Archive for the ‘memoir’ Category

I’m sorry to say that I, like apparently everybody else, too rarely go into actual bookstores anymore, primarily because I’m cheap and lazy. The exception is used bookstores, which are a different game in terms of supporting authors and publishing, which, as an aspiring participant, I really ought to do.

It’s only going to get worse now that my girlfriend got me a Kindle Fire for an early Christmas present. I’m not likely to read a lot of books e-style, what between free streams of old Arrested Development episodes and perpetual solitaire, but I’ll read a few, and they’ll inevitably whittle into my already sparse bookstoring.

Anyhow, given all that, I felt a little self-applied glow of unearned righteousness just before Christmas when I did patronize a bookstore, the excellent Shakespeare & Co. here in Missoula, to get a gift for my granny in Texas. She’s become a great reader in her elder years, and also something of an unlikely liberal, and had mentioned an interest in presidential biographies. I bought her H.W. Brand’s Franklin Roosevelt biography Traitor to his Class, which I thought she might like, not least since she grew up poor during the Great Depression and knew Roosevelt from afar as an almost perpetual presidential presence. (She’s loving the book, come to find out — probably the best-received gift I’ve ever gotten her).

Meanwhile, I’m in a great bookstore, filled with Christmas spirit and self-congratulation, and so I can hardly help but buy something for myself, especially since I’ve temporarily convinced myself that I’m god’s gift to local economies and the future of the book, a one-man hospice helper at the bedside of a dying industry, holding hands and cooing encouragement. Hell, I deserve a new book all my own…

I picked Abraham Verghese’s The Tennis Partner, despite having a preference against paperbacks and a hatred of those little P.S. book club addenda that all the bestsellers have these days. Whatever, it was cheapish, I’d heard good things about Verghese, and I had seven hours of flying ahead of me. And I’ve been obsessing over tennis since early summer when I took it up again after a 25-year absence spawned by a semi-distinguished high school career.

Verghese is foremost a physician, and the book is a memoir of his tennis-based friendship with a former low-level touring pro-turned-medical student who also happens to be a recovering addict. The book isn’t about tennis per se, though it does have some insightful writing about the sport as played at the club-enthusiast level. Mostly, though, the tennis is there as the setting that brings the two men together, and as an occasional metaphor for the back and forths of a fledgling friendship and the relapse/recovery cycle of addiction and treatment. To wit: winning a point in tennis is usually a matter of getting the ball back over the net just one more time than your opponent does.

This was good and even instructive reading for me, since I tend to try to hit winners, and I also tend to lose. Then again, I didn’t really take tennis up again to win so much as to get my ass out of a chair for a few hours a week. When I got back from Christmas in Atlanta, which I spent with family, and where I received a new racket and new court shoes as gifts, I made a date to play doubles with a couple of guys I’ve enjoyed getting to know on the  court over the past few months. One of them is a lawyer who used to work in El Paso, Texas, where Verghese’s story takes place. I asked if he’d read it.

“Oh yeah,” he said. He’d often played with ol’ Abe, a great guy, doing real well. I’d had a hard time telling from the book how competent a player Verghese was, wondering, of course, if I could take him. My lawyer friend said he was a solid 4.0 player, would fit right into the foursome we had on court.

Yeah, I figured. I could take him.

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img043I probably paid too much for this first edition of A Moveable Feast, everybody’s favorite college book, but I really wanted it.

It looks like there’s a new version of the posthumously published (and edited) classic forthcoming, according to this story in the New York Times. I’m good with mine, which I bought at The Bird’s Nest, a used book store in Missoula, Montana.

img044Missoula, remember, is the home of Robert Jordan, the emasculated hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls, this slipcased facsimile first version of which I picked up at Missoula’s Book Exchange.

img045I didn’t pay anything for my paperback of Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories, which was recently gifted me by a friend who’s inordinately jealous that I’m going to get to spend the better part of the next year in Ann Arbor, not too terribly far from the Upper Peninsula Michigan haunts of titular Nick.

