June Book Log

June 30, 2009

This was my first reading month as a parent. I was glad to see that I was still able to get a fair bit done while looking after the little one. I think in the next month I’m really going to concentrate on fiction. It’s been a while since I’ve been blown away by a novel I hadn’t read before, and I’d like to come across something really wonderful.

1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (5.0/5): This is probably my favorite book. I love it. It manages to be enormous without having anything that feels superfluous. Everything in the book adds to the plot and enhances the characters. The characters are my favorite part. They are all flawed, but you like them all. It’s just a wonderful book, and the ending kills me.

2. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (3.5/5): I was let down by this book. Everyone I know gets so breathless when they talk about it, and it just didn’t do that much for me. The writing is certainly good, though McCarthy’s odd style did wear on me in places in a way it did not in The Road, and the story is interesting, but, ultimately, I just didn’t care about the characters enough. They send most of the book being epically stupid for bad reasons, and I can only forgive that so much.

3. The Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku (5.0/5): Very good popular science book. He not only explains if all the things you’ve seenin science fiction are possible, but he tells the story of scientific development in that area and gives asides that often tell the stories of the scientists involved. It is the story telling that makes it excellent instead of just interesting. There are a few writerly things that bug me, but those things are forgiven (as long as they aren’t egregious) when I’m not reading fiction/literary nonfiction.

4. The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien (4.5/5): I’d read a version of this before, but it is still a very good story and very well told. It’s not nearly as difficult of a read as I’d been led to believe. It is very depressing, though. The only stuff that really bugged me were a few phrases that were repeated a bit too often and Chapter titles that give a little too much away.

5. 1984 by George Orwell (3.5/5): This is one of those books I kept meaning to read, but never had. Now that I finally have, I’m conflicted about it. Certainly, it’s interesting commentary on society and for the most part the story is rather compelling. However, there are long stretches of the book, especially at the beginning that are pretty superfluous. Overall, I think it’s okay, but not fantastic.

Book Queue Update:

Tomcat in Love by Tim O’Brien
Gun with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
Summerland by Michael Chabon
The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perotta
Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

It has come to my attention after having a conversation with a couple of good ol’ friends from back in the day that there may be some misinterpretation going on regarding my previous blog. For the record, I have no issue with the raising and lowering of voice tones in a musical fashion as one of the aforementioned friends noted (that would be Kirsten) this is GOOD for babies. No, what bothers me is the intentional mispronouncing of words and the making of nonsense sounds.

That is all.

Baby Talk

June 22, 2009

Oh I care for you, honey, at my own expense
But something’s spoiling my sentiments
You open your mouth and it makes no sense
All you ever give me is baby talk
-Richard Thompson

I am beginning to think that, at least for a while, I will be writing a series of posts that are observations about parenting and how the world becomes idiotic. Let’s start today.

This should serve as a cautionary tale to all who read it. It is something that I was NOT prepared for. If you have a baby and go out in public the following things may happen to you:

1. People talk kind of at you as you pass them on the street. These are not people you know. They will look in your direction and say brilliant things like, “That’s a new one” and “Look at the baby.” I would imagine it’s something akin to what people whisper when they pass someone with a giant goiter. They don’t whisper, though. They speak loudly. It is clear they want you to hear, yet there comment seem to require no response.

2. People will walk up to you and interrupt you do talk about and touch your babies. This one probably aggravates me the most. First of all, I do not know you and I do not know where your hands have been, so please take them the fuck off of my child. A baby is not a piece of public property, so you cut that out right now. Second, my wife and I are trying to decide how many blueberries we need or whatever. We are, as you may have noticed before you started talking to us unprompted, having a conversation. If you really can’t control yourself, at least have the courtesy to wait until we’ve finished transacting our business so that we can smile and walk away from you if we feel so inclined.

3. People will walk up to your baby and begin to talk to her as though she can understand them. They will speak exclusively in baby talk. There are few things I hate more in life than baby talk. If you want to make your speech a little more musical, fine whatever, but don’t start every goddamn word with the “w” sound. That is obnoxious. Also, it is bad for a child’s linguistic development. Remarkably, what is best for them is for you to pronounce words correctly and not make up nonsense sounds. Also, again, we don’t know you, so, yeah, please go away.

Just yesterday, I finished re-reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Depending on when you ask me, I will often tell you that this is my favorite book. Chabon is also one of three modern authors I’ve been reading a lot of lately (the other two are Barbara Kingsolver and Jonathan Lethem). These three authors highlight something that I often feel I lack in my writing: a sense of heritage.

An old, but true writing cliche is that you should write what you know. This does not mean that stories should be autobiographical, but that when you venture beyond your own experience into feelings and emotions that you have not had or seen others have, then you are running the risk of coming off as insincere or unbelievable.

Michael Chabon is Jewish.
Jonathan Lethem is from New York.
Barbara Kingsolver grew up in rural Kentucky.

Obviously, these three are great writers for reasons that reach far beyond simple biographical elements. The point, really, isn’t that Chabon is Jewish or that Kingsolver is from Kentucky. It’s that, in their writing, you can FEEL them drawing on these things. Jewishness is a big part of Chabon’s personal identity. As is New York for Lethem and Kentucky for Kingsolver. I grew up in Southern Indiana, just across the river from Louisville, Kentucky. Number of times either of these places are mentioned in my writing: 0. I was raised by parents who are Christian in that they celebrate the holidays but haven’t been inside a church since the Carter administration. I am now staunchly agnostic/atheist.

