Literary Olympiad: Lists, Language, and Avoiding the Barbarous

Lists are fun. I read a couple great ones this week, including The Progressive magazine's nine worst lobbyists. I've assembled some great ones this past week at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, where I've taken notes and share them with you here. The conference's unsavory and racist name, by the way, is cleverly dealt with by the USPS and this tiny luxury ski community's excellent postmaster Larry, by calling it Olympic Valley. I'm no big fan of the Olympiad but here indeed is where the snow fell and the racers and skaters and even JFK came to celebrate the odd, captivating spectacle of the Winter Olympics, 1960. The ski corporation or Chamber of Commerce or somebody set up an over-the-top monument and tourist trap, so that on entering this once (and still) lovely and pristine valley you will now encounter two eternal flames, burning propane 24/7 if, alas, no giant marshmallows.

So, in this unlikely if perfect environment for reconciling--and celebrating--art, nature, commerce, writing, politics (and not being at my real job!), I joined the


staff, workshop leaders, panelists, participants and interested locals in hearing some truly great writers speak passionately, smartly, funnily, about books and writing.  Best of all, because they all actually read actual books, we know what each other are talking about. Thanks, biblio-pals! So I've been in

Bib Heaven

at this summer's 43rd running of the books. Thanks, Exec Director

Brett Hall Jones

, for that! Jones facilitated two events you might wish you'd attended. And, if you did, here are my notes.

At the impressive Published Alumni Reading, which is to say an event celebrating past conference participants who've now published actual books, that wonderful OC class war provocateur and Edith Wharton-esque chronicler of Newport Beach, Victoria Patterson  (This Vacant Paradise) briefly introduced each of seven (!) Squaw Valley Writers. To a man and woman they first told a funny or touching story about their week up here as participants years or even decades ago, then read excerpts of some pretty darn terrific books.  Here's the line-up from that event, in a handy "must-read" list with Mr. Bib's tidy synopses:

Ramona Ausubel, No One is Here But All of Us: Magical Jewish realism by way of historical revision for, not against, humanity.

Heather Donahue, Growgirl:   An autobiography by a very smart and funny woman.  She was in a movie about a witch from Blair, then grew pot and went to Burning Man.

Krys Lee, Drifting House:  short stories about North Koreans, South Koreans and Korean-Americans, but all about the darkness, beauty and cruelty of place and love denied, by ourselves or dictators or families, and other so-called authorities.

Ismet Prcic: Shards. First novel, amazing novel, featuring the character "Izzy" who wrote the book, a meta-memoir and emotional travelogue about family and war by everybody's favorite Bosnian-American.

Scott Sparling, Wire to Wire: Train-hopping Americana meets existential and political search for self, by a really, really funny guy. Kerouac meets Utah Phillips meets, well, a guy in a boxcar named Scott.

Susan Henderson, Up From the Blue:  Gorgeous prose with a winning young protagonist, a little girl offering unrequited love for her mother, who paints their house, and the front door, which dries and paints them in to their sad corner.  

Mary Volmer, Crown of Dust: Feminist and funny, richly drawn and sly Western-style novel which puts you there, which is to say here, in the Sierras when men were men, women were dressed like men, and the gold turned to dust.

I am proud to say that Yours Bibly emceed the "You Must Read This" tag-team bibliophiles' favorite book or author's recommendation-a-thon. Simple premise. Each notable got 10 minutes to persuade you and me, or introduce us all, or remind the world of what to buy at your local indy bookseller.  Here they are:

Screenwriter, theater director and literary lion Gill Dennis (Walk the Line, Coal Miner's Daughter) read Genet's The Prisoner of Love.
John Glusman, bigtime literary editor and author of Conduct Under Fire recommended George Orwell's enduringly necessary essay, "Politics and the English Language." (See below.)

Louis B. Jones, author of, most recently Radiance argued for John Banville, The Untouchables.

Jason Roberts, all-around good guy, stand-up bass player and author of the nonfiction classic, A Sense of the World:  How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler  offered two books, generous guy and vigorous reader that he is: Peter Orner's Love and Shame and Love

And Ben Fountain's brand-new Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk.

Mary Evans, super-agent and friend of writers bragged, as you'd want your agent to, about a forthcoming book. Her powers of boosterism sold me on Holding Silvan: A Brief Life by Monica Wesolowska, about the author's decision to decline medical intervention for her seriously disabled newborn.

Evans said it was an important, difficult and moving book that will challenge our definitions of love, and is out early out next year.

Robin Romm, acclaimed short story writer (The Mother Garden) and memoirist (The Mercy Papers), reminded everybody of how great Alison Lurie is, and encouraged us to reread The War Between the Tates

And, of course, it was helpful indeed to hear those six writing rules established by Mr. Eric Blair himself, a good place to end this blog post:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you're used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Apropos of nothing (once, briefly, a possible name for this blog), my favorite band ever, Chumbawamba, announced its break-up this week, after thirty years as the smartest, most beautiful, sublime, imaginative anarchist folk-punk musical and political art and music ensemble since The Clash, and then some. I'll celebrate their enduring spirit by playing (loud!) and singing along this week.  More than usual, I mean. ("When did you first see Chumbawamba?  In my dreams!")  If you need another list - and who doesn't? - here's my suggestions for three Chumba CDs to buy in case you're not hip to their work:  Readymades, A Singsong and a Scrap and The Boy Bands Have Won, all available through, of course, the serendipitous PM Press  Thanks, Ramsey K!  Thanks, Chums.

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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