Saturday, April 19, 2014

RIP Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ghost Writer by John Harwood, Reading, Writing and Leaving Home by Lynn Freed and The Martian by Andy Weir

Another fine classics author has passed from this earth, another great pen is stilled.
May you find your journey peaceful, Mr Marquez

Obituary Note: Gabriel García Márquez

Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez
whose landmark novel One Hundred Years of Solitude "established him as a
giant of 20th-century literature," died yesterday, the New York Times
reported. He was 87. Marquez, who received the
Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, "was considered the supreme
exponent, if not the creator, of the literary genre known as magic
realism," the Times noted, though the author "made no claim to have
invented magic realism; he pointed out that elements of it had appeared
before in Latin American literature." His many books include The Autumn
of the Patriarch, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Love in the Time of
Cholera and The General in his Labyrinth. One Hundred Years of Solitude
contains one of the best opening lines in literature: "Many years later,
as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to
remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover

Garcia Marquez’s death "represents the passing of one of
the world's greatest living authors,
and the loss of a powerful public intellectual whose opinions on Cuba,
military dictatorship and Latin American cultural autonomy made
front-page news," the Los Angeles Times wrote, adding that the news of
his death "was met with an outpouring of grief and reverence for the
writer known to his admirers simply as 'Gabo,' and who was often
compared to Hispanic literature's other titan, Don Quixote author Miguel
de Cervantes.
I have heard about this little boy who comes back from the jaws of death, only to claim he saw heaven and God. I wonder how the Hollywood folk will schmaltz up the story to make it more cinematically palatable?
Heaven Is for Real
the film adaptation of the book by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent, opens
this week, and Word & Film was inspired to compile a list of eight
movies that offer "cinematic ideas as to what goes on in the great
beyond," including some book-to-film adaptations.

April is Poetry month, and I think that this bookstore had a wonderful idea in putting up a videopoem a day. Especially since they put up a Yeats poem. My late best friend Muff loved Yeats, not just because he was Irish, but because his poetry was so melancholy and soulful.

Pick a poem, any poem. Well, not just any poem; pick one you have lived
with a while. Now, read the poem aloud. How does it sound? Record your
voice reading that poem. Add complementary video. Imagine dozens of
people doing the same thing.

you don't have to imagine this because for the past five years,
California's DIESEL, A Bookstore has been releasing a new videopoem daily
booksellers are usually the featured readers, DIESEL occasionally
invites a guest. Last year, even I got in on the videopoem action with
my signature monotone rendition of Gary Snyder's "Hay for the Horses

DIESEL's co-owner John Evans told me the bookstore has "always had an
extra special emphasis on poetry and art. We believe they are essential
parts of great local independent neighborhood bookstores like ours. I am
a poet and have an M.A. in Poetics (of all things) and so want poetry to
be widely, easily available and visible at our stores. We have
cultivated poetry reading, and writing, at our stores from the

