wakes to find himself in jail, badly burned, and no memory of what got him there. Slowly, with the assistance of shadowy new friends and illicit chemicals, he begins to piece his sad past together. While experimenting in his lab, Ashworth discovers a way to synthesise a new drug that becomes the new big thing on the street, and the big drug rings want a piece. Ashworth becomes a big piece in the drug racket, until it all goes wrong one night.

The beauty of "Dermaphoria" is the disjointed accounts of memory playing against the scattered and paranoid world of the present. As Ashworth begins to figure out who he was, his world begins to unravel, and the only thing he can remember he truly loved becomes an obsession. This obsession, a woman called "Desiree", may only be a figment of his imagination, but his consuming desire to find her pulls him deeper into the abyss. Finally, the world comes into sharp focus, and Ashworth does the only thing he can to put things right again, and finally find Desiree.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

In Honor of an Anniversary...

As the anniversary of September 11th approaches, I felt it would be appropriate to discuss one of the years best novels, "Falling Man" by Don Delillo. Falling Man is a look into the lives of the survivors of the attacks on that day; a very personal and sorrowful look at what the attacks on our country did to the minds and souls of the people who felt the heat from the fires and the earth trembling under their feet. The novel is disjointed and fragmented, each of the characters attempting to put the pieces of their lives back together but not knowing quite exactly how.

The novel follows Keith Neudecker, a man who was working in the towers when they were struck, as he finds himself on his ex-wife's doorstep on that morning broken and bloody, covered in ash, and not knowing how he got there. Each character, from Keith, his wife, his son, and the people around them all try to find in themselves the world that existed before the attacks; but find only a changed world filled with fear, paranoia and constant vigilance on the skies above. Keith's wife, Lianne, seeks solace in a group of Alzheimer patients she helps out each week, listening to them pour their thoughts and emotions onto paper before they are forgotten forever. Keith, trying to find a connection to someone or something familiar, begins an affair with a woman who also survived the attacks, seeking the familiarity and commiseration of the shared experience, while also attempting to reconcile with his estranged wife. Ultimately, Kieth begins a career as a professional poker player, cherishing the instability and feeling of recklessness that world provided him.

Simultaneously, the novel flashes to scenes with Hammad, a young Islamic man who ultimately turns out to be one of the hijackers. The world Hammad lives in is not viewed sympathetically, only realistically as Hammad and his co-conspirators plan and train for their attack. The young men listen to and follow the fanatical teachings of their leader, who decisively pulls his recruits deeper and deeper into the suicidal mindset of the separatist sect. Ultimately, Hammad finds himself on the airplane as it strikes the North Tower, forcing his story to join the story of Kieth Neudecker, who fights through fire, rubble and smoke, watching his coworkers crushed by building debris, to find himself alive outside the burning tower.

Falling Man, which gets it's name from the famous photograph taken of the man falling from the tower, and the performance artist who mimicked that photo afterward and who appears several times in the novel, is so superbly crafted that it will go on the top of my list of favorite books this year. Delillo has managed to create a world in which it is not Us versus Them, but just us, trying to survive, trying to cope and trying to find a way to understand the world again.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Earth Will Move...

Ladies and Gentlman, boys and girls, prepare yourselves. The literary world is once again going to rumble under the well worn soles of bibliophies from across the bay area as they converge onto San Francisco for one week in October. That's right everyone, Litquake is back, as big and as bad as it has ever been. Litquake '07 rolls into town from October 6th to 13th, hosting such names as Dave Eggars, Amy Tan, Daniel Handler, and underground favorite Michelle Tea. Events venues range from the lovely Herbst Theater on Van Ness to the dank, dark dive bars of the Tenderloin.

The festival showcases writers across all genres and styles, from travel writing to science fiction to feminist fiction and even a literary death match. The whole shebang ends with a wild and crazy night of literary themed parties and readings; a staggering jaunt down Valencia Street called the Lit Crawl. Needless to say, there is something here for everyone to enjoy, this is not just for us bookies who can never seem to keep our nose out of the spine of a novel. Most events are free of charge, and take place in bookstores, bars, libraries and even laudromats, but a few larger events will take place in theaters and will require a fee for admittance.

Get off of your couches for one week in October and hit the town. The world can be a big scary place, but finding a great book and a fun group of people to share it with can make it a bit more bareable. Who knew books could be so cool?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

This thing's a little dusty...

I am a horrible person. Ok, maybe not horrible, but I feel bad. I have been neglecting my happy little book blog for the last couple of weeks while lavishing all of my attention on my ever-so-slightly sexier foodie blog, Six by 10 Tiny Kitchen. I really have to dust off this thing and make it shiny and new again. To be fair, the foodie blog world is mushrooming, and I have gotten caught up in all of the excitement. But the world of books and words is my world, and could never forget my first love. So I hope to be paying a bit more attention to this little piece of the blogosphere in the next coming weeks, adding some content, pictures, links, etc. There is a lot of great stuff going on in the world of literature, and I hope to inform you all about as much of it as humanly possible. For now though, I want to share with you all the last and final chapter of the "Night Watch" trilogy, "Twilight Watch".

