Thursday, July 28, 2011

If Memory Serves

In the rapidly disappearing bookstores on the boulevards of America, the memoir has become as ubiquitous as rain. We can read the words and memories of autistic children, progeny of drunks and acrobats, the woman who made her way through Harvard by sleeping in the library. It is a rich and varied story, the memoir, shaped by elements of fiction and narrative, and often treading heavily on the border between truth and illusion. “This is my story, the way I saw it, the way I believe it happened to me, and if you don’t remember it that way, write your own book!”

Most readers do not realize that much of the overheated prose simmered in the juices of reflection can be traced back to one book:  Stop-Time by Frank Conroy (Penguin, 1977) originally published in 1967. The book was an instant classic, a finalist for the National Book Award. Conroy went on to write novels and essays, even doctored some screenplays, but he never achieved the level of success of his memoir. He became the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1987 to 2005. He was not, however, your typical academic or writer. He was an accomplished pianist, winning a Grammy in 1986, and he influenced generations who wandered the halls of the English-Philosophy Building on the Iowa campus. He died of colon cancer in 2005.

Stop-Time is not a story about writing, although writing plays a huge role in the book. Conroy gives us a life on the pages that could have gone either way—artist or criminal—and offers us a glimpse of the boy who barely escaped into adulthood. He forces the reader to engage in his story by utilizing, quite effectively, the narrative trick of fragmenting the frames of memory. Events pass by us, like the landscape rushing by the windows of a train, and if we do not pay attention, we miss out. He also does not stick to a strict chronological telling of his life story. But all of this makes the book evocative and involving, and demonstrates that Conroy, above all else, was a gifted writer. Moments are frozen in place like butterflies trapped in amber. He holds them up to the light to let us see the gossamer wings with the subtle and gross imperfections of the human condition.

Conroy is very good at capturing the non-sequitur nature of life, the seemingly random events and twists that we are left to puzzle over years later. Hindsight, the cliché goes, is twenty-twenty, but often even in the rearview mirror, we are tempted to look at scenes from the past and ask ourselves, “What the hell did that mean?” Conroy does an excellent job of letting the scenes speak and allowing the reader to create sense and meaning.

I came to read Frank Conroy’s memoir when I picked up a more recent book at the store, Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes (Tin House Books, 2010). Grimes’ book is his reflections on the role Conroy played in his life as a father-figure and mentor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The two writers approach the subject of their lives very differently. After reading Conroy, I found Grimes’ take much more conventional. It unfolds in a more chronological manner, and focuses on the writing life. This is not to say that Mentor is flawed. It is an excellent study of what it means to be a writer, the sacrifices, the rejection, the mental health issues, the disappointments and rejections. Ultimately, though, it is a tribute to the power of a mentor in an artist’s life.

Grimes’ book is less fragmentary and episodic. If one is looking for inspiration and solace in the writing life, this is the book to read. Here is the writer’s manifesto: “This is why I write. It’s my way of controlling my world and my emotions. I focus on sentences. For several hours a day, nothing else matters. I live inside language. And while I’m often frustrated by writing’s difficulty, I’m also at peace.” Grimes, in one short set of sentences, defines the writer’s paradox.

Most gripping is Grimes’ account of his sister’s suicide attempts and his own downward spiral into depression and paranoia. Like his mentor, Grimes examines all facets of the memory, and does not hesitate to lay his own bloody soul on the table. His is an honest book, the kind of writing that leaves no shadows or darkness unexplored.

The writer’s life is difficult and uncertain. Grimes takes us through the maddening odyssey of getting a book published. Feast or famine is the rule, but even when feasting, the success is momentary and ephemeral. It is on to writing the next book, which might involve years of slaving away at the desk.

The most moving part of the book is when Grimes takes us through the end of Conroy’s life. Grimes now runs his own MFA program at a university in Texas, although his life is still deeply entwined with that of his mentor. They move from teacher-student, to father-son, to writer-to-writer, a deep communion of friendship and art. In one of his last calls to Conroy, the sick and dying mentor asks his former student, “You know I love you, right?” From the reserved and stoic Conroy, this is a major revelation, and Grimes struggles to find words to respond before the older man hangs up the phone. It is left to the student to sum up the relationship between the two men and their books: “I hadn’t expected to write this book,” Grimes says, “but, in a way, our memoirs form bookends. His about childhood, adolescence, and a lost father; mine about writing, teaching, and a father found. Our story has come full circle.”

Both books are excellent, full of emotion and insight. Writing a life is harder than writing a novel, but not by much. Frank Conroy and Tom Grimes do both, and we the readers are the richer.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Lawrence Clark Powell

I have spent many wonderful hours in the Powell Library at UCLA, but I knew nothing about the man for whom the library is named until I found his books. I quickly pulled his books off the shelf and began a few days’ worth of rapturous reading, and even wrote about him in a previous post. I quickly realized that even though they were out of print, I wanted my own copies. So I scanned my usual used book outlets on the web and found clean copies to order. Now, after several weeks of reading each book and reveling in Powell’s delightful memories and prose, I am ready to say that these books need to go back into print, especially now that we face a budget crisis with libraries, public and private, and the art of reading seems to be migrating to electronic readers from the tactile pleasure of the physical book.

At his heart, Powell was a bookman, a lost breed of salesmen who knew their products and traveled the world buying up old and antiquarian books for their used book stores and libraries. Powell began his career at Vroman’s Books in Pasadena, California, an institution in Los Angeles having been around since 1894. It remains a vibrant and important place today after all the other great independents have gone out of business.

From selling books, Powell moved on to the UCLA libraries where he worked himself up through the ranks to head librarian and first dean of the School of Library Service. He felt that UCLA was the place for which he was destined, and under his leadership, the holdings of the library grew from 285,000 volumes to more than two million. He taught librarians across the country, and worked as an advisor to a number of university libraries who followed his example at UCLA and became important centers of learning and scholarship.

Although he wrote fiction, his métier was nonfiction books about books. I examined four of Powell’s works in particular, two books of memoirs and two books of essays. The man was, in addition to being a reader, a prodigious writer, publishing hundreds of articles and papers in journals and magazines about books, writers, and the literary life.

Fortune & Friendship: An Autobiography By Lawrence Clark Powell (R.R. Bowker Co) appeared in 1968. He begins at the beginning, detailing his early years in Washington D.C. with Quaker parents. In 1911, he moved to southern California where he grew up in the Pasadena area. Upon reaching maturity, Powell found his life’s work and began climbing the ladder at UCLA after studying at Occidental College, the University of Burgundy in Dijon, and U.C. Berkeley. When writing about books, Powell has no equal. However, the one problem I had with this book is that many of the people mentioned have dropped into obscurity now. Powell throws out names and book shops like a madman, and sometimes the stories could have been improved upon if he took some time to dig deeper into the experiences. There is a lot of “then we did this, and then we did that,” and although during the time of publication, many people may have known of whom he was speaking, readers today might need a bit more context. The book does work as a portrait of a life-long reader, and Powell’s love of the printed word always shines through in every story.

In 1986, Powell wrote a sequel called Life Goes On: Twenty More Years of Fortune and Friendship (The Scarecrow Press, Inc.). The edition I found contains a separate checklist of publications by and about Lawrence Clark Powell from 1919-1986. Here we see Powell in the twilight of his career, moving back and forth from Arizona and the American southwest to his home base of southern California. Powell wrote extensively about Arizona and his travels there. His life shifted in retirement from a guardian of books to a writer of books.

His book of essays, A Passion For Books (The World Publishing Co.), was published in 1958. All of these pieces originally appeared elsewhere in such publications as Antiquarian Bookman, AB Bookman’s Yearbook, or as lectures given across the country and later composed into essay formats. In his Preface, Powell writes: “These essays on the art of librarianship were written from 1948 through 1957. Some were intended to be spoken to library conferences; others were meant only to be read.” Powell is able to meld travel and life experience with his reading experiences, and that is what makes this book so readable and enjoyable. He discusses some of his favorite authors, and explains how he searches out rare books for his libraries. The passion in his title is clear on every page, and this book has special appeal to those of us who remember how we came to love the heft and feel of a book.

Books In My Baggage (The World Publishing Co., 1960) is really a travelogue through the world of books and people. Of special interest is what Powell calls his “biblio-geiger counter,” a tingling in his fingertips when searching in a dank cellar or drafty estate somewhere and he realizes something of rare and exquisite value is nearby on a dusty shelf. He takes us through how he manages to scoop up these rare artifacts without letting the seller know he is interested. It is the joy of the hunt that comes through Powell’s every line. The book also addresses a few of Powell’s favorite writers, Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, and J. Frank Dobie. For native Los Angelenos, it is interesting to note that Miller and Powell were neighbors up in Beverly Glen, a hilly canyon behind the UCLA campus that connects Westwood with Sherman Oaks. Powell also tells us some moving, poignant stories here. In the essay, “Speaking of Books,” he writes of a student with whom he works in the library order department. The boy is a track star, a discuss thrower, who moonlights unpacking the shipments of books that come to the library each day. The boy discovers just who Powell is when he stumbles across an article written and published in a journal. They strike up a friendship. Powell writes: “That was the first of many conversations we had before he was called to duty in the navy. I learned that this lad was akin to Thomas Wolfe, in that he wanted to be a writer in order to release the immense feelings and desires that were locked up inside himself. He would have become a writer, I am sure, and possibly a good one, if he had lived. He was killed in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.”

Lawrence Clark Powell is a writer of uncommon grace and goodwill. Books were his world, and he brought them to us in our everyday lives. Just last evening, I heard on the news that public libraries will now be open on Mondays here in Los Angeles thanks to a ballot measure. This means more access for those who need books and a place to study, and more jobs for librarians to staff the additional days. Libraries are democratic institutions, and they are imperative to our democracy. Lawrence Clark Powell made this his life’s mission, and I cannot help feeling his spirit beckoning me into the stacks, to read, gently reassuring me that my love for books is a good love, and must be nurtured.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Literature, Television, and the Genius of David Simon

Critics like comparing television writer-producer David Simon to Charles Dickens; they marvel at the way Simon serializes his stories across multiple episode arcs. They love to call his characters “Dickensian.” But Simon is in a class by himself, a man who creates and writes shows that offer social commentary and cultural criticism as well as intriguing and compelling stories. Calling him the second coming of Charles Dickens is meant as a complement, but it is unnecessary. David Simon is a unique genius who makes television dramas that should be classified as literature, pure and simple. His latest effort, HBO’s Treme, continues this tradition.

Treme is set in a neighborhood of New Orleans circa 2005, a culturally rich and diverse place nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The first season of episodes took place only a few months after the disaster. The recently completed second season found the characters more than a year on and still struggling with the effects of the storm. Simon and his producing partner Eric Overmyer created a cast of characters from every walk of life in the city who are interesting to watch, but the show is truly rooted in the music and culture of New Orleans. The camera lingers on the beautiful decadence, the gothic squalor of the city. They construct visual feasts of graveyards, Mardi Gras celebrations, second line parades, homes and businesses filled with mold, and piles of muddy rubble. When a young boy blowing a trumpet wanders through the detritus of the lost city in the second season opener, we see the glimmer in the muck, the ray of hope in a storm of trouble. The show is transcendent in a way no American television production has ever been, at once native and elemental yet heartfelt and incendiary.

As with previous Simon productions like The Wire (also HBO, 2002-2008), the stories unfold slowly. Scenes sometimes have no dialogue. The writers do not pander to their audience—one must listen closely and pay attention. The writing is nuanced and subtle, but viewer beware. Events can transpire in a gut-wrenching moment, as when a street musician played by the legendary Steve Earle is gunned down by a mugger. Or, in the first season when community leader, Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (played by Clarke Peters) discovers the decomposing body of a close friend under an overturned boat in a shed.

Simon makes it clear that this show will not fall back on stereotypical television tropes—cops, lawyers, or doctors—although, Treme characters include a lawyer, and this season, a deeply troubled cop. Story lines carry over an entire season, and characters come and go, relocating to other cities and even to the grave, but always remaining connected to New Orleans. One such example is novelist Creighton Bernette, played by John Goodman, who commits suicide at the close of season one after the audience has followed his journey through rage and impotence over the fate of his beloved city. The suicide itself could easily be missed—he stands smoking at the rail of a ferry boat, the camera pans away and back, and Goodman is gone—but the emotional fallout for his wife and daughter permeates the entire second season. Goodman only appears in a dream sequence during a single episode in season two.

Bernette’s wife and daughter are portrayed radiantly by Melissa Leo and India Ennenga. Leo does work worthy of Greek tragedy—subtle, quiet, inevitable and yet forceful, conveying a range of emotions in eyes of dark uncertainty, feeling her way through the anger and sadness. She must deal with her husband’s act of abandonment and fight for her clients as a civil rights lawyer and police watchdog. But Simon is true to his word about those tropes. Toni Bernette is the moral voice in the wilderness of civic corruption, less bombastic than Goodman’s character, but Leo plays Toni razor sharp and resilient. Her husband may have given up, but she will not.

Wendell Pierce and Steve Zahn play loveable shlubs who work the music scene. Pierce’s character is the womanizing trombone player Antoine Batiste, an imperfect man who struggles, often comically, to make ends meet. His stories this season as he mentors young musicians as a music teacher have been especially good. Zahn’s zany D.J. Davis McAlary can be annoying and profound in the same scene. I found his character tiresome last season, but Zahn found his grounding with the character this year, giving us much to love and empathize with in this frustrated musician.

Treme’s cast is a large and talented ensemble: Kim Dickens as a struggling chef; Khandi Alexander as a bar owner, and this season, a victim of a violent and brutal crime; Rob Brown as a trumpeter trying to balance his New Orleans roots with his New York jazz sensibilities; Lucia Micarelli as the beautiful and sad violinist; and Michiel Huisman as the troubled Sonny. This season, Simon added David Morse and Jon Seda to the cast. Morse is the aforementioned police officer sickened by the negligent corruption of the NOPD. Seda comes to town a modern-day carpetbagger looking to score on the misery and destruction of the hurricane aftermath.

In some episodes, music runs through nearly every scene, and all kinds of famous and not-so-famous New Orleans musicians make cameos and even guest starring stints. The stories pulse with the music, from live performances to radio, CDs, background and foreground score. It is clear that music and New Orleans are synonymous, the blood and tissue of the larger body. The soundtrack for this show is epic, and the music is alive and organic. In Treme, music and storytelling are inseparable.

That a show of this complexity and nuance would struggle for viewers is to be expected. HBO is a premium channel, which excludes many customers right from the start. That Treme is so different from basic cable and network shows might also put some people off. But HBO should be applauded for keeping Treme on the air. Quality television, like good literature, sometimes takes time to find an audience. Indeed, Simon had his doubts that Treme would be picked up for a third season. He wrote the second season finale as a possible final episode for the series if HBO did not come through with a renewal. They did, as cast and crew were wrapping the last episode. So we can anticipate a return to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras.

Of course, Simon probably takes uncertainty in stride. His previous shows, all excellent, were not ratings blockbusters. Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC 1993-1999) led a constantly threatened existence; The Corner (HBO, 2000) was critically acclaimed; The Wire had a small but loyal following; and Generation Kill (HBO, 2008), a nonfiction miniseries, utilized many of the hallmarks of fictional storytelling. Simon has made a career out of turning journalism, much of it his from the time when he was a reporter in Baltimore, into quality television literature. He proves the adage that great storytelling can be journalism or fiction, as long as it is interesting and compelling.

With any luck, Treme will be with us for many more seasons. In this series, Simon celebrates the rich decay, sordid beauty, and grotesque poetry of an eccentric city and its denizens. New Orleans has a resilient and intriguing culture, a people unbowed by tragedy who continue to sing songs and blow trumpets in the mossy swamp of a graveyard we call life and all that jazz.

Here's "Oye, Isabel" by The Iguanas featured in the second season finale of Treme.