#BookClub

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Every day there’s a new article about how a degree in the fine arts will get you an overabundance of student debt and that’s it; there’s nothing lucrative about literature.  I don’t think solvency was the motivation or even any remote consideration when I entered college as a non-traditional student (read: older than everyone else in the class at 22 years old).  There were a combination of arguments:

  • If I was going to be broke anyway, why not study something that I loved?
  • My manager at the time was a little stunned that I loved books as much as I did and wasn’t in college;
  • Once the general education classes were out of the way, then I would get college credits to gush about other peoples’ writing for months.

In essence, my college years were one long sequence of book clubs.

*****

After the gen ed courses, I briefly double-majored in both literature and history.  Fiction and non-fiction, if you will. I took two classes in literature a semester and two classes in history.  I was already in love with literature when I entered college, but an excellent professor in history during my gen ed years convinced me that history was one of the best stories I could find, so I double-majored.  The two majors paired wonderfully together (read Moby Dick, and then study 19th century whaling to see how Melville got there), and my only hang-up was that writing about literature is a completely different animal than writing about history, unless you break the rules like David McCullough or Stephen Ambrose and have the audacity to tell a story.  Writing about literature was direct, like sipping on a sazerac in the back of a dive bar with a pack of Marlboros, but writing about history in a purely academic sense was a hard lesson in the passive voice, like backing into a glass of rose. I continually mixed up the two, and then there was a British history professor who claimed I had plagiarized Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier (I have never been a fan of Orwell, even before the damn class, and other professors didn’t think it was that close of a match even though they liked my writing, including the dean, so charges were dropped), so that was one too many straws, and history was dropped to a minor.  To this day, however, I still balance out a lot of fiction with non-fiction (preferably memoirs and biographies, but I read about history if the story is specific enough), and love to talk about all of it.

Sadly, you can’t go to college forever, and the course load decreased when I demoted history, so I graduated against my will in December of 2000.  I futzed around with exploring options into careers in literature or careers in the proximity of literature at the beginning of 2001, but life had other plans, and after a series of diversions I finally moved to what I considered to be a more literary city in San Francisco in 2004.  San Francisco had more bookstores than I had seen in whole states in the Midwest; at lunch I would flip a coin and, depending on the outcome, would visit either Alexander’s on Second Street or Stacey’s on Market, which were less than a block from each other.  I would occasionally chat books with these booksellers, but finding a chatty bookseller in San Francisco has rarely been my luck.  The bookstores in San Francisco are luxurious, “floors of books” and historical sites of Beat poets and quirky adhoc shelves made from planks, but most of the booksellers there seemed…sentenced.  Another starry-eyed former literature student stumbling around in a bohemian funk?  I could have gotten in line or paid subscriber dues.  Yes, the bookstores had author events, or the yearly book fair called Litquake would pop up a rash of author events or panels, and I leaped at tickets.  I had one line of questioning for every author and panel: What are you reading? What books inspired you to write the way you do? What is your favorite book?

*****

I tried traditional book clubs in San Francisco, but they usually defaulted to a combination of wine, appetizers, other book events, other authors, or personal stuff unrelated to the book.  I loved talking about and listening to others talk about books, so having to shut up and be good for the other topics was maddening.

There are several book club movies out there that remind me of this kind of experience.  The most recent is Book Club, which came out last year and has a stellar cast of Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Diane Keaton, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, and Don Johnson, just to name a few.  I like every actor in this film and love book clubs and I loathe this movie.  The only redeeming aspect of the film is the music and a flying sequence with Garcia and Keaton in the Grand Canyon…and neither one of those topics are related to the title.  Books are discussed for about seven minutes in this movie, and the overwhelming reference in the club is to the Fifty Shades of Grey series, a collection of books that isn’t struggling for promotion.

Back in the late aughts there was a movie called The Jane Austen Book Club, which wasn’t a much better script but talked about books a lot more more than Book Club.  I watched that movie again after Book Club as a palette-cleanser, and, because it’s January, thought I might be able to follow the calendar in The Jane Austen Book Club this year starting in February with Emma like the characters in the movie did.  Still a lot of wine and coffee in that movie, though.  Probably my favorite book club film was an adaptation of a book for a Netflix production called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which addresses World War II as well as literary classics and struggles of writers. The members of that group had some questionable edibles (which factors in the plot in more ways than just the title) but the primary food is the stuff of reading, and I could watch that movie on a loop if needed.

*****

I went without a book club for some time after moving to Southern California.  One reason was that I briefly belonged to a writing group who wanted someone to organize their writing lives but did not want to write under the organization of what someone else had put together for them.  The writer’s group that I belonged to in the Bay Area would write in all kinds of places and locations; I had written with them in Oakland after work, at a cafe in Duboce Triangle on Sundays for a day-long marathon session with a lunch break, at the Richmond District Library in the basement conference room, at the Borderlands Cafe in the Mission, where there was purposely no wi-fi.  I tutored kids in writing, science, and math at 826 Valencia and wrote for their 826 Day festivities.  But reading…that fell off the radar early and generated a TBR pile in my apartment bedroom that would choke a fire.  I kept with writing and thought reading would come in later, when an earthquake killed the power or I ran out of ink.

In Southern California I knew people who read, but either didn’t like to talk about what they read or thought of reading as a non-social activity.  I didn’t know how to debate that; when I was in college I was alone a lot, but there was the social aspect of class.  Was it possible that one couldn’t have a book club without other aspects: a classroom forcing to read, a bottle of wine, a number count on Goodreads, a hashtag of Sunday sentences?  Social media has made online book clubs or book communities a sometimes mine field; if I were to pick up a short story by Woody Allen or quote from Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems, do these choices unleash wrath or banishment?  Social media can be cruel and often is (I often find myself retreating into just Sunday sentences, but what happens when I want to find Hemingway there?), and a reader has to step carefully.

Do I wish I were part of more readers’ circles?  Sometimes. I have the added joy of reviewing books for an online publication, and when the authors reach out and connect over the reviews I have a few hours of feeling like a I have a book club to love words in, a safe space regardless. Most of my friends and family fulfill other curiosities for me, since their interests rarely involve books.  Just this past year, however, I stumbled on the greatest fortune: a book club in a book store here in San Diego.  The owner of the store selects a fiction book in paperback, discounts it for the month leading up to discussion, and one Thursday night a month a sizable crowd of us discuss the book.  The personalities and approaches to the book in that group are nearly stories of their own, and I’m back in class in the 90’s, arguing writers’ choices of POV, characterization, voice, setting, and special effects.

There’s no wine, no appetizers.  All the food is brain food. For one hour a month I sit in the room and socialize with a slim paperback in my hand, at the center of all of our thoughts.

#SelfDoubt vs #SelfConsciousness

There’s this actor, maybe you’ve heard of him, a fella by the name of Tom Hanks.

Mr. Hanks has been in a fair number of films, he’s produced some, he’s directed some. My personal favorite of his movies is the one pictured above, Cast Away, and it was my favorite movie of all time for a long time. I still watch it about once a month; it helps me process loneliness back in solitude and gratitude when I need to.

Cast Away did not make Tom look glamorous. Hanks’s character (and to play the character you have to look the part) started off the story overweight and a control freak of time (which he tries to explain to the Russians, if you want irony in 2017); by the end of the story he is shaggy and rail thin, no longer a lover of seafood, grateful for something as small as a Swiss Army knife, and someone in awe of time and fate. There are now a lot of photos and memes of this film on the web and social media of Hanks looking nearly gross; ain’t nothing gorgeous in it.

For the past three years Hanks has also been working on a collection of short fiction for publication. The work isn’t necessarily Pulitzer-worthy, but it’s entertaining and touching in some places; one short story is so funny it took me about two hours to read it. Shortly after I finished the book I looked for media supplements on the book; this task was a bit of a struggle because the book was released right before the release of Hanks in the film The Post, and most interviews involve the book for about 30 seconds and the film for about 12 minutes. But there was an interview filmed for The New York Times, on their program Times Talks, where Hanks was interviewed primarily about the book and answered questions from social media and the audience.

One question asked Hanks how he overcomes self-doubt. The question was ambiguous enough to apply to any career in creative work, and Hanks answered as though it applied to his acting, since that was the creative work most folks knew him for. His belief is that self-doubt is the same as self-consciousness; get rid of both and you can create. Sometimes the role requires that you look ridiculous or that you do something you don’t want to do to play the role because there might be a picture of it later…you have dispense of that. You have to make the mistakes and trust the process, he explained.

Just before I read the Hanks book I read another book, Sourdough, by Robin Sloan, that took me to the same place as Hanks’s thoughts on creative process. In the book the main character of Lois has to deal with Silicon Valley hipsters who are too cool for school in product development and nutrition; she also has to deal with analog purist foodies who think that anything high-tech is a fad or corruption. Lois, from the Midwest and feeling far from cosmopolitan, finds joy from simple food and makes mistakes in learning to cook and bake, not to mention making lots of mistakes in marrying tech and life hacks in that cooking and baking. Lois looks silly a lot. Lois is nowhere near glamorous.

Yet, in the reading of Sloan’s book and Hanks’s book and his interview, I feel like I’ve got a standard to move toward. Make mistakes, Jo; so I go back to cooking myself, making messes. I pull out the baseball novel I was working on and botch it up or improve it for one of my writing sessions; I do the same with sessions devoted to other writings. I very well may be making all kinds of mistakes right now in this blog post. I think that’s the place where the best stuff comes from, and I’ll continue to do so. ✨

#NerdCulture

Sorry, Mom…not my f-bomb, but still my amen to Mr. Kennedy’s sentiment.

It’s no secret: my apartment is a structural testament to a deep love of books. I have multiple bookcases, one of them taller than I am, and multiple prints from the designer at Ideal Bookshelf, artwork of differing genres all over the apartment, even on the bathroom walls and over the kitchen sink. I have a pin-up calendar in the kitchen of Hot Dudes Reading, because I think the sexiest thing a man can do is read. (The other stuff a man can do is nice, too, but kind of down the list after reading, writing, cooking, and playing a musical instrument.)

This love of books has gained me some grief in my time…painted me as a hermit, a snob, and a…nerd. The last distinction was the easiest to take (hermit is a struggle because reading is often mistaken to be exclusively solitary an activity, and snob is hard to take because I like literary fiction but the super-pretentious stuff I cannot handle well), after all I have “my books and my poetry to protect me,” to start with from Simon & Garfunkel. The definition of nerd-dom from my past experience (whether with books, in high school band, or in my choice of PBS) has usually involved some kind of social banishment. Sometimes there would be other nerds, a breakfast club of us playing all the tubas and bullied by the football players.

It seems, though, as Dan has so eloquently stated above, that nerd culture has kicked out some of its base. In some cases, some of us have to apologize for liking Coldplay, the planet formerly known as Pluto, The Big Bang Theory, or (gasp) Shakespeare. Can’t I just like the sonnets and be done? But there’s proof now he didn’t write them. So Pluto and Shakespeare can go the way of symbols, like Prince or Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street.

Look, newcomers to my lifetime of separation from society…if you find my eyeglasses and my Bradbury suddenly so very fascinating, can you…let me have my Richard Bach and my Woody Allen and my Hemingway anyway? I promise to love the rest of your hipster crossover and borrowing, and let you continue to pretend that you have the same awkward default as Issa Rae. I’ll look the other way at your new-found love of Trapper Keepers if you don’t say that my definition of nerd, lived so long, isn’t enough. 🤓

*****

The past couple of weeks in my world have been a bit hairy at work, for reasons it’s best to keep confidential at the moment, so here’s how I’ve been medicating lately…

Reading, lately: A lot of chef, food critic, and restaurateur memoirs for some reason…but I am trying to give up a lot of meat, dairy, and eggs and therefore my excitement about food is a bit diminished, so I’m hoping to gain some food love back, somewhere.

Listening, lately: nothing in particular and everything in small doses…from Jidenna to Marcus Mumford covering Dylan to James Bay like an old blanket to Ahi to…Springsteen, always. Repeat gets abused.

Watching, lately: HBO’s Insecure, because, well, she IS a nerd, ain’t no hiding. A lot of baseball because the MLB put a For Sale sign on the rest of the season and instead of $25 a month, the rest of the year is $10. Not sure how much of that applies to post-season, but I guess I’ll find out, right? With the current work situation I watch a lot of dumb comedies, like Disjointed on Netflix and Never Stop Never Stopping on HBO, sometimes on repeat like the music.

All of this, and it’s still hot and sticky in San Diego. I still run air conditioning. This forgotten corner of the world is always sunny and festering like a Petri dish. I’m looking forward to autumn, well, someday. 🍁🍂

#IntelligentCompassion or, #WhyISkippedFebruary


I’m rewatching the television series “The West Wing.”  That statement in today’s political climate is relatively on par with “I’m treating my depression with alcohol,” but it gave me a fair bit of insight in the first episode alone, so it did help, of a sense.  First, though, a background story so that you get an idea of its affect on my thought processes.

When my mother was in her last stages of cancer a whole collection of hospice nurses were in and out of the house to help (some were a help, like the lady I’m about to mention, but most were uncomfortable and I had to work for them to help them feel better; all part of that acute politeness and nothing bad should be acknowledged attitude the Upper Midwest is so good at), and one of them came in every other day to take vitals and answer questions.  My mother was pretty much unconscious at this stage, and the nurse new my parents; it was a small town, and everyone knew everyone, particularly in specific generations.

I liked this nurse, enjoyed her visits, but she had an odd assessment of my parents.  She told my brother and I that we were lucky; we had the perfect balance of intellect (supposedly my dad) and compassion (supposedly from my mom).

Something about that never sat right with me, because it seemed to add up to the following sum:  my mother, in being compassionate, must be missing some IQ points, and my father, smarter of the two, must be lacking in compassion.

Ever since then I have looked for smart and compassionate people to look up to.  Sadly, the nurse was mostly right…especially in today’s news cycle, it seems we have to “win” by being smarter than the other side, and “how are the Dems going to get the upper hand back when they are so nice all the time,” and “empathize with the struggle of the Right and you’ll win them back, ” (there’s that word “win” again), etc.

I’m seeing a lot of intellect right now, and no wonder…compassion is portrayed as, and is perceived as, a weakness.

My questions are these:

  • What if compassion could convince of intellect?
  • What if intellect could be used to find the compassionate way to lead us all?
  • What if one or the other weren’t celebrated and instead one could only happen with the other?

Enter “The West Wing.”

The scene pictured above is in the pilot.  I won’t explain the whole thing; you can find it and watch it if you are so inclined.  In the pilot episode, the communication staff and Deputy Chief of Staff meet with Christian leadership to smooth over a snafu that occurred on a talk show between their representatives.  One side is secular government, the other side is impassioned Christianity.  The White House staff are accused of being smart and not compassionate to the needs of the Christian Right, but the Christian Right wants the apology cemented with commitments from the administration to things such as school prayer, cracking down on the accessibility of porn among kids, and discontinuing distribution of condoms in middle and high schools.

Now, I’m all for school prayer, if you could be compassionate enough to do it and not make those kids of different faiths (or atheist) uncomfortable.  I’m all for cracking down on porn accessibility for kids, but…isn’t that a smart decision we should be compassionate enough to allow parents to make?  And no condoms in schools…the smart and compassionate answer for me seems to me to make them readily available.

But there are different definitions of compassion and intellect, aren’t there?

For me, finding someone who is equal parts compassionate and intellectual has become so exceedingly rare that I only seem to find it in art…and not the kind of art you would find in the movie Snakes On The Plane.  George Saunders, on tour for his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo, mentions the importance of kindness in every interview, and he learned that lesson from a critic’s review of his short fiction that expressed Saunders was a better writer when he wrote from a point of view of “love instead of hate.”  That review was before Saunders went on special assignment for The New Yorker to do an in-depth piece on Trump supporters.  In a recent Vanity Fair interview he conveyed that he still didn’t understand why Trump supporters wanted Trump, but he understood their working class frustration.

Working class frustration isn’t always thought of as cerebral.  Maybe, though, we should use our noggins to understand that frustration, and then find a compassionate way to alleviate it.

The challenge though, is finding the smarter, kinder way to do it.

*****

February got skipped in this blog for a few different reasons: the unreliable nature of my current employment, my changing living situation, the month is short enough to sneak past me, and my mother’s memory kind of takes over the first couple weeks.  But here’s the leap back into something stable, a run-down of the art I’ve been trying to stay sane with lately:

  • Books – I finally finished Barbarian Days…sadly; what a great memoir.  I’m currently reading a book that I picked up at the San Diego Library Shop for “A Blind Date with a Book” for Valentine’s Day (the book was wrapped in plain brown paper–no, not porn again, heh–and a brief and enticing summary was applied to the wrapper), The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.  The novel is set in the former Yugoslavia and reminds me of the magic of She Unbearable Lightness of Being, without so much raw lust.  I am thoroughly enjoying my Valentine’s, still.  I am also enjoying the complete fluffiness of Jojo Moyes’s short story collection Paris For One, borrowed from the Carlsbad library, just because she is so funny and loving and light;
  • Other reading – still The New Yorker, still The New York Times;
  • Listening – a LOT of classical music, a LOT of Cassandra Wilson, a LOT of Melody Gardot…they are soothing, and, with minimal vocals, easy to write to.  I love Lorde’s new single, enjoying Sia’s work on film soundtracks lately (The Eagle Huntress and Lion, for starters), and I keep adding to my podcast stack;
  • Watching – TV – still with PBS’s Victoria (one more episode tonight), The West Wing, the second season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Last Week Tonight, Real Time with Bill Maher, and…it’s back…BASEBALL; ⚾️
  • Movies – Pretty much anything Oscar-related, which is typical for me in February.  Yes, I watched the Oscars, and came unglued at that magical ending with my love for Moonlight.  

Here’s hoping, until April, I gain compassion and smarten up, in equal measure.  ❤🤓

#NightStandChronicle #Nineteen #LaMer


So for a while last week I was nibbling around on the Seven Killings of Marlon James and messing around with a freaky horse scribble by Gaitskill and they were innovative and moving and…then I bought another book.  (The other two titles were library loans by the way…I’ll go back to them when I am done with their interruption.)  The book is mainstream and smacks of Tales of the City for Parisians and it’s not cutting edge but sometimes…sometimes you just need a bright and sweet French dessert.  The Little Paris Bookshop is just such a dessert.

It’s got sex and lots of love and lots of literary references and rich descriptions of rich food and magic and I needed this book about six months ago.  Sometimes the soul is stubborn.  I probably could have bought this book six months ago and been healed of all of this hassle.  But books show up when I most need them:  not before, not since.📚

So I’m spending my independent Independence Day reading it.  Then we’ll go back to Bob Marley and the crazy horse.

*****

I spent nearly the entire day writing today, which is something that I haven’t done since my San Francisco writing group used to hold Saturday and Sunday writing marathons at a cafe in Duboce Park.  Those sessions were surreal; I always had to go home and ice my hand after (I was the only long-hand operator), but I burned through to the point where I would walk out smiling at everyone.  I’d take the N back to my neighborhood and get a repasado margarita at Pacific Catch and watch a Giants game and feel my soul shining like an empty drum.

Today, though, there was no light rail anywhere after, just a diabetic cat that needed his evening insulin and a leftover pesto sausage in the fridge and some sweet cherries for desert.  I still felt empty but for the first time not quite so lonely as I have since leaving the Bay.  That’s not to say I’m endorsing SoCal, but I felt as though I traveling through and not trapped for the first time in months.  I had put the phone away today, and wrote about legends that pass, even if the legends are just in a corner of the world and not global.  I was inspired by a movie that I rented for 99 cents from iTunes, a lovely little indie and romcom called Tumbledown.  I saw it last night and the legends idea hit me and I wrote half the night and all of today.  I didn’t care of the idea was gonna get tossed later, I didn’t care if it had been done before, I just played with fiction all day, not in a sense of working on existing projects but in a sense like I used to in college or in writing group.  Just get some magic on the page.  Just write something that isn’t therapy.

When I first moved to California in 2004 and lived in Silicon Valley, my brother and I would go to the ocean on the weekends:  him to fish from the rocks, me to sit at picnic tables or in the Jeep and write.  I had a collection of gel writer pens in jelly-like colors and I would listen to the soundtrack from Practical Magic on my pink Nano and write about wonder and how to keep it.  Today all I could think about was one of those fishing trips to Sonoma, just north of Point Reyes, where the Jeep was at a dangerous slope and I knew that if I tripped the emergency break I wouldn’t ever be homesick for anything ever again.  I was homesick for Missouri then, for knowing where stuff was, just like I’m still homesick for the Bay now, but felt that I could overcome with a bright green Uniball and Nick Cage.

The only thing in common with both that day and today was no social media.  I checked a Snapchat from a friend a moment ago, but other than that I haven’t touched the phone all day.  Reading, writing.  If I stay off the FOMO trip I feel more connected to that person in Sonoma.  I find more wonder.  The sweet cherries are better, the cat is more loving.  I pick up one of the Stabilos pictured above and the legend continues.  I would hate to give up social media entirely (after all, that’s where this ends up, too), but I don’t know how to do it anymore.  Maybe I do it a whole lot less until I figure out how.

Happy Independence Day, from whatever you are breaking from.🎆