EBCB: an excerpt

Russell Davies has been documenting the vanishing English Cafe for a few years now on his two blogs. Now it seems his paean to the classic British slap-up meal, eggbaconchipsandbeans, is to be turned into a book. I know I want a copy, not just for its celebration of this utilitarian meal, but for his enthusiastic writing:

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Library Thannnnng

After thinking about setting up a books database on my computer using Booxter, along comes a Web-based flickr-style version called LibraryThing. Designed by Tim Spaulding, it uses ISBN, bar codes, Amazon, and straight ol’ manual input to create a db on the web to represent your collection. You can then link to it and show people that, in fact, you have way too many Star Wars Universe novels for a 35-year-old man.
As you can see, I’ve already signed up, entered a few books–from my reading pile at work–and installed their blog widget on the left-hand side. Ain’t it amazing?

A nice small haul from the hall

Today I quickly stopped by the annual Planned Parenthood Used Booksale at the Earl Warren Showgrounds. This is one of the biggest sales in S.B., and apparently last night’s opening was a madhouse. I wanted to go, but I was teaching class, so I just hoped there would be something left.
I ran into John Ridland, former poetry teacher of mine, and translator (I wrote on his book here). He had some nice words to say about my bimonthly column and this very blog, and I was glad to tell him that it’s back in business. He also had recently gotten into Modern Japanese Lit through a friend and was very much into Junichiro Tanizaki. Yep, Tanizaki is a good one to start with, more so than Soseki. Of course I put in a good word for Kobo Abe.
I didn’t pick up many books this year, but I did get three: Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion (only later did Jon point out the irony of picking this up at the Planned Parenthood sale); Geoff Dyer’s but beautiful: A Book About Jazz, which some blog or another turned me onto months ago. Now it’s too late to thank them/him/her. Finally, the media contact/organizer Stephanie, who had been yakking back and forth with me on email, had saved a copy of Burroughs’ Interzone for me, after I had written about my WSB Binge in my column. Wasn’t that sweet of her? It turned out that book was a first-edition hardcover, too! Niiiiice.

William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible – Barry Miles

Virgin Books
2002

My cultural knowledge of William S. Burroughs used to go a little bit like this: “Naked Lunch”…ah, hmmm…”Naked Lunch” (the movie).
I knew more about him as a reference, from bands I like (Steely Dan, Soft Machine) to a voice to sample (“Language is a Virus” and “Sharkey’s Night” for Laurie Anderson). So it made sense to pick up this very breezy biography by Barry Miles, who has also actively reconstructed some “definitive texts” of Burroughs’ works (and after you read the book, you realize how brain-busting that must have been).
This is the story of a man who leaves his small town, sees the big wide world, does a whole lot of drugs, achieves fame, achieves poverty, then returns to a similar location to live out the rest of his days. Funny how that happens. Of course, in the meantime, he winds up influencing the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Miles traces the themes and influences running through all Burroughs’ works and makes valid the writer’s own claim that all his writing is one large book, with familiar characters and ideas turning up again and again. Just as some film directors start off as comic artists, Burroughs started off as more of a skit writer, composing “routines” with his friends based on wild characters, seeing where they would leave. “Junky” certainly has that quality from the get go; “Naked Lunch” is the culmination of that style. The later cut-up works are microcosm versions of the routines.
At some point Burroughs became so paranoid, and believed that people were just “agents” working for some unseen force, and that women were aliens. He actively pursued Scientology in its earlier stages, when it was a version of Wilhelm Reich’s theories (Burroughs went through the e-meter business and became a ‘clear’) and not a money-making cult. Reading about this made me realize how much Cronenberg put into his film of Naked Lunch–not just an adaptation of the novel, but a psychobiography of Burroughs.
Miles’ book is essential reading for anyone interested in jumping into Burroughs’ work, not just because of the overview it gives of the books, but because so much of his life appears in his novels, that I would imagine a reader would be lost without it.
So therefore I picked up Junky right after putting this book down. Will read it soon….
In the meantime, here’s a page of cut-up machines. And a page of assorted texts.

Supporting Yourself as an Artist – Deborah A. Hoover

Oxford University Press
1989

Am I having an artistic identity crisis or what? Jeff Kaiser recommended this book–it’s a very thin book–for those interested in grants. And I’m interested in grants…in the future.
This form of moolah procurement is still very popular, 20 years (!) after Deborah Hoover wrote the first edition to this book (she followed it up four years later with the second, and then kept shtum through the internet and email revolution).