So now the question is why don’t these things, especially the area in which I grew up factor into my writing? Why is it that virtually everything I’ve written draws from experiences I’ve had over the last nine or ten years (since going to St. Louis for college)? The answer is that I HATED where I grew up and, mostly, the people I grew up around. As I’ve grown up a bit more, I see that I was a pretty big snot as a kid. I was the little boy genius who thought I knew everything and most certainly did not, but who doesn’t go through a stage like that. The point for me was more that my talents were mostly academic and, in the place where I grew up, there was no call for these talents. I spent my youth feeling rejected not just by my peers (a common enough experience), but by most of the adults in my community who seemed to expect that a 12 or 13 year old boy would understand that, when asked for his opinion, he was supposed to say that he agreed with everyone else and that this was, in fact, supposed to be true. I did not agree with everyone else. I’m not trying to sound arrogant, but when I was a kid (this is still the case) if you asked what I thought, I did not parrot what my parents had told me or what I had heard in school. I thought about it and then told you my opinion based on all the information I had. Correspondingly, I spent a lot of time with adults looking down their noses at me.

So I rejected the place I came from. I rejected their unwillingness to question religion. I rejected their tendency to go-with-the-flow. Of course, in the way of many teenagers, I managed to throw the good out with the bad. I became obsessed with the notion of education as the defining characteristic of human value. At that time, no one in my family had a college education (I’ve since had a cousin or two graduate). Because they did not fit my narrow, flawed definition of what it meant to be a person of value, I rejected them. I wasn’t harsh or rude about it. Mostly, I just stayed away. If I had to go to a family function, I popped in, sat awkwardly for an hour or two, and went on my way.

The result of all this is that I don’t really know where I come from, so to speak. I have no past community. This, I think is apparent in my writing. If my main characters have parents, they are mentioned only in passing. If they have an extended family, you’d never know it from reading about them. Why? It was not a conscious choice. Rather, I think the answer lies in how I developed my own identity. It was a solitary excursion for me, and so it often is for my characters.

I am only now trying to look back and think about where I came from and the kinds of people who were around me. What were there stories? What part did they play in mine? I don’t know the answer to the first question and the answer to the second, I may find intimidating. Still, I am trying to develop this part of myself as a writer. Sometime soon, I may try to write a story based in Indiana or Kentucky. I may write stories about people like the ones I grew up around. Whether these endeavors will succeed or fail, I do not know. It may be that I am the kind of writer who will never really write about the experiences of childhood as seen through the eyes of a child and whose characters do not often consider their pasts. If so, I will have to hope that a lack of heritage can inform writing as much having a heritage.

I have been a father for nine days now, and for the last few I’ve thought about exactly what I want to write about that. This is one of those things that’s been written about so many times. Still, I tend to write about whatever is on my mind where this blog is concerned, so I think I will write about it at least a little bit.

First, I’ll provide some logistical details. Simone came into the world at 5:26 AM on Monday, June 1st. She moved quite quickly as a drug that was not supposed to put Cate into labor did put her into labor. Cannonball was in a hurry and Cate spent less than 5 hours in labor. Simone was born almost exactly an hour after her mother’s water broke.

Some, fairly obvious, first impressions: This can be exhausting and, to quote Cate, everything takes twice as long as it did before. So, you look up at the clock and it’s 6:30 and you think, wasn’t it just 4:00 about 5 minutes ago. However, it’s pretty nice. I love my daughter and she’s adorable, and even though it’s been just over a week, I can see little things starting to happen. Her face is becoming more expressive and she smiles in her sleep and sometimes when she’s awake. Generally, she smells good and it’s nice to have your newborn daughter asleep on your chest. All that said, it would be okay with me if she pooped less. It would be REALLY okay if she didn’t poop when I was in the process of changing her diaper as that really doesn’t help anyone out. Also, I would be totally fine if people would cut it out with the baby talk. We went out briefly today and every stranger we passed lost the ability to speak English. It’s ridiculous.

I don’t know that I have much more to say about it right now. I’m enjoying it, and I think I will enjoy being a father. Because this is something that has been written about so much and shown so much in movies and television, it is interesting to see how my reactions and emotions jibe with those shown in popular media. Predictably, my reactions have, thus far, been mellower than your average father’s day greeting card commercial.

It is also the summer for me now, and I do find myself excited over that. Cate and I will be spending a good deal of it trying to find a larger apartment or a small house we can rent for the first few years of Simone’s life until we can put a down payment on one of our own. Also, I look forward to increased writing time. Time away from school and students already has the creative juices flowing more freely, and I’m currently working on a little off-the-wall ghost story. I’d like to have a rough draft done by the end of the weekend, but we’ll see.

I found out for sure on our last day of school that I will have two creative writing classes next year. This is VERY exciting. I went in to teaching hoping that I could teach writing eventually. One of my summer goals is to design a writing class that is as interesting and as much fun as it could possibly be so that I can convince some of my students to sign up for an advanced creative writing class the next year.

I suppose that is all for now. I realize this post is rambling and largely unfocused. That will likely change as the summer wears on and I get used to the new structure of my life.