In this final chapter of the Russian sci-fi trilogy, the two worlds of dark and light must join forces, however reluctantly, to battle a strangely powerful new foe that threatens to destroy the world of the Others and maybe take the human world with it. Anton, our hero from "Night Watch" returns to lead the investigation into who is attempting to turn regular humans into Others, thought impossible by even the most powerful of the Watches. While on vacation with his family, he discovers the existence of a deceptively powerful witch who possesses many old magical books thought by the Others to be mythological. The world of the Others comes to a screeching halt when they discover that one of these tomes may very well hold the secret to changing humans into Others.

When the book is stolen from the Witches library, the hunt is on for the culprit, and the Night Watch and the Day Watch must team up with the Inquisition, the group of Others responsible for upholding the treaty between the two Watches, in order to find and subdue the rogue Other. The action begins to mount up about halfway through the novel, and weaves through a couple of tight twists and turns before reaching the end. It picks up several years after the final pages of "Day Watch", and spends the first several chapters getting you up to speed.

Readers of this series should be aware that this book is a translation from Russian, and many of the ideas and social commentary that would make sense to Russians may not have as much meaning for English speaking readers. Needless to say, some things get lost in translation. The book is, Russian, and certain social differences should be taken with an understanding that it was not written with an American point of view. Part of it may be the translation, but sometimes the lines feel a bit cold and lifeless. But, like I said, it is Russian. Not a very warm people.

The whole series really is a sci-fi masterpiece, and I can only hope that "Twilight Watch" is not the final chapter. There is so much more that can happen to the Others of Moscow, as Lukyanenko left the ending WIDE open for at least one more book. Any fans of sci-fi and fantasy would be doing themselves a disservice if they did not add these books to their libraries, and quickly.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Ktichen Confidential

If you see this man, keep your children away from him. He is a bad man. He is angry, vulgar, belligerent, and ill-tempered. He is also a world-class chef. He is Anthony Bourdain. Kitchen Confidential, his first delve into the world of auto-biography, is an un-polished and brutally honest look into the world of cooks and cooking, past the clean white linens and seemingly effortless dance of waitrons, cooks, busboys and maitre d's at your favorite restaurant. As Bourdain says himself, this is a book for cooks and about cooks. It is not meant to frighten the general public away from eating out or trying new and exciting foods. In fact, it is meant to do the opposite: Bourdain shows with clarity and honesty what it means to become a cook, to work as a cook, to know and love food; in essence to show just what it is like to be the person cooking YOUR food.

There are plenty of notable passages, paragraphs you will no doubt be repeating to your friends and loved ones when the subject of cooking or restaurants comes up; you will never be able to forget why for instance you should never order fish on Monday or why hollandaise sauce may not be such a good idea for breakfast after all. As an aspiring home cook and someone who loves to learn about food and cooking as much as I love to actually preparing food, and after reading this book, there is A LOT I have to learn.

Seeing as we all have to eat, and unless there are people out there who are willing to subsist on bland protein and starch combinations, we actually like to ENJOY whatever we push into our maws. So it seems to me that it would be in just about every one's interest to learn what happens to your food before it is set in front of you. Bourdain will take you there: He will gross you out, scare you a little, and you may not look at the people preparing your food the same way again. But he will also make you want more, and maybe just a little bit more adventurous. And maybe, just maybe, the next time you have the chance you might give those raw oysters or escargot a try. Maybe.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Middle of the story

The second story of a trilogy, some times called the "Empire" story for the greatest and most famous middle stories of any trilogy ever, can be and usually is a bit less exciting than the opening and closing and usually involve a whole lot of story. It is the book that always drives the action across the bridge from the dramatic opening into the land of the heart-pounding ending. It is, in effect, the boring story, the story that doesn't really build up or conclude because, well, that is just not what is was born to do. The second story heightens the tension, tightens the thumb screws, cranks up the voltage so that the conclusion hits you that much harder.

So here we have Day Watch, the second in the brilliant Night Watch trilogy from Russia which began with Night Watch and will conclude with Twilight Watch. The story is a well known one: The eternal struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, day and night. The forces of the light, defenders of humanity and all things good, run the Night Watch. On the other end is (you guessed it) the Day Watch, the defenders of darkness, and mortal enemies of the Day Watch. Many years ago these two groups forged a treaty that stated that neither of these groups could use their powers to influence the course of humanity without an equal use of power from the opposing side. So the Watches were formed to keep an eye on one another.

