My Very Own Polysyllabic Spree: May 2005

May 2005

Books bought/borrowed:
You Shall Know Our Velocity!: David Eggers
The Book of the Film of the Story of My Life: William Brandt
The Polysyllabic Spree: Nick Hornby
Reading Lolita in Tehran: Azar Nafisi
Rats: Robert Sullivan
Deliver Me from Nowhere: Tennessee Jones
The Adventure of English – The Biography of a Language: Melvyn Bragg (borrowed)

Books read:
Little Children: Tom Perrotta
You Shall Know Our Velocity!: David Eggers
The Polysyllabic Spree: Nick Hornby (not finished)
The Adventure of English – The Biography of a Language: Melvyn Bragg (not finished)

How did I do it last month? Six books?

Book consumption went down considerably this month, with only two full books and two partial books read, though I like to think that the two partial books could be added together to make an entire book, bringing my total to three. Conversely, I purchased more books in a month than I have in any month in the past, though that number is rather deceiving – I don’t want it to look like some sort of show-off.

The Eggers, Brandt, and Hornby books were all ordered off of in April, but didn’t actually arrive until May. I probably could have counted them last month, truthfully. In addition, Lolita and Rats (which is a great addition to our other one-word named histories like Salt and Tea) were both off the cuff purchases by my wife Kerrie and are included here because they seem very interesting to me and are books I may have purchased myself. Finally, The Adventure of English was checked out from the library. We have two more books waiting there for us, so I’ll have two more to throw on for next month. If only my reading of books was as voracious as my acquiring of them.

Really, the only book I purchased this month myself was Tennessee Jones’ Deliver Me from Nowhere, which is supposed to be the literary companion to Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska. How could I pass that up?

I started the month off with what I thought would be an easy read, Perrotta’s Little Children. Perrotta also wrote Election, which I thought was a great movie, and so my interest was piqued when I saw this newer novel in a copy of Time magazine.

It is what it is, I guess, and if that seems wishy washy and non-descript than you’re correct. Perrotta does a great job getting a handful of characters together to hash out some forbidden adultery, but doesn’t do much more than that. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but I was expecting something a little more clever from Perrotta.

I should probably clarify the book itself. The characters all revolve around one common theme: pre-preschool age children. You’ve got one married couple (a stay at home dad struggling with the bar exam and his wife who makes WWII documentaries,) another married couple (a former empowered college female who, in a time of weakness, fell in love and had a child with a panty-smelling weirdo,) and the convicted sex-offender (of small children) who lives a block away. Unfortunately, that’s where the “children” portion of the novel ends – it’s really nothing more than a vehicle for the characters to meet. Two of them fall in love and have an affair, and that’s your story.

Unfortunately, everyone in the book seems to be unaffected by everything that happens throughout the story, so it was difficult for me to get that involved at all either. The book itself comes equipped with “book club” questions, in case any one thought this to be one of the great works of modern fiction, and even the questions are light and unthinking.

Wow, I’m being harsh. It wasn’t bad. It was “okay.”

With Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree I finally gathered enough confidence to read the book I’ve been aping (maybe that’s a new name for this column: “Aping Hornby”) and I delved into it expecting to finish all of its pages by the end of the night. However I found myself doing two things:

1. I realized that I was being a little too formal before in my writing. I was making this a book report instead of “I liked this book and you should too.” I’ve since changed that, further stealing any thread of originality that Hornby possessed in putting his monthly column out.

2. I came to the conclusion that I shouldn’t blast my way through the book. It’s just too good, and without a subscription to The Believer (the monthly literary magazine to which he sends his “Books I’ve Read” column) I’ll quickly run out of entries and will have to actually purchase the aforementioned subscription. This is very expensive. Because of this it’s become a toilet hugger, stationed right next to The Handy History Answer Book.

Hornby is great. I’ll say that right now; he’s the type of writer I want to be. He’s funny, he’s clever, and he’s well worded and incredibly good with the relationships between people and their media. He’s a “reader,” meaning he reads books for the pure enjoyment of it, and he’s not afraid to write about it. Even more impressive is that he’s not afraid to say that he’s failed at reading something. When I started this column last month, I had set out to read and complete every book I started and bought. That’s not the point. The point is to read what you like, and if I start something that’s complete crap, there’s no reason I should finish it.

The Polysyllabic Spree (which is a play on words: he imagines his bosses at The Believer to be a sort of cultish group with white robes who promote positive thinking at all times, much like the band The Polyphonic Spree) is about reading – both the books he’s bought and the books he’s had on file for years. The format, as mentioned before, is very similar to what I do, except with more Briticisms and clever wordplay. It’s a random look into the literary life of one of Britain’s more popular authors. I’d suggest it to anyone who enjoys reading simply for the joy of finding new things to read. I’ve spent 80% of my time reading the book and the other 20% either writing down books to check out or searching the internet so I can put them on my Powell’s wish list (to the right, friends — always open.) In fact, one of the books I’ve got on hold at the library is Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, suggested to me by my good friend Nick Hornby.

While we’re talking about English authors, I thought I’d go a little out of sequence and mention the book I’m currently reading – The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg. This is what I like to call a “book of exceedingly interesting history and research of which I will never finish,” primarily because I know, deep in my heart, that I will never finish it.

