Monday, March 26, 2012

Resolution Update #8.

I am still reading one hundred pages per day. Almost three months now. Amazon loves me.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I finished it! I loved it! The best description of the late DFW's writing I've seen is that it captures the internal dialogue of everyone in his generation. You can't miss the paragraphs that begin "And but then..." A genius book. An entertaining book. A book that is hard to lift. What a tragedy that DFW is no more. Is this Ulysses for our day? It has certainly been shelved with my all-time favorites. I will never forget nuclear war acted out by boarding school students on a tennis court, or DFW's description of what life is like for a drug addict. I'll confess that when I got to the end my memory could not connect what I had read in the early pages and complete the circuit, but I can re-read. Brilliant.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. I am of two minds here. I loved the main story to such a degree that I consumed the book in two days, most of it on the second day. My lost weekend with a big book. I adored the mystery of the house. As in, loved it to bits. I enjoyed the conceit that this was a real event that became well-known and was studied and researched. I enjoyed the footnotes that came with that conceit. What didn't work with me was the twin story of the young tattoo-shop employee who came across the research collected by a man who had himself been swept up by the story of this spectacularly mysterious house. That story seemed rather vulgar and unimportant compared to the family in the house, and it skewed the sense of time in the novel. Haunted house story: A, footnotes: A-, tattoo shop story: B.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. The long title should have given away the game: this is based on real events. And my only complaint is one common to such work: events have not been shuffled sufficiently to take advantage of thematic elements. Specifically, there is a sequence in which the well-being of animals is given much more consideration than the welfare of the humans. It comes too late and is on stage too briefly to deliver the punch it carries. But don't get me wrong— this is a book that carries a number of punches we need to receive.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion. Poor Joan Didion has been in for some criticism lately that she is too much of the 1% and environs to speak to the rest of us. That she is tone-deaf to the problems of the non-bi-coastal. No doubt this is exacerbated by the current economic disaster. Who wants to hear about the problems she has with her jet-set life when families are living in motels and cars? And indeed, I felt her least-successful essay began with complaints that the smog in L.A. had grown too heavy, so her family decamped for coastal Mexico for a few weeks. I want to read about the folks forced to remain in L.A., scramble for a buck, and catch pleurisy. Where she is most successful is in her straight reportage, and I will pursue her work in that area. Basically, wherever Joan Didion is not writing the story of Joan Didion.

New Burlingame: Life and Death of an American Village by John Baskin. Note the long title with colon: this is non-fiction. The midwestern town of New Burlington was doomed by a dam project, so writer John Baskin moved into town for a year to collect its history and stories. A magical book. Generations reaching back to stories of the Civil War and beyond. Old American farm families. Love stories, tragedies, facing the unknown future, this is a beautiful story from the heart of a changed America.

Waterline by Ross Raisin. A story of grief and how it drags down a proud man. I can say that this is the first book of the disintegration of a life from the middle class to homelessness that I found utterly credible. Credit wonderful character development. At no point did I look at this character and feel irritated that he did not do something that I (in my ignorance) thought he should do to reverse his decline. I utterly understood how this man fell apart. Add marvelous use of language and a perfectly-judged pace and ending, and this is a winning book. I shall be reading more from Ross Raisin.

Phew. Two more books going now on the Resolution, and another on audiobook, and this mad reading year continues....

Audiobook Update.

Been a while, I know, and while there is a ginormous resolution update to come, there are just a couple of audiobooks:

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Part of my problem with this book was that I thought it would be darker. Part of my problem was that the writing wasn't great. Part of my problem was that Angela's Ashes was great. And part of my problem was that this was too darn close to my family history. As in, the names were frequently the same. As in, I have the same name (abbreviated) as the main character's younger sister. I think I heard lines from this book growing up. This main character would be my grandmother, but it's my mother who loved this book. For my take on my own childhood, see Wallace Stegner's Big Rock Candy Mountain. In any event, this is a must-read (or listen) for anyone whose Irish roots first grew in New York City.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. When it was good it was very, very good. When it was bad it was boring. Sorry, poor David Foster Wallace, but I'm not so interested in television as you were, and nobody can be interested enough in David Lynch. And I'm speaking as someone who was once in an elevator with David Lynch, me with my parents and wearing platform gold-lamé shoes and sequined, rainbow-colored pants. But two essays in this book are epic. One, the state fair essay, and one the title-providing cruise essay. This last one is worth the price of admission, got me very wound up for a few days about cruise ship food, before letting me down on the "drinks not included" thing. Extra points for the most excellent narrator. DFW is becoming one of those writers whose work I must read In Toto.

No, not the little dog...

Monday, March 12, 2012

Resolution Update #7.

Our flooding emergency is apparently over, and I managed to continue my reading throughout. A useless achievement. I've discovered that I can get through the pages faster before sunrise than I can after sunset. Especially when the internet has been knocked out. So here's the latest stack:

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. She is one of my favorite writers, and this book did not disappoint. It has some of the same structural features of the earlier, less-successful Cigarettes, by Harry Matthews, with movement in time and joining different groups of characters and moments of story already in progress, but where that was confusing this was clear. Surprising when so much of what's happening is grim. Erdrich pulls no punches when showing the reader what life is like for too many Native Americans. Occasional magical elements do not eliminate the pain of poverty, but nor does she descend into hopelessness. And she has an absolute ability to convey the damage caused by alcohol. These are not "drunk tonight, fine tomorrow" characters. The brilliant writing makes even the most serious passages lyrical.

