Thoughts on D.T. Max’s Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story

DFWThis book is heartbreaking – for obvious reasons, but also because DFW barely allowed himself to enjoy his accomplishments. Which, in some ways, is inspiring. Here’s a young writer who was heralded as a major new talent, eagerly sought after by colleges and magazines (and women apparently), but who felt his major work (Infinite Jest) was misunderstood and tried to best it, maybe not by writing a better or bigger book, but giving the effort (The Pale King) his all. For me, that’s the main takeaway from this book. DFW set an exceedingly high standard for his writing which, despite the turmoil this created in his life, was a necessary antidote to the type of lazy, ironic writing he saw around him.

The other takeaway I got from this book seems unintended. DT Max spends nearly two-thirds of the book working up to Infinite Jest, then devotes a mere 70 pages to the next 10+ years of DFW’s life and work, leaving the reader with the impression that nothing DFW did during that time matched the accomplishment of Infinite Jest. Once we get to DFW’s suicide in the last couple pages, it reads like a sad coda to a career that was already in decline, which one hopes is not what DT Max intended, nor is it how the reader should be remembering DFW.

Thoughts on George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords

ASOSTrying to summarize this book would result in a review the length of Infinite Jest, so instead I’m putting down some random thoughts:

1) This is my second-favorite of the series so far. The first book still strikes me as tighter and more controlled. The second contained a lot of setup for events that came to a head in book 3.
2) George RR Martin has an incredible imagination (duh) and his plotting is superb. ASOS contained so much plot in fact I’m wondering how there can be anything left for books 4 and 5.
3) I liked all the songs and how GRRM gives an everyday word like “turncoat” a Westerosi flavor by making it “turncloak.”
4) Roy Dotrice, who reads the audiobooks of A Song of Ice and Fire, is superb. I watched Amadeus the other night and was surprised to see Dotrice play Mozart’s dad.

(MINOR SPOILERS to follow)

5) Wow, this book contains a lot of plot twists! So many in fact I was a bit overwhelmed. The book could have ended after the Red Wedding, or the Purple Wedding, or after the Mountain defeat the Viper, or after Jon Snow became commander of the Night’s Watch… but it just kept on going. So while I enjoyed everything that happened, the book felt very long.
6) The fact that it’s the biggest book in the series so far also didn’t help. There’s an edition that splits the book in two, which might have helped. Book 1 ends with a clear climax and a setup for the rest of the series, but books 2 and 3 feel like one long narrative that can pretty much end or begin anywhere.
7) So far, the HBO show mirrors the events in the book pretty faithfully, with only a few major exceptions (like the introduction of Lady Stoneheart and the Arya lookalike marrying Ramsay Bolton). But the sequence of events is different.

What Is This Shit: the Bad Bob Dylan Made Good

DylanEvery couple years, one of two things happens: either Bob Dylan releases a new studio album, or his record label puts out a batch of bootleg recordings. Sometimes the bootlegs mirror the latest studio release (2008’s Tell Tale Signs collected ten years’ worth of cast-offs leading up to his then-latest album, 2006’s Modern Times), but mostly they dig deep into the Dylan archive, reaching back all the way to his self-titled debut from 1962. In its twenty-three-year running, the Bootleg Series has been as instrumental in restoring Dylan’s reputation after the disastrous ‘80s as his Grammy-laden records from the late ‘90s onward (beginning with 1997’s Time out of Mind).

The ‘80s were bad for Bob. Two recent articles in Grantland and Slate explored why exactly. Steven Hyden, staff writer at Grantland, and Carl Wilson, music critic at Slate, agreed it wasn’t necessarily the quality of the music (if you accept that ‘80s records are supposed to sound bad by today’s standards), but the cultural expectations heaped upon Dylan’s shoulders. In Wilson’s words: “1980s critics still expected rock to be about resistance, and rock was letting them down, Dylan maybe most of all.”

But consider this: over the course of fifty-two years and thirty-three studio albums, Dylan has released around four-hundred original songs, with hundreds more rumored to linger in the Columbia vaults. These can’t all be good. Even Shakespeare wrote a couple duds, and he never collaborated with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers or wheezed his way through “We Are the World.” So cultural expectations notwithstanding, hasn’t Dylan always written bad songs? What’s so awful about the ‘80s compared to Self-Portrait from 1970 or Christmas in the Heart from 2009? Is his post-‘80s output really as profound as the Grammies have us believe, or are we just glad he dropped the synths?

The point, I think, of Dylan’s status as the only rock lyricist rumored to be up for the Nobel Prize for Literature is that he hasn’t always given us the quality of work we hoped for, but he has consistently given us enough quality work. “Enough” isn’t exactly a commendable measure for success, of course, and what’s most baffling about every bad Dylan album is that they could have been saved by songs that he, for whatever reason, didn’t release. The most famous example is “Blind Willie McTell,” from the Infidels sessions, but what about “Trouble in Mind” from Slow Train Coming or almost the entire tenth installment of the Bootleg Series, which casts Self-Portrait in a completely new light? The going theory is that Dylan was deliberately trying to alienate his audience and cast off the debilitating “voice of a generation” moniker. Dylan’s own theory, as expressed in his autobiography Chronicles, was that he was simply “done for, an empty burned-out wreck.”

There’s a game I like to play where I imagine what Dylan’s back catalog might have looked like if he hadn’t tried to keep up with the breakneck speed of his string of ‘60s classics, beginning with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) through Blonde on Blonde (1966) and John Wesley Harding (1967). What if, for example, he had cut his output between 1968 and 1974 in half by releasing not five but just two albums? The result might have looked something like this:

Nashville Skyline & Self-Portrait

  1. To Be Alone with You
  2. I Threw It All Away
  3. Days of ‘49
  4. Lay Lady Lay
  5. This Evening So Soon
  6. One More Night
  7. Tell Me That It Isn’t True
  8. Belle Isle
  9. Country Pie
  10. The Mighty Quinn
  11. Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You

New Morning & Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid & Planet Waves

  1. If Not for You
  2. Tough Mama
  3. Day of the Locusts
  4. Hazel
  5. Something There Is About You
  6. New Morning
  7. Forever Young (Slow Version)
  8. Billy
  9. You Angel You
  10. The Man in Me
  11. Nobody ‘Cept You
  12. Never Say Goodbye

(Note: I chose not to include “Girl from the North Country,” his duet with Johnny Cash, because even though Cash was a great singer, this was already a great song that didn’t need to be reinterpreted.)

These two albums wouldn’t have matched the work that preceded or immediately followed them (the blueprint break-up album Blood on the Tracks from 1975), but as a modest effort from of a period when Dylan largely withdrew from public life, they would have made perfect sense.

The ‘80s for Dylan arguably started in 1979, with the release of the first of three Christian albums, Slow Train Coming, and ended in 1990 with Under the Red Sky. It’s a decade-plus of poor production values and even poorer song choices. He had left some good songs off his earlier albums (Self-Portrait most notably, which Greil Marcus derided by asking, “What is this shit?”), but now he was consistently shelving his best material. Take Slow Train Coming for example. Four of the first five songs (“I Believe in You” being the exception) aren’t bad, but the second half is unmercifully slow and would have benefited from replacing “Do Right to Me Baby,” “When You Gonna Wake Up,” and “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” with the outtakes “Ye Shall Be Changed” and “Trouble in Mind” (later released as a B-side). The two Christian albums that followed, Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981), continued to favor blandness over the genuinely inspired vocal of “You Changed My Life” or an acoustic version of “Every Grain of Sand” that’s as good as anything on Blood on the Tracks. Released mere months apart, these albums could have easily been combined into one:

  1. A Satisfied Mind
  2. Heart of Mine
  3. Caribbean Wind
  4. Precious Angel
  5. Covenant Woman
  6. You Changed My Life
  7. Pressing On
  8. Slow Train Coming
  9. Saving Grace
  10. Every Grain of Sand (bootleg version)

If sound, not poor song selection, is the deciding factor, then the ‘80s really started with Infidels (1983) and Empire Burlesque (1985). Here, Dylan’s attempts to connect with a new, younger audience began to get in the way of his craft. Grantland’s Hyden described it as Dylan’s “malignant neglect and pained indifference to recording music in a manner that was pleasurable for other humans to listen to.” Even the atrocities that followed, Knocked out Loaded (1986) and Down in the Groove (1988), were less perplexing, because they at least sounded like Dylan, albeit a Dylan who was half-assedly trying to find “an original thought out there.” It wasn’t the songs’ fault entirely, though. Each record from this period offer some gems, you just need an especially keen ear to pick them out from beneath the rubble of a 1980s mixing job. Dylan’s acoustic take on “I’ll Remember You” from Infidels, featured in the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous, provides a glimpse of what might have been if Dylan hadn’t succumbed to drum computers, reverb, and synthesizers. So leaving untouched Oh Mercy (1989), which many consider to be his only good album from the ‘80s, here’s how that decade could have been salvaged:

  1. Jokerman
  2. Tight Connection to My Heart
  3. When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky
  4. I’ll Remember You
  5. Under the Red Sky
  6. Handy Dandy
  7. Seeing the Real You at Last
  8. Born in Time
  9. Dark Eyes
  10. Silvio
  11. Blind Willie McTell
  12. Brownsville Girl

With the emergence of the internet in the ‘90s, a wealth of unreleased Bob Dylan material suddenly became available to even the most casual listener (iTunes is now even selling outtakes from the Bootleg Series). Dylan fans eagerly awaiting new original material couldn’t have been happier, because by 1997 he had only put out two albums of acoustic covers, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. Perhaps this lack of new material made it so that nowadays the ‘90s aren’t regarded as being as bad for Dylan as the ‘80s. But in 1997 he released Time out of Mind, largely considered to be his best album since the mid ‘70s. It won three Grammy Awards including Best Album. The Daniel Lanois sound, who was his producer on this album, was an acquired taste, but the songwriting was there. It wasn’t a flawless record, nor did it try to be, but it was unlike anything else released that year or even that decade. While it feels nitpicky to take issue with this album after all the ups and downs of the thirty years since John Wesley Harding, it could have been condensed to six stellar tracks that still clock in at a respectable forty minutes total:

  1. Love Sick
  2. Dirt Road Blues
  3. Standing in the Doorway
  4. Tryin’ to Get to Heaven
  5. Not Dark Yet
  6. Highlands

It’s possible that Dylan learned a lesson from releasing too many records too soon, because the seventeen years since Time out of Mind have seen just four albums of original material: Love and Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006), Together through Life (2009), and Tempest (2012). Each was received as scripture from an elder statesman of rock who had seen it all, even though much of the new material didn’t match his best work from the ‘60s or mid ‘70s. It didn’t need to. People were just happy he was no longer embarrassing himself.

Still, I’m holding out for a final masterpiece, much like I’m hoping Robert DeNiro will stop making comedies and deliver one last Goodfellas or Raging Bull. Perhaps Dylan has something in the works. If not, here’s what that final masterpiece might have looked like if he had trimmed the fat off his last four albums:

  1. Mississippi
  2. Duquesne Whistle
  3. Spirit on the Water
  4. Lonesome Day Blues
  5. Workingman’s Blues #2
  6. I Feel a Change Comin’ on
  7. Cry a While
  8. Nettie Moore
  9. Po’ Boy
  10. Moonlight
  11. Ain’t Talkin’
  12. Sugar Baby

(Note: A case could be made for including “Tell Ol’ Bill,” “I Cross the Green Mountain,” or “Waitin’ for You,” but if we take the liberty of including all songs from the last seventeen years, we’d end up with something like Tell Tale Signs, Bootleg Series Volume 8, which was a stunning album indeed.)

The wealth of Dylan material, both released and unreleased, is so astounding that an overview like the one presented here is just an outpost along an endless route. Dylan has released a total of thirty-three studio albums (not counting Dylan from 1973, which his record label cobbled together against his will, or The Basement Tapes). In my ideal world, he would have released twenty-one, reducing his output by a third. The alternate albums I proposed still wouldn’t have been a match for his best work, but here’s why they would have been essential nonetheless. The late ‘60s to mid ‘70s and the ‘80s to the late ‘90s were transitional stages, where Dylan wrestled with his talent, his past, and the demands of his audience. On his best albums, he showcases Dylan the jester, the wordsmith, the bard. As a result, we don’t really see him at all. It’s on those transitional albums, where he tries and fails like the rest of us, that we get a glimpse of the real Bob Dylan.

Thoughts on Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters

Laughing MonstersI tried to write a coherent review of this book but could only manage this short list of quotes and observations. Considering the chaotic nature of this book and Africa, this seems fitting.

1. The laughing monsters are not just the mountains mentioned in the book. Nair, Adriko and all the wrongdoers in Africa are the laughing monsters.

2. Why is Nair in Africa? To check up on Adriko for NIIA, but also to attend Adriko’s wedding and to become rich in the new world of fear and chaos that 9/11 has created. Nair isn’t looking for redemption but for a rush: “I’ve come back because I love the mess. Anarchy. Madness. Things falling apart.”

3. The plot is so convoluted and contrived, it hardly matters. The acronyms and government intrigue are reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove. From The New York Times: “We don’t read Johnson for methodology but for troubled effect and bright astonishments.”

4. What does it mean to belong somewhere? Can we really belong anywhere? Nair is a Dane traveling on a US passport. When Adriko finally reaches his home village, he’s expelled.

5. Johnson: “Reality is an impression, a belief.”

6. Johnson on writing a literary spy thriller: “To me the writing is all one thing, or maybe I should say it’s all nothing. The truth is, I just write sentences.”

Two Years and 140k Words Later

On September 25, 2013, I posted the following picture on Facebook, announcing I was beginning work on a new novel:

September 25 2013


On May 18, 2015, I posted the following picture:

May 18 2015


That’s roughly 20 months of writing, though it wasn’t until November 2014 that I began working on it seven days a week (2 hours every week night and as many hours as I could muster over the weekends). The first draft was 140k words. What you’re looking at now is the third draft of 120k words.

Meeting Karl Over Knausgaard

Greenapple Books recently opened a new store on 9th & Irving in San Francisco. That’s heartening news in light of all the bookstores that are closing everywhere, but Greenapple now also has more room to put on author events. When they announced Karl Ove Knausgaard would be visiting the store, I wondered where they’d fit the hordes of people this would attract. The new location is tiny and just yesterday I read about Knausgaard’s visit to a bookstore in New York where people lined up outside the door. But to my surprise there were only three people in line when I got to Greenapple.

Knausgaard and I chatted briefly. He said he’d never been to San Francisco and asked if I recommended anything. I suggested Alcatraz as my personal favorite tourist attraction, but I wish I’d told him something the locals do, or that I like to do. Because that to me has always provided a more valuable experience of a city than visiting the tourist sites. Oh well.



Meeting Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons was at Book Passage in the Ferry Building today to promote his new book, The Fifth Heart. I haven’t read the book, but going to Dan Simmons readings has become something of a tradition for me. Years ago, when I was in college, a friend recommended I read Hyperion but I didn’t actually heed his advice until ten years later. That book blew my mind so I quickly devoured Drood (his then latest) and The Fall of Hyperion (not as great as the first book) and bought several others. I was living in Denver at the time and Simmons lived somewhere in the area, so he’d often give readings at the Tattered Cover bookstore. At one of those readings, we discussed Shakespeare and quantum physics, though I can’t remember why or what was said.

Dan Simmons

Pet Cemetery

Pet CemeteryBelow the road to the Golden Gate Bridge lies a pet cemetery. It’s a sad, forgotten little corner of San Francisco. Easy to miss. I drive by it every week and never noticed it until today. So I decided to take a look.

Surrounded by a white picket fence, it’s the final resting place for animals who belonged to families once stationed at the Presidio, when it was still a military base. Most of the headstones look like military headstones. Most bear the last name and even the rank of their owner. One says: “A GI dog. He did his time.” A few say: “Unknown.”

It’s closed during construction of the Presidio Parkway viaduct that sits right on top of it, and it’s difficult to get to because of piles of debris and No Trespassing signs. It’s overgrown, part of the white picket fence has collapsed, and some of the grave stones have fallen over. The viaduct has taken away the sunlight.

According to legend, it used to be a cemetery for cavalry horses or World War 2 guard dogs.

I had my dog with me. I was curious to see if he’d pick up something in the air, some vibe. But I think, if anything, he just felt the same quiet sadness at the passing of time as me.

Thoughts on Jim Harrison’s The Great Leader

TheGreatLeaderI love Jim Harrison. LOVE Jim Harrison. And this book has everything I love about his work. The free-flowing sentences; the sexual comedy; the indignation over the treatment of Native Americans; the copious amounts of food the characters consume in the course of the novel; the exquisite writing about nature. But The Great Leader doesn’t quite reach the heights of his best work (Dalva, The Road Home, True North, or Returning to Earth for example). It’s not that Harrison is repeating himself so much as he’s just not trying very hard with this book. I imagine reading The Great Leader is what it’d be like to spend an afternoon with Harrison: it’s mostly casual and entertaining, and occasionally brilliant.