March Book Log

March 31, 2011

This was a very nice reading month. Lots of delicious books. Also, in two months, it will be summer vacation. 36 work days left. This is a good thing. Onward…

1. McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern – Issue 36 (4/5) – I picked this up because it included an annotated excerpt of Michael Chabon’s failed novel. I was not disappointed. The Chabon annotations are really excellent, there was a great play, a great novella by Colm Toibin, and several other really fantastic things. There were also a few things which, to say the least, I did not enjoy. If McSweeney’s has a weakness, it is that they place too much value on cleverness. That weakness is on display here. There are several clever ideas that are carried much too far (among them, an intentionally terrible – but still full length! – screenplay) and thus, it is docked a point. Totally worthwhile read, though. Especially as you can skip the crappy parts.

2. Zoli by Colum McCann (5/5) – I was totally bowled over by this book. It is the story of a female Roma poet in post WWII Eastern Europe. This is a true rarity in that it is a story that hasn’t been told much, if at all, at least in English. Add to that the absolutely fabulous job McCann does of changing tense and perspectives. He spends a lot of time writing from the perspective of the main character, which is especially nice as you don’t see men writing from the perspective of women very often. Great, great book. It might be the best thing I’ve read so far this year.

3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (5/5) – I’ve written about this several times before. I love it. It’s one of the few books I believe I could stand to read every time I teach. I find something new and wonderful every time through.

4. Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (5/5) – This book is very good. It is also very odd. I have to admit it was the oddness that struck me first and I was very skeptical about it through the first several chapters, but eventually it won me over. The entire book is written in the third person and in dialect. However, the dialect changes depending on which character is the central figure of the moment. Like I said, it’s odd, but she does pull it off. The language eventually becomes hypnotic and I found it remarkable how much it was the language that made the story and characters interesting (the story is not particularly compelling on its own). I don’t understand how she makes it all work, but she does.

5. Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (4/5) – I have very mixed feelings about this book, but I’m opting to trust Garcia Marquez. The primary character is, frankly, objectionable despite his fondness for himself. This is a story of his unusual salvation through love. Strange book, but as beautiful as everything he writes.

6. Made in America by Bill Bryson (4/5) – I’m slowly working my way through everything Bryson has written. This might be my least favorite so far, but I still gave it a 4, so, you know. Mostly this book is a really interesting popular history of America and it’s language. Occasionally, it gets a bit dry. It is however, totally worth reading if only for Bryson describing, in his distinctive smart-ass style, just exactly how inept the pilgrims were.

Spring Book Queue Update:

Snow by Orhan Pamuk
The Chateau by William Maxwell
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
A Gesture Life by Chang Rae Lee
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Zoli by Colum McCann
Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
Tales from the Perilous Realm by J.R.R. Tolkien
Daugther of Fortune by Isabelle Allende
Libra by Don DeLillo

Baseball is about Life

March 30, 2011

Bull Durham is the best sports movie I have ever seen. People always want to say of a good sports movie: “It’s not really about sports, it’s about life.” Bull Durham is about baseball. It just so happens that baseball is about life.

Baseball is a game of failure. Just because that’s a cliché, doesn’t mean it’s untrue.

Last year, my favorite team (the Reds) made the playoffs and were promptly destroyed in three games (including only the second post-season no-hitter ever thrown) by the Phillies. And this was a good year. The Reds had not had a winning season for a decade. They had not been in the playoffs since I was a sophomore in high school (1995). They have not won the World Series since 1990. It has been a long drought.

There are 30 major league teams. Obviously, it doesn’t work this way, but statistically speaking, the average team will win the series only once every 30 years, though there will be at least seven near-misses (playoff appearances) in that time span. Of course, there will always be teams like the Cubs, who haven’t won in more than 100 years and the Yankees, who win more than their fair share.

In baseball, as in life, some of us are lucky and some of us are not. Some of us have lots of money and some of us don’t. There are elements of fairness – rules common to all – but neither is a truly equitable endeavor.

But this is what baseball offers and this is why I love it: There is always the chance, even if it’s only the ghost of a chance. And mostly, you have more than that. There are seven teams this year who made the playoffs last year, but did not win the World Series. Perhaps, they think, things will break right this year. There are eight more who had winning records and they have to be thinking that if things turn right, maybe they will be in the playoffs this year. And that would feel like a success, even if it isn’t the ultimate goal.

And there are other teams who signed the big player or have the young kid coming up who are thinking that maybe they won’t make the playoffs this year, but the team might win more than it loses. Or maybe they know that won’t happen this year, but they can see it on the horizon. Maybe next year. And if we can have a winning season, why not the playoff? And if the playoffs, why not the Series? We think about it long enough and it doesn’t seem so far fetched. We can always get better. It can always be better in the future.

But it doesn’t always get better. Crash Davis, despite a call up in some forgotten year, does not become a big league ballplayer. The Pirates haven’t had a winning season in almost 20 years. We all know people like that. At one point or another, most of us are people like that. We fail and we fail and we fail. Sometimes it is because we might not try as hard as we could, but often it isn’t and there aren’t any explanations beyond, “Well, that’s just how it goes.” Sometimes, we age out of our old dreams and we stop trying to be big league players and start trying to be big league managers. We think, maybe this is what I can do. Maybe this is what I’m good at.

Some of us may never find that one thing. We may never reach the World Series. Some of us have to be the Cubs. And it might not even be your fault. Sometimes, the sun just doesn’t shine. To paraphrase Mickey Mantle, Crash Davis was good. Maybe we’re stuck behind somebody (like Crash was). Maybe we’re born in the wrong time and will only be appreciated after we’re gone. It’s so hard to know. And that’s where it turns. Because you never know.

You never know, and tomorrow it might turn around. The shortstop will start to hit and the pitcher will find his control. Many of us will see it coming, but for some it will be inexplicable. Teams go from last to first. It happens all the time and you can’t always see it coming. This is just the way it happens for some of us. It can start to turn and you can barely feel it. Crash Davis might make a good manager someday.

Tomorrow, baseball season will start and there are some teams out there, I am sure, for whom it will start to turn. And some of them won’t see it coming. A groundball will poke through the infield or homerun will sneak over the wall and something will happen. And I love it.

Teddy Thompson

March 25, 2011

Teddy Thompson does not want you to like him, but he wants you to love him. He is not good for you. He is not good for any of us. For Teddy Thompson, happiness is nothing if not a prelude to misery. If things feel good, something must be bubbling under that will derail us all and surround us with a thick pool of misery (he must get this from his father). What’s this? What’s this?/Am I happy or something?/Oh shit, Oh shit./Am I happy or something? This is Teddy Thompson or at least part of him.

Teddy Thompson does not want you to take him seriously, but you have to pay attention to know that. I’m looking for a girl who drinks and smokes/who takes a lot of drugs and can take a joke. What’s that? A drug reference? Have to edit that out for the ray-dee-oh. Because too many people are not paying attention. Everything has to be obvious. Teddy Thompson doesn’t like that either. Drop-dead, gorgeous teen/singin’ pages from her diary./It’s so bad/you’d kick her out of bed. But, you know, he can sing the cliché, too. You broke my heart/You broke my heart/I know who’s to blame/You’re to blame. It’s different somehow, though. Not unlike Springsteen telling us he learned how to make his guitar talk. You roll your eyes a little, but you believe it because he makes you remember. Teddy Thompson is a lot of things. He is not easy. He is not vapid. He is great.

I don’t use that phrase lightly. I think sometimes about Springsteen still working the club circuit after putting out those first two albums of tight, churning, raw energy before he became huge. I wonder what it might have been like to see him in one of those small clubs. At least, I wondered until I saw Teddy Thompson as the opening act in a small club. He exuded talent. He had better songs than the headliner. A better voice. A better band. It was no contest. There was no question. And I thought, this is what it was like to see Springsteen. Thompson is too big for this place. Too good. The wider world will want him soon. It hasn’t happened.

I don’t kid myself. I don’t think Thompson is unique in this way. There are other acts out there, I know, who are too big for the bar or the club but who will play that club until they die or have to get another job to pay the bills – if you want to say that’s different. This is where we are now. We don’t want challenge. We want cliché. Sing to us from your diary. Make it simple. It’s a miracle that he somehow has a major label record deal and all the advantages that go with that like TV appearances and ample studio time and over-produced videos (where he still can’t keep from smirking). If he didn’t, we would have been lucky to get one album from him.

And it may never happen for Thompson, who seems born to be a musician. His parents are Richard and Linda Thompson. He writes songs like dad and has pipes like mom and it’s hard to believe anything could stop him. It takes something different to write an album about a break up and be honest about naming it after the girl and still keep a sense of humor about the whole thing, but I’m afraid that’s more of what keeps him down. That’s complexity. You can never be exactly sure if he’s putting you on, at least, not unless you are willing to pay attention.

So he keeps on scraping by, it seems. Wearing the past on his back (Another thing we don’t want. Only give us something we can believe is new. We don’t want roots. We want to fly, untethered above the earth), and singing plaintive country songs about the bump and grind with an ironic smirk plastered across the falsetto. Maybe this is overwrought. Okay, I know it’s overwrought, but I listen to these albums of his and I think, sure, I heard other great stuff over the last decade, but I don’t think I’ve heard anything better. I want to keep listening, so I need you to listen, too.

This morning, I saw this very cool link to a word cloud that gives a kind of consensus about which books are truly must-reads. The prominence of To Kill a Mockingbird struck me as my classes happen to be just finishing it and it got me to thinking about what books high school students should read. And, well, that’s really one hell of an idea for a blog post isn’t it?

I decided that we should try to stick with reasonably short contemporary books as much as possible. Nothing turns some kids off faster than old language and page numbers over 300. So, without further ado, here is my list…

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Why it’s good: This is the most obvious choice on the list. I’ve read some things lately which claim this book isn’t as good as many people think it is. That is nonsense. I think most criticisms of this book (Atticus is too perfect, it glosses over what the South was really like, it’s too preachy) are given by people who haven’t read it very closely (Atticus’s failings almost cost him his children, for instance). The language is beautiful and still relatively easy to understand. I’ve read it numerous times and find new layers each time.

Why high schoolers should read it: Because it is, in some ways, quite preachy. Kids often miss subtlety, and though this book has subtlety in spades, the central theme is very clear. It’s good for kids to appalled by injustice. On another level, it also opens up avenues for discussions of sexual assault and the court system. Those are two things many kids are almost totally ignorant of (a delicate discussion about Mayella will more or less insure that a reasonably thoughtful kid stops it with the rape jokes).

2. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Why it’s good: It spawned a whole slew of coming of age books. No one can now write one of those without owing something to Salinger. It also gives us a wonderfully complex character in Holden. We are supposed to like him, and often do, but he can be terribly objectionable.

Why high schoolers should read it: Holden does almost nothing but challenge the status quo. Far too many students accept whatever is given to them without question. Passivity is the enemy of an intelligent citizenry. Additionally, it is very good for students to get to know a character as complex as Holden. They are often flummoxed by contradiction and nothing will flummox them like Holden.

3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Why it’s good: This is pretty much THE book on religious dystopia and for good reason. Atwood is such an amazing writer (honestly, would anyone out there claim there is a better living writer? Others are certainly on her level, but better? I don’t know about that) that she makes what should be an utterly ridiculous proposition seem as real and scary as it is.

Why high schoolers should read it: This is another book about questioning, but it’s more subversive than Catcher in the Rye. This book is made to make you question your religious beliefs and those of others. America would be a better place if more people did that.

4. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Why it’s good: An African response to the 70 pages of slog that is Heart of Darkness, it’s the seminal African novel. An enormous amount of political literature was born from this book.

Why high schoolers should read it: America is the big kid on the block and every American child needs to have some idea of what it might be like to live in a nation that qualifies as the little guy. Too rarely are stories told from the point of view of the colonized. Also another book that questions the validity of imposing beliefs and structure on a people who do not desire them.

5. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Why it’s good: OH MY GOD!! It’s a woman writing from a woman’s perspective about wanting things that society says she shouldn’t want! Clearly she does not know her place.

Why high schoolers should read it: See above. Sexism is the most rampant and ignored form of discrimination in schools. There is no better book for opening up the discussion than this one. This is far and away the oldest book on this list, but it’s also the shortest and important enough that they should be able to make it through.

6. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Why it’s good: How does one even explain this book? It’s probably the most honest portrayal of war of any book I’ve read. Plus, it has the whole meta-fiction (is this a novel? or is it really his story?) thing going for it that lends it a particular brand of authenticity.

Why high schoolers should read it: It’s honest. No punches are pulled here and they won’t feel preached to. I’ve suggested this book to a number of kids and I’ve yet to have one tell me he or she didn’t like it.

7. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Why it’s good: Like The Handmaid’s Tale it feels eerily possible. Everything in this book is just close enough to the world as it already is. It’s also the kind of book that makes you feel cool while you read it.

Why high schoolers should read it: Everyone has a bit of the megalomaniac in them. This is especially true of many teenagers. This should go a fair ways toward dispossessing them of those notions.

8. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (technically short stories, not a novel, but cut me some slack)

Why it’s good: Well, let’s start by pointing out that it won the Pulitzer. That’s all well and good as shorthand, but why did it win? Because of the fantastic job it does of describing every aspect of a particular multi-cultural perspective.

Why high schoolers should read it: The more exposure they get to different cultural viewpoints, the better. There are a lot of kids in this country who don’t know much beyond white and black (and hispanic if you’re in the right region). It’s good to push them to think outside their sphere a bit. This will take care of that.

9. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

Why it’s good: It’s a contemporary coming of age book. Catcher updated (sort of), but with Chabon’s wonderful prose style. I’ve written before that it has its flaws, but it so wonderfully captures the optimism and enthusiasm and carelessness of youth that I always find myself willing to overlook the flaws.

Why high schoolers should read it: Because the characters swear and have sex and get drunk and one of them is gay (GASP!). More than any book on this list, this will raise the hackles of parents. But you know what? Most kids are doing or hearing about all this stuff anyway. And many, many, many of them need exposure to homosexuality in a way that doesn’t involve religious condemnation. And it is a really good book. Also, though the characters do a lot of ridiculous things, there are consequences to their actions, so it hardly functions as an endorsement of living free of responsibility. I’ve taught this once before (I had to send notes home to get parent permission) and students really get into it because they can’t believe they’re being allowed to read this in school. Many students will find this more relatable than any other book on the list.

10. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Why it’s good: Multiple intertwining narratives expertly rendered. Thorough research. Beautiful prose.

Why high schoolers should read it: It’s about poor farmers. Seriously. I struggled with which book to put last on the list, and I settled on this one even though it’s a bit long (over 400 pages). There needs to be something here that represents the daily lives of a large swath of middle America. There’s just enough sex to keep kids engaged all the way through, and I think they’ll be appropriately intrigued/confused by the multiple narratives. For an urban child, this will be like reading about a foreign land. For a rural child, this will feel refreshingly relevant.

Some closing thoughts

If you look closely at this list, you will notice that there are five male writers and five female writers. There is a black man, an Indian-American woman, an Englishman, and a Canadian woman. There are stories about the rural and the urban. The rich and the poor and the middle class. There is sex (both straight and gay). There is war. There is religion and racism and many other forms of intolerance. This is not by accident. I feel bad that there isn’t something here that provides the Latino perspective. I just haven’t read anything that I feel would quite work with a high school student.

The point though, is that this list covers as much of the adult world as I can manage in ten relatively short books. Importantly, it does not shy away from anything, including sex and religion. Students need to discuss these things and they will appreciate being given enough credit to be trusted to read these books without making fools of themselves. If some of them wouldn’t get me fired, I’d teach every one of these books.

For the last several days, Cate’s friend Joanna was visiting us from Massachusetts. She was a lovely guest, but more than that she reminded me of certain things…

When I was in college I was surrounded by like-minded people. Certainly, that can create an echo chamber, but more than that, for me it made discovery and discussion so easy. I love books and music (I don’t think this is news to anyone) and I am very happy to be married to a wonderful woman who shares the same interests, but, you know, we already know each other’s tastes. I can’t remember the last time I was up late with someone just trading titles (Have you read this? Isn’t it great? What about that? I’ll have to pick it up.) or talking about how much better jazz sounds live than on record. I could go in any direction at more or less the drop of a hat. It was nice to be surrounded by so many choices and so many people who relished them in the way I did.

I am a creature of routine. My days have a regular flow and for the most part, I like that, but there was a time not that long ago when I was not so routine and I was still quite happy. So much of that change is the normal progression of life. I have a kid and a time consuming job, and so I spend an awful lot of my time awfully tired. And a lot of it is location. There is no jazz scene to speak of in Louisville like there was in St. Louis. The further you get from a college campus the fewer real readers you’ll find around you. Having Joanna stay with us over the weekend reminded me that there might be a time in the future when there is less routine. When I might again be surrounded by the like-minded in a way I haven’t been since college. When there is time and capacity for improvisation and room to move freely in the world.

Popular = Good

March 10, 2011

I had this idea a few weeks ago, but I didn’t get to it. Please forgive the untimeliness of this post in our 24 second news cycle world…

Recently, the world ended when The Arcade Fire (or is the band called The Suburbs?) won a Grammy over several more popular, but less good artists. The world ended because the Grammys have long been a hackneyed awards show that caters to people who listen to top 40 radio and think popular and good are the same thing. The results are generally comical if you pay any attention to music, but I’m not going to go into that right now. Instead, I thought it might be more fun to look at what would happen if other types of media were subjected to the same “rigorous” selection process the Grammys normally utilize.

The Award: Best Picture

The Criteria: Nominees are the five highest grossing movies of the previous year. The voters will be looking for broad appeal (men and women have to be interested). Also, we want teenagers tuning in, so nothing too old and stodgy and nothing too childish.

2010

1. Toy Story 3

2. Alice in Wonderland

3. Iron Man 2

4. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Analysis: Toy Story was nominated as it was, but I don’t think it’s the winner here. It is, at least ostensibly, a children’s movie and thus isn’t cool enough to win best picture. Alice in Wonderland is for those weird emo kids or something, so it can’t win. Iron Man 2 has no appeal to the ladies and Twilight has nothing for the boys, so congratulations Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you are the best picture of 2010.

2009

1. Avatar

2. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

3. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

4. The Twilight Saga: New Moon

5. Up

Analysis: This is pretty similar to 2010. A kid’s movie (nope). Something for the boys and the ladies (nope and nope again) and a Harry Potter movie, but this time, Harry has some competition. He is trumped by the SUPER AWESOME (pay no attention to the terrible writing/story) Avatar which, because its special effects are out of this world, is clearly the best picture of 2009.

Other Years in Brief: 2008: 1. The Dark Knight, 2. Iron Man, 3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 4. Hancock, 5. Wall-E. The Winner: It’s all about the nocturnal flying rodent. Some people misguidedly though this should have won the real award.

2007: 1. Spider-Man 3, 2. Shrek the Third, 3. Transformers, 4. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The Winner: Have to go with Harry again. His broad appeal is enough to overcome the mess that was Spider-Man 3.

2006: 1. Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, 2. Night at the Museum, 3. Cars, 4. X-Men: The Last Stand, 5. The Da Vinci Code. The Winner: This is a very tight, very respectable field. Lots of broad appeal here and the vote is going to be pretty split. When all else fails, go with what’s most popular. Congratulations buccaneers.

The Award: The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

The Criteria: The five best selling books of the year are up for the award. Voters care less about broad appeal (all real men know it’s uncool to read) than about making sure the book isn’t too hoity-toity.Also, no pictures or little kid’s stuff. This is a serious literary award, after all.

2010 (I had trouble finding a definitive best seller list, this is the best I could come up with)

1. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

2. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

3. Dead in the Family by Charlene Harris

4. The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephanie Meyer

5. The Help by Cathryn Stockett

Analysis: This one is easy. It’s all about Larsson. He’s all dark and creepy or something. And people get to think they’re reading high literature without actually be challenged.

2009

Okay, okay. Stop, I can’t go on. Comprehensive best seller lists are hard to find and I just saw one claiming Stephanie Meyer had the top 4 spots in 2009 and 2008. Before that, it’s all Harry Potter. I am so glad everything isn’t run like the Grammys.

On Becoming My Father

March 2, 2011

When I was a boy – and I think this is true for many people – my father was mythic. He seemed to know so much and he could do anything. He would lift an ax with ease and split wood for the stove when I could barely lift the log, much less the ax. Even more amazingly, he would shove around appliances that, to me, might as well have been brick walls.

Then there were the finer tasks. Laying out a new floor in the kitchen or living room. Repairing the roof. Fixing a car. Installing a basketball goal. Raising a garden that we would eat from all summer and fall. He could tell me the names of every plant. He knew birds from their songs. His knowledge and ability were endless.

All of this is common enough. Most children go through this with their parents, and we all come out of it eventually. I started to understand the bounds of my dad’s knowledge sometime in middle school or high school. He is still one of the smartest people I know, but I understood that there were things he was interested in and things he was not. Sometimes our interests overlapped and sometimes they didn’t and that was fine.

I had, however, never been as adept as my father when it came to household tasks. Part of this is his fault (he tended to do things himself and often too quickly for a kid to learn), and some of it is mine (I leaned on him for these kinds of things when ever I could and he loves me enough pretty much never say no). But lately, Cate and I have been doing things on our own. I still need his help a fair bit – he is a great source of knowledge and my bad shoulder makes some tasks all but impossible – but I am learning that I am more resourceful than I thought I was.

It seems ridiculous to me that over the last several months I have fixed numerous plumbing issues, switched out a washer and dryer (the brick walls of my youth), and – with wife and dad’s help – laid a marble floor in the bathroom. I fully understand that there is absolutely nothing impressive about these things. That if I had purchased a house earlier, instead of living in apartments for ten years, I would likely have done these things much sooner.

Still, I can’t help but be amazed that I have, somewhere along the line, transformed into my own childhood impression of an adult. I am, in very many ways, just like my father. I have become mysterious and adult in the ways he was mysterious and adult. My children will likely spend time being just as confounded as I was by all the things their dad can do.

Though there is nothing especially remarkable about this revelation, it still feels significant because often I still feel like a child. I can only assume that, in some ways, my dad does too.