Dostoyevsky Doorstop

I just finished reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Clocking in at nearly 800 pages, the book remained in my Kindle library for more than a year. Even as I skipped through page after page, the completion rate remained at about 62 percent. I thought I would never finish. Now I am tackling another classic tome of literature—The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I’m only 27 pages into it, and I’m already confused by the multiple characters the author has introduced. But I think having a print copy will make the reading easier than Copperfield.

I always struggle with longer novels, but they can also be the most satisfying. Two of my favorite novels are longer works—Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe and The Town and the City by Jack Kerouac.

I’m approaching Karamazov like I mentally approach a Central New York winter. You can’t see the end of winter in late October. You have to take it one day at a time, one snowstorm at a time. So I can’t anticipate reading the last sentence of page 985 and then closing the book. I just have to plug along, page by page, day by day until I reach the end. My goal is to finish by Christmas.


Purging Paperwork

Here are some remnants from the second draft edit of my work-in-progress memoir.

I’m in the process of moving, and it felt good to purge these pages from my “working” tote. I’m taking a little break from the project in hopes I can go from a “shitty” first draft to a “not so shitty” second draft to a “totally mediocre” third draft—and down the line until I arrive at “somewhere near decent.” I’m afraid that could take me some time. But I will persist.


Books for Sale Locally

Two of my books, Dreaming of Lemon Trees: Selected Poems and Outward Arrangements: Poems are available in the Local Authors section in Parthenon Books, the new bookstore located on Salina Street in Syracuse. I stopped by Sunday morning and was excited to see the books lining the shelf, in company with works by other Central New York writers.

Books on display.



Summer Reading Inspiration

Digging through some totes in my living room, I found this archival evidence of my early obsession with books.

Library reading certificate, 1976.

During America’s Bicentennial year of 1976, my mother had enrolled me in a summer reading program at Jervis Public Library in my hometown of Rome, New York. The librarian had divided the group into two teams—the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees—and we competed against each other for the most books read over the course of the summer. I can’t remember which side I was on, but the librarian was prescient, because Cincinnati would meet New York in the World Series later that year, with the Reds sweeping the Yankees to win the title.

I wish I had a list of the eighteen books I had read during the summer of ’76, as I would like to revisit some of them now.

As for this summer’s reading list, I am starting off with these selections.

The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found, a memoir by Frank Bruni.

Frank Bruni book cover.

Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems, published by Library of America, and The Closers by Michael Connelly.

Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems, published by Library of America.


Paperback Mysteries

Books are recyclable works of art that have transference of ownership. And I love making discoveries in the pages of used paperbacks—books that have been discarded from public libraries, purchased at garage sales, or pulled from bargain bins.

Case in point: my gently used copy of the novel Body and Soul by Frank Conroy. The bildungsroman tells the story of musical wunderkind Claude Rawlings, starting from his childhood in New York City in the 1940s. The late Conroy, who had served as director of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, is known for penning the influential memoir Stop-Time.

Body and Soul by Frank Conroy.

I read Body and Soul several years ago when residing in Phoenix, Arizona. I bought my current copy on Amazon. And stuffed between the pages, I found vestiges left behind by the previous owners—a bookmark and two notes. The first note is dated Oct. 13 (year not included). It’s from CB and addressed to Kristen: “Here’s the book about the piano protege I mentioned in Balto.”

The second note is written on a piece of red paper cut into the shape of a fish. It’s addressed to Rosa from Adam. “Awesome job this week! Keep up the good work. Thanks for listening so well. Have a great year + hope to see you again.”

Multiple scenarios run through my head. I’d like to know more about the people who touched the book I now grasp. I’m curious about the relationships between Kristen and CB and Rosa and Adam. Is Kristen a musician and is “Balto” short for “Baltimore?” Was Adam a teacher and Rosa his student?

I know my questions will go unanswered and the paperback mysteries will remain unsolved. But on the bright side, I still have Conroy’s story to explore.


