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?