What I’ve Been Reading — March 2006

Well, as I said before, it’s been busy. So I’m finally posting this — a full week after my intended post date. My Prime column was cut in half for this article, so you’re seeing an exclusive and full column here at BMOWP. All four finished books are touched upon, though it still centers on the two best.

So, with that…

– – – – –

Other ElectricitiesThe White Indian BoyEverything is IlluminatedHard Laughter

Books bought/checked out:
Other Electricities – Ander Monson (checked out)
Lives of a Cell – Lewis Thomas (checked out)
The Accidental – Ali Smith (checked out)
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

Books Read:
Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
The White Indian Boy – “Uncle Nick” Elijah Wilson
Hard Laughter – Anne Lamott
Martin Luther: A Life – James Nestingen (unfinished)
Other Electricities – Ander Monson

Sometimes choosing a book can be very difficult.

Often in my personal experience I’ve given myself great strain by trying to decide the next book to read. Usually it’s not as easy as just grabbing the next book on my pile – I need some sort of natural progression from book to book.

This month was different. For once I had an easy time with my weird “stream of consciousness” way of selecting my reading. I wandered all over my bookshelves, reading books that seem to have been picked by random. Two of them, however, really stood out – the first book I read, Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, and the last book I read, Ander Monson’s Other Electricities

The path between the Everything is Illuminated and Other Electricities varied wildly. I began the month with Foer because I felt I’d better read it before I get a long awaited paperback copy of his most recent book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It was, however, much harder than that – I had a whole slew of books to go through, and I really didn’t know where to start; do I finally get around to reading some Lewis Thomas? Should I attempt Edward Rutherfurd’s London? Would I have a theme on my hands if I read Mark Kurlansky’s Salt and Cod, followed by Robert Sullivan’s Rats, and Roy Moxham’s Tea?

Of course, once I started Everything is Illuminated I didn’t have to worry about what I’d read next. I was in the “now,” as those crazy kids say these days, and I was going to enjoy this book. I knew I liked Foer: I’ve already talked about his The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning, a Pocket Penguin selection from the U.K. Illuminated followed the same vein of quirky, yet beautiful prose. I loved the premise of it: a young man in search of the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during World War II corresponds with a translator he met during the search. The protagonist, similarly named J. S. Foer, writes and sends a seemingly fictional and semi-philosophical history of his grandfather’s family tree to Alexander, the translator. Alexander then critiques the history and sends back his own work: an account of Foer’s search.

The interplay between Alexander and Foer makes the book work. Alexander has a wonderful vocabulary – a broken English that employs the overuse of a thesaurus – and his narrative brings as many laughs from the hyperbole that his words create (nobody works, they all toil; eating is known as masticating.)

There is a feeling when one reads Foer that every single word is heavily symbolic, to a point where there becomes a hidden story even when there shouldn’t be one. Foer seems to question art, writing, religion, the concept of time, family, and community. He crafts wild and seemingly simple stories that end up as parables or moralistic pictures. The relationship between Alex and Jonathan grows by leaps each letter, and you can see Alex’s grammar and thoughts become more and more clear as he learns about himself.

There’s a point about halfway through the book in which everything clicks – where you start to understand the nature of the stories, the relationship between Alex and Foer’s correspondence, and the overall object of the book. And yet, it’s nearly indescribable. So go read it – you won’t be disappointed.

I wasn’t. In fact, that one book led me on a winding path through my library. From Everything is Illuminated’s inexhaustible supply of great-grandfather stories, I went to the story of my great-great-great grandfather – “Uncle Nick” Elijah Wilson – and his book The White Indian Boy. Connecting my family with my late grandfather’s cancer took me to Anne Lamott’s Hard Laughter (which included mention of Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell). I went to the library to pick up Lives of a Cell and noticed I had two books on hold: Ali Smith’s The Accidental (for next month) and Ander Monson’s Other Electricities. See? Natural progression.

I would be remiss to not mention Hard Laughter, quickly, because it was good. It was the third best book I read this month, if you want to play around with rankings, but it’s a book that could have been a favorite during a slower month.

While Illuminated and Electricities were narratives, for the most part, Hard Laughter was driven by conversation – playful banter that seemed unbelievable until the characters were filled out. It was filled with emotion, as well, with the story of a brilliant writer and caring father ending up with a small brain tumor. Even as a reader, I held my breath every time a diagnosis was made and every time a symptom showed up. Hard Laughter also proved to me that the family that drinks together, loves together.

Or something like that.

And as long as I’m talking about the other books, I enjoyed The White Indian Boy. Mainly because it instilled a sense of pride in my family and filled me with the feelings I have whenever I’m in Jackson, Wyoming: my family settled this, and the tourists should get the hell out.

The White Indian Boy was written by a man that was barely educated. Wilson was a man that ran away with the Shoshone tribe at a young age, learned more about himself and “real” life than he would have in any school, and went on to ride the Pony Express, forge the trail known now as the Teton Pass, and settle a town that was named after him – Wilson, Wyoming, a “suburb” of Jackson.

The White Indian Boy came packaged with The Return of the White Indian, a sequel written by Wilson’s son Charles. The first chapter is about polygamy, as Elijah was an original Mormon, and the rest seemed a little sensational as I skimmed it. My grandfather told me that the sequel was utter crap, and I respect his opinion enough to not bother with reading it.

I first heard of Ander Monson through the LitBlog Co-Op’s “Read These Books or Die” Winter 2005/6 campaign and was extremely interested in its use of indexes. I was intrigued enough to request it from our local library, and to my surprise they purchased a copy and put my name at the top of the list.

Mr. Monson, you can send me a thank you anytime.

Really, Other Electricities is like no other book I’ve ever read. It’s not quite a novel, but it’s also not quite a short story collection. It’s somewhere in between – a group of essays and short stories that all interplay with each other; all create another piece of a grand novel. It’s a series that is bound by one theme – the lives of a small town shortly before and shortly after the death of a girl. Her accident – she and her prom date were drown in a frozen lake after they attempted to drive on – binds every character together to the point where each story, regardless of the protagonist, is ultimately connected.

The resemblances to the movie Fargo and the television series Twin Peaks are evident. And while Other Electricities may not have been inspired by Laura Palmer or Marge Gunderson, there are a lot of similarities in their worlds. In fact, the episodic nature of Monson’s overall story cries out for the comparisons. Much like Twin Peaks was a collection of odd characters whose lives intertwined; each of these stories overlaps and peeks into the life of this town in the years leading up to and following the death. The setting is Coen Brothers, but the town could have been created by David Lynch.

Don’t think that this is a simple knock-off, though. Monson creates a complex town that’s filled with failed dreams and eccentric people – the group of bored and rutted kids that nearly always drinks too much, gets themselves stuck in the middle of a frozen lake, and commits murder. It’s cold, and the town has adapted to it. There’s mystery in the air, not to mention a vast array of disappointment.

The variety in the style and length of each story in Other Electricities helps create a mosaic of voices and lifestyles; each character brings a new revelation about their small town, about death, and about growing up as a teenager in the middle of domestic tundra. Everyone gets their say.

The layout of the book is wonderful. Monson charts out every character and connects each in a web, then gives an explanation of the themes and characters – both artistically and satirically. An index not only helps reference common ideas but also gives a little insight into the relationship between Liz, the drowned girl, and her prom date – a relationship that isn’t mentioned directly. You can cross reference to your heart’s content.

It’s amazing to think of these stories on their own – they’re all very good, but as a whole there are ideas and themes that aren’t even mentioned; are simply implied by the connections between stories. I’ve never felt so cold, and I’ve never desired to go wandering through a small town, around a lake, and into the city center during a vicious snowstorm as much as I did after reading Other Electricities.

Other Electricities, combined with the dual narrative and multiple storylines of Everything is Illuminated, brought a feeling of astonishing productivity this month in my reading. I feel as if I read 10 books instead of five.

Now, if only I could be that productive in other parts of my life.

This was lovingly handwritten on April 8th, 2006