new york march 2011

In New York last weekend, Cal and I saw Memphis, the 2010 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical. It was GREAT!

Saturday, we ate breakfast outside (despite the cold weather) at Sarabeth’s on the park.

At The Museum of Modern Art, we saw:

  • Picasso Guitars 1912-1914,
  • Andy Warhol Motion Pictures–12 or 14 giant screens, showing facial close-ups,
  • and an exhibit on Abstract Expressionist New York, featuring Jackson Pollack.

In striking contrast to Picasso’s assurance was Pollack’s self-doubt. About the metal sculpture Picasso made of a guitar, people asked, “What is it, painting or sculpture?” Picasso answered, “It’s nothing, it’s el guitare!” On the other hand, “once, after completing a new piece, Pollack asked his wife, Lee Krasner, ‘Is this a painting?'”

Saturday night was the revival of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which I was glad to see but which was somewhat tedious, both in dialogue and acting. Also, the actors whose performances I enjoyed most were the ones with whom the critics found the most fault.

Sunday was a 3-hour walk from Times Square to Soho and then brunch at Commerce, a wonderful little restaurant tucked into a residential neighborhood in Greenwich Village, large murals by David Joel. I highly recommend the doughnuts.

Monday morning was a blur of rain and umbrellas as I headed for the airport, full of inspiration and good food.

Tied with Memphis for my favorite part of the trip was seeing Picasso’s obsession with guitars and seeing how each expression was different from, and fed on or off of, the others. A digital version of his sketchbook was available.

Chad Kimball sings “Memphis Lives in Me:”

the squad: goon 3

Each chapter of Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad can stand alone as a story, but united, these chapters took my breath away. I got chills as I discovered yet another connection between them: Characters who age and reappear. Younger selves revealed. Shadows filled in. Events alluded to that come to pass. The language itself (Chapter 13 is called “Pure Language.)

The subject of time and what it does to us is threaded throughout Goon Squad. From Chapter 3: “Ask Me If I Care:”

Lou looks so happy, surrounded by his kids like any normal dad, that I can’t believe this Lou with us is the very same Lou.

From Chapter 5: “You (Plural):”

My questions all seem wrong: How did you get so old? Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit?”

From Chapter 11: “Goodbye, My Love:”

“Let’s make sure it’s always like this.” Ted knew exactly why she’d said it…because she’d felt the passage of time.

From Chapter 13: “Pure Language:”

What he needed was to find fifty more people like him, who had stopped being themselves without realizing it.

And in that moment, the longing he’d felt for Sasha at last assumed a clear shape: Alex imagined walking into her apartment and finding himself still there—his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.

And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing.

In addition to time, A Visit From the Goon Squad is also about music. The book is divided into Side A and Side B, recalling 33s and 45s. The main character, Bennie Salazar, founded the Sow’s Ear record label. In my previous post, I quoted an excerpt that mentions, in the same paragraph, Bennie and a Jets game–a subtle reference to Elton John’s song.

Chapter 12 is Alison’s (the daughter of Sasha who worked for Bennie) power point presentation on “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.” This 75-page slide show is stunning in its juxtaposition of word restraint and emotional impact.

In addition to the surface, there’s below the surface, before the surface, after… From Chapter 6: “X’s and O’s:”

I’d said something literally, yes, but underneath that I’d said something else: we were both a couple of asswipes, and now only I’m an asswipe; why? And underneath that, something else: once and asswipe, always an asswipe. And deepest of all: You were the one chasing. But she picked me.

E. M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “Music … does offer in its final expression a type of beauty which fiction might achieve in its own way … and when we have finished does not every item…lead a larger existence than was possible at the time?”

Final post in a series of three on Jennifer Egan’s award-winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad: first post and second post.

*cross-posted at The Contrary Blog

Pure Egan

In her selected shorts interview, Jennifer Egan talked about how, years ago, she abandoned a story because she couldn’t find any way to rein in the material. Well, in A Visit From the Goon Squad, Egan is the master of compression.

In Chapter 1, she creates a shortcut based on a time period idiosyncratic to the story.

Prewallet, Sasha had been in the grip of a dire evening: lame date (yet another) brooding behind dark bangs, sometimes glancing at the flat-screen TV, where a Jets game seemed to interest him more than Sasha’s admittedly overhandled tales of Bennie Salazar, her old boss, who was famous for founding the Sow’s Ear record label and who also (Sasha happened to know) sprinkled gold flakes into his coffee—as an aphrodisiac, she suspected—and sprayed pesticide in his armpits.

Later in the story, she uses the term postwallet. These terms cut down on word bulk, making the story tighter. Egan will use such a shortcut again in Chapter 4, “Safari,”—postcoffee.

