Portland, Oregon has a well-deserved reputation as a bookish city. Its literary climate springs, in part, from its actual climate. During the months of interminable rain it is natural to retreat to bookstores and libraries, or curl up at home with a favorite volume. The city’s creative energy, fueled by coffee, craft beer and local wine, helps foment works of imagination by local writers. Harvest the fruit of their labors at these book stores.
This small but venerable indie bookstore in the heart of Multnomah Village, on the west side, has been dishing out literary goodness since 1978. It sells new books, with a focus on fiction, children’s and young adult, travel, current events, and cooking. Plus it is a great space to browse for magazines, art supplies, puzzles, and cards.
This Northeast Portland stalwart is particularly strong on stocking local writers. Subject matter is wide open, with offerings of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, graphic novels and more. You will find personalized material from local authors like Cheryl Strayed, who has the honor of a section dedicated to signed copies of her work.
No mention of the PDX literary scene would be complete without a nod to Powells’s, City of Books. As the biggest thing in local literary retail it is a huge draw for both writers and readers alike, who can spend happy hours browsing its immense color-coded collections. I’ve been hanging out at Powell’s since I was a kid (when I gravitated to Nancy Drew mysteries and Marguerite Henry horse stories). Whatever you go looking for, you generally come out with something different, which is most of the fun of it.
The most adorably clapboard, overstuffed used bookshop imaginable, Wallace Books is a throwback to the eclectic, eccentric wonderful bookstores of my childhood. Its charming exterior beckons you in and its sprawling collection rewards languid browsing. Take your time.
What’s your favorite indie bookshop? Big it up in the comments!
This short story appears in the Erotic Review, where you’ll have to go to read the saucy bits.
Abe remembered as he pulled into the rest area. Too late. Sixteen years of habit die slow. He rested his right palm on the frayed Navajo-style passenger seat-cover, feeling the faint prickle of Geordie’s short, coarse hair trapped in the rough weave. It felt like the spiky-soft tips of grass sprouting on the grave beneath the ash tree.
Killing the engine, Abe shut his eyes. Geordie always smelled like swamp water. For the first weeks Abe was convinced the pup snuck into things: drains, garbage cans, trash heaps. But patient stalking revealed no miscreance. The goofy mutt was just an eventual 97 pounds of slobbering, soft-hearted, small-bladdered stinker. Picked a winner, Hazel would tease.
He was though: loyal, tireless, curious, protective, the folds of his part-boxer, part-hound face arranged in a permanent tragicomic mask that could make Abe smile on the worst days. Of course, Hazel was the one who cared for Geordie weeks at a stretch. He wished he’d been there more.
Dusk was bleeding the day of its heat but remnants splashed Abe’s legs as he crossed to the cafe-slash-convenience store. He went to pee, more out of habit than necessity, then bought a bottle of Dr Pepper and a pack of beef jerky, not admitting to himself that would probably be dinner.
Gnawing a stick of dried meat, he paused short of his truck. Someone had pulled in at a 40 degree angle, the vintage blue Corolla’s bumper almost nuzzling his door. Faded Mississippi plates, long deep scratches above the rear wheel, a palm-sized patch of bare metal on the hatchback, no driver, a jumble of boxes and plastic crates stacked to the ceiling. Someone in a hurry all right. Abe could think of a few reasons why that might be, none of which he wanted to get involved with.
Hazel had laughed at his proclivity for rescuing things: Geordie, abandoned cats (usually pregnant), injured birds, hitch-hikers, drifters. But he was tired. He could climb in the passenger side and go.
In 2009 I took a shot at writing a children’s mystery of the sort I grew up on (Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys, etc). Revisiting it, I was as much in thrall to J.D. Salingeras to Carolyn Keene. It remains unfinished but I’m open to offers 😉
Benjamin Riddle-Smith wasn’t happy. His summer had started badly, and right now it was sunk deep in the doldrums. I feel like this stupid yacht, he thought, staring across the deck from his lounge chair, stuck here boiling under the sun and never getting anywhere. Benjamin’s face folded down into a deep frown as he remembered the events of the final few days of school, which had cost him his freedom this summer.
