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Monday, January 27, 2014

Walter Mosley

"The job of the writer is to take a close and uncomfortable look at the world they inhabit, the world we all inhabit, and the job of the novel is to make the corpse stink."

— Walter Mosley
American Novelist
1952 - 

First a disclaimer:  Walter Mosley is one of my favorite mystery novelists.  I have read 15 of his novels and am working on number 16.  In recent years, he has turned to writing science fiction and I love them as well.  He is a masterful storyteller.  But I have not read his book on how to write a novel.  I think I learned more from reading his novels than I would from a book on how to write a novel.

The question this quote evokes in me is: Why do we write?  What is our job?  Some people say that we should make art for the sake of making art.  Others think that we are entertainers, to make people feel good.  Some think all art is political and that our job is to change the world.

So I ask again:  What is the purpose of creating art?  What is our job?  To hold a mirror up to the world and to show people what reality is really like?  To motivate people to change their behavior?  To improve the world and provide opportunity for the less fortunate?

Creative Practice
This week explore why you write or paint or speak?  What motivates you to create?

Walter Mosley was born in California, the son of a Jewish mother with Russian ancestors and an African-American father from Louisiana.  His father served in the army during World War II and was a custodian in a Los Angeles public school.  He was an only child and graduated from high school in 1970.  He traveled around Europe during his hippie phase.  He graduated from Johnson State College in Vermont with a degree in political science.  He married Joy Kellman, a dancer, in 1987.  After reading the book, The Color Purple, he was inspired to take a course in writing at City College in Harlem.  Edna O'Brien was his mentor.

Mosley began writing at 34 and has published more than 40 books.  He is best known for his 12 Easy Rawlins mysteries set in Los Angeles during the 1950's and 1960's.  He also has published two other mystery series.  He has also written several science fiction novels as well as non-fiction books.

Here is Walter Mosley talking about writing and literature.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Haruki Murakami

"Whatever it is you're seeking won't come in the form you're expecting."

Haruki Murakami
Japanese Novelist
1949 -

We often spend much of our lives planning our lives — either by writing down goals or day dreaming about what life would be like when we are successful.  We day dream about how our life will be when we have a best-selling novel or a movie studio buys our novel to turn it into a movie.  Yet, as the popular saying goes:  life is what happens when you are planning other things.  Maybe it is the unexpected birth of a child.  Or falling in love and getting married.  Or a car accident that leaves you paralyzed.  

I have spent many of my days dreaming about being able to write full time.  And while it has never happened, I have spent over 40 years writing.  And yet, I am happy with my life.  I don't need to write full time.  An hour or two a day is enough.

As a teenager I dreamed of being a preacher, yet it has been years since I stepped inside a church.  But I have spent much of my life preaching to those who would listen.  Not, of course, in the way I imagined or my parents imagined.  What we seek does not always come in the way we imagine it would.

I do believe we receive that which we seek, but it often does not appear like we wish.  It takes on its own life, its own dimension.

What are you seeking?  What are your daydreams?  Remember life happens now, not sometime in the future.  Are you living in the present or are you living in your dreams?

Creative Practice
Spend today focused on today.  Tomorrow will come in its own time.

Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan after World War II.  His father was the son of a Buddhist priest and his mother the daughter of a merchant.  Both of his parents taught Japanese literature.  Murakami was influenced by Western music and literature, including Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan and Jack Kerouac.  He studied drama at Waseda University.  His first job was in a record store.  He ran a coffee house and jazz bar with his wife.

Murakami did not start writing fiction until he was 29.  He was inspired to write a novel while watching a baseball game.  The novel won first prize in a literary contest.  The novel, Hear the Wind Sing was published in 1979.  He was 30.  He has published 12 novels and 3 collections of short stories since that first novel.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Dorothea Lange

"Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion. . . the subject must be something you truly love or truly hate."

— Dorothea Lange
American Photographer
1895 - 1965

What are the passions in your life?  What drives you to do what others are not willing to do? Our youth is spent seeking our passion and for some that takes years.  Some people will find their passion early and spend a lifetime in pursuit of that passion.  Others will wander for years, exploring, seeking and dreaming before they discover that passion.

Do you pick the topics you write about or do the topics pick you?  Do you choose what you paint or do the subjects you paint choose you?  At some level, I believe that the subjects, topics or themes we write about, photograph or paint are given to us.  We may think that we choose our subjects, but when we analyze it deeply, we often find that they are born in our biology, our environment, our family history and our very soul.  We never really know why we have chosen a certain topic or theme.  We don't know why one person is passionate about soccer and another could care less.  Or why one person writes about animals in the wild and another paints portraits of rich people. 