Also in “Safari,” Egan uses a technique that she herself specifically referred to in the interview as a shortcut:

It’s Cora, Lou’s travel agent. She hates Mindy, but Mindy doesn’t take it personally—it’s Structural Hatred, a term she coined herself and is finding highly useful on this trip. A single woman in her forties who wears high-collared shirts to conceal the thready sinews of her neck will structurally despise the twenty-three-year-old girlfriend of a powerful male who not only employs said middle-aged female but is paying her way on this trip.

On the next page, Egan uses the terms Structural Resentment, Structural Affection, Structural Incompatibility, and Structural Desire. The use of these terms is also brilliant characterization of Mindy:

And keeping Lou’s children happy, or as close to happy as is structurally possible, is part of Mindy’s job.”

Later in this story, Egan will use the term Structural Dissatisfaction, threading the shortcut throughout the chapter and reinforcing the coherent fictional world she is creating in this particular story.

In this same chapter, Egan again shows how quickly a character’s life can be told by connecting it to an image. Here, she shapes the key elements of Lou’s past into a contrail, short itself for condensation trail, the artificial cloud line created by the exhaust of an airplane:

Lou is one of those men whose restless charm has generated a contrail of personal upheaval that is practically visible behind him: two failed marriages and two more kids back home in LA, who were too young to bring on this three-week safari. This safari is a new business venture of Lou’s old army buddy, Ramsey, with whom he drank and misbehaved, having barely avoided Korea almost twenty years ago.

Pure Egan.

Second post in a series of three on Jennifer Egan’s award-winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. For the first post, click here.

cross-posted at The Contrary Blog

you gonna let that goon push you around?

As some of you may know from my recent post, last week, Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. This morning it was also long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is brilliant. It’s not a novel in the traditional sense. The chapters can be read and appreciated as stand-alone pieces. In fact, four have been published that way: “Selling the General” in the anthology This Is Not Chick Lit published in 2006; and three in The New Yorker: “Found Objects” (Chapter 1) in the December 10, 2007 issue, “Safari” (Chapter 4) in the January 11, 2010 issue, and “Ask Me If I Care” (Chapter 3) in the March 8, 2010 issue.

In her review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin is unsure whether the book is “a novel, a collection of carefully arranged interlocking stories or simply a display of Ms. Egan’s extreme virtuosity.” In an interview on Selected Shorts, Jennifer Egan referred to sections of her book as stories and also as chapters of a longer book.

Regardless of their severability, when read as pieces of a longer work, they shine–oh, they shine. Like separate parts of the universe talking to each other.

The chapters move backward and forward, and part of the pleasure of reading each one is to figure out where we are in time. From Chapter 13: “Pure Language:”

Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?

And there are sufficient clues—dates, ages, references to events we’ve read about in other chapters—that the reader enjoys the challenge and never feels frustrated. And after all we should struggle with time, for that is the subject of the book. Time. Who we were then, who we are now, and how we got from there to here—from side A to side B.

From Chapter 7: “A to B:”

The album’s called A to B, right? Bosco said. “And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about? Let’s not pretend it didn’t happen.

In the same Selected Shorts interview, Egan said, “And one of the principles of the longer book is that each chapter had to be written in a very different way technically from all the others.”

Because each of the chapters has its own separate sound, when they all play together, the result is the answer to E. M. Forster’s question in Aspects of the Novel:

Is there any effect in novels comparable to the effect of the Fifth Symphony as a whole, where, when the orchestra stops, we hear something that has never actually been played?


The first in a series of posts on A Visit From the Goon Squad. For the second post, click Pure Egan.

cross-posted at The Contrary Blog

dear latimes: this is a photo of Jennifer Egan

Dear Los Angeles Times,

Regarding your headlines* today on the National Book Critics Circle Awards, the photo you posted is not Jennifer Egan. In addition, I would also like to point out that you mention the name of Mr. Franzen’s novel, the one that didn’t win but it’s true was written by a male, while you merely allude to the novel that in fact won the award as “work.” Granted, A Visit From the Goon Squad has more words in it, but it did win. May I suggest the following changes:

Egan Wins National Book Critics Circle’s fiction prize

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad bests Jonathan Franzen’s work. The nonfiction award goes to ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.’




cross-posted on The Contrary Blog

roswell reads

Roswell, Georgia, a small city rich in history on the north side of Atlanta, chose Robin Oliveira’s first novel, My Name is Mary Sutter, as their Sixth Annual Roswell Reads Selection. At a reception for Robin Friday night, which included delicious gluten-free cupcakes and lots of conversation about reading, committee members told me they had wanted to choose a book by a woman and also one that touched on the Civil War, this year being the 150th anniversary of its beginning.

The read began in February and all sort of events took place around it, including civil war reenactments, “Follow Your Dream” photography contests, and weekend discussions. Previous selections included Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and Terry Kay’s The Valley of Light.

The Archibald Smith Plantation, the location of the reception, was built around 1845 and is in wonderful condition, the rooms filled with Civil War trunks, slave-made baskets, corn-husk dolls, and two of the first TVs. And more… Apparently there is some value in never getting rid of anything. When the last of the family members died, the house was bequeathed to the housekeeper, Mamie Cotton, who lived in it until she died. True to the period, I had to go outside to the bathroom.

At her talk at a Literary Luncheon on Saturday to over a hundred people, Robin received a standing ovation.

Schenectady County, New York, also chose Robin’s book for their community read, which takes place in April. Robin will speak there on April 9th.

How We Spend Our Days: Summer Wood

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Summer Wood:

photo by Dorie Hagler

This morning, February 15, what I write in the notebook is: RELEASE DAY.

Which means that, as ordinary as this day might seem on the surface – sky mostly blue, air still winter-cold, woodpile dwindling but the first glimpses of migrating songbirds promising warmth to come – this day has a special shine for me. Ten years after I scribbled its first words in my notebook on a morning a lot like this one, my second novel ships. It’s out the warehouse door, today, headed for bookstores and mailboxes.

It feels good. Really good. And to celebrate, today, I drink the coffee. Take the shower. Walk the dog. Open the notebook. Because the only way I reached this day was to have all those days that came before.


I drink the coffee. I make it strong enough to jump start my sleep-mired electrical system, and one good cup in the morning lifts me enough to move forward – but not far enough to run in circles, which is what two will do. I’ve learned how deeply what I consume affects what I produce, and try to steer clear of the obvious pitfalls: the easy afternoon boost of caffeine that exacts its revenge in hours of late night sleeplessness; too many Wheat Thins (because, oh! That crunch!); the allure of a glass of wine and then another and another when I want to celebrate how well the writing has gone – or be consoled at how poorly.

I do eat Wheat Thins. I drink wine. Sometimes I even go for the short cup of coffee at 3pm because I’m willing to pay the price to blast through to the end of a chapter or a story. But the only way I can sustain for the long run is to moderate these impulses. So, like the good construction worker I used to be, I pack a lunch and I get to work.

I take the shower. I make a clear distinction between down days – when I can laze around the house in sweatpants and slippers – and work days, which require socks and shoes and clothes with waistbands and, yes, a bra. I cannot write fiction without a bra. (Poetry, yes, but that’s a different story.) I know there are writers who do superb work in bare feet and boxer shorts. I’m not one of them. If I have a phone meeting with my agent or editor, I might even dress up. Most days, working from home, I don’t see anyone but my family, so this dressing business seems silly even to me – but it helps send my brain the message that something is at stake. There’s work to do. Get cracking.

I walk the dog. Half for his sake – he needs this, and it’s our agreement – and half for mine. If I don’t walk, I don’t know where I am. It grounds me to move my body briskly out in the world. The exercise feels good, sure, but even more I love the kind of thinking that accompanies it. I could run and be done quicker, but walking sets a pace my thoughts can keep up with. Trudging up hills, pacing along a trail, even ambling along city streets, there’s something good about renewing my connection with the terrain that claims me. He pees on things. I refrain from that, but mark the territory in other ways: by conveying its details to the page.

I open the notebook. On days like today, full of human interactions and the kind of commitments that accrue with a new book, there’s not a lot of time to sit in the company of a blank page. Lately, being an author bumps doing the writing to the back seat. Still, there’s nothing else like it: that brand-fresh-new feeling of making something from nothing. The magic of having words – good, bad, I don’t even care – manifest out of breath and ink and memory and imagination. It’s why the author stuff exists, and why I bother with any of it. Because nothing is ever guaranteed, but every time I open the notebook, anything can happen.

Today Wrecker ships. In another day or two, people will hold it in their hands, will open its lovely cover, and start to read.

On those days, too – just as on all the days that led to its creation – I’ll wake up, drink the coffee, take the shower, walk the dog, and open the notebook.

Because I’ve learned that all I have to do is make the opening, prepare the way, and let come what may – and that the thing itself, the doing of it, is the biggest reward there is.


1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • I just finished The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich. I love her work, and this one is no exception. I’ve had it on my bookshelf for a long time and wanted to read something that I knew would deliver me deeply to the natural world. It did the job.

2.Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?

  • When you think you’re finished for the day – all wrung out – go a little further. Write a little more, with no expectations of quality or anything else. Just do it. I surprise myself with what comes out when I’ve finished my work and just let myself play.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • I nap a lot while writing. Okay? The truth is out. And I’m embarrassed, but not enough to stop doing it. Maybe if I called it a “fugue state” I could garner more sympathy, but the truth is, it looks a lot like sleeping on the job.

Books by Summer Wood: