What I’ve Been Reading — May 2006

Comma SenseAtonementIt's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want To Be

Books borrowed/bought:
Comma Sense – Richard Lederer and John Shore
It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be – Paul Arden

Books Read:
Atonement – Ian McEwan
Comma Sense – Richard Lederer and John Shore
It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be – Paul Arden
Who Do You Love – Jean Thompson

From Augustana College Book Sale finds to recommendations by famous National Public Radio contributors, the books I buy and subsequently read tend to be all over the radar. Some of the authors are well known. Others are barely recognizable. But I never seem to find a real stinker of a book. Some are disappointing, yes. But never bad. Maybe I’m just really lucky, or I’m smart enough to take suggestions from those who already like the same books I do. Or maybe I’m like a literary garbage disposal, grabbing everything I read and devouring it with the same gusto I would a handful of vegetable scraps.

Regardless, I like to read. And when going through the stacks that now slowly creep towards the ceiling, I found two that dealt with life, choices and consequences. The fact that one was written by a well-known literary hero, Ian McEwan, was great. The fact that the other was written by an unknown, yet critically wonderful author – Jean Thompson – was better.

Believe it or not, I’d never read Ian McEwan before this month – a surprise, since he’s become one of the literary world’s darlings over the past few years – so I didn’t know what to expect. What I was faced with pleased me enough: a well worded, brilliantly researched account of high-class English life in the 1930s, followed by a gruesome account of retreat during World War II.

Atonement is set out as a narrative: Briony, a ten-year-old girl who is committed to a life of writing, her sister Cecilia, and the son of their family’s hired help, Robbie, prepare for company. Over one day, Cecilia and Robbie rekindle a flame while Briony, without knowing, extinguishes it – possibly forever. From this day, we jump ahead to World War II and the British retreat from Dunkirk. Then, it’s a jump forward to 1999 – nearly 70 years after the first fateful day.

McEwan’s novel isn’t just a “symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness,” as the back cover so brightly puts it. It’s a book that accurately recreates the mind of a child – Briony, in this case – and puts weight behind her thoughts and actions. The ideals of children are real, and Atonement illustrates this notion by showing us the consequences of an immature jealousy and unfounded protection. Through this, lives are forever changed because of Briony’s unwavering account of a violent crime – the rape of her cousin by a stranger.

It’s wonderfully constructed, and McEwan writes at a level that’s detailed, yet not too much so. Some of the narratives seem superfluous, but upon finishing Atonement I realized how important each account was. Four different voices populate its pages, and each helps give a full panoramic picture of the story as it unfolds. The clever way it’s spelled out is central to the book, and it forced me to look at each character differently as the same scene was described again and again.

Atonement shows how deeply an overactive imagination can quickly wreak havoc on those who are closest – how a misinterpreted event can lead to one person being thrown to the wolves, while another laments over a lost love. Themes run rampant throughout the book – too many to count, and much too much to write about in one column (if I could even pick them all out) – but even those who enjoy a good story, regardless of underlying themes and vague references, will enjoy McEwan’s novel.

Okay – a quick aside: while it was enthralling and well written, Atonement wore me out – I needed a break after reading its gory, detailed war scenes. So I quickly broke up the month by breezing through a couple of industry-related books – Comma Sense, by Richard Lederer and John Shore, and It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be by Paul Arden.

Comma Sense served as my annual “betterment in all things punctuation” book; last year, I read Lynn Truss’ bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves. And while Truss may have hit the bestsellers list with a shock, she didn’t do much in the way of teaching punctuation. Her book, instead, was a rant on the declining state of punctuation in the modern world – a call to arms for fellow grammarians to join together and fight the over abbreviated and under punctuated world of instant messaging systems and greengrocers’ signs. It was funny, but I didn’t learn anything aside from the term “Oxford Comma” (the comma following “and” in a list of items).

Comma Sense, however, teaches punctuation – and teaches it well enough that I’m tempted to order my own copy to keep at my desk and refer to from time to time. It’s not as funny, or biting, as Eats, Shoots and Leaves – in fact, it’s rather corny and filled with outdated pop culture references – but it does a great job of dumbing down the laws of punctuation to a level that anyone can understand.

Where Lederer and Shore helped me learn one sense of copywriting – proofing and grammar – It’s Not How Good You Are, one of the classics in what I call “employment self-help” books, helped me grasp the concept of being creative in a world full of copycats.

Arden takes a step back, though, and instead of telling an aspiring world what to do in the world of advertising, he tells us what to do to keep positive, driven, and fresh – regardless of your career path. His book has been acclaimed by hundreds of other fields, not just the ad world, but marketing, banking, teaching – everything. In his book, Arden sums a career’s worth of creative work into one small package, using his own personal approaches and history to provide the reader with a concise guidebook to staying relevant. It’s Not How Good You Are helped me gain confidence. It helped me realize I couldn’t be perfect all the time, and that I’ve got a long way to go in picking up a field I’ve just recently tripped into.

But enough about that self-help crap. I read real literature this month, and I can’t waste space by making your life better. Back to the real stuff.

I finished the month off by delving into yet another collection of short stories, though this time it was recommended to me by David Sedaris, noted humorist and NPR contributor. Well, that’s a stretch – it was recommended to all of us who attended his reading this past April. It’s his custom to “pimp” the books of fellow authors – writers who deserve more praise than they get.

Jean Thompson fits into this category. Those who hear her name, aside from uber-booksnobs and her immediate family, probably draw a blank. I know I did, and I’d read a story of hers before. She’s a relative unknown, especially compared to Sedaris or McEwan and their ilk – the critically acclaimed monsters of respectable literature. But she’s a hidden treasure. And she’s a great writer of short slice-of-life fiction that oozes with real experiences – the mundane becomes interesting; the boring becomes exciting and suspenseful.

Who Do You Love takes a hard look at the ordinary – admittedly, a trait I’ve always loved in an author. Where McEwan delved into the complicated lives of formerly privileged children, Thompson does the opposite, staring down the oppressive restraints of the ordinary, of the lives that have been shaped by poor choices, poverty, and boredom. No one gets a fully positive disposition.

Much like the stories of Tennessee Jones paint a picture of dirty, uncouth teenagers struggling to live through poverty in the Midwest, Thompson creates characters that have no luck with love, life, or the pursuit of anything close to happiness. However unlike Jones, Who Do You Love doesn’t take the despondent and drag them through the dirt. No, these are people who are living simply average lives – like many of us do, with our own disappointments and our own hopes. There’s humor in even the saddest situations, and there’s a streak of despair in the most positive ones.

The common theme is love, but it’s not an easy love – there’s no mention of school age crushes or forty-year marriages. It’s the love of a lonely mother after her daughter has moved away. It’s the love of a man struggling to let go of his first house. It’s the love that a divorced police officer struggles to find, or an overdressed woman tries to get rid of.

As a writer, Thompson is a gem – a woman who can conjure up the feelings needed to make any short story lifelike. In each story, she’s able to create tension, to recreate the notion that every person in this world, whether close friend or complete stranger, has a connection through a common situation. I found myself transfixed with every new story. It’s as if Thompson went out and found people with unbelievable stories and then wrote them in their own voices.

So whether I was reading award-wining prose or under-the-radar short stories, I found myself entering into a handful of interesting lives fraught with choice and consequences. And even if I only experienced those lives for a few moments, I feel as if I’m better off for being a part of them all. A lot can be said about learning life lessons through a series of fictional creations.

Thankfully, there are writers out there that can teach us what those lessons are.

This was lovingly handwritten on June 1st, 2006