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May 17, 2006

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Dan Wickett

I was on a trip to a steel mill in Washington, PA with three other guys I worked with. We toured the mill on Thursday and went out to eat with the mill reps, and spent the night to go home Friday. It began snowing while we slept and by the time we were ready to leave, there was a good 6-8" of snow on the ground. The Ohio Turnpike only had one lane semi-plowed and the "fast" lane continued to grow with snow through the day. Our salesman drove the entire route from PA to I-75 on the turnpike in that "fast" lane, passing semi-truck after semi-truck while the other three of us contemplated death. I sat behind him, opened up Russo's Nobody's Fool and fell into a zone where I had no idea what was going on outside out vehicle. The next thing I knew, we were home and the other two passengers were pale as the snow outside, fists curled into nearly frozen fists from holding onto whatever they could in the car out of the fear we were going to die.

Corey Redekop

How a book saved my sanity.

IT was a dreary day in, of all places, Negril, Jamaica. Ten miles of beach, all shut down by one hell of a storm. Adding to the insult, my allergies had flared up, ensuring that my nose was as clogged with moisture as the clouds above. Huddled alone in my tent (my tentmates, all able to breathe, had abandoned me for a bar), I cracked open John Irving's THE WATER METHOD MAN.

Funniest novel I had ever read. When the hero, learning to ski, joyfully crashed through a group of children, I howled as loud as my clotted sinuses would allow. His erection problems made my inability to breathe seem like a blessing. I had loved THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP and THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, but nothing Irving had done prepared me for the loving comedy of this piece.

When my friends returned, inebriated and wired, they tried to cajole me into venturing outside, the clouds having long departed and the glorious Negril night promising, if not romance, at least more intoxicants. I rudely rebuffed their offer. I finished the book, and fell asleep, drooling wildly over my sleeping bag, yet completely at ease.

TEV

I should probably recuse myself, but here's my tale:

It was a cold, cold, cold Chicago Christmas about a dozen years ago. I had been shanghaied by my then-girlfriend to visit her family for the holidays. So after years of strenuously avoiding holiday travel, even with my own family, opting for the warm calm of L.A., here I was dropped into the quintessential dysfunctional family – divorced, single mom with strained relationship with her daughter, passive aggressive aunt, poor girlfriend in the middle trying to please both and, did I mention, it was fucking cold?

It didn't endear me to her family (or the her) but I spent most of the trip buried in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, completely riveted and fascinated. Forget the fact that dozens of pages at a time might be incomprehensible to me, or that I literally read with a dictionary on my right and an encyclopedia on my left (this was all pre-Google). Eco's masterful conspiracy yarn drew me into the world of Knights Templar as icy Chicago winds rattled the windows from without and familial recriminations shook them from within.

We broke up not too long thereafter.

Jason DeBoer

Hooray for Kesey week!

I was in Agra, India, a stressful city full of nasty hawkers and aggressive vendors. There were huge crowds to get into the Taj Mahal for sunrise and sunset, but during the day it could be quite beautiful inside the compound. The gardens in front of the Taj Mahal, although meagerly maintained by western standards, were the only green, human-free expanse I had seen in northern India.

As the camera-clutching crowds shuffled up to and inside the tomb, I snuck off onto the side gardens, where the skinny laborers were on break playing cards. There I lay on the green grass and read a battered copy of Balzac's Droll Stories for hours. It was the only peace I had had in India up to that point. I had found the ultimate reading spot: comfort and relative quiet and the huge Taj looming before me.

If you haven't read the Balzac, it's written in a medieval style and is mainly bawdy tales about the nobility. The funniest story is about a king who invites his potential enemies to an obscene day-long feast, then forbids them to leave the room to use the toilet. It was bizarre reading about fat noblemen stuffing their faces until they shat themselves, while around me a group of hundred-pound stick men were clipping hedges and hoeing the dry dirt. It is my most powerful memory of reading, where literature, place, and politics collided into one intense moment.

Rodger Jacobs

The drive to Yosemite National Park the summer of 1972 was, as usual, fraught with danger because my stepfather had been drinking again. When Bobby began drinking all of the ghosts of Vietnam slithered out of their graves and encouraged him to sadistic and suicidal actions, such as taking hairpin mountain curves in our family station wagon at 70 miles per hour. He took glee in the terror that invoked in the family, my mom, my younger brother and I.

