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.