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Art Taught Me How to Read

Just lately I’ve tried reading novels the way I might visit an art exhibit. When I visit an art exhibit I have no need to make steady progress. I expect to look at a thing from all angles, up close and far away. I spend more time in front of things that draw me in. I might go back again before I leave, just to experience them one more time. And when I go home, for a while at least, it feels as if everything–the sidewalk, the cars and buses, my own hand–is something I am seeing in a new way.

In contrast I typically read a novel as if I’m on a steady hike. No lingering or backtracking allowed: getting to the end in the most efficient way possible was my implicit goal. If I don’t like where the novel appears to be going I get impatient. I’m constantly looking for reasons to put a book down when there are so many others to be read.

I started to wonder if I’d enjoy reading more if I allowed myself the freedom to read books the way I look at art: without a destination in mind, and without judgment.

I decided to try it.

The first novel I read this way was Frontier by Can Xue. It turned out to be a lucky choice because the novel is anything but linear. I could open Frontier at a random page and it felt like just as reasonable a place to start as any other. I read Frontier in random chunks, a paragraph or two at a time, and I also read it the other way, from left to right and beginning to end, and it took me weeks before I felt ready to leave it, and it didn’t matter to me how long it took, because something contemplative and delightful happened to me as I read and I didn’t want it to be over.

When I was done the novel made sense to me beautifully, especially if I thought of it as a Rothko painting, because at first the novel seemed to have just one color to it, but the longer I stared at it, the more I saw how many colors there really were.

Later I read In the Distance by Hernan Diaz. I resisted everything about it in the beginning. I though this novel was impossible to believe in. And then I gave up trying to make the book conform to my old way of reading, when I was full of purpose and expectation.

I tried instead to read the novel as if I were looking at an unexpected painting on a wall, artist unknown. In such a situation, I would offer the artist more courtesy, and more patience. And the next thing I knew as I read Hernan Diaz’s novel I was inside a scene of such great beauty–even though it was about a man cutting his beloved burro open in a futile attempt to save its life–that I thought, for a while at least, that this book was the best thing I had ever read. Art will do that to you.

I began to read every novel with the meandering curiosity of a stroll through a gallery, rather than with the critical efficient purposefulness I had usually read. I tried doubling back as I read, just as I might double back to see a favorite painting in a gallery. Sometimes I read a chapter over completely, either because I liked it, or because it confused me. I gave myself permission to look harder, and to spend more time in one place, rather than trudging gamely toward the end. Or to start over entirely.

I read Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine this way and I discovered the book had a Jackson Pollock-like, patterned randomness.

I re-read Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, and decided that reading it was something like looking at…

…a Joan Miró,

…and after that I read Fever Dream by Samantha Shweblin, a book that once might have annoyed me with its unfinished vague edges…

…until I thought of it as an Andrew Wyeth painting, one of those ones with broken fence posts in the snow.

To read a book this way is more than a metaphor to me now. I realize now that I had thought of myself as a literate person, and all the while I had been reading in the same stolid way I had been taught in first grade, from beginning to end, and at a steady pace. I had never revisited the usefulness of that way of reading a book. Now I was reading differently. I liked it. What I’m trying to describe here is a deep attention. A willingness to be open to the unexpected. A willingness to forge your own path through a book, and to take your time, and to withhold judgment of both the book and yourself. To listen and forgive. To learn to read anew. Go see some art. Then, read a book.





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Novels to nourish your inner Fury

Sometimes you just gotta rage.

“The Remorse of Orestes” — William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905)

Lately I’ve read novels where the narrator seems ready to bust off the page and stab me in the eye. Or hurl herself off a high building to meet a messy end, right in front of me. In these novels the narrators behave badly. They don’t watch their language and violence is never far from their thoughts. It’s because they are furious: About their circumstances. About their lives. About their men. They don’t care what I think of them. What a gift. It’s like the friend who finally stops trying to please you. One day, instead of telling you what she thinks you want to hear, she tells you the truth, and the real conversation can begin at last.

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (2017: Charco Press)

Here for instance is the first sentence of Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, as translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff: I lay back on the grass among fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular. 

What follows is a visceral and primal rendering of a woman who can’t pretend any longer that her life is happy — even though she lives the definition of a perfect life. If life has ever felt like a horrifying nightmare to you — if you have ever thought, however fleetingly, ‘wow, these people all around me actually think they are behaving rationally, when really they are trapped in a nightmare inside their own skulls, and they are living a script in which they never question their values or beliefs, and I’m trapped along with them’ — then you’ll experience your own alienation, and recognize your own thoughts, while reading this brief testimony of a woman who refuses to look away.

Three Plastic Rooms by by Petra Hůlová. Translated by Alex Zucker. (Jantar: 2017)

After that, I invite you to read Three Plastic Rooms by by Petra Hůlová, the story of an aging prostitute and her relationship with her own body, a novel rendered from Czech into hauntingly poetic English by Alex Zucker. Oh, my goodness. How can there exist a novel that is at once so open to beauty and yet in which every sentence is some new shocker? Here you go. This is that book. It’s the kind of book that nineteen out of twenty readers will say is too upsetting to love, or maybe even finish, and the twentieth person will say this book changed my life or this book convinces me that we are nowhere near the end as a species of exploring all the ways human language can be called upon to express new things.

As I write this, there has not been a single review of the novel on Amazon, which is surprising. It seems the book that would make people angry enough to write about it. Let’s see. It’s the kind of book that you can open on any page and be unbelievably disturbed. Let me try now:

the true mumsyfuckers have enough of that little drama at home, and the fuckshop, a quiet backwater of kissed knees, offers a gulf of solace, because what an orgasm means to these men’s wives was drilled into their heads by all those sex scene disasters you see at the multiplex, which whenever they happen my sticker-inner farts with laughter in my seat, and I would only be willing to moan during them, as I said, for the enjoyment of a man all my very own, so that sitting there in the seat next to me, in the dark, he would get an urge to stroke himself, or maybe just enjoy my sights, or maybe all of me, or, sigh, even love me.

Heartland by Ana Simo (Restless: 2018)

Then consider Heartland by Ana Simo. The novel is the the most genteel of the three, but it’s just as relentless — it’s only that the diction is more elevated. I was inclined to love it if only because it’s 75-year-old Simo’s debut novel but then it performed the amazing feat of surprising me on every page — for its truthfulness, and for its humor.

The mule was the only one of the four departing beasts she could not imagine killing. The other three she stabbed, quartered, and disemboweled with her knife, throwing their livers to the feral pigs that roamed the cemetery at night, and burning the rest until only their teeth and bones remained.

These novels are for the times when you long for a book that does more than provide a catharsis so familiar that it bores you, or when you’re tired of books that end with hard-won yet valuable lessons. These novels disturbed me. These novels exhilarated me.

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FSG published my first novel. I’m publishing the second one a little differently. Here’s why

I began my first novel just before the war in Iraq began, the war that Americans are still fighting, the war in which Saddam Hussein was deposed and no weapons of mass destruction were found. I was horrified by the acts of hate toward Muslims living in the U.S. and I wrote a novel about an innocent man being victimized simply because he is a Muslim.

A strange thing or two happened on the way to publication.

The first strange thing was that an agent called me before I even tried to find an agent, to ask if I had a novel-in-progress he could read.

The second strange thing was that this agent sold my finished story to FSG in four days. What a dream. I got a novel published without a single experience of being rejected by anyone at all.

 Of course there is a pivot in this story. Here it comes.

Somewhere along the way, the story I meant to write got lost. My agent and my editor thought I was writing a dark erotic tale. I let their vision be the story I wrote. Every new draft they asked for became darker than the one before — until my story of Muslim alienation in America ended up with a naked woman on the cover.

The publicity sheets sent out to reviewers called my book a “dark erotic tale.”  Foreign publishers followed the naked-woman theme on their book jackets. The Japanese publisher added a naked man.

I knew I had totally lost control of my story when one publisher decided to put the naked woman on a prayer mat, a total subversion of the story I had meant to write. I was powerless to stop it. I tried. Most of the time publishers don’t give authors contractual control of their cover art and I was no exception.

It’s important to say here I don’t blame my agent. I don’t blame my editor at FSG. I’m eternally grateful to them both. I followed every bit of their editorial direction, to the letter. I did that. Whenever I objected to a change and they pushed back, I let it drop. I didn’t walk away. And my novel was published. I got a great advance and my family took a year off when my kids were young and we traveled the world together. I learned that publishing a novel with a publisher is a team sport.

And I’m grateful to those readers who still connected somehow with the book I meant to write, however veiled the story was by the time it was in print. After an author’s advance is spent, and the book is remaindered, and then forgotten, the one thing that remains — the thing that is simply glorious about having published a novel at all — is that someone read it, and understood. Maybe just one someone.

So about a dozen years went by and one night Trump was elected president. On election night 2016 I began to write my second novel. I sent an early draft to a few agents and they said to me, to paraphrase, “We like it, but we want it to be more the way we want it to be.”

It didn’t feel right.

I stopped looking for an agent. I never mailed the final manuscript out. I decided to self-publish instead.

And now The Book of Dog by Lark Benobi is coming out September 6. 2018. It will be published by micro-press Vegetablian Books of Santa Cruz California. Let’s see how it goes. I’m probably shooting myself in the foot. But I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed designing my own cover this time.

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Two Perfect Novels for our Gaslit Age

Maybe your reading list just now includes bestsellers A Higher Loyalty by James Comey and Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff. If so then I suggest you ditch them both and read these two novels instead, to understand what is going on in the world— because Amelia Gray and Samanta Schweblin are the perfect oracles for our Gaslit Age.

Threats and Fever Dream were published two years apart, in different countries and in different languages, and yet they each capture the what is going on in the world miasma we’re living through, in the way only good fiction can. Fact and reason aren’t enough to help us cope just now. What are the facts, anyway? Why can’t we get a straight answer about anything at all from our elected officials? What is going on? And why is that guy still in office? If any of these questions plague you, then ditch the nonfiction bestseller list and pick up these novels instead.

Start with the book jackets. Look how similar they are. The images are fragmentary and dismembered. Something is not right. The all-caps titles shriek out at us that the stories inside are not meant to make us comfortable. And they don’t.

Threats is about a man coping with the sudden loss of his wife. Fever Dream is about a woman dying in a hospital bed. Or maybe not. Reading both of these novels you will find yourself thinking what is going on? over and over again. But never mind. The particulars don’t matter. Both of these novels, at their core, are about the anxieties of living in a modern urban culture. We live in a perpetual news cycle of random violence, terrorism, chemical warfare, police brutality, political conspiracy and environmental collapse. These novels are about none of these things, and yet all of them hover at the edges, just as they do in our daily thoughts. Having my anxieties distilled and poured into the pages of a novel helped me recognize the way my daily life is overrun with similar threats that have no easy solution. I recognize the paranoia of these novels as the rhythms of today’s reality.

Make no mistake: I was disoriented and upended by this writing. Each book left me to flounder on my own. But then suddenly I found myself making connections. As I read, I also would have feelings of compassion, recognition, joy, and agency. Somehow at the end of each of these short novels I felt ready to face the world as it is. Read them.

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Cracked Reality: A Reading List

These days I find myself waking up every morning from anxious dreams where I would not be surprised at all to discover that I’ve been transformed into a verminous insect, or to discover that Trump is president. I never wander far from a news feed. I find myself constantly muttering “could that have just happened?” and “can this be real?” and no one seems able to answer those questions in a satisfactory way.

Fortunately there is a remedy for times when reality is too strange to believe. The remedy is to be found in reading fiction–not as an escape, but as an explanation. Some fiction writers have an uncanny ability to capture a reality deeper than what is in front of your own eyes. These talented writers can give your feelings context and perspective, in a way non-fiction can’t tackle.  They give you the assurance that you are not the only one who feels this way.

Kafka is a go-to 20th century author to describe the cracked-reality feeling I’m talking about, when life is getting stranger and more unreal-seeming all the time. Personally I’m more drawn to the fiction of Witold Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz–see this magnificent and unsettling new translation of Schulz’s stories from Northwestern University Press.

But I’m hoping to spotlight the work of current writers, those who are capturing the anxiety of right-now, and who seem to have thrown out every rule in the book except for their preference for simple declarative sentences.

Today I’m posting a list of works like these, not in any particular order. See what you think. Although some of these were marketed as “horror” they somehow give me solace when I read them. They are unusual and affecting and if you haven’t already you should read them. I’ll be following up with a closer look in the days to come.

  1. Threats by Amelia Gray
  2. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
  3. The Vegetarian by Kang Han
  4. Ladivine by Marie NDiaye
  5. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
  6. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz
  7. Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine
  8. Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez
  9. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
  10. Remainder by Tom McCarthy
  11. Metropole by Karinthy Ferenc
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Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Red Clocks was one of those rare, very-pretty-good reads for me. Zumas creates women with lovely endearing individuality and humaneness. I was concerned for their welfare and wanted them to turn out to have happy lives, almost to the degree that I feel about characters in Kent Haruf’s novels. On the downside the characters’s story arcs were not particularly interesting and their reactions to menstrual-related events never strayed much beyond the obvious, with the exception of the mender, whom I adored.

The person who designed this cover should get a medal. Brava–I’m assuming you are a woman–forgive me if you’re not and my admiration for you has grown all the more strong–and shame on Hachette for not giving you a named credit on the jacket you designed.

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Knucklehead by Adam Smyer

I want to say a few things about the novel Knucklehead by Adam Smyer, published this year by Akashic. The novel could not be more timely, and I urge everyone who has found their way to my blog to buy a copy and read it.

The novel is the diary of a black man whose law degree and loving wife and fancy job can’t shield him from a culture where he is continuously demeaned and threatened because of his race.

The writing in this novel is very loose. There is a casualness about the prose that is both endearing and distancing–it’s a style where you never know what the narrator is going to do or say next. In one scene after another the protagonist continues a debate with himself, the debate of his lifetime, about whether this is the time when he’ll resort to deadly violence to solve his problems. From moment to moment he relies on some outward sign that will give him permission to unleash his rage, and you keep expecting him to do great harm to someone, and at the same time you are kind of rooting for him to go ahead and do it, given the horrible things that happen to him, and given how dismissively he is treated even by those who supposedly love him.

The perpetual threat of violence, in almost every scene, was a very uncomfortable place for me to be as a reader, but an instructive one. I finished the book with a terrific headache, and I felt it was exactly the right way to feel about what happens in the story, both in terms of the real historical events it documents, and in terms of the fictional journey the main character takes from beginning to end. The chapter about the 1991 beating of Rodney King that was captured on video–a time when everyone was briefly filled with the hope that finally something would change, now that the evidence of police brutality was there for all to see–is heartbreaking to read given where we are now.

Now that I’ve written all of the above I also want to add that at times this is a very funny book. It’s a remarkable book. You should go in open-eyed and open-minded and see what happens.

Here is a link to the Akashic website where it’s currently $11.95:





That’s how much it costs to print a 228-page book with Ingramspark, the POD part of Ingram, the largest book printer & distributor in the world.  And it costs a little less than that at Amazon’s Create Space.

So the cost for anyone to publish a physical book–a bound trade paperback, that is–is about the same as buying a large coffee at a drive-up espresso bar.

I’ve been mulling that over tonight, because I spent a couple of hours reformatting my book to be in very large print for my friend with poor eyesight. It really did just take a couple of hours. While I was at it, I revised the dedication, to dedicate it to my friend who needs the very large print. And then I uploaded the file, and ordered a copy, and in a day or so I’ll be able to give my friend a unique edition to my new novel.

It gave me all kinds of ideas about individualized books, and what purpose they might serve. Each book published could be made unique, designed for just one reader. Changes are ridiculously simple to do with ebooks, which are ephemeral to begin with–you just upload a new file, and within a few hours the old version is gone and the new version is there instead. (The ease of changing an ebook leads to all kinds of questions about when it becomes a “new work” requiring a new ISBN or new copyright application…it seems people have different opinions, and I’m not sure who would be checking, or how they would know that what was there now is not what was there yesterday).

But I hadn’t really thought about how easy it has become to also print unique, one-off physical books, which would be lasting and could be all different from one another. The entire market for books is still predicated on the belief that the more of a book you sell the better. But maybe one day it’s going to be more about selling one at a time–and each in some way unique. A famous author might do limited editions, like silk screen artists do, where each copy is numbered. Or a thriller writer could change the name of the hero to be the name of the reader who ordered the book.

I don’t think we have begun much more than baby steps toward understanding how POD and digital publishing is going to change what we read, not only online but in the physical book world as well.

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Getting Closer to Publication Date

Hi everybody. It’s time to say good-bye to the early preview I posted of The Book of Dog, complete with its cover I made with post-it notes. I will always love this cover….

…but the book has evolved, hopefully for the better, from the barbaric yawp of a preview I posted at first. So it’s time for now to retire this bootleg preview and to make way for the spanking-new novel to be published by Vegetablian Books this fall. Wow. What a journey. More later but in the meantime here is the latest cover design for THE BOOK OF DOG, Vegetablian Books Edition:

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