Category for Books

Visiting Larry McMurtry at Booked Up

A few years ago, back in the days when the LATimes had a stand-alone Sunday magazine, Scott Kraft wrote a tremendous story about visiting Larry McMurtry, the writer, author of "The Last Picture Show," "Lonesome Dove," and "Terms of Endearment," among many other great stories, at his bookstore in tiny Archer City Texas. It's called The Loner.

A couple of noteworthy lines:

McMurtry lives in a majestic three-story home a few doors down from the single-story house where he grew up and not far from the high school where he graduated in 1954 among a senior class of 19. He moved back to Archer City, population 1,848, just five years ago.

He keeps mostly to himself, and locals know better than to try to engage him in chitchat. "He's a very conservative-type feller," says Max Wood, the town's 68-year-old mayor. Wood has known McMurtry since high school but doesn't consider himself a close friend. "Larry was always the type of person who was more of a loner."

Here's a picture of McMurtry, from a photo posted in one of his bookstores in Booked Up:

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Well, to put it simply, to learn that one of this nation's greatest writers has a bookstore — a monster bookstore — in a famous (from "The Last Picture Show") little town in Texas, and what's more hangs out at his store, and can be talked to — well, I had to visit. So yesterday, after attending a reporting workshop that gave me the chance to visit Dallas, two hours away, I did.

More below…

Felt a little nervous driving into town on Saturday morning. This person can get geeky in the presence of heroes, and McMurtry is without question a hero, if only for Sam the Lion's speech in "The Last Picture Show," and his Oscar-winning adaptation of Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain."  

("If anybody had any sense," says the writer Carolyn See, a professor of English at UCLA, in the Kraft story, "they'd throw out 'Moby Dick' and put 'Lonesome Dove' in the center as the great American epic novel. No question about it. His heroes in that book are just terrific. His women are just terrific. And he sustains it for 800 pages.")

So I found myself dawdling on my way, and, once inside the plain storefront of a bookstore that once contained a half-million volumes, a bit tongue-tied. I did note a fellow who appeared capable of being McMurtry, and expressed my amazement as he passed at the incredible multitude of "rare and fine" books in the store — no crap at all.

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"Somebody should put prices on these books," noted this fellow dryly.

I then stumbled on a book I last read when I was twelve years old, no lie, on the trail actually, a great book, a classic, in the same edition I read almost fifty years ago. I could not suppress my astonishment, and actually had McMurtry price the book (which had just come in).

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Well, to make a long story short, I was too shy to ask him all the great questions I had to discuss with this great writer, but I did ask him for direction on where to look for types of books, and did express my fandom, and did ask — in amazement — if he had read most or all of the books in his bookstore(s).

"Well, I have some books of my own," he said, and added, "I wouldn't say that I've read them all, but I've considered them."

And he encouraged me to do the same. Which I then did — for hours.

Thanks Larry.

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Understanding Tennessee: how he projected his “wound”

Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Greg Barrios (who has written two plays about Tennessee Williams and Williams' two great loves, Frank Merlo and Pancho Rodriguez) interviews John Lahr, who just published last year an award-winning biography of Tennessee Williams called Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.

It's absolutely fascinating, "literary detection" as The Guardian says. What I like about it is that without condemnation it unearths the psychological mechanism by which Williams created his characters out of himself and projected on to others (his characters). It's not exactly pretty, but it's powerful. Lahr admires Williams' work passionately, but can dissect his method dispassionately.

What [Williams] was, as he said, was a hysteric. And performance is part of what a hysteric does. They perform their wound and project it onto other people. And there is that brilliant line in Sweet Bird of Youth where the Princess says, “I have this thing like a sculpture almost heroic that I can unveil.” And that’s it. That is what the negotiation is, both as an artist and as an ordinary citizen if you’re a hysteric. You are projecting your inner life into others and watching and enjoying their response, and controlling their response with your act. So the performative thing was always a part of Williams’s life.

Remember that essay he wrote about the sidewalk histrionics of a little girl? Dressing up, saying, “look at me, look at me.” I think he calls it “Sidewalk Theatrics” [actually, “Person-to-Person”]. It’s in his collected essays. And that in a cartoonish way is what a performer does. He is drawing attention to himself. He has a need for that attention. That’s part of the DNA of an entertainer.

Speaking of wounds, here's a pic of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, a character based on Pancho Rodriguez, a wounded man in his own right. Would love to see those Barrios' plays —

Marlonbrandoscreentest

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Wild: What if I was never redeemed?

If Wild, the book, the movie, the world-wide phenomena, had no other virtue, the story would deserve praise for the sheer volume of reaction and thought that it has inspired.