No that you have the general idea of how the story goes, the second book, Day Watch, follows members of the Day Watch, or the followers of darkness, as they conspire against the light ones in a massive game of chess to ultimately defeat the forces of light in the biggest war in a thousand years. Of course, the Night Watch is conspiring to accomplish the same thing. Each side makes their moves and gets all of their important players into position for the final push for victory. And this, of course, is why it is the second book. The book is all building, posturing, and moving pieces into place for the big showdown. And it does not dissapoint. The next book, Twilight Watch, finishes the saga, with what I am sure will be a huge flourish.

It should be noted, also, that the books are also movies, Day Watch just having left theaters in late June. Both movies, Night Watch and Day Watch, are subtitled from Russian and for all of those Sci Fi junkies out there showcases some of the most innovative effects and cinematography this side of lucasfilm.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The loss of something you love

Just a quick note today - The Waldenbooks down the street from our house on West Portal in San Francisco is closing. Now, for us book buyers, the event is fortuitous; It allows us bibliophiles to gather up all of the books we have been wanting or were not sure about buying at full price at 25% or more off. However, it is still a sad day. Any time a bookstore closes, even one that is part of a major corporate national chain, is a sad loss. It means that people do not go out of their houses any more to buy books; it also means that people are generally just not buying and reading books any more. It seems in this day of instant information and entertainment, the "old-fashioned" pastime of reading a book sentence by sentence, page by page is starting to go the way of the Dodo.

Now, not to worry; if you were concerned about the welfare of the employees of Waldenbooks West Portal, they are being transferred to other Borders locations. And it is not as though West Portal is without other bookstores. It is the meaning implicit in the closing of the bookstore that bothers me. As much as I love to find instantly what I want online, click once or twice, and have it magically appear on my door step in five to seven days, I much more enjoy walking into a store lined from floor to ceiling with books for me to see, touch, and smell. It is a sensory experience for me as much as it is a shopping trip. You also get the chance to talk to the people working there, the people working closest to the books, about the unique little world of bookselling.

That's it, really. I just wanted to share my dissapointment with you all in a world that would allow a bookstore to close and yet another hair and nails salon to open up down the street. There is no excuse for that.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Neat and Tidy

So how else could a novel about a national crisis and political infighting end but all wrapped up neat and tidy with no uncomfortable loose ends or painful tragedies. No one dies, no one looses everything or has to make a painful decision that will shatter their lives for ever. Everyone lives happily ever after. People make their decisions, change their lives around for the positive, and ride off into the sunset happy and fulfilled.

Maybe I am just jaded. Maybe I am used to being left guessing, left wonding if the lives of the characters I have just shared so much with will reach a positive end. But I am still left guessing. I am used to things falling apart, the end being left open to a sundry of different possibilities, both positive and negative.

"Boomsday" was a hysterical and sometimes scathing commentary on our current political system and all of its many skitzo personalities. But it did not leave me guessing what was going to happen next, or how these things would be resolved. Because all of the problems got wrapped up in a nice tidy package and mailed off to me in the final ten pages of the book, so now I have no reason to worry about the moral or philisophical implications of the last 300 pages. Mr. Buckley did that for me.
Ok, maybe I am asking too much. This wasn't exactly "Gravity's Rainbow", but I guess I was hoping for a little bit more.... well... turmoil.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Change the world

Go on Gen X'ers, its time to wake up and start changing the world. Apparently we have a number of crisese on our hands and no one seem to be willing to step in and do anything about them but us. We've got wars, global warming, the collapse of Social Security, natural disasters, the list just keeps going and going. And apparently we are the only generation with enough smarts and gumption to make any sort of a difference in this quickly disentigrating world of ours. Apparently, we have to think of a solution so outrageous, so shocking that it will finally get the world talking and eventually, somewhere down the line, maybe, solve the problem.

Or maybe we are being just a bit too idealistic. Maybe we are expecting too much of ourselves and not giving the older and younger generations enough credit. Maybe there are still some lessons for us to learn before we can really say we tried our damnedest to save the world. Eventually, after the Baby Boomers go gentle into that good night and we take their place at the top of the retirement food chain, we will wonder "what the hell were we thinking?" As a nation, we are faced with a number of very real, very overwhelming crisese; there is no debating that. What is up for debate, but sadly is not being debated to seriously at the moment, is what we are going to do about them. Our current novel, "Boomsday" offers an interesting "meta"-idea for solving the Social Security crisis, which manages to get stuck in the muck and mire of US political sandbagging and deal making. But the purpose of the idea stands out still: Are we going to have to go so far as to ask our retiring parents to "transition" themselves before they collect a cent of Social Security in order to save our generation from writing the check?

