In Appreciation – John Fante

College is where I made many of the literary connections that have come to shape not only my reading tastes, but also my development as a person…  Charles Bukowski, Kurt Vonnegut, Gloria Naylor, Hubert Selby Jr, and others. I’ve said that before college, I was mostly mired in a sea entertaining-but-mostly-brain-dead slop… Dean Koontz and other pop-lit travesties that I’m not mostly ashamed to have wasted my time on.

Even into my freshman year, a newly kindled interest in T.S. Eliot and my first of three attempts at reading Ulysses (a-ha ha ha, someday, right?) weren’t enough to completely break me from my old reading tendencies.

Then, in a story I’m fairly certain I’ve related before, I was introduced to John Fante in the fall of 2002.  In an AOL Chat Room, of all places.  Some random young woman from Italy told me that, even though I’d never heard of him, he was the greatest author in the English language, and was revered as a god in parts of her home country.

While I still doubt the veracity of her second claim, but I cannot say enough how much I love Fante’s prose.  Every time I read the opening chapters of Ask The Dust, I get chills down my spine.  Every time.  I could pick it off the shelf, flip to a random page, and find a passage that will give me the same reaction.

Before even getting into novel-writing, though, John Fante built up a helluva reputation as a short story writer.  His first, and most frequent, publisher was HL Mencken’s American Mercury, which published “Altar Boy” in August 1932, a full six years before his first novel was published.  Three collections of Fante’s short stories exist: Dago Red (1940), The Wine Of Youth (1985, comprising Dago Red and some later stories), and The Big Hunger (2000).

After years of short story writing, Fante hit the scene with Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938), which was also the first time readers met Arturo Bandini.  A great first novel, but not nearly as polished, sparse, and beautiful as Ask The Dust (1939).  Ask The Dust is by far his most well-known… and his best written novel.

But Ask The Dust was not the huge success Fante wanted it to be.  His publisher, Stackpole & Sons, published an unauthorized version of Mein Kampf and was sued by Hitler.  Seriously, what an asshole, right?  All of Stackpole’s advertising budget went into their defense fund and Fante’s sophomore novel was limited to only about 3000 copies.

Frustrated, Fante found his way into writing for Hollywood.  The easy writing and easy money appealed to Fante.  His letters indicate that he intended to write long enough to make enough money to support a family.

More than a decade after Ask The Dust flopped, Fante wrote Full of Life (1952).  The novel was published in Reader’s Digest and was sold to Hollywood and made into a movie starring Judy Holliday and Richard Conte.  The money from this project bought Fante a house in Malibu while he continued to toil away in Hollywood, occasionally shooting off a short story, or newspaper op-ed piece.

Before his death in 1983, Fante only published two more novels:  The Brotherhood of the Grape (1977) and Dreams From Bunker Hill (1982).  Dreams From Bunker Hill brings Arturo Bandini back, after an absence of more than forty years.  Even though the novel was dictated to his wife, Joyce, the classic Fante prose is there.

Fante’s life was never particularly easy.  He grew up with an alcoholic father, never reached the literary successes he thought he should have, often hated himself for sucking a the easy teat of Hollywood, and only started receiving literary recognition after years of his own alcoholism had afflicted him with diabetes and eaten away his vision and his legs.

But reading Dreams From Bunker Hill… you can tell he remembers the good, early days.  The hungry days when he was starving, living in a filthy hotel and wondering where his rent money would come from.  The honesty and passion in his prose, especially when returning to his greatest creation, is both uplifting and heartbreaking.

Much thanks has to go to the authors Charles Bukowski and Ben Pleasants for their work in attempting to get Fante republished.  Ben Pleasants did a series of interviews with Fante in the late 70s which was then published as a short piece in the LA Times in July 1979.  This attention, coupled with Bukowski’s attempts at bringing Fante’s works back, are the reason why any random person can find Fante’s works without spending hundreds of dollars on editions from the 40s and 50s.

Bukowski referred to Fante as a god, a titan of fiction, and name dropped him consistently in his poetry and once in his novel Women (1978).  It was this novel that made Bukowski’s editor, John Martin, question about John Fante.  Bukowski found a copy of Ask The Dust for Martin to read, and Martin made every effort to get Fante’s work back in print.

