Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Flabby Reading

A few weeks ago, fingers (nearly) poised over keys, I had every intention of writing a post about books and titles after having had a discussion about just that with my ten-year-old friend L. She had been curious about the book I was reading, Mo Yan’s Big Breasts & Wide Hips.

But soon after our talk, I was struck with, what is turning out to be, an extreme case of flabby reading AKA reader’s block. It seemed minor at first: I had been truly enjoying Big Breasts, a family saga set in China starting sometime around 1937, and was halfway into the 500 page book. I kept careful track of the numerous characters (the protagonist, Shangguan Lu has eight daughters and one son), dutifully flipping back to the List of Characters. And then one afternoon, I started getting lazy—reading without always knowing whom I was reading about, skipping to familiar characters, and then… the death knell, skimming over pages at a time. You know the rest. One evening, already drowsy, I started a chapter and no longer really knew where I was or who was doing what to whom. So at page 270ish, the “oh, just stare at the ceiling fan, it takes much less effort” part of my brain cajoled me into doing just that and has had me in its thrall since. The reading part of my brain has taken muscle relaxants, flopping about drunkenly, grasping for something comfortable to lean on.

The victims have been numerous the past couple of weeks: Where the God of Love Hangs Out, a collection of connected stories by Amy Bloom about couples (though I don’t really know, since I didn’t make it past the first story); The Polished Hoe, a compelling story (but not to this fickle reader!) about a respected young plantation worker on a West Indian island who murders the plantation owner; The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Wallant, a quiet story from the 1960s of a milquetoast landlord who becomes involved in his tenants’ lives; and Jim Crace’s All That Follows, a friendly enough novel I was enjoying until an implausible plot point derailed my attempts to become involved in a book rather than comment on it.

Those who have recently experienced their own bouts of flabbiness prescribe the equivalent of that stay-up-all-night-to-finish Richard Price New York crime novel Lush Life, but offer no titles, though Henning Mankell’s Wallander series has been mentioned by more than one. Alas, there are no copies of Wallender books to be found in my local NYPL branches and the Strand is out. Perhaps the city is in the midst of an epidemic of flabby reading and I am not alone.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Confessions of a Temperamental Reader

There’s a moment in one of Anne Fadiman’s essays, in her lovely collection Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, when she finds herself with a painfully long wait ahead of her with nothing to do but read but a car manual. She dives into it with gusto. Clearly, she is more of a survivalist reader than I. Stuck on a delayed flight to Atlanta, I cursed my choice of reading material— Allegra Goodman’s, The Family Markowitz— which I thought I had thoroughly vetted (already 75 pages read prior to the trip, not too long, seemingly interesting characters). I had so enjoyed Goodman’s, Intuition, that perhaps I came to The Family Markowitz biased. Plus, my other choice to bring in my carry-on was Mo Yan’s 552-page tome Big Breasts & Wide Hips, which, if it didn’t pan out would be a much heavier disaster than the 280-page Markowitz. As much as I tried, I just couldn’t push myself to read more than a page or two before stowing it under the seat, preferring to stare out the window, or trying to get comfortable enough to nap.

I find it much easier to articulate why I didn’t click with a person, or a restaurant or movie didn’t work for me than why I put down a book a quarter or halfway through. Often it just feels like a reflex, like when on the treadmill at the gym my brain says, “Yeah, feeling good, ten minutes to go and you’re done, ”and then my body just stops. Good writing, a story that’s moving, sympathetic enough characters, even a bit of dry humor… and then, bang, I just stop.

A sidebar: I wish to acknowledge those many stalwart readers who will finish nearly any book they set out to read. Many of you are friends and I admire your dedication. I’m sure I have missed out on some wonderful books that, had I persevered, might have found to be worthwhile reads. But there are too many wonderful stories and I’m too impatient and picky to stick with something if it’s not satisfying to me. (Oh! If, in earlier days, I had only had the same attitude toward boyfriends.)

