Tag: literature

My Favorite Books of 2012 — Ten to Six

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

What Writing Creatively Really Needs: Hope

The last week was great, because I was able to take some time away from pitching and writing and step back a bit.  I’ve been freelancing, now, for four months, and it’s time to take stock of where I am at.  It’s a difficult journey, but I have great support.  Over the last two weeks, I have had work appear at the LA Weekly, OC Weekly, and Salon.com, but when I look back on the last four months, my creative work has suffered a bit.  I’ve been so focused on trying to write for projects that will help me survive that I’ve forgotten, to some extent, about poetry, about short stories, about my memoir.

Maybe that was a part of the plan.  Maybe I needed some distance.  And when Thanksgiving “break” came, I found myself writing a new story, and it was my first true science fiction story.  It’s set in a Los Angeles in the future, and while I feel somewhat nerdy writing the story, it’s been a pleasure to allow my imagination to wander — to envision a new world.  And this has helped rev up the creative process.

This would have never happened four years ago.  I would never have even given science fiction a chance.

When I was in graduate school, I started out only interested in literary pieces.  I was (and still am) a huge fan of Tobias Wolff, Denis Johnson, Stuart Dybek, Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and Junot Diaz, and I only cared about one story — the lyrical, literary story.  I actually had a teacher in undergrad, after much pleading to tell me where I needed to grow as a writer, tell me that I only valued the realistic story.

But when I got to FIU, I met a teacher who started to introduce me to genre — especially Noir and horror.  I was resistant at first.  I thought genre was for hacks who wanted to make money.  Then I started to read Raymond Chandler, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville.  One of the best anthologies this teacher suggested was the American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny From Poe to the Pulps.  I suddenly became aware of the tremendous possibilities of genre and the infinite combinations — even surrealism, abstraction, the philosophically stirring existed within the forms.  Yes, I was ignorant and stubborn, but I was learning.  So I read everything from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Island of Dr. Moreau to Borges, and I saw similarities and possibilities.

Now, this isn’t any new revelation.  Just look at Michael Chabon and many other writers experimenting with genre.  But I was suddenly freed from the reality that all writing had to be real and true.  Truth is a word, anyway, that has nothing to do with facts or even reality.

So I wrote my first horror story at FIU, and at first, it was torn apart, somewhat, in the workshops.  I had a tendency, then, and a tendency, now, to go over the top.  So I revised and worked on it.  And about two weeks ago, it was accepted into a future anthology by Sirens Call Publications.  The story is called: “The Castle on the Hill.”  The anthology is a haunted mental-ward theme.

My point is this: sometimes in order to feel free again, to be reminded of the infinite  possibilities of this world, of art, of writing, it’s important to live within a form, a genre, a guiding principle.  Sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes it’s better to be free and without direction.  Right now, I feel somewhat stuck in between both ideas.

I’ll wake up tomorrow, and I won’t truly know what the day will bring. I’ll sit down to write a pitch, and I might find a better idea.  I’ll sit down to finish a story, and I might end up writing a poem.  And maybe it’s only in this searching, in this lost wandering do we come to direction, to guidance, to form.  Well, the most important commodity, when it comes to writing, has to be hope.  Hope that you will find a thread.  Hope that your character will come alive.  Hope that you will finish.  Hope that you will be appreciated.  Hope that you will find the words to say what is pulling at your heart-strings.  Hope is what gets us through the feeling of being lost.

And so now, I must come to a stopping point.  I didn’t really know where this blog was going to take me.  I didn’t know really what was even on my mind.

New Piece in the LA Weekly and Jack Kerouac

So last week I had new piece at the LA Weekly: LA Indie Book Presses Are Thriving. How is that Possible? Check it out.

Plus, this morning I should be talking to someone who knew Jack Kerouac very well for a piece I’m writing.  Can’t wait.  Check out this awesome video above to remind you how beautiful and strange and mad of a writer Kerouac was.

The First time I read Slaughterhouse 5

How often do you finish a novel, closing that last page, and feel something bigger than yourself?  As if the book was designed by an architect with enough imagination to construct universes and galaxies?   Okay, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but if you have ever read a book in your life, which I’m sure that you have, then you understand the feeling that I’m talking about.  I won’t call it magic.  But it’s something, well, unsayable.

I’ll never forget the first time that I felt that sensation.  My mother and father were going through a terrible divorce — this might have been back in the summer of 98 — when my father had finally sold my childhood home.  My father had already moved out, but my mother, my brother, and I still lived there.  Well, the house was finally sold, and the packing was about to begin.  That house meant the world to us.  I remember, as a kid, I would try and convince my mother to take me to McDonald’s, because they had this Monopoly game.  I thought for sure I was going to peel a sticker and win enough money to buy the house.  I would be a hero.

Anyway, it was the summer, and I had some books to read.  All throughout the summer, I dreaded reading those books on the reading list almost as much as losing my house.

But my father had come up with the idea, that instead of my brother and me helping with the move — the “trauma” of placing our memories into boxes and physically dissembling the home that had already fallen apart emotionally — my father decided to take us on a trip to Myrtle Beach.  That would mean that my mother and my grandparents would have to take care of moving.

So, my grandparents paid for some movers to help with the process, and my brother and I were in Myrtle Beach, running up and down the beaches, seizing the day, raging against the dying of childhood.  I spent most of the day boogie boarding.  Yeah, yeah, I did enjoy myself, but in the moments between the fun, I couldn’t help but think of my mom unpacking our lives.  I couldn’t help but think of the divorce.  I couldn’t help but think of the disappearing home.

The thoughts became so intense that I stopped caring about the ocean or Myrtle Beach.  I stopped caring about fishing.  I stopped caring about vacation, and I just sat on the beach, reading my books on the reading list.  The first book was Kurt Vonnegut’s, Slaughterhouse Five.  That might have been the first time that I chose, deliberately, reading over “play.”

My father kept jumping back into the ocean with my brother, and my Uncle was drinking a mudslide on the beach.  They kept trying to get me to leave my chair, but I refused.  I didn’t want to leave the world of Billy Pilgrim.  The way he jumped around in time, it made me wonder about the way that I was existing.  Could I, like Billy Pilgrim, float back and forth through time, too?  Was time only a fault of human’s inferior perceptions?  Ah, I’m getting way too nerdy.  But it’s really not that crazy; it’s exactly what Einstein was talking about with time travel.  It was exactly what Faulkner meant when he said: “The past isn’t dead.  In fact, it’s not even past.”

Well, in terms of the book, I had never thought about time in those ways.  I had never thought about memory in those ways.  I had never thought about destruction in those ways.  I couldn’t believe that in one day at the end of World War II, our country killed more people in Dresden than they did in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  And the worst part of it all was that no one was talking about it.  There was this whole history of violence and corruption, and according to the world of Billy Pilgrim, it was always happening, revolving and revolving and revolving just out of our perception.  History, war, violence wasn’t something that went away.  It has stained our very essence.

Sometime around then I closed the book, and I looked up.  I saw my Uncle sipping from a straw.  I saw my father running down the beach after my brother. I heard the lifeguard flag slapping in the wind.  A man cast and reeled a fishing pole.  The ocean ceaselessly crashed against the beach.  I shut the book, and I knew that I would never be the same again.