Book Selection

Have you ever gone into a store with the intention of buying one thing but end up selecting another? You want a black belt, but you decide the brown leather one looks and feels better encircling your waist? Or you crave pancakes, but when the waitress comes around, you order a Denver omelet with home fries and wheat toast?

This happens to me frequently when I go to the library in search of a particular book. I write down the call number and head off in the direction of its location. But when I roam through the rows of the repository, my attention gets diverted, I discover a different book, and I choose that one instead.

Here’s an example. On a recent Sunday afternoon I climbed the steps of Carnegie Library at Syracuse University, walked through the grand Reading Room, filled with students studying, and went into the upper level stacks in search of a nonfiction book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon (with a call number in the range of RC537).

I had scribbled the call number on a scrap of paper, and perhaps serendipity led me in a different direction because I went to the wrong row, as I had transposed the call number in my head. I started scanning the shelves in the area of RC357, and there, amid a plethora of books about amnesia and other medical problems, a title jumped out at me and seized my attention. Its name: Be Glad You’re Neurotic.

Be Glad You’re Neurotic by Louis E. Bisch, M.D., Ph.D.

Be Glad You’re Neurotic by Louis E. Bisch, M.D., Ph.D.

“Wow, was this battered blue and gray hardcover placed in this exact spot just for my eyes?” I wondered. “Am I the intended audience?”

I grabbed it and flipped through the book, and my cursory glance indicated it offered some self-help advice, which, with all of my odd predilections, proclivities, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I am willing to accept.

Be Glad You’re Neurotic was written by Louis E. Bisch, M.D., Ph.D., and published in 1936 by Whittlesey House, a division of the McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. Its earliest library check-out date was January 6, 1965; and the last stamp is dated October 7, 1997.

I’m hoping the book will do me some good. A sentence in the preface reads, “Neurotic states are more common than the common cold.”

And some of the chapter headings inspire me and make me feel better about myself. Chapter I: I’m a Neurotic Myself and Delighted. Chapter II: To Be Normal Is Nothing to Brag About. And Chapter IV: Your Neurotic Development Was Inevitable.

I haven’t read any further yet, and that’s because I have a stack of books I am still waiting to tackle; currently I have five books checked out from the library, while also reading two others via Kindle.

Books waiting to be read.

Books waiting to be read.

And this experience at the library made me realize two things. One—how sad it is that I’ll never have the time to read all of the books I want to. Many titles on my “to-read” list will remain unread. I consider it a metaphor for how there are certain things in life you’ll never achieve or get to do. My dream trip to Ireland and Italy—well, keep dreaming.

The second revelation is that I’m fed up with always seeking out the next book instead of thoroughly enjoying the one I’m currently reading. As a voracious reader, this book lust is a real problem for me. All it takes is a New York Times review or an interview with an author on Fresh Air with Terry Gross to set me off in search of the title in question. My Amazon “wish list” has hundreds of books sitting in the queue.

So after I plow through the pile of books sitting on top of my bedroom dresser, I will try to limit myself to reading only one novel and one nonfiction book at a time—a two-book limit. But I am not sure if I will be successful. I don’t know if I can stop myself from going to the library before I finish reading them both. And I still need to check out a copy of The Noonday Demon.


Books on James: A Feature Story

I just wanted to point out that a feature story I wrote about two independent bookstores in Syracuse has been published on, a website that celebrates the people, places, businesses and leaders that make Central New York a special place to live and work. You can read the story here.

The story includes some photographs of the two stores, and I have added a few extra shots here. Thanks for taking a look.

Exterior of Books and Melodies bookstore on James Street in Syracuse, New York. (Photos by Francis DiClemente)

Exterior of Books and Melodies bookstore on James Street in Syracuse, New York. (Photos by Francis DiClemente)

Books and Melodies bookstore in Syracuse, New York.

Books and Melodies bookstore in Syracuse, New York.

Examples of “ephemera” merchandise inside Books and Melodies bookstore.

Books End owner Jim Roberts works behind the counter.

Books End owner Jim Roberts works behind the counter.

Books line shelves inside Books End bookstore in Syracuse, New York.

Books line shelves inside Books End bookstore in Syracuse, New York.

Interior of Books End bookstore in Syracuse.

Interior of Books End bookstore in Syracuse.

Inside Books End bookstore in Syracuse, New York.

Inside Books End bookstore in Syracuse, New York.


Jumpcuts of Text: Continued

As promised in my last blog post, here are the excerpts from books six through ten that I pulled off the shelves at random recently at Syracuse University’s Bird Library.

Table in Library

Table in Library

Book 6: Saville by David Storey

“I haven’t said he’ll never do it,” Colin said.

Richard had covered his face in his hands: his head was shaken from side to side; he his shoulders shook, some fresh anguish broke from him as his father touched his back.

“Nay, love,” his father said. “It’s not important.”

“It is,” his brother said, his voice buried by his moans.

Storey, David. Saville. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1976. Print.

Editor’s note: I forgot to write down the page number and then was unable to find the passage while skimming through the book.

Book 7: Music of the Mill by Luis J. Rodriguez

“Eventually it wasn’t a fantasy. I often walked home from school, which was hard at first since I got so many stares and whistles, especially from the paisas, the Mexicanos, freshly wet from over the Rio Grande. There were run-down motellike apartments on Florence Avenue that I had to pass by every day. Nothing but newly arrived men lived in them. They worked in local construction and factory jobs. By the afternoon, many of them were hanging out, already drinking beer, with the shirts off, wearing Mexican vaquero hats, a type of cowboy hat. They always yelled and whistled at me.”

Rodriguez, Luis J. Music of the Mill. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005. 216. Print.

Book 8: These Are Not Sweet Girls: Poetry by Latin American Women. Edited by Marjorie Agosin.

From the poem Rosa/Fili by Maria Arrillaga:


“He did not leave
You left, Rosa, Rosario, Rosina, Rosaura/Fili
Your name grows
In that new path
Furrows flee your face
Your features are refined
In the contour of precise strokes
Calm you are
The towering heights of the past
Become the happy landscape
Of your big waist
Your hair undulates defying
He who will appreciate your body
You are intelligent, Fili
You have your life
You have yourself
It’s no small thing.”

Agosin, Marjorie. These Are Not Sweet Girls: Poetry by Latin American Women. Fredonia, New York: White Pine Press, 1994. 194. Print.

Book 9: The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati

“One September morning, Giovanni Drogo, being newly commissioned, set out from the city for Fort Bastiani; it was his first posting.

He had himself called while it was still dark and for the first time put on his lieutenant’s uniform. When he had done, he looked at himself in the mirror by the light of an oil lamp but failed to find there the expected joy. There was a great silence in the house but from a neighbouring room low voices could be heard; his mother was rising to bid him farewell.

This was the day he had looked forward to for years—the beginning of his real life.”

Buzzati, Dino. The Tartar Steppe. New York: Carcanet Press, 1987. 1. Print.

Book 10: Strindberg: A Life by Sue Prideaux

“When they had left for France, Siri was pregnant again. She knew when they reached their destination she could not hope for a career on the French stage. They stood on the platform, smartly dressed as always, with their children, their nanny Eva, their trunks and cases of books and the blue and white pram with its milk-stained top. Siri’s career as an actress, apart from her creation of the role of Miss Julie in Denmark in 1888, was over.”

Prideaux, Sue. Strindberg: A Life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012. 104. Print.

Books on Table

Books on Table


Jumpcuts of Text: A Research Experiment

Several years ago I worked as an editor at a national broadcast news wire service in Arizona. My roommate Dave and I worked the same 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, and we would commute together, one of us taking turns driving each week. Often in the morning, after our shift ended, we would go grocery shopping, eat breakfast at a Denny’s or a Village Inn or search for some other activity to do to help us wind down before heading home, closing the Venetian blinds and trying to fall asleep in the Arizona sunlight. Such is the dilemma of night shift workers, struggling to sleep in daylight in opposition to your body’s circadian rhythm.

One morning Dave and I went to a bookstore near Indian School Road in Phoenix. The place offered a hodgepodge of entertainment-related merchandise: books, CDs (this was around 2001), board games, video games and porn (both magazines and video).

I remember buying used copies of Jack Kerouac’s The Town and the City and Frank Conroe’s Body and Soul. Both remain two of my all-time favorite books.

Dave and I wandered through the store and then we decided to play a game. We each went into a row in the used paperback section. Dave would pull out a book and a read a paragraph aloud. And then it was my turn and I would do the same thing. As the game progressed, I recall Dave stretching out on the floor of his row, surrounded by a stack of books.

Our selected passages included excerpts from spy thrillers, Dick Francis mysteries and Harlequin romance novels emblazoned with cover art images of men with bulging biceps and ripped pectorals.

Something about the incongruity, the verbal juxtaposition of the different passages, struck me as satisfying. These were books I never would have opened if I was browsing in the bookstore alone. The random act of pulling any volume and reading it aloud was like walking into a movie theater and knowing only the title of a film or buying a CD based solely on the artist’s name or the cover art.

I thought it would be fun to try to duplicate the exhilarating feeling of making a literary discovery. I decided to create an adapted research experiment by going to the fifth floor of Syracuse University’s Bird Library on a recent Saturday afternoon and pulling ten books off the shelves at random.

Table in Library

Table in Library

I spread the books on a table and for each book, I wrote down the author, title and publisher. I then opened the book to any page and read the first passage or paragraph that my eyes traveled to.

At first I wanted to replicate the work of a collage artist by compiling the sentences to form a textual conglomerate—to see the various passages edited into one composition. However, after I transcribed the paragraphs from the ten books, I realized they should each stand alone as a completed work of art. To me each book signifies a surprise that is worth exploring.

And, as a result, my “to-do” reading list has grown by ten titles.

I also wanted to make this a two-part blog post. So here are the selections from the first five books I grabbed off the shelves. I will add books six through ten later in the week.

Random Library Books

Random Library Books

Book 1: Evading Class in Contemporary British Literature by Lawrence Driscoll; an excerpt from The Book of Dave by Will Self.

“Dave keeps walking and soon we have the kitchen-sink drama moment when the protagonist looks back at his home town, as Dave looks down on London from the height of Essex:

Towards evening Dave found himself mounting up a hill. Up he went…Dave turned back to see the city he had lost   spreading to the far hills of the south in  brick peak after tarmac trough…In the mid distance a river streaked silver and beside it a mighty wheel revolved so slowly.”

Driscoll, Lawrence. Evading Class in Contemporary British Literature. New York: Palmgrave Macmillan, 2009. 89-90. Print.

Book 2: Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of the Dialectic by Lorraine Clark

“Kierkegaard’s attack on the spectre of negation that dissolves the ethical contraries once again focuses on the “phantom” of the Hegelian negative:

Leaving logic to go on to ethics, one encounters here again the negative, which is indefatigably active in the whole Hegelian philosophy. Here too a man discovers to his amazement that the negative is the evil. Now the confusion is in full swing; there is no bound to brilliancy.”

Clark, Lorraine. Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of the Dialectic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 134. Print.

Book 3: The Solitude of Surabhi by Deepa Shah

“Twelve-year-old Nimish looked sullenly out of the open window behind his father. Why was Papa so nervous of life and if it was a matter of assuming a role he could become a pilot, a soldier, an actor—well anything, Nimish thought. And then he noticed with surprise the fuzz on the tree outside which had softened the starkness of the branches of a fortnight ago.”

Shah, Deepa. The Solitude of Surabhi. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1997. 106. Print.