I continue to question what makes me stop. Sometimes the reasons are clear—the book goes somewhere I’m not interested in going; there’s a ridiculous plot turn character point, or shift in place/time/action; the novel lingers too long without seeming to go forward or deeper and I get bored; or I grow frustrated with a character. But many times I just can’t describe why.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Novel Gigs

After more than two weeks of trying to write about my absorption in the huge role careers and obsession hold in Samantha Peale’s The American Painter Emma Dial and Allegra Goodman’s Intuition, I’ve nearly thrown in the towel. Clearly my dedication as a blog writer— perhaps soon to be a career to tick on the WNYC member survey— would not qualify me to even stand in the same paint-fumed studio or pipette-strewn laboratory with the characters in these two books.

Weeks ago, BBB (Before Bedbugs), my friend S gave me the idea of writing about the vastly different careers that come up in the novels we read. The two books I picked up shortly after we spoke were Emma Dial and Intuition both of which feature driven, talented experts in their fields operating in subcultures: the New York art world and the scientific research community.

I burrowed into Emma’s solitude and desire to surpass the expectations of the world-renowned, critically acclaimed painter Michael Freiburg for whom she performed all his actual painting. I seethed while Michael directed her from the sidelines, as Emma took every opportunity to avoid staring at her own blank canvases and making her own work. Emma’s Lower East Side Bohemian existence, peopled by artsy types, the subjectivity of who is “good,” and the despicable egotism and arrogance of her famous boss, smelled a lot like the theater world to me. But the long focused hours painting and the loneliness of the work differ greatly from the communal feeling of the theater. In the same way that, after seeing the film The Paper Chase, I was entranced by the idea of working so hard to be a lawyer and being utterly guided by the purity of work, Emma’s obsession and sacrifice seemed glamorous. Briefly.

Emma and the postdoc scientists and administrators of the lab at Harvard’s Philpott Institute might stand on line at the DMV together or share a crowded bus but it’s difficult to imagine their worlds colliding in many other ways. Rather than the wintry streets of New York’s Lower East Side, Intuition’s obsessive characters tromp to work in the snows of Cambridge, MA. While Allegra Goodman’s young scientists and older, more jaded administrators are interesting and well-drawn, their driving forces are less personal searches but explorations for truth, fame, and more specifically answers to whether a certain solution might be the beginnings of a cure for breast cancer. Again, there is the arrogant brilliant leader, Sandy, who can’t lose, and the trod-upon underlings who gain little glory and much pain. Intuition is sort of a thriller—Were the data messed with? Shouldn’t Sandy have waited to alert the press before leaking the news? Is Cliff, the scientist who discovered the serum, telling the whole truth? What are Robin’s—Cliff’s former girlfriend and colleague—motives for initiating the doubt?

In these, my days of unemployment, Samantha Peale and Allegra Goodman gave me enough of a look, albeit a novelist’s glimpse, at the positions of artist’s assistant and research scientist to know that I needn’t rework my resume to lean in either of those directions.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

From Bedbugs to Vietnam

I have had an idea for a post for over 2 weeks, but due to unforeseen bedbug circumstances have been unable to prize myself from exterminating, vacuuming, and laundering in combat of the scourge. Bugs, vermin in general, make me think of the post about prejudices a couple of weeks ago, and if books about insect or rodent infestation in ones abode might figure up there with some of the other “I won’t read a book about”s. I, for one, would be delighted to pick up a slender funny novel on the topic, and hope that I too might some day have a big ha-ha about my uninvited denizens.

But two blissfully ignorant weeks ago my intention was neither to write about bedbugs nor to imagine delighting in a humorous urban tale of them. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli had me googling “Cambodia during Vietnam,” “Nixon’s secret bombings,” and searching Netflix for the PBS series about the Vietnam War. Mosquito had led me to Sigiri (that wonderful Sri Lankan restaurant I happened upon on First Avenue between Fifth and Sixth Streets—BYOB) as well as some minimal research on the lengthy civil war in Sri Lanka. I didn’t love The Lotus Eaters— the story of Helen, an American news photographer who becomes consumed by the Vietnam War and falls in love with an even more obsessed married photographer. I enjoyed the book’s well-written depictions of the other reporters, soldiers, battles, and life of the Vietnamese more than Helen’s story and become interested in finding out more about the war as well as what was going on in Cambodia at the time.

