Figured I’d do a quick roundup of some of the stuff I’ve read, recently.
First off, here’s a review I did over Blake Butler’s 300 Million for Electric Literature.
I have also been remiss in my duties as a crime fiction fan, in that I haven’t yet sung the praises of Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer. On a sentence-by-sentence basis, this one is the king of 2014. It brings up themes that will feel familiar to the dutiful crime reader: fatherhood (obviously), responsibility, alcoholism, drug addiction, and violence. I read this one months ago and I feel like I’m still digesting it. I still don’t really know what to say, other than I felt it hard, and that I think you should read it. One of those rare “un-put-downables.” A sticking point for me, and something I’d like to discuss further, is the book’s ending, but I’m gonna save that big spoilery motherfucker for a while down the road, once it’s been widely read.
I went to see James Ellroy read at Powell’s. That was a big moment for me. There’s no one who’s influenced my writing more than that strange, tall man. I felt inspired by his showmanship, inspired by his confidence, inspired by the guts of his shtick. I couldn’t meet him, though. Jeremy Johnson and Michael Kazepis did, but I just couldn’t. It wasn’t time yet. I didn’t want to look at him and see him and have him see me. Just didn’t seem right. I like him as a writer and performer, but I didn’t want to meet him as a person. I’m still not sure why. Probably just nerves. Anyway, I read Perfidia and thought it was awesome, but probably my least-favorite of his so far. All the parts with Ashida were awesome. That procedural-type shit. I don’t know. For someone who’s so good at keeping it short, this one felt, for the first time, too big.
Young Gods by Katherine Faw Morris occupies an ever-widening space in crime fiction, a space that I dislike with a passion. That Morris cuts out a spot inside that space with deft and at times flat-out brilliant prose creates a kind of dissonance in my mind, in that this type of book represents a big problem that I whine about a lot, but it’s so well done that I liked it. It’s the story of a thirteen-year-old girl who moves in with her pimp/drug dealer father after the death of her mother. It moves from anecdote to anecdote, in which the girl takes drugs, attempts to enlist her friend as her dad’s new trick, commits murder, and finally, in a sense, becomes her dad. It is an extraordinarily bleak book, and by the end of it I wondered what it was trying to do, exactly. The journey is fast-paced and the prose is on-point, but man am I ever tired of poverty porn, where the sharp descriptions of violence and depravity serve to move the characters, usually poor and ill, away from the reader, until it’s like we’re looking at the whole thing from space, and maybe that’s the point, but I’m still not 100% convinced as to the overall value of something like this. I’m not saying “the violence made me feel gross,” I’m saying “the violence seemed unreal.” If there’s not three-dimensions to hang it on, it just is what it is. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about. Lots of people seem to like that stuff. And, like I said, overall I liked it, too. Recommended it if you want a clinic in how to write like a demon.
And finally, I’d like to talk a little about Dogo Barry Graham’s wonderful, eye-opening Kill Your Self: Life After Ego. In the spirit of a book that is all about losing the self, and working to curb suffering by muting the ego, I’m going to make this review all about me. As of late I’ve found it increasingly difficult to let go of my anger. It’s always been a problem, that I tend to see and expect the worst from people. After reading this book, I realized that, as is typically the case, it all stems from a problem with myself. Or rather, the story I tell my self about myself.
Graham uses quick, succinct aphorisms to move the book along, never dwelling on one thought or the other. I’ve always enjoyed this about zen writing, in that even whilst explaining a koan or a deep subject, the writer typically just expresses the question in the clearest way possible, once, and then dips out. After that it’s up to you. It’s something you’re supposed to think about, and the process of thinking is the solution in and of itself.
This book is packed with a-ha moments. I reflected a lot upon reading it. In particular, I enjoyed the passage about the fishing boat, in which the owner of said vessel takes his newly-painted baby out on the water on a foggy day. Another boat bumps into his, and he turns around and starts yelling, only to find the other boat empty. The boat is always empty, but we bring our stories to it, the story that goddammit this drunk motherfucker is out here not watching where he’s going or goddammit I just got this painted and of course it gets fucked up…no. These are all stories we’re making up as we go along, all stories designed to make us the protagonist of our lives, the put-upon, the only one who “gets it.” After awhile, this becomes easier than breathing. The boat is always empty, until we fill it with our own bullshit.
The book is presented in a “take-it-or-leave-it” style. It isn’t preachy. It doesn’t want you to do this or that. It just is. And it’s so refreshing. Couldn’t recommend it more.