Current reading & quick takes

Life being what it is this year—the pandemic, the bleak uncertainty around work and just about everything else—I’ve been spending much more time reading. Including:

Arab Jazz, by Karim Miské

Book Review: Arab Jazz by Karim Miske (translated by Sam Gordon) | Press and Journal

The opening chapters of this novel are set in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, with a few treks into nearby quartiers. It was published around the time of the Charlie Hebdo murders and Bataclan attack, and brings with it a sense of the sorrows as well as the vibrancy of that part of the city.

The writing, translated from French, is fresh and close to musical. The characters, their interactions, and interior thoughts are all sharply observed and described. Most of the characters are of different religions and continents of origin and include a pair of detectives who are calm, intello types disinclined to jump to conclusions.

The narrator is on medical leave from his nightwatchman job, and he has the heightened awareness of his surroundings that often results from surviving a thoroughly upending experience.

During his leave he’s hardly left his small apartment, which is stacked with books—noir, mysteries, and police procedurals purchased by the pound from a local bookseller. One morning, out on his small balcony, he is snapped out of a meditation session by clear evidence that something has gone badly wrong in the apartment above his. He decides to determine what happened and who did it before anyone tries to pin it on him.

Between the writing and the setting, this book swept me along from its first sentences. It’s an examination not just of a murder, but of the environment and mix of cultures and religions in which it takes place. I found nothing dull or predictable here. I also liked being in Paris with these characters, following their ruminations and observations. A bonus is being reminded of artifacts of life in the French capital. This isn’t high life Paris, it’s working world Paris, which is much more interesting.

The Guardian review ; entretien, author interview (en francais) 3.5 minutes.
Available in French here and in English, translated by Sam Gordon, here.

The Dry, by Jane Harper

A new-to-me author who I hope has a long list of ideas for future novels.

This book also drew me in from the first page. It lets you settle into the landscape without any long blocks of unnecessary information and introduces characters so easily I felt as though I was there on the ground with the main character, Aaron Falk.

It’s set in Australia during the blast furnace heat of a drought and opens with Falk returning to his home town for the funeral of an old friend. You can tell from the glances he gets, and the way he feels them as they land, that there is a lot of history here to be told.

There are many ways to fold backstory into a narrative. In this book, present day events are set in normal text and alternate with flashbacks, often the length of chapters, in italics. Around the middle of the book I began to find this more of a frustrating interruption and stopped reading the flashbacks, although I skimmed a few, and stuck with the present day.

As that hasn’t come up in any of the reviews I’ve read, I think it’s just me. I’m not so fond of frequent jumps back and forth along the timeline.

Whatever your preference for the narrative blending of past and present, if you like an intriguing mystery that’s well told, read this book.

Available here. And the Kirkus review is here.

When your heart can only wail

Image credit: Simon Weisser on Unsplash

No need to go into how things are for most of us lately. It’s a good time for the tektonic release of a blues guitar. Listen in, and send that wail into the sky. Then carry on.

Thanks to Guitar World for the intro to Erja Lyytinen and Larkin Poe.

Erja Lyytinen plays mellow-excellent guitar on Slowly Burning, recorded at Rutesheim, Uhlenspiegel.

Larkin Poe and their version of Killing Floor

Gary Clark Jr., his live version of When My Train Pulls In (4:38 mark)

Eric Gales also live, plays Somebody/Smokestack (3:00 mark)

And the master, SRV, playing soft and gentle on his song Lenny then getting loud on Texas Flood with B.B. King, who needs no introduction.

Come on back whenever you need a break.

get out those armchair traveling shoes

& help your favorite bookstore.

After many weeks sheltering in place, some of us are getting just a little stir-crazy. So here’s the current rescue plan for our restless blues:

First, a few lists. Back in January, The New York Times published a list of books being published in 2020 that are based in and written by authors from countries around the world. There is also A Year of Reading the World, and a few years back Book Riot put together a list they call Around the World in 80 Books. It won’t be hard to find other lists to meander through.

Step one: Dream-travel through the book lists
Step two: Pick one or two books based in a country you’d love to get to know
Step three: Order them from an independent bookstore (Amazon does not need our help, local bookstores do!) (personal opinion)

In the US, Bookshop.org and Libro.fm are two ways to find and order books from a store near you.