There’s even a blue canoe on the faux birch-bark cover, to match my blue canoe — one of two I’ll be taking with me when I hit the road in late August.


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51KKb7bk2VL._SL500_Incredibly dumb things I have done in cars: Drive a 1980 Chevy Suburban (my dad’s) with a loose steering gear from Clear Lake City to Galveston while touching the wheel with nothing but my teeth; drive a sixth-hand 1970 Porsche 914 (mine) at 120 miles per hour up I-45 to Conroe in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, drunk as a skunk; lose my virginity in the uncomfortably humped back seat of a 1984 Camaro (my mom’s), or try to anyhow, until that bored campus cop showed up with a flashlight and not enough sense to mind his own damn business; and crack.

Incredibly fun things I have done in cars: driving the Suburban to Galveston with my teeth; stem-winding that little Volks hybrid up to the lake with the Targa top stowed; and getting more or less laid for the first time. (The crack was a terrible idea to start with and, as it turned out, cut to the point of pointlessness with soap, and therefore no fun at all.)”

That’s from my recent Texas Observer column on P.J. O’Rourke’s Driving Like Crazy, which is funny as hell, and stupid as shit. You can READ THE REST OF IT HERE if you like.

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I was just thinking about John Updike.

Well, the titular part is over.

I don’t recall ever reading anything by John Updike that made me just stop and admire, as pretty a writer as he was, but I have to qualify that statement by acknowledging that what I’ve read is a pretty drastic minority of everything he wrote, which is, in fairness, as much his fault as mine. Maybe I missed something.

The memoirs — love the classical plural — were his 37th book, published about 20 years ago. I read today somewhere that he wrote three pages a day. That’s what three pages a day will get you. Math.

David Foster Wallace claimed to be one of Updike’s last fans in an otherwise eviscerating review of Updike’s 1997 novel Toward the End of Time — a review snottily (but rockingly) titled “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think” in Wallace’s Consider the Lobster collection.

img017And no US novelist has mapped the inner terrain of the solipsist better than John Updike, whose rise in the 1960s and ’70s established him as both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.”

  • (Solipcism: 1. The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified. 2. The theory or view that the self is the only reality. Compare objectivism. —American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1969″)

They were different kinds of florid, Wallace and Updike, and different kinds of unlikely to be replaced on their particular pedestals.

And it seems incredibly unlikely that henceforth any American writer’s career will look anything like the cradle-to-grave sinecure Updike was born into. It’s like his job was America’s Writer, and he got the job right out of college.

I’d say it looks like he used his luck awfully well.

Our sympathies to Nicholson Baker.

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This is overdue: Studs Terkel died Nov. 1. My connection was down or I would have blogged about it then.

Studs Terkel wouldn’t have had much use for that excuse. One of his most prominent tools of the trade was a tape recorder — a reasonably new technology when he began using them as aids in the oral histories at the studsroot of some of his best books. Terkel was about my age then, in the early 1950s, and in his 2007 memoir Touch and Go he writes about his early technophobic fumbling with the machine as a humanizing prop that encouraged interview subjects to sympathize with him, opening up under the rules of a different dynamic. I liked hearing that bit. It sounded right.

He was 96, and his biography is insanely full, so it’s hard to get all bent out of shape about the terrible unfairness of death. He was from and thoroughly of Chicago, home of Carl Sandburg, another activist/poet of sorts, and of the new president, for that matter. I don’t think it’s presumptuous to think he would have liked to have seen his country yesterday

I read Working and Hard Times sometime in high school. I must have gone through a phase, because my sister turkelsig1remembered, and last year when she happened to pass by a Studs Terkel reading in Atlanta, she picked this up and had him sign it for me. It may be the only book she’s ever given me. Terkel wrote “peace”.

I think if you had to make a list of the 25 most important people of the 20th century, you’d have to consider putting Studs Terkel on it. He’s on mine. I admire the hell out of him.

Curiosity: Studs Terkel, who I never met, reminds me quite a bit, in type, of my friend Andy Nelson, who drank himself to death a couple of years ago. I’m sure Andy knew all about Studs. And I’m sure Studs knew all about drinking.

Oddity: Because I grew up aspirationally middle-class, my parents owned a few acres of weekend recreation land on a reservoir near Houston during most of my youth. Because my parents — mostly my dad, really — was uncomfortable with his aspirations, he named the place “Hard Times.” I’m pretty sure the land was named before Terkel’s book came out. Maybe dad was thinking of the Dickens. Maybe he was just playin po. He eventually lost it in a bankruptcy, so maybe he wasn’t just playing.

Trivia: Touch and Go is also the name of a Chicago-based record label that put out a bunch of cool stuff by the Butthole Surfers and Jesus Lizard and a lot of touring loud rock bands I used to see at Emo’s in Houston, as per below:



I believe Studs was too much the jazz man to much appreciate most Touch and Go bands, but I bet he would have checked them out. I bet he did.

“Curiosity never killed this cat,” he was known to say, and that sounds right to me too.

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So today is my birthday — me and Buster Keaton, Charlton Heston, Alicia Silverstone, Anne Rice and Rutherford B. Hayes. I used to tell people — girls, mostly — that I shared a birthday with Pancho Villa, and I felt sure I had seen that somewhere, but then I got curious one day and looked it up. June 5. Strange how that shit happens.

I’ll be spending the day doing a contract editing job on two chapters of a survival manual by some Green Beret I’ve never met for a publishing house in Philadelphia. The chapters in question concern how to determine your location and chart your direction of travel, and how to signal for help, respectively — subjects that could, under the circumstances, be considered somewhat ironical.

I turned 41 this morning, and this is the only thing I can find in my library that has anything to do with being 41. Aside from chronology, the connection is admittedly pretty thin. I’m not even sure where I acquired this. I’ve certainly never read it, and doubt I ever will.

I did grow up in Houston, and howled with indignation when our otherwise perfectly good airport was renamed after this pencil-necked schlub in 1997. But come to think of it, just looking at him makes me feel pretty gosh-darned prudent about not having any kids…

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So this kid walks into a library and says to the librarian: “I’m looking to build a library of books to never get around to reading.”

And she hands him this.

(Although still, of course, it’s not like The Sorrows of Young Goddamn Werther are immediately gonna turn you genocidal. So, you know, easy on the Germans. Peter Handke’s not their fault…)

(I don’t know what that means.)

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Since I know everyone’s been waiting with — ahem — bated breath since I mentioned the arrival of Montana State English prof Greg Keeler’s new memoir Trash Fish a while back, thought I’d mention that the Missoula Independent published my review of same today. Check it out.


Book excerpt:

One of my earliest vivid memories is of Father standing out on a point of rocks on Lake Skaneateles in upstate New York, jumping up and down, screaming ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck,’ I can’t remember if it was over faulty equipment, a lost fish, or life in general. All I remember is the ‘fuck’ part.”

Review sample:

Keeler identifies his ‘totemic spirit’ animal early on: a sucker-faced carp. By the end, few readers will find fault with the association. Keeler the character—especially the third-person version he retreats to when the going gets rough—is kind of a dick.

And that, strange as it may seem, turns out to be Trash Fish‘s saving grace.”

Whatever else one might think about the book, which definitely has its moments, mad props to any memoirist willing to write the words “I can’t remember.”

Executive summary? Quite funny as regards fishing; kinda icky when it comes to people.

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The new one from Larry McMurtry. Like porn I haven’t seen yet.


Purchased in a New York bookshop that looked nothing like the one on the cover, after visiting a New York bookshop that looked exactly like the one on the cover. Jonathan Franzen is obviously a douche but I like a lot almost everything I’ve read of his, including The Corrections and these magazine pieces. If I did a post on my books of collected magazine pieces it would reach from here to the curb and back.


This book is for later in my life, when I’m willing to just totally cut loose and embrace full-on pretentiousness about the whole thing.


Handy, actually. And when you can pick up a 1,236-page Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature crisp in mylar for $8, which I use to could do at the Tremper’s Center Book Exchange in Missoula, Montana, after breakfast at Paul’s Pancake Parlour, why wouldn’t you?


Essays. And a beautiful damn paperback. Baker, if you ask me, is America’s foremost miner of meaning from minutia. There: that’s why you never ask me stuff.


And, of course, the book that started it all.




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as I were

I got passed over today for a job I’d applied for. The job was editor. I’m currently managing editor, second rung from the top of that particular ladder. Not, of course, that any ladders are involved.

I’ve been an editor before, which made it hard to not apply, because we’re all ego-propped maniacs at heart, but which also made it hard to really want it, because that job is more work than even marginally sane people would knowingly invite into their lives. 

As if editors had lives.

Regardless, I didn’t get it, and neither did some other highly qualified people, and another highly qualified somebody did, and I find there’s a decent-size swath of relief mixed in with the various and less pleasant emotions engendered by being so purposefully unchosen.

And it got me thinking about books — and I don’t mean how-to books, which is a hole nother genre — about editing.

I know there are plenty of memoirs by actual newspaper editors out there, usually on vanished or vanity presses, but I haven’t run into one worth recommending. I expect the exceedingly unseemly (trust me) contents of Surviving the Male Mid-Life Crisis (1977), by one-time Rocky Mountain News editor Henry Still are more representative of that lot than not, even if it isn’t, strictly speaking, a memoir (so much, perhaps, as a symptom) of a working life lived in the word trade.

I hope Henry Still (at left) isn’t still alive, and I hope he died peacefully of ripe old age, or his wife murdered him in his sleep and enjoyed it, because I’d feel just terrible about outing him as all of male-journalism-dom’s biggest douchebag ever if he were still alive. And if anybody ever sees a picture of me with my chin in my hand I ask them to kindly bury a steak knife in my temple. Unless, you know, I come down with some face-shaking disease and I’m just trying to hold myself still for the photographer.

No, actually, even then. The knife please.

There don’t seem to be many memoirs by magazine editors, though those are the ones I’d most want to read. Granted, there’s an entire cottage industry of memoirs-with-editor by New Yorker writers, but a little of that scene goes a long way. Next time I read one of those it’s going to be Renata Adler’s Gone, the Last Days of the New Yorker. I suspect, judging by secondary sources, she’s just bitchy enough to knock that topic right off the page.

So I turned to Diana Athill’s Stet: An Editor’s Life. By “editor,” Diana Athill refers to her essentially lifetime sinecure at the British publishing house of Andre Deutsch, where she bumped pencils with the likes of Jean Rhys, V.S. Naipaul, Norman Mailer and Mordecai Richler. She writes beautifully and she seems to have lived well. She certainly edited at a rarefied level.

And her title is perfect. For all you blissfully ignorant non-editors, the word “Stet,” usually seen in pencil or red pen, is a copy-editing mark designed to blot out or devalidate a previous and erroneous copy-editing mark. “Stet” tells the typesetter to leave it the way it was before some goddamn editor tried to fix it. In defense of editors, it’s usually another editor who smartly applies the stet to some earlier editor’s edit.

Sometimes the best edit is no edit. With a little bit of after-the-fact self-justificationomism thrown in as thickener, such a dictum might be held to apply to career moves as well as manuscripts. (oh yeah, we’ve got your blogaliscious daily-life-type topical relevance right here—even if we have to go out behind the garage and kill it with our own bare hands...)

(I have read this book, unlike most of the books on this blog, and consider it time well spent. I only mention this because I’m starting to get a little self-conscious at the apparently neverending pile-up of books I haven’t read. Book review assignment editors — like you’re reading this — please take note: I really can read, and do so scrupulously when I’m working. This isn’t working.

This, blessedly, is blogging.)

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