So it’s been a long day, and I’m feeling pretty sick. I swear, every time I turn on the heater in our apartment, it blasts dusts, and all the germs from over a year ago burst into my lungs and brain. It’s Los Angeles, though, so being sick seems pretty absurd. I can understand being cold when it’s freaking 30 degrees outside, and if you leave the house before your hair dries, then your hair will freeze. But catching a cold in L.A.–seriously? By the way, this whole hair freezing thing had happened to me several times back home. And I’m not going to lie right now. I’m so excited that the only snow I see outside is on top of a giant mountain that seems miles way. That’s one thing I love about L.A. in the winter — the snow on the mountains and that it’s so far away from my driveway.
Oh yeah, pumped to share this new piece with you that came out at the LA Weekly. A couple of months ago, I saw Jeremy Radin read at the Sunset Jubilee at the PEN Center Stage. He was incredible. Since I saw him read, I’ve wanted to write a story about him. So I pitched the editor, and she accepted. I’m really happy to see this piece in print, because poets get no love. And poetry is a wonderful thing. Here’s the piece: Jeremy Radin.
Also, I’m thinking about writing a Top ten favorite albums of 2012 — just like the books post. I listen to a lot of music while I write, so this would be fun. Now, I just need to find out where Heron is with my chicken noodle soup! Goodnight everyone.
Yesterday I posted my favorite books of 2012 — ten to five. It wasn’t a list that attempted to define the best books of 2012 or the hippest or the best buys. It was basically a list of my favorite books. So to recap: 10. A Scanner Darkly 9. Concussion and Our Kids 8. Hey Fudge 7. Empty the Sun. 6. True Confessions. It’s interesting to look back on the books I’ve read, because sometimes after I finish a book, I seem move on without taking the time to reflect on what I learned or what I enjoyed. So it’s nice to look back.
And what I have noticed is that the books say a lot about where I am at in my life, personally, and as a writer. For example, many of the books on my list are L.A. books. Well, I live in L.A. County — soon to be moving — and a lot of them are noir mixed in with a book from my home state, Massachusetts. Also, I have some science fiction novels on the list. It’s funny, almost three years ago, I would never have even talked about science fiction — chalking it up to nerd fiction. But I can’t get enough of it now. Next book I’m going to read, after I finish a Daniel Smith book and Kohler’s Gestalt Psychology, is Ender Games. So now, enough preamble, finally, my top five favorite books of 2012.
5. Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
It’s pretty shameful that I hadn’t read Burroughs’ classic memoir before this year, but I’m glad that I finally came to the book. I believe that books come to us or appeal to us at certain times in our life for certain reasons. Maybe I’m talking about fate. Maybe I’m talking about coincidence. Why not both? But this year, as I began to revise my book, reading Burroughs has proved to be of tremendous importance. It’s about a young kid struggling with a mentally ill mother in Massachusetts. And seeing how a writer handled this narrative, the characters, even the setting, proved to be extremely important.
The line between normal and crazy seemed impossibly thin. A person would have to be an expert tightrope walker in order not to fall.
I understand that above line very well. What I loved most about this book is the way Burroughs handles structure. Of course, it’s in chronological order, but there is something about the way it holds together that I’m still trying to figure out. How the hell does this book come together and still provide a satisfying ending?
4. Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
So far, Ham on Rye isn’t my favorite piece of writing by Charles Bukowski. I love Post Office, Hot Water Music, and Love is a Dog From Hell (Ecco selected poems), but Ham on Rye is a good book. I think of it more as a memoir, now, than I do as a novel. That’s what it basically is, and I think maybe the book would have been more respected as a memoir, because it’s basically a chronological structure with very little plot. Memoirs can get away with loose structure and plot — in my humble opinion — because the emphasis is more on the writer and the character. I love Ham on Rye, because of the origin story of the great Henry Chinaski, but also because I get to see a pre WWII L.A. There is one scene where Bukowski — I’m sorry Chinaski — is riding his bike to the beach that is unforgettable.
I could see the road ahead of me. I was poor and I was going to stay poor. But I particularly didn’t want money. I didn’t know what I wanted. Yes, I did. I wanted someplace to hide out, someplace where one didn’t have to do anything.
3. Stolen Air by Osip Mandelstam translated by Christian Wiman
Stolen Air is by far my favorite poetry book of 2012. Not just because it’s published by Ecco Press and has an incredible introduction by Ilya Kaminsky, but because it’s stunningly beautiful and so far different from the poetry I usually read. Most of my favorite poetry is narrative — Philip Levine, Denis Johnson, Frank O’Hara — and I often find lyrical poetry esoteric and purposefully pretentious. There is just something about Mandelstam — the persecution in Russia, the passion for freedom, the incredibly tight images — that just blew me away. Take a poem like Godnausea, which was written on April 4, 1931:
By torchlight bewildered with purpose/ Into the cellar of the six-toed untruth:/ Well, my pretty, she says,/ Lifting the hairy turnip of her head:/ Are you hungry, or are you dead?
There is something hardboiled, rugged, grungy about Mandelstam that I love. And the collection that spans Mandelstam’s poetry comes together in stunning harmony.
2. McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales Edited by Michael Chabon
For my money, there is no better collection of stories that blends a literary bent with thrilling and amazing adventures that this one. And that’s what I love about reading books in the first place — adventure. I love the feeling I get when I read Twain, Hemingway, London — as if the whole world was able to be discovered and conquered. And each one of these stories has that certain feel — even though a lot of it ends bad. The book features Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Aimee Bender, and Jim Shepard. But the list is endless of how many great writers are included in the anthology. But my favorite, the absolute most thrilling story in the collection, is The Albertine Notes by Rick Moody. Honestly, this novella-length story is by far the best story I have read in years. It blew me away in terms of the way he manipulated time and how it linked into the overall premise of the story: the main character was investigating a new drug that injected pleasant memories to the user who lived in a present-day dystopia. The writing was just incredible, and it’s a book I suggest you go out and buy — right now! After reading this story, Rick Moody became one of my favorite writers.
1. L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
This year, it’s hard to find a novel that captured me as much as L.A. Confidential. I have learned so much from reading this book — about my city, about writing, about plot and timing — that I’m almost tempted to recommend this book just on what you will practically take away as a reader and writer. Well, I don’t think I need to recommend this book, actually, because it’s a classic. And it’s worth that label. It’s a dramatic triumph that builds to Oedipus like proportions. I’ve already written a lot about this book in the last couple weeks. But let me leave you with one of the last lines from the book (Sort of a spoiler alert):
Some mean get the world, some men get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona. You’re in the former, but my God I don’t envy you the blood on your conscience.
I saw that a bunch of my favorite critics were writing a list of the best books of 2012. David Ulin has a great one. You can read it here at the LA Times: Best of 2012. So I started to think about making a similar list. But what’s different about my list is that I still read a lot of classics. Whereas a lot of critics need to be up to date on the newest and hippest books, I have never felt the need to be on top of what is hot. I remember reading a quote, I think by Kafka, that said never read a book that isn’t at least six months old.
Now, I don’t think that’s true, necessarily, but in a lot of ways I still feel somewhat behind the eight ball in terms of the scope of literature. So I’m catching up. I mean, stop for a second and think about how many books there are in the world. How in the world can anyone ever come close to reading all of them — or even yet, reading all the truly great books? It’s staggering to think about the task. I’m only on this Earth for a small amount of time, and I really hope I can find a way to expose myself to the best. So, here are ten books that I read this year that I loved. I’m starting with the first five.
10. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
The first book on my list is the last book I finished. I love Philip K. Dick’s writing, but the way I knew Dick’s work was through his short stories. I actually had never read one of his novels until now. And I love the stories, but A Scanner Darkly, which is set in a kind of L.A./Orange County hybrid, presented a futuristic and paranoid view of the city where I currently live that just blew me away. What I truly admire about the book is the effect it has on the reader. I kept reading on, fully aware that the sense of paranoia was deepening and the character was unreliable, but Dick had such a control over the story. I trusted him and followed him into his drug infested world. It reminded me of great L.A. Noir novels or even Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Or even a great Victorian book like H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man or Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After reading this book, I plan on reading the rest of Dick’s novels.
9. Concussions and Our Kids by Dr. Robert Cantu and Mark Hyman
Sometimes, a great book has an impact so wide that it just becomes digested, almost unknowingly, into the cultural lexicon of a generation. Dr. Cantu’s book, Concussions and Our Kids, is having a similar effect. One day, I think Cantu’s book will be required reading in school — too much dismay from the students — similar in scope to A Silent Spring, because it sheds light on the concussion epidemic and serious problem in our community. Cantu’s studies and his writing will change the way we play sports and think about our brains. His research into CTE — the degenerative brain disease — has done so much to teach us about our minds. It’s a fascinating read, and you’ll learn a ton about the current concussion dialogue. For example, did you know that after football, women’s soccer is the next leading cause of concussions in youth sports?
8. Hey Fudge by Travis Millard
Hey Fudge is a book of illustrations/comics put out by a great L.A. press, Narrow Books. I talked to the art designer of this book, and he wanted someone to flip through every page, because there is a story that unfolds, a narrative. Millard’s work is hilarious, but also vibrant and alive. Sometimes, whenever I need to clear my head from whatever analytical bullshit that is waging war on my mood, I open up Millard’s book and just kind of flip through. The beginning of the book features a series of clips imagining that Michael Jackson was lost at sea. The humor is definitely there — so is the craft.
7. Empty the Sun by Joseph Mattson
Maybe this list is heavily influence by my current location — L.A. County — but I can’t help but devour L.A. writing. And one of those great L.A. novels is Joseph Mattson’s Empty the Sun. I wrote a piece about the book earlier this year at the LA Weekly, and it just seems to sum up a lot of the experience in the city — the fall out of the California Dream. That everywhere around the city, people come here and they become something, well, grimy, hardboiled, lost. In a lot of ways, it seems right in that same vein as a lot of my other favorite class L.A. novels — Post Office and Ask the Dust. Plus, this book even comes with a soundtrack.
6. True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne
Well, here’s another L.A. Noir. I’m loving anything set in L.A. There is just something almost paranoid, hallucinatory, distorted about these novels set in L.A.; something that’s just slightly off kilter. In True Confessions, it might be the murder and the way the community responds. A murder, in this world, is a headline, something to help the readers of the tragedy, the snooping citizens to forget about their meaningless lives. The strange thing about reading True Confessions was that, sometimes, instead of feeling like I was in L.A., all the Catholic politics and the Irish descendants made me feel like I was back in Massachusetts or reading a book by Dennis Lehane. I kind of liked that about this book. It’s a classic.
Okay, tune in tomorrow for the next 5. Saved my best for last.
Last Thursday, I read at Book Soup as part of The Rattling Wall Issue 3 Book Tour. I was lucky enough to read with some great writers: Brian Rooney, Amy Wallen, Panio Gianopoulus, Kate Reeves, and Suzanne Lummis. It was a great reading, and I was honored to be a part of it — especially at such a cool and historic bookstore. When I moved to L.A. almost two years ago, I interviewed Joseph Mattson and Tosh Berman at Book Soup. Since then, my goal was to read there. Big thanks to Michelle Meyering and The Rattling Wall for helping make that happen. Check out the video above to see my reading.
So, as for what happens when you lose everything…Today was an utter disaster. It was one of those days that you can never see coming — like an old man running through a red light — that shake the shit out of you and realize how one mistake can send you on a trajectory of unfortunate events.
This morning, I woke up and went over to Portfolio Coffeehouse on 4th Street to work on this piece I’m writing on port truckers. I’ve been working on it since early September, and I have countless interviews that were extremely hard to come by. So, I’m sitting in Portfolio, texting my buddy who just moved to L.A., and I’m going through some of the old audio. I was going to delete some of the old ones in order to focus on typing up the important ones. That’s when it happened. I hit the erase button on my Olympus video recorder, and instead of only deleting one of the interviews, I deleted the entire folder. All of my work…gone.
