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Tuesday
Jan292013

A State of Fiction

I wrote a piece on Barbara Browning's books (and fiction, and reality, and emotion, and death, and bathing) for the Emily Books blog:

It’s disturbing in a way to think of these very real characters as illusions. Browning herself talks about the difficulty of portraying real people in fiction. And as I said before, what good is an invented woman to a real one? But aren’t we illusions to other people? To ourselves? When we put on lipstick, when we play dress up, when we feign interest in a topic out of politeness? How much of our relationships with other people are things we invent entirely in our heads? Most of them? All?

How is the fiction of our reality any different from the reality of fiction? And why should our emotional reaction to one be any different from the other? Isn’t all of it the fantasy of perception? Or deception?

Read more here.

Tuesday
May082012

Ephemera

Every week I volunteer at an organization that sorts through donated books and decides what's salvagable in used book sales to benefit the public library, and what can be recycled. We open boxes of donations, never knowing what will be inside, and then begin sorting. Usually it's stacks upon stacks of ex-library Danielle Steele, Clive Cussler, and Tom Clancy, the airbrushed faces multiplying as they stare out at me from the blue boxes. But there are some real treasures in those boxes, too. We get first dibs on the books before they go on the shelf, a good exercise in restraint knowing I can't buy every single book that passes through my fingers. 

Last night, I was especially lucky, and especially weak. Some I didn't buy: an old set of Salinger books (The Catcher In The Rye with its original dustjacket, a first edition of Raise High the Roof Beam) and first edition of Daniel Moore's Dawn Visions, put in pride of place on the "rare" shelf in the warehouse. I did buy a few titles, though at bargain prices: The Next Whole Earth Catalog, with its instructions for what to do with roadkill and how to make musical instruments and the best punk zines. Seymour Krim's The Beats, John Gruen's The New Bohemians, and a 1962 issue of the Evergreen Review with an introduction from and review of Naked Lunch just before it was published in the States for the first time. (Also, in a strange moment of prescience, one of the volunteers nearly recycled Where The Wild Things Are [it was an old, beat-up ex-library copy] before another volunteer removed it from the bin and handed it back to him, saying "THIS is a CLASSIC." Rest in peace, Mr. Sendak. Your books will find their rightful place under our watch.)

But the most precious to me are the bits of ephemera we find in the books. Little slips of paper used as bookmarks: a letter written in French from daughter to father, a negative of a religious ceremony, an old receipt from The Rollman & Sons Co. for two dollars and fifty-three cents (May 16, year unknown, though definitely pre-1960, when the store closed), a photograph of a suburban house. Last night, I even found a handwritten poem. 

The consensus among the volunteers was that it was written by a teenager, taped inside his or her (though the handwriting suggests it was a female) copy of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Written in ballpoint pen on a sheet of paper ripped from a stenopad. Maybe by a young girl who'd just read The Colossus and figured herself a Sylvia Plath. Maybe by someone who was trying to talk herself out of something; maybe even by someone who lost someone herself. The poem isn't anything special, the stuff of teenage journals, but it seems to go with the "angry at death" theme I can't seem to escape here, and so I thought I might share it with you. 

Lines For One About To Turn On The Gas

Death is so definite.
What I don't like about Death is
You can't change your mind.
Suppose you drank a great drink
And took so many sleeping pills
And lay down with your head on a pillow
On the kitchen floor;
Having turned on all five jets
Which after all would be an efficient
And comparatively tidy exit.
Then suppose just as you crossed the line between
Here + There
The telephone rang.
Someone caling to say:
"Darling, I am sorry — "
Or: "Your Grandmother's will just probated —
You inherit five hundred thousand."
Or even: "Will you come in for cocktails Sunday?"
Life might then seem lovely.
Might then seem desirable.
Life is like that.
And there you would be — out of reach.
No more moons.
No more late spring. However late it comes.
Spring is still a miracle.
There you would be, quiet + cold + stiff...
Ready for the mortician.
What is there underground so good as what's over it?
Do you like moles + worms + black beetles
Better than apple blossoms + cider?
Do you like a mouth stopped with clay
Better than singing — even if off-key?
Think of all the ways out you haven't yet tried.
Death is so definite.
What I don't like about Death is
You can't change your mind.
Never to have another chance...?
God — not yet!

Anonymous, 4/13/61 

Dark, I know; forgive me. But it was either this, or the mimeographed copy of a science class handout titled "Investigating the Excretory Structures of a Fish." (Would you expect the arrangement of tubules for the removal of nitrogen wastes in humans to be more like that of a fish or of the earthworm? Explain.)

I like to think that someone asked her in for cocktails on Sunday. Or she called her darling to say she was sorry. Or, heck, she started reading Daniel Moore, moved to a commune, and learned how to make musical instruments from a book she ordered out of The Whole Earth Catalog. However her story ended, wouldn't the precious time I spend coming up with endings to other people's stories — apple blossoms? or black beetles? — surely be better spent working on the material for the middle of mine?

