Feeling Bookish

Never let it be said I’m quick on the draw. As if any further proof is needed for how glacially I can move around the internest, 30 days ago — as in One Score & Ten More; as in a full lunar cycle; as in a month! — my favorite Pittsburgh-based grad student Carolyn Kellogg who L.A. and I miss very much tag-your-it’d me over at her blog Pinky’s Paperhaus on a literary-type meme and because I’m lame I only found out about it this morning.

Am I too late? Nevah!

1. One book that changed your life?

One? One’s tough. But had I but one single solitary story to pick I’d have to go with Allan Eckert’s The Silent Sky: The Incredible Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. It widened my very narrow highschool-aged worldview to unblinkingly understand how careless and destructive man is as a species. It made me ashamed to be human. It made me the animal champion I am today.

But I can’t leave this question without mentioning the effects John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Richard Adams’ Watership Down had on me as a writer. The third chapter of the former was pivotal in my education as a reader and writer. The latter was the assigned book for my seventh grade English class at Le Conte Junior High and I had no idea what it was about nor had I ever attempted so big a book. I remember looking at the cover after buying my copy at the much-missed Pickwick Books on Hollywood Boulevard and I was puzzled by the illustration of the rabbit on the cover. From the title I’d thought it was about the sinking of a boat. But I was hooked at Page One of the expansive and epic allegory. Not only did I become a life-long lover of books from that, but it totally made me want to write.

2. One book that you have read more than once?

Agh, all this “one” stuff: Stephen King’s The Shining (and Pat Conroy’s Lords of Discipline and Stuart Woods’ Chiefs).

3. One book you would want on a desert island?

One’s enough in this case. I’d go with the Bible. I’ve never read all of it and to be in a predicament such as that seems a prime opportunity to immerse myself, so to speak.

4. One book that made you cry?

Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell (but that’s more of a long short story, really). It goes without saying that the above-mentioned The Silent Sky, and anyone who reads Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and A.M. Rosenthal’s Thirty-Eight Witnesses and doesn’t physically mourn the respective murders of Nancy Clutter and Kitty Genovese is way too hard-hearted.

5. One book that made you laugh?

John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces — and I cried at the end of it too because when I finished it I knew I’d read all there is from him.

6. One book you wish had been written?

Howsabout two: The Impeachment of George W. Bush and Bloodless Coup: Darrell Issa, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Theft of California

7. One book you wish had never been written?

Pretty much any celebrity “memoir” from an entertainer or sports figure under 30 years of age.

8. One book you are reading currently?

I’m not very successful in the present endeavor but I’m attempting to read Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice in large part because my wife read it and looooooooved it.

9. One book you have been meaning to read?

Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In the past 10 years I can’t say how many times I’ve picked it up, read the first couple pages of the prologue and put it back down. One of these years.

10. Pass it on.

I’m gonna ping my wife Susan and her mom Jeannie and then leave it up to anyone else reading this who wants to add their perspective either in the comments or on their own blog.

Yar Wut Ya Reed

In the tedious midst of transcribing recorded interviews for a freelance assignment soon due and in need of a diversion from it I decided to clean up the unkempt bookshelf nearest my right shoulder crammed with some of my most recent reading material. In pyramidal order only and not at all stacked representative of any preference or lack thereof, here they are:

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If I had to choose a least-fave of the stack it would be Crichton’s State of Fear — not because of its attempt to debunk global warming as just a bunch of baloney (in fact I was quite interested in his contrarian perception of the phenomenon). Nah, beyond the blatant crapaganda, the book was just bad, driven by this odd hapless lawyer protag who somehow manages to survive Antarctic crevasses, lightning storms, assassins, flash floods, cannibals and more yet manages to remain utterly uninteresting through to the bitter end.

On the flip side, McCullough’s 1776 probably would get voted as my fave. But what I’m most proud of is that represented in this group is a fine percentage of local blogger talent: Rodger Jacobs’ compelling Long Time Money and Lots of Cocaine; Jessica Stover’s mystical Aidmheil; and Tony Pierce’s seminal How To Blog. I also read Wil Wheaton’s very fine Just A Geek, but it’s not pictured because it was part of the last group of books I donated it to the local library branch. Most of these are destined for the same fate. No longer a keeper of books as trophies, instead I prefer to practice catch-and-release, putting them back out there in the flow for others to discover.

