What I’ve Been Reading — April 2006

This is the official One Year Anniversary of the “What I’ve Been Reading” (formerly known as “My Very Own Polysyllabic Spree”.) Just so you know. You can check out the April 2005 one here.

What I’ve Been Reading, April 2006

Books bought/borrowed:

Love in the Time of Cholera
– Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific – Paul Theroux
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
Of Human Bondage – W. Somerset Maugham
Towards the End of the Morning – Michael Frayn
All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
Autobiography of Mark Twain – Mark Twain
Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood
House of Sand and Fog – Andre Dubus III
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh – Michael Chabon
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer
Small Island – Andrea Levy
The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien

Books read:

The Accidental – Ali Smith
Lives of a Cell – Lewis Thomas (not finished)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

Okay, I read three books. But I bought, borrowed, or nearly stole (as I don’t count the book fair as buying books; they were only 50 cents a piece) sixteen. Not bad, eh? The list of books I bought is obscene. That’s why I put it there, obviously – I’m a show off. (That’s sarcasm, by the way.)

Believe it or not, there are reasons for nearly everything. First of all, our friend Jaci told us we couldn’t leave her house without borrowing Love in the Time of Cholera (which doubles as a great High Fidelity reference) and Lolita. Reading Lolita some day – in all of its graphic sexual glory – could possibly lead to me finally reading Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.

And the Augustana Book Sale – fifty cents a book? I bought anything I even remotely might want to read, or even stuff I recognized or had heard of before.

One Hundred Years of Solitude? Supposedly it’s better than Love in the Time of Cholera (oh, and it won the Nobel Prize). I Capture the Castle? A recommendation from Kerrie, thanks to NPR, I believe. The Things They Carried was also an NPR recommendation, but that wasn’t purchased at the book sale. I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Happy Isles of Oceania and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh were purchased for name value – I love both Theroux and Chabon. Three books were purchased for their “recognize-ability” as well – House of Sand and Fog (by Andre Dumus III, who’s interview I read in Terry Gross’ All I Did Was Ask), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and All the Pretty Horses. Who cares if they’re good? Remember: fifty cents.

Of Human Bondage sounded familiar, so it went in my shopping box. Margaret Atwood was an author Kerrie liked, so in it went as well. Towards the End of the Morning looked very British – good enough for me. Even the Autobiography of Mark Twain, a guaranteed “not going to read” book was worth buying for its shelf appeal.

Finally, when my grandmother was in town, I felt it was celebration enough to buy books – so Small Island (reviewed on some book blog, caught by my eye), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (J.S. Foer, duh) and The Things They Carried entered our collection.

So now I’m on hiatus.

So before I blaze into the copy I wrote for Prime, I have one more addition. I did make an effort to read Lives of a Cell – the widely known collection of biology essays by Lewis Thomas. But I couldn’t get through it very well. It was surprising, actually, because usually essay collections are easy – a short story collection, except shorter. I did love the idea of our cells as individual organisms, making us more of a population than a single being. And I enjoyed the thought process that led from that to the image of a human population as a single organism. It was really interesting. But I couldn’t do it.

I think what did it was Thomas’ obsession with termites. It’s unhealthy.

Onto the article.

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Sometimes we all need to settle on contemporary works of art, regardless of how much we like the classics. Of course, it tends to be an easier pill to swallow when one of those books turns out more pure skill and emotion than any book I’ve read in the past year. And it helps if that author is a personal favorite.

In my months of writing this column for Prime, I’ve only written about what I’ve read. Hence the title of the column. So it’s a little weird that this month two of 2005s most acclaimed novels landed at the top of the pile.

And yet, it’s understandable. Ali Smith’s The Accidental won the 2006 Tournament of Books and Jonathan Safran Foer has been my Author of the Year. They’ve been in the book news, and in my personal thoughts, and for that reason they were both read during the same month. It wasn’t planned – I swear!

