Thursday, January 28, 2010

Michael Ondaatje, Nick Hornby, and Me

There’s a lot of garbage in my mother’s car. Not candy wrappers and soda cans, but any variety of things, including bags of potting soil that have somehow gotten open, old dog toys, phone chargers, a Discman that no longer works, undefined plastic objects that look as though they have something to do with a radiator, or a sink, or I’m not sure what. Depending upon what is going on in her life, the items change. But there will always be a pile of books in the passenger seat, often from the library, and undoubtedly fiction. She may be transporting them but it’s more likely she has them in arm’s reach in case she has to wait somewhere.

I read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of the Lion at least ten years ago, and yet I remember the encounter when Clara Dickens, after years of not being in touch with her lover Patrick, waits for hours at the other end of the phone. After apologizing for the wait, Patrick asks, “You’re not carrying a book?” and she answers, “That’s right. I forgot you’re the man who taught me to always carry a book….”

If I could I would carry a book with me wherever I wandered. But since I live in a city where my primary mode of transportation is walking, and I’m generally carrying at least one other bag (holding my version of potting soil, dog toys, or indescribable plastic things), I’ve stopped stashing my library hardcover in my handbag. In preparation for transport on the D-train, dental appointments, or a date with an established latecomer, I’ll bring The New Yorker, provided there’s something to read in it. If not, panic ensues, similar to the alarm I feel when going away on a trip without a surefire, long enough to last, good read. I rarely bring enough clothes (and never the right ones) but always bring too many books. Where does this fear originate? Could it be some sort of survivor neurosis that has been passed down in my DNA from literature-deprived ancestors?

Clearly Michael Ondaatje understands, as does Nick Hornby who writes in The Polysyllabic Spree:

“…my third son was born. I mention his arrival not because I’m after your good wishes or sympathy, but because reading is a domestic activity, and is therefore susceptible to any changes in the domestic environment….

“Shortly after the birth of [my] son, I panic that I will never be able to visit a bookshop again, and that therefore any opportunity I have to buy printed matter should be exploited immediately. Jesse…was born shortly before 7 a.m.; three or four hours later I was in a newsagent’s.”

The Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of clever, brilliant, and entertaining essays that Nick Hornby wrote for The Believer magazine about reading. Every month he wrote about the books he’d read and bought, and a whole bunch of other stuff—sort of what I’m trying to do. However, he writes beautifully and is far more insightful and interesting than I. He has two other collections of his columns, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt and Shakespeare Wrote for Money. They are engaging, and in lightweight, easy-to-carry paperback.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My Date with The Museum of Innocence

I pulled the plug—the bookmark, really—at page 54 of Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. That’s roughly 14 more pages than I usually give a book I know little about, but I figured Pamuk’s Nobel Prize earned him another 10 minutes or so of my attention.

I don’t remember why I reserved Museum. I probably saw it mentioned in The New Yorker, or maybe the Times book review and thought the story looked good. So when I picked it up, all I knew was that it had been recommended and that the guy who wrote it had won a big fat literature prize.

I start reading Museum in the afternoon, thereby reducing the sleepy element. And, not unlike I did with my blind dates of years ago, I scrutinize every detail. I open the book. Trouble already. Three epigraphs? Three? Come on, two is plenty. I read one, start the second and forgo the third. Then, table of contents, map, and in the back, a character index. I start thinking classic Russian novel: lots of description, great characters, not much dialogue; this may be slow going, but worth it. And then, surprise! The first chapter doesn’t start with a long narrative of the setting or a bird alighting on a pond, but with an easy open smile: “It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.”

And the first chapter moves; I’m having a good time. So I say sure, I’ll stick around. But as I read on, little moments and descriptions irk me. All the women are beautiful; the museum of the title is heavy handed. But I press on. It’s easy reading, lots of well-written plot and dialogue, but Kemal, the protagonist, irritates me. I can thoroughly enjoy a novel with an unsympathetic main character but an annoying one? Uh-uh.

I put it down with the intention of giving it one more try later, and look over at Dennis, who is absorbed in Michael Chabon’s book of essays, Manhood for Amateurs. He says he’s reading a good one, “Getting Out,” about the wonderful author David Foster Wallace who recently killed himself. I look hungrily at his moo shoo chicken to my steamed vegetables. He notices my envy. “Do you want to read it? It’s good,” he says.

And as if answering my, How long do I have to read about this guy I can’t stand and this world I’m not interested in? Michael Chabon writes:

“The world like our heads, was meant to be escaped from. They are prisons, world and head alike. ‘I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose,’ Wallace once told an interviewer, ‘is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves.’”

So Kemal? I dumped him.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Mosquito v. Literary Bigotry

I always feel a little cheap finishing one book and picking up another only an hour later. Blithely turning the last page of one book, and, reaching for another, as if it were just another grape to pop in my mouth, and not the result of a writer’s lonely labor of a year or two or more.

