My Very Own Polysyllabic Spree: April 2005

I guess this would be considered the beginning of my grand experiment. Last month, fueled by reading sections of Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, I challenged myself to start reading again. This, in turn, spurred my new routine of returning from work, grabbing a beer (just one, thank you) and lounging in our upstairs dormer until 2:30 am. Then I’d go to bed.

Wow. I amazed myself by reading six books this month, one of which was very long. And while six may not seem like a lot, I’d like to tell you that I haven’t read six entire books in the past six months. I thought I didn’t have time to read anymore but, by cutting out useless activities like gluing myself to a Playstation 2 controller and watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force, I found myself with plenty of time. It’s not about too little time; it’s about poor planning.

My monthly “column” is directly aped from Nick Hornby’s format, I think. I haven’t actually read the book in its entirety yet because I want to still feel a little creativity in the idea. Still, his concept was to first outline the books he bought/borrowed, and then talk about the books he actually read. I’m going to follow that. Thank you, Mr. Hornby. I hope this admittance helps stave away any copyright fees.

Now, enough with the introduction – on to the books.

April 2005

Books bought/borrowed:
Elements of Style: William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White
Little Children: Tom Perrotta
A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations: Clive Ponting
The Best American Essays 1991: Joyce Carol Oates (editor), Robert Atwan (senior editor)
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim: David Sedaris (borrowed)

Books read:
Feet on the Street: Roy Blount Jr.
The Final Solution: Michael Chabon
Eats, Shoots and Leaves: Lynne Truss
The Name of the Rose: Umberto Eco
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim: David Sedaris
Time’s Magpie: Myla Goldberg

Short books ruled my mind this month, with four of the six being under 200 pages. The same percentage was non-fiction, though not the same four books. Technically, also, I had read most of Feet on the Street in March, but since I finished it in April, I’m counting it. I was afraid that I wouldn’t have had much to write about if I didn’t include it, but as you can see, my reading output was more than expected.

Both Roy Blount Jr. and Myla Goldberg are featured in the Crown Journeys series of travel literature. The series overall is a collection of short “walks” through a specific area – the locations range from Rome to Yellowstone National Park – and reflect the voices of literary figures that are not usually associated with travel novellas.

I’ll admit, the travel novel is a secret love of mine. I’ve always said that one of my hobbies is traveling, but since I can’t afford to travel distantly, except for once every two years, this leaves nothing of my hobby but reading travel books. I routinely live vicariously through Bill Bryson (the author that got the “travel literature” ball rolling for me) and Paul Theroux (the author that I read when I want to feel smart.) I feel that travel literature can be further divided down into small sub-sub categories, depending on how each author approaches his or her work: humor, historical, sociological. Good writers mix all three of them.

Blount, who is more renowned for his short stints on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me (the NPR News quiz,) presents the story of New Orleans through his own history. While living in the Crescent City off and on for most of his life, Blount has mixed together various experiences and people in an attempt to understand the culture of the city itself. Each chapter, while dealing with a different subject, tries to find the exact feeling that embodies all of New Orleans. Wetness, oysters, desire, food; each individual section uses a classic New Orleans symbol to describe a particular part of the city’s life.

While written from a humorous point of view, it seems as if Blount spent a good majority of his time feeling uncomfortable with the city, as if he was afraid to really let us know what happened in his life. It’s a rambling narrative, moving from one place to another with little to no connection between any previous chapters. Much like New Orleans itself, it offers unpredictability and lagniappe, a Louisianan word for “a little extra.” Each chapter ends with details on various point of interest within, a little extra bit before you pass the subject by and continue on.

When comparing the two Crown Journeys books, I found that Feet on the Street has more in common with Time’s Magpie than just being part of the same series. Both books are written with complete truthfulness, unafraid of showing the warts of each city. Blount made sure that the debauchery of New Orleans seeped through the pages of his book, just as Goldberg makes no pains in hiding the past destruction, poverty, and corruption of Prague. In fact, Goldberg narrates almost exclusively on the negative points of Prague’s history as if trying to show how a city so great could be built on a history of depression.

Prague is a city that has been through its share of bad times and bad leadership, creating a mix of styles and histories that clash together like stripes and plaid. Much of the government is new, and its social system is still fresh in many minds: it’s been only 15 years or so since they’ve bucked communism. Floods have ravaged parts of the city, other parts have been run down by poverty, and their police system seems to be more of a boys club than a viable civic service.

Still, Goldberg writes in a way that brings beauty to an ancient troubled town. Comments on how she was fined by crooked cops for accidentally walking into a “no pedestrian” zone are book ended by descriptions of Prague’s National Library, with it’s monstrous card catalog (an antiquity in today’s computer age,) and the city’s iconic Charles Bridge. Goldberg relates readers with the suffering of a city under communism by taking them, fittingly enough, to the city’s Museum of Communism. The picture she paints of Prague – a beautiful city with a dark bordered history – makes the use of my Prague travel guide unnecessary. I’d really like to visit now, regardless of how rundown some parts of Prague may be.