One beautiful Sunday while intermittently reading The Lotus Eaters, eavesdropping on conversations, and spacing out in Tompkins Square Park, a musician-y looking dude nearby asked what I was reading. He seemed genuinely interested, so I told him, giving him a 20-second synopsis. He asked if I mostly read fiction to which I responded yes. He said that he almost exclusively read nonfiction with that slight hauteur I usually project on “primarily nonfiction readers.” He continued, telling me that he was reading a book about Ghenghis Khan and was very careful about what fiction he read. I asked him what fiction he liked. He said Cormac McCarthy but couldn’t come up with anyone else, because it was just so hard finding really good writing. I ignored that comment and told him that I, too, liked Cormac McCarthy.

I recalled our conversation when I put Vietnam: A Television Series on my Netflix queue. I figured, yes I was reading something Tatjana Soli had made up, though based on lots of research. And now her compelling story and characters were leading me to a documentary series and perhaps other nonfiction resources that would probably encompass several points of view. I’m not sure what my point is except that a novel, a story written from an author’s imagination, can also lead a reader to all sorts of factual places while allowing for several points of view and potentially a great story that has the artistry of a beginning, middle, and end.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ode to the NYPL

Call me a geek, but I’m proud to say that I know my 14-digit bar code that is my password to reserving books online at the NYPL.

My mother introduced me to our town library when I was eyelevel with the bottom bookshelf in the children’s room. She’d deposit me there while she perused the new books in the adult section and pick me up on the way out when I’d proudly display my booty. When I was home ill, my biggest treat was getting a stack of books she had chosen for me, the smell of the plastic protective covers and glue healing in its own way. In my years as a regional actress, no matter what itty-bitty town I worked in, I found the university or local library and sweet-talked my way into getting a temporary library card.

The libraries that make up the New York Public Library system are a vast and diverse gang—a quick count of 44 libraries in Manhattan (including Roosevelt Island). My neighborhood library for the 13 years I lived on 9th Street was the tiny Ottendorfer next door to what was a medical drop-in center before NYU ate it up. In extreme temperatures, the Ottendorfer is crammed with visitors who have nowhere else to go to escape the cold or heat, reading newspapers, books, or just sitting enjoying the quiet. Mornings it bustles with strollers driven by caretakers seeking diversion for their charges. Three o’clock ushers in the bigger kids with their notebooks and homework sheets, and toward the end of the day, people on their way home from work drop off books or DVDs and pick up reserves. The rest of the day a cross-section of New Yorkers amble in for one of many purposes.

Having been brought up to love libraries, I have difficulty understanding how everyone doesn’t take advantage. But I am close to those who express dislike and even near disgust for the library and its books, and respect their feelings, for as I’ve written, reading is a personal and private activity. There are readers who want an indefinite amount of time, not worrying about a due date to finish their book, who then enjoy putting it on their bookshelf to remember. And then those who can’t help but be distracted by the stain on page 43 (“Is that spaghetti sauce or blood?") and abhor the idea of others having thumbed through the novel or memoir they are about to embark on. I have the opposite (perhaps perverse) reaction. I love to think about who has read this book before I have and who will read it afterward. A romantic notion but there is some tiny bond among us all. I even will think about years ago when I was in Paris sightseeing, and put my hand on a cool marble column in a medieval church and imagined all those who had placed their hands there before I had.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Children's Book

Every once in a while I luck out with a book—Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Love in the Time of Cholera, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, Cloudstreet, Hannah’s Daughter— and I inadvertently channel my 16-year old self holed up in my room, door closed, not putting down my book for dinner, for phone calls, for my little brother pounding on the door to tell me I’m going to be in big trouble if I don’t come downstairs.

These— generally more than 400-page— books can be daunting and rough going at the beginning: huge casts of characters, quick point of view shifts, elaborate scenic descriptions or historical context. And it may take, twenty, even fifty pages before you settle in and find yourself reading deep into the night.

I’ve revisited this feeling of immersion into another world this past week and a half reading A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. It took some tenacity and patience to hold on through the introduction of the many characters and the pages of historical setting from 1895-1919. I did my usual skimming over moments or characters I didn’t care about, but for the most part was glued to the book to find out what happened to Dorothy and Phillip, Elsie and Julian, how WW I would affect this community of artists, writers, socialists and bankers, all of whom were interconnected.

After feeling engulfed by a book like The Children’s Book or any of the read-late-into-the-night books I listed above, I’m struck by the bias that reading good books is considered an intellectual activity, and perhaps to be shunned by those who think of intellectual activity with disdain. My desire to talk to my friend L, who recommended the Byatt book to me, about what happens to Tom or how I can’t stand Olive, seems no different from my conversations about the characters in Mad Men. Why is the act of reading a well-written (long) novel thought of as an erudite activity when it shares the same qualities of good television or movies—compelling stories well told?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Disclaimer: this post may contain opinions offensive to readers of all sorts.

Are there talking animals?

Is the protagonist a disaffected teenager or creature other than those known to inhabit Earth?

Is the central storyline that of a marriage in deep trouble or of a character’s journey toward self-actualization or self-discovery?

How about tribal cultures? Native American culture? Wizard culture?

Dysfunctional American families? Torture? Abused animals?

Is the book a memoir or epistolary?

Is it about writers? hipsters? freaks? racists? Is it funny? depressing? really long? Does it feature anyone described as “adorable”?

Some of the prejudices listed above are mine, but not all—my mother has no trouble being outed about her distaste for books that feature dysfunctional American families (she doesn’t mind any other culture’s screwed-up families), and many fellow readers turn their noses up at sad or depressing books. I admit that after having worked on young adult novels for many years, I no longer care to read anything that has the internal landscape of the teenage mind. Nor does the setting of Xenon or Lanadore or some imaginary land with glorks or nepletz with magic powers hold any interest for me. I love depressing and long, but generally am not interested in Native American culture.

Contrary to what I’ve just said, there will always be books that somehow challenge the admittedly glib and ignorant groupings above. I loved Broken Glass Park (a story of a teenage girl living in the Russian ghetto in Germany) and while I didn’t really like Louise Erdrich’s story of a tormented and twisted marriage, Shadow Tag, I raced through it in two days. In the old “glass is half empty” way of thinking, it’s easier to come up with kinds of books I don’t like rather than categories of books I like. How do you classify Rudolph Dolson’s Maynard and Jennica? A love story? A story about New York? Well, who doesn’t like those? How about Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado or Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex? Kinda sorta coming-of-age stories? Or Kate Christensen’s Jeremy Thrane, or for that matter Dickens’s Bleak House?

Have I just contradicted myself or is it that the books we love defy easy description? I scoff at Eat, Pray, Love and The Lord of the Rings, but to the many people who have enjoyed those books, they’re not just stories of self-actualization or hobbits; they’re much bigger than that. So. I’ll try to keep my bigotry to myself except with close friends with whom I will easily admit, “Nope, can’t read it; it’s about a talking badger named Suzette.”

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Confessions of a Book Snob

“What are you reading?”

Do you preface your answer with an apologetic shrug and say, “I know it’s junk (substitute “chick-lit,” ”on Oprah’s list,” ”YA,” “the Twilight series,” or “Harry Potter” for the word “junk”) but…”? If so, you may have Reader’s Shame, which may or may not be a symptom of Book Snobbery. And you are not alone.

As I posted in an earlier entry, my bookcase is filled with books I’ve already read and want near, which is comforting but of little help when I’m desperate for something to read now. One of the two or three books I haven’t read is Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia. I attribute the book’s presence on my shelf to my dear friend C, who, a month prior to sending it had sent me Julia Child’s charming My Life in France, which I adored and probably wouldn’t have read without her sending it my way.

With apologies to C, here is a bit of what she wrote in the note that came along with it: “Here is the Julia book. So lovely to dream of Paris in another era. It must have been wonderful in the post war period, like spring…everything was coming back to life!”

A real friend sends you books you wouldn’t think to get for yourself, but may be wonderful surprise treasures; they may save the day. These volumes may also contribute to your Reader's Shame. And as I drew part 2 of C’s gift (her note reading: “Here is book #2. It’s not as good [as My Life in France] but fun to read,”) I felt my shame/snobbery surfacing. The stern black spine of Absalom, Absalom (which I haven’t read) stood right next to Julie…. I inhaled and drew the lemon yellow book from the bookcase.

I’m up to page 103 and it’s fine; a perfectly okay way station while I eagerly await a couple of the books due in at the library. There are parts to skip (can’t stand the stuff that’s in italic—her scenes of Julia and Paul), and parts to mutter about (poor Dennis on more than one occasion has heard me grumble, “I can write better than this”) and plenty of dull bits. But I enjoy the food sections and am flying through it quickly enough that I may finish before someone has an opportunity to ask what I’m reading. But, if caught out in the next couple of days will I sheepishly smile and use one of the aforementioned apologetic replies? Dear Reader, I shall be brave and do my utmost to simply blurt out Julie & Julia. However, my current hope is that I will not be tested.

Confessions anyone? We’re much harder on ourselves than on others.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sex and The Buddha of Suburbia

As a kid my only precocity was in reading at an early age; I read books well beyond my level (and possibly inappropriate) for my tender years. Thus asking my mother (when I was 6 or 7) why all the characters in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret were so preoccupied with punctuation—wasn’t a period just something to show that a sentence was ending? I don’t know how old I was when I secretly slid Fear of Flying out of the bookcase, but I was utterly confused by Isadora Wing and the zipless fuck. The first sex scene I stumbled upon while reading that sort of made sense to me was between Kitty and Ari in Exodus. I recall it was fairly tame but I’m sure I reread it a couple of times.

The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi has a lot of sex in it. Kureishi’s novel is set in the late 60’s and early 70’s of suburban London, where seventeen-year-old Karim is growing up with his English mother, Indian father, and younger brother. Karim’s world, peopled by working class immigrants, artists, revolutionaries, misfits, and rock stars has a freewheeling loose energy. Drugs, sex, social protest, and having good times comprise the landscape. Karim dallies with men and women in a number of graphic sex scenes. Somehow there isn’t anything prurient in Kureishi’s descriptions, as explicit as they are—indeed, they feel good-natured, laid-back and in the spirit of the time. I’m curious to see how these scenes fare in the 1993 television miniseries. I assume they are PG-rated and perhaps, the director is able to inject some of the humor and warmth that is present in the scenes in the book, without any graphic visuals. But sex on film, television, or stage doesn’t seem to have the same breadth of emotional possibility for someone watching as someone reading does. A good writer can instill graphic, even disgusting sex scenes with all sorts of qualities. Maybe it’s because words inform and color—mood can be altered regardless of the goings-on. Or perhaps we allow ourselves greater liberty not to judge or take too seriously sex/love scenes since reading is a deliciously private activity.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Interlude 1

I’m vamping. I just started Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, and, while I’m enjoying it, am not sure I’ll continue and/or have much to say about the first 35 pages. So… a brief interlude:

I wish I wanted to reread books I’ve loved. As a kid, I’d page through sections of Jane Eyre and Little Women that I had nearly memorized and found rereading them as pleasurable, if not more pleasurable than when I had first read them. My bookcase is filled with books I’ve read, but it’s more to have them near or look through than to pick up again. After David Foster Wallace died, I took out Infinite Jest, read the first page, and remembered images and moments and my enjoyment of the book and didn’t want to touch that time. There are books I’m afraid to reread, having adored them and now fearing not liking them or finding them simple or immature. Why is there so much comfort in rereading books as a kid (we read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel so many times to my brother that we finally got him the LP, so he could listen to it on his own) but now it holds no interest for me? Ask me what a book I read is about and I’ll probably recall a bit of plot and character, but all I need to do is read the first page and generally the book comes back in a rush, the way a fragrance brings on a full-blown memory. I invariably will close the book and search for something new.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pastries: Gourmet Rhapsody

If reading is analogous to eating (“I devoured that book”), and I thought I was starving for something big and filling, I’ve been happily surprised by the modesty and sweetness of Gourmet Rhapsody. Maybe I wasn’t hungry. Or not in the way I thought.

“No one was the least bit hungry anymore, but that is precisely what is so good about the moment devoted to pastries: they can only be appreciated to the full extent of their subtlety when they are not eaten to assuage our hunger, when the orgy of their sweetness is not destined to fill some primary need but to coat our palate with the benevolence of the world.” (Gourmet Rhapsody, p. 35)

Maybe I just wanted a really good pastry.

