24 February 2009

Taken Down a Peg. Damnit!


I was not expecting to be gobsmacked while taking my Wee Lass to the library late last Saturday afternoon, but there it is. I was really just looking to read some books to her, pick some out for her to take home while The Spouse did some browsing of her own. Truly I did not need any books for myself, I have at least two or three months backlog of material on my nightstand and beside it. The books on the stand are threatening to take over, they are starting to block out the light from the bedside lamp! I need to get cracking; otherwise the books will probably bury me in a landslide soon.

Wee Lass and I journeyed down the ‘tunnel’ to the children’s area, a passageway that has a series of small tree trunks forming arches overhead from which hang banners in the shapes of leafy trees. They are festooned with little stuffed birds to enhance the forest effect. Wee Lass likes to follow the curvy line in the carpet, like she is swimming towards the open area with the books. We sit at a small table and read a delightfully illustrated ABC’s book, and then start in on one about a witch with some sort of self-esteem issues and an inferiority complex. I am a little disconcerted to note that the witch book was first published in the year of my birth. Ouch.

The Spouse finds us after she finishes browsing, and graciously relieves me of book recital duties, so that I can do a little investigation of my own. As I mentioned, I wasn’t looking to bring home any more books, so I thought I would wander up and down the aisles to skim some titles, maybe refresh my memory regarding what was up in the world of fiction and the like. This was my first trip to the library in years, a bit like a trip to the candy store.

For me, walking into a library with no specific titles in mind is akin to doing the same thing in a music store: I immediately cannot recall all the artists or works I want to get. I know I have a working list, I keep adding to it in my head, and I always tell myself “Don’t forget these next time!” I am rarely if ever successful. This time was no different. What occurs is that I start walking slowly up and down the aisles, quickly scanning the spines for catchy titles or familiar names. I started alphabetically in the A’s, drifting up and down, stopping occasionally to check out a cover blurb or read a paragraph or two. It was an amusing enough way to pass the time, and I was reasonably certain by the time I made it into the M through P sections that I would definitely not be taking anything home. There was a lot of cool stuff but nothing that really reached out and grabbed me enough to make it a ‘must read’, in light of the books I had at home. It was about that time I had the beginnings of an idea in the back of my head. Sort of like a “mind itch” tickling my brain. There was a faint memory of someone whose work I really admire, and I knew it was close by, but I was having trouble remembering his last name. Why I don’t know, because his novels and stories I used to avidly devour. As a tangent to that, I was of a mind to amuse myself by looking for authors having the same last name as me. So I ambled over to the S shelves and began to browse. Instead of looking up to where my name would have been I looked down, and that’s when the memory clicked back into focus as I spotted the book. It was The Best of Lucius Shepard, released in 2008 by Subterranean Press. Somehow I missed it last year.

Lucius Shepard. Oh, man. I read a lot of his work in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and quite frankly I found him to be one of the best writers I ever had the pleasure to encounter. His work is hard to describe: magical realism, sci-fi, speculative fiction, horror and even political works fall into his purview. The first story of his that grabbed me by the brain and wouldn’t let go is called “R & R”. It was first published in 1986. It is a near future story about a soldier with a peculiar ability, set in Central America. I found it to be powerful on so many levels: great sci-fi, a tinge of the fantastic, political commentary and some gritty detailed writing. I read it multiple times, and then found he had expanded it into a full length novel called Life During Wartime. One of the best books I have ever read by far. Think Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets Robert Heinlein, with a dash of P.J. O’Rourke.

“R & R” was included in the Best Of, along with another great story* called “Salvador”. But the one that caused me to take a deep breath in surprise, really grabbed my attention, is a fantastic and powerful short story called “The Jaguar Hunter.” I nearly dropped the book in surprise, and I am sure my jaw sagged. I may have even grunted out loud; the lady a few feet down the aisle certainly gave me a funny look.

The Jaguar Hunter. I had read that some years ago, and found it quite good then, but for some reason it slipped out of my consciousness later in the 90’s. I truly hadn’t thought about it in longer than I could remember. The title alone was enough to give me a jolt, and I read half the story standing right there in the stacks. I finished it later that evening, after we all returned home. It was even better than I thought so long ago.

