This Book Will Change Your Life.

  • These Books Will Change Your Life - The Heart Crossways by the James Claffey and FUNHOUSE by the Robert Vaughan.

    James Claffey and Robert Vaughan are not new authors to me, really they're anything but. I've followed their literary careers, I've read with them, blurbed their books and asked them to blurb mine, had them as guests on This Podcast Will Change Your Life, Vaughan anyway, I'll need to get Claffey on as well, soon, promise. But they've been around, and I've been around, and it is this idea of still being around that I found myself ruminarting on as I read their most recent books The Heart Crossways and FUNHOUSE by Claffey and Vaughan respectively. Which is not to ignore the gifts that come with their work. It feels almost cliche to point out that the Ireland-born Claffey's command of language borders on the luxurious (luminous just didn't seem to capture what was in my head). I assume that this is a birthright, but as I wrote when blurbing his short story collection Blood a Cold Blue, "...James Claffey infuses every story with rhythm and rot, doing things with words that I've never seen before and don't expect to again," Claffey knows loss and decay, and in this new novel he twists both into a coming of age tale that may follow every rule - sex, violence, individuation, delinquency - but feels new, or at least renewed under his pen and his clear-eyed view on what it means to be working class, the struggles to survive, and to hold onto one's pride, especially the always delicate male pride, the desire to escape, the lack of balance and stability and the wonder at how one will ever be anything but that which they seem fated to be. Also a birthright I imagine. Vaughan on the other hand does what he has continued to do from book to book and line to line, an exploration of the myriad places Vaughan has traveled, both physically and temporally. Time and place bending to his imagination. In the same way Claffey juggles words, Vaughan juggles the copious amounts of ideas that seem to churn through his brain and onto the page. That these ideas seem to come back to an ongoing search for the meaning in relationships, any and all relationships, family, marriage, male, female, gay, straight, is a reminder that like the coming of age tale, talking relationship is not something new, but few explore all the twists and iterations of these dynamics as inventively or dynamically as Vaughan continues to do.

    Now before I move on to the next book, post or riff, a call back from whence I came: this idea of being around. I've thought a lot lately about how many writers I've been lucky enough to meet over the years, but also how many, both male and female, seemed to have moved on from writing to other things. Some of this, and do be warned, more cliche is about to happe, is life happening, work, family, illness, and some of it may be that the desire to write has passed, as strong as it may or may not have been, other things are just as important and there is only so much time to do it all. But I also believe that some of it is something else, that time passes these authors by, that they get stuck, unsure of what comes next, or what comes next is not of enough interest to them or those who might publish their books, other writers come along to replace them, time starts to slip away, and with it the desire to keep pushing and keep struggling as they did at the start of their careers. Claffey and Vaughan are still around, still pushing and juggling words, and to celebrate that a couple of white dudes have persisted is obnxious, but it doesn't feel like nothing that they have. The world will gladly leave you, or them, behind, but it hasn't happened to Claffey and Vaughan, not yet, and that, we can all celebrate. Not to say doing so will change your life, but their words will, always, and for long as we have them.  

  • This Book Will Change Your Life - Leaving: One Woman's Story of Verbal Abuse by the Marguerite Morris.

    "I had pictured my life as linear, but now an unseen artist put all our walks together in one place on one canvas. Everything fit." (page 192)

    It is not so coincidental that I was reading Leaving: One Woman's Story of Verbal Abuse by the Marguerite Morris as I traveled back and forth for a gig where I work, coach, judge, and as needed, and when not in conflict with those I'm judging, provide editorial guidance to debut authors as they bring their new books into the world. Doing so is a big part of what I do and who I am now. It's awfully humblebraggy to tell you that I always thought I could be good at all this, and I am. It is less so to say that I enjoy it immensely. And it is something else entirely to say that the first person who ever paid for my editorial feedback and coaching was none other than Marguerite Morris who picked me from a list of potential manuscript consultants at the Northwestern University Summer Writer's Conference. I was paid to read the opening ten pages of Marguerite's manuscript and meet with her for an hour. We ended-up talking off and on for another year or so and now there's this book, Leaving, published, out in the world and entirely riveting.

    "Had I been holding my breath for thirty years?" (page 50)

    When I had read only the beginning of Leaving, I told Marguerite that when the book was published it would save lives. I said that because I knew her story would resonate with countless readers where abuse, verbal and otherwise, is a reality they know all too well. I also believed it could be published, which is an entirely different thing. Her story alone deserved to be told, and maybe not everything, every life, and yes, every story, has to be a book, but Margeurite's work read like a horror story, full of dread and well observed, a mix of detail and emotions readers would relate to. And it's not that we know what will be published when we set out to write a book, or even provide editorial, but we have to believe the work can be published and then make it so. Still, more than that, we have to finish our manuscripts. I say to authors in general, and clients in particular, "there is no book until there is a book." It's not intended to be cute of pithy,  but we have to reach the end of the manuscript before we can talk about getting it published or the book's potential impact on the world. That Leaving is now a book that I could receive in the mail, read and write about here is terribly moving in and of itself. That the writing itself is also terribly moving, and that Margeurite takes us on her journey, and journeys, literal and otherwise, both realistic and dreamy, including, but not limited to her ability to breathe, again, is a triumph. Do I still believe Leaving will save lives, I do, and do I also believe that reading it will change your life? Unquestionably.

  • This Book Will Change Your Life - Blackbirds by the Greg Santos.

    Look, I don't read enough poetry, which is an endless lament in these posts. And I'm willing to unequivocally accept that reading poetry may elevate one's sense of peace and self-actualization, regardless of how poorly it reflects on my reading habits and mindfulness. I'm not a heathen mind you, I've read numerous poetry collections in recent years, including those by Seth Berg, Shaindel Beers, John McCarthy, Jim Warner, David Tomas Martinez, Jason Fisk, Lisa Fay Coutley, Dave Newman, Sass Brown and Rachel Slotnick. But these are people I know and love, read with, drank with, hung with, and to consume their words is a gift, and a means for getting to know them better and honor their craft. I share this because I'm embarrassed, and I want to do better, but also because when I do read poetry and share the experience with you, you can know that while biased, and yo, everything here is biased, I'm not a critic, I'm a consumer of experiences, art particularly, and blessed to be able to do so. So when I share these riffs and commentaries they come from a place of love and excitement and the possibility of exposing those that move me to a wider audience. Which brings us to the Greg Santos and his collection Blackbirds. It feels like I've known Santos as long as I've reveled in the promotion of words and hoped to bring them to the wider world. We published "A Love Poem for Shelley by Hulk," at This Zine Will Change Your Life back in 2009, and to find love and the Hulk in the same place seemed like a revelation:

    Your brown hair ripples
    like Captain Marvel cape
    in spring breeze.

    Hulk’s heart
    for you more thunderously
    than mighty Thor hammer.

    Your pale skin glistens
    like milky white Space Ghost
    costume beneath stars.

    Hulk waits in moonlight for you
    so we may smash side by side
    in search of mythical
    green songbird called love.

    In 2011, we published "Hooray:"

    Yes, the world
    will not have ended in 2012
    as the Mayans predicted
    but sadly nor will
    hoverboards be en vogue.
    The sun will continue to die,
    magnificent tiny creatures
    with feelers and luminescent bodies
    we’ve never even discovered
    will have gone extinct
    under our noses,
    but on the plus side
    things will be sleeker,
    shinier, smaller,
    and more expensive.

    More recently, 2014, "Clickbait:"

    How might the human face look in 100,000 years?
    I must keep telling myself, writing is lucky work.
    Despite the headlines, life is good.
    I like how the internet is starting to look.

    Have you ever thought how many brains there are in the world?
    I’m not just talking about humans.
    For the love of God will someone please amuse me.
    The city is quieter than you think.

    You are a child in a house that is warm.
    Climb larger and larger mental states.
    You’re doing better than you think.
    Still so in love.

    Some may ask why.
    It’s just something new to try.
    Man explored the typewriter
    ribbon and something clicked.

    "Clickbait" can be found in Blackbirds and so we come full circle. Blackbirds is about love, but also family, immigration, culture, and pop culture, and violence. It is then, a Santos joint, and so really, this is not a post about poetry, my poor reading of poetry, or even a riff on Blackbirds, though it's a wonderful, sentient piece of work, humane and knowing, but a celebration of Santos himself. Now I don't know Santos all that well, I know his work, but what I read, and see, is that he is a supporter of the arts and artists, a teacher and mentor, a father and family man, a voice for the oppressed, unseen and unheard and advocate for mental health. He's also Canadian. So, there's all of that, and that's a lot of goodness and literary citizenship, and I want to know more. I want to know it all, and I hope to get him on This Podcast Will Change Your Life soon, because after ten years, it's time for us to hang and talk and find out what comes next. Will any of this change your life? Of course. All of it will.

  • These Books Will Change Your Life - So Sad Today by the Melissa Broder and Slow Days, Fast Company - The World, The Flesh, and L.A. by Eve Babitz.

    Travel. Read. Travel. Read. Travel. Read. And So Sad Today by the Melissa Broder and Slow Days, Fast Company - The World, The Flesh, and L.A. by Eve Babitz. Also, Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones - "The Long Night." Let me explain. I was not on any epic journey, I was in and out of Boston and Vermont for work and Boston and New York for family, riding planes, driving cars, taking trains and shuttles, though no dragons or spaceships, nothing interstellar. But I was going, going, going, and reading, reading, reading, and then consuming Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones - "The Long Night" and somewhere along the way I thought, there will be some kind of narrative here, that all of this media would form some sort of larger arc. That it would all hang together and say something about life, and all the pain in the world, and if not answering any larger questions about my place in the universe, certainly something about my life in some small and possily significant way. And really, at the end of the day, when one is considering the big, unanswered questions isn't the opportunity for some inreased personal insights and enhanced self-awareness enough? I think so. Which leaves us where exactly? It leaves me thinking about art, how we make and live it and how when it's good, it can really fuck with us, pulling on our emotions, making us laugh and cry, inducing stress and anticipation and leaving us breathless, when not actually questioning our very own life decisions. Which is yeah, a lot of feels, and just a lot to muse on, which is to say, feeling things is pretty good, whatever the feels are, experiencing emotions, intensely, and if Endgame brought me to tears and "The Long Night" to elation, despite the lighting, So Sad Today and The World, The Flesh, and L.A. were something else entirely, as books, for me, tend to be, more visceral and physical, more like appendages.

    So Sad Today is not a complete surprise to me, I know Broder's Twitter feed of the same name, though did not appreciate its importance to Broder until I read this book, and I know her from the OTHERPPLE podcast, and she's a delightful, intelligent presence, who has it amazingly together publicly given the suffering she has experienced. And that's not a criticism, it's how so many of us operate, managing ourselves out in the world, keeping it together and then allowing the venom, fear, raunch and raw nerves of it all to ooze across the page. Broder is living lives on top of lives and she brings it to her work and I fucking applaud that. But than there is Babitz. Is it too much say this is one of my most favorite recent reads? I don't think so. Still, am I inherently biased towards essays, Los Angeles, sex, celebrities and whatever it means to be an artist all of the time, but especially in Southern California, and at least somewhat in the 1960s and 70s? Please, its everything to me. But that wouldn't be enough to love it like I did. It's reminiscent of Didion, and I can't imagine the comparisons are avoidable, but the work is so lived-in and louche, though most importantly, all about making art, when not taking drugs and having sex, socializing and gossiping. What's interesting to me is how little Babitz talks about the struggle of making art, unlike Patti Smith in Just Kids, which is all about all of that and the struggle too. Babitz doesn't seem to struggle, she just is, and if that's not exactly true, than it's clearly the fantasy I'm also drawn to. That one can just be one with the world. And it's hard to imagine wanting anything more than that. And so yes, Endgame and "The Long Night" are fantasy as well, and they speak to me. They are also escapist and I'll always embrace that. But they don't touch me, not like Babitz, not when the sentences are so languid, dripping as they do into a larger narrative of a kind of life that one, me, might aspire to, if one were on a different path and could live and write as she does. Might I revisit Broder here for a moment now, too? I might, because she too has tapped into something, and just as much sex and drugs from what I can see, but she also lifts the lid on the pain, and I imagine I need to ask myself if I'm in a place to handle real pain these days, because changing lives aside, I'm not so sure I am. 

  • These Books Will Change Your Life - Not Everyone is Special by the Josh Denslow and For Other Ghosts by the Donald Quist.

    I've been suffering from an uptick of anxiety lately, not overwhelming or crippling, mostly low-grade, and I know it's low-grade, because when its medium grade or higher I can feel it in my chest when I wake-up in the morning. A constricting, like a fist opening and closing. So, that's not happening, which is nice. However, I have been sleeping more in general, trying to anyway, it's not something I'm great at. And it's not I have problems sleeping or falling asleep, I just tend not to go to bed and I like to get up early. I'm sharing this, because the last couple of Saturdays I've let myself sleep-in and have awoken both mornings to anxiety dreams. Last week I couldn't find my family and this week I dreamt that the world was going to end on April 5th. Luckily I woke-up on April 6th, the world was in place, crisis averted. I've never worried much about the world ending. I'm not even sure the state of the world causes me much anxiety. Anger, certainly, confusion, definitely, sadness, endlessly, but not anxiety, that's more about friends and family, making things work. But there it was, end of the world shit. Thing is, I didn't have to dig all too deeply to understand where it came from. I had recently read the story "Testaments" from Donald Quist's twisty, when not surreal, when not sad, when not dabbling in the supernatural short story collection For Other Ghosts, and in it a mother and daughter, the former a believer, the latter, along for the ride, go to an end of the world gathering in California. The story hit me hard, as family stories do, though maybe not as hard as the beautifully wrenching "They Would Be Waiting," the story that kicks-off the collection, a father son story, a trip to the father's homeland, what goes well, and does not, and it is lovely and devastating and created to crush me.

    Similarly, I've been reading Not Everyone Is Special by the Josh Denslow, more short stories, more devestation, particularly "Proximity," also a father son joint, though really a mother son thing, and quite affecting. Both authors deal in a kind of anxiety, fairly family-centric, though not only that, universe, with Quist sliding into magic realism at times, while other times merely dancing adjacent to it, but always, never getting too far away from dislocation, a key theme in his wonderous essay collection Harbors. People get lost in Quist's work, separated from family, country and self. There is always a feeling of sadness as well, looming, or lurking, but laying there somewhere, just below, and above the surface. I know Donald Quist, which is not intended as a need for disclosure, as much as to acknowledge, that he carries some of these qualities around with him, while also being utterly charming and engaging. And that's the thing with sadness and anxiety, they don't need to be off-putting, no more than parents we can't bring ourselves to understand. I suppose I'm writing this, because so often people say, with the state of the world, or my brain, I can't read about the things that are already hanging over me thoughout the day. I need to escape into humor and romance and positivity. I understand the inclination, but not the execution of it. We read because we need to read, because our brains and souls require it. I choose to read what comes to me and try never run from any of what comes with it. Take Not Everyone Is Special then. I don't know Josh Denslow, just people who do, people who want me to read him, and that's enough for me. He too treads in anxiety, already established, as well as sadness, see "Moustrap" or "Extra Ticket," both beautiful, both sad, one with a better outcome than the other. Denslow veers towards the absurd as well though, and the speculative, leanings that make for a wholly engaging bit of world-building in stories as disparate as "Too Late For a Lot of Things" and its warring Santa's Town employees, "Punch," and its alternative world of punch vouchers and Central Office staff, both violent in different ways. And then there is title story and its focus on a world not unlike ours, where the question lingers on and on, am I special, and how do I even begin to figure that out? I don't know. I do know that none of this is going to relieve my current state of anxiety, or make me go to bed, I have real work to do there. But reading is still a pleasure despite my current mood and that of the world, every word must be consumed and even if I don't always know how the books I read will change my life, I remain a true believer in their power to do so.

  • These Books Will Change Your Life - How To Write An Autobiographical Novel by the Alexander Chee and Death Valley Superstars by the Duke Haney.

