A Midwest Rock Lobster Reader

Still a work in progress, this book page. Hopefully when I get the kinks worked out of the 2.0 version of Lobster Land,I'll have more than a few snippets and a long list of book recommendations.

Since everyone wants to know what a Lobster's reading, right now I'm taking a break from Stephen Graham Jones' 'Glory Dog' a.k.a. 'Fast Red Road.' It was slow going, though fun, but Florida State wanted their doctoral dissertation back ('Glory Dog: A Plainsong' was SGJ's dissertation when he got his PhD in Creative Writing). K.C.K. Community College wanted 'Fast Red Road: A Plainsong' back, the trade paperback FC2 published, which is identical in content to the Glory Dog version, plus or minus some capitalization quirks (I think, intentional ones that a copy-editor at FC2 must have overruled). I'd have kept going with it, but until I cough up about $250 to the Johnson County Library, I can't have any more loans, interlibrary or otherwise. Sucks.

Meanwhile, still picking away at Amy Hempel's new collection, and making side forays into Bauman's 'Beautiful Girls,' as well as the 'Paris Review' back issues I never quite catch up on.

Had a pleasant surprise in the most recent Playboy, a story called 'The Fall' by Bill Roorbach, who I've never read before. Definitely piqued my curiosity to read more of him.

The biggest discovery of late, Barry Hannah. Notice his entry into the recommended reading list. Hempel mentions him in her 'Paris Review' interview, but I missed it before. Hannah was interviews in #172, and I got curious. Especially when he started talking about Gordon Lish as a 'genius editor,' and I know Lish is a big factor for Mark Richard, Amy Hempel and Tom Spanbauer. I'm in the home stretch of 'Ray' (very short, more a novella than a novel), and will likely jump into 'Geronimo Rex' right after.

Also been exploring Chabon's world again, in 'Wonder Boys.' He's breaking one of my rules for novel writing, don't put a novelist in as protagonist or even major character. So far he hasn't pissed me off with it, but John Irving just barely gets away with it in 'A Widow for One Year.' 'Garp' maybe a little more successfully, but as a rule, the writer protagonist tends to be a turn-off for me.

Why would this be, if I'm supposedly a writer myself? Because writing is solitary and sedentary. Writer's lives are generally boring in terms of something you'd want to read. Plus, when I tell someone I'm working on a novel, the reaction is often bewilderment. Why would anyone do that? There's no money in it for the most part, it takes a lot of effort and time, and it's not like most people read a lot. It's somewhere between jazz and folk art dinosaurs made from old car parts as a profitable and appreciated medium.

Also high on my to-read stack is the ten chapter teaser that Vigorous Puppy sent me of Craig Clevenger's next novel, 'Dermorphia.'

Amy Hempel

Well, The Lobster recommends everything really. You simply will not go wrong with any of the four collections, even if you pay the outrageous fortunes people charge for 'At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom,' the sadly out of print second collection.

'Reasons to Live,' The first of the four, is possibly the strongest, though the degree is minor. "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried" is one of the most famous, probably the single most well-known from that first collection.

If you can track down 'Animal Kingdom,' and can part with the coin for it, do so. Fortunately, so far my local library has avoided having all their copies stolen and sold on eBay as 'ex-library' editions. In fact, I'd counsel against bidding on any copy of this book listed as such without a written letter of release from the library in question. Having copies in fair condition sell for $100+ has brought out the fiends, and even if they pay the 'replacement' price to the library they stand to make a handsome profit. This only deprives hard-working taxpayers who already sprung for it when it was in print of the riches contained in its covers.

'Tumble Home,' includes (the title track, so to speak), the longest single work by Hempel, a novella. It also contains "Housewife," which some claim to be the shortest story ever published. The Lobster has to differ with that assessment, because back before Hempel was meeting Steve Martin back stage at The Boarding House, I'd written "The Three Turtles." It's so short, I can put it here:

Once upontime, there were three turtles.

That's it, the whole story, ©1973 by Rod McBride.

But I digress. While "The Three Turtles" is an excellent example of minimalism, it's an unfair comparison without examples of what Amy Hempel was writing at age four. And yes, 'upontime' is one word, at least in this context.I shall petition the OED when I find four other examples in print.

Most recently, 'The Dog of Marriage' has been released amidst much secrecy. The first collection in eight years from an author who has an OOP bringing astronomical sums, and who is listed by (among others) Chuck Palahniuk as a major influence, but no one noticed. Amazon has it ranked (as of this writing) at #7,413, which isn't too shabby if you compare it to Beth Ann Bauman's 'Beautiful Girls' collection, which is way down at #778,361. And Oprah's magazine did do a short write-up of it prior to release of 'The Dog of Marriage.'

The term 'Minimalism' gets thrown around a lot, but Hempel is the real deal. She isn't the sort of writer you blast through. All four collections of her work could fit in a small trade paperback if one publisher held the rights to them. But even "Daylight Come" which is barely a two pager, is the kind of thing I read, and think and then read again. It borders on poetry, because there is so much for the reader to fill in.

And then too, part of the thing with Hempel's stories is they are so confessional. It's the stuff of pillow-talk, and that intimacy makes her incredibly sexy to read. It probably goes a long ways to explaining her very private life: she's confessed so much on the printed page, she doesn't necessarily want to be confronted with what is autobiographical and what is maybe exaggerated for effect. Even in a story like "The Harvest," where there is a section explaining all the exaggerations made for effect, there's still elements of mystery.

Chuck Palahniuk

The first rule of...

The problem with Palahniuk is where to begin.

'Fight Club' was the first book, and the only one so far to be adapted for screen, but in many ways it may be fairly considered his weakest effort. While there are segments of the book I'd love to see on the screen, such as the perfume incident, many of the things Jim Uhls dropped or condensed for the screenplay are improvements. To take nothing away from Pitt and Norton's performances, I would have cast either the same actor in both Jack and Tyler's roles OR cast a pair of identical twins. You'd start out with differentiation based on makeup, and they would gradually appear more similar, as in the book.

In any case, Palahniuk's second novel, 'Survivor' is funny, fast paced and a a furious social satire on so many levels. It was published in the nick of time, too. One of the reasons it hasn't seen the big screen is too much of it rubs the post-9/11 audience wrong. Airplane hijackings, mass suicide by a religious cult, Americans lost their sense of humor about that shit when the Trade Center came down. Plus, hijacked passengers are not likely to be sheep in the foreseeable future. And while some critics have a problem with Palahniuk's more recent turn to the gothic in 'Lullaby,' 'Diary' and 'Haunted,' there's elements of that in 'Survivor.' Fertility Hollis' visions definitely go beyond the rational world.

For that matter the climactic scene at the Denny's confession in stone takes 'Choke' slightly into the supernatural. 'Fight Club,' probably has the least claim to otherworldly influences, particularly the book version of the ending. Still, there is the deus ex machina factor, since Tyler would know as well as Jack that paraffin isn't going to work.

So the 'turn' to the gothic isn't inorganic to Palahniuk's overall output. Even his non-fiction 'Stranger Than Fiction;' even his 'Fugitives and Refugees,' which is a travel guide, includes ghost stories and hints at an 'other side.'

There are some interviews with Palahniuk after 9/11 where he talks about the 'death of transgressive fiction.' He hints in the 'Postcards From the Future' DVD that the political climate of the 1950s forced authors to be more clever with their metaphors, to bury social criticism in science fiction and horror so as to avoid censorship. But as far as the move from 'transgressive' fiction (a nebulous genre if ever there was) to more straightforward horror), I don't think fear of censorship drove it.

I would have thought this decision was like Elmore Leonard abandoning the Western for crime stories. But Palahniuk has pointed out even more recently that you can say whatever you want in a book. No one bothers trying to censor books in modern America.

Which is true up to a point, and sad when you consider its implications. A pro-Palestinian book might draw some heat from the Establishment. But books are so irrelevant to most Americans that you could string together any lurid combination of sex, scatological references, violence, etc., and no one will notice. Even Robert Lasner's 'For Fucks Sake' fails to show up on radar. People are much more concerned about wardrobe malfunctions, Ludacris, internet pornography. Super Bowl commercials generate more outrage than 'Tropic of Cancer.'

This is because people know their kids aren't reading books. That's the last thing they need to worry about.

As if to prove this point, last fall MacAdam/Cage was street teaming Will Christopher Baer's third book, 'Hell's Half Acre.' They sent free Advance Press Proofs of 'Kiss Me Judas,' which they were reprinting along with 'Penny Dreadful' after Viking/Penguin decided WCB didn't move enough books. At least one kid on the street team had the books confiscated by his school, including his copy of 'Hell's Half Acre' that he wasn't even trying to give away. I know from experience that schools like to maintain control over handing out literature in schools. If you let a teenager hand out copies of a novel, next thing you know it's the 'Book of Mormon' or Robert B. DePugh's 'Blueprint for Victory.' Inevitably a parent will complain.

After all, we must protect our children from religion at all cost. And political writings, well, really, if you let these kids start thinking...

So schools stick to handing out misleading literature from Planned Parenthood and busting students who hand out anything not approved by the Administration. The street teamer in question might even have been able to get 'Kiss Me Judas' approved for distribution in his school if he'd gone through channels, I really doubt the authorities taking the books away had any idea of their content. In fact, the APPs looked a little like the 'Book of Mormon,' so maybe they meant well...

But wait, this section is supposed to be about Chuck Palahniuk.

There are common threads running through Palahniuk's work, whether 'transgressive,' 'gothic,' or, you could say in the case of 'Lullaby' BOTH.

Class warfare is a popular thing with Chuck. He particularly likes to take on the extremely wealthy: the banquet crowd of 'Fight Club;' the employers who can't figure out how to eat lobster or heart of palm salad in 'Survivor;' the exploitative population of Waytansea; Helen Boyle (and her clients, both in real estate and in hired killing). The downtrodden service-industry worker of Orwell's 'Down and Out in Paris and London' is present and accounted for in Jack and Tyler's service-industry terrorism; in Colonial Dunsboro, in Misty Wilmot's hotel job, in the labor missionary job Tender Branson is sent to by the Creedish elders.

For that matter, my least favorite of Palahniuk's books, 'Invisible Monsters,' features the real estate of the wealthy and the world of the super model. The scam for getting prescription painkillers is to get shown the houses of the fabulously wealthy.

The 'transgressive' element is obvious in 'Fight Club' and 'Survivor,' but it really stays with us well past Palahniuk's eulogy of it. Victor Mancini crosses bridge after bridge in his sexual compulsion and the scam he runs to support his once wayward mother. And in 'Lullaby,' the more people die, the more things stay the same is a common chorus, not to mention Oyster's rants. And the latest, 'Haunted,' made up of nested short stories which include a conspiracy to use airplanes as missiles to take out every religious shrine from Mecca to the Vatican to the Dali Lama. If 'transgressive' fiction is dead, it's ghost is putting Palahniuk out of the mid list and into the best-seller category.

The Midwest Rock Lobster book list is still in its larval state. The idea is not to have a bit about a couple of writers. For the time being, content yourself with the following (wholly incomplete) recommended reading list:

Note: authors are listed in alphabetical order. Books are listed in no particular order for the most part. Some of the missing spaces on the list are books I simply haven't gotten to yet. They may be worthy of the Lobster's recommendation, but I won't recommend 'Gravity's Rainbow' or 'Vineland,' for instance, without at least reading them myself. If they're poor books, I'd be surprised, Pynchon hasn't let me down yet. Also, some of the collections of short stories represent more than what I've covered. Having the complete stories of Franz Kafka or John Cheever doesn't mean I've read them through. It does mean there are multiple stories in the collections that are must-reads.

Oh, you might notice I'm not recommending a lot of Stephen King books, but I have him on the list. It's been a decade or so since I've read anything by him, but 'The Shining' sticks with me as being a cut above his work in general. It's the same reason I only recommend Thomas Harris' first two books: I feel he went downhill after that, and sharply in the case of 'Hannibal.' For that matter, some of the books that are listed are books I can find fault with. They all have something that make them worth reading, warts and all. Hasek was in dire need of an editor; I like 'Penny Dreadful' much more than 'Kiss Me Judas' and 'Hell's Half Acre,' and so on.

A David Sedaris

Reading Through a

Lobster's Eyes

Anotated Lobsterism Bookish Links

Writers & Writing

Amy Hempel's site is no longer under construction. Not only are all the links live, but there's a pretty thorough author bio.
The Cult Chuck Palahniuk, author and generous soul.
Max Barry Funny, funny guy. Definitely got his chocolate in our peanut butter.
Payday Justin Holt. Great guy, look for his upcoming novel, 'Payday.'
The Velvet Will Christopher Baer, noir fiction extraordinare. Also the best place to find Craig Clevenger and Stephen Graham Jones. Staff from MacAdam/Cage also participate, including Pat Walsh, Clevenger's editor.
The Book Forum This is a message board Jay turned me onto, not beholden to a given publisher, audience or author.
Bread Loaf Hempel's going to be there this year. So is Percival Everett, Andrea Barrett, and a ton of other literary giants. Unfortunately, I won't be there, lacking the $2000 fee. Plus, the deadline for applications is past, but it's on my perpetual 'maybe next year' list.
Jonathan Lethem 'Fortress of Solitude' was a brilliant piece of social realism, but 'Motherless Brooklyn' is one of the most unique books of recent years. Lethem really captures the nature of Tourette's Syndrome, and weaves it into the narrative in a brilliant way. If you've ever known a Tourettic (if that's a word), especially, 'Motherless Brooklyn' is not optional reading material. If you haven't known someone with Tourette's, check out Frank Muller's reading of it. Probably the finest audio book ever produced, Muller, nails the nuance and nature of the tics.
Wil Wheaton This guy was listed by Todd Bunker as one of three 'writers who blog.' I picked this up when Max Barry decided to take him on Max Barry's blog on May 10, 2005. I keep meaning to get around to reading Wil Wheaton because his site is genuinely amusing and that might translate into his being a good author. My only reservation is that Todd says some genuinely idiotic things (like suggesting that 'Jennifer Government' only sold well because Max created the 'Nation States game. I've read both of Max's books, more than once in fact, and I've never played 'Nation States. In my experience, reading is incompatible with playing video and online games. Maybe some people have figured out how to do both at once, but I'm skeptical.
Neal Pollack I haven't read this guy yet either, but since he was plugged, if that's the term, in the same write-up that set Max off, as one of three Writers Who Blog I couldn't justify linking one writer I've never read and not the other. Both Wheaton and Pollack have one thing going for them that might provoke me into reading their books: as far as I know they are unknown to the best-seller list. I've been disappointed in some unknown writers, and every once in a while a writer I really enjoy sells well, but these are exceptions that prove the rule. For every Chuck Palahniuk there's a dozen or more Stephen Graham Joneses. See also Craig Clevenger, Beth Ann Bauman, Amy Hempel, Joey Goebel, Tom Spanbauer, and so on. Yes, I know these are not entirely a collection of unknowns, but, you're not likely to find them in the rack at the next airport you pass through. For that matter, while Palahniuk has shown up on the New York Times Bestseller list, it's not like he lives there. I don't have the figures, but I doubt his combined seven novels and two non-fiction books have put up sales comparable to 'The Da Vinci Code.' For that matter, if you look at Amazon rankings, there appears to be a depressingly perverse relationship between the quality of a book and it's commercial success. Dan Brown's hatchet job is ranked #10 in books as this Lobster writes, while Foucault's Pendulumsits at #112,631. Even 'A Confederacy of Dunces,' is at a humble #542. And that's with a Pulitzer and English Department reading lists to help pimp it.
St. Helen's Book Shop The local book store has fallen on hard times thanks to the internet and the big chains. As I update the site, I'm switching my links to St. Helen's and other independent book stores on general principal. Maybe to some of the other online book brokerages too. This isn't a slam against Amazon. I've bought plenty of stuff from them and will probably do so in the future, but if I'm spending the same amount of dough either way, I'd rather give my trade to an independent concern. Also, for all you Palahniuk fans, if you want autographed copies, St. Helen's is the place to go. Given how generous Chuck is with his autograph, it's not likely you'll make a killing off eBaying a signed copy of Haunted or any other of his books. But he'll also inscribe it to you, so if you're a fan and you dig that sort of thing, you're forgoing whatever discounts Amazon might be pushing on it in exchange for not having to cart it to a book signing and wait in line for the autograph. If you're into meeting authors, I guess that's the horse of a different color you've heard tell about. For my own part, the assembly line nature of a book signing isn't much of a way to 'meet' someone. If I find myself seated next to an author I enjoy on an airplane or in a bar, that's 'meeting' them to me. I had a wonderful chat with Pat Martino a few years ago, a conversation that changed my life. A spontaneous meeting like that is a whole different experience from what I saw people waiting in line for David Sedaris' autograph before and after his Lawrence reading this spring.
Powell's As long as I'm promoting alternatives to the Amazon Empire, here's another indie.
Quimby's And another...
San Narciso Community College A site dedicated to the work of Thomas Pynchon.
Craig Clevenger, If you haven't read 'The Contortionist's Handbook,' you're missing out on one of the best novels in recent years.
Stephen Graham Jones, author of several books, including 'All The Beautiful Sinners,' which is maybe the most original thriller based on a serial killer I've ever read. Plus, it absolutely hijacked my life, I couldn't not keep reading. Makes me almost afraid to read his other books...
MacAdam/Cage An indie publisher that seems to have a knack for picking up awfully good stuff. I haven't read their catalog through, but a spooky number of books with their name on the spine have turned out to be excellent.
Elmore Leonard A great storyteller, and living proof that you can write fiction of merit while being commercially successful.
Paris Review If you only subscribe to one lit mag, you're missing out. Still, if it's to be one, this is the one.
McSweeney's Quarterly Home of the original 20-minute story.
Massachusetts Review What can a Lobster say about it that Joyce Carol Oates hasn't said better?
Toni Morrison a truly original and thought-provoking author. And now that Saul Bellow's gone, she's the only living American with a Nobel for Literature.
There may be more than one magazine with the name, but this is the one you'll find the likes of Padgett Powell in.
Missouri Review Top notch mag, publishing a lot of people you haven't heard of...yet.
Iowa Review Hey, it's Iowa. Aside from growing a lot of corn and pork, it's a hotbed of good literature.
Agni Beware the monkey demon!
Southwest Review If you think Paris Review has survived a long time, it's an upstart by comparison. Dates back to 1915, and going strong. As of this update at the Lobster, Southwest Review is preparing to publish the last known unpublished story of the late Arthur Miller.
MAR Mid-America Review, putting Bowling Green on the map (at least for bookish Lobsters).
David Sedaris This site is real 'unofficial' looking, even aside from saying it's an official site right on it. But then, Sedaris claims he can't access the internet and only saw it the first time, 'the other day.' Kind of like the mystery of how Utah Philips has such a web presence...
Forbidden Library If only people read more, there would be more outrage in the world. Yet, there's books threatened by the forces of priggishness, decency, and misguided liberalism...
Open Books Project I'm linking this with a caveat. I don't belive in watering down intellectual property rights, but by the same token, the internet should be a place where you can find public domain stuff like crazy.
Poets & Writers For Lobsters who'd like to show up in the pages of some of the fine lit mags listed above.

Midwest Rock Lobster ©2005 All Rights Reserved.
Sort of Revised June 27, 2005
Legitimate questions, concerns and technical difficulties may be sent to Midwest Rock Lobster
Illegitimate questions may be sent to:
George W. Bush or current occupant
1600 Pennsylvania, Washington D.C. 20500
George won't be much help to you; nor would Kerry if he'd won that sham of an election. But at least you won't be bothering lobsters.