The Solitude of Surabhi

The Solitude of Surabhi

Book 4: Black Order by James Rollins

“Keep a historical perspective, Mr. Crowe. The Nazis were convinced that they would give rise to the next superrace. And here was a tool to do it in a generation. Morality held no benefit. There was a larger imperative.”

“To create a master race. To rule the world.”

Rollins, James. Black Order. New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2006. 190. Print.

Book 5: Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx

“I had to go to Germany and while I was gone the James Gang and the tile setter handled the enormous job of moving all the furniture and the full bookcases, of closing off and filling in the unwanted floor outlets, of measuring, cutting and laying the tile. The floor was almost the floor of my dreams, clean, smooth, elegant and a ravishing color. I swore always to have tiled floors wherever I lived. The bookcases were perfectly in place. How had they done all this in two weeks? I will never know.”

Proulx, Annie. Bird Cloud. New York: Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2011. 137. Print.


Collage Postscript

Since I made the first collage piece in 2009, I have tried my hand a few more times, with varying results. I made two library-themed collage works called Archive and Checkout, seen here.

Digital image of mixed media work, 2011.

Digital image of collage, 2011.

The idea for the pieces came to me because over the years my mother had purchased several used books from Jervis Public Library in Rome; most sold for one dollar or less. Flipping through some of the books, I noticed they were all stamped with the phrase “Discarded From Jervis Public Library” in red ink on one of the inside covers or pages.

Many of the books were in good condition, and some of the titles came from popular authors like James Patterson, Scott Turow, Anne Rice and Dick Francis. Even so, whether a title was a Harlequin romance or a prize-winning literary novel, I felt sadness because books that seemed to be still readable were being pulled from the stacks and deposited on cluttered shelves in a dark hallway of the library near the men’s and women’s bathrooms. I’m sure there’s a good reason why the books needed to be moved out of circulation, but on a visceral level I felt empathy for the discarded inanimate works.  

As a result, I went to the library, bought several of the used books and cut out the stamped pages. I then gathered the pages and some old library cards that I found for sale online and pasted them together on two painted canvases.

This fun project in the summer of 2011 led to another unrelated work. My father had passed away in 2007 and I still had some of his old clothes and other personal items. So I thought I would try to make a collage tribute to him using materials left over from his life. Here is the finished product.

Digital image of mixed media work, 2011.

In hindsight, I should have painted the surface before I added the collage materials to give it some color. I also think I should have limited the number of buttons from my dad’s shirts.

Still, what I like most about these three collage works is I had no expectations when I started working on them. As stated in my last post, I am a collage novice, but an idea came to me and I said to myself, “OK, give it a try.”

And I think it’s a good lesson for me to learn, as artistic experimentation is vital to keeping work fresh. It helps to shake up the juices and allow new paths of creation to flow. This philosophy of taking risks and following your instincts applies to practitioners of all art forms and is also relevant in other areas of life, such as learning, career, dating, cooking and social experiences.

On a personal note, the three collages hold special meaning for me because they pay tribute to my late parents. I mentioned my father’s collage, but the two library-themed pictures also honor my mother, even if that was not the intention when I made them. My mom, who died last November after a long battle with cancer, was a bibliophile who researched and compiled detailed biographies and booklists for her favorite authors, including Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts. When I would mock her for taking a hobby to such a fanatical level, she would just say, “I’m very organized.”

She also gave me permission to rip out all of the “Discarded From Jervis Public Library” stamps from the used books she had finished reading. She piled the books in a wicker basket placed near the fireplace in the living room, with yellow Post-it notes on the covers indicating they had been “read.”

And I’m glad she had a chance to see the finished library collages since she contributed to the making of them. Right now all three collages are wrapped in brown paper and tucked under the bed in one of the spare bedrooms in my stepfather’s house in Rome. But if a day comes when I have some wall space in a future apartment—not the furnished studio I currently rent—I’ll hang up the collages and look upon the images with satisfaction, knowing a little bit of my parents’ spirit lives on underneath the glass frames.

Digital photograph of collage, 2011.

Digital photograph of mixed media piece, 2011.