October Book Log

October 30, 2011

1. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (5/5) – This book has gotten a lot of press, and it deserves it. It’s a little bit about baseball, but mostly about different kinds of love. All of the characters are wonderfully complex and human. Likable at times and ridiculous at other times. The last 250 pages are utterly timeless. Harbach deals carefully and beautifully with so many aspects of humanity that it’s impossible not to be awed by the beauty of this book. Sadly, the first 250 pages are filled with enough pop-culture references that the book is almost certain to feel dated in a few decades. This might prevent it from being remembered as one of the great books of our time, which – one moment of absurd predictability aside – it nearly is.

2. Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire (5/5) – Reread this to teach it to my writing classes. I still enjoyed it a lot. Abaire’s dialogue is so loaded and so subtle. This is a perfectly told story. I love that he leaves it nicely messy and unresolved at the end.

3. Winseburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (5/5) – I reread this every fall. I’ve already written a lot about it on this blog, and I won’t pretend that I have anything new to say. It always grounds me and reminds me what I love best about literature.

4. Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver (4/5) – This was the only one of Kingsolver’s novels I hadn’t read. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t blow me away. The story is interesting and compelling, but this is one of her early attempts to work social issues into her writing, and I found it a bit heavy-handed in spots. In her effort to make everyone reasonable, they all become too nice and she loses some believability. It’s a perfectly nice novel, but I’d read everything else of hers before trying this.

5. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2.5/5) – This might be the biggest disappointment of the year. I thought his last book, Middlesex, was fantastic, but this is utterly mediocre and rife with problems. One problem is the very idea of the marriage plot. I get that he is intentionally duplicating some 19th century tropes, but the result is a book that feels like you’ve read it before. Most troubling, however, is the omnipresent misogyny. Feminists in this book are treated like unsophisticated parrots incapable of thinking for themselves. The central character (Madeleine) is a woman, but she lacks agency – functioning instead as something for the male characters to worry about. And then there’s the sex. Nearly every sex scene functions as a reason for a man to think about his penis and Madeleine’s moment of greatest sexual pleasure comes when she is raped by her boyfriend. There is so much wrong with this book that I can’t believe it took him nine years to write it.

6. The Double Helix by James Watson (4.5/5) – This is a personal account form one of the scientists responsible for the discovery of the double helix DNA structure. The book lives somewhere between memoir and pop-sceince, but it still works very well. It’s nice to get a glimpse into the personalities of the scientists involved. Most important, the storyteller keeps his ego in check. Watson is very upfront about his failings and about the contributions of those around him. All of this makes for a very engaging read about an important moment in the history of science.

7. No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe (5/5) – After recently rereading Things Fall Apart to teach to my classes, I was reminded how much I like Achebe. Correspondingly, I thought it was time to explore some of his other work. This book is a sequel to TFA and follows Okonkwo’s grandson after his return from England where he was sent by his village to receive a university education. The education has lifted him into a new social class, but he still runs up against the racism of the colonizers and the expectations of his village. Thematically, it’s very similar to An American Tragedy in the way it deals with wealth and social privilege. Assuming his other works are of similar quality, Achebe deserves to be remembered for more than one book.

8. Powering the Future by Robert Laughlin (2.5/5) – This was an interesting but flawed text. Laughlin makes assumptions about human nature (we will always use the cheapest energy and never change our usage patterns) and climate change (it’s pointless to worry about) that may or may not prove valid. After making these assumptions, he goes forward to discuss various energy sources in a sort of cost-benefit analysis that gets old the fourth or fifth time he does it. I would have enjoyed more depth from his discussion of energy and fewer economic musings.

Fall/Winter Book Queue Update:

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  • Netherlands by Joseph O’Neill
  • Next by James Hynes
  • Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides

When we are young, most of us fall in love easily. This is natural enough. I recently heard the musician Mike Watt say, “The only thing new is you finding out about it.” He was speaking about music, but it applies to everything. Still, when we are young, everything is new, so we fall in love with boys and girls and books and movies and music. And because these are our only experiences – because we have not had the chance to “find out” about that much – this love is particularly electric.