Suddenly, months of work, personal stories I was trusted with, money, opportunity, was gone. I knew I was in a coffee shop, and I could hear the espresso machines spitting foam and the random people talking about their new businesses, but it all disappeared, and I wasn’t in the coffee shop anymore. I was outside of it, in my head, playing out the infinite scenarios of apologizing for a stupid mistake and wondering how in the world I was going to make my deadline.
Now I actually walked outside, crouched down where people couldn’t see me, and screamed, “FUCK.” I looked down at the voice recorder, holding it as if I was strangling the piece of electronic crap. “How can this be so easy? How can you be such a little shit? What the hell is wrong with you? I didn’t want to erase all my work. Couldn’t you have know that? Couldn’t you tell? How can you be such a terrible purchase?”
I stepped back for a second, realizing that I’m probably talking to myself, and I took a couple of breaths. I went back inside and googled the Olympus product, found the contact information, and gave them a call.
So here’s where things get better, and if you’re going through this same scenario and you’re about to give up all hope, let me tell you — there’s a way to fix this.
What the woman on the phone told me is that there are these audio recovery programs you can download for free. But she said they only work for about 75% of your lost work. I figured, hey, 75% is better than losing everything. What I needed, however, was to connect my voice recorder with a USB cable to my computer, so I rushed over to Best Buy, and I bought the cable. One of the Geeks there told me about this program called Recuva. She swore by the product and said it worked most of the time.
Oh, I thought, maybe I’m saved. I prayed to God or Allah or Buddha — whoever the hell is up there listening to me and my problems — and I found the program for free. Well, Recuva is a program only compatible with a PC. I’m using a Mac. But I found another program that worked for a Mac. It is called Stellar Phoenix Mac Data Recovery. The download was for free, and it started scanning my computer. The great thing about it was that you could scan iPods, hardrives, audio files, even flash drives, and it would find your material. Lucky for me, the program found all my audio recordings.
And there they were — my mp3 files all stacked up in a folder like a miracle sent down straight from Vishnu. I couldn’t believe it. The program saved me — and for free.
I went to click on the files. No so fast, the program said. You need to buy the $100 software in order to recover the files. I could see the audio, but I couldn’t own them yet. I reluctantly paid the $100, knowing there was no other option, and now I have the files back, in my hands, in order to complete the story.
But it was terrifying. I have never done something so stupid. Well, at least as a freelancer, and I know now that I must start backing up everything. What a wild day.
Yesterday I had two new pieces come out at the LA Weekly and Pacific Standard Magazine. The piece for the LA Weekly was a part of the tournament for the greatest LA novel ever, and I read and officiated the fight between True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne and L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy. Both are great books, but to me, L.A Confidential is a masterpiece.
When I was taking Lynne Barrett’s plot class at FIU — one of the best and most challenging classes I have ever taken — she made us read Aristotle’s Poetics. While I disagreed with some of Aristotle’s statements, specifically that lower-class characters can’t make interesting main characters, it proved to be one of the most important books I have ever read. The main lesson I took from that book was that great plots have a recognition and a reversal. The reversal brings about the drama — that the status quo changes and characters fall and rise in “power.” Well, L.A. Confidential, in my opinion, does what great Greek and English and American dramas accomplish — high drama, incredible reversals. The change in the status quo from the beginning of the book to the end — the people who die, the sacrifices, the changes in character and their relationships to one another — is nothing short but stunning. It has become one of my favorite books of all time. Check out my piece: Best LA Novel Ever.
The other piece that I had come out was on brain injuries in football. I started writing the piece back in September, and it finally came out in December. I have a lot more information that I want to use on the piece, but it serves its purpose: examining the public relations of brain injury. The focus seems to be on youth football and the NFL wants to control that image of safety at the grass roots level. It’s complicated, because even though they are trying to protect their brand, the organization, USA Football, actually seems to be trying to change the game. Check out this piece at Pacific Standard — Public Relations of Brain Injury — or at Salon — Will Concussions Kill Football.