Gourmet Rhapsody, similar to Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, is told from several characters’ points of view, a few of whom are also in Elegance. It’s a simple story of a world-famous food critic’s last 24 hours interspersed with short monologues about the great man, Pierre Arthens, from his estranged daughter, the concierge (our beloved Renee from Elegance), the homeless man on the street, one of Pierre’s disciples, and many others. Half of the book is Pierre’s as he uses his last 24 hours to reminisce about his affair with food and search through his past for one elusive flavor he yearns for before dying.

I love reading about food, even about dishes I know I wouldn’t eat. And Barbery writes about food as a metaphor for living and the small but satisfying pleasures of life. I don’t long to be eating the sardines that Pierre describes but I am invited into the delight it brings. In the meantime, I long for a cup of tea or bowl of sorbet while reading. While I think eating/drinking and reading are good partners (and believe I’m in good company; think of ice-cream sticky, or tomato-sauce splattered keyboards or the lone diner at the counter, book in one hand, fork in the other) chefs and writers might think otherwise, desiring that all attention be focused on the dish or book. But I bet Barbery isn’t one of the writers. Food is sustenance, as are stories. And put the two together and mmm, mmm!

Friday, February 19, 2010

In Which I Complain

I don’t have anything to read.

An idiotic thing to say, I know sort of like announcing “I’ve got nothing to wear,” while staring into a Carrie Bradshaw–size closet. More stupid really, since I’ve got a stack of unread books at arm’s reach and the library is eight blocks away. But, if I may stretch this metaphor a bit more—not unlike “I’m bored of wearing that,” or “I’m really not in a purple mood,” I want a book that fits me right now. I know it shouldn’t be nasty-funny. I know because I read forty pages of the very readable The Ask by Sam Lipsyte. But the book was aggressively clever and the protagonist reminded me of the short, funny, but sort of angry guys who were among the few to be interested in me in college. So I put it down. And I know the imaginary perfect-for-right-now book shouldn’t be solemn and quiet from having read the first beautifully written pages of Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone. I’m far too impatient with everyone and everything right now to be engaged by a woman confessing to her dying husband in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. The problem is I don’t know what I do feel like reading.

Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana De Rosnay, awaits me at the library. But I’m skeptical. From what I know, Sarah’s Key, has two concurrent stories: 1) Paris, 1942, ten-year-old Sarah is arrested during one of the roundups of the Jews, but manages to hide her brother, thinking she will be returning in a few hours; 2) Paris, 2002, an American journalist is asked to do a story on the roundup and discovers Sarah’s story. There are so many good books about the horrors of World War II and I’ve read a lot of them, so I’m not generally drawn to reading another. But let’s see.

In case of dire emergency, I have Gourmet Rhapsody symbolically waiting under glass with fire hammer at hand. I loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog—a book I bought after reading it just so I knew it was in my vicinity. Gourmet Rhapsody is Muriel Barbery’s first novel published in English after Elegance, and I know nothing about it other than it’s slight and sweet. I’m hoping Sarah’s Key, will help shake this mood. I don’t want to waste what sounds like a thin mint of a book when what I really need is big bowl of macaroni and cheese.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Are We There Yet?

A bed and breakfast in Phoenicia, New York, is a long haul from the German housing project where seventeen-year-old Russian-born Sacha Naiman (of Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park) lives. But it’s here—in a violet room with filmy white curtains and a claw-foot bathtub—that Sacha’s angry, intelligent voice grabs me. It doesn’t take long to learn that her fury derives from the murder of her beautiful actress mother, Marina. Sacha blames her mother’s compassion and romantic nature for her death. Her two dreams are to write a book about “…An Idiotic, Redheaded Woman Who Would Still Be Alive If Only She Had Listened To Her Smart, Oldest Daughter,” and to revenge Marina’s death by killing her abusive stepfather, Vadim, who shot her. The setting is grim: Sacha lives in the Russian ghetto in Berlin surrounded by brutish teenagers, superstitious neighbors, and hopeless alcoholics. But her vital prickly spirit overshadows the heat and despair of the projects. She’s bigger than her surroundings and bigger than the silence and Yankee simplicity of my room in Phoenicia. While I have no need to escape from my lovely environment, I slip away and hang out with someone contrary to the hushed feeling of my surroundings.

