William Kennedy Reading

Kim took last week to talk about attending the Stephen King reading in Omaha recently and I thought I should take this week to do something similar. Although, I don’t think I really have a comparable reading to talk about. I’ve been to more than I can count over the years, but though I’ve heard some great writers read (Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Tom Robbins, Etgar Keret, and so on), I don’t think I’ve ever had one that was as personally significant to me as Stephen King’s reading was to Kim, for whatever reason. So, I thought I’d reminisce about the first reading I ever went to: William Kennedy.

By now, I’ve read a few books by Kennedy (Legs, Roscoe, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Very Old Bones, and Ironweed), but at the time I’d only read Ironweed. I still haven’t read everything by him. The reading was for Roscoe, in 2002 or so, which didn’t end up being one of my more favorite Kennedy books. I was actually there, and had read Ironweed, due to my obsession with Hunter Thompson at that time period. Thomson knew Kennedy, thought very highly of his prose, and had mentioned him in some pieces I’d read. So, I picked up Ironweed, and went to the Roscoe reading.

It was in the basement of the Elliot Bay Bookstore, back when they used to be in Pioneer Square. It was a good reading, I liked Kennedy even more after attending (though Ironweed had cemented that enough even if I wasn’t as big on Roscoe). Mainly I was struck by how mild and calm Kennedy seemed with respect to Thompson. I know writers don’t necessarily get into writers who are like them personally, but this was night and day compared to what I imagined of Thompson (who I never did get to see in person). That’s one of the big things I remember.

After all, this was fourteen years ago now.

The other thing I remember is some hipster-looking guy in a beret asking what was clearly a question meant to show off and give the guy a chance to talk rather than actually engage with the author. I hear these from time to time, and they irritate me. If it’s about trying to show off to the group and the importance of having a chance to talk rather than engaging the author/their work/literature/life in some way, as I saw this person’s question dealing with Aristotle and the better angels of our being and such, then my view is that it’s better you don’t ask it because you don’t really have a question, Kennedy seemed to feel similarly, because he didn’t seem sure what the hipster had asked and seemed to suddenly feel that the guy might be dangerous in some way, though he tried to answer. He seemed as put off by the guy’s grandstanding as I did, though maybe that was just me.

Anyway, this wasn’t an experience as significant as Kim’s with Stephen King, but I wanted to share a reading experience of my own. Though I may not have had one that was quite as important to me, I put big stock in these kind of events and go as often as possible. I simply view it as part of reading and writing.


In which I am in the same room as STEPHEN KING

First, I apologize for this being a day late. I have no excuse other than I forgot.

Second, on Tuesday past, June 14th, I saw Stephen King speak! Now those of you on my facebook are already aware of this. And the geek excitement that I had. Those of you that are blog readers of this blog, know that I would be geek excited.  So, yes, I was super excited.

So, Stephen King spoke at the Kaneko Center. For those of you in the Omaha metro, I highly recommend checking Kaneko out. (Jeremy, if you’re reading this, I was like “Greg! this is where I met Jeremy!). The Bookworm hosted it. Now, the Bookworm is an independent bookstore here in Omaha. I recommend going there.  It’s always, always recommended that you support your local bookstores.

Okay, so before he started speaking, I heard someone that was working the event say that they had volunteered to work it. My thought was why did I not know about this!? I mean the volunteers got to MEET HIM like in person. Not just hear him talk. Big regret of my life now.

Stephen King is a huge baseball fan. He came out wearing a Huskers baseball t-shirt. He said he was sad that he was here the week -before- the College World Series. He came out years ago with Little League teams. But, he finished that he wouldn’t go again until it was at Rosenblatt stadium.Of course, a bunch of people applauded this.

He said he often hears one of two things (and all language is his, not me adding it in):

“You scare the shit out of me. Can I have a hug?”

“Oh this is great. I can scratch you off my bucket list”. He then said about that “What a fucking creepy word, bucket list”.

He talked about his son, Joe Hill. Hill’s latest book, The Fireman is #1 on the NYT bestseller list. I can say that I recommend it. He went on to say that we should go to the Bookworm and buy a copy. But buy one of his own books first, because he was older.