Bukowski even wrote an introduction to the Black Sparrow Edition of Ask The Dust.  When I read it, I had no idea who either Bukowski or Fante were, but I knew I held a special novel in my hands.  And when I had finished the book, I knew for certain that I was holding a treasure of literature.

I knew I had to tell people.

I told as many people as would listen in college.  I even wrote an essay for a writer’s conference just so I could awaken more people to the brilliance of Fante’s work.  If you read nothing else, you should read Ask The Dust.  Fante packs so much into such a short novel that you’ll wonder how he did it.

Central to the story is Fante’s love for the city of Los Angeles, and the empathy and compassion he feels for the people struggling to make it on a day-by-day basis in the underside of the city.  Even today, Fante’s words echo and reverberate with meaning and potency.

READ HIM!  You won’t be disappointed.

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In Appreciation – John Green

In an attempt to give myself a few more days to polish off a novel (or two) to talk about, especially in light of the fact that I really shouldn’t post about yet another comic book, I’ve decided to make a series of posts about authors I really rather enjoy.

There’s a lot of authors I’ve come to enjoy over the years.  I mean, duh.  Of course.  But there’s a huge number of authors who probably aren’t going to ever be a part of the national discussion re: literature.

There’s also authors that I’ve come to appreciate recently that I feel haven’t been adequately represented in my blog.  One of those authors is John Green.

I first discovered John Green about two years ago, when my boss wouldn’t stop talking about him.  But, like a fool, I didn’t read him at that point.  Still, she insisted that he was a great author.  Oh and he had a vlog with his brother.  Oh and he always says cool things like, “Don’t Forget To Be Awesome!” or DFTBA, for short.

Then came The Fault In Our Stars.  In addition to the heavy accolades, much of the first edition was signed by the author, which was an exciting prospect for a collector such as myself.  But, like a fool, I didn’t start reading John Green then, either.

A month after The Fault In Our Stars was released, when I had caught up on all my backlist, I wasn’t re-reading Sandman for the umpteenth time, and I was starved for something to read…  It was time for John Green.  I started with Paper Towns and read all but the last thirty pages in a single evening.

I was hooked!

But I resolved myself to not reading all his books as once.  I read The Fault In Our Stars, finally, in July, and stumbled on Looking For Alaska at the library in September. Finally, I bought the whole damn box set of John Green and finished An Abundance of Katherines and now I’ve completely caught up (well, excluding Let It Snow and Will Grayson, Will Grayson… but I’m at least done with everything that John Green wrote alone).

It isn’t hard for me to figure out why I like John Green so much.  It isn’t just that his dialogue is funny and clever (though it is).  It isn’t just the plots he writes that fit together so wonderfully (though they do).

I’ve said in previous posts that I enjoy when a writer is able to transport me back to my awkward, uncomfortable high school years… and John Green does this very well.  Most of his characters are socially awkward, slightly-to-very geeky, and uncommonly verbose and clever.

I was two of these things in high school.  Try to guess the two!

John Green’s characters remind me of the times during high school that I’d either a) remember forever or b) never remember.  Either way, I appreciate his insight into the psyche of teenagers… even if they’re often too clever for their own good.

Seriously, they’re incredibly funny, verbose, and well-read.  No teenager (maybe with few exceptions) has ever spoken like the teens in a John Green novel… yet they seem so honest, that I can believe they existed somewhere… just probably not in my high school.

And you know how I love lists!  So I’m going to do a quick round-up of John Green’s books… Here we go!

4. An Abundance of Katherines

This book is freshest in my mind, as I just finished it.  It stars a prodigy named Colin and a semi-strict Muslim named Hassan. Our two heroes go on a road trip (definitely a bit of a plot device in John Green books) and end up in the town of Gutshot, TN, a rural town claiming to be the burial site of Archduke Ferdinand.

The cause of this road trip to the middle of nowhere?  A broken heart, of course!  Colin is attempting to get over being dumped by yet another Katherine.  The nineteenth Katherine he has dated up to this point in his life, in fact.