The Accidental was surprising in its concept. In it, Smith spills out the innermost feelings of a vacationing family through the voices of the four members. A wife (author) and her second husband (professor), along with two children (one brilliant, one sulky and moody), make up the family. That is, until a fifth member shows up – a stranger with a mistaken identity. Is it another one of the husband’s underage flings? Is it another one of the wife’s tortured interviews?

She’s neither. But she serves to both pull the family apart and throw them into turmoil, so for this reason she’s more important to their well-being than anyone else. And she brings everyone closer to who they really are by pushing buttons and causing divisions. In other words, she either makes life hell or makes life livable. It depends on who you are.

It’s really a remarkable book. But it’s not a classic. It’s a brilliant idea, but it feels more like a very intelligent paperback thriller – something that you could read on the beach, but nothing you’d choose for a book club. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it and all, but I didn’t stop and think and ponder over minute details.

No. I waited until later in the month for that.

I’ll admit, with a new job and a new schedule and the onset of warm weather, my reading habits were horrible. It took me three to read The Accidental in its entirety. I tried other books; my attempts to read Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell ultimately failed, and I didn’t feel like grabbing anything off of the “it’s about time to read these books” pile. So I picked up J.S. Foer for the third time in five months.

And boy, am I glad I did.

Some call Foer pretentious. Others call him too wordy, or too lofty. He always seems to bite off more than he can chew; to take on a theme or concept that’s just too much to handle. But that is part of his brilliance – he’s able to work something out of that bite. He pares it down to bite-size parts and tells the story from three different perspectives, giving just enough clout to craft together an amazing story without rambling for hours.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a rarity – a book that engulfs every spare moment you’ve got, forcing everything else that isn’t necessary to the side. A book that, after reading just the first few chapters, you know is going to be one of the best you’ve ever read.

The narrator is nine-year-old Oskar Schell. And his grandmother. And his grandfather. In true Foer style, there are three separate voices embarking on three separate missions – Oskar is looking for a lock. The lock needs to match the key he found on top of his father’s dresser, who died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001. Meanwhile, his estranged grandmother and grandfather are writing letters that will never be read by anyone.

First of all, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is not a novel about September 11, 2001. It is, however, a book that feeds off of the misery and fears of that day. Because really, everything that happens has a shadow of the 11th looming above it, a constant reminder of the fact that someone so kind, so unassuming has died. You can see it in the people Oskar meets – the sorrow and the sudden protective nature in their actions. No one wants to talk about it, yet here, in the middle of New York City, you’ve got a boy that’s trying to solve a riddle that is directly tied to that fateful day.

It’s Foer’s ability to twist relationships – the stranded relationship of Oskar’s grandparents, the strained relationship between Oskar and his mother, the lost relationship of Oskar and his father, the one man that he truly respected and looked up to – that makes the book work. The themes pull on you enough that you’re not doing yourself any justice by ignoring them and moving along. All three narratives chronicle disappointment. Sadness. The threat of never being able to say goodbye.

Above all, you find the dead hope of an unanswered question, the “what ifs” that torture the characters as they try to go on with their lives. Oskar tries so desperately to be strong in the face of every unanswered question, but he keeps remembering back to that day, to the things he missed and the things he didn’t. What if his father would have lived? To Oskar’s grandmother, it’s a “what if” about her husband, a man who has been gone for years. To Oskar’s grandfather, it’s a series of questions from the 1940s that have never been touched.

The events shock you: September 11; the bomb at Hiroshima; the napalm storm of Dresden. But more than that, the themes evoke your feelings of humanity: a lack of communication; the lost years of childhood; the connections between father and son. It brings all of your emotions to your throat. It’s that powerful.

What if a book was so intense, so full of questions, so full of the exhilaration that comes from discovering a character’s secret that you couldn’t put it down, and when you finished, all you could do is close the book, stare at the ceiling and think?

What if?

This was lovingly handwritten on May 2nd, 2006