At the moment, no one seems to be offering up any more possibilities. (This isn't actually being offered up as a possibility, either; remember folks, it's just fiction.) Will we be able to stop Social Security from collapsing? Will we ever find a peacefull resolution in Iraq? Will we be able to slow our consumption of raw materials and fuel enough to slow global warming? Will George W. ever learn that the word "Internet" is not plural? I guess we will just have to wait and see.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Boomers Beware

As a member of Generation X, or Generation W, or whatever useless designation the good people of the popular media have dubbed the current group of twenty-to-thirty-somethings in America, I have a great deal to be worried about. First, my generation, and the generation after mine, will inherit the debt, social trauma, and political whiplash from the half dozen or so wars we are fighting in order to advance our own agendas. We will be charged with repairing a painfully abusive medical system, a quickly deteriorating environment, and last but not least, we will be asked to write the check for the impending Social Security collapse when the generation of Baby Boomers retires.

While steps are being taken to find solutions to most of these problems, no one seems to concerned with the last issue. Some might say that this is because those with political clout, those who decide how money is spent and more importantly who gets said money, are in fact Baby Boomers. Or about to retire. Or both. So any cries for justice or change in our Social Security system so that the next two or three generations don't have to foot the bill for the Boomers and get left without a dime when it comes their time to retire are quitely shuffled off into that good night. So where is this all leading? To a book, of course. Christopher Buckley, author of "Thank you For Smoking" has taken aim at the Social Security system in "Boomsday".

The gist of the book is, of course, that the Social Security system is doomed to collapse, and an enterprising Gen Xer with a bit too much time and Red Bull on her hands, has begun to fight back. She is, like any young person living in the beginning of the 21st century, a rabid blogger, and has developed a solid following for her blog directed at stopping "Boomsday", the day when all of the Baby Boomers retire and bankrupt the system. Her Jonathan Swift-like solution leaves most people appalled, but shows that sometimes it takes drastic measures to get people to take notice. And amazingly enough, it almost works. Sometimes fiction doesn't seem that far off.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Near Death

So when one passes through a near death experience, something that not only terrifies you but all of the people around you, an unusual clarity settles over you that shows you exactly what is important. Or, rather, it seems to re-focus your priorities for a time. I learned recently that I don't need the hot, fast action of a big city to keep me happy; and I certainly need to focus more on finding a career that matters to me and makes me happy, not just one that pays the bills. What is truly important are the people around you, the people who love you and who will do anything within their power to keep you safe and happy. I learned recently the hard way not to take these people for granted. To these people, for all of their care and love, I say thank you, and I am sorry for what you all went through. You are all the best friends a guy could ever ask for. And to my one love, who did not deserve to deal with any of this, I send my deepest apologies and thank her again for her bottomless understanding and love.

The topic of being near Death leads us very nicely into the world of Dexter, or Darkly Dreaming Dexter, to be exact. Dexter is a forensic scientist who analyzes blood spatter at crime scenes for the Miami Police Department. He is also a serial killer. But wait, he is a good serial killer. Yes. That's right. Dexter, for all of his dark, demented, dangerous deeds, only kills bad people, people who deserve what comes to them. And in his first adventure, he finds someone as dark and dangerous as he is, but someone who doesn't see the world as cleanly as Dexter. But he sure has Dexter's panache for dismembering human bodies efficiently and with very little mess.
Dexter is charming, funny, witty, and ultimately, inhuman. But you cannot help but to love him, because of what is really is. He is a vigilante. He is the new dark knight, dressed in a floral-pattern bowling shirt. And he will only come after you if you have done something to deserve it.

Friday, June 8, 2007

The world of Bandini

So Arturo Bandini has left home to make his mark on the literary world and live life as an artist in the city of angels. The morally conflicted young man finds a way to change his surroundings and leave the women he believe are so viciously oppressing him. Bandini, whos delusions of grandeur drive him to fits of rage against girly magazines, a population of crabs, and even a swarm of flies believes he is destined for greatness, someone who's storied life will be read about for ages. He feels, however that he is held back by the world around him, his mother, his sister, his uncle and even his various jobs are just there to get in the way of his own future greatness.

Unfortunately, Bandini's limitations are his own; his blatant apathy, his vast delusions of gradeur, and his inability to confront the realities of his life are clearly what inhibit him from doing what he imagines he was born to do. Poor, poor little Arturo Gabriel Bandini, student of the words of Nitzche, Schopenhauer, & Spengler, just cannot catch a break. He is convinced, however, that his destiny resides in Los Angeles, where he will write the next great American novel and become fabulously rich and famous; desired by women and sought after by all. For all of his faults, Arturo Bandini is certainly a dreamer.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Road to Los Angeles

So we've moved on from the harrowing account of a young mans fight for survival in Southern Sudan to the harrowing tale of Arturo Bandini, a young Italian-American trying to make his own footprint on the world in "The Road to Los Angeles" by John Fante. Arturo is an overly well read and undermotivated kid who just can't seem to take anything serious for any amount of time. Each of his shortlived jobs, needed to support his mother and sister, are broken up between fits of imagination, excursions into his own fantasy world where he obsesses about people worshiping him, loving him, and being terrified by him. He fantasizes about women, then immediately feels guilty, almost dirty about his expansive fantasies in which he rules over a woman who passionately needs and desires him. He then makes a big production of shredding the pages he is fantasizing over, telling himself that the women will be what destroys him, and that he must destroy all of the women.

