Category Archives: books

The Only Thing I Have

I finished The Only Thing I Have yesterday. I didn’t think I would like it, only because I bought it from the ‘buy this’ feature on my ereader* at night when I didn’t want to figure anything out. I don’t remember the last time I read something I hadn’t read about before.

It’s good. It’s hard to read a book of stories so short, and they all feel a little regular and then aren’t anymore, which is maybe why it’s not exactly great to read all at once. But it’s good. One review said the stories relate because of how easily and with what expertise the characters deceive themselves which I would never have said, but I am generally deceiving myself most of the time.

(*A thing about it– I used to have a kindle but got it wet somehow; it wasn’t too bad but I couldn’t read the words on the top right edge, like I’d dipped the corners of all the books I owned in water. Instead of getting a new one I got a kobo just to feel a little better. I like it but for one thing: it doesn’t tell you how many pages are left in the whole book while you’re reading, just how many pages are left in a chapter. It’s hugely disorienting. I have never not known how soon a book would end.)

“In the Very Near Future” was the best story. It’s a very good story. In the beginning the character goes to a psychic who tells her

I want you to be near trees. At least once a week you must spend some time at the base of a large tree, preferably cedar, and you must get out near the water as much as possible.

I wanted to talk to someone who would tell me to do the same. How stupid. ‘How easily I deceive myself,’ reviews say, I can make it to the bay on two feet. There are trees where I live. That generally has nothing to do with the story, which is maybe about carrying what we’re scared of or that children are terrifying– not themselves but that they have to exist and be kept safe– or about relying on someone else to change your life.

She pushes a finger into the soil and then puts the finger in her mouth and sucks the soil off. She picks the pot up and scoops soil into her mouth. Grains of sand scrape her teeth. She goes to the kitchen and pours a glass of milk and washes down the last of the grit…”Are you going to change my life?” she says to Blue Eyes and moves a slip of hair away from his lax face.

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Tom Stoppard, The Real Thing

A small quickening. The room responds slightly to being entered. Like a raised blind.

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Curtis White Takes Issue

“Excuse me. I know I have pledged suspended disbelief to this narrative, and I’m trying to be a good sport about it, but incredulity asks for a moment in which to say its piece. Incredulity says, ‘What ‘old village’ are you referring to? And why do you imagine that the idea of returning there cozens anyone into accepting your future? Is this village of which you speak so fondly in the Carpathian Mountains? Where are those mountains? In Carpathia? Is the village surrounded by rich forests and colorful songbirds? Is it like the cottage in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves? Or is it perchance in good old Missouri? Will we be gathering around the cracker barrel to listen to the androids indulge their homespun humor and tales of yesteryear down at the general sim-store? Will we eat the crackers, or will they be made of silicon? Will we later meet down by the river? Will Reverend Automaton bless us and dunk us in the eternal waters of the Ether Domain? Will the fragrance of genetically modified apple pie drift from matrix to matrix, causing a pang, a yearning, a hankering for the olden times when some of us had tatters of flesh attached to the hydraulics?'”

[From Middle Mind, a book about how our lack of imagination is destroying our country and the world, which– though I sympathize with the hesitations– ultimately I’ll be on board with, and have spoken of before: an argument that art or culture is most dangerous when it gives the illusion of engagement without providing tools for true criticism or rebellion, and that insufficient critical thinking skills make it hard to distinguish between art and culture that wants to actually push back and that that is mostly placating. Hard pressed to disagree with the notion that Americans are fairly impoverished as to White’s definition of the function of the imagination: “to critique and to imagine alternatives to the social status quo”; so here is his critiquing, the sincerely best parts of the book, I think, flexing and teeth-bearing, but then maybe because it is Most Entertaining so perhaps I do a disservice by quoting it instead of his actual arguments and I am not really engaging with his point, as this is all simply context for the book not for what he’s criticizing here, which is the idea that new technologies (“wearing the internet around your neck”) will bring us closer and make us, in fact, more like the village of our ancestors and less disconnected. You’re already wearing the internet around your neck; this isn’t very village-like. But a thing should be engaging to be engaged with, and moving on from his bite White offers possible solutions which are captivating and hopeful despite the weariness that seems to run through the rest of the book, and he is also deeply involved with my favorite book press so there you have it.]

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Paula Fox, Desperate Characters

She grew arrowy. “You look like an arrow,” he said.

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Self Defense

Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America:

I hope someday we’ll have enough money to get those pictures developed. Sometimes I get curious about them, wondering if they will turn out all right. They are in suspension now like seeds in a package. I’ll be older when they are developed and easier to please. Look there’s a baby! Look there’s Mushroom Springs! Look there’s me!

I read this book yesterday, which is sort of set in San Francisco which is near where I live. I don’t live in San Francisco; I live in the East Bay, in Oakland. Earlier I worked in San Francisco and spent more time there but I don’t anymore, I work in Oakland and spend my time here and not only is it a good place but it’s probably the right place. Oakland’s just trying to get its shit together which is what I know. When things are right I could move to San Francisco or leave or the idea of right things is stupid.