He also talked about the prevalence of Nebraska cropping up in his books. He saId he first became fascinated when he was 10. During Charles Starkweather’s rampage across the state. He couldn’t figure out why he was fascinated. But his mother found the clippings and said “Steve, I feel like this isn’t quite normal”. He said that the emptiness of Nebraska appeals to him.

He talked about how the Children of the Corn movies (all the sequels) became a household joke with them saying “Children of the Corn in Outer Space” and his son Owen (also a novelist) saying “Children of the Corn vs Leprechaun”.

Next year, Owen and Stephen will have a book coming out that they co-authored.

He talked about how he was really three people.

Regular Home Steve: Yes, dear, go along to get along type guy. No standing ovations at home.

Public Steve: Comes out to speak to the public.

Scary Steve: Won’t travel. Sick guy. Leave him alone. Don’t mess with him much.

He talked about how good stories, you need to feel a connection wit the character, they have to be worth caring about.

He said you can see the difference in Friday the 13th movies, you “go to see what weird fucking ways they die”. Then he contrasted it with Halloween movie, where you rooted for Jamie Lee Curtis to live.

He talked about how it was weird to be in front of a crowd. That writers by nature are introverts, and are supposed to observe instead of being observed. He says he always makes sure his fly is zipped before stepping on stage.

He said that John Grisham once told him that they were famous writers in a country that doesn’t read.

He also said he takes books everywhere, they’re great friends. (See, Dad, if you’re reading this, I wasn’t the only one that ever did this!).

It was an amazing experience and one I am so happy to have had.

Have a great weekend!

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Do I even need to discuss the plot behind Moby-Dick by Herman Melville? Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Ishmael’s observing Captain Ahab’s overwhelming obsession to bring down the white whale? Does anyone (both the large number who haven’t read it but still know it and the somewhat fewer who actually have read it) not recognize the opening line: “Call me Ishmael?” I really feel this is one book that really doesn’t need a whole lot of discussion.

But, let’s talk about whaling a bit:

In connection with this appellative of “Whalebone whales,” it is of great importance to mention, that however such a nomenclature may be convenient in facilitating allusions to some kind of whales, yet it is in vain to attempt a clear classification of the Leviathan, founded upon either his baleen, or hump, or fin, or teeth; notwithstanding that those marked parts or features very obviously seem better adapted to afford the basis for a regular system of Cetology than any other detached bodily distinctions, which the whale, in his kinds, presents. How then? The baleen, hump, back-fin, and teeth; these are things whose peculiarities are indiscriminately dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any regard to what may be the nature of their structure in other and more essential particulars. Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then, this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for 3rd for Paul Auster, 2nd for Russell Banks, 5th for John Banville, 8th for Andrea Barrett, 7th for Bebe Moore Campbell, 4th for Michael Chabon, 4th for David Anthony Durham, 4th for Jim Harrison, 8th for Adam Haslett, 3rd for John Irving, 7th for Norman Mailer, 9th for Bobbie Ann Mason, 1st for Patrick McGrath, 9th for Joyce Carol Oates, favorite at age 25 for Richard Powers, 7th for Francine Prose, 10th for Ian Rankin, and 9th for Louis D. Rubin Jr.)

Vivid portrayal of the slipperiness of good and evil, depiction of all consuming vengeance, the arrogance of man, the indifferent power of nature, a detailed portrait of whaling, there are so many functions going on in Moby-Dick. Everyone seems to know of it. Of those who have actually read it, the camps are fiercely divided. Some adore it, some hate it, and some hate it so much that they despise that others adore it and insist it shouldn’t be considered a classic.

