Thursday, March 23, 2017

Here I Amn't

Image result for here i am jonathan safran foer

The night before my bar-mitzvah I opened my binder that contained all of the service's prayers and passages, highlighted everything in it that was mine to read, and removed the rest. I didn't feel the need for all the clutter. What I felt was its burden.

When, on the morning of the service, my rabbi figured out what I had done, he was not pleased. Something about how isolating the bar-mitzvah to only my sections really misses the point of what the day is about. I didn't really understand why he was so upset - I still knew when in the service to go on, when to come off. What would be the point of carrying back-and-forth from the seats to the bimah all that extra weight?

This book fills its pages with a lot of burden and a lot of extra weight. But instead of the burden of clutter it's the burden of context, of guilt, of repression, of history, of the things that should have been said but were not, of the things that were said but shouldn't have been, of relationships, of children, of dogs, of being Jewish. There is no story without everything else.

The rabbi, I think, was on to something. Perhaps prayers and passages in isolation are less meaningful in the absence of context. But while I agree with the premise, I'm still not sure I agree with the point. The act of a bar-mitzvah asks a thirteen-year-old boy to stand up in front of his congregation, read some prayers, interpret the Torah, and declare himself a man. The burden, as always, might have been too much to bear.

Monday, December 1, 2014


State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, is a beautiful painting of a book, about a pharmaceutical researcher named Dr. Singh whose lab partner of the last 7 years has just died in the Amazon Jungle. They receive news on a light strip of blue envelope. Anders Eckman was a father of three, a husband, a typical Midwesterner, blond haired, an inside person who loved birds. Apparently he had died of a fever, said Dr. Annick Swenson in the letter. She was funded by Vogel, Dr. Singh's pharmaceutical company, to develop a fertility drug using the tree bark of the Lakashi tribe. Anders had gone down to the Brazil on assignment from Vogel, to find out about Dr. Swenson's progress. Their company was running out of money and patience on the project (it had been several decades). They needed a direct line of communication, and they needed to know when they could expect their drug to hit the market. Anders, thinking it would be a nice opportunity to see some rare birds, volunteered to go.

But now Anders is dead.

Aleph, by Paulo Coelho, is a story about past-life regret and present-life restlessness. It's about the author himself, a Brazilian man named Paulo, 63 years old, abundant, wealthy, happily married, an internationally loved author of novels that have moved people all across the world, living secluded in a beautiful manor beneath a 500 year old oak tree in the French countryside... and yet he's empty. Of feeling, of compassion. He wants to know the purpose of his life. He wants to know what he's doing here.

On a whim one night at a book signing party, Paulo has his publisher design a 2 month International Tour, from Africa to Brazil to Germany, finally ending with a train ride across the length of Russia, from Moscow to the Pacific Ocean. He'll read from his work, host book signing parties, explore each new city with a guide. He'll learn to see with new eyes. He'll re-connect with a world he once knew very intimately.

With his wife's blessing (we never learn her name), Paulo sets off on a journey. In Russia, a young woman finds him at a book signing, and says that she's had a dream about him, and that she must come along on the train journey. She believes they are meant to fix each other. After some persistence and a haunting violin melody from Hilal (she's a first chair violinist for the Turkish Symphony), he agrees that she can ride with them.

Over the course of their journey, they explore Russia by train, 9600 meters of track winding through cities and countryside. It's Paulo, his editor, his publisher, a seventy-year-old Japanese Russian translator named Yao, and Hilal, riding together in a sleeper car at the back of the train. Hilal and Paulo quickly realize that they know each other from a past life. They find an "Aleph" one afternoon in the space that connects train cars, and they see everything that has ever happened. They saw their life together, their collective memory merged in a spray of images. Paulo knows that they were lovers, and that he did something terrible to her.

Their pupils dilated, staring into the Aleph of each other's eyes.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

last lines of 5771:

What's outside the window?

To this day, free access to the preserve is granted only to birds and to residents of the Canterbridge Estates, through a gate whose lock combination is known to them, beneath a small ceramic sign with a picture of the pretty young dark-skinned girl after whom the preserve is named.

Sometimes a wind comes before the rain and sends birds sailing past the window, spirit birds that ride the night, stranger than dreams.

And this is it.

The dark-windowed locomotive is sinister, the train seemingly about to explode off the wall, leap through the air, and shatter into a shower of red-hot shrapnel.

He bowed low, right down to the ground, in front of the man sitting there motionless, whose smile reminded him of everything that he had ever loved in his life, of everything that had ever been of value and holy in his life.

He says that he will never die.

The cults of the famous and the dead.

"Don't ask me why, old sport," said Stony, "but somebody up there likes you."

justice is everywhere and it's working
and the machine guns and the frogs
and the hedges will tell you
so.

"We'll take in a quick bite at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe."

To write: to try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.

Gosh, it sure is pretty... isn't it?

Go on, go on into the Light, into the peace, into the living peace of the Clear Light.

And when all the people were dispersed she still stood alone upon the sea-wall, remembering in her heart his saying, "A little while, a moment of rest upon the wind, and another woman shall bear me."

May the year that is at hand uphold and strengthen you in that.

I had never known, never ever imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.

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So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old brokendown river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the evening-star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks in the west and folds the last and final shore in, and nobody, just nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Neal Cassady, I even think of Old Neal Cassady the father we never found, I think of Neal Cassady, I think of Neal Cassady.

But it was another girl, young and new to the city, fiddling with her keys.

"Yeah," I said. "He ought to be good at that."

that space
there
before they get to us
ensures
that
when they do
they won't
get it all

ever.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I first met met Neal not long after my father died.

I was having good times with the Denver kids and lounging around and getting ready to go to Mexico when suddenly Brierly called me one night and said "Well Jack, guess who's coming to Denver?" I had no idea. "He's on his way already, I got this news from the grapevine. Neal bought a car and is coming out to join you." Suddenly I had a vision of Neal, a burning shuddering frightful Angel palpitating towards me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Stranger on the plain, bearing down on me. I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his wings; I saw his old jaloppy chariot with thousands of sparking flames shooting out from it; I saw the path it burned over the road; it even made its own road and went over the corn, through cities, destroying bridges, drying rivers. It came like wrath to the West. I knew Neal had gone mad again. There was no chance of sending money to either wife if he took all his savings out of the bank and bought a car. Everything was up, the jig and all. Behind him charred ruins smoked. He rushed westward over the groaning and awful continent again and soon he would arrive.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

great first pages (a tangent)

So, I've been out of it for a few months. I'm sorry.

I have been reading, though, so I will try to catch up on blog posts, or at least start posting about what I'm reading at the moment.

For now, though: I just started a Fiction Writing class, and we got a great assignment. Bring in the first page of a published work of fiction that you think is great. Just the first page. No judgment about the book as a whole, literary merit, etc. Just a great first page, for any reason you like.

I have been having so much fun mulling this over. I think we should do this here. I'll start with a few of my favorites.

This one because there is no preamble, no orientation for first-timers, no sunny start. Right down to the grim business. Electrifying. And I remember a hot night in the summer of 2007, knee deep in the School at Steppenwolf but still waiting in line at midnight on a weeknight at Unabridged in Boystown to claim my pre-ordered copy. The line started outside the store, then snaked through the tidy bookshelves, a bunch of adult nerds cramped but happy. The book hit my hands at the entrance to what looked like a broom closet. I was then guided into the closet and through a second door inside it, finally finding myself dumped out into the back alley. Perfect. Stayed up till 2:30 reading. Beautiful memory. Great first page. Great book. I just pretend the epilogue doesn't exist:
The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other's chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

"News?" asked the taller of the two.

"The best," replied Severus Snape.

The lane was bordered on the left by wild, low-growing brambles, on the right by a high, neatly manicured hedge. The men's long cloaks flapped around their ankles as they marched.

"Thought I might be late," said Yaxley, his blunt features sliding in and out of sight as the branches of overhanging trees broke the moonlight. "It was a little trickier than I expected. But I hope he will be satisfied. You sound confident that your reception will be good?"

Snape nodded, but did not elaborate. They turned right, into a....

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling


This one marks the beginning of the end of Harry-Potter-as-children's-book. It was thrilling at the time and still hooks me right away. Shame. Less:
The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it "the Riddle House," even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there. It stood on a hill overlooking the village, some of its windows boarded, tiles missing from its roof, and ivy spreading unchecked over its face. Once a fine-looking manor, and easily the largest and grandest building for miles around, the Riddle House was now damp, derelict, and unoccupied.

The Little Hangletons all agreed that the old house was "creepy." Half a century ago, something strange and horrible had happened there, something that the older inhabitants of the village still liked to discuss when topics for gossip were scarce. The story had been picked over so many times, and had been embroidered in so many places, that nobody was quite sure what the truth was anymore. Every version of the tale, however, started in the same place: Fifty years before, at daybreak on a fine summer's morning, when the....

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling


This one's for Dorothy (and Frank Galati, who used some of this page as a vocal warm up in Presentational Aesthetics, my #1 favorite class at Northwestern):
1
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all, had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

2
I was born in 1910, in Paris. My father was a gentle, easy-going person, a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins. I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards. He owned a luxurious hotel on the Riviera. His father and two grandfathers had sold wine, jewels and silk, respectively. At thirty he married an English girl, daughter of....

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov


This is my favorite, the one I'll take to class, the one that takes my breath away:
I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.

But whenever I start to talk about the South Pacific, people intervene. I try to tell somebody what the steaming Hebrides were like, and the first thing you know I'm telling about the old Tonkinese woman who used to sell human heads. As souvenirs. For fifty dollars!

Or somebody asks me, "What was Guadalcanal actually like?" And before I can describe that godforsaken backwash of the world, I'm rambling on about the Remittance Man, who lived among the Japs and sent us radio news of their movements. That is, he sent the news until one day.

The people intervene. The old savage who wanted more than anything else in the world to jump from an airplane and float down to earth in a parachute. "Alla same big....

Tales of the South Pacific, James Michener