Despite their looming eleven-plus exams he and his best friend Tod had been having a jolly time. They were both sport mad, and spent every spare moment climbing, swimming, and playing rugby or tennis. That wasn’t a problem until their housemaster decided on long, boring mandatory study sessions in preparation for their eleven-pluses.
Tod and Benjamin had never seen eye to eye with the headmaster on the subject of studying versus sport, so they shouldn’t have really been surprised when he took a dim view of them sneaking out to play games during library hour. The more Mr. Hawkins watched them, the harder they tried to get around his rules, until one night they executed a daring free climb right up the stone and ivy façade of Ashford House.
Worst of all, they made it cleanly to the second floor, and were only feet from the safety of their shared room when their prank was discovered. They were at the room next door, to be precise, and Thomas Smyth’s shriek of surprise as they tumbled through his open window had woken most of the corridor. Mr. Hawkins would have dearly loved to see the two mischief makers gone for good. But luckily Benjamin’s father Alfred Riddle was an extremely wealthy and persuasive man, and Tod’s nearest relative was his elderly uncle – a close friend of the queen’s.
There had been a lot of fuss about it, but in the end the real punishment didn’t come from grumpy Mr. Hawkins but from Benjamin’s parents who agreed that instead of spending the summer with his mother in Switzerland he would spend it with his father on his yacht, the Icarus. It was a huge, triple deck floating palace, packed with gadgets, and Benjamin enjoyed spending the occasional weekend there. But eight hot weeks? No thanks! Ben loved climbing more than anything. Now, after months of waiting for summer in the Swiss Alps, where he could climb every single day, he couldn’t believe he was stuck baking slowly on deck.
He stood up and shuffled over to the edge of the pool. The water was perfectly still. Peeling off his tee shirt he dove into the pool and started swimming lengths. It wasn’t as much fun as climbing, but he’d been swimming since before he could walk and he liked the steady rhythm of his arms and legs. Plus, his little sister Jasmin couldn’t keep up with him, so the swimming pool was about the only place he could get a minute’s peace.
It never lasted long though. No sooner had Ben gotten back to his cabin, changed, and settled down to tackle the next level of Prince Of Persia than she came running. “Benjamin! Bennnn-ja-miiiin!” Her high-pitched voice carried through the corridors and portholes till it bored right through the door. Benjamin was squinting in concentration, but his thumb slipped and his lifeline fell into the red. With a grunt of irritation he put down his PSP. There wouldn’t have a moment’s peace until he answered Jasmin’s piercing call.
“What?!” he shouted, pulling open his cabin door with a bang, “I’m down here. What is it?” A minute later his seven-year-old sister came flying down the passageway, bare feet slapping like wet towels against the polished surface.
“Daddy says you’re to come up to the third deck, aft, as soon as possible. She-hike Sullyman is visiting and Daddy wants you to come greet him.”
Benjamin let out a very deep sigh. Along with Jasmin he spent his summer holidays with his father. Being called to meet and greet an assortment of politicians, business moguls, and celebrities was inevitable. Since Father had bought Icarus there had been a lot more visitors like Sheik Suliman.
“Honestly,” he said, thinking out loud. “You’d think the Sheik would have seen enough yachts – what with having three of his own – that he wouldn’t need to come and snoop around ours.”
“Come on Benj,” Jasmin whined. “Daddy told me to tell you to hurry up!”
“Ok, ok,” he replied, “just a second.” He saved his game, switched off the PSP, then locked the door and pocketed the key before following the slap-slap-slap of his sister’s footsteps.
In an era where you can read yourself blind online without spending a penny, buying books is an act of enlightened frugality. Magazines and newspapers get tossed; websites morph. Books stick around. What’s more, books slow us down. There are no hyperlinks or banner ads, nothing to whisk our mind into the ugly spin cycle of the so-called “post-truth” world.
Truth exists as it ever has but powerful interests want to drown it. Books are an antidote to the noise. Portland is fortunate to have a thriving community of writers whose clear voices remind us of life’s possibilities and responsibilities. These five women share a powerful sense of purpose, justice, and urgency. Their books will open your mind and break your heart.
Yuknavitch writes like we’re all together in a car stalled on the track as the train bears down. Her fearlessness shines in her bold novels like The Small Backs of Children and Dora: A Headcase, as much as in her searing memoir The Chronology of Water. A former competitive swimmer, Yuknavitch always returns to water, preferring to write “anywhere you can see the river.” She’s busy penning a new work of “short fictions” called This is Not a Flag and a novel, Thrust, but found time to share this advice: “If you have money you can move it toward change. if you don’t have money you can use your voice and body.” Or, of course, your pen.
Read: The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books, 2011)
Karbo waltzes between styles and genres, investing them all with wit and the wisdom of experience. Her work includes the superbly titled Kick-Ass Women series featuring Coco Chanel, Katherine Hepburn, Julia Child and Georgia O’Keeffe; fiction like The Diamond Lane and Motherhood Made a Man out of Me, and her memoir The Stuff of Life.
The secret to keeping the words flowing? Write in hospital lobbies. “There are no distractions,” she says. “No roar of the coffee bean grinder, or whoosh of the milk foamer. No other writers tapping out their award-winning novels. People come and go, and they pay no attention to you, because they’re there for more important reasons. There’s nothing to do but write.”
Read:In Praise of Difficult Women (National Geographic, Feb 27, 2018)
Recommends: The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch (Canongate, Jan 18, 2018)
Strayed’s beloved-by-Oprah breakthrough, Wild, her account of solo hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is an archetypal hero’s journey with a twist: the hero is a woman. Reading Wild, I realized how unfamiliar and thrilling it is to read a story of struggle and self discovery by and about a woman. Tiny, Beautiful Things was equally expectation-shattering in a different way. A compilation of advice columns she wrote for The Rumpus, it blends Strayed’s fearless, first-person stories with Stoic wisdom. It’s twin themes are courage + effort. “It didn’t just get better for them,” she writes. “They made it better.”
Here’s hoping a future generation can look back on these years and say the same of us.
Read: Tiny, Beautiful Things (Vintage, 2012)
Recommends:The Dream of a Common Language, Adrienne Rich (W. W. Norton & Co., 2013)
It’s axiomatic that not all writers make a living from writing. Some perform feats of double alchemy that give lustre to both their writing and their profession. Denfeld, a licensed investigator, is one of these alchemists (poet/doctor William Carlos Williams was another). “It’s exciting, fulfilling work,” she says of investigation. “I get to exonerate innocents and help victims of sex trafficking.”
When she’s not working, or “loving on my fantastic kids,” she slips away to Cathedral Park with her laptop to pour her hard-earned understanding of humanity into books like the multi-award-winning novel The Enchanted.
Read: The Enchanted (Harper, 2014)
Recommends: The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison (Greywolf Press, 2014)
To call LeGuin, doyenne of the Portland literary scene, a sci-fi writer is reductive. She is an imaginative writer of dazzling talent who conjures new worlds and infuses familiar scenes with fresh possibilities. “In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order,” she writes. “Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples.” LeGuin has been cheerfully subverting this belief for her entire career –and shows no signs of stopping.
Read:Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016)
Recommends: Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu trans. Ursula K. LeGuin (Shambhala, 1998)
These are unpublished, linked flash-fiction pieces. Contain strong language.
The aristocratic houses along Park Circus, above Kelvingrove Park, look like mausoleums and for much of the year must be as cold. A triumph of wealth over pragmatism, they boast lofty ceilings and vast windowpanes unsuited to the bitter climate. They hold themselves frigidly above the street, conscious of their status as monuments to consumption. The builders intended them for men rich enough to afford endless fuel. Now they rise in listed splendour, proud architectural affronts to democracy. I imagine the inhabitants prize their expensive discomfort.
My students are unmoved by the honour of being chosen for special study sessions. The group changes every other week, but they all look alike. The boys are thin, their truculent adolescent faces sharp and pale as wedges of cheese. They wear Nike or Adidas tracksuits and hoodies, or jeans belted below the hips. Despite their collective swagger the boys are careful to not infringe on the scented feminine clusters that form around forbidden iPhones. The girls are coy, aware their power lies in commanding attention. They flutter, fiddling with necklaces and earrings, or combing strands of hair with bright acrylic nails.
None of them take an interest in my lessons. They are obedient and indifferent. I am a novelty, like the star-nosed mole I point out on a trip to the zoo. “Do you like living in Glasgow?” One asks. Another: “Do you have a girlfriend?” These questions are automatic. The products of a lifetime habit of using interrogation to distract authority figures. I tell them I am interested in post-industrial cities, wondering if anyone will ask me what I mean. No one does.
“Did any of your family members work in the shipyards?” I ask once.
A girl looks at me pityingly: “It’s lunchtime, you know.”
They regard the future with suspicion. Like misers, they are averse to even modest speculation. “What do you want to be?” I ask. “If you could visit any country, where would you go?” The girls’ eyes flicker like snake tongues. The boys nudge each other. At first I thought this was a silent protest against my accent, age, and shirt-collar. But my self-consciousness exceeds their curiosity. Glasgow is the universe; I’m a transient alien.
I walk from town early, as the shopkeepers and street-sweepers perform their daily rituals of addition and subtraction on Woodlands Road. Passing taxis throw sheets of water across the pavement. The shop windows contain rickety furniture; mediocre paintings; comic books; or sour-smelling vegetables. A mattress slumps against a parking meter, the legs of a decapitated office chair poke the air next to it.
Alma works in a coffee shop with frosted-glass tables and bookshelves lining the walls. The first time I went in she overheated my cappuccino and, smiling, urged me to try an almond croissant. There was something in that smile I couldn’t place, a kind of play-acting. Calum was her lifeboat. Her eyes held premonition of the end but she hung on, even as the waves ran high towards the rocks. Mornings, he would dash into the shop on his way to work. Jeans sagging with the weight of keys, wrenches, pliers and a spare sprocket; Adidas baseball cap rearing back from his forehead. After he left Alma would stand by the espresso machine, arms crossed, eyes distant. Glasgow’s West End pulsates freely with details of private lives. She made only perfunctory efforts to mask her unease. I would see them walking, her hair brushing his shoulder as she tried to match his stride. Many cappuccinos later, after we become friends, she volunteered information. Her smile hid a terrible need to be heard.
One Friday I asked her what she was doing that night. “I have a spare ticket to a show, would you like to come?”
She said, lightly as she could: “Sure, what time?”
I asked her out most Fridays after that. She was always non-committal. If Calum was there when I passed the café I would go to the cinema. Otherwise, I would go home and shower. By the time I was dressed there would be a message: “Want to get a drink later?”
You walk down half a dozen steps to enter the Drake. On the left a gas-fire, straight ahead amber whisky bottles twinkle in a setting of highly polished cherry. She drank Glenfiddich 15, neat. “It’s Calum’s favourite.” She tried to not mention him but always slipped. Calum. She would mould the word carefully with her lips then glance away, or push the whisky glass back and forth between her middle fingers.
Rupert Street runs perpendicular between Great Western and Woodlands Road. A square tower of yellowish brick rises above the rust-coloured tenements at the junction with Woodlands Road. At the corner is a pub, the pavement marked by coronas of vomit. In weeks of walking this street I can count on my hand the number of times I have passed another human. But detritus hints at life behind the blank windows. Someone has placed a half-drunk bottle of Irn Bru inside a horizontal refrigerator. A bike with one wheel is chained to a lamppost. Cigarette butts cluster on the pavement in front of some doors, tiny piles of dog shit near others. Perhaps the inhabitants are elderly, or just lazy.
I arrived here after my city centre flatmate came home drunk one night and urinated on the television. Calum and I met by chance. If I had thought he would offer me a room I might not have mentioned my housing difficulties, but he did and it seemed foolish to refuse. There are other coffee shops.
Calum and his father Alan live at number 10. Moving in, I slipped on a worn concrete stair and twisted my knee. “Sorry,” Calum said, pushing his hat back. “There’s no point fixing it till the workmen finish. They’ll just fuck it up again.” It was originally a three bedroom flat. His father divided the master bedroom: half for each daughter. This arrangement no longer serves a purpose but Calum and his dad occupy the flat as if the women were still there. The builders have knocked through the wall but Alan is in no rush to reclaim the master bedroom. He urged me to make myself at home and wrestled in a mossy log of a sofa. The springs gouge my back.
I don’t know what Alan does for a living. Sometimes I walk to the kitchen in my shorts, thinking I’m alone, and he’s slumped on the sofa, watching chat shows on mute. He sits up, tugs at the frayed sleeves of his cardigan and smiles nervously, revealing absent teeth. Calum is missing the same premolar, as if they were removed in some atavistic ritual. Their voices are indistinguishable on the phone. Most nights they eat pasta and garlic bread, or chicken and chips from Styrofoam boxes. Since Calum’s mother died they have built a cocoon of habit.
I am a permanent house-guest. To be a lodger you need to be ignored and slight quirks in their domestic rituals betray an awareness of my presence. Alan runs the tap when he uses the toilet. If Calum is home when I return from work he loiters while I heat up soup and butter bread, bragging about cars he’s fixed and girls he’s groped. I know his anecdotes are fiction but something in is eyes make me ashamed of my scepticism.
The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my novel Ibiza Noir. Available here.
Lou ducked instinctively as a jet lumbered through the syrupy air, landing gear down, scarred white belly near enough to touch. As he did, an upward-flying elbow glanced off his chin. He straightened and put a hand to his jaw as a thicket of tattooed arms rose to hail the passing plane. Whoooo! Vamos! Ibiiiizaaaa! Exhaust caught in Lou’s throat as he tried to join the cheer. Spluttering, he set down his canvas bag and wiped his eyes.
He had been standing on the same patch of gravel for over an hour, listening to a single bass note thunder from a small white building next-door to a vegetable patch. “Best party on the island,” the bartender told him the night before. “The last great day rave. Full of nutters that’d put Bedlam in its heyday to shame. Pure madness, mate, if that’s your thing.”
Lou stared at the cerulean sky and shivered with the heat. He didn’t know if this was his thing, but he was willing to try. The bus from Ibiza Town didn’t stop outside the club, though. It took him almost an hour to walk back to join the restless horde of party-kids waiting to be admitted to this inconspicuous techno temple.
Heat waves shimmered above the dirt parking lot and bolts of fierce light reflected from the cars. Were tattoos a form of heat-proofing? Lou wondered. Sweat was running off him like snow-melt but everyone else looked perversely cool. His initial sense of comfortable anonymity was gone. He was too tall, too dark – even in a crowd of Spanish and Italians – and above all too plain. Everywhere he looked were pierced lips, tongues, eyebrows, and cheekbones. Jewels glittered in girls’ cleavage and accented their wrists. Men in denim cut-offs and skin-tight tees flaunted bulging muscles. Scraps of cloth stretched over silicone globes on the chests of women who would otherwise pass for underfed boys. The ubiquitous sunglasses with enormous, bug-eye lenses made him feel like he was trapped in a swarm of colourful flies.
Some people were dancing in place, kicking up puffs of dust. He had a feeling they would continue, music or not. Others alternated gulps of neat whiskey and warm coke from the bottle. Nobody made any effort to conceal the wraps passing from hand to hand, or the mounds of powder being inhaled off credit cards and hotel keys. The girl beside him was so pale she looked albino but her arm was solid black from shoulder to elbow apart from an artful smattering of stars. It was the first negative tattoo he had seen. He’d also never seen a hoop as big as the one hanging from her septum. Her boyfriend had silver studs through his cheeks; his left calf and right arm were covered in tribal ink.
Lou shaded his face with his hands, wishing he had water, or a hat. The heat was making him light-headed. How much longer can it be? A long horn-blast sounded, as if in answer to his question. The bodies around him kept moving, eyes obscured, heads tilted up to the sun or down to the ground. Only Lou looked around to see green-and-white jeeps marked “Guardia Civil” bearing down like a fighter squadron. Officers in forest green jumpsuits and caps leapt out, shouting in Spanish. They wore white latex gloves and worked methodically, checking IDs, patting pockets, running hands up legs and down arms, pulling people aside as they found stashes of pills and powder.
Six years in the navy had taught Lou how to deal with this type of authority: keep your eyes down, follow orders,don’t give them a reason to notice you. He reached inside his bag. Time stopped. His heart beat on his ribs, looking for a way out. Sidling backwards, he found an empty patch of ground and dropped to his knees. Inshallah, let it be here. Subtly as he could, Lou groped through his seaman’s bag, feeling neatly folded tee-shirts, combat trousers, a frayed khaki jumper. He slid his fingers inside the pockets of a waterproof and fumbled with his shaving kit, feeling a disposable razor, a bar of soap wrapped in a rag, and assorted coins, but no passport or wallet.
Someone shouted as he walked away but Lou didn’t look back. Without a passport he couldn’t get in the club, or on a plane; he couldn’t even book a hotel room.
There was an abandoned newspaper on the bus shelter bench. Leafing through, Lou stopped on a back page. He knew enough Spanish to read the headline: 14 migrants drown when boat sinks off Alicante. A photo showed bodies laid out like a row of parcels. One face was visible: boyish, with dark, curly hair, a Roman nose, and high cheekbones. Lou ran a hand over his regulation military cut. It was growing fast, the natural curl coming back. He looked at the picture again. Apprehension balled his stomach like a fist. Normally if you lost your passport you went to the police. But the rules were different when you were a young Muslim man. He didn’t look like someone they would help. He looked like someone they might let die.
A bus arrived and halted with a huff of pneumatic brakes. Lou found an empty seat amidst a group of bongo-toting hippies and wedged his bag between his feet. Not that it mattered now. Where did it happen? Trundling along the motorway past billboards advertising “Cream @ Amnesia”, “Privilege: The World’s Biggest Club”, and “Pacha Ibiza” he mentally retraced his steps. The marina. A walk through town. Beer in some basement dive bar. Giving coins to a wandering violinist. Returning to the harbour and ascending to the walled old town. Following a narrow road on the seaward side till he reached a cluster of fragrant pines. Lying beneath the trees catching glimpses of starlight between breeze-blown branches.
He had woken with the sun, which rose from the sea beyond the city. Birds twittered over the softer whirr of insects. After brushing off the pine needles he shouldered his bag and walked the few minutes to Plaça del Parc where he breakfasted on black coffee and a buttered baguette. Then he caught a bus to San An and walked the beach all the way to the end of Sunset Strip. His next stop was an internet café: “Merde.” Someone must have been watching as he took out his wallet and the plastic folder with his passport, discharge papers and other documents. He didn’t remember the name of the place, only the smell of sweat and stale smoke; he probably wouldn’t even recognise it.
Though by no means a film buff, I love writing reviews. When the chance to review a DVD release of Last Exit to Brooklyn arose, I took it. Like the novel it is based on, it is harrowing, and worth it because it is.
Roger Ebert said in his 1990 review: “The movie takes place in one of the gloomiest and most depressing urban settings I’ve seen in a movie. These streets aren’t mean, they’re unforgiving. Vast blank warehouse walls loom over the barren pavements, and vacant lots are filled with abandoned cars where mockeries of love take place…. Most people hate movies like this. I think perhaps it is because no attempt is being made to force the characters and stories into comforting endings.”