I have written a lot recently about jaguars and Jaguar Man. The subject is something that will not seem to leave my imagination. I think I know why, in part, the jaguar has stuck in my subconscious, has become totemic for me. All that power, grace and mystery wrapped up in such a breathtaking package, and “The Jaguar Hunter” quite simply sums up how such a creature affects me, even if I cannot adequately explain. Actually, Lucius Shepard has done it for me. I’ll quote a short passage from the story, where the protagonist Esteban (the jaguar hunter) has realized something terrifying and beautiful about a Truth:

“…It was everywhere, and he had always known it: if you deny mystery – even in the guise of death – then you deny life and you will walk like a ghost through your days, never knowing the secrets of the extremes. The deep sorrows, the absolute joys.”

Oh, sweet baby Jay-zus, that nearly caused me to faint. I literally had to close my eyes for a few seconds and I pinched the bridge of my nose while massaging my temples. I read the paragraph leading up to that phrase four more times before finishing the story. The ending shortly thereafter was even more powerful, I think, at this time than it had been so many years ago. I nearly wept when I was done, for two reasons; the first was that it was so beautiful and powerful. It captured so much I what has been swirling around in my head and placed it right there for me to savor.

The second reason: I realized without a doubt that, as a writer, I have a very long way to go. There will always be someone who is better, brighter and smarter than I am. Lucius Shepard just gave me a master class in the art. The story is everything I have been trying to achieve, have been striving for, and it made me want to just back away from the keyboard and find something else to do with my time and energy.

“The Jaguar Hunter” is a story I wish I had written, and hopefully someday I will have one of my own to compare, but it’s a long way to the top. This is what it must feel like to launch into a pole vault, only to see the bar raised higher as you are hurtling through the air.


*Although they are all great stories, hence the ‘Best Of’ moniker.

30 comments:

  1. Cool post. And cool that the story found you (again) at this time in your life. I will have to look that one up. :-)

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  2. Perhaps, Irish, it's like the tunnel to the kids section. . . just follow the curvy line and you'll get there someday.

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  3. Yeah but you're your own kind of brilliant, Irish.

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  4. Libraries are awesome! I don't care what anyone says!

    (except for my school library, where i spend most of my time among stack and stack of design books researchin =( )

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  5. I've only just met you but I'm always after new books and given your nightstand situation-you can always guage a reader by his nightstand- I will check Shepherd out.

    Hopefully it's not too Marquez, as I find him a teeny bit annoying sometimes, but I'll risk it!

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  6. Dude. Do not berate thyself. You freakin' rock.

    I'm going to go get me some Shepherd (just until your books come out.)

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  7. Now you know how it feels for me to read you.

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  8. I shall have to track down some Shepherd...once I plough my way through the towering stack of books next to my bedside table which threaten to block out the light (I also have the same list blindness - listlexia, I think it's called)

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  9. Like IB said, I often feel that way when I read your writing..

    And you know what? You'll feel like that a lot as you learn and develop your craft.. Like any hobby/career/thing you do.. there is always room to grow and learn more. And yes, there will always be someone out there better than you. ;)

    You have occasionally made me feel silly for being the one who wrote a book.. I read something you've written and think 'why the hell am I putzing around with this.. how can I be successful when there's someone like this out there?'

    Keep at it friend. And enjoy your growing pains. :)

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  10. I am the same way in a library or bookstore. I can't remember any of the 510 books I have been recommended or have came across that I know I want to read, and then I could literally spend HOURS browsing, reading and smelling the books. Yes, I said smelling. I love the smell of books. I love everything about books.

    It's kinda like porn to me.

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  11. I'm with Baldy. Not literally of course. I just mean that once I've read everything else, I'll read Shepherd.

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  12. OAM: Thank you. Everything happens for a reason, right? :)

    lizspin: What a lovely way to put it! :)

    Braja: *blush* You honor me :)

    IAG: Libraries were my treehouse, in a way.

    Mo.stoneskin: I know what you mean :) but Shepard is a little more hard edged, I think.

    Janie: *blush* You and Braja are making me all flushed and warm like :)

    IB: Bro, the fact that you read me, well, that's an honor. Trust me :)

    TBF: Fall to, young man! Time's a wasting!