For our lives to make sense, we must see and understand the patterns and the themes.  What subjects to you keep coming back to even though you try to escape.  One of the dominant themes in my life is spirituality.  No matter how often and how much I try to escape, I keep coming back to it.  It drives my writing, my painting and my life.  My writing has been a search for the unknowable — the ultimate questions about why we are here.

Creative Practice
This week choose a topic or theme that you normally don't write about, and spend the week writing about it.  Choose a new subject to photograph or paint and spend the week focused on the subject.

Manzanar Relocation Center
Dorothea Lange was born of second generation German immigrants in Hoboken, New Jersey.  She contracted polio when she was seven and it left her with a permanent limp.  Her father abandoned the family when she was twelve.

Lange studied photography in New York and worked in several photography studies before moving to northern California at the age of 23.  She lived in Berkeley the rest of her life.  She married the western painter, Maynard Dixon, in 1920 and they had two sons.  She divorced Dixon in 1935 and married Paul Taylor, a professor of Economics.

Dorothea Lange is famous for her photos of the Great Depression.  Her most famous photo is Migrant Mother, a photo of Florence Owens Thompson.  In talking about the experience of taking the photo, Lange said: "I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet....I did not ask her name or her history....She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food."

Lange also documented the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans to relocation camps during World War II.  After the war, Ansel Adams invited her to teach photography at the California School of Fine Arts.  In 1952, she co-founded the photographic magazine, Aperture.

Here are some of Dorothea Lang's photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Robert Greene

"No moment is wasted if you pay attention and learn the lessons contained in every experience."

— Robert Greene
American Writer / Speaker
1959 -

Have you ever said that you were bored?  Or maybe your teenage son or daughter claimed to be bored?  Boredom is a state of mind in which we choose to be.  Life is full of opportunities if we are awake and listening.  As writers and artists we need to always be alert to what is happening around us.  No moment will be wasted if we pay attention.

Have you ever had to wait in a Doctor's office?  Or stood in line at a grocery store or bank?  Or waited in line at a fast food restaurant?  Were you bored and daydreaming?  Or were you paying attention to the details around you.  What can you take from the experience and put into your writing?  What details would you put into a painting?  Can you imitate the cashier?  What dialogue can you steal from the mouths of strangers?  

When I go shopping with my wife, I have developed the habit of taking my journal with me.  I find a place where I can write while she shops.  I have written in grocery stores, department stores and large malls.  There are always opportunities to write or draw if you are open.

Life is finite.  There are only so many years, days and hours that we each are given.  Don't waste them being bored.  Life is full of opportunity if we choose to pay attention.

Creative Practice
This week while you are waiting in line, take the opportunity to observe the world around you.  What do you see or hear that you can use in your creative work?  If you are waiting for someone, pull out your journal and write a few notes, draw a picture, create a poem or outline a story.  Learn something new from the world in which you live.

Robert Greene was raised in Los Angeles. He attended the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Greene estimated that he worked at 80 jobs, including construction, translation, and editing, before becoming a writer. His first book, The 48 Laws of Power, was published in 2000 and has sold over 1.2 million copies in the United States alone. His fifth book, Mastery, was published in 2012. Green speaks five languages and is a student of Zen Buddhism.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Harley King

The Best Fifteen Books 
I Read in 2013

In 2013 I read 43 books — the same as in 2012.  Forty percent of the books were in the traditional printed form.  Thirty-three percent were in the ebook format.  And twenty-seven percent were audiobooks.  I have found that some books work best in the audio format.  Forty-nine percent of the books I read were non-fiction, including 3 memoirs and 3 biographies.  Thirty-seven percent were novels and twelve percent poetry books.  Here is my list of the top 15 books that I read in 2013.

Merge / Disciple: Two Short Novels from Crosstown to Oblivion15)  Merge / Disciple by Walter Mosley.  These are two short science fiction novellas that explore contact with aliens.  Mosley, best known as a mystery writer, has created two fascinating stories about aliens arriving to colonize the planet.  I enjoyed listening to both of these novellas.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage14)  Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage by Nicholas Wapshott.  While I have never been a fan of Ronald Reagan, I have come to appreciate some of his views.  This biographical history focuses on the relationship of Reagan and Thatcher and provides valuable insight.

Ten Poems to Say Goodbye13)  Ten Poems to Say Goodbye by Roger Housden.  Excellent book. Housden explores the world of death, grief and letting go through the lens of ten poems. Powerful presentation and insight.  

First Ladies12)  First Ladies by Margaret Truman.  Great book with lots of anecdotes about the First Ladies and Presidents. As the daughter of President Harry S. Truman, she experienced the White House first hand as well as the pressure inside the Washington bubble. We hear a lot about the Presidents in other books. This book tells you the power behind the presidents. Easy to read. Fun to read. It is not chronological. Instead it skips around in time.  Margaret Truman shares the stories of the First Ladies and their role during the time their husbands were in office.  

The Masuda Affair (Sugawara Akitada, #7)11)  The Masuda Affair by I. J. Parker.  This is the third novel that I have read in the Sugawara Akitada series and I have loved each one.  Parker is a master of historical murder mysteries.  The focus is less on the mystery and more on the character of Sugawara Akitada who is grieving over the death of a five-year-old son.

GUYKU: A Year of Haiku for Boys10)  Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka.  This is a fun book to read. While these short poems are not traditional haiku, they fall in a category of modern senryu. I laughed at each and every poem. They are full of insight and humor. The book also contains the beautiful illustrations of Peter Reynolds. This is also a good book to read to children. My five year old daughter enjoyed it and has asked that I read it to her on many occasions. The very first poem is one of my favorites:

The wind and I play
tug-of-war with my new kite.
The wind is winning.

Breakdown  (V.I. Warshawski, #15)9) Breakdown by Sara Paretsky. This is my tenth V.I. Warshawski novel and I loved it. I enjoy the novels not so much for stories as the voice and character of V.I. She is a great character. What made this book unique for me was that it was the first time that I had listened to the audiobook. It took me a few minutes to get used to the narrator because she didn't sound like the V.I. I had in my head from reading the other 9 books. But I soon accepted her. Since I listened to the book rather than read it, I discovered V.I. to be angrier than when I read the other books. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves strong women.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey8)  The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley.  I have read thirteen of Walter Mosley's books — most of them being murder mysteries. Mosley has written a number of novels outside of the mystery genre which I have also read. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is the best one that I have read. I love this book told from the perspective of a ninety + year old man. What I liked about the Easy Rawlins novels was the character more than the storyline. And the same is true here. I loved the character of Ptolemy. I highly recommend this book.

Wolf7)  Wolf by James L. Haley.  Let me admit up front that I have never read one of Jack London's books, but I should have and I will. But the fact that I have not read his books did not hinder my reading of this excellent biography by James Haley. Haley tells the story of London's birth to his death. London was a world traveler who drew his stories from his travels. Poor for most of his short life, London grew to be a socialist and political activist. A prolific writer, London wrote a 1,000 words a day. This was an excellent biography and worth reading whether you have read London's books or not. And if you are a writer, you definitely should read this book.

Paul Newman: A Life6)  Paul Neuman: A Life by Shawn Levy. Paul Newman was born in Cleveland, OH four months after my mother was born in central Illinois and seven months before my father was born. He was clearly of my parents' generation. The Paul Newman I discovered was an actor who played rebel characters that inspired me in my youth. My favorite movies were Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the Sting. All released between 1967 and 1973.

In this biography I learned much more about Paul Newman, the human being. His was a strong liberal voice in politics. I discovered that we both supported Eugene McCarthy for President. I shaved my beard to go "Clean for Gene." He backed John Anderson, the independent candidate in 1980, as did I. He was a race car driver and won several races. He started racing in his late forties and was still driving into his eighties. He was an entrepreneur founding his own food company that donated the profits to charity. The company was so successful that it has been studied in colleges. He was a philanthropist donating much of his money to charitable organizations. He created the Hole in the Wall Gang camps for children with illnesses.

This biography is a must read for anyone who likes Paul Newman, the actor, and for anyone who loves a great biography.

Miles: The Autobiography5)  Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis.  The first and only Miles Davis album that I ever bought was Bitches Brew in 1970. I later used the music on the album to jar students in a training class to think creativity, but have not listened to the album in years. So I did not know what to expect when I decided to listen to the autobiography of Miles Davis. The original book came out in 1989. The audio recording that I listened to came out in 2012. I have since listened to the Kind of Blue which many consider his magnum opus. I loved it.

Miles Davis tells his story in his own words and in his own way. Quincy Troupe interviewed and recorded Miles and transcribed and organized the powerful story. I must warn anyone who is offended by swear words not to even consider reading the book. Almost every paragraph has language that will be offensive to some.

Miles began playing with some of the great jazz players when he was seventeen. He played with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and was a member of Parker's band for several years. He enrolled in Juilliard but later dropped out. One of the things that surprised me was how often musicians moved in and out of bands. Bands did not stay together very long and would substitute players. John Coltrane played in Miles band from 1955 - 1960. Later in the 1960s, Herbie Hancock was a member of his band. Miles mentored and influenced many younger musicians.

Miles Davis was continually changing and innovating his music. He did not sit still and play the same songs. He was always on the cutting edge, looking for something new. He was a creative genius, adapting and changing with the times. 

In 1955, Davis had an operation to remove polyps from his larynx. He was not supposed to speak for 10 days but had an argument with someone and permanently damaged his voice, resulting in a raspy, whispery tone to his voice. The actor, Dion Graham, who read the book for the recording, did a phenomenal job imitating Miles' whispery voice. I had the feeling that I was actually listening to Miles Davis tell his story.

This book is not for everyone. You will need an open mind and a willingness to listen to a the opinions of a creative genius. You will need to be willing to step into his world view and if you do you will be richly rewarded. I would recommend the book to jazz lovers and those interested in understanding the world of music. I also recommend that you listen to the Dion Graham recording rather than reading the book. I think you will find it a lot more entertaining.

See Now Then: A Novel4)  See Now Then by Jamaica Kinkaid.  This is a fantastic novel and a challenge to read. In fact, I don't recommend that you read it. I recommend that you listen to the CD recording read by the author. Kincaid writes long sentences that circle around and repeat words. She says the first story she submitted to the New Yorker was 300 words and only one sentence. Many readers will be bored by the repetition. Yet, when you listen to Kincaid read the novel, the dead words on the page come alive. 

This novel is a poetic meditation on family, marriage and love. It is not a narrative novel that flows in a straight line from the beginning to end. It circles around, repeating words and phrases, finding its way slowly, building its emotional bond with the listener. Jamaica Kincaid has a beautiful voice and it is only in listening to the reading does one hear and appreciate the subtleties of her humor.

Good Poems, American Places3)  Good Poems, American Places by Garrison Keillor.  Garrison Keillor continues to edit the best anthologies of poetry being published today. This is the third collection in the series.  It took me almost a year to read this book because I sipped its contents slowly. Each small sip is to be enjoyed and savored. If you love poetry, read this book. If you are new to poetry, read this book. It is great introduction to what is being written today. Put this on your reading list today.

Mastery2)  Mastery by Robert Greene.  A great book that every person, who wants to master a task, a skill or a talent, should read. If you want to be a writer, an artist or a musician, you should read this book. If you want to own your own company, be president of a company, or be a great employee, you should read this book. If you want to start a new career, become a doctor or a mechanic, or run a marathon, then read this book.

Robert Greene shares the stories of people who have become masters in their field. Using the stories of both dead and living masters, Greene reveals what it takes to become a master in your field. He shares the stories of Charles Darwin, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, John Coltrane, Martha Graham, Buckminster Fuller, Zora Neale Hurston and Wolfgang Mozart to name a few. He also shares the stories of living masters like Yoky Matsuoko, Freddie Roach, Daniel Everett and Santiago Calatrava. From these inspirational stories, Robert Greene identifies the keys to mastery.

This book is a must read for anyone who wants to become a master of some skill or talent. Pick up a copy today and change your life.  
All business, professional and creative leaders should read this book.  All college students and graduates should read this book.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking1)  Quiet by Susan Cain.  If there is only one book you are going to read this year, it should be Quiet by Susan Cain.  This book could save your marriage, your job, and your life.  

I am a closet introvert. Most of my life I have functioned as an introvert, but in my work I take on the persona of an extrovert. Susan Cain calls me a pseudo-extrovert -- someone who for various reasons takes on the identity of an extrovert. Cain's thesis is that for most of the 20th century, Americans worshiped people who were extroverts and discouraged introverts. We see this in a school system that encourages socialization. In the last 30 years parents have taken this to the extreme with extra-curricular activities almost every day of the week. Outgoing, friendly people are celebrated. The book worm, the loner, is discouraged.  

Susan Cain has amassed an enormous amount of research demonstrating that society, business, communities and even marriages need and benefit from having both introverts and extroverts on the team. We are all to varying degrees somewhere on the introvert - extrovert continuum. If you are an introvert or an extrovert or in a relationship with one or the other, then you need to read this book. Business people should read this book to understand their employees, their bosses and their peers. Teachers should read this book to understand the differences in the personalities of the children they teach. Husbands and wives should read this book to understand each other. 

To see all 43 books that I read in 2013, go to Goodreads.  https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/2103162-harley?shelf=read-2013