RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Books

Devotion: Why I Write/Book Review

shoppingDevotion: Why I Write
Patti Smith
Yale University Press 2017

A few pages into Devotion, Patti Smith’s recent meditation on writing (originally delivered as a lecture at Yale), I wondered, Is it really possible/desirable/commendable to live this sort of contemplative literary intellectual existence in America/the world in the 21st century? As I moved further into the book, however, I became enveloped in its calm and confident atmosphere, and such nagging prosaic questions disappeared.

In the past two decades Patti Smith has been highly prolific literarily; at 69, she is certainly aging well, and still inspiring generations of artists. An illuminating piece of Patti Smith trivia: after the phenomenal success of Horses, plus a few more albums, shopping-1.jpegSmith retired more or less from public life with her husband Fred, had two kids, and stayed home to raise them–getting up early each day to write. In a recent interview with Alec Baldwin she says that she loved her life at that time, and the continual writing served to hone her craft. She said she couldn’t have written the books she’s writing now were it not for those years of practice.

Certainly her books show a high level of skill, while leaving space for her dream states and moments of transcendence. In Devotion she outdoes herself, performing a feat of magic that I’ve never seen from any other writer: in a scant 93 pages she shows us her mental process.

This is how: In Part One Smith writes a journal of the hours leading up to a trip to Europe and the first few days of business with her French publisher; here she includes the minutiae of daily life: what she ate for breakfast, the book she read on the plane, the images on her television at night. Part Two, the centerpiece of Devotion, is a work of fiction–a short story, novella, whatever one wishes to call it–in which the reader gets to stare directly into the writer’s brain! Talk about “Show Don’t Tell!”  We get to see how characters and descriptions in a story reflect details written earlier, in Part One. We literally get to see life interwoven with art. And the story is so finely wrought that I completely forgot I was reading something by Patti Smith–something I, as a long-time admirer, am acutely aware of when reading her non-fiction. The final section of the book describes a visit to the home of Albert Camus’ daughter, where Smith reads his unfinished last manuscript, and eventually answers the question “Why Do I Write?”

The sum total of Devotion‘s parts is a glorious trip, an exploration of a writer’s mind. It should be assigned reading in every writing class from here on in.

POLAD518HIRES

Advertisements

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest is nothing if not aptly titled: after reading nearly 100 pages it seems to me to be one huge joke.

I’d been wanting and meaning to read IJ for years, and the more I heard about the book and its author, the more I wanted to read it—but a thousand-something pages? I still haven’t finished War and Peace! Finally, after seeing The End of the Tour, I began.

In the first three chapters I found gems of wisdom buried in acres of verbiage, and was in serious need of guidance; I went to the Internet and found dozens, if not hundreds, of sites dedicated to IJ. I read a few reviews and reader discussions, scanned the Wiki site, and returned to reading. But now, fresh from laudatory reviews by people whose opinions I respect, and gushing declarations by fans and readers, my gut reaction was: You’ve got to be kidding! I mean, huge chunks of IJ are absolutely unreadable. The boredom, the repetition, the footnotes, many of them wholly unnecessary: was DFW putting us on?

Wallace committed suicide in 2008, 12 years after the fame and glory that followed IJ. I don’t know enough about the guy to speculate, but it’s safe to say there was some sort of mad genius going on in there. IJ is indeed a work of mad genius—so much so that I’m somewhat scared to admit my lack of enchantment. David Eggers, who wrote a somewhat negative and astute review of IJ when it came out, has hidden or somehow banished his review from the public; many years after IJ‘s outsized fame he wrote a foreword to the book that was purely positive, expressing the opinion that not a single sentence of IJ is imperfect, not a word out of place. Duck and cover, Eggers!

Thus, to ward off my fear of fans and laudatory literary luminaries who will surely attack my intelligence, or lack of same: for the record, my favorite author is Doris Lessing—no literary slouch—and I’ve slogged through, even delighted in, the works of Henry James, Thomas Mann, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Edith Wharton, to name just a few who can be rough going.

