Tim O’Brien Documentary, Circa 1990

In search of writers reading their work, I came across this circa 1990 documentary of Tim O’Brien.  It’s really an amazing find, one that I can’t believe I’ve never seen before.

The film, just under 48 minutes, focuses on the stories found in The Things They Carried, how they were written and the inspiration behind them.  It’s a mix of Vietnam footage, Tim with friends he served with, Tim at home writing, Tim being interviewed, Tim reading from his book.  There are other writers talking about his work as well (Phillip Lopate, Carolyn Forche, etc.).

It’s an intimate documentary that takes the viewer into the heart of the writer.

Lorrie Moore Has a New Story Collection: BARK

Lorrie Moore has a new book of stories, Bark, and I hope readers take notice.  No one writes like Moore.  She’s always rich in metaphor and simile, sometimes poetic, sometimes astonishingly moving, and often very funny.

Her sentences are like mini-orchestrations.  Take for example the following sentence found near the end of “Beautiful Grade,” a story from an earlier collection, Birds of America.  Here, the narrator shows us how the adult main character remembers his own alienated childhood and part of a letter he’d written to his distant father.  The “He” is the main character; the “it” is his love-starved childhood:

He glimpsed it all from behind some atmosphere, from across some green and scalloped sea–”Dear Dad, How are you?  I am fine”–as if it were a planet that sometimes sparkled into view, or a tropical island painted in hot, picture-book shades of orange.

Who writes like this?  Lorrie Moore.

Then there’s the humor.  From her story “You’re Ugly, Too” (found in Like Life):

Zoe had been out with three men since she’d come to Hilldale-Versailles. One of them was a man in the municipal bureaucracy who had fixed a parking ticket she’d brought in to protest and then asked her out for coffee. At first, she thought he was amazing — at last, someone who did not want Heidi! But soon she came to realize that all men, deep down, wanted Heidi. Heidi with cleavage. Heidi with outfits. The parking-ticket bureaucrat soon became tired and intermittent. One cool fall day, in his snazzy, impractical convertible, when she asked him what was wrong he said, “You would not be ill served by new clothes, you know.”

She wore a lot of gray-green corduroy. She had been under the impression that it brought out her eyes, those shy stars. She flicked an ant from her sleeve.

“Did you have to brush that off in the car?” he said, driving. He glanced down at his own pectorals, giving first the left, then the right, a quick survey. He was wearing a tight shirt.

“Excuse me?”

He slowed down at an amber light and frowned. “Couldn’t you have picked it up and thrown it outside?”

“The ant? It might have bitten me. I mean, what difference does it make?”

“It might have bitten you! Ha! How ridiculous! Now it’s going to lay eggs in my car!”

The second guy was sweeter, lunkier, though not insensitive to certain paintings and songs, but too often, too, things he’d do or say would startle her. Once, in a restaurant, he stole the garnishes off her dinner plate and waited for her to notice. When she didn’t, he finally thrust his fist across the table and said, “Look,” and when he opened it, there was her parsley sprig and her orange slice crumpled to a wad. Another time, he described to her his recent trip to the Louvre. “And there I was in front of Delacroix’s The Barque of Dante, and everyone else had wandered off, so I had my own private audience with it, all those agonized shades splayed in every direction, and there’s this motion in that painting that starts at the bottom, swirling and building up into the red fabric of Dante’s hood, swirling out into the distance, where you see these orange flames — ” He was breathless in the telling. She found this touching, and smiled in encouragement. “A painting like that,” he said, shaking his head. “It just makes you shit.”

“I have to ask you something,” said Evan. “I know every woman complains about not meeting men, but really, on my shoots I meet a lot of men. And they’re not all gay, either.” She paused. “Not anymore.”

“What are you asking?”

The third guy was a political-science professor named Murray Peterson, who liked to go out on double dates with colleagues whose wives he was attracted to. Usually, the wives would consent to flirt with him.

Under the table sometimes there was footsie, and once there was even kneesie. Zoe and the husband would be left to their food, staring into their water glasses, chewing like goats. “Oh, Murray,” said one wife, who had never finished her master’s in physical therapy and wore great clothes. “You know, I know everything about you: your birthday, your license-plate number. I have everything memorized. But then that’s the kind of mind I have. Once, at a dinner party, I amazed the host by getting up and saying goodbye to every single person there, first and last names.”

“I knew a dog who could do that,” said Zoe with her mouth full.

Murray and the wife looked at her with vexed and rebuking expressions, but the husband seemed suddenly twinkling and amused. Zoe swallowed. “It was a talking Lab, and after about ten minutes of listening to the dinner conversation this dog knew everyone’s name. You could say, ‘Take this knife to Murray Peterson,’ and it would.”

“Really,” said the wife, frowning, and Murray Peterson never called again.

You can find the full text to “You’re Ugly, Too” here.

And you can find her new collection, Bark, on the shelves now.

The New Yorker’s Poetry Podcast

I’ve listened to The New Yorker Fiction Podcast for years.  It’s free online and in iTunes.  To hear a story read, and then to be able to sit in with a writer and editor talking about said story–what works and, sometimes, doesn’t work in the story–well, it’s like being in an MFA workshop with guest speakers.  Now the magazine has a Poetry Podcast, started just this past December.  Paul Muldoon, New Yorker poetry editor, offers this description:

The structure of the Poetry Podcast is very simple. Each podcast consists of a conversation between myself and a guest poet. In each, the guest reads not only a poem of hers that has appeared in The New Yorker but also introduces, and reads, a poem by another contributor to the magazine that she particularly admires.

