Monthly Archives: January 2012

Reading #2 – Ridgefield Library

I love libraries. I fondly recall the Canton (Ohio) 25th Street branch library, which I used to ride to on my blue Schwinn. I would leave my bike outside (unlocked) & enter the large, open room, usually headed straight for the “Film” section, where I read books about Kubrick, Eisenstein, Bergman & other heroes. In the basement they showed weekly films projected in 16mm on a wrinkled pull-down screen. That’s where I first saw DUCK SOUP, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, & many others.

The Ridgefield Library is an even more amazing resource. In addition to the usual library offerings–you know the books–they also show films, not to mention the tons of children’s activities, concerts, & readings. They are very open to helping local authors & musicians promote their work. I’ve done a couple music events at the library, & my writing workshop (I teach in the local continuing ed program) has held several readings there. So it made sense for me to approach them with a request to hold a reading of my new novel. Our local independent bookstore, Books on the Common, was kind enough to pitch in & handle book sales before & after the reading.

I was a little anxious about the event. I wasn’t sure how many people would show up. I’d done a pretty good job of getting the word out–there were flyers all around town, I’d sent out a million email alerts, & the local newspaper had published a long profile of me the week before, but one never knows if folks will trek out on a January Wednesday night to see some guy–another writer–read his work. Fortunately, a whole bunch of friends & friends of friends showed up to listen & buy books. Included were current & former students of mine, neighbors, & several colleagues from the Fairfield University MFA program.

Having recently read the novel’s opening pages at the MFA program’s residency in Mystic, I wanted to choose a different section of the book–not only because some audience members might come to both readings, but also because it’s dull for me to read the same thing twice. So I chose two sections that, while separated by many pages, work well when read together. They had actually been published together, years ago, in the literary magazine Skidrow Penthouse.

It’s a weird thing, these readings. Though I’ve done dozens of them, I am never absolutely sure how things are going over. Sure, people might laugh where they’re supposed to laugh, but that doesn’t mean the piece as a while is working. Even afterwards, when the audience applauds & people shake my hand saying complimentary things, I remain skeptical. Also, I’m always a little disappointed by my writing: “Why did I chose that word?” I think as I’m reading. And “Oh–I should have gone in that direction; why didn’t I think of that???” This, combined with my discomfort with attention & praise–in turn combined with my child-like need for attention & praise–make for a strange experience.

Which is probably why I look so dazed when people ask me to sign their books. We sold 16 copies, plus those copies audience members brought with them (all bought at Books on the Common)–a success! Thanks to all those who came.

Next up–a brief reading in Chicago at the AWP conference, followed by an evening at the hipster KGB Bar in NYC on March 22.

Stuff I’ve Been Reading Lately

Like I tell my writing students (& as was told to me), you have to be a good reader to be a good writer. Here are some of the books/stories I’ve been reading lately.

Dana Spiotta’s great novel EAT THE DOCUMENT. The title refers to the never-seen documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1966 tour of England with the Hawks (the tour where he was called a “Judas” during a performance because he had “gone electric”). While EAT THE DOCUMENT (the novel) features a fair amount of music references (one of the characters is obsessed with the Beach Boys’ doomed “Smile” project), the main plot concerns two fugitives from justice who, years later, are living separate, seemingly normal lives in Washington State. Spiotta elegantly shifts back & forth in time, from the early ’70s to the near-present day, using multiple narrators to chart the incognito lives of these two former Weather Underground-type activists who have not seen one another since they went on the run nearly 30 years earlier. Most interesting to me is how Spiotta withholds certain information (e.g., the exact details of the crime that sent the characters underground) for most of the novel, & also how she allows the reader to make links between the various sections without telling us where to look. I can’t wait to read her newest book, STONE ARABIA, which has gotten rave reviews.