Last Exit To Brooklyn DVD (18)
Dir: Uli Edel, 1989, USA/UK/Germany, 102 mins
Cast: Stephen Lang, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Peter Dobson, Burt Young
Last Exit To Brooklyn is set during the Korean War, in the early 1950s. The first characters you see are a trio of soldiers, cock-of-the-walking their way back to barracks after a night out. For a few, deceptive seconds this might be a war film, in the conventional sense. Then the real soldiers, fighting the real war, bowl on screen: a gang of roughneck wops, spoiling for action. A brief, brutal, beautifully choreographed beating later you’re in their world, to stay.
Based on the novel by Hubert Selby (author of Requiem For A Dream), the film is a raw, artful, unsparing look at raggle taggle Brooklyn life. The endless parade of soldiers who straggle through the film getting mugged, propositioned, beaten up, or otherwise damaged in their exchanges on this lawless patch are stand-ins for the audience – sucked into a world that is short on narrative arc and long on impulse, where the only constant is violence. At the centre of this universe of quicksand is Tralala (Leigh), a mouthy hooker with a finely tuned survival instinct, and her occasional partners in crime, Vinnie (Dobson) and Sal (Stephen Baldwin). Their buddy, Harry (Lang), is a shop steward, and head of the strike office, making free with his union expense account as the community struggles through a long strike against the bosses of the local metalworks.
Though a stunningly filmed late-night clash between police and strikers provides the visual epicentre of the film, social issues never eclipse the individual. Rather, the big picture stuff (war, labour disputes, family relationships) is backdrop to the intensely felt experiences of the characters. In sharp contrast to films that look back at the ‘50s through a spyglass of modern mores, Last Exit is perfectly self-absorbed. When shop boss Harry falls hard for a fey, selfish little queen called Regina (Bernard Zette) it would be easy for the film to make a statement about contemporary sexuality, or life in the closet. But it doesn’t, because the point is not what we think of Harry, but how he feels. Instead of glib commentary, there is real pathos. A theme that is repeated in the subplot of transvestite Georgette (Alexis Arquette) and her unrequited love for good-looking thug Vinnie (ringleader of the tormenters in the opening scene). Any kind of vulnerability can be fatal in Last Exit’s testosterone-fuelled landscape, especially for dainty queens, which makes Georgette’s flirtation watch-through-fingers stuff.
Frankly, it’s a miserable film. Yet so lovingly shot and acted you can’t help being drawn in. These are characters so small, sharp, closed and ugly they wouldn’t ever get an airing elsewhere, but the strong cast (including an excellent young Sam Rockwell) render them painfully alive. Leigh, in particular, pulls off an extraordinarily difficult role with power and panache. They elicit compassion when they shouldn’t and they provoke empathy at the unlikeliest moments. And while they’re trapped, you can leave, which gives this film its lingering, bittersweet edge.
Sex, drugs, greed and loneliness draw three strangers into a perilous alliance beneath the pulsing strobe lights of an Ibiza nightclub. Lou, Sally and Calum are thrown together as their private sorrows and deep longings pull them into the chaotic hedonism of the world’s most famous party island. Their lives entwine in the white heat of summer as they chase increasingly elusive dreams. Lou craves a home and falls in love with Sally’s boss, Vivienne, the duplicitous coke-addicted owner of Moulin Noir nightclub. Sally will do anything for money and freedom, and watches in horror as Vivienne runs Noir to ruin. Disenchanted journalist Calum wades into the maelstrom in search of a career-making story, but finds himself falling for Sally’s brittle beauty. When a terrible event occurs they each have to decide what to rescue, what to leave, and who they want to be.
Having been bludgeoned with Christianity from infancy, I’m over the away-in-a-manger stuff. Books, though, are one aspect of childhood Christmas I revisit with joy.
Christmas was prime new book time. The rest of the year my siblings and I got what books our parents could afford, which is to say, we went to the library. December 25th was one of the rare occasions we could count on one or two new volumes for our personal collection.
