Archives for category: LitRicher


One year for Father’s Day, back in the 80s, my brother bought tickets to a Dodgers game for my dad, the two of us, our half-brother (product of my dad’s second marriage/reverse vasectomy) and my son. It was a sweet thing he did, taking Dad, all his progeny, and his only grandchild out for such a wholesome, dadly kind of outing. He’s always doing things like that.

I brought a book, of course. Can’t abide baseball.

At one point, my brother looked over at me and (affectionately) said that no matter where we were or what we were doing, I’d had my face in a book for his entire life.

Well, that hasn’t changed. And I’ve read so many amazing books this year (many recommended by Vincent), that I decided I should start sharing. So I created a new LitRicher category (look in the sidebar). I’ve gone through and added some older book- and poetry-related posts to the category, so if you’re looking for a recommendation, click it and you’ll see ‘em all.

For now, these are the books I’ve read in the last month or so:

  • Prodigal Summer (Barbara Kingsolver): Magnificent book. If you have green leanings, a sense of your connection to all living things, and a heart, this book is for you. If you don’t, read it anyway and maybe you’ll have an epiphany. This is only the second book of hers I’ve read. The first was The Poisonwood Bible, which I read years ago, also amazing. I’ve decided to read all of her novels.
  • Spook Country (William Gibson): Cyberpunk genre, high-tech espionage/whodunit kinda stuff. A real page turner, great story, but I liked Pattern Recognition more. Gibson has a way with language.
  • Mendel’s Dwarf (Simon Mawer): Not your ordinary novel. Protagonist is a geneticist and a dwarf who searches for meaning and the gene that controls his dwarfism. Mawer weaves highlights of the life of Gregor Mendel (a distant relative of the protagonist) into the story and, throughout the novel, he works in a discussion of scientific ethics, especially with regard to eugenics. There’s love, lust, and all the other stuff of life. Poignant and powerful. Not in the least bit maudlin.

Stay tuned, fellow bookworms. And by all means, share your recommendations!

*Shakespeare, Hamlet


I recently read a very good novel recommended to me by Vincent, called Paradise News. The author is David Lodge, an Englishman whose work is not very well known in the States. Vincent’s read all his stuff; this was my first. A disillusioned theologian living in a dingy industrial town in England is at a turning point in his life and finds himself in Hawaii. One of the themes of the book is how people are sold the concept of paradise. The author draws some really funny parallels between religion and tourism that were suddenly so glaringly obvious that I was ashamed that I’d never thought of them before. Good book; subtle and delightful.

I grew up in paradise (San Diego, Guam, Hawaii). Tropical climates, palm trees, year-round flowers, bright colors, the glorious Pacific Ocean… But there I was, always longing to live in France. I guess the grass is always greener…

And here I am in Paris, happy as can be, despite the fact that sometimes the only green you can see has Vigilance Propreté written on it. Fortunately, every few months we drive a couple of hours north to spend a few days in luscious rural Normandy, where we get a therapeutic dose of serene and green.


However, I do get a rather severe tropical jones from time to time. The good news is I’m closer to paradise now than I’ve ever been. It’s actually only three hours away. We spent last weekend in Provence, in a tiny medieval hilltop village called Biot. We also spent a couple of hours in Antibes, which is ten minutes from Biot on the Côte d’Azur. It’s France and San Diego.

Honey, I’m home.



I was a solitary kid. My mom had to force me to go outside to play during school vacations because, if I’d had my way, I would have stayed in PJs in my room reading all day, every day. I did manage to read all seven of the Narnia books one spring break when I was about 11, probably only because I sliced my foot open on a broken Coke bottle on the one day I did go outside. Bonus!

I still love to read, as you might expect, but I’m not a bilbiophile. I can’t keep many books because I move around so much (a pattern developed for me in childhood). So I read a book and pass it on to a friend or donate it to a thrift store. There are a few that travel with me, like a first edition of Children of the Albatross by Anaïs Nin that my brother gave me (a breathtaking book), a trashed paperback copy of The Witches of Eastwick (Updike), which I never tire of reading (it’s a lot darker and more substantial than the fuffy movie based on it), my Duras collection. Lots of big, fat dictionaries (I may be a geek, but I’m a Luddite when it comes to dictionaries. It’s a sensual thing; I love their weight, the feel of that thin paper, the sounds of the pages turning and flipping and slapping, the way they smell…).

I never really understood why people collect books. For me, it’s not about having a book, it’s about experiencing it and sharing it. I knew one guy who had a massive collection of old books. He was a compulsive collector and very into impressing people too. I’ve also known people who get bent out of shape if you place a paperback face down and open. Paperbacks are meant to be kneaded and taken into the tub and fallen asleep on and shoved into pockets. That I don’t get.

I really started this post just to tell you about a free book-trading website Vincent discovered called BookMooch. I got a little sidetracked. Hope you don’t mind.