Is Infinite Jest a work of infinite jest? Is it The Emperor’s New Clothes? No: the shame is, this probably could have been a  much more accessible, readable, and therefore better novel. In the final analysis, Infinite Jest is a powerful testament to the utter absence of bold, intelligent editing in the publishing world today.

On Reading: Quotations

Posted on

jonahreading

I collect memorable quotations on everything from sex to humor to writing. These are all on the joy of reading. 

What better way to grow up and mature through life than accompanied by great novels to show us the way?–Lucy Horner.

Just the knowledge that a good book is awaiting one at the end of a long day makes that day happier. ~ Kathleen Norris

Be careful of reading health books. You may die of a misprint.—Mark TwainMarkTwain

When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before. ~ Thomas Carlyle

A book is like a piece of rope; it takes on meaning only in connection with the things it holds together. ~ Norman Cousins

I read the newspaper avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction.~ Aneurin Bevan 

A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images.—~ Albert Camus 

The flood of print has turned reading into a process of gulping rather than savoring—Warren Chappell

The great American novel has not only already been written, it has already been rejected.~ Frank Dane 

Never judge a book by its movie.~ J. W. Eagan ~

People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.~ Logan Pearsall Smith ~

Why pay a dollar for a bookmark? Why not use the dollar for a bookmark?~ Fred Stoller ~

No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.~ Atwood H. Townsend ~

“Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. –Proust

Everything I know I Learned From Art

 

Having just watched No God No Master, a 2012 film about the Palmer Raids of the 1920s and, peripherally, the railroading and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, it occurs to me that everything I know about history I have gleaned from movies, novels, and song lyrics. Before seeing

Sacco & Vanzetti (Photo: Wikipedia)

Sacco & Vanzetti
(Photo: Wikipedia)

this movie, I did not know that Emma Goldman was deported from the US, never to return. I had no idea what the Palmer Raids were, and though I knew about Sacco and Vanzetti, I was fuzzy on the details (though I knew a bit from Holly Near‘s song Two Good Arms.)

This is not the history they teach in American schools—at least, it’s not anything I was taught.

Thanks to Doris Lessing I know something about colonialism in Africa. I learned about the French Revolution from Marge City of DarknessPiercy‘s City of Darkness, City of Light. I know the history of India from dozens of novels by Indian writers, most notably A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and, to a lesser extent, the film Gandhi. Recently I’ve gotten a dose of Nigerian history from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Lest anyone think I’m swallowing works of fiction or Hollywood productions whole, I almost always look up the facts online afterwards; even before the Internet, I did my homework, especially when writing book reviews: I compared Piercy’s details in the abovementioned book to those of historians Will and Ariel Durant—Piercy, who does exhaustive research for her novels, was remarkably faithful to the facts.

When I was in my teens, my twenties, and beyond, I read so many books and saw so many movies about the holocaust and slavery that they no longer fascinated but enraged and depressed me, until I finally swore them off; besides, I could probably write up a syllabus for each. Recently I added domestic violence to the list; having worked in a battered women’s shelter some years ago, I don’t need anymore painful education in that department either.

I don’t listen to music, read literature, or watch movies in order to learn, but because it’s what I love to do. Still, it makes me furious that I wasn’t taught important historical events in school, where they just threw dates of wars and generals at us, not to mention lies about our country. It just goes to show that in the end, as Virginia Woolf noted, it’s the artists who’ll save us.

 

Still Writing: New Blog

Posted on

Readers and other Dirty Laundry Followers! 

 

I’ve just begun a new blog, Still Writing, with a primary focus on writing, books, and most particularly, my books.While the site is still under construction, I’d be delighted to get some visitors, commentary, followers, and feedback. The construction is going slow, but there’s a hefty number of posts up that I transferred from another old blog, BookBuster, soon to be permanently shut down. In fact, I just put up a Dirty Laundry post from last year about the wide world of publishing, so come on over.

 

book piles