I was 12-years-old that summer. Sometimes when Bobby would pull into a mountain pass at breakneck speed I would close my eyes and pretend I was on a rickety roller coaster and prayed for straight-away roads. The rest of the time I kept my nose buried in a dog-eared paperback of “The Great Gatsby.” I absorbed all 218 pages of that lush novel during the drive from San Francisco to Yosemite and heaved a sigh of relief when we made it to the park in one piece. No station wagon crumpled in a heap over the side of a mountain. Limbs and life intact, mental faculties sorely compromised.

Late that first night, staring at the majesty of Half Dome under a full moon, my young mind contemplated Fitzgerald’s tale of delusional love and I wondered what it would be like to pine for another man’s wife. Decades later, as I grew into a man, I would be accused of suffering from White Knight Syndrome, a need to “rescue” women in perilous situations – usually bad marriages.

And I am frightened by mountain roads to this day.

Bobby Farouk

Cod Cape is not a remote corner of the world, unless you’re from the Adirondacks, where leaving the county requires a family council. I spent a week there in the Eighties, a vacation at the in-laws. The in-laws were a deliberate people, inclined to polite discussions on the condition of the outer beach and soft exclamations over delightful presentations of cheese and crackers on a plate. They could measure a person’s character simply by discovering which school she had attended. I see now that these are considerable gifts, but at the time I was novitiate in the order of finer things.

I reduced the horror of being a barbarian among the civilized by filtering out the environment and its denizens with a lawn lounger in the sun and Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station. Mind you, I had been raised to believe that a lawn lounger was the Devil’s bathtub, so it was Wilson that saved me. I had requested the book as a gift mainly because I found the title irresistible.

To the Finland Station is a sort of travelogue on the journey of socialism, a rigorous study, tempered by wit and enthusiasm. It ranks as my favorite non-fiction work. Interestingly, it is inseparable from thoughts of lawn loungers, outer beaches, well-arranged food, and memories of people who remain kind and pleasant to me, though they’d be justified if they didn’t.

Avital Gad-Cykman

I have been to wind cities, ghost cities and desert towns, at the edge of a surreal existence, where I almost expected to see my dead grandfather serving drinks at a bar, but I have never been to a place so deadly boring like Guayaquil Equador. I still have a vivid memory of the long conversations I held with iguanas almost my size. (It’s true that I’m quite small, but they were big.)
I had finished my last book and couldn’t find anything else in English. I went back to the park and the Iguanas’ tree every day, waiting for news about the boat sailing to Galapagos Island.
Days later, I met here a pilot whose dark gelled hair made him look like a figurine of a very old movie. He was on his way for training for whatever mysterious wars South American pilots train for. I told him about my travel and he told me about the places I should visit. It was the best conversation I’d had in days. Better, he told me about a café where I could borrow “The Grapes of Wrath.”
The iguanas were quite nice while I read about the tough survival of the American family in times of hunger. The book was heart wrenching, and it changed my sense of that place. When I found that the trip to Galapagos cost 300$, a sum I didn’t posses, I didn’t feel bitter about my long stay.

Michael Signorelli

In High School, I was in love with a redhead who dogged me in the worse ways. Back then I ascribed to the detrimental philosophy that "good things come to those who wait." The redhead vaguely encouraged this, but never reciprocated, you know, physically. Then one day in early summer, a week before I left for a month's vacation in Ireland, she did.

Summer. Youth. Love. Sweetness.

I couldn't stay to maintain the momentum.

Departure. Despair. Distance. To Ireland I went. Four weeks apart, four weeks of suitors reclaiming lost ground, four weeks of lying to my Irish cousins, telling them that I had a fox of a girl back home.

My insides ruptured to form one big, bloody sack of throbbing sorrow. I picked up the book that she had given me, read her dick-teasing inscription, and began reading. The book was "East of the Mountains" by David Guterson and in it the main character wanted to die--so much so that he lied to everyone and left to kill himself in the wilderness.

It was just what I needed. I thought the guy was a pussy. "You want to die? For what? 'Cause life's not what you expected? Of course, it isn't! You dolt!" Still, I kind of stared at the book, yelling at it with my eyes until four weeks passed in a not unpleasant way.

Returning home, the redhead had reunited with her soulmate, T-Bone. Sure I sweated it, but the book allowed me to enjoy Ireland.

Cliff Garstang

You’re on an assignment in Kazakhstan, which you accepted because you’re an Asia specialist and this is supposed to be Asia. (Hah!) It’s mid-winter and Almaty’s Soviet-era central heating doesn’t work because Kazakhstan can’t pay Uzbekistan for fuel. TV programs are in Russian and your college Russky is rusty. (Da!) The internet hasn’t been invented. You don’t drink vodka. Yet.