Basically, you create an account, list books you want to trade, and search other people’s book lists to see if there are any books you’d like to have. It’s all free. All you have to pay for is mailing your books to others. There’s a points system too, based on how many titles you list to give away. I think with points you can get more books than you’re giving away.

I haven’t joined BookMooch yet, but I plan to. It looks like there are already members worldwide and over a thousand books available in France. I’ll be sending out a couple of e-mails to see if I can start some buzz in the anglophone bookworm community here so we can get some book trading going…


There was a glitzy blockbuster movie out in France recently about Edith Piaf, the tiny French singer they called “The Sparrow.” I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m dying to. Her life makes a compelling story; rags to riches to rags to icon. I’ve always loved her; she’s part of your basic, no-frills Francophile package.

But when you upgrade to the deluxe Francophile package, you get another diminutive icon (pictured above) whose life was even more remarkable and whose legacy doesn’t need remastering…

I’m talking about Marguerite Duras. Yesterday was her birthday (which my humanities prof uncle e-mailed me to tell me yesterday). When she died on March 3rd, 1996, she was the most widely taught living author on the planet. Somebody called me to tell me she’d died that day, so I watched Peter Jennings (ABC News) that night. Not a word.

What that says about American “culture” is nothing we don’t already know. But this is not about the shortcomings of America for a change. It’s just about Marguerite Duras. (Although I couldn’t resist getting that little dig in, could I?)

She was born in 1914 in French Indochina, where she spent her childhood like a wild creature. She grew up in poverty. Her father died when she was four, and she was raised by her mother, who was a real nutcase. She had two older brothers, one an abusive delinquent and another who was slightly mentally retarded. Her mother doted on the bad seed and utterly neglected the other two. She was always extremely attached to her slow brother; the two were so close that they ended up in a sexual relationship at some point in their teens. She had a rich, older Chinese lover when she was in high school. She returned to Paris as a young woman and went to the Sorbonne. Her first husband was sent to Dachau and barely survived. She nursed him back to health when he was freed. She fought in the French Resistance, became a communist and later left the communist party. She had a son with her second husband. She was an alcoholic for many years and then she wasn’t. She went into a coma due to emphysema and came out of it unscathed a few months later. In later life, until her death, she lived with a much younger man, Yann Andrea Steiner, a homosexual and her soul mate. She wrote from the time she was 10 until she died.

Now that’s movie material. The good news is she wrote about all of it.

To say she’s my favorite author really doesn’t cut it. I can’t place her in the same favorites category occupied by colors and ice cream flavors. There just are no words to describe what her writing does for me. But it’s a lot more than chocolate ice cream.

It’s criminal to nutshell Duras, but for you, I’ll try.

Basically, her art lay in her use of denuded language to provoke an intense emotional response and in her ability to defamiliarize the reader, or keep him from being comfortably seduced by the story line. Her novels typically lack much in the way of character development or narrative, and her dialogue is cryptic. The way she manipulated language was downright subversive. She plays with verb tense and repetition to create a dizzying, 360-degree temporal pan of a moment, with dips and lurches like an Oliver Stone camera shot. She forces you to circle that moment until she’s good and ready to let you go, at which point she usually drops you without warning. She can keep you lingering, mesmerized, in a close-up of a wilting flower in a woman’s cleavage, and then she’ll abruptly yank you outside, where you’re hovering above a beach bathed in moonlight and the smell of flowers. She keeps her readers so off balance that they often feel something bordering on panic.

She is a deity.

Most people I’ve met who’ve read Duras either love her or hate her. The French husband of an American friend of mine is in the latter category. One night at dinner, he said “She is the most boring writer I’ve ever read!” and provided this example: “I’m thinking of moving my hand. I may move my hand. I’m going to move my hand. I’m moving my hand. I moved my hand.” He cracked me up! But it’s really not that bad. He had to read her in high school. We all know how well that works.

Duras is considered to be the most important of the new novelists (when she died, François Mitterand said she was to 20th-century literature what Victor Hugo was to 19th). If you’re interested in reading something of hers, I recommend my favorite, Moderato Cantabile (the dinner party chapter is sublime; that’s where you’ll find the flower and beach scenes) or The Lover for starters.

She also made movies, wrote plays and screenplays, and more. Her body of work is so enormous that I can’t even begin to talk about it here.

I hope you’ll read some Duras and let me know what you think!


I sent in a poem to The New Yorker a few weeks ago. (I know, who do I think I am anyway?) I figured what the hell, you never know. I was bored and did it on a whim. That’s kind of how I operate in general.

I’ve pretty much always dismissed TNY poetry for drippy, tepid pap. Could never stomach it. And I could never read most of them without feeling the presence of the pompous, prissy and/or pretentious poets looking over my shoulder narcissistically reading along with me. I got to the point where I would avert my eyes when there was a poem on a New Yorker page, the way I do when I see lions catching zebras on TV. Every now and then, a couple times a year, I’d think “they can’t all be that bad” so I’d read one, gag, and kick myself for masochism.