Presently I’m reading Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, which Susan read several months ago. Larson spins a dynamic and engrossing nonfiction narrative that brilliantly weaves together the development and realization of the landmark 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the men who made it happen, with the lurid exploration into the black reality of notorious serial killer Herman Mudgett (aka H.H. Holmes) who used the fair to lure his victims to their deaths. It’s compelling to say the least.

And so’s my deadline. Back at it.

Chelonians Rock!

In celebration of World Turtle Day, not only do I want to recognize our very own Russian tortoise Buster, who’ve I’ve been guardian of since 2001:

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But I also want to recognize and reflect on what is without a doubt to me the most important and influential — however metaphorical — chelonian I’ve ever encountered, namely the “land turtle” John Steinbeck brought me to in his The Grapes of Wrath.

I did crazy shit in my early/mid teens, like read books for pleasure. I credit my seventh grade English teaching team of Ms. Latzke and Ms. Diamond at Le Conte Junior High with getting that going. Sure, I raced through all six of C.S. Lewis’ Narnian chronicles in sixth grade, but it was Latzke/Diamond’s assignment to read Richard Adams’ Watership Down in 1977 that got me fired up about reading, big time. It remains my favorite book of all time.

So, while other kids in the years bookending 1980 could be found honing their marginal skateboard skills or getting recreational with drugs or trying to figure out how to get their parents to buy them radios with the then-unexplored and mysterious FM radio dials, I could often be found inside with KHJ or The Mighty 690 or KGIL on the Admiral Hi-Fi… reading. And not just Hardy Boys mysteries or the terrifying stuff from the frightening mind of Stephen King, but shit like Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. For fun in 9th grade I read Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal. In one day. A Saturday. In the summer.

What a nut I was. But if I can request a digression: that’s nothing. A few years earlier after seeing Jaws in the old Wilshire Theater in Beverly Hillls (having already read the book, of course) I decided to face my suddenly all-encompassing fear of the killer fish — I’m telling you I was sure one was going to come up through the shower drain and eat me —by going down to the Hollywood branch of the library, checking out a whole bunch of material on sharks, and not just reading about them — but writing a freakin’ report to myself on the topic.

I can’t recall exactly how I got introduced to Steinbeck, but if my memory isn’t playing with me I viisualize myself reading it in the duplex apartment we lived in on Wilton Place a few blocks north of Beverly Boulevard, which means it would be ’78-’79. It was my mom’s copy of the book and I think the catalyst that drove me to pick it up was learning that my favorite actor at the time, Henry Fonda, had starred in the movie version, which I hadn’t yet seen. Opening the book up I was immediately drawn into it — not so much because it mythically grabs you and doesn’t let go… moreso because of Steinbeck’s wholly accessible writing style and the visuals he seemed to so effortlessly create.

Through the first chapter I went, disbelieving the unfathomable desperate dusty dryness of Oklahoma that Steinbeck was showing me. I could almost feel it caking my skin and powdering my nose. In the second chapter he put me in a truck with its nosy driver and a homeward bound Tom Joad fresh out of prison for murder and I knew immediately Tom’s who Fonda must’ve played in the film.

Turning the page to chapter three I was like the driver and very curious to learn more about Tom myself, but Steinbeck had other plans. Instead he decides Joad’s been intruded upon enough and for the time being he says come over here away from Tom for a bit and let me show you this tortoise here along the side of the road. And at first my entirely unsophisticated 15-year-old intellect balks hard at this strange interruption. I don’t care about some critter crawling around in the dirt out in the middle of nowhere, I wanna know what’s going on with Tom! But Steinbeck puts a hand on my shoulder and points to the tortoise and says we’ll get back to Tom in a few minutes but right now this is important, right now take a closer look.

And so I do.

And three pages later I want to be a writer when I grow up. Three harrowing pages later at the chapter’s end I’m riveted to the old fella dragging itself and its shell along through the dust on the other side of the asphalt and I got it. I may not have known it was called a metaphor or even how to spell the word at that stage in my life, but instinctively I knew what Steinbeck had done. At first literal glance he was showing me why the tortoise crossed the road. But far deeper down he had shown me an unforgettable symbol of the struggle to persevere in an unforgiving environment, of resolutely overcoming obstacles amid tremendous adversity. Of surviving.

So on this World Turtle Day I give thanks and respect and love to the tortoise I’m personally responsible for, to all turtles the world over, and especially to that resolute and persistent one from Steinbeck’s imagination and talent.

Polo Shirts & Sunglasses

Since I woke up with a kicker of a headache that carried over from yesterday afternoon and in that time has since spread from above my left orbit to all across my forehead like a neon sign flashing PAIN, I’m going to do my best not only to accomplish the list of creative, physical and prcedural things I need to do today (and this week), but accentuate the continuing positive of my to-date 36-pound reduction in the form of a line graph captured over on fitday.com that charts my ongoing downward progress. Instead of “line graph” I prefer to refer to it as staircase on happy acid:

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I also want to share with you this passage by John Fante in his Ask The Dust, which I’m currently marveling my awestruck way through:

But down on Main Street, down on Towne and San Pedro, and for a mile lower on Fifth Street were the tens of thousands of others; they couldn’t afford sunglasses or a four-bit polo shirt and they hid in the alleys by day and slunk off to flop houses by night. A cop won’t pick you up for vagrancy in Los Angeles if you wear a fancy polo shirt and a pair of sunglasses. But if there is dust on your shoes and that sweater is thick like the sweaters they wear in the snow countries, he’ll grab you. So get yourselves a polo shirt boys, and a pair of sunglasses, and white shoes, if you can. Be collegiate. It’ll get you anyway. After a while, after big doses of the Times and the Examiner, you too will whoop it up for the sunny south. You’ll eat hamburgers year after year and live in dusty, vermin-infested apartments and hotels, but every morning you’ll see the mighty sun, the eternal blue of the sky, and the streets will be full of sleek women you never will possess, and the hot semi-tropical nights will reek of romance you’ll never have, but you’ll still be in paradise, boys, in the land of sunshine.

I feel like a student showing up 25 years late to meet his mentor. Fante wrote that in Nineteen Hundred and Thirty Nine. Sixty-seven years ago. It’s truer today than it was than.

And lookee-there! My headache’s gone. Time to get some crap done.

Of Books and Intvus

I just finished Dangerous Beauty, by Mark Ross. It is a compelling read that details his dreams and nightmares as a safari guide in Africa. Throughout the majority of the book Ross highlights events and encounters from some of the unique tours he has conducted in the game parks of Tanzania and Kenya, but it concludes with the group he was leading in Uganda’s Bwindi National Park to see mountain gorillas when they and other tourist groups in the park were attacked and kidnapped by Rwandan rebels in March 1999. At the end of the ordeal a total of eight westerners were butchered, including a husband and wife that were with Ross’ tour. The horrific story made international headlines. In January the rebel faction’s reputed leader was convicted of the murders. I understand that three other rebels apprehended have been transported to the U.S. to stand trial for murdering the two Americans in Ross’ charge.

I’ve had Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke waiting in the wings for some time now, but I’m afraid it’s going to have to wait a little longer because now it’s time to finally discover John Fante via his Ask The Dust. What took me so long? I’ll be honest here: Up until a few months ago I hadn’t even heard of John Fante, and I’m ashamed to say that the recently released and coolly received movie version of the book — filmed in South Frickin’ Africa of all places — is what finally got my attention. Trust me, I’m not proud of such a confession and I literally have no idea why Fante has never popped up on my gotta-read radar — especially since I’m partial to L.A.-based fiction and he’s considered by many to be the king of that scene.
But better late than never.

In other news, by way of my blogifications I met up today with a filmmaker/neighbor by the name of Robert Sobul. He’s made shorts about Los Feliz and Griffith Park and other area hoods and attractions for the travel website turnhere.com, and his next endeavor is his homebase of Silver Lake. As such, he emailed me a few days ago saying he’d read some of my stuff on Blogging.la and he wanted to know if I’d like to participate and share my slice of the SL on-camera. I offered that I had no doubt he could find more camera-ready and knowledgeable Silver Lakers out there, but other than that I was game if he was.
So he came over this afternoon and hooked me up with a wireless mic and he and me and Shadow took a stroll up Sunset and back and with him filming while I talked about the good and the bad of what makes this place so special to me.

Not sure if I’ll end up on the floor of the hypothetical editing room, but it was fun and Robert was a great guy who was very nice to meet. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for whenever the short might go live.

Feeling Bookish

There are times when I finish a book and go in search of my next read, either at the library or a bookstore, and I get this sinking feeling that I will never find anything worth reading ever again.

Thankfully, now is not one of those times. Whenever I finally finish Michael Crichton’s State Of Fear, I have not one but two on deck. The first will be Curse of the Narrows by Laura M Mac Donald, a new book examining the Halifax disaster in 1917 when the munitions ship Mont Blanc bound for the war in Europe exploded in Halifax harbor after a collision with another vessel.

On December 6, 1917, two war ships, a Belgian relief ship, Imo, and a French ship carrying munitions, the Mont Blanc, fatally collided in Halifax Harbor. Incorrect signaling and misunderstanding between the two ships led the Imo to strike the side of the Mont Blanc. The Mont Blanc, which was carrying 400,000 pounds of TNT, 300 rounds of ammunitions, along with other explosive ingredients, caught fire and drifted closer into the city of Halifax. Before the fire could be put out, the Mont Blanc exploded creating the “biggest man-made explosion before the nuclear age”. The explosion killed over 2,000 people and injured 9,000. The explosion caused $28 million in damage – 326 acres of the north-end of Halifax’s waterfront had been destroyed.

Oddly enough I only learned of this tragedy because of its use in an Anita Shreve book Susan just finished reading. Awhile ago at Susan’s suggestion I read one of Shreve’s novel, Sea Glass, and while there’s no denying the author’s talent, I just didn’t find her too compelling and I’ve kidded Susan about “Anita Zzzzhreve” on occasion. Guess I should just shut up about that seeing as without Shreve I wouldn’t have found out about it.
Like me, Susan had never heard of the Halifax explosion and I became intrigued by the scope of its destruction. A web search divulged Mac Donald’s book on the subject and thankfully the library had a copy of it, which I checked it out on one of my most recent visits only to leave it dutifully on my desk while I trudge through Crichton’s latest concoction.

I’m sorry, but State of Fear just isn’t working for me. Like most of his novels it’s highly readable and Crichton as usual does thorough research on the topic driving the book, but it seems he failed to devote enough time to coming up with characters I give a crap about or a decent plot. Instead he gives us Peter Evans, a mostly clueless 30-something lawyer who has somehow managed to survive a plunge down an Antarctic crevasse, a flash flood in the southwestern United States and now the bite of some sort of highly venomous octopus in his L.A. apartment and the only thing I as the reader have to show for it is a bunch of lectures and graphs and footnotes about how global warming isn’t really happening.

Fascinating it isn’t. Disappointing it is. But I’m two-thirds through its 600 pages and I can’t give up now. But I have been cheating. No, not with Mac Donald’s Halifax narrative, but with a book of Susan’s by Marc Ross titled Dangerous Beauty, which is subtitled “Life and Death in Africa: True Stories From A Safari Guide.”

Susan had recommended this long ago but I refrained from reading it prior to our Africa trip primarily because the book includes Ross’ first-person explanation of the 1999 trek into Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest to view mountain gorillas there when they were attacked by Rwandan rebels and eight people were murdered. The deaths made headlines around the world and I’d read the stories, but I left the book alone not want anything discouraging me from our plans to go to Rwanda.

Since I pulled it off its shelf a couple days ago, I’ve been tempted to toss Crichton’s book into the recycle bin and just dive in, but other than a taste here and a few pages there, I’m set on finishing what I started and then holding Ross off in favor of Mac Donald because there’s a due date on her book.

We’ll see if that works out.

This Is How It Should Always Be

I’m not sure exactly when (other than it was more than likely when I was gainfully employed with a regular paycheck and some disposable income) but at some point I apparently succumbed to a subscriber solicitation and ordered National Geographic’s Almanac of American History, which arrived a couple weeks ago.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book that packs a lot of easily navigable information between its covers. But I finally got around to opening the included invoice and my eyes did one of those cartoon pops at the $50 price tag — something just not very navigable in these post-job pennywise times.

Sure, I thought about just keeping the book and ignoring what would become a postal parade of invoices followed by past due and then way past due notices before the arrival of the vague threats of involving credit agencies and damaging my credit rating. Are you kidding, I grew up ordering the proverbial 11 albums or tapes for one-cent from Columbia House and then never fulfilling my side of the bargain. Eventually the plea-threats for the money owed would peter out and when that happened I would order me up another 11 and go through the whole thing again.

But that was then when I was a broke punk and this is now and even though I’m just an older punk perhaps as broke, I have much respect for National Geographic and figured I’d call up their customer service depot and broach the subject of returning the volume. After explaining that I enjoyed the book but just couldn’t accept the half-hundie ding I figured at worst I’d be on the hook for the return postage. But the very nice person I spoke with told me I wouldn’t even have to suffer that.

Sure enough in the mail yesterday came a postage-due merchandise return label. All I have to do is pack it up and bike it over to the post office.

This is how it should always be.