Arturo Bandini is ambitious, in a sense, yet completely unmotivated. Each day, each hour, he thinks of something new to occupy his imagination, some new grand scheme that will pull him out of the stagnant world he lives in, away from his nagging mother and sister, and into greatness. He is convinced that he will be a great author and philosopher in the vein of Nitzche or Schopenhauer, and that his devoutely religious and pragmatic family are just holding him back. He is sure he is destined for immortality, except he is completely unable to hold a job together or put together a worthwhile sentence. He is untalented, unmotivated but insanely imaginative and determined to fit into no one's mold but his own. In a sense, Arturo Bandini is the Holden Caufield of the west coast, an immigrant-american rebel, eternal loser and constantly convinced of his own superiority over the "little people".

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

How Blessed Are We to Have Each Other?

I've finished with the book, but the story won't end for a long while. I would be lucky to ever in my life pen a single page of a story so eloquently told as that of the story of Valentino Achak Deng in "What is the What." There are not many opportunities in ones life to read or hear a story of such life-affirming compassion, bravery, truthfullness and humor. It is astounding to me that a person can live through such adversity, see the amount of violence and death as Valentino saw in his childhood and still emerge a humorous, trusting, and compassionate adult who only wants to create a stable life for himself in the United States.

After being driven from his home in Southern Sudan by government soldiers and arab raiders, then chased again from a refugee camp in Ethiopia by rebel forces, and finally settling in a dusty, inhospitable camp in Kenya, he manages to create hope for himself in the midst of it all. No matter where he was or what he was running from, there was always a hope, no matter how naive, that wherever he was going was going to be different, was going to be better. And he always preserved the hope that he would one day return home to his family, even if he had no idea they were still alive. After spending nearly a decade in Kenya he was relocated to the US with thousands of other Lost Boys, to learn how to find his way in a new and completely unkown and terrifying world.

If anything, Valentino's story has shown me that above all else, after life's struggles and tribulations, that no matter what difficulties we face in life, we must always have compassion for one another, a sense of humor and a love of life. One of the last lines of the novel, one that will always stay with me because of the love that still manages to shine in Valentino's heart, says: "It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other?" We are each of us very blessed, Valentino. Thank you.

P.S. If anyone is interested in learning more about Valentino Achak Deng, his foundation, and his work to improve the lives of his fellow countrymen both here and at home in Southern Sudan, please visit
All proceeds from the sale of "What is the What" go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, so please, buy the book!!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Were do stories come from?

So in my last post I was lamenting a bit about trying to write, and write successfully, and create something out of the mash of personal experiences, current affairs, historical themes and random ideas bubbling around in your head. I guess I look up to people like Dave Eggars, who seem to be able to so effortlessly craft a tale with his imagination. I know from working on stories myself and hearing authors first hand speak about how hard they work on just a draft of a story, that my impression of the process being "effortless" is a bit flawed. However, I can not ever stop seeing my own shortfalls in comparison to more prolific (and published) writers.

Dave Eggars' novel "What is the What" is a particualrly good example of this. After hearing the story of Valentino Achek Deng, he created a marginally fictionalized version of the tale, putting his own masterfull touch on it, making the words weep on the page. It is the paticular ability to do this that I envy; that characters, places and events stand out and move so clearly, that the world that is created becomes so brilliantly real for a short time.

What is the What is an unrelentingly harsh story of the survival of one of Sudans Lost Boys. Eggars tells of how all of the Lost Boys, after being driven from their homes by war, walk through the deserts of Sudan and Ethiopia, constantly chased and attacked by the army, and finally ending up in a refugee camp in Kenya. This is when current events begin to tie into the story. While living in Kenya, the refugees hear of terrorist attacks on American embassies in Kenya and the first bombing of the World Trade Center. The lost boys, who have never known a world outside of Sudan, do not know what all of this means, but they are assured that with America's bombing of Sudans capital, their return home will be imminent.