It’s not like I won’t try. I’ve struggled through books on English history over and over again. I love the subject, but for some reason I lose interest in it by the time I’m roughly 150 pages into it. Therefore, if the book is on the history of Sir Thomas a’ Becket and it’s only 134 pages long, send it my way. If it’s a 500 page summary on World War II occupied Paris, then it’s not summarized enough.

Bragg writes the story of the English language as if English itself was the hero – a set of words that has been nearly vanquished numerous times before and has now become the grand leader of the world’s tongues. It’s exceedingly interesting, full of history and research, and you know what kind of book that becomes. In all seriousness, though, it’s an great narrative of English’s beginnings and branches.

More than anything, though, this book has led me to more books and media. Mention of Beowulf (the first known English language epic poem) has driven me to order Seamus Heaney’s translation (finally). Talk of the Norman Conquest and the subjugation of the English language by the French speaking Normans reminded me of a book on English myths called In Search of England (Michael Wood) and the myth of the Norman Yoke; the idea that the Saxons lived under illegal Norman rule from 1066 until the mid 1600’s instead of the common perception that the two groups merged and became “England.” The subject of the 100 most used words coincided with my finding of, a flash program on the frequency of every known word.

Corey is number 73754 out of 86800, in case you are curious.

You Shall Know Our Velocity! was the most anticipated book this month, though I found it took a lot longer than expected. It’s Dave Eggers, a newer writer that has taken the literary world, and the hearts of book-wormish indie women, by storm. His first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was his memoir about raising his younger brother in the years after losing both of their parents. Velocity, however, is fiction, practically a travel novel, a coming of age story to rival The Catcher in the Rye.

Eggers has held my respect since A Heartbreaking Work came out, a book so real and so different – Eggers is one of the few authors of whom I can actually decipher a specific “style” from at this point in my life – that I couldn’t wait to grab another book. I finally ordered this through Powell’s and waited for its arrival. I then impatiently finished Little Children (maybe that’s why I thought it was simply “okay”) and began reading.

It’s very good, and throughout the book I imagined myself in the steps of the two main characters, Hand and Will, two characters who were on a mission to give $32,000 to random people throughout their week long trip to, well, wherever they went. They were using the money to cope – to deal with the death of their close friend Jack – and they were having the times of their lives while doing it.

They go to Senegal. They go to Estonia. They go to Morocco. I know it’s not real, but I’m still insanely jealous of their travels. They give money to random people. They tape money to the side of a cow. They fly to Africa simply because it was too windy in Greenland.

There are parts in this book that are simply stunning, parts that become stuck in my mind and will sit there forever, to be sure. For example, as Will begins on a stream of consciousness thought through his head, he comments on picking weeds:

When she left me to myself in the pakasandra I would sit on the mat she would give me – an old car floormat – and I would see the pakasandra and see the weeds among them and I would drift. My hands would reach for the neck of a weed and I would pull, slowly, feeling the base, taking the soil with it, the gentlest of pulls, causing the faint snipping sound of the roots breaking; then it would come completely, I would fall back the smallest amount, the weed would bring soil with it and shower the pakasandra with black as I shook clean its roots. Then I’d toss it into the pile and move to the next weed. Some required two hands. Sometimes I could do two at once. I was being paid by the hour and wanted to be in the pakasandra indefinitely. I was more thorough than I needed to be. By the end I was spending five minutes hunting for weeds remaining. I parted the pakasandra leaves to see of there were weeds beginning underneath. The dirt was so black and most. She watered it often. And all the while I was caressing every wall of my head. I was wandering around my head, teary with joy, wistful even, loving the surfaces, the many rooms, the old rooms, and empty rooms.

Just yesterday, as I was also picking weeds, this paragraph came to me. It’s a perfect description of the quiet calm that comes from yard work, from gardening, from anything, really. He’s really good enough of a writer that, if he cut out the long rambles, he would win the Pulitzer every year.

Then, just like that, Eggers throws a wrench in the book.

I appreciate Eggers’ style, that’s true. And while his writing can be rambling and repetitive, I still enjoy it – I can imagine his short stories to be wonderful. But he has a habit of doing things that ruin the continuity of the story. Since I read the paperback version of Velocity, I came across an example of this.

The original hardcover version of the book was straight forward – the story began and ended and nothing was thought of the characters aside from what was told to us. In the paperback version, the one I have that says “This paperback edition includes significant changes and additions,” Eggers has inserted a fifty-page commentary by Hand himself.

This is maddening because:

1. This occurs in the middle of the book, a few pages after what could be considered the peak of the story.

2. It ruins the rest of the book. Damn it, Eggers. You certainly know how to both write a great book and and at the same time piss me off.

Obviously this is a work of fiction. But what the Hand character does is come into the middle of the book (in the guise of writing an addition to the novel, which has already been published) and tells us, the readers, a separate story that contradicts the events that happened.

Jesus. You’ve got to be kidding.

I finished the book without incident – I tried to forget that one of the main characters had just told me that this book of fiction, written fictitiously by the other main character, was not really what had fictitiously happened – and I made it through all right. Buy this book. Read it. Enjoy it. But whatever you do, skip the Hand part until after you have read the entire thing. You’ll know where it starts… just skip to the end of that chapter.

It will save you from being maddened.

This was lovingly handwritten on May 31st, 2005