Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

THE SUITCASE

Retrieving the newspaper from my front steps last week—I’m a dinosaur—I saw a white suitcase on the sidewalk. My first reaction? As a native New Yorker and a Jew with family in Israel (I was last there in March/April), I’ll attest that the risk of confronting a bomb is real. But who would target my leafy street? I waited.

Several hours later, I went for a walk. The suitcase? Still there. I noticed it lacked one wheel. I concluded that someone—perhaps a homeless person; they wander the neighborhood—didn’t want to lug it any further. An hour later, the suitcase was gone. I felt relieved.

This wasn’t the first abandoned suitcase I’ve encountered. Several years ago, for example, I saw two—open and stuffed with clothing—in the Presidio National Park near my house. Who leaves packed suitcases in a park? My imagination produced a short story, Two Suitcases By the Side of the Road.

The protagonist, a retired executive, encounters two suitcases on a short hike in—yes—the Presidio. A widower who writes fiction to occupy his time—with little success—he imagines the person who left them: a woman he names Grace. He envisions his character fleeing marriage to a dull dentist in Marin County to live with a woman in Santa Barbara. Grace’s plight spurs him to examine his own figurative baggage—an early infidelity and a ruined friendship.

We all carry baggage—errors and indiscretions tucked into hard-shell cases securely locked. But refusing to acknowledge the deeds we regret can haunt us. The protagonist wonders if his imagined Grace can handle her own past transgressions and find happiness. He concludes the story with this observation:

“I’d like to say I know more about how things with Grace will turn out, but that’s asking too much. Particularly of Grace. We each look at our life—turn it over, dissect it—and arrive at a pretty good sense of where we’ve been and a decent idea of where we are. Where we’re going? That’s pushing it. We try to write the stories of our lives, but our lives write us.”

My baggage could fill an old-fashioned steamer trunk. Maybe two. I deal with it by periodically hunkering down in a quiet corner of my mind, unpacking my trunks and sifting through their contents. Repressing awkward matters that mar our past only nourishes them until they sprout so large they burst from their confinement and do additional damage. A little fresh air and sunlight keeps them from metastasizing.

On the other hand, I find objectionable the desire of people to spew endless streams of detailed confessionals. (This commentary represents a one-time general statement; I retain the option to return to it in the future.) The penchant—common here in California—to constantly air one’s blemishes to friends, family and the public constitutes a narcissism I find overwhelming and alienating.

So, I keep my balance while keeping my failings to myself. In doing this—and risking the ire of therapists everywhere—I leverage my mistakes as learning tools while keeping them at a sufficient distance to avoid plunging me into depression. That would result in life writing a chapter for me I won’t appreciate.

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THANKSGIVING PLUS ONE

Yesterday, Carolyn, Seth and I (Yosi is in Virginia) celebrated Thanksgiving at Aaron and Jeremy’s house. Food? The usual plenty. Although forgive me for using the word usual. I’m grateful for my good fortune, which happens to include lots of “little” things. Here are three.

Thank you cable TV and content providers like Netflix and Amazon for entertaining, challenging shows. We recently concluded Narcos (Netflix) about the Colombian drug czar Pablo Escobar—violent but riveting with a great performance by the Brazilian actor Wagner Moura. We’re about to see Show Me a Hero (HBO) and The Man in the High Castle (Amazon). Showtime’s Homeland and The Affair (Dominic West lives out all my author fantasies) are winding down, but House of Cards (Netflix), Game of Thrones (HBO), Grace and Frankie (Netflix) and Silicon Valley (HBO) wait in the wings.

Thank you books and their authors. I feel unsettled when I’m not into a book even though I’m now reading the December Atlantic magazine with the next Foreign Affairs coming soon. I just finished Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. It took me 30 years to get to it, although I read the second novel in his Frank Bascombe trilogy, Independence Day, some time ago. I just started Andy Weir’s The Martian—science as fiction. After that it’s non-fiction—Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. I’m not morbid. Just, well, mortal. Then I’ll check my nightstand for more titles. (Tip: Read Chris Cleave’s novel Incendiary, written five years after 9/11, for a British take on Islamist terrorism’s effect on Western society.)

Finally, thank you Shabbat. The late Dean Martin had a great line about people who don’t drink: “You wake up in the morning and that’s as good as you’re gonna feel all day.” I don’t equate Shabbat to alcohol but to something far more soul enriching. The Sabbath, which begins Friday at sundown and ends at sundown on Saturday, restores me weekly.

Sure, I live a low-key life—TV, movies (we have tickets to the new Star Wars), theater and books. That’s in addition to writing fiction and this blog. Plus reading Torah each morning. And getting together with friends. But we all face challenges, disappointments and the occasional inner torment. Shabbat suspends all that. It’s the day, never far off, on which every person can “get off the wheel”—turn aside from the ordinary and celebrate the extraordinary: creation (i.e. the universe) and our connection to that which is greater than ourselves. I worship at my synagogue on Friday night. After, Carolyn and I have a special dinner at home. And watch TV! I go to Torah Study on Saturday morning then out to coffee with friends. In the afternoon, I free myself from humdrum obligations in favor of a walk, reading and an occasional nap.

Admittedly, my pleasures—add ice cream, daily walks and any opportunity to laugh—are simple. Still, I try to be thankful each day—and on Shabbat particularly—for those things that truly nourish us yet often go overlooked. That’s why today I adhere to a mantra echoing the Rabbi’s blessing in Fiddler on the Roof: May God bless and keep Black Friday… far away from me.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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STORY POWER

During the past week, two signs from the heavens got me thinking. This is all a bit subjective, of course, but my train of thought led me from a red-tailed hawk and white, storybook clouds to our over-busy lives, one of my all-time favorite TV shows and the function of fiction.

On a recent walk in the Presidio, I saw the red-tailed hawk hovering on a thermal as I approached Immigrant Point overlooking the Pacific, the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands. The hawk floated virtually motionless. How elegant. How simple. Hawks fly, eat, mate and sleep. Humans live far more complex lives. We run ourselves in circles. Then we complain. Yet most people take pride in their busyness. It seems to validate their lives in a society that less worships productivity than its impression.

The clouds appeared during a morning walk on Lake Street. They looked just like the clouds at the opening of The Simpsons—a perfect blend of white on blue. (In August we’re usually foggy—a double miracle of sorts.) I literally stopped and stared. I halfway expected to see the yellow-gold THE SIMPSONS title and hear the singing that introduces the show.

What’s true in our lives? What’s merely illusion? Which do we care about? Often what we know to be true moves us less than the stories we read and hear. Even truth becomes a story of sorts.

Most people know that an American hunter killed Cecil, a black-maned lion with celebrity status in Zimbabwe. Protests abounded. Cecil could have been the fictional Bambi. Some people protested the protests. War has displaced millions of people in the Middle East. A quarter of a million people have been killed in Syria alone. Refugees are flooding Europe. Here, an old adage comes into play. A million deaths is a statistic. A single death is a tragedy—and the stuff of stories.

In 2012 Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl, was shot and badly wounded. Much of the world was outraged. Where was the outrage when thousands of other Pakistanis were murdered over the years? When violence ripped through neighboring Afghanistan? When Islamic State later beheaded hundreds and enslaved women? People responded, yes. But Malala captured their hearts. She was a recognizable individual. She had a name and a face. She wasn’t just a news report; she was a story. Thus on to fiction…

Yes, I read nonfiction. I’m a big fan of Robert Kaplan’s incisive geopolitical books. Nonfiction enlightens the mind. But fiction touches the heart. A year ago, I finally read John Steinbeck’s deservedly classic The Grapes of Wrath. Yes, there was a bit too much repetition for my taste. But wow! How could you not understand the suffering caused by the Dust Bowl and the Depression by coming to know the Joad family?

Economists write books. Politicians make speeches. But giving people a human story with which they can identify—why presidents host “ordinary people” at their State of the Union addresses—creates both understanding and empathy.

That red-tailed hawk and those clouds hit me where I feel. The nation, indeed the world, might be better off if we read more fiction, saw more plays and attended more independent films to get out of our heads a bit and nourish our hearts.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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COMIC STRIP WISDOM

I read comic strips. As a kid, my favorites included “Dick Tracy” and “Li’l Abner” (Daisy Mae, yes!). Today, it’s “The Knight Life,” “Rhymes With Orange,” “Zits” and “Garfield.” Occasionally, I read “Sally Forth.” A few weeks ago, a particular “Sally” inspired me.

In a fantasy sequence, it’s 2025. The dad, Ted, counsels his adult daughter Hilary (12 or so in the present) about her music. She’s having a tough time. A musician’s life constitutes hard work and exhausting travel. I get it. My son Yosi plays fiddle for Hurray for the Riff Raff. Fortunately, they keep moving up through will, effort and, of course, talent.

Ted’s advice—in the present he’s rather childlike, but he’s matured—resonated. My novel Flight of the Spumonis just became available at Amazon as I began a new and very different book. Ted asks rhetorically if Hil knows why musicians make music or writers write or actors act. Then he answers, “It’s about having a voice. And if you don’t pursue your art, you may lose that great opportunity to have your say.”

It’s not about money. I know. Many years ago, I hoped to break through as a writer of fiction. I had a few stories published in small magazines. Won third-place in a contest. I wrote a novel and found an agent. Editors were complimentary but didn’t buy. I wrote a few more novels, including the first version of Spumonis. Nada. No more agent, either. I stopped writing. I had a growing family and a growing business. I chose not to feed Carolyn and the kids scraps so I could pamper my ego as a struggling artist. I figured I could always write later in life. It all worked out.

I wrote two non-fiction books. Solo Success found a home at Crown Publishers (Random House). I had my 15 minutes—okay, seconds—of fame. The money wasn’t much, but I loved the emails and letters I received from freelancers around the world. I published God’s Others myself. Close to 65, I got back into fiction after telling a wild story to my friends Dan and Ira over coffee. Dan said, “That would make a good novel.” It became Slick!

I’ve always been a storyteller, and fiction gives me a voice. Slick! mocked corruption and hypocrisy—Middle Eastern and American. Kirkus Reviews named it one of the 25 Best Indie Books of 2012. I followed up with San Café, set in Central America. Then I switched gears. The Boy Walker examined the impact on a father and son of losing a wife/mother and daughter/sister. My research included both oncology and stand-up comedy. Now, Flight of the Spumonis looks at 1980 America struggling with a damaged economy and geopolitical frustration. We see a time much like ours through the eyes of a 13-year-old trapeze artist who runs away from the circus and journeys across the continent.

It’s not easy making sense of life, but fiction offers readers a uniquely empathetic look at other people—and themselves. In doing so, it helps bring people and cultures closer. So in “Sally Forth,” Ted rightly tells Hil that through their art, artists can interpret the world. Which demonstrates that comic strips can be very serious.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or go to Amazon.com.

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THE BEYONCÉ FACTOR

Posted Feb 8 2013 by with 3 Comments

The superstar singer Beyoncé is popping up everywhere. She sang (okay, lip-synced) at President Obama’s inaugural. She starred in the halftime show at last Sunday’s Super Bowl. And she is mentioned and seen but not given thoughts or dialog—in Ben Fountain’s novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a National Book Award finalist. That’s something to think about.

In an interview, Beyoncé once stated that her sexy performance character (seasoned by girlfriend-sister smiles) isn’t her. She sells an image. Like an actress who plays Lady Macbeth but who may be a tenderhearted polar opposite. Or a raunchy comedian who may be good-natured and mild-mannered offstage.

As a novelist, I get it. My characters reflect diverse aspects of human nature, not necessarily me. I’m not as greedy as Sheik Yusuf and the Ambassador in Slick! Nor as egocentric as Jesús Garcia-Vega and Adella Rozen in San Café. (Not that that’s saying all that much for me.) The Beyoncé factor—the adoption of a persona to meet specific objectives—comes into play.

Alas, Americans—as the rest of the world, because this is a human phenomenon—tend to mash up reality and fantasy. Politicians, artists, CEOs, athletes—anyone in the spotlight—profess the highest ideals then mock them by word and deed.

Mass shootings take place with horrible regularity? Let’s arm ourselves to the teeth—no weapon left behind. Abortions kill the innocent? Let’s kill people who perform them and muzzle those who counsel women to make their own decisions. Democracy’s threatened overseas? Let’s send American military forces anywhere, anytime—multiple deployments are just a fact of life—and run the table on our national budget. Congress is deadlocked? Let’s keep poor and minority Americans away from the polls. They vote for the wrong candidates.

As to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: The Army brings home from Iraq the survivors of a heroic squad. They engage in a two-week tour of the U.S. to be lauded and applauded. And raise support for the war. The tour concludes—and this constitutes the novel’s setting and time frame—at the Dallas Cowboys’ old Texas Stadium for a Thanksgiving Day game against the Chicago Bears.

Admiration drenches the squad like the sleet penetrating the opening in the stadium’s roof. Team officials, their guests and fans continually ask, “We’re winning, aren’t we?” But these young kids—their squad leader is twenty-two—have no strategic view. All they know is blood, death and lingering fear. They’re being sent back to Iraq.

Beyoncé’s appearance represents a cultural reference as do the Barbie Doll-style Cowboys cheerleaders—controlled sexual imagery in a repressed, evangelical milieu. Fountain peels away the Beyoncé factor from the big shots and ordinary folks surrounding his confused protagonists, unmasking the pretensions with which we seek to disguise ourselves.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is serious stuff. That’s why Pleasant utilizes satire loaded with humor. And doubtless why he includes references to Beyoncé—whoever she may be.

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Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

TWO HUNDRED PAGES

Nothing turns a writer’s thoughts to what constitutes a good novel than launching a new novel of his own. This weekend I’m launching San Café—about revolution, murder, betrayal and a great cup of coffee. As to how novels are judged—and misjudged—a recent conversation proved revealing.

A friend, who knows literature well, showed me a novel she was reading. It had achieved critical success and doubtless earned the author reasonable financial reward. So I was surprised when my friend revealed, “It took me two hundred pages to get into it. But that’s just me. I have a friend who only needed a hundred pages.”

How, I asked myself, can novelists and publishers succeed when they often dare their readers to become engaged? The literary marketplace seems continually to be flooded with critically acclaimed books that leave me wondering about an “emperor’s new clothes” syndrome. Over the last several months, three novels had me wondering indeed.

A woman long deemed one of America’s great contemporary writers authored the first. My wife liked it, although she said it took a long time to get into it. I failed to take the hint. I started reading. Great opening—for four or five pages. After that, nothing much happened. The story petered out. After slogging through fifty pages, I put it away.

I started another novel, this by a woman hailed as one of today’s great young American writers. The book was nominated for prestigious awards and made the New York Times bestseller list. I began with high hopes. I discovered a distinctive voice, clever language and quirky characters. But where was the conflict? After sixty pages waiting for something to actually happen, I abandoned ship. (My wife didn’t get as far as I did.)

So I started a novel by a man with a solid literary reputation built over more than three decades. Terrific opening. And then…

Aristotle wrote, “Plot is character revealed by action.” Scott Fitzgerald followed up with, “Character is plot, plot is character.” They got it. So, by the way, did Karl Marlantes, author of the justifiably acclaimed Vietnam War novel Matterhorn, which I mentioned last week in “Snake Eyes.”

I hope that with San Café I got it, too. I write satire—San Café is geopolitical satire set in Central America—because I love humor and puncturing pretentions. I also love quirky characters. But most of all, I love telling stories. So I filled San Café, like Slick! before it (same protagonist but set in the Persian Gulf) with interesting twists and turns and lots of surprises.

I invite you to read the first three chapters of San Café at davidperlstein.com. It’s free. Should you want your very own soft-cover or digital copy—this is my blog; I can flog my books all I want—just go to iUniverse.com, Amazon.com or bn.com. You can even see me.

This I promise. You won’t need two hundred pages to get into San Café. And you’ll only have to read 252 pages to get out.

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