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The Now Habit – Neil Fiore

Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.
1989

Like so many peeps, I have a hard time with procrastination.
This is especially baffling for me, because I find these days I procrastinate over things I like to do, and wonder what the hell’s wrong with me. I was a much better procrastinator when I was younger, when I took ages to do boring school assignments and chores, preferring to write, draw, read, etc. Now I have a hard time jumping on the computer to edit film, or work on After Effects, and such. Is it the technology? Is is fear of completion? What? What? What??
Goddamn it all, I need answers. Well, I didn’t find them all in Neil Fiore’s book, but there are some nice “mind hacks” (to borrow a term) inside. The book, you may not be surprised to hear, is recommended over at 43 Folders, the boosters for Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done. Books like these are always easy to read (and finish, bwah), so why not, I asked.
The book comes from 1989, B.E.M. (Before Email), so when Fiore makes note of “Inboxes filled with letters” he’s talking about paper. (Tell me, grandad, what was it like in an office back then?)
And of course, the book is designed for the executive and/or office worker who, let’s face it, has nothing but sucky things to work on anyway. When you die, nobody will remember you for the 2001 semi-quarterly report of potato vendors. Such is life.
But there’s plenty for artists and creatives and before I forget the sage (and just plain) wisdom, I’ll write it down here.
* Making the mistake of identifying too much with a project, until any opinion on the project is taken as an opinion on yourself. Therefore, “…procrastination can serve as a delaying action and as a way of getting past your perfectionism. If you delay starting your work, you cannot do your best and so any critiscim or failure will not be a judgement of the real you or your best effort.” Although true, sometimes my best writing is done when I’m under the gun. I’d prefer not to be under the gun, yet neither do I judge my rush work as less than my own writing.
* Fiore compares a task to walking along a foot-long plank of wood for 30 feet. Easy? But what if it was 50 ft off the ground, suspended between two buildings? We’d find it hard to get across. But what if the roof we were on was on fire? We’d probably find a way to get across. Procrastinating, says Fiore, is when we raise the plank of wood ourselves and then set fire to the building–that is, we wait until the last minute until outside events force us to actually do the job. We create pressure that doesn’t need to be created…
* It’s all about word choice. In his most salient yet psychobabbly point, Fiore recommends switching the verb “have” with “choose”, ideas of punishment and outside forces switching with rewards and free will. So don’t say “I have to finish this assignment by 5 o’clock…or else!!”. Instead say “I choose to finish this assignment (because this is the life I’m leading at the moment, etc. etc.)” Now whether this will enable my life script and/or send me into a shame spiral I don’t know, but actually I find this a good way of looking at things, and certainly gave me a little new perspective (along with GTD) that allowed me to finish the music video I was working on. Weeks of “I have to finish this!” produced very little, because I was grouping it all together. Once I broke all that needed to be done into little batches of assignments, suddenly it was “I choose to finish one AfterEffects shot tonight” or “I want to/I bet I can…” etc.
* “Whenever you catch yourself losing motivation on a project, look for the implicit “have to” in your thinking and make a decision at that moment to embrace the path–as it is, not the way you think it should be–or let go of it. It’s your choice.”
* Other changes in your inner voice: Replace “I must finish” with “When can I start?”
* There is a link between chronic procrastinators and workaholics: “they are either working or feeling guilty about no working.”
* Make a reverse calendar. Start with the end date, then plot out the other dates that run up to it. This does mean, however, that you must pull apart a majority of the small actions ahead of time, and make room for the unknown. This is easier said than done.
* Questions to ask yourself to overcome fear, especially when planning a project: “What’s the worst that could happen?” “What would I do if the worst really happened?” “How would I lessen the pain and get on with as much happiness as possible if the worse did occur?” “What alternatives would I have?” “What can I do now to lessen the probability of this dreaded event occuring?” and “Is there anything I can do now to increase my chances of achieving my goal?” These are fair questions to ask, as long as you are not completely delusional and do them ahead of time.
* A lot of these suggestions are Buddhist. As is GTD. Dave Allen was a former hippie. Go figure.
* Telling yourself “I should have started earlier” is a waste of time. You’ve started, so do the work.
* “Only work will diminish your anxiety.” I like that maxim. Also: “Procrastination is another form of work” (but not in a good way).
* Use reverse psychology: “I must not work more that 2 hours a day on this project.” Guess what happens.
* Let go of larger goals (temporarily) in order to focus on smaller goals that can be accomplished sooner.
So that’s about it (or what I marked down as interesting). Fiore hits the same points over and over, and I still have a hard time thinking about business people and why they should care about the stack of paper on their desks. I’m glad someone is there to help them out and who also, along the way, helps out the artist.
On a side note, this book came out in 1989, which isn’t that long ago really. But one of the main ways to procrastinate–email and Internet–just didn’t exist.

Blankets – Craig Thompson

Top Shelf Comics
2003

Blankets is a huge tome of a graphic novel, one that took artist/writer Craig Thompson 5 years to complete, and only took me a few hours to finish.
Ach, such is art.
The story, a realistic tale with dashes of magical realism and fantasy, concerns Craig, growing up in a strict Fundamentalist (are there any other kinds?) household, and struggling with his faith when he falls madly in love with Raina, a girl he meets at Christian Ski Camp. She lives in Michigan, he lives in Wisconsin, and they soon consummate a long-distance relationship that leads to the central action of the novel, Craig’s decision to stay with her for a week at her family’s house.
Craig’s family is ruled by a domineering father (who Thompson draws a little bit like Stalin), an invisible, but not weak, mother, and a younger brother who doesn’t have the most loving relationship with. He’s not exactly his brother’s keeper. The visit to Raina’s house mirrors Craig’s broadening worldview that primes him to leave the church. Raina’s parents are breaking up, but Dad still comes back every day for a few hours and puts on a brave face. The couple communicate through notes stuck to the refrigerator. Raina has an older, more rebellious sister, who has left the Christian home and immediately married a lunkhead and dropped a sprog. Raina also has two adopted siblings, both with Down’s Syndrome, a decision that made sense to the parents when they were kids, but now they are growing up physically, but not mentally, is fully taxing them.
Thompson gets all the details right in this slow, studied portrayal of young love, though tempered with debates over sin and battles with shame. The fundamentalist church comes across as one big gathering of alpha male high schoolers, with little difference between the mullet-heads that bully Craig, and the block-headed churchgoers who will choose ideology over family. With Christo-fascist James Dobson currently pulling the strings in Washington, it’s a shudder-worthy look into a sub-culture that is isolationist and miserablist at its core, but one that has its eye fixed on a theocratic state. The anti-art/anti-creativity propaganda drilled into the children through the church, as seen in Blankets, is, well, it’s child abuse, not to mention the whole body-shame-guilt crap.
Thompson grew up in this sort of environment, but like others who escape the fundamentalist craw, he knows his Bible, and Blankets occasionally departs to tell stories from the scripture that complement the main plot. His explication of Ecclesiastes–one panel the existential angst of the original text rendered in jagged Grosz-like ink work, the other a Sunday School happy bunny version of the Christian “correction” added later–is especially enjoyable.
I don’t know any of Thompson’s previous (minor) work, but his flexibility of style from realism to expressionism shows his young mastery of the form. This is his second book, but the first to be in this realist style. What he does for a followup will be of interest–having purged himself of his childhood trauma, will he have anything left to say? (Supposedly the next book is an “Arabian fairy tale”.)
Craig Thompson has a website and an interview here at Fear of Speed.

John the Valient – Sándor Petőfi

Hesperus
2004

It was national poetry month last month, and Santa Barbara crowned its first poet laureate, Barry Spacks,
who I covered (with some tardiness) for the News-Press in my column. However, I missed publicizing, but still managed to give a shout out to, John Ridland, the poet who was one of my professors at UCSB back in the day. He was giving a reading of his own translation of Sándor Petőfi’s “John the Valiant”. After a few nice email exchanges, I received a copy in the mail. Being poetry, it was a quick read.
According to the introduction, John the Valiant is Hungary’s national poem, a work of children’s lit that speaks to young and old alike. The Hungarians look upon it like we look on Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz, a text that keeps giving. People can quote huge chunks of the text, apparently.
Earlier translations, when they could be found, were prose, but Ridland’s translation returns to the original poem’s four line stanzas, and rather regular, child-like rhythm. This makes for some awkward rhyming, as the original Hungarian (presented here on the left side of the page) keeps the rhythm and rhyme throughout.
The story is simple enough. Besotted young country lad John Crack’o’Corn has to flee the farm and his love Nel after accidentally letting his flock of sheep disappear. He winds up joining a traveling army and fights on the side of France against the Turks, singlehandedly rescuing the King of France’s daughter in the process. He refuses the princess’ hand as he’s still in love with Nell, only to get home after an incredible further adventure (he winds up riding an eagle like a horse) to find Nell dead.
A nice, suitably gloomy ending, but Petőfi was told to keep the story going out of popularity.
The second half suffers a little from the unplanned sequel syndrome, as we find in Hollywood a lot these days, and Petőfi throws in more fantasy–Giants, witches, assorted bad guys–to keep the punters happy. It ends on the island of fantasy, the only place he can ever reunite with his love. It’s a strange book–if there’s anything missing it may be the author’s voice that would successfully link these disparate episodes together, something only found in the original language. I know so little about Hungarian literature that the book is interesting just in the way it has broadened my mind. Plus, it’s short! Thanks to Professor Ridland for having the good sense to pass it on to me.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West – Gregory Macguire

Regan Books
1996

Recommended on a list of “socialist (leaning) sci-fi” which I think you can still find here, and then doubly recommended by my friend Chris,
and then found for a dollar that very afternoon in a used book shop (dontcha just love syncronicity?), I finally zipped through this after it sat on the To Read pile while I finished Austerlitz.
Now ten years’ old and adapted into a musical of all things, the novel takes the Wizard of Oz and retells the tale from the Wicked Witch of the West’s point of view, opening up Oz into a rethink, where the Wizard is an authortarian ruler, Animals who can speak are persecuted like Jews, and Elphaba (the witch’s real name) is a misunderstood atheist who suffers from being on the wrong side of history. History, as you know, that is written by the winners.
Not to say that Elphaba is good and Dorothy bad–the novel is not just a mirror-reverse. Instead, the tale is a complex journey of conflicting desires and sad figures, and a slowly dawning sense (for the witch’s atheist beliefs) of predetermination, which we readers sense is Nabokovian in nature. Gregory Maguire creates characters that breathe, and successfully places within a completely different world without snarkily referring to our own, or breaking the fantasy. Characters talk from within their subculture, and we have to divvy out their belief systems. Explication be damned. Elphaba (the name comes from, ah-ha, L. Frank Baum’s initials) winds up a tragic, misunderstood character, and Dorothy a well-meaning but oblivious agent of death.

Getting Things Done – Dave Allen

Penguin/Putman
2001

If last year’s “Most Important Book” was City Comforts, this year’s has got to be Getting Things Done,
by productivity guru Dave Allen. My personal path to Allen was this: wondering what shareware/freeware apps were essential once I had my G5/OSX…Phil sending me a selection of links…one of those links being the blog 43 Folders…them recommending (nay, internalizing) Getting Things Done, or GTD as the hep cats call it…the library having a copy.
I have since turned into a prosyletizing GTD-head, turning on my friends Jon and Jeff to its tips and tricks, and on a bigger level, making large adjustments in thinking to handle the amount of tasks the creative person has. So many ideas we have, we artists, so little time to do them. Allen writes for the executive, but his system of lists and folders, and his mental system of prioritizing (the classic triple Ds of “Do Defer Delegate”) and solving tasks is for everybody, and has already paid off for me in big ways. The desk at home remains clean…every night. Small tasks, like phone calls, emails, and the like get taken care of right away. Large tasks and projects are broken down into smaller to-do lists. The email has been sorted out and in one night I took care of an Inbox that was spilling over with 450 emails. There’s nothing so edifying as crossing out completed tasks one after the other.
I haven’t done everything (yet) suggested in the book, and not everything applies or is of use. For example the “43 Folders” idea that the blog has taken for its name would be good if I was an executive with many paper-based projects and a big filing cabinet (the 43 includes a folder for every day of any particular month and one each after that for each following month). But I’m not, so that can wait. I still need to clear my desk of crap (mostly magazines), and I still want to have a proper sorting out of the filing cabinet and toss out old bills. (This sort of talk would lead to a sarky quote from Jon: Ted! You’re not Getting Things Done!!!)
In conjunction with the book (which I have now bought, because it’s something you want to have around), I am using the “hipster PDA,” an idea that grew out of the geeks who champion GTD. It’s a daytimer made out of 3×5 index cards and a metal clip. Totally customizable, and requires no batteries, stylus, or expensive software. You also don’t feel like a twat if you lose it. The missus is embarrassed about this because she thinks it’s a cry for help (or a least a cry for her to buy me a PDA), but I assure her that it’s not. Jon now has one, to which his sister responded, “Hipster here means poor, you know that, right?” So we are now calling our HPDAs the iStack. (Jeff recommends pStack, as there’s nothing “i” about it, but I don’t know.) You can see a photo of mine here.
43 Folders also has a rough summary of the book here, but the book is so dense, it might not make too much sense (or have the necessary impact).