Fortunately, you brought a book. You brought several, but it is 1066-page Raintree County that keeps you sane. “Yes, sir, here’s the Glorious Fourth again.” The author is a brilliant Indianan (like yourself!), tragic, his Joycean masterpiece made into a sappy movie that doesn’t do justice to the book’s encyclopedic scope, or fundamental American themes.

You’re inside, but your breath hangs frozen in the air. You’re wearing your parka, your feet propped on the space heater you carry from room to room. You read. “Mr. John Wickliff Shawnessy I presume?” You are momentarily distracted by the curtainless couple across Ulitsa Tulabaeva, but you keep reading. “He would pursue awhile his ancient pastime . . .”

Next day at the office, your meeting with the Justice Ministry is cancelled, the class you teach falls flat, you slip on ice and bruise your ass, the greasy lunch mutton threatens to repeat itself. All afternoon.

You skip dinner with colleagues because they’ve found the bar scene. You go home, fire up the heater and read: “And so Johnny Shawnessy passed through the years of his childhood steeping himself in legends old and new.”

Ken

I had been living in Berlin for about a year by that point and things were not going well. I had survived an extremely cold winter with almost no money for coal to heat my pre-war (Altbau) apartment in Kreuzberg, forcing me to tax the patience of the normally overdraft-tolerant German banking system. I had been spending far too much time alone, walking constantly, talking to myself.

But spring brings a knock at the door. Standing on the landing is a beautiful girl I have never met before, she is clutching a book in her hands.

She says a name. It takes me minutes to remember that nice girl, the one I had declined to sleep with, thinking that I was taken.

She hands me the book, Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad. It is tattered nearly beyond recognition. The cover has been mended and reattached with masking tape. I remember lending it to a friend of a friend. It had been passed from one person to another, and finally to Mia, who stands before me, flushed with adventure.

I’m thinking that Spinrad has saved my life, or at least my sanity.

Mia ends up spending a couple of days with me. She treats me to dinner. I take her out into the Berlin underground. She sleeps on the couch. Even at my best, she’s out of my league, and I’m clearly not at my best. But having her there in my apartment is balm enough.

Maria Robinson

The night a friend of a friend sexually assaulted every woman in our beach house, I was out on the Boardwalk, stoned, finishing Jesus’ Son. It was the end of Senior Week: seven miasmic days of sunbathing and potsmoking at the Jersey shore. I was pinned to a splintery bench, the penumbra of dawn paling the black sky blue at the horizon, Fuckhead’s fragmented voice screwing into my guts like a hot tin fist, while the friend of a friend crept from bed to bed through the dark of my beach house, trying to maneuver his uninvited penis into any accessible orifice, sliding its agitated tip along unsuspecting crevices: armpits, ass cracks, ears.

The last night meant his last chance to feel the salt-moist skin of the slumbering girls he’d soon never see again, and they were all drunk or stoned enough to stay mostly asleep—until he got brazen, hitched Jen’s legs over his shoulders, and went for it. Or so they told me when I returned shortly after sun-up to find everyone awake, chain-smoking at the kitchen table, bags already packed. Every one of them was changed that night; they felt vulnerable and guilty and stupid and shamed in a way they were glad never to have felt before and hoped never to feel again. I was changed, too—by Fuckhead, yes, but even more, by a mystical feeling that stories had saved me, and would keep on saving me if I let them.

Kay Sexton

We were in Barbados for ten days (what a hardship!) filming a girlie calendar for a brand of tyres that went on mother-destroying great trucks. Me and my friend Doll and Sylvie, who was the token blonde and who threatened to leave after three days. Why? Because we had a photographer’s assistant with roving hands.

I actually hadn’t noticed. I was only the stock shot girl anyway – I stood in the sun for hours while they got light levels etc right and then I stepped aside and Doll and Sylvie were actually photographed – and either he hadn’t bothered me or I’d been too engrossed in my book to pay attention. As long as I held it away from my face so it didn’t bounce light up onto my features, I was allowed to read while they set up the shots. And I was in the middle of a love affair with the Socratic method, via Renault’s hero Alexias, that would culminate in a Philosophy degree ten years later.

Stand-ins don’t get paid much, and they have little to lose, so when I learned of Mr Wandering Hands, there was only one thing to do. Next time he fiddled with my bikini to ‘make nice’ for the camera, I moved my open book close to him, smiled sweetly and slammed it shut, trapping between the hard covers the thatch of chest hair spilling from his polo shirt. Then I pulled ...