    "We are not like we think we are. The stories we tell ourselves are like thin trails across something that is more like the ocean. A mask afloat on the open sea." -How To Write An Autobiographical Novel (page 226)

    This quote is from the essay "The Guardians" by the Alexander Chee, which as noted above can be found in his master class on essay writing How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. Chee's collection along with the delightfully engrossing Death Valley Superstars by the Duke Haney feel like the right place to kick-off the the transition of This Book Will Change Your Life from its recent home at This Blog Will Change Your Life to here at my personal site. I want my love for story, authors, words, transformation, and as needed, pop culture, to be found in one place, because my story is about all of those things and my desire is to tell that story here, in one place, as I too transform from whatever I have been to what I still might be, buidling on these themes and morphing into one space, no longer separated, no false boundaries or secrets. Now, was my love for all the above things ever truly secret? No, but there was work and there were words and stories, and while words and stories were always part of work, I always felt my private life should be just that, private and sepaarate from the day-to-day stuff that paid the bills. But I no longer see the point of all that. I will continue to build a business, but outside of my family (and not even them, not all of the time anyway), none of it needs to be private. It's a public journey, an effort to build a life, drawing on my influences - books, family, narrative, creativity and so on and so forth - and I want to share it. Which brings me back to the books at hand. Both books are stories about stories and whether its Chee talking about Chloe Sevigny, who I quite love, Annie Dillard, his father, being queer or writing, or Haney talking about Jim Morrison, who I also quite love, the Manson family, his efforts to be an actor or writing, the stories regardless of topic are about how we write the stories of our life, both in the actions and non-actions we take, our ability to become self-aware, the efforts we take to embrace our passion, get unstuck, gain some mastery over something, anything, and put those stories on paper and shoot them out into the world, staking a kind of claim as to who we think we are, and might well be. And if that's all true, well what else can one, me, ask for in the words we choose to consume, and again, where else could I possibly choose to launch the next iteration of this ongoing dialogue with books? Because the goal here is to be in an ongoing dialogue with self and for me, that has always started with books and authors, even as I have become a writer myself, run, drank, took drugs, went to therapy, and went again, started a family, took less drugs, drank less, run more, got old, watched my children grow-up, found work, lost work, got published, it has always comes back to books.

    Now, would I be remiss not to take a deeper dive into the books at hand, mrerely using these experiences as a platform to focus on self, inspirations and finding ways forward, I would, but that has always been part of this particular journey and that likely won't change soon. That said, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel is a roadmap and exploration of how Alexander Chee became Alexander Chee, and secrets, sexual abuse, activism, gardening, teaching and loss are as much a part of that narrative as Chloe Sevigny, living in New York City and writing. To call it a triumph seems neither overstated or understated, it is a naked dissection of the trip the author has been on until now, and it is raw and it is lovely. As a side note, I once wandered into a conversation Alexander Chee was having with some writers I knew, he I did not, and still don't, but I remember being taken with his energy, focused and benevolent as it was, and while I was certain he must be somewhat bemused by all of the attention being paid to him, I soon realized he wasn't. Nor was there any ego about it either. He let it wash over him, appreciative, but centered, and focused on those speaking, it was quite mesmerizing in its way, and what else can one ask from the writers who inspire us than that? You might ask whether Haney's work is any different somehow than all this, in that it is about a life created from scratch, from actor to author, though more than that, all together something more granular, and journalistic. Always exploring and following one's curiosities to what might be a logical end, but aren't necessarily all that logical as much as an end. Books that might not work out, see "The End of Cock Run" and spirits not found, Jim Morrison's ghost and "Room 32." I'm not convinced however, that Haney is driven by closure as much as the search, pushing himself to stay engaged with the world and his passions. What he wants is to feel alive, and Hollywood in all these ways, performer, writer, traveler, has served as his pallet, and his words capture the effort to stay engaged, and yes alive, and and in doing so, illuminate a life that is all energy aflame. I suppose I should add here, that I don't have a story of being in Haney's presence yet, but he will be on This Podcast Will Change Your Life soon, and if I'm so lucky, there will be a cocktail party, somewhere, some time, where his fans, myself included will let him know how his words make us feel. For now though, I know this to be true, those words, as with Chee's, are certain to change your life. I just can't see it shaking out any other way.