Oh poo on this endless navel-directed philosophizing. Should have just posted the durned fish shit handout.

(Previously: Executive's Data Book, 1964)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.

Tuesday
Feb212012

Line By Line

I will tell you how the line got me from there to here: I didn't know it was Malamud who wrote The Natural

I don't know how I'd gotten away with not knowing that, but I didn't until I looked it up. It was Saturday, I had gone to Joseph-Beth to buy a chapter book for a friend's daughter. I purchased two books for her and headed for the exit. Then something made me turn back. I was standing in the middle of a bookstore, suddenly compelled to buy a book about baseball, typing "the natural book" into a search engine, where it spat out Malamud's name, and I smacked my palm to my forehead. Of course, Malamud. After I bought the book (its cover was a baseball with its stitching unraveling, and the stitching becomes the type that forms the title of the book) and tucked it into my bag, I rounded a corner past the low flourescent-spined shelves of science fiction, and there noticed a display of Andre Dubus III's Townie, a book I read and loved last year, announcing that he'd be reading and signing his book at two o'clock. 

That is how I got from there to here, where I now sat in the front row on a wooden seat, reading about Roy Hobbs and his bassoon case on a train cutting a line through the great western expanse towards Chicago, Hobbs throwing pitches and me eating a lemon poppy seed muffin from a white paper bag. Waiting for a different author to appear.

The line continued from Mr. Malamud to Mr. Dubus the Third, as he arrived late from the airport and began to tell an audience at the edge of our wooden seats that he hadn't intended to write a memoir: he was trying to write an essay on baseball. 

Dubus III said too many good things to transcribe: he paraphrased Doctorow, who once said that writing fiction is like driving at night, you can only see as far as the headlights in front of you but you know you'll reach your destination in the end. He said that writing was one line at a time for him, that he had to write to find out what his characters would do next, even if it was just going to the bathroom. He had to know. He said that the opposite of remember is dismember, and that remembering means you're piecing your memories back together. He talked about how one night, he was headed out to the gym to punch some guy's face with boxing gloves, to exorcise the spirits of anger that afflict so many young abandoned men, then something made him turn back. He walked to a table, pulled out a piece of paper, and wrote a scene. The lines that diverge on the page: when we think we know where the story is headed, and it turns around on us altogether.

So it was with Tom the priest.

In the middle of a wonderfully intelligent and engaging conversation with audience members, a priest in the front row quietly raised his hand. "I wondered if you might talk about your father's spirituality, or lack thereof."

Dubus III asked the gentleman his name. "My name is Tom. And it was thirty years ago this May that I read your father's Adultery and Other Choices, quit my job, and entered the seminary."

How can we even begin to imagine how the story will lead us from there to here? Or where the story we write will end up leading someone else?

Later that night: a hockey game, defiant and phallic sticks rising in confrontation on the ice, Notre Dame's Fighting Irish baring their teeth for our local team. (If the Catholic theme wasn't already obvious enough, each time a player was put in the box, a woman behind the glass held up a piece of flourescent yellow poster board, with the words "The Confessional" written in black marker.) I shouted at players, watching them cut lines across the ice with their skates, and thought of the priest. Of the lines cut through our lives, towards an unknown goal. Of how the priest's line turned quickly with the dig of a toe pick. How it can turn like this for any of us at any moment because of something we read, because of something we hear, or, more importantly, because of something we write.

I hadn't expected to be sitting in a bookstore listening to Dubus III that day, but he said some things that were important for me to hear about writing, about the process of constructing a text, both fiction and non-fiction. More than that: about the bigger picture of remembering, of reconstructing our life on the page, of turning the fluid wavelengths of experience into distinct, clear lines of story. I'm still following these lines, writing each word to see where it will take me. What these fictions and non-fictions I construct will cause me to do next. 

Even if it's just going to the bathroom.

I highly recommend you go see Andre Dubus III if he's ever speaking near you. And read Townie while you're at it. James Salter's wonderful NYRB review gives a better explanation of why you should read it. Or as the woman at Joseph-Beth said: "He can WRITE, can't he?" I would certainly say so. Finally, considering the last line, I wanted to title this post "House of Zan and Bog" but I respect the guy too much to do that...

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.

Friday
Jan132012

Book Haul

Mary Gaitskill - Bad Behavior
Ford Madox Ford - Conrad
Henry James - Selected Short Stories
Louis Bromfield - The Farm (with a postcard from 1961 tucked inside)
Joyce Carol Oates - Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers
The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction
Christopher Pike - Weekend, Remember Me, Bury Me Deep, Master Murder
Joan Didion - Play It As It LaysSalvadorA Book Of Common Prayer

I stood amongst the seemingly endless rows of books, a full basket of them at my feet, and sent J a text: "I'm either in heaven or in hell right now."

