books and writing

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Let me share some thoughts I had yesterday, as I was taking my daily walk. I finished reading ‘Drop City’ by T.C. Boyle this week, and I consider it a really fine book. But strangely enough, I almost stopped reading it about a quarter of the way in. And since that book, I’ve been reading another one; ‘A Ticket to the Circus’ by Norris Church Mailer. This second one is basically an autobiography, in which Norman Mailer plays a very important role. And so, a lot of my thoughts were related to Mailer as a writer.

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But first, let’s look at ‘Drop City’. This book did not get a lot of rave reviews, and even before I started reading, I encountered a some criticism concerning the way he described the hippie commune. As it happened, I spent some time in California during the 60s, and had the advantage of visiting a number of communes at that time, as well as making friends among the hippies. When I started reading his book, I too felt that the descriptions of the hippie commune was inaccurate, and that the commune members seemed closer to the stereotype of the lazy hippie who’s interested only in sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.

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But as I continued to read, I realized that these weren’t the hippies of the 60s who’d tried to build a new culture based on alternative values. These were the hippies of the 70s, at a time when there was a drift towards decadence, and many of the original pioneers had already gone on to build their personal lives, and had given up on some of the original ideals of the 60s. What’s more, there was a counterpoint in the narrative. Alongside of the hippies, Boyle presents us with the highly independent and slightly anarchic pioneers in Alaska. What we get is really a comparison between two paths towards a more ‘natural’ life style, where freedom is most important, and there is less need to accommodate the conventions of the establishment. By the end of the book, I felt that he had offered us some very important lessons in self reliance, freedom, and the commitment needed to going ‘back to nature’. I liked the resolutions of the different problems and conflicts in the story. It’s a book I can recommend.

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As I have said previously, Boyle has a way with words. He expresses himself beautifully, and can paint a fascinating and intriguing picture in words. This has been true in all three of his books that I read. And after reading this one, I will be reading more of his work. There are some writers whose talent lies chiefly in their ability to bring a scene to life; in their elegant use of the language. I have read works where the writing itself was more important than the story; where the prose was so beautiful, that reading was as much a pleasure as listening to music. But to me, what is more important than all the rest, is having something to say. I’m not looking for a ‘page turner’. Nor do I wish to sit on the edge of my seat. I like something to think about.

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Among the criticisms that I encountered regarding ‘Ticket to the Circus’ were complaints that Norris Church had written too much about herself, and in too great detail. That what was interesting was what we could learn about Norman Mailer, the celebrity author. I can understand this complaint, because there are parts in the beginning of this book that just aren’t that interesting. But I do believe that Norris was very straight forward and open with her readers, and we get to know who she is as a person. And so it is easier for us to understand how she saw Mailer, and gives a lot of credence to her narrative. And of course, once she starts describing her life with Mailer, it becomes very interesting; especially for those who read a lot of his writing. It’s the sort of book I would only recommend to those who really loved Norman Mailer. And to the rest of the reading public, I’d suggest reading Mailer himself.

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To those who are unfamiliar with Mailer, I would recommend, as in introduction, the first column of ‘Quickly: A column for slow readers’, which was included in his book ‘Advertisements for Myself’. And after that, maybe the fiction that is listed in the second table of contents of that same book. Mailer could tell a story well, as he did in ‘Naked and the Dead’, ‘American Dream’, ‘Why are We in Vietnam’, and ‘Harlot’s Ghost’. But he was always thinking, and had a very crystallized set of values, which could be found in all his writing. I believe that he revolutionized the profession of journalism by writing about topical subjects from an extremely subjective point of view. Before that, journalists tried to present themselves as objective… even if they weren’t. And since his pioneering efforts, most of journalism has become subjective, and often we are exposed to an egoistical display. I don’t think the change in journalism was great, though. But it did encourage writers to make a commitment, when it came to values. Some criticized Mailer, saying that he was such an egomaniac, that he indulged himself in casual pronouncements, when he should have dug deeper. But though I don’t agree with all of his ideas or values, I do think he was thought provoking.

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This week’s photos are from my walk in the park. I got a kick out of watching the shy rock badgers visiting the public park to enjoy the grass. This is rather rare. When they see people, they flee.

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59 responses to “books and writing

  1. I don’t know this books, so it was nice to read and to meet. Photographs are so nice, especially this lovely black cat 🙂 Thank you dear Shimon, the weather seems so nice there. Have a nice weekend and a new week, love, nia

    • The weather is beautiful, and the scenery full of fall colors. It’s a great pleasure walking around these days, Nia. And of course, the cats are celebrating, and the birds too, seem to be in a good mood these days. Thanks for your comment, and my best wishes to you.

  2. It’s interesting how you use your daily walks to solitude and thinking … thus I find your posts refreshing and causing me to reflect.

  3. Thanks for the suggestions and your ever thoughtful commentary.

  4. Thank you, as always, for your insights, Shimon. I like Boyle but was always kind of repelled by Mailer’s forceful and, to be fair, seeming, egotism…perhaps I’ll have to give him another chance. I thought he imitated Capote’s In Cold Blood approach to writing and became too focused on being a “personality.” I have a distaste for men who barge through life and whose behavior and comments feel sexist; Mailer always came across that way to me. He came from a period where what men had to say in their novels was apparently believed to be so very much more important than women’s voices, and I think we’re still suffering from the imbalance. Still, today, women who write are called “women writers,” as though their writing is connected to their gender in a way a man’s writing is not connected to his. Or their books are grouped together and disparaged as “chick lit.”

    But maybe I’ve reached a point where I can be more open to Mailer’s writing. We shall see…Thanks for the invitation.

    • You’ve brought up a number of points that I think are very important, Kitty. Regarding Mailer’s personality, I have nothing to say. He’s not a personal hero of mine, and he’s done some things which I can’t agree with at all. But when relating to works of art, I don’t delve into the personality of the artist… because I would probably have reservations about a lot of people. Taste is an important factor too. If an artist is not to my taste, then it doesn’t matter to me if all the world thinks his work is wonderful. In the case of Mailer, ‘The Executioner’s Song was not an imitation of ‘Cold blood’, but the reverse. He was examining the same situation from a different philosophical point of view. Though I think some of his works are literary failures, what draws me to him is that he is primarily a philosopher. And most of his works are philosophical examinations of human behavior and attitude. Since most of the writers, until the mid 20th century were men, it made sense to identify women writers as a unique category in the second half of that century. I myself, looked for ‘women writers’ at a certain stage, because I wanted to discover if there were certain strengths that could be identified with the woman’s point of view. But on the whole, I believe that the differences between thinkers and story tellers as individuals are much greater than the differences between male and female writers as two separate categories. I don’t see any reason to disparage the work of women. Anyone who does so, is in fact publicizing his own weakness and prejudice. There will always be loudmouth ignoramuses among us, and they will shout nigger and faggot and chic lit. And if I show outrage, I will be satisfying his desire to be the local bad boy. I choose those with whom I wish to discuss matters of mutual interest, and prefer to ignore the oaf who uses vulgarity to gain attention. No need to make an effort to read Mailer. I’m sure there are plenty of others, more to your taste, that you can find. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts on this with me, Kitty. It is always a pleasure talking with you.

  5. Cool that you spotted rock badgers. They are exotic to me.

    Norman Mailer is an author that I have wanted to read more of. So far I’ve only read The Castle in the Forest. It is creepy, disturbing and yet at the same time I couldn’t stop reading. Wrote a post about it before here: http://plumerainbow.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/the-castle-in-the-forest-by-norman-mailer/

    I like it when people share what they are reading. Gives me a few ideas on what to explore next. Alas, I have ordered too many books this year that are still left unread.

    • Glad you liked the pictures of the rock badgers. I’ve written about them before, and if you’re interested you can find them by writing ‘rock badger’ in the search box on my blog. They are native to parts of Africa and the middle east, and are quite common here, though they usually stay away from human beings. Thank you for sharing with me your post on Castle in the Forest. I didn’t read the book, and won’t read it, because it is a sore subject for me. However, I did read an excellent review of the book which you can find here: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/21/books/review/Siegel.t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  6. Thank you for taking us on your walk with you, Shimon. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts as well as seeing what you were seeing at the same time you were thinking them.

    • It’s a beautiful time of the year… and it’s good to contemplate while looking at nature. Reading, watching movies… they monopolize the eyes and the thoughts together. So some of my best thinking takes place in the shower… or when taking a long walk. Thanks for your comment, Naomi.

  7. I can relate to Norris’ book in many ways … she said it all … Norman on the other hand … what a piece of work he was … phew … cute little buggars, those badgers of yours … smiles …

    • I found Norris to be a very straight forward and believable person. But I can’t say I found it that easy to relate to what attracted her in life. On the other hand, Norman was probably hard to live with, but as she herself said, he was intelligent, entertaining, and made life interesting. As for the badgers… Yes, they’re very intelligent too, and lots of fun to watch.

  8. I like thought provoking in a book, and I like something to think about.after I’ve finished reading.
    I may give some of these a whirl as I haven’t read them, you are setting a great list for me to enjoy over the winter months when I love to devour books by candlelight.

    Oh how I enjoyed your shy little rock badgers, what strange little creatures!
    I can’t work out what they look like, certainly not like ours [I was badger watching in the lakes] they almost look like giant guinea pigs….amazing.
    Do they live in burrows? Ours are nocturnal whereas yours seem happy to be out in the daylight. What do they eat? the Fifth pic is brilliant, it almost looks like it is skipping along.Wonderful to see so many together.xxxx

    • Not just after… my experience with Mailer is that he keeps me on my toes right through his stories. His musings are of a philosophical nature. He’s self indulgent, though, and that what some people can’t stand about him… and an alpha male… which other folks don’t care for… and given to fantasy… which I find tedious at times. Reading books by candlelight sounds very romantic. I did it for a while myself, many years ago. I was trying to see if it was healthier to actually feel the difference between day and night. I had this theory at the time, that it was unnatural for the human being to be in bright light till midnight. After a number of months, I reconciled myself with the fact that it was easier… These animals, the rock badgers are more like miniature elephants than giant guinea pigs. If you put the words ‘rock badger’ in the search box of this blog, you will find more that I’ve written about them. They fascinate me because they are so intelligent… live in tribal style, with different roles to play, and are very shy of people. Yesterday, I got together with another one, but the moment I raised my camera, he disappeared. It’s frustrating at times. But I have a lot of patience. You know, I always enjoy your comments, Dina. xxx

      • I just remembered that you asked if they live in burrows. No, they live among boulders usually, hence their name. But they also climb trees, and adapt to different sceneries. It is really a pleasure watching them.

        • I would enjoy watching them too, and I remember the other posts you have written about them, but they never fail to take me by surprise…. our native badgers are so different aren’t they….and yours climb trees….how marvelous…I think I’d be hanging out in your park a lot…..and nothing would get done….but I’d be sooooooooooo happy! I think my next post shall be about badgers….you’d enjoy them very much too Shimon…..xxxx

  9. Thank you for introduce us Boyle’s writing. It’s interesting to know the difference of hippies between 60s and 70s. Lovely photos 🙂

    • I can’t help wondering if there are any hippies left today, Amy. I suppose there are probably some old hippies around, still playing at being Indians… but are there any young ones, I wonder. Glad you enjoyed the photos.

  10. You already know most of that was over my head because of my need to follow surgical and scientific literature. I am impressed, however that you could glean so much intellect/personality from your reading. Only rarely would that be seen in my level of reading. And thanks for mentioning what those critters are as I’ve not seen them before.

    • They’re amazing little animals. Very intelligent, and different members of the herd have different roles to play. I love spending time with them. But they are very shy. Yesterday I was talking to one of them, and he was quite friendly till I raised my camera in his direction. Then he disappeared. Not surprised you haven’t seen them. They are native to Africa and the middle east, and I don’t believe there are any of them in the Americas. But for us, they are kind of like rabbits… though genetically they are closer to elephants. They are of the same family. Thanks, Bob, for your comment.

  11. Like. Not a Mailer fan. Don’t know Boyle. Do love the rock badgers though. 🙂 Have a great weekend, Shimon!

    • There are a lot of people who can’t stand Mailer. And Boyle can be challenging too. But he’s a lot more modest than Mailer. The rock badgers are shy, but very intelligent. They don’t write though, so one has to get together with them personally in order to enjoy their wisdom. Thank you very much for your good wishes, George.

  12. Ha, Norman Mailer, not an author I was enthused to read; maybe I should try your recommendation ‘Ticket to the Circus’ then have another go.
    Interesting as always Shimon.

    Finished E=Mc2 ‘Brian Cox’ closed the book, gathered all the bits of paper I had used for jumping back a fore in the book (can’t seem to easily do that with an EBook reader – maybe my ineptitude 🙂 ) such an amazing world we live in. I shall never be able to give someone the time again without thinking (it depends on from where you’re asking)
    Back to ‘The Cairo Trilogy’ Naguib Mahfouz.

    David.

    • I don’t know if you would enjoy ‘Ticket to the Circus’ if you don’t care for Mailer. I didn’t find her all that interesting. What grabbed me about the book, was getting to know Mailer more personally. He is something of a philosopher, and I have enjoyed some of his writing, though not everything. He went to Harvard at age 16, and studied engineering, and was an officer in WWII, but was a little full of himself ever after. He belongs to the school of the existentialists. The book by Cox sounds good. And yes, time is a fascinating subject for meditation… on a whole lot of levels. I have managed to go back and forth with an ebook reader, but I make a lot of use of bookmarks and highlights. I did read a bit of Mahfouz in the 70s, I think it was. Thanks for your comment, David.

  13. BTW, I downloaded “Drop City” based on your review. Sterling reviews, both. You are a man of endless talents, Shimon. A Renaissance man if I ever knew one. I think you may be among the last of your ilk.

    • Oy vey… now I’ll feel responsible if you don’t like the book. But do tell me what you think of it, George. And thank you so much for your kind words. But you’re right, probably… this century has no patience for wide interests. One has to be a specialist. Good thing I’m old, and be going on my way soon.

      • If you thought it was worth your time, it’s worth mine. Neither of us has a great deal of time left! We’d better make the best of it. Chuckle… I’ll let you know when I’ve read it.

  14. Shimon,
    I appreciate your reviews. It’s nice to find a book that is well-written AND has something to say. And this looked like a Flash-mob of rock badgers – from what you’ve shared, it seems quite unusual!
    Cathy

    • Yes, Cathy. They are wary of human beings and other large animals… a sign of their intelligence… which is also one of their most distinctive characteristics. They belong to the elephant family, genetically, and are fun to watch. Thanks for your comment.

  15. An interesting read as every Shimon. Thank you for sharing this.

  16. Really interesting reviews, Shimon – I read one and a half TC Boyles and gave up (admittedly about a decade ago), but I think I’ll give him another go based on what you say about Drop City.

    • Ps thanks for the intro to rock badgers.

      • Glad you like them. I find them fascinating. They are known here for their shy nature, but I’ve had very good luck with them. Even so, they usually don’t care to be photographed.

    • Interesting which books you read, Richard. I’ve read three books by him so far, and I’m still not sure of him, but I do like his writing style. I plan to read another but don’t know which… I think I saw a movie based on one of his books, but that was some time ago. Thanks for the comment.

  17. I never read Mailer in my days with good vision (and detest audio books), but the ’60s is the decade I love the most in the US. How interesting that you lived in CA in the ’60s. I had wanted to know about your travels and how you write in English so well. To see CA in the ’60s would be my dream. In my hometown of Seattle, there were always hippies and I think many did change in time and the rest just joined the masses, although we had some leftover hippies who never changed, as well as communes until the ’80s at least. I still love their dreams of a better society. I’m also fascinated by the badgers as I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one and was wondering if I was just having a really bad vision day until I read what they were. What exciting walks you have! You should see my neighborhood, which is so dangerous you just don’t go outside. Well, I’ll live vicariously through your blog, Shimon.
    Leah x

    • I can understand your attitude towards audio books. A number of people suggested that I try it, mentioning the pleasure of listening to them while driving or doing something else. Though I like to concentrate on whatever I’m doing, whether it’s driving or reading a book, I thought I’d give it a try. But when I’m reading, I sometimes stop. I’ll go back and read a sentence or a whole paragraph over again. And listening to the audio book, I felt it was an imposition. That I had lost something of my own freedom. The rock badgers here are not at all like the American badgers. I don’t think they exist in America. They are found mostly in Africa and in the middle east. Here they are considered very much like a rabbit for some reason (rabbits are scarce in our country), but I doubt that they are very similar. Sorry to hear that you live in a bad neighborhood, Leah. But very happy to have you along for the ride.

      • Yes, that’s the problem with the audio books! I’m also a visual learner and can’t focus and my mind drifts. It drives me mad! I actually gave up reading before the vision loss as I couldn’t focus from the pain and having to hold the book up–all things no one thinks about. So, I am online with my blown-up laptop and move around a lot and it’s better.

        I would presume you are a visual person being a photographer. When I would read, I had a running video in my head and I can’t do that when I hear the book. My memory is the same: videos or stills in my head. I guess I must be a bad listener too. No, just a joke. I can still see the person talking, but I really think it would have been better to have low hearing than low vision in my case. I speak loudly and people ask if I’m hard of hearing, but the hard of hearing can hear me so it has its perks. :/

        Happy to be along for the ride, as always!

  18. Apart from enjoying your writing and the rock badgers’ photos ,I followed your link to the N.Y.T article on Mailer and I want to thank you as I found it exceptionally good… more than just a book review.I really enjoyed it.I found that alpha male aspect had put me off him before,thinking he was a man’s writer.NYT
    I find chick lit not quite my style,but I like many women writers:Doris Lessing,Simone de Beauvoir,Helen Dunmore,some Iris Murdoch.I used to like Evelyn Waugh with his dark humour too.
    Thanks again for the link.I am delighted with it.I must look at the N.Y.T myself form now on.I do like to know the life of the person [a woman’s weakness?]

    • Glad you liked the pictures of the rock badgers. And also that you read the article from the NY Times. It was written just about the time that Mailer died, and I suppose the article was meant to be an in-depth view of Mailer as a man of letters. I can’t say that I really understand what is meant by ‘chick lit’. I have tried to understand that term in context, but unsuccessfully. When it comes to writers or thinkers, I don’t see much point to divide by gender. There are so many other categories that would be more relevant. I was very fond of Graham Greene some years back, and was amused by his listing his own books in categories, such as serious books, detective novels, and so on. Once I begin to like the work of a writer, I usually want to read all of his or her writings. But I have to admit that sometimes learning about the private lives of writers or artists has disappointed me. I was saddened to learn of Mark Twain’s unhappy life.

  19. Reblogged this on Cool lady blog and commented:
    If you look in the comments,ShimonZ has put a link to a fascinatingly good review in the NYT about Norman Mail.r.Plus you can see Shimon’s own likes for novels you may wish to read.As for the photos…

  20. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    Hi Shimon

    Firstly I’m glad at the end you told me they were shy rock badgers as I had no idea what they were!