The story is told by Valentino in present day Atlanta, struggling to find his place in America, while re-telling the story of his childhood and his eventual move to the US. Eggars words, while recrafting Valentino's words, are beautiful in their simplicity. There is no need to embellish or use word games to trap the reader. The story itself, Valentino's story, is so compelling and real that it could never be all fiction. I can only hope to one day create something so beautiful.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

How to write a book

So I have been working on stories, long and short, some hoping to someday make it into a full-blown novel. I have been writing, fairly inconsistently, but putting words to paper none the less. There comes a point when you start second guessing yourself while you are putting together a story, and wonder if this is the right story for you to be writing. What I mean is, is the material, the subject, the world you are trying to create may not be one you have the personality or knowledge to write well. I am currently trying to write a Noir novel, a novel with murder, betrayal, and no clear delineation between good and evil. I know the genre, but I am no expert. I question if my limited experience in this type of story is going to be enough to provide me with enough to write, and whether any of it will be any good.

I guess any writer probably doubts themselves, even John Irving had to wonder if anyone would like his books. Some people say that you should write what you know; that your life experience will provide you with the best stories. Others might say that as long as your creative juices can cook it up, write it. The biggest test is whether or not people will read it and appreciate it, and enjoy the stories you tell. Maybe I am being a bit ambitions with a Noir novel, but it is a fun genre and alot of fun to write. Maybe I should write what I know, write from the experiences of my life; I know I have plenty of those stories to tell.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Something Quick

Just want to drop down a quick few lines. I have been out for a couple of weeks, and need to get some fresh material up. So going back to the saga of Valentino Achek Deng, there are not words to describe just how unbearably easy life is for anyone who has had the good fortune to spend their childhood in the United States. I say this after comparing the average life of an American child to that of any one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who endured more atrcities and horrors before their sixteenth birthdays than any ten American children will experience in their lifetimes.

The sad thing is that so few of us understand or will ever understand the lives of these children, and what it took for them to stay alive and manage to get themselves out of Africa. And when they did get themselves to America, attempting to setting into anything resembling a normal life seemed to be just another roadblock on the way to happiness. At one point, Valentino says that, despite everything he went through in Sudan and Ethiopia, he at times wished he was back there, instead of dealing with the uncomfortable realities of life in America. How could that be? There are no lions hunting you, no armies trying to gun you down. I guess home is always home, even when you have to run away from it.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Creating Positive Change

His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited us over the weekend to spread his message of peace and compassion. He held teachings for the first two days of his visit, then for the last day (Sunday) gave a talk on the idea of creating positive change. In order to create positive change in the outside world, one must first create positive change in oneself. Sounds pretty basic, right? Then why is it so few of us can manage it?

His Holiness is probably the most content and peaceful human I have ever encountered. He is funny, genuine, jubilant and compassionate. It was amazing to see this 72 year old man, the religious leader of millions of people around the world, a man who is revered by people of all faiths, sit in front of the the thousands of people gathered laughing and telling jokes. It speaks to his contentment, to his ability to see life as a time to actively seek peace and love, and not worry about anything else.

Love and compassion, you will find, are the keys to creating positive change. If each one of us can find it in our hearts to be compassionate to each other, to put away fear and hatred and anxiety, the world will change, because each of us will have changed. When we can all create those changes in ourselves, when at last we are at peace with ourselves, we might be able to find peace in the world. It might just be that simple.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A few quick notes

A brief note on "What is the What?": The title which can give some readers cause for a bit of head scratching comes from a Dinka creation myth told within the pages of the book. Now, I am not ruining anything for you here, so I will relate the cliff notes version of the myth to you. When god created the first man and woman, who were bigger and more beautiful than anything else in creation, he gave them a choice: They can take the gift of cattle, something with which they could knowingly prosper and thrive, a source of nourishment in many different ways, or they can take the What. What is the What you ask? The What is a mystery from god, something he cannot tell the man what it is unless he chooses it. After deliberating, intruigued by the possibility that the What might offer, the beautiful man and woman ultimately settle on taking the cattle, seeing it as the sensible choice for the prosperity of all future generations. The man and woman have chosen wisely, as the What is nothing, a test of their willingness to sacrifice the mysteries of god for the sustinance and longevity of their people. Having made the right decision, the man and woman go off with their cattle to create their new civilization.

Ok, so now you know what the What is, and we can move on. Thursday, a duo came to San Francisco to entertain us with their musical virtuosity. I am speaking, of course, of Rodrigo y Gabriela, the guitar duo from Mexico by way of Dublin, Ireland. Yes, that Dublin, Ireland. I should start by saying that they are not just your average guitar duo, playing old Bossa Nova or Flamenco standards for a new audience. The two started off in Mexico as a part of a Thrash Metal band, covering bands such as Sepultura, Pantera, and of course Metallica. After that endevor failed, they packed up and moved to Ireland, which is where they further developed their sound and also where they learned English. (The mixture makes for a very interesting accent.) R y G play a mixture of traditional sounding guitar pieces mixed with their love for American Heavy Metal, and the results are astounding. I can honestly say that I have never in my life seen anyone's hands move that fast.

Playing with no hard and fast set list, they played whatever came to mind, only a few of which came from their album. Gabriela, with her lightning fast finger strumming, provided the rythem and even the percussion while Rodrigo sold the melody with the fastest finger picking this amateur guitarist has ever witnessed. They even got the whole audience singing when they pulled out a rendition of "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd. (It should be mentioned, I suppose, that they do not sing. At all. Which isn't to be considered a bad thing; the guitars sing for them.)
The highlight of the show was watching them play their version of "Stairway to Heaven" followed by their lone radio hit, "Tamacun". To hear these songs on their album is amazing enough, but to see them do what they do live almost stopped my heart. So here is the bottom line. Go and see Rodrigo y Gabriela. No, first, go buy their album, then go see Rodrigo y Gabriela. Any chance you can possibly get to see this amazing duo perform their craft will change you forever. And as a matter of fact, you may get your chance soon as they should be stopping back through San Francisco in late summer at the end of their tour. Happy Listening.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What is the What?

After the bizarre and grizzly world of cadavers, I've moved on to a tale of a world few of us will ever know. "What is the What?", by Dave Eggars, author of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is relating the story of Valentino Achek Deng, a Sudanese refugee trying to make a new life for himself in the US. The story is only marginally fictionalized; according to the main character most of what you read in the pages of "What is the What" actually happened to Valentino and the other Lost Boys of Sudan.
Valentino's world in Sudan is so foreign, so alien to most of us that relating to his story seems impossible. Only twenty or so pages in, Valentino has told us of being separated from his parents after escaping from Ethiopian refugee camps, watching his friends gunned down by rebel soldiers, and other boys being eaten by lions in the night. There are good stories, too, showing Valentino as a young boy in his village in Southern Sudan, doing things every little boy loves to do.
The stories are heartbreaking, detailing a world none of us could ever begin to understand. But they do belie something we can all relate to: A desire for peace, for hope and security. We all want to love our families, and have our families love us. Lest we ever forget or lose sight of what is important in life - it is this.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Alas, Poor Yorick

There is something about the thought of leaving our bodies when we die that gives us all the heebee jeebees. We spend so many years getting used to being in them, using them, abusing them, fixing them and figuring out how to work them that the idea of leaving them on Earth to decompose is excrutiatingly difficult to deal with. We all try so hard keep ourselves in our bodies longer, do whatever we can to improve them, adorn them, stitch them together in a futile effort to deny ourselves the fact that our physical presence on Earth is in fact temporary.
But what do we do with ourselves when we die? We have options, certainly. Egyptians used to believe that your physical self along with your belongings went with you into the afterlife, so of course you would want to preserve yourself and your things as long as possible. More modern thoughts on the subject say that we leave our bodies, rendering them useless in the hereafter, but out of respect and a sense of decency we take great care in the laying to rest of our mortal coils. But when you die, is what happens to your body your decision, or should that burden lie on the people who loved you most in life? Some people might try to exert some final level of influence from beyond the grave by demanding unusual and sometimes costly ways of handling their remains. Should you be a burden to your loved ones AFTER you have moved on, or should your family be willing to accept any demands you made regarding your body while you were alive?
We all want to know we were loved and will be remembered when we leave. We all hope and pray to our own individual gods that our passing will mean something to the ones we leave behind and that they will celebrate our lives in their own peculiar way. That is all we can ask for, really. Whether our bodies are laid to rest in the ground, ashes scattered into the ocean, or used by science to help save lives, it is not going to be up to us where we end up. Leave that to those who come after you, and who need those ceremonies, however bizarre, to remember you.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

What exactly is "dropsy"?

Reading this book, "Stiff" by Mary Roach has got me thinking a little bit on what exactly is going to happen to my mortal coil when I have departed. The noble thought of donating my body to science has always been a consideration, but now I am not so sure. There is, of course, the slim chance that as a body donor that the parts I no longer need like my heart or kidneys will be given to someone who can still use them. But there is the equally slim chance that as a cadaver, my head will be removed and used for ballistics testing or that my decaying corpse will be laid down on a grassy knoll to be observed by forensic students as I rot. (Come to think of it, that second one may not be all that bad.)
The point is that the idea of donating your body to "science" is a pretty vague one, and there is no guarantee that it will actually be used for the type of "science" you expected. Seeing as there is no way to know exactly where your corpse will end up, and its not a sure thing that your loved ones will know where it goes, either. Since explaining to a loved on what is going to happen to your body can be somewhat of a PR nightmare, most places tend not to volunteer the information. So if you are ever in the un-enviable position of asking what your loved ones body is being used for, just remember it could be an organ transplant, or it could be a crash test dummy. It could go either way.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Whats going to happen to YOUR body when you die?