Just half an hour before, I'd received a message from a friend about the Friends of the Library book sale happening in the next neighborhood over. I raced through the end of my work day and zipped over to the building, a sizable warehouse next to our local hardware store. Room after room of used books, aisles dotted with local browsers. The two women browsing the African American section for biographies, the 20-something boys in skinny jeans discovering Korean pop amongst the foreign records, the teenaged girl considering an Alexander Dumas, the old bearded man in a skull cap clutching a fabric tote and squinting at high shelves. Hunters like me, I thought.

"Can I help you find anything?"

"No, thank you." I reshelved a fiction anthology I'd been flipping through. "But I wish you were here longer than this weekend."

"Oh, we're here every Wednesday!"

My heart skipped a beat. One thing I miss about living in New York is spending hours disappearing into stacks of used books, trying to find that one elusive title that speaks to you. Read me. Own me. I'm cheap. I missed that hunt. I wasn't sure anything I was looking for would be here, but then like a gift there they were: the Christopher Pike books I've been craving as candy comfort. The Didion novel — a 1978 Pocket edition no less — I had wanted to revisit to inspire something I'm trying to write.

The Didion book appeared suddenly like a gold nugget in the bottom of a pan of gravel. I'd already found a trade paperback Play It As It Lays and a hardcover Salvador — books I'd lost to the move or to lending — and wondered to myself why you never see mass market copies of any of her books. And then, just as I was about to leave, there amongst the John Updikes and James Micheners, ragged by thumbs and bent at the spine, she appeared before me. Take me, I'm yours.

One hour and twenty dollars later, I was walking buoyantly to my car with a bag full of books. What was lost had been found. The snows had dusted the streets; my car door cracked with ice as I opened it and called J to tell him I was heading home. "I'm so happy," I said to him, my words collecting in a jolly frost, cheeks flushed from the hunt.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.

Monday
Oct102011

The Scariest Books

Now that we live in a house where the walls are glass and the forest surrounds us, now that it's October and the chipmunks and squirrels are rustling spookily in the fallen leaves, I have the insatiable urge to terrify myself. I don't know if this makes me a sucker for some Vincent Price-esque marketing plan, tempted by plaster busts of victorian vampire ladies for sale at Home Goods and candy corn at the register, but a good fictional scare is what I want, and darn it if I'm not having the hardest time finding it among my shelves.

On Sunday, I read Shirley Jackson's (out of print) Hangsaman in one sitting, wooed by the fifties book jacket promise of suspense, only to discover it was more psychological drama than supernatural thriller (though there were two suitably creepy scenes that had me looking over my shoulder even as I read in the backyard in full daylight), and was only the tip of the Shirley Jackson nightmare genre, which I deeply envy you if you have yet to explore. Unsatisfied by a few spooky scenes at a women's college, I took to the internet and asked:

I received several responses on Twitter and Facebook, many of which I'd already read. Then I remembered that I had put together a list last year of the titles that scared me best, along with an explanation of what I love in a good spine tingle. I'll reprise the list here and add suggestions I received from friends and in the comments:

My original list:

Shirley Jackson - The Haunting of Hill House
Nicola Barker - Darkmans
Haruki Murakami - A Wild Sheep Chase
Jules Verne - Journey To The Center Of The Earth
Flann O'Brien - The Third Policeman
Alasdair Gray - Lanark
Mark Z. Danielewski - House of Leaves (seconded by @jessicaxmaria)
Elizabeth Bowen - "The Demon Lover"

Suggestions I received from others that I've read and can endorse:

Stephen King - It
Shirley Jackson - We Have Always Lived In The Castle (via Paris Review)
Sarah Waters - The Little Stranger (Hanne T)
Daphne du Maurier - Rebecca (Hanne T)*
Chuck Palahniuk - Haunted (Jenny G)

Suggestions I have yet to read:

Stephen King - The Dark Half (Sam)
Gillian Flynn - Sharp Objects, Dark Places (@xtop)
Angela Carter - Burning Your Boats (via Paris Review)
Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan - The Strain (@CMYKaboom)
Tana French - In The Woods (@JunkyardArts)
Ira Levin - Rosemary's Baby (Tracie)*

And I realize at this point that I'm repeating myself, but James Hynes' list and Matthew Baldwin's list are worth investigating too. 

What am I missing? Does this need more Bram Stoker and Poe? Clive Barker's Weaveworld, anyone? Let's make the definitive list and all hide under the covers with our flashlights.

UPDATE: Jessica has posted a fabulously frightful list at lovelyish, and the aforementioned Matthew Baldwin is dedicating October to getting people into Lovecraft. Based on his recommendations, I read "The Dunwich Horror" the other night and was subsequently forced under the covers by a squirrel landing on the roof, that's any indicator.

*Denotes title was added after the original post