My private visit into Broken Glass Park reminds me of when I accompanied my ten-year-old pal, L., to an audition for a summer performing arts camp. Clever girl that she is, she brought a book along in case of having to wait for her appointment. Having spent far too much time waiting for auditions, I applauded her forethought; I envied her ability to leave that unpleasant anxious place of pacing mothers and hair twirling ‘tweens and spend her fifteen minutes prior to her name being called as privately as if she were in her bedroom. Watching her, I thought of my recent visit to the doctor—sitting in the examination room clad in nothing but a large paper napkin engrossed in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s sad and beautiful short story, “A Death in Kitchawank” in the January 18 New Yorker. Besides being transported from the charts of female reproduction, I enjoyed stepping into a bubble of privacy in a less than inviting setting. On the subway ride home, I secretly smiled as the 6’3” guy in sweats across from me who nearly tipped over his thermos of protein drink, so taken away was he by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Turning Pages

I don’t know if it’s a girly-girl thing but I lose patience reading page after page of action. As I’m reading the sequence, I pointedly give up imagining two characters grappling, or cars following each other around curves and up hills. When I copyedit such sections, I force myself to pay special attention, using the same level of concentration I use with anything involving numbers, just to assure the sequence makes sense. Is it possible for guy 1 to pin guy 2’s left arm with his left leg if guy 1 is on his back? Argh!

I’ve read two books recently, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and Dark Passages in which, at the climax I just wanted to cut to the chase, or after the chase really, and happily skimmed those sections. If I missed an important detail upon which a major plot point depended, I’d go back and root around until I found the necessary detail and then skim, skim, skim.

I’m not proud of this quality in myself, but I don’t believe the book is entirely blameless. Dark Passages, a mystery that features an unsympathetic protagonist, Libby Day, survivor of a gruesome triple murder, suffered less from my browsing the pages for essential plot points than Edgar Sawtelle. Libby is a well-developed and interesting character—a woman who has spent most of her life living off of the notoriety of the murder of her mother and two sisters. After having no interest in the guilt or innocence of her brother who was convicted of the murders, she is called upon to look into what might have happened. I hardly ever read mysteries; I’d much rather watch them as two-hour movies or PBS series. But Gillian Flynn kept me interested in Libby’s story—how she came to be the unlikable person she was and how, begrudgingly, she changes—as well as the who-did-it and why of the murder. The writer was so successful in creating a full story that, when it came time for the climactic action sequence, I skimmed…mmm, maybe only 5 pages. And when I finished the book, I felt satisfied with the resolution.

I skimmed the last 75 pages of Edgar Sawtelle just to see how—in 1970s Wisconsin—Wroblewski slavishly adhered to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I no longer cared much about Edgar since, as Hamlet’s destiny was forced upon him (and the reader), I lost him to the heavy hand of the writer. I hardly read the last page. I suppose both of these books can be called “page turners,” but I prefer the straightforward compelling turning of Dark Passages to the indifferent scanning of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

Monday, February 8, 2010

I Can't Go On. I'll Go On.

I’m certain I’m trivializing the last line of Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnamable; Beckett is writing about life, I’m talking about The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. On page 235, the specter (forgive the literary pun) of Hamlet alighted. There had already been strong indications of Wroblewski’s intention to use Hamlet’s story as an inspiration for Edgar’s—Edgar’s uncle’s name is Claude, his mother is Trudy, as in Claudius and Gertrude in Hamlet—but when the plot turn paralleled the play, I considered bailing. I didn’t want Edgar to endure the horrors that poor Hamlet undergoes in five long acts. Hamlet, in my brain, is inextricably tied to the story of Hamlet. He doesn’t exist as a character separate from his father’s demand for revenge and his screwed-up relationship with Ophelia. But Edgar, thus far, has had his own story.