I Would Read This Book

Imagine you write a novel, your first, it gets published, is modestly received, and your life goes on, really, as though nothing has changed . . . and then you get a call from Japan.  Your book has won three prestigious awards there and you’re somehow a big deal.  Konnichiwa, Japan!

This happened to debut novelist David Gordon when his novel The Serialist went big in Japan.  He tells the amazing story of what happened in The New York Times.

He’s asked to go to Japan for the premiere of the movie adapted from his book (now called “Niryuu Shousetsuka” or the “Second-Rate Novelist.”  Guided by handlers and booked into a hotel suite James Bond might occupy, he meets the director, the stars of the movie, and his adoring public.  He’s trapped by his language, alone on the other side of the world, living a surreal dream of the recognized artist all before he’s rushed back home to his tiny apartment, his friends, and his normal life.

Below is an excerpt of Gordon’s article, “Big in Japan.”  I hope he pens his Japan story into a novel.  I’d read it and then go see the movie (Zach Galifianakis could play the title role).

In a daze, I was paraded before the press, blinded by flashbulbs and tracked by TV cameras. But because I couldn’t understand the directions, I often talked to the wrong camera, stared into space or even leaned on the scenery — until my intrepid and glamorous young translator told the reporters to wave if they wanted David-san to look at their cameras, like a baby at a birthday party. I watched the film with her whispering in my ear: “He is the detective.” It was as if I had fallen asleep and had a weird dream about my own book. At the end, when the lights came up and I stood to leave, she tapped my shoulder and pointed. The audience was clapping wildly. For me. I took a few deep bows and fled.

Jack Gilbert Talks about the Importance of Finding the Poem

In The Paris Review,  poet Jack Gilbert talks about finding the poem: “The hard part for me is to find the poem—a poem that matters. To find what the poem knows that’s special. I may think of writing about the same thing that everyone does, but I really like to write a poem that hasn’t been written. And I don’t mean its shape. I want to experience or discover ways of feeling that are fresh. I love it when I have perceived something fresh about being human and being happy.”

Here’s one of his poems that I think he achieves this:

Summer at Blue Creek, North Carolina

There was no water at my grandfather’s
when I was a kid and would go for it
with two zinc buckets. Down the path,
past the cow by the foundation where
the fine people’s house was before
they arranged to have it burned down.
To the neighbor’s cool well. Would
come back with pails too heavy,
so my mouth pulled out of shape.
I see myself, but from the outside.
I keep trying to feel who I was,
and cannot. Hear clearly the sound
the bucket made hitting the sides
of the stone well going down,
but never the sound of me.

Jack Gilbert died this past November at the age of 87.   The Guardian has a nice send off for him

Who Is Cecil Adams? I Don’t Care

All I know is, The Straight Dope, a book my friend Cal Burke turned me onto thirty some years ago, is witty, informative, and, more often than not, hilarious.  Cecil Adams is the author of the “The Straight Dope,” an 800-word column first published in the Chicago Reader in 1973.  Since then, the columns have been gathered in five books and now is online.  The gist of the original column was readers ask Cecil a question about something they’ve always wondered.  Often, the questions are odd: When the toilets atop the Sears Towers flush, do the contents travel down the 110 floors?, Why do men have nipples?, Are people in the Central Time Zone more productive because TV schedules let them sleep more?  Odd but interesting and always answerable by  Cecil.  And this is where the fun starts.

I have never forgotten the opening line to his response involving Nostradamus.  First the question:

Dear Cecil:

Recently I saw a movie on cable TV called “The Man Who Saw Tomorrow,” about Michael Nostradamus the prognosticator. That film scared the hell out of me.  Nostradamus claims that first Halley’s comet will screw up the entire world and then in the 1990s a Middle East/Russian collaboration will wage nuclear war on the West for 27 years, after which the U.S. and Russia will join together again to defeat the Islamic horde.  Should I begin to say my prayers? How good was Nostradamus at predicting the future? Did Orson Welles (the film’s narrator) con me once again?

Dear Lisa:

There are two schools of thought on Nostradamus: either (1) he had supernatural powers which enabled him to prophesy the future with uncanny accuracy, or (2) he did for bullshit what Stonehenge did for rocks. I incline to the latter view.

Cecil then goes on to give the witty facts, which you can read here should you be interested.

But is Cecil Adams real?  Adams might just be the name used for a group of journalist who wrote for the column.  It also might be the pseudonym for Ed Zotti, Adam’s “editor” and man behind the curtain.  Jake Malooley reports for Time Out Chicago:

“People have a lot of theories,” Zotti says with a smirk, painting himself as an errand boy for a genius. “I do much of Cecil’s typing, but Cecil presides. I’m Cecil’s editor, confidante and personal assistant. A couple of other assistants do some research and I do some research, and then Cecil gives it his magic touch and it somehow gets into the paper.”

The Straight Dope website even has FAQ that addresses this question:

Who is this man called Cecil Adams?

  1. Who is Cecil Adams? Cecil Adams is the world’s most intelligent human being. We know this because: (1) he knows everything, and (2) he is never wrong.

Maybe we’ll never know, but like I say, I don’t care.  Anybody who can connect bullshit and Stonehenge like Cecil did with Nostradamus has my vote.

What Book Should I Give This Holiday Season?

There’s never a shortage of books and never a shortage of recommended reading lists, especially with the holiday season barreling down on us.  Maybe the granddaddy of all lists is The New York Times100 Notable Books.”  It has what their editors believe are the best books of 2013—and there are, as usual, some gorgeous books, fiction and nonfiction.  Who knows, maybe one of your Christmas gifts is on the list.