If it makes Roma Tearne feel any better, I savored the last ten pages of her novel even though I had a good idea how it would end. Mosquito takes place in Sri Lanka some time in the ‘80s or early ‘90s. The lush landscape of the book is juxtaposed with heartache and, at times, graphic violence. I knew a little about the Sri Lankan Civil War. I had heard of the Tamil Tigers and knew that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch had deemed parts of Sri Lanka dangerous. And in the way that good love stories give you just the right amount of background about the country and conflict raging around our lovers, Mosquito provided me with enough to whet my appetite but never got in the way of turning the pages. Indeed, I stumbled on a Sri Lankan restaurant in my neighborhood, and despite being a spicy foods wuss, ventured forth to Sigiri (, where the delicious food and simple lovely surroundings mirrored the setting and style of the book. I used my mom’s book group Web site ( as a shortcut to learn more about the author and the war. Considering my occasional bigotry against books with “exotic” a.k.a. unfamiliar settings, I attribute my newfound interest in Sri Lanka to the book’s compelling story, good writing, and occasional surprises. The only time I felt “taken out” was in the latter half when the author wrote about the heroine’s artwork. Ms. Tearne is an artist (you can find pictures of some of her paintings online) and all of a sudden, when before I had hardly taken note of her writer’s presence, she stepped into the room as a loud critic writing about art. But I’m being persnickety. Mosquito is a good literary read that is bound to be made into a blockbuster movie. Check it out before Hollywood gets its hands on it. And if you happen to be on the Lower East Side, buy a bottle of wine (no corking fee) and visit Sigiri.

Tomorrow: how picking up a new book isn’t that different from a first, nearly blind date.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Filed Under S for Smith

Why the oblique title?

I had nearly given up hope that I would meet a guy whom I would love and who would love me. I had known good relationships and bad relationships, but was in the midst of a long period of being alone and was despairing. My optimistic practical-minded friend D. suggested we engage in the same list-making activity that she had used that led her to her long-term love, B. It took more than an hour and two large cups of hot chocolate at City Bakery to answer and record responses to her meticulous questions about what sort of person I wanted my love to be. Topics ranged from the superficial, “How tall should he be?” to the esoteric, “What zodiac signs would be good?” to the unfathomable, “How spiritual is he?” The idea was that the more specific I was about what I wanted, the more likely I would find him. When we finished I asked her what we did with the list: Was there some special receptacle? Some weird ritual? Bury it? Burn it? She looked puzzled. “You know, I have no idea. I threw mine out.”

After deep thought, I found myself in the third floor reading room of the main branch of the New York City Public Library looking for a rare non-circulating book by Dodie Smith. I had read Smith’s I Capture the Castle and loved it, and for no clear reason I chose her to be the guardian of my romantic wishes. As I waited for the page to bring me The Girl from the Candle-lit Bath, I realized that whoever requested the book next would find my list. What if he or she laughed at it? I reconsidered. It had seemed a perfect idea—now what?

The walls of the reading room are lined with encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs, and other big heavy reference books. Shelves are dedicated to volume after volume of The Encyclopedia of British Writers. The books looked untouched. I took down S, found Dodie Smith, slipped the list in, returned the book, glanced back at the reading room, and left. I haven’t been back, but a couple years later I fell in love with Dennis, who bears little resemblance to the characteristics described in the list.

Great story, Jen, but what does it have to do with the blog?

I chose the reading room and a beloved writer to provide a safe house for my hopes. What better place to leave a little bit of myself than a house of books and writers? And though the Web doesn’t provide ceiling murals or long wooden tables, it is a place where a reader or two may stumble across my musings about books and reading.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Maiden Voyage

There isn’t much that comes up on Google for “unemployed people blogging about reading.” Plenty under “blogging about books”: review blogs, writing sites, one site about books and cats. But I didn’t see much about reading, not that I looked hard.

However blogs for the unemployed abound. One (subtitled “Advice at the Intersection of Work and Life”) recommends focusing on an ambition and executing it. Alas, I don’t think this means going to the gym, cleaning out filing cabinets, or making one more vat of homemade soup.

In truth, I thought of writing this blog before the above recommendation. I was on the 14A bus from Trader Joe’s—prior to having done my extensive Web research. I was thinking about how I had whined to my husband, Dennis, about how, as usual, three of my reserve books had come in at once at the library. Space is a commodity even at the New York Public Library, and I can’t take the checkout person’s look of disapproval when I don’t take out all my reserves at once, which means reading all three in the allotted three weeks. Dennis suggested, given my current lack of agenda, that I pick them up, smile at the checkout person, and read all day. And something in the arrangement of the Kashi GoLean and Joe’s O’s cereal must have sparked inspiration. For there, next to the oatmeal, I thought, writing about reading, what a good idea!

I have time. Lots of it. It’s been a month and a half since I stopped working. The holidays provided some distraction, but now it’s just days of waiting. Waiting to hear about job opportunities, waiting to hear about theater prospects, waiting for e-mails from friends and colleagues, waiting for my hair to grow.

Oh, there’s plenty I could—should—do, but come on, until I get really desperate, I’m not going to sew new pillows or get a jump on my taxes. I’d rather just read, and write. And since abandoned its blog, I thought we could adopt each other as satellite pals, giving me “an ambition” and planetbookgroupie some content.

So herewith I launch a blog about reading. I’m not sure what that means. But I guess I’ll find out.

What I’m reading right now: Mosquito by Roma Tearne

Waiting for me at the library, under the supervision of the checkout woman: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

The Museum of Innocence by Orhun Pamuk