By Eric Olsen (with Dick Cummins, Dan Guenther, and Don Wallace)
This is the fourth in a five-part series of email exchanges among writer friends about the best books they’ve read in recent months—in some cases, ever. Catch up here: Part 1 with Dan Guenther, Part 2 with Dick Cummins, Part 3 with Don Wallace.
Speaking of Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, mentioned previously by Dan and Don, I’d like to add that this might be one of my favorite books of all time, too. I haven’t read it in years, but it sits firmly ensconced on a shelf in my office where I keep a lot of my faves, for future reference.
I bought my copy while at Iowa, 30-plus years ago. It’s described on the title page as a “fictional memoir.” I’m of the school of thought that assumes all memoirs are “fictional.” What writer in his right mind wouldn’t make stuff up in a memoir, for dramatic effect if nothing else—whose life is really interesting enough to make a good story without some embellishment here and there?
A Fan’s Notes charts Exley’s many failures, his obsession with the New York Giants, alcoholism, various stints in psychiatric institutions, failed marriage, and lousy jobs teaching English and trying to be a writer. Great fun.
Exley followed A Fan’s Notes with Pages From a Cold Island. It’s more of the same, a “confessional” memoir, part fiction, and covers much of the same ground—that is drinking to excess, months on a sofa in his mother’s living room, various failures, as well as an interview with Gloria Steinem and a stint in Iowa City teaching for a semester at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
My wife and I landed in Iowa City just after Exley left, but stories of his excesses were still making the rounds, so I felt like I knew the guy. Needless to say, he became my role model; I figured he was what a writer was supposed to be. We all did, or at least a certain generation of guys….
Pages is also partly about the writing of A Fan’s Notes, and true to the conventions of post-modern self-absorption that were current at the time, Pages is also about writing Pages.
Pages was published in 1975, just before I started in the MFA program at Iowa. Having already read and loved Fan’s Notes, I immediately bought a copy of Pages, hard cover no less, much more than I could afford, and devoured it.
One scene has always stuck in my mind, as it perfectly portrayed the motivations and aspirations of most of the teachers we had at Iowa back then. In the scene, Exley’s sitting in the Beer Barrel bar on Singer Island in Florida, where he lived when he wasn’t sleeping on the sofa in his mother’s place in New York, or having the shakes in detox. He’s discussing his upcoming trip to Iowa with the bartender, Jack. He’s telling Jack how he plans to rent a farmhouse outside of town. Jack starts to laugh:
“I don’t see what’s so funny.”
“Oh, you don’t see what’s so funny, do you?” Jack mimicked my solemnity. “I’ll tell you what’s so funny. You on a goddamn farm…. You’d be a fucking basket case in a month. A month? A week. Besides,” he added, “how’d you get to and from campus?”
“I’d drive. How else?”
Jack laughed scornfully. “Shit you would. We ain’t even letting you take your car.”
“Who’s we?” I demanded. I was getting angry.”
“Everybody. The whole fucking gang! Christ, you’re only going up there for three months. Fly up, fuck a couple coeds, stay drunk, and I’ll fly up and see you some weekend.”
Exley followed Pages with Last Notes from Home in 1988. More of the same. He died in 1992.
Anyway, my favorite reads of the past year?
The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV by David Corbett (Penguin, 2013). Corbett’s the author of several mysteries including Do They Know I’m Running?, Blood of Paradise, Done for a Dime, and The Devil’s Redhead (all from Ballantine). In the intro to The Art of Character, Corbett writes: “There is perhaps no more crucial discipline in writing than acquiring the intuitive sense of what’s necessary and what’s not. In characterization, this means developing an ear and eye for when the character has quickened to life on the page and thus engaged the reader, and not belaboring the matter beyond that, no matter how lovely our words.” From here, Corbett offers a number of tips and exercises for discovering who your characters are and who they want to be. This is not the usual ten steps to this or five steps to that, the usual fare of how-to books. Thus it is one of my favorite how-tos of all time.
The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel (Center Street, 2009). This book has been made into a movie, featuring just about everyone who is anyone in film these days, including Cate Blanchette, George Clooney, Matt Damon, and John Goodman. Oh, and Bill Murray’s also in it. It’s a must-see, though some reviews I’ve read of the movie haven’t been particularly enthusiastic.