When we get a little older and those first loves fade or vanish, it’s hard not to feel that something is lost. How can I feel like that again? We feel this because we do not understand enough about second loves.

Second loves are those people and things that grab us after we have had a bit of experience. Often they are things that would have been first loves if only we had met them sooner, but just as often, they are things that require our experience. We could not love them the right way if we had met them first. Youth is enthusiastic, but it is also brash and reckless.

When I was seventeen, I fell in love with the music of Eric Clapton. I was tragically in love with a girl in that seventeen-year-old way and there isn’t really anything better than Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs for that. I fell in love with the heartache and, of course, the guitar playing. Clapton is why I fell in love with music and why I started playing the guitar, but he was a first love.

A few nights ago, I saw Richard Thompson for the fourth time. Thompson is the kind of musician who can’t really be a first love. He’s too obscure (though he’s been around for more than 40 years). You need someone to tell you about him. And anyway, if you’d met him first, you might have been foolish enough to walk past.

When Cate and I watched him play the other night, he was, despite a few hiccups at the start, transcendent. I won’t bore anyone with the full set list, but it was loaded with the kind of dark, complicated songs he’s known for. His most famous, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” drew a roar from the 500 or so people in attendance that would have drowned out many larger audiences. It is a traditional love ballad about a criminal, a girl, and a motorcycle. This is why people come to Thompson. He writes songs about infidelity on both sides of a marriage while one is away working on a cruise ship. He writes songs with obscure mythological references. He writes songs from the perspective of newly freed and unrepentant criminals.

Within his songs, he often smirks knowingly at himself or us. When has youth, when has first love, ever done that?

And he writes lines like this:

They say she even married once/a man named Romany Brown/But even a gypsy caravan/Was too much settling down/And they say her flower is faded now/Hard weather and hard booze/But maybe that’s just the price you pay for the chains you refuse.

That wonderful verse comes from Beeswing, a song at least partially responsible for my marriage, but it’s so clearly a second love kind of song. Who wants to think about fading flowers while still in the first flush of love?

And, of course, he can play the hell out of the guitar, which he did. But again, I don’t think I was ready for his guitar playing when I first discovered music. Thompson is frequently referred to as a musician’s musician. I get that. When I was first learning to play, I think I would have been totally overwhelmed by RT. So much of it is so complicated. When I came to him, after I’d been playing for several years, I got what he was doing, but I don’t know if I could have at the time. Even now, I still feel like I’m figuring it out.

And that’s the most important difference between first loves and second loves. First loves are charged with millions of volts, but they spend most of our lives in the past. They are about who we were. Second loves stay with us. They are about who we become. And, of course, sometimes they still give us a charge.

A Word that Offends Me

October 19, 2011

I am not religious. This is unlikely to be news to anyone who reads this blog regularly. In general, I don’t have an issue with religious folks, I just disagree with them. There is one particular religious expression that really gets my goat, though. It is when someone refers to themselves as being “blessed.”

Though it might seem like it, I want to be clear that this isn’t really a religious issue for me. I’ve written before about how it ticks me off when people deny the existence of luck. You get this a lot in conservative circles. It comes with adjectives like “hardworking”.

“Blessed,” really, is the same thing. It says, “there is something special about me. God has chosen me. In choosing me, God is saying I am superior to others.” There are one million things wrong with that statement.

Let me use myself as an example. I did well in high school. Correspondingly, I got into a very good college where I continued to get mostly good grades while working all four years. Later, I worked full time while attending graduate school full time so I could become a teacher. Given all that, I don’t think most people would quibble with me saying that my modest success is the result of hard work. But let’s take another angle.

I was born a white, heterosexual male into a loving family in one of the wealthiest countries that has ever existed. My parents did well enough for themselves that I could attend a very expensive private college while only working part time to cover some basic expenses. Does “hardworking” still do it for you or do we need to insert luck into the equation? We’ll get to “blessed” in a minute.

