Thursday, September 30, 2010

Brand New Podcast of Cactuseaters talk with Rick Kleffel. (Includes Before and After Photo!)

(photo, taken by me, of Mount Whatever, located in Whatever State It Was.)

Here is the podcast of my recent live radio conversation on Talk Of The Bay, KUSP FM, about the writing of The Cactus Eaters.

And here are some of Rick Kleffel's recent thoughts on the book, posted on the Agony Column. Thanks to everyone for tuning in.

And yes, to answer your question, I will have more events and news soon. Can't say "boo" about it at the moment.

Monday, September 27, 2010

KUSP FM and the Agony Column

Thanks to everyone for tuning in! Had a great talk with Rick Kleffel. He is going to podcast it, and when that happens, I will put the link up right here. When you tune in to his website, you will also see a photo of me holding up a scary picture showing what I looked like on the trail (in a self portrait I took with one of those crummy disposable cameras that they used to sell in drug stores.) Meanwhile check out the offerings on Kleffel's Agony Column -- featuring conversations with Mary Roach, Vendela Vida, William Gibson, John Brandon and more.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Updated: Cactuseaters radio talk: In conversation with KUSP this Sunday at 7 p.m. western standard time

(This photograph shows a peaceful, alluring meadow under Mount Whatever.)

This Sunday I will have an on-the-air book talk with Rick Kleffel from 7 to 730 p.m. on KUSP 88.9 Central Coast Public Radio about The Cactus Eaters and other writings. It's a call-in show, so listeners can participate.

Giant slug reserves parking space at UC Santa Cruz

Apparently, invertebrates are getting dibs on parking spaces up there.

(thanks to B. for forwarding this.)

Photo credit: Peggy Delaney, UC Santa Cruz.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cheap thrills for book lovers, part XXXXV: Joyland Reading in San Francisco

Peter Orner, Emily Schultz, Brian Joseph Davis, Tamar Halpern, Ruth Galm and Helene Wecker will be reading their latest work on Friday, September 17 (tomorrow).

I wish I could be there. Will someone go in my place and tell me what happens?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Read these next (amended)

Rebecca Skloot: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Some pompous bozo on the internet claimed that Skloot violated a "rule'' of creative nonfiction and journalism: "never insert yourself in the story.'' That's news to me. The truth is that every nonfiction project sets its own rules, and in this case, her involvement is essential. In this book, Skloot uncovers the life of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose freakishly powerful cancer cells find 'eternal life' in laboratories and played an essential role in a vast body of medical research. Meanwhile Lacks' family was kept in the dark about the mighty "HeLa'' cells and couldn't even afford proper health care. A deeply engrossing and shocking story. Skloot didn't "discover'' this story but she tied the strands together, using investigative reporting skills, immersion journalism and good old-fashioned storytelling. John D'Agata: About a Mountain. Wow -- talk about inventing your own rules for a creative nonfiction book. D'Agata took a lot of risks in this one and got a certain amount of flak for it, but this long meditative essay on human ambition, language and self-delusion is one of the best nonfiction books of the year. The Nick Tosches Reader includes outstanding -- and scary -- profiles of George Jones, Sonny Liston and Jerry Lee Lewis, and a few other essays that were so funny and raunchy, I kept thinking I was going to get struck by lightning for the sin of reading it. Under the "unjustly overlooked'' category, I'll include The Show I'll Never Forget, edited by Sean Manning. It's an anthology about mind-altering (for better and worse) concert experiences. Some of the essays focus squarely on performance. In others, the performance barely even registers, and it's all about the circumstances leading up to, and away from, the concerts. The standout is Heidi Julavits looking back, through several layers of murk, at a Rush concert. (She struggles to remember whether Rush is the band "with the one-armed drummer.'')

Don't overlook Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. The narrator is a dreamer (and a stammerer) in an English town in the grips of the Falkland Islands war. I loved his use of tone and his ability to toggle back and forth between comedy and heartbreak. An initiation scene, involving a middle school "Skull and Bones'' styled secret society, is almost unbearably suspenseful.

Speaking of comedy and tragedy (and messed-up families), I'm now reading Oh The Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey. So far, its also very sad and funny. I haven't Googled any stories about this one, but he must have gotten a lot of grief for writing this.

John Prine at sea

Can you believe this??? A bunch of my favorite bands, floating on the ocean at the same time, with well drinks, songwriting workshops and the chance to play blackjack with Steve Earle. If one of you wants to buy me a ticket to this thing, I'll work it into my busy schedule.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Line-up for Literary Orange

I'll be taking part in this literary festival at UC Irvine, featuring Ron Hanson and T. Jefferson Parker. The full list of speakers is now online. Save the date.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Standing up for unlikeable characters

Lately I've heard people trash certain novels and short stories because the central characters are "not likeable'' -- characters who do or think the wrong things, and don't pass the personality test. The characters are too ornery, too brazen, too selfish, too full of themselves. The charge has been levied at Jonathan Franzen, among others. Personally, I'm fine with challenging, off-putting, confounding or "difficult'' characters. If the story and the characters are compelling, and if the character is striving for something (even if it is something unsavory), I don't care if the central character is someone I wouldn't invite to my house for dinner.

I think it's a strange reason to dismiss a book out of hand. A couple of weeks ago, Vendela Vida addressed this question when she passed through town to promote her new book, The Lovers, which features a challenging central character, a widow returning to the place of her honeymoon 25 years later.

Vida told the audience that stories are a good way to learn about people you wouldn't necessarily spend time with in your day-to-day life, a chance to dwell in their world for a while.

She added that she isn't "looking for friends'' when she opens up a book.

(Speaking of Vida, she and many others can be heard in conversation online with Rick Kleffel, a books interviewer who asks good questions. )

Australians embark on Cactus Eaters themed adventure hike

Crazy coincidence. My folks are in town to visit, and the people next to them on the airplane had read The Cactus Eaters, are from Australia, and (from what i understand) are planning a three-week PCT hike. I hear they are going to write into this blog, and when they do, I'll post the whole thing. By the way, I don't think they actually plan to eat an opuntia. My father explained that he was the "gap-toothed'' paterfamilias featured in the book, and throughout the entire flight, the Australians good-naturedly referred to him as Gappy.

If you hear of any other spontaneous Cactus Eaters themed events, let me know, and I'll post something.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Not your neighborhood stink bug expert

For some reason I am getting a lot of emails and inquiries lately about stink bugs, perhaps because I blogged about them a couple of years ago. I just want to point out that I am (sad to say) not a stink bug expert, but if you are interested in a one-stop-shopping site with interesting factoids and pictures of stinkbugs, I suggest you look at this website instead. It covers the topic from every angle.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Coming soon: the dumbest author reading Q and A questions of all time

How many times have you gone to an author's reading at a book store and heard someone ask a question that made you want to crawl under your chair? Groan? Cover your ears? Flee the store? Cry? Move to another neighborhood?

There's one in every crowd -- that one person who's got to raise his hand and ask Alice Munro if she's related to Marilyn. Personally, I think these questions -- and the responses -- are often the most revealing part of a Q and A because they reveal more about authors' personalities, their capacity for empathy, and their ability to think on their feet, than any of the usual questions.

I'm putting together a partial list of the daffiest Q and A questions of all time --- and no, I won't spare myself on this list because I've asked a few staggeringly dumb questions to authors over the years, including a question to Janet Malcolm that was so confounding, even to me, that she couldn't answer at all. She just stared at me. And after a while, I think she said: "Next question?''

So far I've got a list of teeth-grinding questions that people have asked to Toni Morrison, Joan Didion and others.

If you have any examples of your own, send in.

If not, stay tuned.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Coming soon: the dumbest author reading Q & A questions of all time

How many times have you gone to an author's reading at a book store and heard someone ask a question that made you want to crawl under your chair?

Cover your ears?

Flee the store?

There's one in every crowd -- that one person who's got to raise his hand and ask Alice Munro if she's related to Marilyn. I'm putting together a partial list of the dumbest Q and A questions of all time --- and no, I won't spare myself on this list because I've asked a few doozies in my time, including a question to Janet Malcolm that was so confounding, even to me, that she couldn't answer at all.

So far I've got a list of dumb, cringe-worthy questions that people have asked to such luminaries as Toni Morrison, Joan Didion and others. If you have any examples of your own, send in. If not, stay tuned.

Here is a partial list of some of the loopiest questions I've heard during the many author events I've attended. Most are verbatim (or, at the very least, I've tried to remember them and reproduce them as accurately as posisble.)

I think i'm entitled to write about this since I, personally, have asked incomprehensible questions at authors events. I once asked a question to Janet Malcolm that was so nervous and loopy that she literally did not know what I was talking about and could not provide any answer at all.

Here are some of the choicest moments:

asked to Joan Didion in New York City during an event to promote The Year of Magical Thinking: "So what I want to know is what made you feel the worst? When your husband died or when your daughter died?''

asked to Laurie Garrett, the author of the Coming Plague, at a reading in the Capitola Book Cafe. "I want to know if you think the e bola outbreak was timed to coincide with the release of the movie Virus starring Dustin Hoffman.''

asked to a Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini by drunk person. "Steinbeck knew he was good, didn't he? I mean, he really, really knew he was good!''

asked to a Steinbeck biographer by same drunk guy. "that Steinbeck, he was a real sonovabitch wasn't he? I real sonavabitch!''

asked to Toni Morrison in New York City (during the middle of a Q and A): "Can I read you some of my poems right now?''

“J-Dog’’ launches book tour: Jonathan Franzen and Freedom at the Capitola Book Cafe

It’s hard to believe nine years have passed since I saw Jonathan Franzen read from The Corrections at the Book CafĂ©. He was so much more of a performer this time, and relaxed enough not to take offense when someone shouted out "Go, J-Dog" right when he approached the podium. There was a distinctly local flavor to the reading, his very first for this book tour and his only Bay Area book store appearance. His friend Claudia Sternbach introduced him by sharing a funny, rueful story about giving him some advice before The Corrections came out.

“I told him that my book had sold dozens of copies and it didn’t really change my life all that much.’’

Of course, The Corrections went on to sell three million copies, win a National Book Award for fiction and end up at the center of an Oprah’s Book Club kerfuffle. Last time around, Franzen seemed ill at ease with all that attention, and the reading was a little stiff. This time he claimed to be so nervous that he appealed to the audience for a way out:

“It’s a little bit like the NFL pre-season but the starter can’t come out after the first quarter. Should I even do the reading?’’

Of course, the willful Santa Cruz audience refused to let him wiggle out of it, and he delivered a reading so powerful that I wondered if the pre-amble was a put-on to mess with expectations. The reading itself seemed to use that rhetorical trick. I’m not going to put any spoilers in here, but I’ll just say that he read a long section from Freedom that started light --- with a funny, expository section leading to a scene of violence, followed by a betrayal. The satirical humor of the first section took on a corrosive edge by the time he was finished. The effect made me uncomfortable. It's hard to pull off a reading with that emotional range, especially considering he hadn't read publicly from the book at all this year.

Often, at bookstore Q and A sessions, at least one person in the audience asks an off-kilter question that makes you do a double-take. At a recent Gary Shteyngart reading, someone asked him something completely incomprehensible involving the trading and raising of sheep across international borders. You should have seen the look on his face. But this time all questions were on point. One person asked Franzen about his reported misgivings about the title.

Freedom is a good old word that’s kind of been misused for political purposes,’’ he said. “If you don’t have a question mark or scare quotes around it, it is an incredibly pompous seeming title. It seemed self important – and gave me something to write towards."

Someone asked him that old Q and A chestnut – do you have any words of advice for a young, struggling writer -- and he came up with a great answer.

“Be prepared for the struggle,’’ Franzen told him. “Read lots and lots of books. Good writing gets internalized. Sentences become less mysterious and daunting. Find someone who will be really, really hard on your prose while still loving the writer.’’

In closing, he was asked “What gives you the courage to commit to a premise, shut off the (inner) critic and begin writing. ‘’

He responded, “The critic is not shut off at the early stages. Right from the first page, it starts rejecting every attempt out of hand, with insults to the writer. Sometimes you can get that critic to shut up for 20 or 30 pages. One tries to be friendly with that critic. I’ve gone as far as I can with that metaphor.’’