So yesterday I read this book in a bar in Oakland. The best part of the book is when there’s a used trout stream for sale by the foot, stacked in piles by length. And he goes upstairs to where the divided stacks of trout streams are and sees the trout swimming and sticks his hand in the cold water, which is the kind of brain poets have.

The worst part of the book is probably the last three chapters: the third to last because the character has to wait in Oakland to get paid so he can go to San Francisco, and I hate this waiting version of Oakland, it’s sad and this city deserves more and I’d like to get over it; the second to last chapter because he says

Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise.

and in the final chapter he does, the last word is mayonnaise. What I think when I read this is, “fine, end the book with the word mayonnaise but I don’t want to know about wanting to do it, that’s not something I need to know.” God knows I get attached to endings real bad which is part of the reason why I can’t get past writing anything but the very short, but it drives me up the wall to hear it here at the end of this book. I think partly because, maybe someone disagrees, it’s just aesthetically irritating, there’s no need to gigantisize the quirk, man aren’t I crazy ending this book with “mayonnaise.”

I’ve been reading this self-help book for a lot of reasons I may go into another time, probably not, and the whole thing is just the same as every other self-help book, a repetition of the importance of “letting go” over and over in the horrible way self-help books have of using a lot of quotations and backing up claims with pseudo-science and explaining words (“disease = dis-ease”). Honestly I can’t even figure out why I keep reading this book except that I’m hoping it’s a better reminder of letting go, maybe to turn things around here at the end of this year where I have not been very good at getting over shit. (egos, people, the future)

So a “human need” then? To end a book with a certain word? (At the risk of being elementary:) besides just the purely quirk here the human need is just to claim and solidify and know the ending, which is impossible unless you are writing, or shooting yourself. This ending is irritating because what a horrible thing in this ridiculous year to think there might be some control over what would happen next or where it goes.

It’s fine though, inescapable anyway. This book would have always been knitted to knowing endings as I only read it because I have been working my way through this list instead of doing the other summer tribute, and In Watermelon Sugar came in the same book as Trout Fishing in America so I read both, and because Brautigan committed suicide probably around this time too in 1984.

Jesus, this year. I’m done, should be, worrying if things will turn out all right. This is the city I live in.

General Custer Versus the Titanic

For the soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry who were killed at the Little Bighorn River and the passengers who were lost on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

God bless their souls.

Yes! It’s true all my visions
have come home to roost at last.
They are all true now and stand
around me like a bouquet of
lost ships and doomed generals.
I gently put them away in a
beautiful and disappearing vase.

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From the two most violent books I’ve ever read:

Antrim, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World:

It’s a compromise, it’s not the best of all possible worlds, but neither is the world the best of all possible worlds, is it?

McCarthy, Blood Meridian:

I wonder if there’s other worlds like this, he said. Or if this is the only one.


Here is Antrim reading Barthelme’s “I Bought a Little City,”  (maybe I am going to have to rename this whole thing The Barthelme Experience) and some suggestions of what it means to turn an absurd idea genuine, or make wild impulses register with reality;

Interviewer: …it’s just a way of saying “Wake up, remember who you’re with, remember what you’re doing here.”

Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World is the best thing I have read in a long time. 

* * *

Ben Marcus on Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine, a book not worth quoting from unless it is from beginning to end

…but while most of Crawford’s contemporaries were staging their loveless, white-knuckle relationship fiction in a spume of alcohol, boxed up in fresh suburban sheet rock, Crawford put his unhappily married couple to sea, rendered them as solitary as Adam and Eve, and he cursed them to be so awkwardly fit for human behavior that every kind of congress had to be reinvented and mythologized anew.

* * *

How we orient

My baby sister came to visit today. We aren’t much alike but most of the time I feel I really only have one unselfish part of me, and that it actually exists inside of her but somehow remains part of who I am. The people I’m related to are the only big thing about me which is one of those rare things to be certain of.

In any case we just got off the phone because she couldn’t find the freeway, which is strange. One big thing we do not have in common is that she almost always knows what direction she’s going in while I will get lost anywhere. If you don’t have this problem, this is the worst part: you, often, are so fundamentally wrong about something and have absolutely no idea. Where I will be going feels north and everything I’ve done previously tells me it’s north and I know it’s north, which is in truth the only way I can ever figure out I’m headed south. It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that your body could tell you something entirely false.

But hark, a website! The internet will always know where I am. 


The direction I am trying to go: Kevin Fanning put a story in printed-words-on-paper form. Likely this isn’t news because the left-turn right-turn map that got most people here probably started with Kevin showing support, so with luck you’ve already made that purchase and didn’t miss out. Here, go read an interview where he tells you that writing about being lost is kind of his thing but then tells you he wants to give you a map: 

NS: Another Location Scout question, just because I was curious: why did you choose to credit borrowing phrases from your former blog posts and one of Joshua Allen’s?

KF: It’s a kind of map, really. Pointing the direction to other places that unpack some of the ideas and scenes happening in the story. These are things that influenced me in the writing. I just wanted to asterisk them out in case other people would be interested. I try to include endnotes like that in every book I put out. There’s other stuff to chew over once the story is done.