So right now I am in the middle of a book called "Stiff" by Mary Roach. The post script to the title is "The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers". I have dove head first into this fascinating book, and so far I think I will be a little changed by it. Roach is hysterical, lending a sort of tongue in cheek humor to an otherwise dour and morbid subject. This does not prove any more true than when she gets a forensic scientist to concede that yes, decomposing cadavers do in fact fart. (Not intentionally, of course, but the basic process is still there.)

She certainly does lend her own unique and feminine perspective to this rarely sought after topic, going so far as to tell a ballistic specialist that a hollow point bullet being used in an experiment was "cute". So far, so good, I must say. Ms. Roach has another book, this one called "Spook: Science tackles the afterlife". I wonder if she has a psychiatrist on retainer. If the second novel is anything like "Stiff", it will be a wild and entertaining ride. While I would love to get into more of the juicy details of the book and how it has changed my perspective on a great many things, it is late and I am tired. But not to fear, I am only halfway through the book! Plenty still yet to come. Until we meet again, San Francisco.

Monday, April 16, 2007

King Dork and Rock & Roll

I just recently finished the Novel "King Dork" by Frank Portman, or Dr. Frank as he is known to fans of his Bay Area band The Mr. T Experience. The book centers around young Tom Henderson, a high school sophomore who is about as low on the adolescent food chain as one can get. He and his only friend, Sam Hellerman, (his alphabetical neighbor all through grade school) have their own rock band, the name of which they change weekly, devising first album names and pseudonyms for each. Their lives are of typical high school zeros: They are picked on, abused, laughed at and generally ignored by all of the "normal" people of their school. But back to the rock and roll. Through the evolution of their band, Hellerman & Henderson finally find a gig playing at their schools "Festival of Lights" their PC version of a battle of the bands.

Their band, Chi-Mo, after Henderson's nickname (meaning child molester. Long story. Read the book.) royally and completely sucks, but what can you expect from a high school band that just learned how to play their instruments? Their big break comes when they sing a song extolling their Vice Principals desire for a sophomore girls back side. After the show, the enterprising Sam Hellerman publishes the lyrics to this song and several others to distribute around the school, and the band gains a sort of cult fame status.

Here's the thing. I am from the same school of rock as Henderson and Hellerman which teaches that if you start a band, no matter how pathetic, you will gain popularity. Mildly. But sometimes it is just enough to get that girl to notice you for the first time or that group of guys to stop picking on you. There is something dramatically exciting when you are a high schooler and you strap on your guitar in front of your piers for the first time and show everyone just how badly you need to practice. But so what? You are the brave soul standing in front of everyone butchering bar chords and dropping the melody, not them. So kids, here is today's lesson: If you are in high school, and your chances of survival are slim, talk your parents into buying you a second hand guitar, practice a few chords, and start a band. Because just for a moment, just for a blink of an eye in the vast high school universe, you will be a Rock & Roll GOD.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

Today began with heart-breaking news. Kurt Vonnegut, prolific author, sly social commentator, and one of my own personal heroes died yesterday at the age of 84. Anyone who has read a book or essay by Vonnegut will know what I mean when I say he had an eye for unearthing the minutia of everyday society and turning it inside out, making us all look very silly in the process. Vonnegut's sense of humor and satire made it easy to look at the world a bit differently and maybe learn something about ourselves at the same time.

I never knew Kurt Vonnegut; he was almost sixty years old when I was born, and had already made his footprint on American Literature by the time I discovered his work. Even with that being true, he will always be one of my favorite authors and I will always regret never getting to see him speak. Whether he was writing about the eccentric president of the Rosewater Foundation or a young soldier who has come "Unstuck in time", his funny and sometimes absurd stories taught me something about the world we live in. Strangely enough, even with his world being centered around World War II and mine around the start of the twenty-first century, not much has changed in those intervening years. His words apply just as well now as they did when he first wrote them.

So here's to you, Mr. Vonnegut. We raise our glasses in your honor. Your words will forever teach us how to laugh, how to love, and how to see truth when we cannot find it for ourselves. All of us here on earth hope the Trafalmadorians are taking good care of you. You will be missed. God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Welcome to the Library

Welcome one and all to the Fog City Library, an open discussion of all things literary and bookish. I hope to fill these lines with insights and observations about literature, poetry, art, music and any goings-on around San Francisco that may fall into those four rather cavernous categories. We live in an amazing city, San Francisco. It is a place where rough and gritty fiction can rub elbows with captivating art and rebellious poetry all while listening to a new amazing band at a tiny windowless bar in the Mission, because that is what this city is. We are all at one time rough, tender, antagonistic, eccentric, compassionate, and beautiful. So welcome, San Francisco, and people from all points North, South, East, and West. Don't think of this as your typical library where silence is required. I know people have plenty to say about their favorite book, least favorite poem, or why they think Holden Caufield is an ass, and I expect them to speak up. There is no right or wrong here, only Truth. And silence is strenuously discouraged.