But, let’s take a minute to talk about whaling:

In one of those southern whalesmen, on a long three or four years’ voyage, as often happens, the sum of the various hours you spend at the mast-head would amount to several entire months. And it is much to be deplored that the place to which you devote so considerable a portion of the whole term of your natural life, should be so sadly destitute of anything approaching to a cosy inhabitiveness, or adapted to breed a comfortable localness of feeling, such as pertains to a bed, a hammock, a hearse, a sentry box, a pulpit, a coach, or any other of those small and snug contrivances in which men temporarily isolate themselves. Your most usual point of perch is the head of the t’ gallant-mast, where you stand upon two thin parallel sticks (almost peculiar to whalemen) called the t’ gallant cross-trees. Here, tossed about by the sea, the beginner feels about as cosy as he would standing on a bull’s horns. To be sure, in cold weather you may carry your house aloft with you, in the shape of a watch-coat; but properly speaking the thickest watch-coat is no more of a house than the unclad body; for as the soul is glued inside of its fleshy tabernacle, and cannot freely move about in it, nor even move out of it, without running great risk of perishing (like an ignorant pilgrim crossing the snowy Alps in winter); so a watch-coat is not so much of a house as it is a mere envelope, or additional skin encasing you. You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.

Personally, I do look up to Moby-Dick quite a bit. The action parts are layered and gripping. I see all kinds of things in them and am on the edge of my seat. The whaling parts do make the book a real slog to get through, but I see functions those perform as well. The picture it gives of that way of live, the long time building up just to tear down in a single moment, I can see it…though I can also understand why so many get so angry about this book.

But, let’s talk about whaling just a bit more:

I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale; Colnett’s, Huggins’s, Frederick Cuvier’s, and Beale’s. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins’s is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale’s is the best. All Beale’s drawings of this whale are good, excepting the middle figure in the picture of three whales in various attitudes, capping his second chapter. His frontispiece, boats attacking Sperm Whales, though no doubt calculated to excite the civil scepticism of some parlor men, is admirably correct and life-like in its general effect. Some of the Sperm Whale drawings in J. Ross Browne are pretty correct in contour; but they are wretchedly engraved. That is not his fault though.

I mean, Melville does take a while to get around to things. He has a marvelous story and wonderfully developed characters, but it is a long walk to get there. Everything is so meticulously laid out. Still, I think there is something in that. He spends so long making everything so concretely there, then he smashes it all in one quick second. Personally, I’m still a fan and I still respect the hell out of Moby-Dick.

Note: before this went live, I came across a Simpsons’ quote I just had to pointlessly add:

Homer: What kind of example would I be if I didn’t take revenge on things?
Lisa: Dad, you can’t take revenge on animals. That’s the whole point of Moby Dick.
Homer: Lisa, the point of Moby Dick is, “Be yourself.”

The Color Purple

I had the idea for this beautiful blog post in my head. Based on an article that I read last week where an author said that writers can be seen as the canaries in a mine. I was going to tie it into The Color Purple by Alice Walker which I was reading for this week.

But, even though I’ve read the Color Purple before, it was so many years ago that I was not prepared for all the emotion.

Walker uses a straightforward prose style. It’s patterned by the main character Celie writing letters to God at the beginning, her sister by the end. And Celie’s life is one of heartbreak. Raped by her father, married off to an ass, forced to watch her husband bring his love into their house, falling in love with the woman, finding out the husband hid her sister’s letters for years. The book arcs both Celie’s life and her sister’s life. Towards the middle of the book, it becomes a dialogue of sorts between the two, even though both are writing letters to each other that they aren’t receiving or are receiving years afterwards. Celie moves from seeing God as this omnipotent white man into seeing Him as all around her, in nature, in people, everywhere. This is about the time her letters shift from being addressed to Him and being addressed to her sister.

Walker uses dialect in her writing, but unlike Zora Neale Hurston, it never once distracted me from the story and the writing.

And, my feelings rode along with Celie and her sister. Alice Walker has written a finely tuned novel. The closest comparison I can come up with is that it reminds me of a classical piece of music. Each note seems planned but unplanned all at the same time.

Usually, I don’t really have much outward emotion with a book. I cried at the end of The Color Purple. It was an extremely readable book and easy to climb into and live in until the end.

I would put this one in my list of top ten recommendations from this blog. Which puts it up there with Geek Love and Things They Carried.

Even if the idea of an “Oprah” book turns you off (which come on, she was in the movie, of course she would choose it!), read this one 🙂 Some books truly are Oprah books for a reason.