He kept his hands to himself after that.

Theresa Duncan

Totally fatherless and nearly motherless the better part of the time, I grew past nine waiting it out in the lone library in our small Michigan town. The children's reading room served as the map room for my journey out. Only fairy tales would do, because it was all going to have to be utterly turned upside down.

I spent years in the kids’ section, it nearly killed me when I outgrew the little chairs and had to move into the big room. I made the move when I turned twelve, and from then on it was glamour—fairy tales' earthly invocation. From Ashenputtle and Oz I moved to Vogue magazine in the periodicals.Vogue was completely ignored in our farm town, but to me it was another portal into a looking glass world. This universe and its lustrous capital New York City were even more distant, more fantastic than the Faberge egg worlds-within-worlds of children's literature because they were real, and I had to plan how to really make the journey there.

Then I was thirteen, fourteen. A finger travels down the spines. E.B. White, a favorite children’s author, but a title for big kids, “This Is New York.” And it was New York, though I had to wait out this long vacation in the Midwest until I could make it to Manhattan. I used White’s lovely kaleidoscope to turn the thousand fractured angles of a city I had never visited into one lovely poem called “home.”

Alicia Gifford

Hooray for Kesey Week!

Yangshuo

On the all night flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, a rheumy-eyed, elderly Chinese man coughed and hawked and snorted miserably across the aisle from me, and I knew.

It was four or five days later that my head filled with snot, my nasal passages solidified impenetrably, and phlegm boiled in my smoldering throat. We were in Yangshuo then, in southern China, alongside limestone, moss-covered karsts and the beautiful Li River on which fisherman drifted in the afternoon shadows with their tethered and beloved cormorants. My mate and I timidly scoured the Chinese medicine stores but found no one to speak English and nothing that looked Dristan-ish amid jarred snakes, dried lizards and bins of herbs. I curled up with a packet of tissues, Humbert Humbert, and the light of his light, the fire of his loins, Lolita. Oh sweet nymphet! Oh the suffering of her bedazzled Humbert! Child-fucker, you saved me! Saved me from my catarrhal self-absorption; my devastating homesickness for a friendly neighborhood Sav-On. How glad for Vlad I was in that remote Chinese territory. How eagerly I turned the snot-sprayed pages to drink in the Nabokovian prose that so delightfully delineated the perverse carnal obsessions, manipulations and murderous paranoia of that remarkable tome; how willingly I shifted from the purulent to the prurient! I truly forgot my misery (and the deafening ballroom dancing happening outside my guesthouse window) indulging in the sordid voyeurism offered so unflinchingly by the masterpiece that is Lolita.

Rodger Jacobs

Wow. If I had a vote Alicia would get it hands-down.

Myfanwy Collins

I enjoyed reading all of these. And Alicia, "Child-fucker, you saved me!" has got to be one of the best lines ever.

Angel

Now, this happened two years ago when I was job hunting. I had travelled out of state to a campus interview for an academic librarian position at a very prestigious southern university. The interview went from bad to worse as the man who would have been my supervisor actually yelled at me because he did hear an answer he wanted to hear. It was a tense environment, and half an hour in, I knew not only that I was not getting that job, but that I wanted out as soon as possible, but was stuck for the rest of the day.

On the way back, I was dejected, wondering if the hassle of the job hunt was worth it, when I went to the airport bookstore. They had a paperback copy of _The Alchemist_, and for some reason, I remember my mom mentioning it was a good book. It seemed short, so why not? Bought it, and I read it on the two and half hour flight back. I was so engrossed in the tale, travelling with the young protagonist, that I forgot the interview, the bad boss, and the horrible discomfort on the plane. I just wanted to follow his quest. More importantly, that book made me realize that it was worth it. I was following my special dream. Sure enough, shortly after I got a good job offer. It was the right book at the right time. A bit of magic, reassurance, and a good yarn all into one.

Jody  Tresidder

Dan Wickett,
I remember reading "Nobody's Fool" with a tingling dread - happily never realised -that the next page couldn't possibly live it up to the one just finished. Absolutely transporting. (So I very much enjoyed your tale). Tips from strangers can often go amiss - but anyway: I happened to read "Preston Falls" by David Gates not so long afterwards, and the novels have a sort of strange kinship. The Gates is also pretty brilliant - though bleaker than Russo (just checked, plenty of cheap copies at Amazon).

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TEV DEFINED


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."

SECOND LOOK

  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

    Bs

    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe

    Rider_4

    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."