So they e-mailed me a rejection, as I expected, but it was enough to think that somebody at THE The New Yorker might have read my little poem. No guarantee that actually happened, of course, but I can dream.

This morning, evidently, there’s a big scandal in the poetry world (about which I know nothing, I might add). Basically there was a TNY article that was criticized by a New York Times article for being biased bullshit. The poetry feud is explained in this Huffington Post article if you’re curious.

This is an excerpt from the New York Times essay by David Orr:

The New Yorker tends to run bad poems by excellent poets. This occurs in part because the magazine has to take Big Names, but many Big Names don’t work in ways that are palatable to The New Yorker’s vast audience (in addition, many well-known poets don’t write what’s known in the poetry world as “the New Yorker poem” — basically an epiphany-centered lyric heavy on words like “water” and “light”). As a result, you get fine writers trying on a style that doesn’t suit them. The Irish poet Michael Longley writes powerful, earthy yet cerebral lines, but you wouldn’t know it from his New Yorker poem “For My Grandson”: “Did you hear the wind in the fluffy chimney?” Yes, the fluffy chimney.

Since one is generally expected to say “The New Yorker” with a hushed and preferably nasal voice accompanied by a knowing expression to prove that one is among the rare few with the attention span, vocabulary, and sophistication to read the magazine, it was nice to see somebody else finally comment on the crap poetry in the sacrosanct publication.

Thank you, David. I feel vindicated. “Fluffy chimney” is gag-worthy, indeed. But now that I think about it, the poem I submitted had epiphany, water, and light. I guess it was that I lacked the name. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the poem sucked, too.

I do have to say that there was one TNY poem I read that so blew me away that I’ve carried it around since my son was about eight. It was on my fridge for years and now it lives in a keepsake file. I even sent copies of it out with my son’s high-school graduation announcements. It’s my favorite TNY poem ever.

If you are a parent and not a reptile, you’ll appreciate it.


It started before Christmas. Now our son
officially walks to school alone.
Semi-alone, it’s accurate to say:
I or his father track him on the way.
He walks up on the east side of West End,
we on the west side. Glances can extend
(and do) across the street; not eye contact.
Already ties are feeling and not fact.
Straus Park is where these parallel paths part;
he goes alone from there. The watcher’s heart
stretches, elastic in its love and fear,
toward him as we see him disappear,
striding briskly. Where two weeks ago,
holding a hand, he’d dawdle, dreamy, slow,
he now is hustled forward by the pull
of something far more powerful than school.

The mornings we turn back to are no more
than forty minutes longer than before,
but they feel vastly different—flimsy, strange,
wavering in the eddies of this change,
empty, unanchored, perilously light
since the red hat vanished from our sight.

—Rachel Hadas

You can buy Rachel Hadas’ selected and recent works on her website.

I gathered from these articles that the problem with TNY poetry is that they care more about the poet than the poem. A shame but not a surprise. That’s the way it works everywhere, I guess.

If only the poems were as extraordinary as the cartoons!

Thanks to serendipity and a generous anonymous benefactor, it looks like I’m going to the annual Paris Writer’s Workshop in July! But I’ll be attending the novel workshop, not the poetry workshop…


Brian Turner, an infantry officer who served in Iraq for a year, wrote an incredible poem called Here, bullet, which I first read weeks ago on boingboing. He has published this and other poems in a book by the same title.

Here is another poem of his. The title means “friend” in Arabic. The poem is prefaced with a quotation from Sa’di, a 13th century Persian poet.

It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.

It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what god shines down on you, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend,
it should break your heart to kill.

American media won’t show the caskets or ravaged bodies of the wounded, so it’s easy for Americans to ignore what’s happening. Thanks to this poet, at least we can see what war does to a soldier’s heart.

I found this poem in a Salon article entitled Where’s the Outrage? It’s a question you should all be asking yourselves. The article says one of the reasons why there is no serious anti-war movement in the US is that there is no longer a draft. The author suggests that only a draft would get people to take to the streets. As it is, since generally only poor and clueless kids are enlisting in the military, the comfortable classes have no motivation to protest. The draft was the last remaining check against delusional governments engaging in meaningless wars.

This argument makes so much sense to me that I almost want the draft reinstated. Bush doesn’t have the 20,000 troops he needs for his surge. However, even if the draft were reinstated, Bush’s constituents, “the haves and the have-mores,” still wouldn’t suffer, unfortunately. They’d just make a call or two to an influential pal, write a check… You know the drill.

That would leave the middle class to bear the responsibility of protesting the war. The ones with draft-age kids are old enough to remember Vietnam and many of them probably protested against that war.

This war should break their hearts.

But from what I’ve seen, nowadays they’re too busy getting their cars and legs waxed to be bothered.