    Next, I really love your pauses with photos. Perfect timing.

    Your review is so intelligent. I truly don’t think I would have picked up that he was talking the hippies of 70s not 60s, & probably no-one else realised it (hence they criticised). I didn’t know you’d been in a hippie commune in Cali either. You are so, so well lived. You’re fascinating to me, how you’ve got around. But for Thailand with Daniel in July and the Philipinnes when I was 13, I really have not travelled.

    A wonderful read, and as usual you have me wishing I had time to read, just read. In the sun or on a walk preferably (I do actually walk & read, sometimes).

    Cheers, Shimon. It’s great to see you are so well. And your posts interesting as ever.

    • When I visited hippie communes in the 60s, I was a visitor, and wasn’t living with them. But I did make friends with some who lived in the communes, and got to know them pretty well. I also lived for a while in an Israeli commune, called a kibbutz, and that was very different from the hippie version. I wrote some articles about the phenomenon, and perhaps I will revisit the subject on this blog. Reading is very important for a writer, in my opinion. It can help to teach us the craft. Thank you very much for your kind words, Noeleen. Always good to see you and share with you.

  21. I keep a little (growing) list of books to read and I’ve added Boyle’s Drop City to the list. Thank you for that one. How an author approaches the subject is always fascinating, and as you say some authors you can read for their sheer poetry, the way the words form and flow is remarkable in itself.
    And like others I was reading your post and thinking what are those creatures?! As soon as you said Rock Badgers I remembered them from previous posts of yours. Thanks again Shimon for encouraging us all to think

    • As it happens, I’ve been reading some classical literature in the last few days, and I’ve noticed that books can put me in a different mood as well as a different world. And there’s really no reason not to enjoy the old and proven material. There is so much to enjoy and to learn from. This whole project grew out of a desire to learn more about the contemporary mood in the west. And I do intend to read some of the books recommended here by friends. But it could very well be that after a relatively brief excursion, I will return to my old interests. Thanks for the comment, Claire.

  22. Oh my goodness, I love that little black cat! Maybe someday when you have time you will share a post with us about your time visiting California? That would be fun and interesting to hear about.

    • Thank you Kari Ann. I suppose there are a lot of people who could write much more interesting things than what I could write about California. I was an outsider looking in, and was very impressed both by the physical scenery, and the wide range of ideas and personalities found among people there. I also had the benefit of getting to know the place at a time that there was much cultural ferment exciting the imagination of the people there. From Jack Kerouac to Charles Bukowski, there was new literature… and there were also great nature lovers. I hiked in the High Sierras with John Muir’s journal in my backpack.

  23. I always love reading your critiques on anything because there is a thoughtfulness in your criticism. I have a friend that I go to for criticism as she has a very fine straightforward way of telling you just what she thinks, which I love. So few will. She has artworks in the Smithsonian, but no one knows it. She never uses a calculator in her bookstore. Her and her husband built a flourishing hardware store. But you would never know it if you just saw her on the street. I love to go to her bookstore as she carries antique books that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

    Sorry for my absence Shimon, I hope you are doing well, and I believe you need to write a book on the fine art of photography!

    • Hi there BoJo. Always good to hear from you. And I appreciate what you say about criticism. It’s a great way to learn. And anyone who things it’s a license to insult, just doesn’t know what it’s all about. When I was a teacher, we used to have regular criticism sessions in which my students took turns criticizing one another. And they learned both how to criticize, and how to learn from the criticism, and we would quickly see improvements. When done correctly, it’s a great act of friendship. Thank you very much for your comment, and I appreciate your friend. I too have friends that I go to for criticism.

  24. After reading this post, I feel like I’ve just taken a walk with you, and you talked about the latest books you’ve read.

  25. I think, but I’m not sure that in the reply to your blogs about books no one mentioned :
    The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
    One of my all time favorites. Sublime.

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