This year, my holiday reading echoes the old pattern. One library book (digital now), one Kindle purchase, and one old-fashioned paperback from a charity shop in Crouch End.
The Handmaid’s Tale came courtesy of the library. I don’t get Atwood aesthetically in the same way I don’t get, say, Thomas Wolfe or D.H. Lawrence. Her politics are admirable though. Astute women are writing and talking about The Handmaid’s Tale so it seemed like something I should have a first-hand opinion on.
Which (not that you asked) is that the novel puts Atwood perilously close to being the Ayn Rand of the left. Admirable politics, yes. But cardboard characters prodded around a stage so ripe with Symbolism that I wanted the whole damn wooden set-up to burn. I see now why it is being hailed as visionary: it’s dumb enough that even people who didn’t see Trump coming can grasp the Badness of the Bad Things that happen in it.
What’s disappointing is that Atwood can be a fine writer. (I realise, writing these words, that all hell would break loose if anyone read this blog. She has won a thousand awards and sold a million novels. Who the hell am I to criticise? Just a reader.) Her novel Cat’s Eye is rich and absorbing. The Handmaid’s Tale is pure bully pulpit blather, though. She (a woman of intelligence) didn’t trust her readers with anything subtler than a sermon.
To my delight, Susan Cooper didn’t make the same mistake in The Dark is Rising. Full confession, I’d never heard of it till reading a Guardian column that sang its praise. Normally, I avoid fantasy and children’s books in equal measure, but sometimes it’s good to bend the rules. The Dark is Rising reminds me of many of the books I loved as a kid: The Lord of the Rings, The Hounds of the Morrigan, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and The Chronicles of Narnia. It is pastoral, charming, and very very English. I blazed through it.
That treat consumed, I picked up Breakfast At Tiffany’s. This is maybe the third copy I’ve owned. It is one of those books I buy, give away, then buy again. I started with the final story in the slim Penguin Modern Classics paperback, “A Christmas Memory”. Capote’s evocative account of his boyhood Christmas made me weep, even though I know the ending.
Then I flipped back to the beginning and reread Breakfast at Tiffany’s, marveling at his use of language, description, and the curious fact that leggy, stuttering Mag Wildwood is given the full name Margaret Thatcher Fitzhue Wildwood. In 1958, when the book was published, Thatcher was an up-and-coming Tory politician. A Capote in-joke?
Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the perfect starter for a Flannery O’Connor short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. The eponymous opening story is deliciously agonising. O’Connor’s genius is that she doesn’t tell you anything. She just lines words up on the page and you hurry along, captivated by their perfect inscrutable order, until you crash face first into the gruesome conclusion.
O’Connor is the anti-Atwood. Nothing in her writing suggests she cared if her readers got it. She wrote. I know which I prefer.
What did you read over the holidays? Share in the comments.
Yesterday I hit 75 on my agent hunt. Seventy-five lines on an excel sheet each with name, website, email, and a note of the date and pitch delivered. I may as well have made 75 copies of my novel, stood at the top of a cliff and chucked them ceremoniously into oblivion. This shouldn’t discourage me (most of the time I know my duty is to write well, and the rest be damned) but it does.
When another brusque rejection arrived I burst into tears. Voices babbled in my head: You are never going to publish a novel. If you do, nobody is going to read it. You are a fake, a flake, a lazy greedy over-educated under-producing parasitic loser who should have gotten a real job before it was too late. You are going to die broke and alone. You suck. Et cetera.
This could be true, if I let it. But after bawling for a few minutes, sense started to leach in. All the sages I respect (dead and living) make the same case:
“You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work” ~Bhagavad Gita “[Do] not long for anything if it be not given” ~Epictetus “For us there is only the trying” ~TS Eliot
Some days, trying is a drag, the last thing I want to do. The alternative, though, is to let all the miserable, mean, self-pitying thoughts turn themselves into reality. As long as the spreadsheet is growing, there’s hope.