Nicole Krauss’s novel GREAT HOUSE shares a lot of qualities with EAT THE DOCUMENT, especially its fluid exploration of time. Like Spiotta’s novel, GREAT HOUSE uses different narrators & leaps back & forth in time, but it’s even more ambitious in some ways because, while Spiotta clearly delineates the time changes (with chapter breaks), Krauss seamlessly wanders through the years within the same sections, often within the same paragraph, so that a character may start with a scene that happened today &, almost without our noticing, moves on to a deep flashback for several pages. It’s quite a performance. My only beef with the novel is that one section toward the end seems almost perversely slow to get to the climactic scene in which an elderly widower learns his late wife’s most deeply kept secret. Like EAT THE DOCUMENT, GREAT HOUSE would easily inspire, in a reader more anal than I, the creation of a chart on which all the far-flung characters’ relationships are linked, complete with a time line. That the reader never actually needs this sort of chart is a testament to Krauss’s clarity.

Another recent novel with multiple narrators that leaps around in time is Colum McCann’s LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, a kaleidoscopic love letter to New York that revolves around Phillipe Petit’s stupendous tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Chapters move back in forth between characters who directly observe the walk (including Petit himself) to those who only hear about it on the news as their own chaotic lives play out. Of course any novel that concerns itself with this particular feat is actually, in some way, about 9/11, & how the city’s diverse citizens go about their lives during times of crisis & beauty. It’s a life-affirming novel that, again, deftly weaves its various strands in a way that is not at all confusing. Also check out MAN ON WIRE, the fabulous documentary about Petit’s death-defying walk.

On the nonfiction front, I’ve been reading John Lanchester’s illuminating book I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone & No One Can Pay, a sort of layman’s examination of the financial crisis that blew up in our faces in 2008. Lanchester makes the debacle as comprehensible as is humanly possible, which is to say that I now understand the crisis about 50% more than I did before. His outrage is infectious, & his humor necessary–otherwise my head might explode. Interestingly, just as I’m reading this book, Lanchester has published a short story in this week’s New Yorker. The story, “Expectations,” which actually appears to be an excerpt from his forthcoming novel (why do they do that at the New Yorker? Why do they publish novel excerpts when there are so many good, legit short stories out there?), is about a London “bankster’s” anticipation of, & reaction to, his yearly bonus. The story seems to take place in late 2007, just as the financial world started to boil over, & it makes for fascinating reading in tandem with I.O.U.

Reading #1: Enders Island

On the afternoon of January 2, one day shy of the first anniversary of my graduation from Fairfield University’s MFA program, I stood at the same podium where I gave the student graduation address, & read from my new novel Carry-on. I’d been graciously invited to read by the MFA program’s director, Michael White, & the reading was made an official event of the winter residency. What an honor to be the first of many FU-MFA alumni to share his/her work at the place where we learned so much about the craft of writing.

CB reads at Enders Island, 1/2/12

Enders Island is a small island off the coast of Mystic, CT, connected to the larger Mason’s Island by a 50-yard causeway, but miles away from the mainland in spirit. It is the home of the Fairfield MFA program’s twice-yearly residencies, two intensive 10-day immersions in workshops, readings, & seminars, punctuated by 3 (generous) meals per day & plenty of extracurricular activities. It’s a spectacular setting for learning, & I’ve missed being there.

As familiar as the surroundings were, I was anxious about this reading. I hadn’t expected to read in the Chapel, a large venue with a notoriously boomy sound system & lots of wooden pews that could, potentially, remain empty. And while a very good crowd showed up, I remained nervous before, during & even after the reading. Should I have chosen a different section of the novel to share? Was I reading too fast? Too slow? Did the book suck? I’ve given dozens & dozens of readings, in all kinds of situations & venues, & I remain a nervous wreck each time, but this one was especially tense. These were my peers, not to mention my teachers. I felt a certain responsibility to them: this needed to be good. I was so anxious that I forgot to say several things I’d intended to say before reading from the book. I wrote it all down, then proceeded to ignore most of it, convinced that it would be self-indulgent. In retrospect, I should have ignored my written intro & instead spoken about how special it was to be there, in that room, with those people. I wish I had.

After the reading, Mystic’s famous independent bookseller Bank Square Books sold copies of Carry-on, which I was happy to sign. I was also thrilled that we sold 40 copies–all those that I brought!

Special shout-out to Travis Baker for his thoughtful, hilarious introduction.

 

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