If Wild, the book, the movie, the world-wide phenomena, had no other virtue, the story would deserve praise for the sheer volume of reaction and thought that it has inspired. Not just on hiking, but on feminism, on wilderness, on relationships: previously unknown author Cheryl Strayed hit a chord nearly everybody recognized but nobody had ever heard sounded quite that way before  

The influential review of the book, by Dwight Garner in the NYTImes, from just two years ago, is at once respectful, but also a confession, in that the reviewer makes clear that he has been, as Shakespeare would say, overthrown. Wild broke his heart, as we say in our time, and tears came to his eyes, and what can a reviewer say after that? 

But not because Strayed put her life at risk, or had an insanely dangerous time outdoors.  

The author was not chewed on by bears, plucked dangling from the edge of a pit, buried by an avalanche or made witness to the rapture. No dingo ate anyone’s baby. Yet everything happened. The clarity of Ms. Strayed’s prose, and thus of her person, makes her story, in its quiet way, nearly as riveting an adventure narrative as Jon Krakauer’s two “Into” books: those matey fraternal twins, “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air.”

Screenwriter Nick Hornby read this review, ordered the book, and set out to adapt it — even before getting the assignment, though he knew as little about hiking as Strayed did when she set out. 

I felt I understood the book. It wasn't about hiking, not to me. It was about grief, families, ambition, rage, disappointment and hope, and it was written with an urban liberal-arts sensibility that succeeded in placing anyone with the same set of values right there on the trail with Cheryl, screwed up, unprepared, determined to succeed in her ambition simply because there are no viable alternatives anywhere else.

But why was Strayed's story so riveting? After all, thousands of people have hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Nearly everybody a person meets thru-hiking the trail is on a quest, as occasional trail companion Chris Nottoli likes to say. 

What's so special about Strayed? 

Surely the best overall — and longest! — attempt to answer this question comes from Kathryn Schulz for New York magazine. Interestingly, she frames the question much as Garner does — at first:

People love to read about outdoor extremis and debacle, à la Into Thin Air, but books about nature in which nothing goes terribly wrong do not normally attract millions of fans. Moreover, there is a kernel of genuine radicalism in Wild — and radicalism, by definition, does not appeal to the mainstream. Outside of slave narratives and horror fiction, adult American literature contains very few accounts of a woman alone in the woods. YetWild is the story of a woman who voluntarily takes leave of society and sustains herself outdoors, without the protection of a man, or, for that matter, of mankind. It is the story of a woman who does something physically demanding day after day, of her own free will, and succeeds at it. It is the story of a working-class woman and her mind — of what Strayed thought about in the three months she spent almost entirely alone. And it is a story that ends happily in the near-total absence of that conventional prerequisite for happy endings, romantic love.

That phrase "near-total" stuck in my craw a bit, because the movie does conclude with a mention — if not the in-person sight — of a romantic love. To make sure Schulz was right about this interpretation I looked up the conclusion in the book, and what do you know, it's just about word for word. Strayed does mention returning to the Bridge of the Gods, where she concluded her trip, to marry a new man. 

But Schulz's point — that this was a woman's story that has to do with self-discovery, and not about being discovered — remains central to the story. As she says:

In a ­culture with profoundly ambivalent feelings about independent women, it is not always clear what kind of adventures we will be lauded for undertaking, nor what kind of tales we will be lauded for telling. So why did so many people fall in love with Strayed and her story?

I asked Strayed myself a similar question, when she spoke at UC Santa Barbara a couple of years ago, hoping privately that she would say something about how her story arrived at a moment when as a people we were falling back in love with the wild and the trail. Or were at least open to stories about that, as we as a culture had not been in either of the boom times of the 80's or 90's. Sez me. 

Strayed did not. In a polite but firm way she spoke of the writing itself, and of the publishing team that gave the book the best possible launch. Which wasn't what I wanted to hear, but statistics cited in a recent LA Times op-ed appear to bear our her point: 

Visits to the 58 crown jewels of the National Park System — nature-based parks such as Acadia, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite — peaked in 1997, and, per capita, had declined 19% by 2010. Some who work in state and national parks have expressed deep concern to me about how school kids show up on field trips not so much eager to play, or excited to learn, but unsettled by whatever ferocious creatures might be lurking in the bushes. As stated in a news release last summer by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Getting [today's] visitors to reweigh perceived threats is an art.”

(It's been four years since those stats were published, and I like to think that the tide has turned towards respect for wilderness. Certainly I see people on mountain trails — particularly women, many not young — that I didn't see when I was hiking Sierra trails twenty years ago.)

But Schulz would agree with Strayed. She points out that Strayed's story — in which she has to lose everything, and start over — has a myth's power. 

Strayed sets out on her journey after the loss of her mother (and husband, stepfather, father, and childhood home)… It is as if only the total destruction of the domestic sphere could justify a woman’s presence on such adventures. Or rather — since Strayed’s story is not fabricated — it is as if that destruction were necessary in order to secure the audience’s sympathy for a woman doing something risky and alone.

As a literary device, the destruction of the home front silences these concerns. But it has another advantage: It is universally familiar — not from stories about independent women but from stories about independent children. In real life, the death of a parent is an agonizing loss. But in fiction, that death, while nominally tragic, often marks the beginning of an adventure; it gives the hero the freedom, and sometimes the motive, to go explore an unfamiliar land. Mowgli in the jungle, Bambi in the forest, Huck on his raft, Dorothy in Oz: For any of these adventures to transpire, the parents must first be made to vanish. 

Further, as Schulz says, and Reese Witherspoon, who became the heroine of the tale in the movie seconds, this is a classic American story, in that it is about a woman who had nothing, no money, and sitll and found something, in this world and in herself. Witherspoon told the LA Times:

And it was really important that it wasn't about, like, white-girl problems, you know? I told her that so many people in this world have nothing, and that's what I really responded to, that you get to the end of this movie and this woman has nothing. She has no man and no money and no parents and no job, and it's a happy ending. And that's extraordinary in this life because so many people don't know where to turn or what resources are going to lift them up out of their grief or their despair, and she did this for herself with nothing. And I felt like it could be inspirational to other people.

Which it clearly was. Thank you Reese Witherspoon, and thank you Cheryl Strayed. Especially for these concluding words:

What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I'd done something I shouldn't have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I'd done other than becuase it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn't do anything differently than I had done? … What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn't have done was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn't do anything differently than I had done? … What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn't have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was? 

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On (almost) the same page: Virginia Woolf and Carl Jung

Great minds think alike, the nine zillionth example:

Virginia Woolf, from To the Lighthouse

"She felt…how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach." 

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[painting of Woolf by her sister, Vanessa Bell]

Carl Jung, from Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Chapter IV, Psychiatric Activies:

In many cases in psychiatry, the patient who comes to us has a story that is not told, and which as a rule no one knows of.  To my mind, therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal story. It is the patient's secret, the rock against which he is shattered. If I know his secret story, I have a key to the treatment. The doctor's task is to find out how to gain that knowledge. In most cases exploration of the consicous material is insufficient. Sometimes an association test can open the way; so can the interpretation of dreams, or long and patient human contact with the individual. In therapy the problem is always the whole person, never the symptom alone. We must ask questions which challenge the whole personality.

Jung

As must the dramatist, surely — I wonder if this is the half-secret connection between drama and therapy, the challenging of character. 

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The freedom in walking lies in being no one: Philosopher

A delightfully light (but thoughtful) interview focuses on a new book — A Philosophy of Walking — written by a French professor who takes the subject so seriously he's nervous about answering questions from a reporter. 

From The Guardian:

It is a sunny spring Sunday and – joy! – I am off to Paris to go for a walk. Not any old walk, but a walk with a man who really knows about walking: Frédéric Gros, a professor of walking. A philosopher of walking.

Strictly speaking, he's actually a professor of philosophy who writes about walking, but this is nitpicking. What do I care? I love walking. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than walking uphill, for hours, in order to sleep under some flimsy piece of nylon fabric and then do it all again the next day.

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Gros's book, a surprise bestseller in France, talks of walking as a form of "life scoured bare"; as a way of "experiencing the real". Its pages are filled with calm reflections on the joys of moving slowly. He just doesn't sound as if he should be the stressy type.

Don't be stressed, I tell him. I loved the book. It's an examination of the philosophy of various thinkers for whom walking was central to their work – NietzscheRimbaudKantRousseauThoreau (they're all men; it's unclear if women don't walk or don't think) – and Gros's own thoughts on the subject. It's a passionate affirmation of the simple life, and joy in simple things. And it's beautifully written: clear, simple, precise; the opposite of most academic writing.

But, when I say this to Gros, he waves his hand. "I think it is probably the translation. I don't think it was so well written in French." And he takes a nervous swig of his rosé. are you nervous, I ask. You must have done interviews before. "They were in French," he says. "And also… Um… I'm not so sure I am interesting."

Another must read for yours truly: Here's the writer/walker:

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And a thought from the author:

By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history … The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.

Maybe this is why I like it so much — gives me a chance to escape from myself. To simply live. 

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Facing Drought Together: The Ojai Retreat 3/9/2014

Bill O'Brien, a civil engineer, Victoria Loorz, a pastor, myself, and Ulrich Brugger, who directs The Ojai Retreat, are putting together a public conversation which we hope will help motivate people of the Ojai Valley to take a serious look at our drought and what we can do about it.  

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 We also intend to ask for help. 

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The lazy man’s guide to a classic roast chicken recipe

Both the LA Times and the San Francisco Chronicle gave Judy Rodgers of the Zuni Cafe a warm send-off and reprinted her classic roast chicken recipe, which has won big awards and international acclaim. 

ZunichickenHere's the obituary/recipe, and here (below) is an easy version of the chicken recipe for lazy people that still comes out great. Rodgers' version includes a bread salad that to me raises the bar too high for most home cooks, leading them to perhaps not make the chicken recipe, which would be a shame. 

So! The lazy man's version:

1)     Instead of preparing a chicken as Rodgers recommends, two or three days ahead of time, with salt rubs, etc., go to Trader Joe's and get one of their brined organic chickens. Accept no supermarket substitute; believe me, it just won't be the same.

2)       Bring home, dry carefully, just as she says, and then put under the skin, five or six springs of thyme, and perhaps a little oregano and or marjoram. But thyme is a must. Leave out on the counter long enough for the chicken to reach room temperature — a few hours. (You don't have to worry about bacteria, because you're going to cook it at a high temperature, although not so high as to dry it out.)

3)        This is the tricky part. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Put a small cast iron pan on the stove, and heat that too over medium, until it's pretty hot. 

Wipe the chicken dry and place, breast-side up, in the pan. It should sizzle.

Place the pan in the center of the oven. Listen and watch for it to start sizzling and browning within 20 minutes. If it hasn't, increase temperature progressively until it does. If chicken begins to char, or fat is smoking aggressively, reduce temperature by 25 degrees. After 30 minutes, turn the bird over and roast 10 to 20 minutes. Turn bird again to re-crisp breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes. Total roasting time will be 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Do it right and it won't stick to the pan, but it's counter-intuitive — dependent on a dry chicken and a hot (but not too hot) pan. What she doesn't mention is that it's really helpful to have a good meat thermometer, such as this Thermapen recommended by experts, to be able to assess the doneness of the bird. You want it to be 159 degrees everywhere — but no more. 

Never met the cook, but I learned about originality in cooking from this recipe of hers. 

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A great essay on a great writer: Messud on Camus

A great review will not only change your mind, but make you see — and feel — afresh.

Such is Claire Messud's essay on Albert Camus' Algerian Chronicles, in the 50th anniversary issue of the New York Review of Books. Must read!

But if you don't, here are some reasons — from Camus — why you should.

On violence for the sake of overthrowning one's oppressors:

“I merely say that we must refuse all legitimacy to violence, whether it comes from raison d’état or totalitarian philosophy. Violence is both unavoidable and unjustifiable.”

On intellectuals who justify violence:

Each side thus justifies its own actions by pointing to the crimes of its adversaries. This is a casuistry of blood with which intellectuals should, I think, have nothing to do, unless they are prepared to take up arms themselves.

On violence in politics:

“I am not made for politics,” he wrote in his notebooks in November 1945, “because I am incapable of wanting or accepting the death of the adversary.”

On the eroticism of nature:

There is only one love in this world. To embrace the body of a woman is also to hold to oneself this strange joy that descends from the sky toward the sea.

[Camus with his publisher Gallimard, not long before his death]

Camus and gallidmard 1958

Must. Read. Camus. 

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What is the use of forty days in the wilderness?

From a defense of solitude in wilderness, called Forty Days, by Paul Kingsnorth:

Sometimes you need to go, and sometimes you need to stay away for some time. The world we have created is terrifying in its complexity and power and in its ability to destroy the small, the precious, the immeasurable and the meaningful, inside you and in the places around you. Perhaps to a political activist, sitting by a stream in a forest seems like self-indulgence in the face of mass extinction and climate change, but it is the opposite. If you don't know why that stream matters, you are not equipped to protect it. If you have forgotten how to listen to it, you may end up on the wrong side, as so many have before you.

Yes, but must say that Kingsnorth himself admits that right now he has no time for forty days in the wilderness. Even as he sternly declares that "if you don't put yourself in the wilderness with nothing to carry you, you will never know what you need to shed or gain." Guess he's honest, but – 

What he cannot do, I can, at least for a week here and there…back on the trail this month. 

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[via Jeff Sullivan, who makes his stunning photos freely available on web] 

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On the Road — in drawings by Paul Rogers

The beauty and power of On the Road has little or nothing to do with its plot, and everything to do with writer Jack Kerouac's desire to transmit directly to the reader his experience of the raw wild beauty of the American land and its people. Illustrator Paul Rogers has launched a long-term project to illustrate the book, with a drawing from every page, and, for a Saturday, how better to re-experience the shock of its directness, its neediness, its writerly fireworks. 

In no particular order, some fav drawings from the scrolls

Ontheroadgoingwest
Ontheroadthemadones
Ontheroadminershouse
Ontheroadplayerpiano
Ontheroadgirls
Ontheroadstars

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