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.

Monday, February 1, 2010


The front matter of The Brooklyn Follies includes nothing more than a title page and dedication to delay its get-right-to-it first line: “I was looking for a quiet place to die.” Lest we think, Oh, dear, this isn’t going to be one of those kinds of books, is it?, Auster follows with, “Someone recommended Brooklyn…” Cheap joke? Maybe, but I don’t care. I already love this guy Nathan Glass.

Auster has already scored points with me by his lack of an acknowledgements page in the front or back of the book—very old school. Though I don’t have first editions of Jane Eyre, Persuasion, The Sound and the Fury, or Mrs. Dalloway, and therefore can’t be certain, I bet Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf didn’t thank their loved ones, writing groups, agents, and writing colonies at the end of their books. Yes, thanks to the current plethora of award ceremonies, (from the Bloggers Choice Awards to the GSN Game Show Hosts Awards) everyone gets to acknowledge the people who helped with their success, so why not authors? But directors, actors, and even games show hosts don’t make an appearance right after the film, play, or The Price Is Right to earnestly thank their support system. I’m being cranky, I know, and perhaps having spent time as a copyeditor, and taking no pleasure in having to track down the proper spellings of lists of friends and pets contributes to my bad temper. But after that little shiver, or sigh, or smile that one hopes to experience after reading the last line of a good book, who wants to turn the page and read about those who contributed to the process of making the book? Let me stay in Never Land! I don’t have to read it, of course. And maybe I’m just being a spoiled kid wanting my story clean without the messy encumbrances of the author’s life.

But to return to the pleasures of The Brooklyn Follies: Not a lot has happened (I’m just halfway in the book). Nathan Glass, in his sixties, dying, and recently divorced, moves back to Brooklyn after not having been there for 56 years. He meets up with his nephew, becomes friends with the local bookseller, and has minor adventures meeting other inhabitants of the neighborhood. And that’s it. But Nathan feels like my pal, and his exploits could be told over a bowl of chicken soup at his favorite diner; it’s a comfortable book with just enough cynicism to save it from being precious. Unlike most of my voyages to Brooklyn, I’m transported effortlessly.