November Book Log

November 30, 2011

The reading year is winding down now. This month, I blew past my stated goal of reading 60 books this year. I’m going to try and finish seven in December so I can get to 75 because I like numbers that end in fives and zeroes. Overall, I was much happier with what I read this month than with what I read last month. On we go…

1.The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (5/5) – Eventually, I’ll work my way through Edith Wharton’s entire catalog. She hasn’t disappointed me yet. This is a very good meditation on the importance of wealth in general, but especially during the gilded age. The main character doesn’t have the fortune of her friends and so lives continually on the margins. Her only asset is, of course, her beauty, and she is constantly pressured to marry for money. The book is overwhelmingly conscious of the flaws of its characters and society and gives an interesting read on feminist and populous themes, both of which are just as relevant in our current society as they were when Wharton wrote the book 100 years ago.

2. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (4.5/5) – This was a book that had been sitting on my shelf unread for a while. I’m glad I finally picked it up. This uses and outsider’s perspective to speak about the consequences of 9/11. Further, O’Neill deftly  uses the relationship at the heart of the book as metaphor for the struggles the US went through after the immediate tragedy. In the end, he paints a fair and sensitive picture of a wounded nation while engaging us with the a story that fully explores the complexities of a nearly-failed marriage.

3. A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (4/5) – Ever year, Cate and I give each other reading lists. This was the second to last book I needed to read on her list. It is something of a miracle that, being a reasonably well read English major and English teacher, I managed to escape reading any O’Connor until now. I found the process enjoyable, but disturbing. There is no doubt that she told a story wonderfully. Her timing in these is just perfect and her characters are (mostly) sadly real. The only issue I’ll take with it is that, after 250 pages, the overwhelming grimness of her stories does wear thin. It would be nice if she could occasionally find something redeeming in her subjects.

4. Dancer by Colum McCann (5/5) – Christ, I love Colum McCann. I’ve read more than half of his catalog now (I’ll finish it next year, I’m sure), and he continues to blow me away. This is a fictional story about a a real person – ballet dance Rudolf Nureyev. And it is fictional, let’s be clear about that. The opening passage resonates like the title chapter from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and it gets better from there. He some how manages to convincingly write Soviet Siberia and 70s New York and plenty of places in between. Most remarkable, is the way he transforms his main character from a charming, dedicated child to an arrogant (though still dedicated) adult. It as enormous journey that reads seamlessly. Beautiful work.

5. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (5/5) – The holidays always bring out the childish aspects of me and I often find myself wanting to return to the books I loved when I was younger. Re-reading The Hobbit was a nod to that. Though I’d read it several times before , I couldn’t remember when I’d last picked it up and decided now was a good time. It is always nice when the books of our youths hold up, and this one does. Tolkien’s voice here is playful and conspiratory in just the right way to engage a child. I can’t wait to read this to Simone and James.

6. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (5/5) – At the last minute, I decided to teach Caesar instead of Othello. I like it better and it fits better with the persuasive themes I’m supposed to be teaching right now. I always enjoy it, but Act III is good enough to make anything a masterpiece. If you’ve never read it, at the very least go take a look at the speeches given by Brutus and, especially, Antony in Act III. It’s some of the best writing ever.

7. At Home by Bill Bryson (4/5) – A thoroughly amusing book and an interesting history of how private life changed radically during the nineteenth century. It’s awfully hard to not enjoy a book by Bryson, and this one was very enjoyable. If it had any faults it was in his occasional tendency to digress a little too much and briefly lose the plot. He always finds his way back, though, and it’s absolutely a worthwhile read just for the neat facts, though I will always be disturbed by the chapter on household pests.

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

On Being Proud of Failure

November 22, 2011

When last we left my writing efforts, I had finished my book – Lonely Human Atoms – and was prepared, in theory, to start shipping it out to publishers and agents. I did send it to one place, but that’s it. I’ve also got more than a few short stories sitting around that could stand to be sent to someone, but only a few of them have been. It feels ridiculous to explain why that is, but I will try.

With nearly all the fiction I write, there is a point at which I feel rather proud of what I’ve put together. This usually comes after I’ve polished it up nicely and feel like it’s “finished.” I submit it or don’t, but then it sits, and the more it sits the more doubt creeps in. Inevitably, I become unsatisfied because I feel like I could have dealt with the religious theme better or been more thorough in research or condensed that one section or whatever. Never mind that I went through all of that the first seven times I revised it before I got to that moment of feeling good about what I’d done. It never stops feeling like a failure, and why would I want to send my failure out to someone?

Enter Colum McCann. I finished his book Dancer the other day and found it wonderful, as I’ve found all of his novels so far (still a few left to read). I’ve reached the point with him that I do with certain authors whose writing consistently moves me. That is, I want to know what he has to say. Correspondingly, I spent the last couple of days reading a bunch of interviews with him. In a great many, he talks about failure. Let me just excerpt one bit from him:

I’m still learning. I hope always to learn and someday write something, well, new. It goes back to the notion that you always fail. If you don’t fail in some way, then you’re in difficulty: the difficulty of sameness. I want to tack that Beckett quote up on every wall I work in front of: No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

It is difficult to explain how much better reading things like this has made me feel. This quote, in particular hits home on a number of levels. For one, most everything I’ve written is different, at least for me. So at least I’m doing something right. I wrote an early novel about a jazz musician. That book is almost certainly never going to see the light of the day, though I may totally rewrite it at some point. Then I wrote Lonely Human Atoms, which is very odd in its quiet way. Now I’m writing these interlocking short stories that, I have only recently realized, are all about me figuring out how I feel about where I come from and how to talk and write about it. All of these projects are failures because they have to be. I’m not going to get it perfect, but imperfection doesn’t make it garbage. Imperfection doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to get it out there into the world.

So that’s the goal now. I have two goals, actually, that I’m going to start on next month. One is, I want to aim for 20 polished pages of writing a month. That probably won’t happen because, well, that’s a lot, but I want something to aim for. The other is six submissions a month. I’m very bad at trying to sell myself and if I don’t give it a seemingly random number, I’m just going to get bogged down contemplating my failures and we see where that’s gotten me. the idea is send the novel to three people and send out three short stories (I certainly have plenty of those on my hard drive). All of this is a way of saying I’m going to try and take some pride in my less embarrassing failures from here on out.

Living in a Plutocracy

November 16, 2011

As is probably obvious to people who know me and regular readers, I have been thinking a lot about the OWS movement, where it comes from, and what it says about America. I haven’t said anything because I didn’t feel like I had a lot to add. Then Zuccotti Park was cleared out, and I feel like I have to comment, even if I have nothing new to say.

I could go with lots of charts. I like charts, but I’m not going to do that. If you want charts, go here. They will tell you plenty.

Instead, I’m going to go for context in words. Let’s see how it works.

Right now, the distribution of wealth in America is more skewed than it was during the Gilded Age or the Great Depression. Think about that because those are not shining chapters in America’s history. I recently read The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. It’s set in the Gilded Age, and has an interesting perspective. The characters in it, generally speaking, take their wealth so for granted that it’s almost impossible for the reader not to be offended. It’s a society that concerns itself almost entirely with wealth.

It feels a lot like right now.

Right now. 1% of Americans control 35% of the country’s wealth. 10% control 72% of the wealth. These are the people who control virtually everything in America. They are captains of industry. They are elected officials.

Tell me again about how the tax system is unfair.

I am a teacher. A teacher. Cate does not have a paying job. Yet, somehow, our household income places us in the 56th percentile in America right now. We are something approximating upper-middle-class. I always thought that if I eventually made it to upper middle class I’d be able to buy a book or go out to eat without worrying about how much those things cost. Of course, in those fanciful musings, health insurance didn’t take up 20% of my take-home pay while still leaving my family with significant medical bills.

Tell me again how socialized medicine is a bad thing.

Plutocracy is rule by a wealthy class. The goal of the wealthy class is to maintain their power.

Even adjusting for inflation, the cost of attending college has gone up 300% in the last 30 years. College is supposed to be the great equalizer. Everyone my age was indoctrinated to believe that if you Worked Hard and Went to College. You would Be Successful and Wealthy.

Of course everyone can’t be wealthy. And now, everyone can’t go to college. This is where all the complaints about student loan debt come from. College has become so expensive that a great many people can’t do it. Of course, they’ve all been told that college is the only way.

America is supposed to try to at least approximate equality of opportunity. Rich kids are already going to have a lot of breaks. Their parents have connections and can open doors for them, after all. But we have also become a nation that saddles its bright, but disadvantaged youth with tens of thousands of dollars of debt that wealthy youth do not have to face simply to keep up. It’s a sad thing. If we really cared about equality of opportunity, it would be hard, but not this hard.

I know what I have written here is fractured. I know it doesn’t describe all the problems with money in this country right now, but I hope it makes clear that there are problems. I know a lot of people are upset by the OWS movement, but its purpose is a good one. These people are trying to create a more equal country. One where who parents are doesn’t play as much of a role in your success as your talents and your willingness to work. There have been times when America got close to these ideals. Sadly, we are not living in one of those times.

The Best Part

November 9, 2011

Dinner with my parents at our favorite Indian restaurant. She naps in the car on the way over and, in her drowsed state, clings to me so hard it takes fifteen minutes to get her into a seat. All through dinner, she clings to my arm. I am released for only a few minutes when I hand her my wallet. She pulls out my driver’s license and stares at the picture of me. Lately, I am favored above all others – human or animal. I know this will change, but for now it is as endearing as it is overwhelming.

We order her a mango lassi, she disdains the portion we poor into her spill-proof child’s cup, but grips the base of the goblet with vengeance and – thrilled by an open glass with a straw and her favorite drink – sucks most of the rest down in a few minutes that seem like one long draught.

Soon, she feels the ticklings of an unseasonably warm November breeze. Her mother takes her outside and, for a few quiet minutes, I finish my meal. Temporarily second place to good weather.

The check is paid (my parents are celebrating the sale of their house and our meal is free tonight) and we saunter outside, but saunter isn’t really in her vocabulary. She dashes down the steps delighting in the city night. We haven’t been out with her in the city at night in months. The last time, she was in a stroller – a passive observer – but the stroller is no longer tolerated and she has never had agency quite like this.

She hugs her grandparents, kisses them, and dashes off down the sidewalk. It’s all I can do to keep up with her and keep her from veering toward the busy street. She is normally timid about noise, but tonight, she delights in the evening hum of the traffic and the patter of passing pedestrians. Everything is new. The darkness, the noise, the jeweled lights, the soft evening breeze. At each shop she stops. An antique store is all alight. She roars with laughter at the lamps and furniture and knickknacks. She points and looks at us to make sure we are looking to. No one, I can see her think, should miss this. A book store’s door sits open – it might not be this warm again until spring – and she stands before it. She wants to rush in – I can see it – grab things off the shelves, toss them in the air, laugh.

I shuffle her past and around the corner. She spots the moon, nearly full with a halo reflecting off the clouds, and laughs again. Again she points – Mom, dad, do you see it? Do you see it? Look how neat. Look how beautiful.

She charges again down the sidewalk – we’re on a quieter street now and I’m less afraid of traffic. There is a slope where the sidewalk has been repaired. She runs down, turns around, and does it again, laughing the whole time.

Around the last corner, she spots a big, fluffy dog and bolts (an awful lot of bolting tonight) toward it. I go to hold her back, but she seems satisfied with having had a closer look and stops before I can really do much of anything.

As we cross the street to the car, she holds my hand because that is what big girls do, and then runs back and forth – back and forth  – on the sidewalk near the car. She knows it’s time to go. Time to climb in the car and head home to bed – she’s already up past her bedtime. But she wants to hold on for a minute. Eventually, she climbs up into her seat and we play a brief game. I tap on the rear window from the outside, she taps from the inside.

Finally, she is strapped in and guzzling mango lassi from her spill-proof cup (better than no lassi at all, I guess). On the drive home she points at the moon. When we pull into the driveway and I lift her from the car, she points at a star then spots the moon again. We stare at it for a moment, then she waves goodbye as we head in.

Soon, she is asleep and I hope her dreams are joyous.

Books I Love – Part Three

November 7, 2011

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – It’s difficult to know where to start with Atwood. Frankly, I could probably put half a dozen of her books here. I’ve come to think of her as the writer of our times. She’s prolific, has her finger on contemporary issues, and is unbelievably brilliant. Whenever people start agitating for a Phillip Roth Nobel Prize, I tend to think they’re forgetting a much more talented writer from the nation to our north. I can’t say why I chose this book instead of, say, The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake except that this book haunts me in a way the others don’t.

It’s worth mentioning that I hated this book – hated it – through the first 150 pages. I found the character awful and grating. But Atwood kept weaving the different stories and I found that I cared a great deal for the character by the end. I was indignant when other characters didn’t believe her. That’s quite a trick. Taking someone from utter loathing to complete sympathy is not an easy thing to do. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. The appeal this book holds for me is more diaphanous than any other book I’m likely to write about in this series.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – Whereas it’s hard for me to pin down my love for The Blind Assassin, I know exactly what it is about Bel Canto that makes me love it. Patchett takes one of the most hackneyed plots imaginable – rich people being held hostage in a banana republic – and turns it into a subtle, gorgeous exploration of how people relate both with and without language. When I was reading this, I was constantly remarking to Cate about how I couldn’t understand how someone could take something that sounds like a bad James Bond novel and turn out something this wonderful.

The Folded Leaf and All the Days and Nights by William Maxwell – I tried hard to decide which William Maxwell book to choose for this series, and I can’t. I love each of these books too much. Maxwell, I have noted more than once, is a forgotten voice in American literature. I discovered him only by rummaging through a box of handouts from a college writing teacher. His prose is perfect. That, I realize, is a strong word to use, but I can’t think of a better one. There is not one bit of flash or fat to his writing. It is balanced exactly as all writing should be balanced.

As for the two books, The Folded Leaf is a novel about deep, nearly romantic, love between two boys and the romantic love with girls that comes between them. It is the quietest, most graceful coming-of-age story I have read. It is set many, many years ago, but as with most of Maxwell’s work feels dated only in the barest details. Showing, I think, that though he is forgotten now, Maxwell may resurface later by virtue of his timelessness. All the Days and Nights is my favorite collection of short stories and winds wonderfully through Maxwell’s career. The improvisations at the end are the absolute highlight as a group of contemporary faerie tales that make the best use of magic. I cherish every word of Maxwell’s I have the good fortune to read.