What Kevin writes feels big, twofold: he’s put this thing in print for you and then shown you the places outside of it to go, with a story that in ways is about how big the place we exist is. He writes with a kind of generosity that is different from most other writing, which has nothing to do with being safe or gentle all the time but more about there just being a lot here, and here are some ways to pay attention. However much he writes about being lost seems to me more about making things wide open so that you’ll actually look, which is all you can do when you get lost, anyway. 

My favorite part is the third paragraph of chapter five. 


Here it is, that device

* * *

Well roared lion, gluey atmosphere

FiveChapters serialized John Cheever’s Of Love: A Testimony. Cheever has been and probably always will be the giant watermark on anything I write. The man knew how to start and end stories and use words everywhere.

He looked up to where she was standing, speaking so rationally. He saw her long limbs in the serge frock and the hollows at her shoulders and the thin, pale features and that fair hair. He noticed in hate every detail of her dress and figure, noticed her in the same way he would with gratitude or desire.

On the NYT website Dick Cavett posted far too little video of Cheever and Updike on his show.

Updike: It’s a gift of quickness: John is in excellent touch with America in many of his details. I feel that John understands how men make and lose money in a way that’s almost divinely intuitive.

What a bizarre yet accurate compliment.




There is a new Burger King going up down the street and nobody cares. In a couple of days when it’s finished everyone will think it’s been there forever

The two reasons I won’t go to IHOP anymore:

1) After the game– won in the final seconds–  there wasn’t a lot to say so I talked about the orange juice, a new study or a new fact, but he said after that game he didn’t want to sit here and talk about orange juice. There was still adrenaline and we were wasting it.

2) After a show we sat in the booth when the ceiling started leaking onto our clothes and seats and food. We were rude.

That’s enough disappointment for one place.


To be able to write an ending to a story with such an understanding of the simultaneous inconclusiveness and inevitability of endings in real life will never make sense to me. In the end Cheever doubles back to the middle of Of Love, turning the end into a memory of a moment that already happened, the exact words used from another part of the story, as inconclusive and inevitable as it gets. Talking about orange juice I knew that it had been over or was over or would be over, and every ending from that point out has been just as expected and only a part of becoming something else, but I wouldn’t know how to make something out of it.

“As we grow older we read an end into each situation and out of these we build our values and form our expectations. The older we grow the more we know until at maturity we are far, far from fear.”

* * *

Our whole civilization is a layer of sediment

I’m reading both Tree of Smoke and Moby Dick now, mainly because Tree of Smoke is heavy. They (it always happens) overlap, when Johnson’s Colonel makes his recruits memorize “The Lee Shore” from Moby Dick:

(it is amazing they do not weigh the same because of all this punctuation)But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God– so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land!

I had a classmate once who pronounced intertextuality like you wouldn’t believe–or maybe you would now that you’ve heard Warren’s Malia, Sasha. Anyway, like there were actual copulation involved. Like as if it had that same sort of feeling that happens at jazz shows when someone inevitably quotes another song in his solo and the audience gets a quick laugh in, parts of the audience anyway, and all those parts of the audience are so attracted to each other at that moment in that John Cusack sort of way: that way where there is nothing sexier than being in on something together. Intertextuality.

I saw Jonathan Safran Foer read once, and someone in the audience asked him what he thought of The Da Vinci Code. He told them something along the lines of the idea that all of America was ovulating at the same time together for Dan Brown, and that’s how it got to be so popular. Laughter ripples: we get it. America at her sexual peak


During one temp job I would take my lunch at a park near the office, a park in the middle of a neighborhood, across from a church. One of the afternoons there I watched two men fish in the artificial lake for nearly an hour, never catching anything, not even casting but just sitting. They kept buckets by their sides, for when they did catch something, and a woman brought them sandwiches they would eat one-handed. When I got back to the office I looked it up, learned 1) they do stock the pond, a relief, and 2) the park is built right above a fault line. It’s a special kind of restraint to keep from slapping yourself for thinking how genuinely American. Because I know I don’t really know what that means but just confirm it, the way we confirm all things we think are related because the brain gets so selective. American, yes. Nods all around. Who would craven crawl to land. 


“We are centralized. We have an iron structure. We are closed into a single fist that disappears up a sleeve when it has to. Our will is unshakable.” (Tree of Smoke, 29)

“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”


I wonder sometimes if before I am dead I will know what it really means to be American. It follows, though, always, the question of what exactly it is I’m fetishizing, what sort of thing I’m chasing after. When I have the history, and opportunities, and still want something more American, more authentic. Really. How genuinely American. 

At the sight of the flag he tasted tears in his throat. In the Stars and Stripes all the passions of his life coalesced to produce the ache with which he loved the United States of America– with which he loved the dirty, plain, honest faces of GIs in the photographs of World War Two, with which he loved the sheets of rain rippling across the green playing field toward the end of the school year, with which he cherished the sense-memories of the summers of his childhood, the many Kansas summers, running the bases, falling harmlessly onto the grass… His love for his country, his homeland, was a love for the United States of America in the summertime.  (64)

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