It can get more extreme. I hate to pull out a cliché, but what about kids in Africa living in poverty that is all but unimaginable in the US? Are they unlikely to succeed because they are lazy or does luck play a role?

And now we get to “blessed”. What have the kids I just mentioned done to deserve their fate? When you use the word “blessed,” you are saying God has chosen you. Why you and not the impoverished kid who’s going to spend his whole life trying to figure out where his next meal is coming from? Sure, there’s that other cliché about how we can’t know God’s plan, but come on. Isn’t your sense of justice bothered by that? You are “blessed” but all these other people are suffering. If you deserve what you have, it follows, logically, that everyone else deserves what they have. Either that, or God doesn’t really care about those kids in Africa. You can’t have it both ways. Not if you’re using “blessed” to explain your success.

You can believe whatever you want about how the world works and we can respectfully disagree, but don’t go pretending luck isn’t a factor. Using words like “blessed” and denying the role of dumb luck in our lives is unfair because it trivializes the struggles of others. It gives us an excuse to not worry about them because they aren’t “hardworking” or “blessed” enough. Using words like this says nothing about us other than that our experiences and imaginations are fantastically narrow.

Fatherhood, Part 2

October 11, 2011

Yesterday, we found out that our next child will be a boy (James Atticus). Both Cate and I are totally happy with that and we would have been totally happy with a girl. Still, it is neat to have the complete set.

There hasn’t been time yet to hear all of the boy-versions of crazy that we got when we had Simone, but I’m sure that will come(along with corresponding blog posts). In any case, here are two things I won’t be worried about:

1. Wearing “girl” clothes. I have  volume of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s memoirs with a picture of him as a baby, in a dress. Remarkably, he does not seem to be scarred. We’re not going to put the new kid in dresses unless he wants to wear dresses, but he will wear the various “girl” onesies Simone had. I suppose it’s possible that I’m wrong about this (in the way it’s possible that the earth is actually flat), but I don’t think wearing a bit of pink (which used to be considered a boy color) will scar this child for life.

2. The toys he plays with. Just a big whatever on this. I’ve ranted about the ridiculous gendering of toys plenty. He’ll have access to all the stuff Simone has access to. That means “boy” toys and “girl” toys.

Something we are both really looking forward to is raising a feminist boy. I know from experience that it causes a different reaction in people when they hear me espousing feminist views than it does when Cate says exactly the same thing. People either take me more seriously or think I’m a nut, but in either case, it makes an impression that I am not lobbying for the retention of our society’s sexist/misogynist values. There’s an air of going against “my” interests that I think rings true in the way of rich people asking for higher taxes. The more feminists around, the better.

Anyway, semi-political ranting aside. I’m very excited. New babies are excellent. They smell good and they are warm and they fall asleep on you in a way that makes it impossible not to take naps with them. It’s good times. It’s also nice to get the chance to name a child after my dad (James) who is, frankly, the most impressive man I’ve had the good fortune to know. He has been given few advantages in his life. He was poor (and I mean POOR). His dyslexia wasn’t diagnosed until high school. He worked in a factory for thirty years, often seven days a week. That said, I never had the chance to miss him when I was a kid because he would come home from a twelve hour shift and play catch or chess or whatever with me. He’s also grown enormously. He thinks. He’s not afraid to change his views when he gets new information. He’s not afraid to admit when he’s wrong. Despite a myriad of learning  handicaps, he’s become an autodidact in certain fields (he is spending a second career as a naturalist for the forestry). All of this is the long way of saying, if my son grows up to be half the person my father is, I will be very, very happy.

Books I Love – Part Two

October 4, 2011

All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren – This and Winesburg are the two books from college that really stayed with me. I loved this book when I first read it, and I loved it even more when I re-read it not that long ago. Warren writes sentences that can draw a moment out for days. The writing in this book is so precise and so careful, but never, ever cold. Stretches of his prose might be the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read. There is an almost- love scene between Jack and Anne where he perfectly captures the languorous and agonizing passage of time that comes with such moments.

When I first read this book, I think I was a little too naive for it. I lionized the main character, Jack Burden, because I identified heavily with parts of him while conveniently ignoring the rest. I wanted heroes then, and took them where I could pretend to find them. The second time, I was more aware of Burden’s humanity and of the deep, deep flaws that make the story – and just the language – truly great.

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem – Better than anyone I’ve read, Lethem straddles the line between “literary” and “genre” fiction. He is totally unconstrained by the conventions of either format. Typically, this leads to wonderful stories that use whatever supernatural element is involved to enhance that story. None of his books do that better than this one. Here, two boys find a magical ring that gives them superpowers. Their reactions to this unexpected windfall tell us a great deal about them and the society/community in which they live.

But that’s not what’s best about this book. What’s best about it are the sordid, messy lives of the characters. Even superpowers don’t seem to put them on equal footing with the rest of the world and watching the emotionally  raw and often inept struggle  with very human problems while they have superpowers is what really makes this book. It’s not a light read, but it is extremely rewarding.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway – I don’t think it’s even been a year since I read this book for the first time, but whenever I think about it, my opinion of it grows. Heartbreaking is an overused word, but it suits this book perfectly. Watching someone struggle to get out of a war for reason that are nothing but understandable. Watching that same person fall in love and have to deal with the complications that adds to an already complex situation. And then there’s the war itself.

In many ways, this book is the antithesis of the hyper-macho Hemingway caricature. It reminds us that time often paints people into overly-narrow corners.

September Book Log

October 1, 2011

Good reading this month. I’m sorta kinda trying to get to 75 books for the year. I need to read 22 more books to get there. That’s going to be a stretch.

1. Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell (5/5) – I don’t know what I can say that I haven’t already said about his writing. I’ve worked my way through almost his entire catalog now, and I have loved every single book save one, which I still liked very much. In this book, he explores domestic strife and how a relationship can be severely damaged for no good reason. Though it is set a hundred years ago (and was written 50 years ago), it feels almost perfectly contemporary, which is quite an accomplishment. The best part is the prose the sentences are so beautiful. I was constantly stopping Cate so I could read her a passage. He has an incredible knack for defining whole segments of the population without being offensive in the least. I’ve said this before and I’ll keep saying it. If you haven’t read any Maxwell go read some now.

2. American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom (4/5) – A chronicle of yet another way in which America is fantastically screwed up. This is a fantastically comprehensive look at all the ways we (as individuals and a nation) waste food. It’s appalling. I challenge anyone to read this and not reassess how you approach food. A necessary, but still entertaining read.

3. Othello by William Shakespeare (4/5) – I’ll be teaching this for the first time this year, so I sat down and gave it a preemptive read. It’s good, but not my favorite. Maybe I’ve read too much Shakespeare at this point, but even though I’d somehow managed to escape all exposure to this play, I still knew exactly what was going to happen within a few pages. Still, Shakespeare is always nice. There’s a reason we still teach him and this play generally holds to the high standards.

4. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (4/5) – This book was very good. The plot was interesting and compelling. The story didn’t drag at all and I enjoyed it all the way through, but I did feel like something was missing when I finished. Mostly, I wanted more of the characters. Especially the protagonist. I would not have complained if this book had been 500 pages instead of 350. I think the extra space would have served it well.

5. The Art of War by Sun-Tzu (2/5) – Read this to prep for The Art of Fielding, which I am very excited for. This, however, was dull as unbuttered toast, though I certainly get why there is a segment of the teenage population that still gets excited about it. Mostly, I found it to be an uninspiring laundry list of obvious statements. It didn’t help that he frequently repeated himself half-a-dozen times or so. I guess he wanted to make sure we got it.

6. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro (4.5/5) – I don’t know why I hadn’t read Alice Munro yet, but I’m glad I finally did. These stories were excellent. As is often the case with books of stories, there were a couple that I didn’t absolutely love, but in general they were fantastic.

Fall/Winter Book Queue Update:

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  • Netherlands by Joseph O’Neill
  • Next by James Hynes
  • Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides