thug notes

The first time I heard Thug Notes I found it very funny and engaging. I played it for my Lit 111 students. We liked the break down in a less elite language. And I love to see books and ideas from books featured in so called new media. I wonder though if this quick summary of books perhaps might be what Bradbury was warning us about? Will quick summaries like this or another quick summary like SparkNotes take the place of reading?

Now I’m thinking I’d rather see videos like this on from The Pen Pixie:

quick review of daniel chacon’s hotel juarez

51NRyxFCCNL__SY346_A few months back I wrote a quick review of Daniel Chacon’s book Unending Rooms. I admire Chacon’s aesthetic and overall writerly choices.  I look forward to picking up his novel and his other work Chicano Chicanery. His work at times is surreal and also thought provoking. I find his work here playful and intelligent. And I’ve been in the habit of reading work that is more composite in terms of plot or character lately but in his work it is also refreshing to see each story linked by idea or abstraction. So does he choose idea over characters? Perhaps, at times, yes. And I’m not sure we have a collection of complete stories. Felt more like fragments but I think that too serves the chaos that is Chacon’s style.

quick review: orwell’s down and out in paris and london

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Drafting and revising semi-orphaned novel project but had some time to finish reading Orwell’s memoir/nonfiction/autobiographical novel about a young writer’s time in the ghettos of Paris and London. He works in restaurants and sleeps in homeless hostels. Pawns his clothes for food and also closely observes the down and out people he encounters. What strikes me most in Orwell’s work has to be his readability and the chapter movements. I’m also struck at his closely drawn character studies of those he encounters–the fat man in Paris and also Bozo in England are the stand outs. One thing that seems consistent throughout his writing is the strong sense of empathy and humanity. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

“Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no essential difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless respectable people. Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then what is work? A navy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out-of-doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course – but, then many reputable trades are quite useless. And as a social type a beggar compares well with scores of others. He is honest compared with the sellers of a Sunday newspaper proprietor, amiable compared with a hire-purchase tout – in short, a parasite, but a fairly harmless parasite. He seldom extracts more than a bare living from the community, and, what should justify him according to our ethical ideas, he pays for it over and over in suffering. I do not think there is anything about a beggar that sets him in a different class from other people, or gives most modern men the right to despise him.

“Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised? — for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that is shall be profitable.”

quick review: luis alberto urrea’s the hummingbird’s daughter and queen of america

I first read the short fiction of Luis Alberto Urrea in graduate school. The discovery of a prolific Latino author whose work moves so adeptly from English to Spanish was important to my development as a writer. I enjoyed his collection of short stories Six Kinds of Sky and the keen worlds and characters drawn, his humor and surrealist edge. At the time I was struggling to capture Spanish speaking folks and the stories from the old neighborhood of my youth, struggling to make my work less obvious and overtly political. And the influence of his work stays fresh in my mind.

hummingbirds-daughterIn reading Urrea’s most recent novels, The Hummingbird’s Daughter and its sequel Queen of America, I am pleased to find these lengthier works equally representing for me what writing should aspire to be.

Over the course of two novels, set in the 1880’s to the turn of the century, the incredibly dynamic character of Teresita the Saint of Cabora, the Mexican Joan of Arc, rises from abject poverty and abandonment to her place as spiritual leader. Described as a “saint with grit” by Stacey D’Erasmo of the New York Times Book Review, Teresita survives rape, returns from the dead and learns to practice ancient magic, and travels to the United States after the Mexican-Tomochic rebellion. In the sequel Teresita survives as a celebrity of sorts travelling and experiencing the United States—St. Louis, San Francisco and New York City—and she marries and divorces. She also survives a medical industry out to exploit her healing powers. All based on historical events and Urrea’s research.

