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Posts Tagged ‘novellas

I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit by Aaron Cometbus

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I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit If you grew up in the punk scene in the 90s, chances are you didn’t get very far before you found an issue of Cometbus in your hands. The novella-sized, memoiristic zine, started in 1981 in Berkeley, California, handwritten and Xeroxed by Aaron “Cometbus,” was instrumental in turning me, and a lot of other kids, onto writing and publishing.

Long before the near-universal belief in the Internet’s democratizing effects took hold, long before self-publishing was hotly debated on literary blogs and industry websites, Aaron was showing kids everywhere that they could create their own media. At a time before digital distribution was the norm, before digital publishing was available in every teen’s bedroom, Cometbus showed us that as long as we had a pen, paper, and access to a copier, we could produce our own publication.

Most Cometbus issues are Aaron’s accounts of life on the road with punk bands, living in vans and sleeping on fans’ couches. For those times when he wasn’t on the road, his unconventional home life became the subject of his stories. Over the years the locations varied but the day-to-day remained the same, communal living, social dysfunction, and dumpster diving.

At any given time, in any given city, Aaron had at least one friend suffering from heartbreak, one in a destructive relationship, and another in the throes of a chemical imbalance. His friends reminded me of mine; it was a familiar scene, if only more adventurous. Aaron was an angsty teen’s hero. He was my subculture’s Jack Kerouac.

Aaron’s 2006 novella, I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit is written in the telltale Cometbus voice: the introspective storyteller electively living a hard life, equal parts amused by and concerned about his friends.

The narrator, a character named Aaron, recently heartbroken, lives in a van parked in his friend’s yard. Laura, the friend, is also recently heartbroken.

By night, the van was an icy tomb. By early afternoon it had turned into a toaster oven … It reminded me of being on tour, with everyone piled on top of each other sleeping and the van broken down on the side of the road, smoking. Those were always my favorite times, traveling. My fondest memories. Now it was like that every day. …

Yes, a broken-down van was the perfect place for a person like me. All the appearance of movement and direction without the threat of actual change.

A certain type of fiction is often accused of being autobiography in disguise and it’s hard not to think of I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit as another installment of Cometbus. Fictional Aaron’s world feels a lot like his well-documented real one, right down to his friends.

When the story opens, the first person we meet is Laura. She’s hurling bricks at a passing armament train, presumably in some anarchist-inspired protest against war. However, it becomes clear that it’s anger and frustration driving her, not some belief in a cause. Reckless melodrama dressed in political theory.

Another character, Jemuel, plays the ambivalent friend, destined to remain exactly where he is.

Part janitor, part manager, that was Jemuel’s job. Come in when everyone else was gone and clean up the store, restock the shelves, pay the bills, and do a little bit of the books. Ideal, really. … Except for one thing: he hated music. Or, rather, he resented it. Was it music itself, or the whole business it had become? Jemuel thought about it for a minute. Both. Then he put on a record.

While reading I couldn’t help but think about my early 20s; just out of college, back living in my hometown, working at a local bookstore, hanging out with friends from high school, doing the same old thing we’d always done, not sure what the next phase of my life would look like, only knowing I didn’t want to dress up and work some temp job. Life was uncertain and what happened next was entirely up to me.

This is precisely where Aaron sits: the crossroads. As with Vanessa Veselka’s 2011 indie sensation Zazen, I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit captures a moment in time capable of evoking a visceral reaction.

While one of the dangers of reflecting on an age gone by is devolution into sentimentality, Aaron’s ability to balance the romantic notion of suffering with a pragmatic view of the future helps him sidesteps the nostalgia trap. I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit is an honest look at what happens when adulthood creeps in.

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Buy I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit at your local bookstore
Buy Aaron’s other books from Last Gasp

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Written by Gabrielle

January 15, 2013 at 6:53 am

On the Shelf: In Praise of the Novella

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As someone who commutes by public transportation and as the sole reviewer for a book blog that’s updated twice weekly, short novels, or novellas as they’re technically called, are appealing.

Novellas are defined as being anywhere between 17,500 words to 40,000 words. Some definitions begin as low as 10,000 words and go as high as 70,000 words (source: Wikipedia). Novellas are everywhere. Most likely you’ve read a few without realizing. Some of the more well-known titles are Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man in the Sea.

Recently, the popular science fiction website SFsignal had a panel discussion about genre novellas on their ever-informative podcast; and columnist Dave Astor wrote In Praise of the Novella on The Huffington Post. Here are some key points from Dave’s short essay:

1. A novella can be read in only a few hours.
2. [A] novella is easy to carry on a bus or train, and easy to hold when riding an exercise bike without a reading rack.
3. [A] novella is an excellent way to try an author you’ve never read before to see if you like her or him.

All great reasons to go out and grab one. So, where to start?

In 2008 the Brooklyn-based independent publisher Melville House launched a line of beautifully designed novellas featuring both classic and contemporary titles. The project is still going strong and growing in new ways as technology evolves. There is even a reading challenge spurred on by Frances Evangelista of the Nonsuch Book blog where, even if you only pick up one book from the series, there’s a place for you.

What novellas have you read? What’s on your list?

Here are some novellas I’d like to get around to reading.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
I did some searching and couldn’t find anyone who considered this a novella. It might just be a middle-grade length book but it looks like a novella to me so I’m declaring it one today. Penguin Classics has reissued it as a Graphic deluxe with an amazing cover and introduction by the surrealistic novelist Aimee Bender of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake fame.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
H.G. Wells is highly regarded in the science fiction community and many authors have looked to The Time Machine for inspiration. It only makes sense to go to the root. Here’s a description from IndieBound:

When a Victorian scientist propels himself into the year a.d. 802,701, he is initially delighted to find that suffering has been replaced by beauty, contentment, and peace. Entranced at first by the Eloi, an elfin species descended from man, he soon realizes that these beautiful people are simply remnants of a once-great culture–now weak and childishly afraid of the dark. They have every reason to be afraid: in deep tunnels beneath their paradise lurks another race descended from humanity–the sinister Morlocks. And when the scientist’s time machine vanishes, it becomes clear he must search these tunnels if he is ever to return to his own era.

The Hound and the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle is another author who has been admired and imitated. Sherlock Holmes has been made into movies both directly and indirectly. In The Hound and the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle resurrects Holmes for a “tale about the chilling re-animation of a curse haunting the Baskerville family since Medieval times, wherein a supernatural beast stalks the gloomy moors . . . Full of moody atmospherics, suspicious characters, and dramatic discoveries”.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
Travels with Charley is the account of Steinbeck’s 1960 journey across America with his poodle, Charley. In this book he is praised for “His keen ear for the transactions among people . . . as he records the interests and obsessions that preoccupy the Americans he encounters along the way.”

The opening paragraph of this book draws you in:

When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of a stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.

City of Glass by Paul Auster
City of Glass is the first book in Auster’s New York Trilogy, a sort-of meta-noir where a mystery author gets caught up in a real life detective story starring himself in the lead role of private eye. This edition is the graphic novel adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchellil with an intro from Art Spiegelman.

What’s on your shelf this week?

Written by Gabrielle

September 15, 2011 at 5:41 am

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