Also, a shout out to a favorite SF East Bay bookstore, Moe’s Books They are taking orders and shipping books and also have a Go Fund Me page.

Then all we have to do is curl up in a favorite spot, and let the pages of a good book lead us through a new country.

Photo by  Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

From the sheltering-in-place bureau

aka my writing desk

                      photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

 

Here’s a starter list of places in the SF Bay Area where you can take a stroll and shake off that looming case of cabin fever. It’s a good way to detox from stress and news-overload in general.

And then, get back to your writing!

 

25 great nature walks and hikes in the Bay Area

East Bay Regional Park District
Scroll down to the map, and just below that is a long list of parks with links.

Midpeninsula Regional Open Space
A list of preserves and trails.

Publishing as Möbius Strip

A writing friend of mine has signed up for a workshop with a well-known writer, and just found out everyone else in the group has publishing credits from upper tier publications. She will too, in time, because her work is that good and she sends it out dozens of times monthly. (embarrassing to suddenly realize I haven’t submitted work since last spring. Aie.)

In the meantime there’s that sense of trepidation caused by the difference in publishing track record.

But it’s always something, right? We aren’t this, we haven’t done that, we don’t write in the most sought after publishing niches or fields.

In the middle of replying to my friend about this, one of many brilliant Bay Area Book Festival moments came back to me. A couple years back I attended a talk with a panel of African authors. One of them, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, from Uganda, told us about push-back her manuscript had received on its way to publication because the names of her characters might be difficult for anglophone readers.

She’d grown up studying Shakespeare and other English language writers—work that did not reflect her own country or culture or the people she knew. Her point was, look, you can make that stretch too and meet my work and my characters where they live.

I’m paraphrasing, and any errors in transcription from her words via my memory are my own. Essentially her point was that she’d stretched to read and learn about an unfamiliar culture, and non-Ugandan readers are just as capable of doing the same. I felt like standing up to applaud.

It’s amazing how unfamiliar the obvious can look until someone points it out, which is just one of the many gifts of good writing and writers. For example, in this case, (my take) Hello in there, have you noticed your POV has calcified?”

Anyone who isn’t the expected bearer of insight etc. is always up against that dominant-culture calcification. But it’s not for that bearer of insight to keep quiet, it’s for the rest of us to stretch and pay attention.

A quiet place to write

What’s the resource you most often wish you had more of? For a lot of writers, time is at or near the top of the list. Publication, income, a nicer this or that—all good, sure, but the first step is getting the story on the page, and writing is a thoughtful, time-intensive art.

To make it all even better there are days when it feels like you’ve got the fabled room full of chimps in your head instead of one calm, coherent adult. Whatever our sessions are like, most writers I talk to share my sense that there’s never, ever enough time.

Retreats are one way to give yourself a little more of this irreplaceable resource, and there are a lot of organizations dedicated to providing writers with space and time for their work. Some charge fees and some don’t. Some have an application process, especially if the time and space they offer is very low or no cost. A big plus is there are retreat locations across the globe.

Here are two places to do some research. Throughout this post, I’ve used the URLs instead of links in case the sites change their pages around. If that happens you can still head to their home page and check things out from there.

Alliance of Artist Communities http://www.artistcommunities.org/residencies/directory

Poets & Writers database https://www.pw.org/conferences_and_residencies (please subscribe to P&W if you can, it’s a great resource!)

If you like to hike and live in or plan to travel to the U.S., there are a few Federal forest cabins available, depending on the time of year https://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/reservations/

The U.S. states of California https://www.reservecalifornia.com/CaliforniaWebHome/Facilities/SearchViewUnitAvailabity.aspx  and Idaho https://parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/activities/cabins also have cabins, and the time of year is a factor here as well. Other U.S. states and other countries may have similar options.

There are also do-it-yourself options that range from are you serious? to affordable. For example, checking into a hotel, B&B, Airbnb, or motel in some quiet place for a few days. Some monasteries have facilities for guests.

I regularly set aside a day to write at a nearby library where they have individual desks as well as long tables with space for several people. Another thing that’s worked for me is driving to a quiet park that has parking spots with a view of the water, and then I just set up in the back seat with my computer, a great view, and maybe coffee or water or something to eat. Of course, there is always the classic coffee house writing session, with or without caffeine.