The Best of It by Kay Ryan. Speaking of magic, great poetry can convey complex ideas mind-to-mind through language so subtle and well-chosen you can't even see how the communication is happening. These small poems, at their best, achieve this alchemy. A poem that describes rain falling on drought land but never reaching the ground. Virga. That at some altitude all problems are solved. Beautiful.

Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley. This is a screenplay come to life, and whoever adapted it for the movie had the easiest job ever. Although I can guess, not having seen the movie, that some changes would have to be made. Repeated restaurant scenes are generally to be avoided, even if the dialogue within sparkles, which this does.

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. This book came up next in the stack after Love Medicine, but I suspected that wouldn't work. I shuffled the stack. Good guess, as this was grim as well. It's not without flaw; most seriously that the antagonist essentially disappears for the majority of the book, only reappearing for the big finale. And there's too much time spent on the life story of every member of this large family, but the backstory doesn't play out in the present. It feels like a story waiting for the ending. But the brilliant, dark, flawed conclusion to this book makes it all worth it.

Collected Stories by Gabriel García Márquez. Reading this book I decided that if I were kidnapped and forced to seek a Ph.D. in literature focused on a single author, it would be Gabriel García Márquez. You could spend months just analyzing the stories in this collection, watching the evolution of themes, elements, and diction. What a master writer. And what magical tales. I hope he lives as long as the longest-lived characters here, and writes every day of his life.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why is School Like That?

I've been pondering the mystery of college vs. high school. Let's say it's because of the recent focus on school bullying. This post was inspired by something I actually can't discuss because of confidentiality rules in some volunteer work I do.

I hope that's obscure enough.

I've pondered a question: why is it that bullying is one of the worst problems in school until you get to college? It's not just that not everybody goes to college; that would assume that all the bullies don't go. That may be what we want to think: bullies are idiots. But they aren't. I think it comes down to class.

Most everybody goes to elementary school, junior high, and high school. Almost all victims and their bullies are in these schools. If you're getting bullied while being home schooled, you have more problems than the evening news has covered thus far. Did I just stumble upon a new YA? Anyway...

My theory is that from college on, class is hidden. Through high school it is naked. Everybody knows who is on free lunch, everybody knows who has the latest gadget, everybody knows who lives where. When you get to college you are on your own, out of your parents' house for the most part, and manhandling massive future debt is a common feature for the majority. Even the richest parents may not pay tuition for their scions. Within your department and your major you can find all the us vs. them you could want, and if you wish you can add a sorority or fraternity identity. Plus, you are called upon to be a bit more sophisticated in your attitudes and behaviors. High school is prison; college is a country club. You are of the college class. The have-nots are now in menial jobs. Beneath mention. You, by virtue of an acceptance letter, are acceptable; you are a winner, and so is everyone around you.

And it ain't just about school.

Adulthood is a continuation of class separation, whether we acknowledge it or not. Think adults are all sophisticated and able to leave petty differences behind? Yeah, force people together in times of crisis. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. What I've been contemplating is just how rarely the different classes mix in day-to-day life, and how awkward it can be when they do. We are embarrassed and embarrassing in our turn. I haven't read or seen The Help, but I fear the cringe-worthiness.

As a last point, I should mention that I don't believe in any classless society, anywhere. Surprise. Maybe most schools have no major problems and all the kids are happy together in their identity as Wildcats or Warriors or Spartans of Anytown, USA, but I fear for those who aren't. I hope they make it to college.

P.S. Please support your local Red Cross. Volunteer if you can.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Resolution Suspended?

The hundred-pages-a-day may be temporarily suspended. We've had some major storms pass through here on Kauai the past few days, and have suffered some serious flooding. Not here at the manse, fortunately, but others have fared less well. I am a Red Cross volunteer, and as soon as they've opened the flooded bridge north of me and/or cleared the landslide south of me I shall be reporting to staff a shelter and/or do some damage assessment.

Normal service will return when we are a little less soggy. Do some reading for me!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Write Like a Poet.

I am just finishing Kay Ryan's The Best of It, and I realized something about poetry. Everything in it is intentional. You never encounter a typo, or an accidental tweak in the grammar, or an agreement problem. Certainly, there are some deliberate unusual usages here or there, depending on the poet and the work, but the point is that the poem is as the poet wants it, because they are careful and care about every mark on the page. Anything less is not writing poetry.

Try writing like a poet.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Audiobook Update.

Since they foolishly don't count toward my New Year's Resolution, I must update audiobooks separately. You can bet I won't make this mistake next year. If I do this next year. If I make it to next year.

Wild Thing by Josh Bazell. I loved this so much. I loved the book, I loved the narrator, I loved the whole thing. I will listen to this one again. The narrator is perfectly matched to the book. The author uses profanity like Michelangelo used marble. Funny and yes, wild. His sub-plots are better than most other books. I do hope Dr. Bazell chucks in his medical career to write full-time, because I'm going to need one of these every year, if not every month. Faster, pussycat!

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. I am going to name my first ulcer after Wallace Stegner. He started it with Big Rock Candy Mountain. I was lured into a false sense of security with Spectator Bird. Now Angle of Repose and I am again knotted into a dense little ball of anxiety. How in the world did Wallace Stegner travel through time and perfectly capture three or four generations of my family? Or at least every painful, alienating theme we've ever explored? There are a couple more Stegner audiobooks waiting for me, and I am very, very nervous. But I will read them. Once I stop twitching.