Colin spends most of the novel attempting to write a theorem to predict how a relationship will end, which he ends up developing by the end of the book.  Does it work?  You’ll just have to read it and find out.

I will say that this is my least favorite novel.  It has the endearingly awkward characters and funny prose that I enjoy… but the plot is almost entirely predictable.  There’s a couple of surprises along the way, but the novel plays out much as I expected through-out, unlike my third pick…

3. Paper Towns

I already wrote a long-form review of Paper Towns almost a year ago, so I won’t be overly descriptive here.

This book was my first of John Green’s and the best part of it to me was just how unpredictable it was.  Margo’s dead!  No she isn’t! Maybe she is?  Maybe not? I JUST DON’T KNOW!

And that was great.  I’ll be sure to re-read this in the coming year.

2. The Fault In Our Stars

This book should, by all rights, be number 1.

But it isn’t.  And I don’t have a particularly good reason.  If you ask me in a week, maybe I’ll have reconsidered and switched the two.  But for now, The Fault In Our Stars just barely gets edged out by Looking For Alaska.

The book is just your typical love story… boy meets girl (at a cancer survivor meeting for teens), boy and girl bond over reading, boy and girl fall in love…

You know.  That old chestnut.

With alternating humor and sadness, John Green tells the story of Hazel and Augustus (Gus) and their experience with young love.  I was skeptical… I mean, kids with cancer?  Come on!  But Green’s talent allows him to tell a story without being too maudlin, or saccharine.

A touching, wonderful tale that also includes a number of great allusions to much of the poetry I loved when I was younger.  In a week’s time, this could be number one again.

1. Looking For Alaska

The top two was a big debate for me.  This could easily have been The Fault In Our Stars. By all rights, it probably should be.  But there’s something about this story that speaks to me on a deeper level than The Fault In Our Stars.

In this story, Miles “Pudge” Halter is sent from his relatively normal high school in Florida, to Culver Creek Prep School in Alabama.  He rooms with a guy named Chip who is nicknamed “The Colonel” and finds himself inextricably infatuated with a young woman named Alaska Young.

The book has two sections: Before and After.  Without delving into spoilers… Green really blindsides you with the “after” portion.  He builds up what you think it’ll be and then… BAM! Unexpected, heartbreaking, and it comes off without a hitch.

After this post, I may do another “In Appreciation” post… but by then I may also have finished either Fobbit, That’s Not A Feeling, or Boy Meets Boy.  Who knows? Maybe I’ll even get into Matt Fraction’s entirely too great Invincible Iron Man.  Seriously, best superhero comic I’ve read in the last year (sorry Ultimate Spider-Man!).

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Nothing Like A Scary Story To Ring In The New Year – The Fifty Year Sword

The Fifty Year Sword
Mark Danielewski
Pantheon
October 16, 2012
288 Pages

Getting back into the swing of things, in life, as well as both reading and writing, I decided to start with a short book.  And why not scare the crap outta myself while I do it, right?

The 288 page count is a bit deceptive.  Much of the book is blank pages (the right-hand page is either blank, or covered with some type of artwork) and what isn’t blank is covered in only a small amount of text.  In many places, the typography is scattered, with various levels of indentation.

From a design standpoint, I loved it.  There’s color everywhere and the mix of illustration and text adds a lot of great layering to the story.  I spent probably twice as much time looking at the art as I did reading the story.

But I don’t think this is a bad thing.

Using five different colored sets of quotation marks, the narrator of the story changes every few lines (on occasion, every word) and this starts off as a bit confusing.  Do I read each colored quotation mark in a row? Do I just read it straight through?  I wondered.

Yes, you read it straight through.  There is no discernible pattern when you attempt to read all the red quote marks, or all the golden ones.

So what is the whole thing about?  Danielewski tells the story of Chintana, a woman on the rebound after a recent divorce.  She begrudgingly attends a party being thrown for the woman who her husband cheated with, a real bitch named Belinda Kite.

But that part isn’t important, really.

The majority of the story is about a man and five orphans.  This strange man, referred to only as the Story Teller, spins a tale of violence and terror with remarkable detail.  Chintana knows she should spare the orphans from having to hear about all the strange and gruesome details, but… she finds herself transfixed.