The book and movie tell the true story about a group of Allied soldiers in WWII, mostly Americans and British, who volunteered for service in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Allied Army. They became known as “The Monuments Men.”
Most of these were in civilian life museum directors, curators, art scholars, artists and architects. They were first given the task of advising Allied commanders about what buildings and monuments to try to avoid blowing up as the Allied forces pushed the Germans eastward. But their assignment quickly evolved to tracking down the art stolen by the Nazis, under orders to destroy it all as the Reich fell apart, and restoring it to the rightful owners.
I started the book before I heard there was a movie. It’s a good read, but I can’t say it’s very well written. In fact the writing is rather flat, and it all seems like a lot of old letters and official reports cobbled together and summarized, with characters dropping in and out of the narrative with little continuity. But the facts themselves are so compelling that they easily overcome any weaknesses in the telling.
But I did find myself wishing that Edsel had employed some of Exley’s fictional techniques in telling his true story. For example, the most interesting character in Edsel’s book, for me, is Rose Valland, an assistant curator from Paris’ Jeu de Paume Museum (played by Cate Blanchette in the film version). At the risk of her life, Valland secretly tracked the movement of Nazi plunder out of Paris. She’s described in the book as a bit frumpy, dour, and quite suspicious of the Americans and their motives. Her relationship with the American Army officer James Rorimer (played by Matt Damon in the film) is cool; at first, she doesn’t trust him. We don’t see nearly as much of her as I’d have liked. I wish Edsel had given her a bigger role. He certainly could have, and without fudging on reality. I’m sure a writer somewhat less burdened with a desire to relate the facts and nothing but the facts, in an effort to relate some sort of “greater truth” (whatever that might have been), if not to sell even more books, would of course have also made her young, vivacious, and beautiful (as she is in the film, of course, played by Blanchette). Needless to say, she and Rorimer would have had an affair (I won’t tell you what happens in the film). Heck, if I’d been writing the book, in keeping with market forces in mainstream publishing and filmmaking, I’d have made her a vampire! Now we’re talking! A vampire who loves art and helps the Allies save Western culture! You kidding me? Now we’re talking mega-best-seller!
Valland wrote her own book about her adventures, translated as Resistance at the Museum (Laurel Publishing, 2013). Her book, first published in France, formed the basis for the 1964 John Frankenheimer film, “The Train,” starring Burt Lancaster.
Edsel has written a sequel, Saving Italy (W.W. Norton, 2013), specifically about the activities of the Monuments Men in Italy. It’s on my must-read list.
And finally, if you’re interested in art, art history, WWII, and Nazis (and who wouldn’t be), check out Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn H. Nicholas (Vintage, 1994). Valland plays a big role in this story, too.
Lunch Bucket Paradise—A True-Life Novel by Fred Setterberg (Heyday, 2011). Fred flips the Exley formula on its head. Rather than Exley’s “fictional memoir,” now we have a “true-life novel.” Maybe that’s why I like this book so much; Fred’s approach to facts is as rambunctious as Exley’s. And of course the fine writing is another reason. But there’s one more reason this is one of my favorite recent reads—it could have been about me! And what self-absorbed writer doesn’t want to read about himself?
I first wrote about this book several months ago in a Books by the Bed. Lunch Bucket is closely based on Fred’s childhood in post-war San Leandro, as I mentioned. I grew up just down the road, in an identical housing development carved, like Fred’s, out of farmland. Fred’s father, like mine, was the son of immigrants and grew up speaking Norwegian at home. And Fred’s father, like mine, had TB as a young man. Fred’s father, like mine, became an avid reader while locked up for months in a TB ward. Fred and I both grew up in homes full of books. Fred’s father, like mine, fought in WWII. It could be Fred and I even competed against one another in cross-country, as our high schools were in the same athletic conference. And Fred and I share an interest in the martial arts. The similarities stop there, though. I was a geek in high school who spent all his time reading science fiction; thus I couldn’t get a date. Fred was in a rock band and could.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (Vintage, 2013). Recommended by my wife, Cheryl, who thinks—correctly—that I need to read more women writers. I can’t add anything useful to what Don had to say about this book—it’s one of his faves as well.
What tops your list of good reads?
Next week, Dick shares some more of his faves….