It’s kind of a mania: this book thing. I’m sure for people who are on their second or third book it’s easier to keep things in balance. But I’m a bundle of obsessive thoughts and impulses, with this debut book of mine. It’s out, it’s actually out. It’s listed. It’s on the market. It can be bought and, interestingly, it can also be sold.
In a week or two I’ll officially announce it. They tell me that timing is critical when it comes to PR. Yes, I must personally promote and PR the book. I don’t have a problem with that except my brain wants to work on PR strategy during the night when I should be sleeping so I get up at 3:30 and eat some Cheerios and turn on my computer and do book stuff until my brain starts to shut down around 6 and I can try some more sleeping but it’s never enough to catch me up and so I end up writing sentences like this. I think I’m losing my grip on reality. Maybe it wasn’t such a solid grip in the first place.
It doesn’t help that I’m reading Postcards From the Edge, and thereby seeing and hearing how messed up brains can get. What a powerful book, by the way.
Wait. I feel a random nap coming on. So I must seize the moment. Before my brain realizes it’s time to start in obsessing again about sundry matters: like the precise date and time to announce my book and the precise wording to use that will strike that perfect balance. You know, that perfect balance between obnoxious and apologetic. Somewhere between gangster and Gandhi.
[[It may be sad and slow to read but The Memory of Old Jack really is a beautifully written, conceived and executed story about more than just Americana — a story about life’s trauma and how the scars never leave. Here are some excerpts.]]
Smiting the edge of the porch sharply with his cane as if to set hard reality on the alert, taking careful sight on the stone steps, he lets himself heavily down. . .
Old Jack goes to his accustomed place at the end of the one of the long tables that is occupied, the three others being bare. Thinking to remove neither his coat nor his cap, he sits down in his chair at the angle at which he has drawn it out from the table, and he keeps his left hand gripped onto the crook of his cane. His attitude thus communicates a most tentative and passing relation to the table and the assembled company. . .
He walks with the effort of a man burdened, a man carrying a great bale or a barrel, who has carried it too far but has not yet found a place convenient to set it down. . .
“Well,” he said, “time will finally make mortals of us all.” And Burley said: “Yes, if we don’t die first.”
Now I know where the title of Watercolor Paintings’ song “Shower of Stones” came from (see prior post, review of their album When You Move). I had gotten a Shirley Jackson novel at the library. Four pages into The Haunting of Hill House, there it was: a mysterious “shower of stones” that solves the mystery of the title of Watercolor Paintings’ dark and ominous rock classic. Interesting. Then I continued reading the book.
The book is part of a series of horror literature by Penguin Books. It has a very cool, scary cover and black-tipped pages, and a brilliant erudite introduction by the series editor Guillermo Del Toro who just won Best Director and Best Picture for The Shape of Water, and who signed the piece at Thousand Oaks, Ca.
The Haunting of Hill House is a story about exactly that, except the title might be more accurate if the “of” were a “by”. Anyway, Shirley Jackson wrote with the dreaminess and imagination of an adolescent girl and the wit and drollery of a sophisticate. She had a special soul. This story is perfectly gothic, in that the setting and many of the key characters have that strange broken quality. What make the book so fascinating to read are Jackson’s little nuances. I’m not even sure what nuances are but whatever they are, this book’s got ‘em. They will make you smile as you shudder.
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help seems to provoke thought by those who read the book and even those who don’t. On my bus ride home tonight, about the time we got to Ventura County, the fellow sitting behind me leaned forward and apologized if his brief phone call had bothered me. It hadn’t. I’d apparently been engrossed in the book. I’m almost finished. We talked about the book and the movie, and he was very familiar with both, despite having personally perused neither. “I don’t wanna read anything about those times. I lived through it, that was enough.”
He’d grown up in Memphis, Tennessee and, being about the color of Minny in The Help, had experienced Jim Crow first hand. “I read Tom Clancy,” he told me. He loves the action and geopolitical intrigue.
I hinted at the irony that he could read about war and the world on the brink of destruction but not about the plight of maids in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. He shrugged, and I assured him that I understand completely.
Last week at the Los Angeles Central Library, as I entered the Literature department I saw that their monthly display was books that had been adapted for film. Traditionally I don’t like to read the book if I’ve already seen the movie, but lately I’ve changed. I’ve seen too many films based on books well worth reading but that haven’t been read by me. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is one of those that has been in my mind, and there it was on the display shelf. A minute later there was an empty spot in that display.
I’m more than halfway now and it didn’t take many chapters for the book to garner a solid place on my short list of best American novels of the past 25 years. What a remarkable book, on a human level and societal level. It’s as funny as it is thematically groundbreaking. Stockett blends her fictional characters so seamlessly with the historical events of that time and place, and the result is chilling. Besides its insights into Southern society and race relations, the novel is worth the read simply for its exploration of family relationships and child development.
I’m spending this week at a big suburban house. The owner is at work all day and I’m reading The Help. It’s the day that the cleaning lady comes. She’s a petite Salvadorean woman who cleans the huge upstairs while I read downstairs. She seems very sweet and refined. Her English is limited. When she comes down to do the kitchen and family room, I evacuate to the large backyard where the waterfall splashes into the pool. I catch glimpses of her mopping the hardwood kitchen floor. My mind is wandering and I’m stalled on a page of dialogue between Aibileen and Skeeter. I don’t feel much like petting the little dog of the house while she cleans because she might see and taste the irony.
“No one can go through the shame and humiliation of the job-hunt without being marked for life. I hated my first experience at it, and have hated every other since. There can be no freedom in the world while men must beg for jobs.”
Perhaps it’s a novel in the very strictest technical sense, but you will find Jews Without Money, by Mike Gold (published 1930), to be pure memoir. And that is fine, because the book is a valuable and unusual piece of memoir that everyone really ought to read, regardless of your religion or ethnic background. The book is not about a particular race or religion. It is about poverty, and all the various immigrant groups that were squeezed onto New York’s Lower East Side shared equally in that tale of misery. In fact, Gold’s overriding philosophy throughout his life as a socialist/Marxist journalist was simply that poverty is the root of all evil, and that its scars never heal. The corollary proven by his book was that money is the root of all poverty. (**My blog entries for April 6, 2014 and January 11, 2015 discuss other fine works of fiction dramatizing the plight of the American working class in the early 1900’s.)
Besides the gritty, unadorned frankness with which Gold told the story of his childhood, all its squalor and heartbreak, there is also artistic value to the book. Gold’s writing style is not just journalistic narrative. He puts things so succinctly and stunningly that his book reminds me more of Walt Whitman than any writer of prose from Gold’s era. Alfred Kazin’s introduction to Jews Without Money admires the book and its effective style greatly, but takes a dim view of Gold’s native intellect, reluctantly calling the author “not very bright”. I disagree: it takes a special type of genius to write something so powerful with such spare language. I think the book was a pioneering achievement, as a piece of history and a literary groundbreaker.