In the story, the Story Teller travels many miles, though magical, fairy-tale-like terrains in order to find a weapon to avenge an unknown and unnamed grudge.  The tale reeks of madness, evil, and darkness… At least until the Story Teller lets the orphans open the black box he brought with him…

What’s in the box?  Well… you should read the book to find out!  It’ll take all of two hours (TOPS) and is definitely up there with House of Leaves for me.  I rarely feel any tangible kind of fear, or terror, while reading, but House of Leaves and The Fifty Year Sword both leave me with the same kind of general malaise…

There’s something about the way Danielewski plays with words that make the stories seem real and believable, despite their fantastical elements.  The Fifty Year Sword is an excellent ghost story… and sometimes, that’s all you need to start the year off right.

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Too Many Books, Too Little Time – Why I Re-Read

I’ve worked in a bookstore for nearly seven years now.  Inevitably, someone I’ll get into a discussion with someone about books and I’ll mention books that I re-read every year.  Also inevitably, I’ll have a customer who claims never to re-read anything.

I personally don’t understand why not.

I love the comfort of a novel I’ve enjoyed previously.  There’s few things I enjoy more than becoming reacquainted with characters, plots, and prose that I’ve already read.  This goes back years to when I was but a young reader of seven, or eight…

The first book I remember reading multiple times was the sixth the Boxcar Children series The Blue Bay Mystery.  The descriptions of the white, sandy beaches and the clear, blue ocean completely enveloped me.  I wanted to be stranded on a desert island just like that!

The next two books I read endlessly were horror novels: Wait Til Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn and John Bellairs’ The House With A Clock In Its Walls. I talk about John Bellairs a lot.  Too much probably.  But his novels were a central, formative part of my youth.

Both novels had the horror elements that I really enjoyed at that age, but they also had main characters that were geeky and relatable.  In fact, this penchant for awkward, nerdy, uncomfortable characters has continued.

I think this explains my love of John Green books.  And Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere.  Not to mention the vast number of loners, dreamers, madmen, and maniacs that I’ve come to love in my reading life.

I’ve given a lot of thought and I think I’ve come up with the books I’ve re-read most (what? A top-whatever list?! Lucky you!).  In no particular order (but numbered anyway):

5. Sole Survivor by Dean Koontz

In middle school, I discovered Dean Koontz in a box of books given to my mom.  I read Lightning two or three times that summer.  I spent the next couple of years collecting as many of his books as I could dig out of used book stores.

But Sole Survivor was the one I read most.  The opening chapters where Joe attempts to cope with losing his family in a plane crash broke my heart no matter how many times I read it.

I tried re-reading it again recently and it wasn’t the same.  So I’m going to just leave it in my memory as an enjoyable experience.

4. The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hills by Charles Bukowski

This collection has long been a favorite of mine… mostly because of the poem “For Jane: With All The Love I Had Which Was Not Enough” (though there are more in the collection I particularly enjoy).

There’s other collections that I like more (Love Is A Dog From Hell and Burning in Water, Drowning In Flame), but The Days… is still the one I revisit most often.

3. Sandman by Neil Gaiman

Yeah this is a no-brainer.  Especially given my last post.  I read the series just a few years ago, but I’ve returned to it often.  Sometimes all at once, sometimes in pieces… But I re-read the series at least once a year and always find it comforting and touching.

2. The Waste-Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot

Yup, poetry nerd.  If there’s a more perfect poem than “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” written in the English language… I don’t know of it.  You can have your Red Wheelbarrows and your Sonnet 18s.  Prufrock nails it.

Do I dare disturb the universe?

1. Ask The Dust by John Fante

John Fante’s novel about struggling writer Arturo Bandini spoke to me as soon as I cleared the first chapter.  Hell, it spoke to me even before the first chapter.  Charles Bukowski’s introduction told me all I needed to know about the book.  And I didn’t even know Bukowski when I first read he novel.

The story is fairly basic and straightforward… but the writing!  Fante writes like a punch to the gut.  Each page, each paragraph has something eminently quotable.  One version I have has highlights on highlights and underlines below highlights.

Heck, I’ve read pretty much every edition of this book.  At least, all the American editions.  Stackpole & Sons from 1939.  Bantam mass market from the 50s.  Black Sparrow (hardcover and soft back) from the 80s, and the Harper Collins reprint from the 00s.  I don’t own all versions of it, but I’m pretty close… anyone wanna lend me $7000 for a copy of the Stackpole edition?

I definitely recommend re-reading texts you enjoy.  Should you re-read everything?  Hell no! I’ll never re-read Midnight’s Children, or The Instructions, though I really enjoyed both of them.  I may never re-read House of Leaves again… though that’s as much for my sanity as anything.

Do you have any favorites you re-visit periodically? Or maybe even yearly?

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There’s A Downstairs In Everybody – Making Sense of The World With Sandman

I wasn’t sure I was going to come back this time.

My brain’s always so fried this time of year, but I had a whole slew of posts lined up and ready to go (well, in my head at least) and was all ready to have a productive, if predictable  December.  Blogging about comics (maybe finishing A Naked Singularity) and just kinda coasting through the rest of the year.

And then on December 11th, there was a shooting at the mall I work at.

I came out of the back room around 2:20.  Maybe twenty seconds later, I heard what sounded like a series of electrical shorts.  Maybe a clumsy electrician dropping a pack of light bulbs.  Somewhere between eight and ten pops, echoing from down the way.

Just seconds after that, I heard screaming and people were running.  A couple of employees and I herded some customers into the receiving area.

I then received a call on my store phone telling me to go close the gates to the mall.  I’m somewhat ashamed that someone had to tell me, but I’m also sane enough to realize that I was in a bit of a panic at that point.

Gates closed, we made sure the store was clear and retreated to the break room for just under two hours while we waited for the police to clear the mall itself.

Two people were killed that day.  In the three weeks since the shooting, I haven’t been over to where it happened in the food court.  In fact, I’ve only been out into the mall just once.  Having sat waiting for the mall gates to close, I feel as if I’ve spent enough time in those areas for a bit.

I pretty much dropped most of what I was doing with my life at that point.  I stopped reading the couple of novels I was reading, I stopped work on crafting a Christmas gift for my wife, and I generally found myself to be more tired and irritable.  Especially when customers were back in the store and complaining about the long lines, or long waits for returns.

But, thanks to an excellent team of co-workers, I’ve successfully navigated another holiday season.  At this point, I’m hoping it’ll be my last retail holiday season, but… I’m not making any decisions at the moment.

In the interim, my reading has been two things: Matt Fraction’s fantastic Invincible Iron Man comic (seriously, I love this!) and another revisit to the world of The Dreaming in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

Why Sandman?  Well, in addition to it being the first long-form, on-going comic series that I loved… I always turn to it for good quotes.  Usually, I’ll find something in it (or in one of the two Death miniseries) that will help me with whatever I’m struggling with.  That and I can count on finding something new that I missed before.  A panel of art, a word or phrase… sometimes bits of foreshadowing, or callbacks that I didn’t recognize the last time I read it.

But there’s always something.

So I decided… I’m going to read Sandman again… but this time, in whatever order I come to it.  So I pulled the second volume of Absolute Sandman off the shelf and read the “Game of You” arc first.  I’ve loved this arc the most since I first read the series.  In fact, just before the following picture was taken, I thanked Neil for writing it and told him it was my favorite arc in the entirety of Sandman.

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So Sandman it is.  I’ve learned that there’s a TON of people at my work who love Gaiman himself and Sandman more specifically.  I’ve learned that the Absolute copies of the series are just as heavy as I remember them… and just as great.  I still love the recoloring!  I’ve learned that there’s always more to learn about just about anything…

I’ve also learned that there are going to be triggers for me.  Putting up, or down, the mall gates.  Seeing groups of ambulances congregated in the same places.  Hearing fireworks outside of the house…

I may have learned more.  Right now I’m content with the feeling that things are getting better in my head.  I feel more well aligned than I have in more than a month.  I feel more positive about my life, my body, and my soul.  Most of all…I feel ready to take a short stroll around the mall…

Thanks Neil!  For Sandman, American Gods… pretty much everything.  Thank you for helping me in getting my mind refocused and back to as normal as I can.

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