That said, technology is no stranger to DIESEL's mission either. "We've
embraced technologies, but insisted that they further good aesthetics,"
Evans observed. "We created a website in 1991 and, I must say, it was
beautiful. It's a challenge, as platforms change--sales gets integrated
into what was originally a communications tool--to keep the aesthetics
going. It's a welcome challenge. My partner, Alison Reid, has said that
a good slogan for DIESEL is 'if you bought an ugly book, you didn't buy
it at DIESEL.' "
of his all-time favorite videopoems, which "come to mind every year,
largely because of their combination of great reading and eerily perfect
video." One is William Butler Yeats's "Lake of Innisfree
Arnold, and the other Kay Ryan's "The Material
Waters. He also praised Brad Johnson, "who does our blog and is a poet
himself and a great reader of poetry. He floored me with his reading
voice--like a young Orson Welles! I love to hear him read, but
particularly love the first videopoem of his that I saw/heard:
Lyn Hejinian. My favorite so far this year? Herb Bivins, who works in
the Larkspur store, "beautifully reads one of my favorite poems--'The
Theodore Roethke--and Jon intuitively marries it to an amazingly
appropriate scene. The wind and Herb's breathing, and wonderfully
timbred voice, bring forth so much of the incantatory magic of this
poem, it just leaves me smiling." The Roethke videopoem is my favorite
thus far this year as well.
I've just read three books that I found utterly fascinating, though oddly enough all three were books that I would not normally read or enjoy, due to the genre they're in.
The Martian by Andy Weir has gotten an amazing amount of "buzz" in the book world, which is unusual for a science fiction book that is really just straight-up science already pretty much available to us. Science Fiction as a genre has been getting more hybridized in the last 20 years than it had in its first 40 years of life. Pure Science Fiction, that is the kind that involves scientific future breakthroughs, has been stuck in dystopian-land for awhile, and meldings of science fiction + romance, science fiction + fantasy with mythical creatures, social science fiction and science fiction + space opera have become the norm, and are purchased by female readers in droves, which has led to their increased popularity and perpetuation. 
Yet this novel had several bookstore managers hand-selling the heck out of it, because it was purported to be such a good read.  So I bought myself a copy from the SFBC, and read half of it yesterday and the other half when I woke up this morning. (I would have read all through the night, but there comes a point when my eyes are too heavy to keep open and the words cease to make sense, sometime around 3 or 4 am, and I just felt that it was doing a disservice to the book to try and keep going when I couldn't grasp the meaning of the words on the page.) The bookstore owners weren't wrong when they called this novel a "taut thriller" and an astronaut blurbed the book as one that he "couldn't put down."
This is classic science fiction at it's best, when you feel you are there with the astronaut and the ground crew, and you thrill to the challenges of space and man vs the hostile environment of a planet other than earth (in this case, Mars).
The author, Andy Weir, must be given kudos for being able to wield all that real science and math and chemistry into a readable story with a blisteringly fast plot. His tale of astronaut Mark Watney, who is accidentally stranded on Mars when his crew thinks he's dead and has no way to communicate with earth or the ship, is truly suspenseful and gripping from page one. Part of that is due to Mark's journal entries, which is how the story unfolds, and the witty, smart-arsed humor that Mark brings to his rather dire situation. The more he struggles to survive, the more the reader understands his disgust with a fellow crew members disco music left behind on Mars, or the surfeit of old 1970s cheesy TV programs that Mark plows through to distract himself from the hardships of food rationing that he must face. The reader cheers when Mark figures out a way to communicate with mission control, and cries when he thinks that he will never get home and will die of starvation alone on an unforgiving planet. Fortunately, brilliant minds are brought to bear on the problem of rescue, and the story has a happy ending. Still, there was nothing maudlin about the happy or sad moments in this novel, and I found myself thinking several times that I was reading a non fiction memoir, the characters and situations seemed so real. A solid A and I would recommend this book to anyone who watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon in 1969 and felt their heart swell with pride at being an American and a human being.

John Harwood's "The Ghost Writer" caught my eye because it seemed like a nice British ghost story that wasn't going to stray too far into the horror genre that I loathe. Therefore I was surprised when I found out that the book was a superbly written paranormal suspense novel with characters creepy enough to live in one of Alfred Hitchcock's "Tales of Terror" that used to run on TV in the 60s and 70s. 
The story is of Gerard, a timid and weak-kneed sort who works as a librarian and whose only friend has been his pen pal Alice, whom he's been writing since he was 13 years old.
Gerard's mum is a clingy nut job who doesn't want him going out of the house, and is terrified of him traveling anywhere. Gerard discovers a Victorian Gothic short story in his mother's room in a locked drawer, and after reading it finds that he seems to come across clues as to the meaning and the place of this tale. He travels to England and finds more Gothic short stories, and after his mother's death stumbles across the old estates that she once spoke of to him as a child. Though he's ostensibly come to England to finally meet his pen pal, who is supposedly getting therapy after a car accident, Gerard becomes embroiled in the lives of the people in the short stories, some of which are missing pages or unfinished, and he keeps meeting people who are strangely like the characters in the tales. 
Twists and turns abound in this chilling and tense novel, and the deliciously posh prose oils the breakneck plot until even the reader can't tell what might happen next. My only problem with the story was that it just ends. The protagonist flees the burning building and that's the end. We never find out what happened to the villain, or who the ancient manse really belongs to. Still, the tale was engrossing enough to be a solid A read, and I would highly recommend it to all who love Anne Rice's early works and those who are fans of Wilke Collins and Edgar Allen Poe.

South African author Lynn Freed's "Reading, Writing and Leaving Home" is an autobiographical memoir done in sections that are by turns darkly comic, brilliant and sad.
Though she was born female, her parents treated Freed as an honorary son, and she was afforded little in the way of kindness or compassion. She has a better relationship with her somewhat weak father than her vicious mother, and Freed goes on to carve a life for herself as a writer, though she's not supported by her family in being creative at all. Freed puts her family in her books, and then somehow expects them to be happy with the results, even when they are being lampooned. There's a kind of chilly dissection that flows throughout this small volume. It feels vengeful, as if Freed can't help herself from being cruel to her family members in print, yet she somehow strangely still wants their love and approval, though she would, of course, never say so on pain of death.
I found myself thinking I was reading an Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward-style send-up of growing up British in South Africa, where the stereotypical cold English parents still manage to be colorful and raise their children to be creative and productive members of society. Though I adore English wit, I was glad that the books bitchy attitude and whining were confined to a slender volume. I'd give the book a B+ and recommend it to those Anglophiles and South African-lovers who enjoy a razor-sharp memoir.

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