queenamerica

The most influential aspect of the two books for me though is the form, the lyrical and dream-like passages. The masterful use of third person limited omniscient narration. How the dreamscape that is Urrea’s writing style creates so many varied characters and experiences in an incredibly wide and brilliant spectrum. From field hand, Indian healer, to Teresita’s Mexican landowner father, Don Tomás, to the bandits, cowboys and tycoons, the cast of characters represents the complicated nature of hierarchical class structures at play in pre-turn-of-the-century and pre-revolutionary Mexico. Masterfully, Urrea immerses us in Teresita’s myth across a multitude of voices. I admire the novels’ contrast of authorial voice and character in nearly every chapter, creating this Mexican and American border world from inside and out, and more importantly, in terms of social class, from quite literally the bottom up. (Urrea’s lively and playful performance in the downloadable audiobook versions only enhanced my experience of these distinct voices.)

Ultimately, I have to admit to taking advantage of Urrea’s skill—stealing stratagems of technique once again into my own struggling work. I’m thinking of the author and critic Jim Harrison’s words: “One finds and understands his own voice finally through the voice of others.”

I tell my Midwest community college students that the key to nonfiction is in the facts and that creative nonfiction—as well as fiction—is in the telling. And the power from Urrea’s work perhaps is that he devoted twenty-years of research and study of Mexican political, cultural and religious history as well as struggled with the form. And in many other historical novels or footnoted historical books, the political thought becomes so blatant and relentless that readers stop hearing it. Yet in Urrea’s two novel saga, the insight into Mexican, American Indian and American history, I believe, along with the shifting voices create an inextricable link between human experience, political conflict and historical socioeconomic conflict. Another lesson for writer in the merging of form and content to craft a meaning greater than the sum of its parts.

Aside

Fatcitynovel_cover-1

Spending time today rereading Fat City by Leonard Gardner. Hope I can find the detail and the nuance in my Huerfanos/Semi-orphaned novel project:

“Yeah, I was in a bar yesterday, this guy’s calling everybody a son-of-a-bitch. So I go out and wait for him. He come out and I ask did that include me. Says yeah. So I got him. I mean I just come to town. Some welcome. I don’t know, trouble just seems to come looking for me.”

gardner’s fat city

Aside

New trailer came out today for the Walter Salles adaptation of Kerouac’s famous novel. The book that means so much to me from my younger moco days. I’m happy to see the film has an R rating. I’m happy to see the January 2013 opening date for wide release will soon be here.

new on the road movie trailer

“so it goes”–staying up late with kurt vonnegut

Some nights when I’m supposed to be working on my big fat failed novel.  When I am supposed to be sleeping. Or grading. I can’t and so I sit and listen to books on tape. A few months back it was Jesus’ Son. Something about Will Patton’s voice that grabbed me. This time out I have been obsessing over Ethan Hawke reading Slaughterhouse Five.

Maybe it has something to do with my hesitation to dig in to some memories. And then dig in to the revisions. Maybe, like Vonnegut’s characters–coming to me via Hawke’s whispering performance–I’m up at night obsessing over the memories and the dilemma of how to organize my stories. How to give them structure. How to do them justice. How to deal with people who are dead and gone. How to try and recreate their errors in the writing. To try and re-imagine them and understand.

It makes me think of Alberto Giacometti’s surrealist sculpture “the Palace at 4am” and how it influenced or inspired William Maxwell to return to his memoir or writing. How it represents that dread in the middle of the night that comes to people.

I tell my students to find those stories that are so difficult for you that you stay up late thinking and rethinking their importance. The stories that give you Phillip Glass–The Hours soundtrack–kind–of–dread in the middle of the night when decent folks are sleeping. When even my dog is snoring. Perhaps I should tell my students what you do when you find the ghosts from those stories and how to keep them at arm’s length so you can just get some rest.

The sad situation reminds me of Amy Hempel’s first assignment in her workshop. To paraphrase: find the story that reveals deep secrets that reveals and breaks down your innermost sense of self. I guess I’m stuck on the “breaks down” part now that I am hundreds of pages in to my manuscript and the characters based on dead folks from my youth.

More on this as I think of it.