Whatever kind of environment works best for you, I hope some of the ideas and links here will be useful in finding more time to write!

can’t say we haven’t had plenty of notice…

From the preface to a book I just started reading, published in 1864:

“The object of the present volume is: to indicate the character and, approximately, the extent of the changes produced by human action in the physical conditions of the globe we inhabit; to point out the dangers of imprudence and the necessity of caution in all operations which, on a large scale, interfere with the spontaneous arrangements of the organic or the inorganic world; to suggest the possibility and the importance of the restoration of disturbed harmonies and the material improvement of waste and exhausted regions ; and, incidentally, to illustrate the doctrine, that man is, in both kind and degree, a power of a higher order than any of the other forms of animated life…”

The book this prefaces is

Man and Nature, by George Perkins Marsh

like I said, published in 1864

Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

A few years back, probably around 2014, I heard an interview with a woman who was (I think) a U.S. House Representative, and who fumed at the irresponsibility of Central American parents who allowed their children to take the perilous journey north to the U.S. border, leaving them “for us to deal with,” or words to that effect.

For me, this was the voice of a suburban U.S. parent who doesn’t understand why the neighbors keep letting their kids play out on the street after dinner instead of keeping them home. It reduces the pain and terror in Central America to a question of parenting styles.

In other words, it was the kind of remark you can only make when you have a few basic facts and none of their context—on the order of a classical music lover blasting Buddy Guy or Stevie Ray Vaughan because their music doesn’t sound like Mozart.

Had it been published at the time, I would have sent the offended and uncomprehending (traits that hang out together a lot) House Representative a copy of Valeria Luiselli’s (@ValeriaLuiselli ) book, Tell Me How It Ends . Because in this book we are allowed to witness some of the stories Luiselli herself heard during interviews with those very children at the Federal Immigration Court in New York City. We are also given a chance to see the system that children have to find their way through.

It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.”

The structure of Luiselli’s book is the list of questions translators are tasked to ask each child, whose answers must then be translated and written down. Translators then discuss the interviews with volunteer attorneys who evaluate each child’s situation against the parameters laid out by statutes regarding what is and isn’t grounds for asylum.

My description conveys the outline of the book but doesn’t approach the breadth of its content or the effectiveness of Luiselli’s writing. For balance, the following quote gives you a hint. After several pages describing the maps and stats of the ways and places that people determined to survive find death instead of help, Luiselli writes :

Numbers and maps tell horror stories, but the stories of deepest horror are perhaps those for which there are no numbers, no maps, no possible accountability, no words ever written or spoken. And perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible—is by hearing and recording those stories … Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”

For me, this quote goes a long way toward describing the origin story of this short, intense book and the reasons why we all need to read it. You can buy it here .

Blues for Paris

I studied photography in Paris a couple decades past, and at one point decided to take long-exposure night-time shots along the Seine. After living in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, I already knew Paris was nowhere near as threatening an environment. And I’d been out at night there on my own, at concerts, plays, talks by photographers, always traveling on foot and by Metro. Still, I was wary about shooting after dark in a less populated spot.

The first time I set up my tripod on the Left Bank, near the Pont de Archêveché, my immediate surroundings were quiet and calm. Light rippled off the water. I sighted and framed potential shots and, with all my other senses, read the atmosphere for signs of trouble.

People strolled past, talking quietly, the flood lights of a bateau mouche spread their streak of daylight across both banks, music bounced down to the river from cars passing by.

There were no red flags, just peace and calm. And its epicenter, I finally realized, seemed to be Notre Dame, buttresses like wings spread out behind her, the spire with its watchful figures, her towers looking west.

My eyes to the viewfinder, vulnerable on all sides, that sense of a guarding presence calmed me down and let me work.

There are claims that buildings are simply enclosed air, objects built from inanimate materials, but I don’t believe it. Buildings are memory boxes, repositories of the voices, footfalls, and lives that have sounded within them.

During my time in Paris I passed Notre Dame on foot, on buses, ate my lunch in the square at her feet. Within her walls and in her deep quiet, I lit candles for my parents. She stands at the center of Paris like a guardian spirit keeping watch over her city and people. Her roots are centuries deep and she misses nothing, because the world comes to her with its news, sorrows, and triumphs.

And now the world is coming to her again, with aid and prayers for her restoration.