It wasn’t all travel books this month, though. I ventured into the realm of “good grammar” with Lynn Truss’ Eats Shoots and Leaves, the “Runaway #1 British Bestseller.” How a book on punctuation makes the bestseller list at all I’ll never know, but it was a little less surprising when I cracked it open and began reading. The book is named after a silly pun, which goes:

In a bar, a panda eats a sandwich, fires a gun in the air and walks towards the door. When the waiter asks in confusion what he thinks he’s doing, the panda throws him a badly punctuated book on wildlife: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves”.

Truss compares good and bad punctuation with a dry wit, making her point while at the same time creating an atmosphere of fun. A common theme is how computers and laziness are slowly killing punctuation, leaving us with the type of paragraphs we usually see on internet message boards; devoid of sentence structure and punctuation, many of these messages read like telegrams – PLEASE SEND HELP STOP IM DROWNING AND I NEED A LIFEJACKET STOP.

Some critics, I’ve found, are a little harsh on the book, but I think it’s very clever, and if anything, Truss may have hit a nerve with some critics – those who don’t want to admit that grammar and language is a living, breathing entity. There may be some mistakes in the book. There are with any book that gets published. But this book is written as a call to arms for those who are tired of the simple mistakes, such as the incorrect possessive apostrophes and unnecessary commas that throw themselves into business signs and movie titles. This is not a book to learn punctuation by, but it is a book to enjoy and relate to. Truss just needs to rant, and this is her vehicle. It’s exactly what you want a book to be: entertaining.

Trying to veer away from the technical books, I checked out the newest David Sedaris book and took a stab at Michael Chabon’s newest mystery story. With Sedaris and Chabon I always get a feeling of reading “the next big thing.” Both authors are always incredibly trendy and consistently at the tops of every critic’s list. Chabon’s The Final Solution, a fiction story based in England around World War I, brings to mind Sherlock Holmes, while Dress Your Family in Courderoy and Denim is a collection of essays about Sedaris’ struggling dysfunctional family; the one he has forged his name upon in the past five years.

Chabon has a great gift in creating characters. His The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, a novel about a pair of kids who start a successful comic book line, quickly became one of my favorite books. I see many similarities between the character of Joe Kavalier, illustrator and cousin of Sam Clay in The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, and Linus Steinman, the boy with a mysterious parrot in The Final Solution – both are haunting, young, Jewish and mysterious, and both are holding secrets that could be dangerous…if they were ever revealed. The difference is that where Kavalier is bold and brash, Steadman is the exact opposite: a mute with deep piercing eyes that broods over everything but his parrot.

The Final Solution reads like a tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle. An 88-year-old former detective plays the part of Holmes, bringing himself out of retirement in an effort to solve the mystery of Steadman and his parrot. The parrot spews out a series of random numbers, always in German, and this serves as a focal point for a heinous crime. Everyone wants to know what these numbers are; is it a social security number, bank account, or telephone number?

Sedaris, on the other hand, doesn’t need to create characters. He’s been growing up with them for his entire life. His parents and siblings take up most of the space in this book with hilarious and embarrassing essays on each member’s problems. Amazingly, though, Sedaris takes his family’s shortcomings and uses them to reflect on his own insecurities and problems. A story about how his sister is too messy turns into an inward looking script on letting things go, while an essay about a beach house winds up discussing dashed dreams and disappointment.

Because of this, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim seems the most real to me of all Sedaris’ books. Each essay takes on a little bit of his own life, from childhood to adult, and tackles his personal problems, like dealing with homophobia and dysfunctional living, with a refreshing humorous approach. It’s almost as if I was reading pure humor and suddenly he sprung his morals in my face right at the end.

Finally, this month I am most proud of reading (and finishing) Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which is, without sounding too alliterative, his murder mystery with medieval monks. This may have been the most difficult book I’ve ever read, and though I’d like to avoid sounding like a complete slacker, I found myself skimming many parts of the book. I don’t mean skipping parts, but skimming – reading every word, but not comprehending what each was saying.

Part of the difficulty was how Eco writes. His books are originally written in Italian, and an English translation fails to match up with the original, forcing the translator to leave a fair number of Italian and, in this book, Latin words and phrases in the text. Since Eco writes as if each sentence is being meticulously sculpted, rather than written, and also since I know neither Italian nor Latin, I would end up searching for meaning in the context, never really being sure I was catching the whole thing.

Still, it was an excellent story: Two monks travel to a distant abbey in Italy for a political meeting with the Pope’s representatives to discuss the validity of poverty vs. charity. On arriving, though, the monks find that a series of murders is just beginning – each murder being linked to the abbey’s library. The library, which is in fact a labyrinth, contains the largest collection of medieval literature in the world and is a beacon to all who seek knowledge at the time, bringing to mind the secret Vatican library that was described in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.

Aside from the long rambling discussions on poverty vs. charity and faith vs. logic, the main theme seems to lead to the thirst of knowledge and those who try to keep it hidden. It would be impossible to summarize the book – there is just too much going on – but Eco himself mentions that “the first 100 pages are difficult” (duh) and that it is “a mystery where very little is discovered and the detective is defeated.” While this is not all true, it is still a good way of looking at a book that is as complex and educated as The Name of the Rose.

So, with one month behind me, I conclude the Spree… for this month at least.

This was lovingly handwritten on May 1st, 2005