    CPM: You have finished a book. A book. I am in awe. Don't worry, there is room for all of us...:)

    Petra: Oh happy day! 'Book smell' is one of my favorite scents in the world! And I know what you mean ;)

    Belle: I'm sure he would be flattered (grin). I think Shepard is worth it.

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  13. Unfortunately I feel that way too often, feeling inadequate in my skills, because there are just so many talented people out there. Sigh.

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  14. Hi Gumby!

    I love the library and go all the time. (And I have tons of books at home I am slowly making my way through too.)

    There is nothing better than the smell of a book. Old and new...They are both wonderful!

    Been missing you! :)

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  15. You really need to turn these posts into a book. Then I can make a post just like this one about your book. According to Simba (who I feel is an authority on such things) that's how the circle of life works.

    I know how you feel. Haruki Murakami and Glen Duncan do that to me. I love to read them, but they're so good they just give me writer's block.

    You have nothing to worry about though.

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  16. I can't read books I love when I'm seriously writing anything because I have that feeling of falling short, or of telling a story someone else could tell more beautifully, so I absolutely relate to this post. Nothing will bring on writer's block for me more than a really well-written and engaging book. Stay out of the library!

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  17. Talk about timing. Or fate. Or maybe a bit of both. Take the hint, Irish.. :-)

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  18. I'll be thinking about that quote for a long, long time.

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  19. I need to embroider that quote on my lungs so that each time I am too chicken shit to try anything all I have to do take a deep breath.

    OK maybe that's a little over the top.

    Your library excursion sounded hauntingly familiar, as did the record store amnesia.

    As always, entertaining post.

    Peace - Rene

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  20. just put it on reserve at my local library - thanks for the tip. The librarians used to roll their eyes when I walked in as a kid, cuz I never left with fewer than 20 or so books, as many as I could carry - i think they instituted the 15 max cuz of me. Even now, as a grown person, I have to restrain myself when I go in to the candy store of printed paper. I love to read (some) blogs, but nothing will ever replace the feel of a book in the hand (and when i say some, I definitely mean you)

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  21. Get your ass in gear mister, I'd like to have one of YOUR books to compare his with.

    don't be scared.......

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  22. Great. One more book to add to the pile. If my side table collapses I'm billing you.

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  23. The bar only looks like it's rising so that we'll push ourselves harder.
    You can do this! :)

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  24. Teri: Keep at it, you have to believe you can be one of them.

    SweetCheeks: Hey, there! Long time, no see. I’m with you, love the book smell.

    Anna: Eeep. I know, I’m trying to make some time. Thank you for that shot of confidence! :)

    Jane: I understand that! The jazz pianist Keith Jarrett said something very similar about music.

    SK: (laugh) I think it just hit me HARD, right on the head. :)

    SMUK: It was an attention getter, no doubt.

    NTR: Maybe just embroider it on a pillow, less painful that way. Thank you!

    SSP: Wow! Me too, loves me some books. Portable knowledge! (and thank you, my dear.)

    VM: I’ll consider my ass slapped, and in gear! LOL!

    Captain: If you can hold off, I’ll see if I can expense that table :)

    Robin: I just need to catch my breath, push a little harder…

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  25. Oh Irish! I have a feeling one of these days, we'll see one of your books in the store window. And hell, I won't even wait for the paperback!

    I have a stack of probably 30 books to read. Some from way back when Oprah had her original book club, (and those books are sooo deep) and others from favorite authors, some I just liked the way they sounded. I'm determined to get through all of them. And I keep telling myself that I'm not buying any more books until I read the ones I have in my armoir, waiting to be read. But just last week, I found myself in Borders and I couldn't resist buying 2 more books (I just love the buy one, bet one for half table)

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  26. I like many here think you're brilliant in your own right. Time to make your mark on the lit scene.
    Know too well that feeling of inadequacy, but wth? One's got to push through those feelings and pardon me for getting all Phil Knight here, Just Do It.

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  27. Actually, Baja's already said it Irish. To be honest, you're sometimes much too intellecutal for mum and me (and I'm going to leave the transposed spelling of that word 'cause I think it's funny given the context of my comment)and so we don't always 'get' you. But we 'get' you more often than we don't and anyway even when we don't 'get' you - the sound that your words make is nice, like music.

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  28. I read The Yaguar Hunter, an amazing book indeed. Thank you for a reminder

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"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."


-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

Tell me what is in your heart...