I’ve experienced a similar feeling when watching a really good production of Romeo and Juliet—you so want the lovers to grow old and fat together feasting on excellent Italian food, that you think the stupid friar will get the news of Juliet’s faked death to Romeo in time, despite knowing that all goes terribly wrong. Likewise, even with a review’s promise of parallels to Hamlet, I had come to hope that Edgar and Trudy could be okay despite Edgar’s father’s death. Now I have an idea of what will happen. Or not. Perhaps Wroblewski chooses to use only the initial setup of Hamlet. Regardless. I’m reading on because a) I’m hooked and b) even if the writer introduces two Jewish pals from Edgar’s school named Rosenberg and Guildenfeld, he hasn’t let me down this far, and I trust him to carry me to a possibly familiar end in an interesting and well-written way.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Slipping Through the Cracks

Describing a book is almost as difficult as explaining a smell. “What’s it about?” we ask. “Is it happy? sad? funny?” We can talk about the writing— good, bad, breezy, dense. But the experience of living in a world other than the one we share— with characters familiar only to the person reading the novel— for an hour, a day, or weeks and weeks, how can you express that?

I’m not interested in certain characters and plotlines (e.g. alien abductions, talking animals, coming-of-age hipsters, crumbling marriages). My mom won’t read another book about dysfunctional families or mothers and daughters. My friend P. stays away from violence, while many of my male friends don’t read books with female protagonists. Our prejudices probably prevent us from reading some wonderful books. But every once in a while, one of them slips through the cracks.

I can’t tell you why I’ve enjoyed the first 100 pages of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Nothing in its flap copy, other than a mention of Hamlet, entices me to read it.“Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog…” “…it’s a novel about the human heart…” says Stephen King. If I look in a few reviews, I bet I’ll find the phrases “gentle soulfulness” and “evocative of the stoic American pioneer spirit.” Blech! Yet, I’m enchanted. After the PC coziness of The Brooklyn Follies and the cinematic romance and mayhem of Mosquito, I adore the quiet of Edgar Sawtelle. But “quiet” doesn’t mean slow or precious. Plenty has happened in these first 100 pages, and the complications have just begun (the book is 562 pages).

I read quickly and often skim long descriptive passages. David Wroblewski, maybe in deference to his mute protagonist, doesn’t waste words. So when he chooses to spend a sentence or two depicting the scenery, he also moves us forward. “That evening Edgar pulled two yearlings into the kennel aisle and got the grooming tackle. By the time he’d finished, the setting sun bathed the back of the house in crimson.” Pretty scene, but we also know it’s almost night now and something is about to happen.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle reminds me of Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter in its portrayal of the beauty and depth of some mighty quiet people. Berry’s characters had a sense of humor about them that I’m not sure Wroblewski’s do. But it’s early yet.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Something Perfect

Endings, similar to New Year’s Eve and Star Wars sequels, are built to disappoint. Nevertheless, ever hopeful, I try to find a quiet, private place to relish the final pages of a novel I’ve enjoyed. There’s always the chance that I will read those last lines and feel satisfied and complete. More often I feel cheated, befuddled, or irritated.

Paul Auster faked me out twice within the last 50 pages of The Brooklyn Follies. Nathan Glass’s easygoing chronicle gained momentum soon after I last wrote. What had been a leisurely stroll through a rueful and pleasant emotional landscape went Disney on me— lots of interesting and potentially ugly complications worked out too neatly. Four pages before the end, Auster quietly unties the big red bow he’s wrapped the book up in. Nathan has an epiphany:

“I am no one…. Eventually, we would all die, and when our bodies were carried off and buried in the ground, only our friends and families would know we were gone…. Most lives vanish. A person dies, and little by little all traces of that life disappear.”

Nathan comes up with an idea to celebrate those unknown dead in a small but meaningful way—by creating biographies of them written from impressions and stories from their friends and families. He ends the penultimate chapter: “One should never underestimate the power of books.”

If Auster had ended there, with Nathan’s resolution as he steps out on to the avenue, I believe we would have landed in the right place. But three sentences from the conclusion Nathan tells us it is September 11, 2001, forty-six minutes before the first plane crashes. I groan aloud and ask, “Why? Why did you have to do that?” and perhaps, Paul Auster or any novelist would respond with, “What do you want from me?” And I don’t know what I’d answer. Something right. Something perfect. Something that may not always be possible.