Thursday, August 9, 2012

With Jenny Diski and Sam Shepard, My Permanent Collection is Now Ready for Moving

During the past two weeks, I've ordered four books that are absolutely essential for my permanent collection, so I have them before we move and don't have to wish that I have them. (Soon, I won't have to distinguish between my permanent collection and my temporary collection, which are books I bought but won't likely keep after I'm done reading them. I'll have not only the Whitney library branch of the Clark County system, but I hear that the main library branch of the system, the original, is not too far from us either.)

First was Stranger on a Train by Jenny Diski:

It's a dryly funny, low-key travelogue, first about Diski's journey on a cargo ship from Hamburg, Germany, to Tampa, Florida and then to Port Royal, near Savannah, Georgia, then across America entirely by train. I want to say that I first checked it out of the Valencia library, but I'm probably wrong, because I remember buying it from a seller on to read, and that might have been the first time. I think it had to be long after I gave up on the now-Santa Clarita library system because Santa Clarita is already isolated enough, and there was the City Council, cutting off the valley from the County of Los Angeles entirely in order to have their own library system. The County has millions upon millions of books in circulation. I don't think the Santa Clarita system has even that many yet, and I wasn't game for finding out. I didn't bother getting a new library card and have relied mostly on for the past few years, and sometimes Amazon.

After I first read Stranger on a Train, I donated it, but while I was reading Greyhound by Steffan Piper two weeks ago, it kept nagging me. I needed it back in my collection. Not only because I'm researching travel books both fiction and nonfiction for two novels I want to write, but because I loved the journey she took, what she saw in our country. You can't let the words rush by. I speed read, but over all the years I've been reading, I have an instinct for slowing down for just those books that need it. Books like this one, and like Nixon in Winter by Monica Crowley, but only because of the complexity of historical government policy. It takes time to absorb.

This being the second time I've bought Stranger on a Train, it's not going anywhere, at least until it falls apart from re-reading and I have to buy a new copy to replace it. But that won't happen for a few years. I can't wait to get back to the equivalent of this, in which checking out a book from the library three or more times means I need to buy it. That happened at the Valencia library with The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes and The Music of Your Life by John Rowell.

I discovered Sam Shepard out of curiosity when Day out of Days, his book of generally short stories and sketches, was published in 2010. I checked it out from the Valencia library in hardcover, and was so hungry for more than I checked out his earlier works, Cruising Paradise and Great Dream of Heaven, in rapid succession, followed by his plays.

When we moved from South Florida to Southern California in August 2003, I had no insight into the region that could help me get used to it. I spent my first few weeks as a student at College of the Canyons in the library, pulling down memoirs, literary anthologies, and novels about Los Angeles, trying to understand it, trying to understand this valley, trying to find something I could connect to. I didn't find anything, except I learned that while Los Angeles claims it's in the desert, it's not. It may have been a desert once, but it's not a true desert, not with many different climate zones, depending on which mountains you are and how high up you are, and all of that. Plus, Los Angeles doesn't know the meaning of what it is to be a desert since it gets all the water it needs, whereas Nevada has to make sure it gets the water it needs every year, and now has to fight for more, because under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, it gets 300,000 acre-feet of water per year, which back then, never took into account that the population of Nevada, especially in the Las Vegas Valley, would get bigger. So there are water squabbles going on even today. Los Angeles is never hurting for water because you know the Hoover Dam, all that power it generates? Most of it actually goes to California, to Los Angeles.

So I've never understood Southern California, and only found minimal things to connect to, such as Anaheim and Buena Park, but we don't go to either very often, though Buena Park will figure into one of my novels, to honor that now-closed Po Folks restaurant across from Medieval Times there, which I grew up on in South Florida until a corporate outfit took ownership of that Po Folks and everything went downhill.

The first time we went to Las Vegas in 2007, I got out of our rented SUV at the far end of the America's Best Value Inn property on East Tropicana Avenue (since they allowed pets in those rooms, and our dog Tigger was with us), looked around, and worried that we had made a sorry mistake. It all looked so abandoned, with the airport right nearby, and there was a parking garage for one of the casinos, with the monorail on a track right next to it. What had we done?

But after we got settled, put Tigger in the kennel we brought with us, and made sure the room was cool enough for him, we went to the Mirage, to the Carnegie Deli there, and that was it. Walking across that casino floor to Carnegie, I immediately understood the excitement of Las Vegas, why people flock there, and it only got better those next two days. I loved the sights, and I watched the people, and I realized that there are so many stories happening in Las Vegas in 30 seconds alone than what happens in Los Angeles in even 20 seconds. If you can't write in Las Vegas, quit. I won't have any trouble there.

On one of our many trips, driving into Nevada, we passed by a riverboat-shaped casino, which I later learned was called the Nevada Landing Hotel and Casino. The trip after that, passing by that same spot in Jean, Nevada Landing was gone. I know that it was torn down, but I loved the sheer poetry of it: A riverboat disappearing in the desert. That's when I knew that there was more to this desert than only what Las Vegas offered. There was some kind of magic here, in its scenery, in its history (I don't think the desert ever forgets), in how people live in the desert.

That was around the time I discovered Sam Shepard the writer. I knew about Sam Shepard the actor, having seen him in Voyager, co-starring with Julie Delpy, both eventually becoming lovers, until the disturbing, sad twist at the end. I was impressed with him as an actor, but until Day Out of Days, I had no idea of the riches he brought as a writer.

Shepard became one of my heroes because he helped me understand the desert more than any history book ever could. He told me I was right, that the desert has mystery and magic and that it's different for each person, depending on who they are and where they come from. It's always there for everyone, not always welcoming, but you make your way through it the best way you know how, or you think you know how.

I got more out of Day Out of Days than I got out of any of the books about Los Angeles at the College of the Canyons library. I realize now that the meaning of L.A. differs for each person, that there's no overall meaning, but I need meaning. I need to know that a city is alive, that it offers lifelines. Las Vegas, for me, offers that in never ignoring its history like Los Angeles does. There are museums, such as the Clark County Museum, which embraces that history, and the libraries stock so many books about the history of Las Vegas and Nevada, all of which I'll read. Every single one.

Recently, while turning all my makeshift box bookshelves vertically to put my books in that way and line up those boxes against the wall under my window, left and right, I realized that I need Sam Shepard in my collection. I needed Day Out of Days, Cruising Paradise, and Great Dream of Heaven with me before we move, so I didn't have to lament that they weren't part of my collection. Over the past three months, I've gone back and forth about whether I should have them and I finally said, "Hell with it. I need them and I'm going to have them."

I ordered them, all paperback editions, and Day Out of Days arrived first:

I like the hardcover edition better because it has a stronger desert feel:

It conveys the bleached-out look of the desert better than the paperback edition because yes, the sun blazes in the desert, but there are always some gray areas about it. Not only white, and hotter white. However, I can live with the paperback edition, because with how much I'm bound to read it, I'd rather get right to it than dealing with hardcover. Sure it preserves the pages better, and paperback's bound to wear out faster, but also for the sake of weight, especially when moving, this is much easier.

Then Cruising Paradise arrived a few days after Day Out of Days, and this is one of the rare instances that I love the paperback edition cover more than the hardcover edition:

The copy that I'm holding looks a deeper brown than that, and it conveys perfectly the vastness of the desert, especially by way of those bicyclers. Compare that to the hardcover edition cover:

Too newsprint gray. The desert is never, never that gray.

My biggest disappointment came today with the arrival of Great Dream of Heaven in the mail. Here's the cover of Random House's Vintage paperback edition:

Instead of that one, I received from Wonder Book, the seller that I use all the time for other books, an edition from Britain, by Secker & Warburg, despite them advertising the Vintage edition. I like British books because they have heavier covers and the pages are sturdier. So that should be reason enough to keep it. And maybe I will. But it's taller than my other Sam Shepard books, by a few inches. Plus, the title isn't uniform. Great Dream is printed in blue on the cover, and of Heaven is printed in bright orange.

I'm torn because I like the Vintage cover better. The hardcover edition from the same publisher had the cover in gray, just like Cruising Paradise. The sky blue tint of the paperback edition is much nicer. Yet this British edition has on its inside back cover a full photo of Sam Shepard, though as I just learned from the Amazon page for the Vintage paperback edition, Shepard's photo on that back cover is smaller, but of better quality, whereas the photo of Shepard in this British edition has been blown up a bit to cover that entire inside cover. It looks better on the Vintage edition.

It would seem dumb to give up a book that offers a sturdier cover and stronger pages, but Shepard's meant to be pliable. He's never been stiff in any of his works, and I want what I like. I'll order the Vintage paperback edition (fortunately, I didn't pay much for the British edition), because it fits alongside Day Out of Days, which has a green border on the front. I checked out Great Dream of Heaven in hardcover from the Valencia library, but I want Shepard as I will know him best. And I'd rather have the title look uniform. I want all blue.

With these four books, my permanent collection is complete. I'm sure I'll add others in the years to come in Las Vegas, but it doesn't happen very often. The latest ones before these were Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, and The Loop by Joe Coomer, both in June. Last February, I added three: Taft 2012 by Jason Heller, The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty, and Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks. Overall, though, that doesn't happen often. I'm very picky.

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