I finished reading Paul Auster’s 1999 novella, Timbuktu a couple of days ago, and I have to say, it’s one of the most beautifully written and haunting books I’ve read in a long time. You might say it really got inside my head and under my skin. However, I think it’s more accurate to say that I really got inside the head and skin of the protagonist, a dog named Mr. Bones; through whom the story is told. Wait, I know what you’re thinking. You’re ready to hang it up right here and bail out, writing this all off as demented drivel from a sentimental dog lover rhapsodizing about one more tear jerking tale of an anthropomorphized mutt on a Homeric odyssey. Well, if that’s what you think, you’re wrong. It’s not Benji or Bobby the Wonder Dog or Lassie Come Home. It’s not that at all. I do admit that I am sentimental and I am a dog lover; and there is a dog and there is an odyssey. However, there is more to this story than that.
First of all, I think Paul Auster is a genius. His command of language and his ability to tell a story as a meditation on some of the major philosophical quandaries of life ranks right up there in the upper echelon of the Gods of Literature pantheon. I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy! Auster’s narrative prose alone is worth reading just to hear the music created by the lyrical flow of language. Timbuktu is thought provoking, emotionally engaging, sometimes cerebral, often visceral and always full of humor and pathos. It awakens all of your senses with descriptive passages that are tightly woven with lush imagery.
The story is told through the eyes of a dog named Mr. Bones, the loyal companion and soul mate of Willy G. Christmas, a homeless man who is also a brilliant, but deeply troubled poet-savant. Mr. Bones conveys the story through an internal monologue, describing their travails on a quixotic quest while recounting their earlier lives through a series of flashbacks. Auster’s ability to depict Mr. Bones as an intelligent sentient being, and his development of the various human characters in the book through clear prose are nothing short of breathtaking. The title of the book, Timbuktu, comes from Willie’s concept of afterlife, which evolves into one of the over arching themes of the story.
To all of you professional literary critics out there, (if there are any) take it easy, this is kind of like open mike night and I’m just spit ballin’ here. In many ways, Timbuktu reminds me of The Road by Cormac McCarthy as it explores many of the same themes, and depicts a dark journey through gorgeously rendered cinematic imagery and lyrical descriptive narrative. For those of you who just can’t live without genre labels, here we go. I’m having difficulty assigning this to a single genre, but Timbuktu uses many of the devices of both “slip stream” and “magic realism” to tell the story. It contains many of the central themes of Auster’s writing, including constructing an understanding of the world through language, depiction of daily life, a writer as a central character, and a sense of imminent disaster. Throughout it all, the influences of existentialism and transcendentalism are clearly apparent.
I don’t really want to say much more about the actual story because I think you should read this book, and I don’t want to give too much away and ruin it for you. I will say that I loved this book and that it resonated with me on the heart level. I think it might have even made me a little smarter, and I’ll take all the help I can get. Let’s not forget that DOG is GOD spelled backwards. Paws & Claws Forever!
This is my first book report for 2012. Remember book reports? Almost nothing could induce panic and dread like a book report, if you hadn’t actually read the book and were trying to fake it. My teachers could be like something out of the Spanish Inquisition if I tried to put that kind of crap past them. However, book reports were really cool if you actually had read the book, and especially if you enjoyed the book. They were an occasion to celebrate and share.
I seem to be ordering a lot of books online lately. The books I’ve been buying are Poetry and Flash Fiction by authors whose work I find exciting, engaging, tough, gritty, edgy and most importantly, truly authentic. I like these guys with the same kind of passion I had for the Beat Poets when I was a snot nosed twenty-something. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a snot-nosed twenty-something. We’ve all been there, or maybe you ARE there, in which case please don’t take offense. I’m a geezer and I have cranky opinions.
Anyway, I’ve been ordering these books online. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE bookstores, but I live somewhere between East Jesus and West Buttcrack and the nearest book store is 30 miles away. Not to mention the fact that it is highly unlikely that those bookstores would have these specific books that I want to buy and read and keep forever in my personal library. It’s a five hour drive to The Strand Bookstore in New York City and a Homeric odyssey and a pilgrimage on a biblical scale to the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, so this is where the internet is my best friend. I am also driven by the 21st century lust for instant gratification. So if I can order a book with three clicks and a cloud of dust, then what’s not to love? Two of the books I recently ordered just arrived in the mail. I got the same feeling of elation I used to get as a kid when the prize from the coupon in my Count Chocula cereal box arrived in the mail.
These books arrived like the cavalry in a Cowboy and Indian movie – in a nick of time and not a moment too soon. I just finished reading a novel that I LOVED – “After Life” by Rhian Ellis. (More on that in another post) If I am a slow learner, (which has been my story and I’m stickin’ to it) I am even more of a slow reader, – but , especially when it comes to novels. However, I actually think it’s more a case of me not wanting to come to the end of a good novel. When I read a good novel, I inhabit that world, I become the protagonist. It’s not escapism as much as it is inter-dimensional travel. When I come to the end of a novel I have been immersed in reading, there is a sense of loss and “What the Hell do I do now?” It’s like a bad break-up and rebound relationships are almost always a disaster. What you need is a change of pace. This is where my mail order bride – er – I mean – books – come in.
While novels demand a more singular kind of attention from my ADDHD addled brain, Poetry and Flash Fiction are different for me. With Poetry and Flash Fiction, each small piece has the potential of being self contained, dense and rich – a kind of verbal amuse-bouche that you might consume in a few short bites, but that has so much unique character you need a palette cleanser before returning. (I learned all that from Top Chef being on television within earshot of my writing space.) Anyway, I am able to read a number of books of Poetry or Flash Fiction simultaneously and it happens in a natural systematic fashion. Because I will read a Poem or a Flash Fiction piece in one sitting (even though I may read each piece more than once) I can then read another author’s work, without losing my connection to either one. I don’t do this well with novels. What usually happens when I try that is that I don’t finish any of them.
I also must confess that I am irrevocably connected to the physical book, with printed pages I can turn and dog-ear and spill coffee on and cover photos of the author or illustrations I can look at and go back to. Somehow all this helps keep me connected with the writing and even more so with the author. It reminds me of the many hours I spent looking at album cover art while listening to vinyl records. I know, like I said, I’m a geezer with cranky opinions. I still have a land line too. In fact the phone just rang as I was writing this and I was able to screen that call. It was someone who wanted to whisper sweet nothings in my ear and sell me stuff I don’t want or need. I’m not getting those kinds of calls on my cell phone. But album cover art added a whole other dimension to the music you were listening to. It’s not the same with the covers of tapes, CDs or downloaded cover art from I Tunes. Again, it’s not like I refuse to use anything but an abacus and an Etch-a-Sketch. I’m listening to Pandora as I write this and I have 28 hours of music on my I Phone, so it’s not like I don’t play well in that electronic world. It’s just that album covers have the same kind of mojo for me that books have. Not to mention the occasional surprise when 30 year old sticks, stems and seeds fall out of the crease of my Derek and the Dominos double album cover.
This is not all to say that I don’t read constantly in the electronic realm. I do. Probably too much. I read almost all of my news online, I post work online, and interact extensively through social media, writing forums, and blogs. I love my I Mac, I Pad, I Pod, I Phone, MacBook Pro and Dell laptop, Kindle and I Books and E Books. However, I am finding that I am more apt to grab a hard copy of something to read in the bathroom, where all of the heavy lifting and profound thinking gets done, than to plunk myself down on the throne for the duration with my Kindle. I also have several books that I never finished reading on my Kindle. It’s not because they’re not good books. They ARE good books. It’s not them, it’s me. Out of sight, out of mind.
Anyway, this is supposed to be an entry for my Book Journal – “Alice B. Toklas,” so I’ll try to come to the point, which for me is difficult, in case you hadn’t noticed. First of all, I got the idea for a Book Journal from Jules Archer, who writes tough but luminous poetry and flash fiction and laugh out loud funny, sometimes irreverent, but always thought provoking posts on her blog: Jules Just Write.http://julesjustwrite.com/ More on all of this in another post) One of the books Jules mentioned was an old favorite of mine: On Writing; A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Although, I’d read this book before, this is the kind of book a writer could read once a year and come away with new learning each time. I think this was the third time I’ve read this, and probably the best. It’s that slow learner thing. Another point that Jules made in a blog post was a resolution to read the work of more women authors. Whether or not this is happening consciously with me, it certainly seems to be happening, nonetheless. Maybe it’s just that I admire these authors for being honest, authentic, and sometimes “in your face” in ways I only aspire to be.
So – my Alice B. Toklas Book Journal report for January-February goes like this. This is just a list. More detail to follow.
Excavating the Present/ Lisa Harris & (Poetry/Visual Art Collaboration) Unearthing Eternity Nancy Valle
The Empty City Berit Ellingsen (Novel)
On Writing Stephen King (Memoir)
After Life Rhian Ellis (Novel)
Flash Fiction Fridays Robert Vaughan (Flash Fiction Anthology) (Editor, author, anthologist and contributor)
Disparate Pathos Meg Tuite (Flash Fiction Chap Book)
Damn Sure Right Meg Pokrass (Flash Fiction)
Blank Cake Misti Rainwater-Lite (Poetry)
Pieces for the Left Hand Robert J. Lennon (Flash Fiction)
Some closing thoughts on all of this. There’s a lot of engaging, inspiring, and life-changing Art, Music and Literature out there that you won’t find in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, USA Today or on Yahoo and Facebook. Most of the really take-no-prisoners, brash, audacious, fresh and original stuff out there is not floating down the mainstream like a big old fat slow ball right over the middle of the plate. While the well mapped out route may get you up and down the mountain safely, sometimes getting lost on that random herd path is what leads you to your true adventure. It’s going to be found in places where you least expect it, when you stretch for it, reach for it, beat the bushes. It’s going to be found with indie musicians, writers, artists – off the beaten path, down back alleys, and in alternative venues. That’s not to say there’s not great stuff in the mainstream, but I think the real game is to be found with those diamonds in the rough, sometimes right in your own backyard. Your Own Backyard – hey – that would be a really cool name for a website!