What I’ve Been Reading – November 2006

H2OThe Hunchback of Notre DameThe Blind Side

Books Acquired:
Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
Square Foot Gardening – Mel Bartholomew
Charming Billy – Alice McDermott
Last Orders – Graham Swift
Drowning Ruth – Christina Schwartz
Saturday – Ian McEwan
Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates – Tom Robbins
Maus I & II – Art Spiegelman
Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Notes from Underground – Fodor Dostoyevsky
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue #21 – McSweeney’s Press
White Teeth – Zadie Smith

Books Read:
H2O – Mark Swartz
The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo
The Blind Side – Michael Lewis
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue #21 – McSweeney’s Press
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’ve filled my life with books over the past three months, almost to the chagrin of my wife, friends, and pet. What started with the Third Annual South Dakota Festival of Books has morphed into a complete dedication to educating myself in literary history – a quest I’ve begun to call “The Essentials.” And this month, I began my trek. Though, I’ll admit, not before doodling around the rest of my bookshelf in the meantime.

I started off the month saying to myself, “no more books.” A few days later, Kerrie and I went to the First Lutheran Church Bazaar, leaving with a handful of books by authors I revered (Ian McEwan, Tom Robbins) and additions to The Essentials collection (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.) We also found some award winning books – the Booker Award winning Last Orders by Graham Swift, National Book Award winner Charming Billy by Alice McDermont, and Christina Schwartz’s Drowning Ruth, selected by Oprah for her book club (which, in and of itself, is kind of like a literature award).

In the midst of this “no more books, well, okay, just a few more” spree, I read Mark Swartz’s H2O, a book I had received from Soft Skull Press in my Soft Skull Party Pack. I expected some great things from it – Largehearted Boy had interviewed Swartz recently, and the most recent Believer featured a somewhat glowing review of the novel.

Unfortunately, there was a little bit of confusion. Literally. I was confused. Yes, it’s a good story. But the connections are weak and the book feels too unfinished to receive too much glowing praise.

H2O takes place in Chicago – years after the coasts have been flooded and a mass migration has forced everyone towards the middle of the country. Water has become the world’s most precious commodity, and one man – our protagonist – has created a filter that doesn’t just make water safe; it actually creates water. As in, matter from nothing. A direct break from modern physics.

The book outlines a struggle between our hero and his company. Should he sell out? Or should he cave to the fears of the people; fears that this new water substance hasn’t been tested enough, can’t be trusted, and will actually harm the public?

Throughout the book, a cast of women is introduced, each playing some small part in his life. And here the problems start. These women aren’t fleshed out. I didn’t care a lick for any of them. I barely saw any interpersonal threads, and when I did, it was too late and the characters had moved on, changed views, or disappeared completely. Given a few hundred more pages, everything could have been woven together into a perfect and frightening story. Instead, it was awkward, and it felt incomplete.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the story. And ultimately, above beautiful writing and staggering prose, I enjoy stories more than style. Which brings me to my second task of November – the first of The Essentials, and one of the longest books I’ve ever read: The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Victor Hugo can write – there’s no doubt in that. He can illuminate simple words and craft them into a complete world. He can create a scene so incredibly visual that it feels as if you’re there, standing in front of the characters and living their lives word for word, action for action.

The first 100 pages of Hunchback, while somewhat tedious at times, is a lesson in setting the scene. Unlike H2O, I knew the background and purpose of every character and location before the story even truly started. I understood the setting – the majestic Cathedral of Notre Dame – and I felt the emotions of the characters. I was there, standing with them, the entire time.

This continued on throughout the book, with pages flying by as if I wasn’t even reading them. Six hundred pages later, I was finished, and I couldn’t believe I had just plowed through a book of it’s magnitude in just a week and a half.

Hunchback ends rather tragically, which is good – I was afraid it would end romantically, with the dear Esmeralda and the horrific Quasimodo falling in love, looking past the ugliness and forming a bond that would essentially turn the 600-page tome into a over-detailed Aesop’s Fable. Instead, I was sad when it ended. It was touching, and I was sympathetic. And from that, I could tell it was a good book.

About mid-month, I received another package of The Essentials – one I had ordered from Amazon in October. Along with a Maus box set (a book I finally broke down and purchased because, as I’ve said before, I need to read it every few years) I received Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Before reading any of these, however, I dipped into the birthday bag and pulled out The Blind Side, Michael Lewis’ story of Michael Oher, a disadvantaged boy who possessed amazing talent and barely any social skills. In it, Lewis (who wrote one of my favorite sports books, Moneyball) describes the path one boy can take if given the right tools – in this case, a family that cares and an unparalleled strength. Oher wasn’t born to succeed, especially not while located in the poorest part of Memphis. But he did, thanks to the kindness of a foster family and a dedication to proving people wrong.

It’s an amazing story, and it’s a story filled with other examples of blind side mechanics. In football, the most important position might be the left tackle – the player that protects the quarterback’s blind side, leaving him open and without fear. He’s a protector. He’s necessary in order for the team to succeed. Oher’s foster family helped protect a young man’s blind side, just as that young man will do when he reaches the NFL in a few years. But most people don’t get that protection. Here’s an amazing statistic – around 80% of NFL-quality high-schoolers never even get a chance to show their stuff. And it’s all because of poverty, lack of exposure, and horrible grades.

While reading The Blind Side, I hard a hard time believing Oher was real. Then I found his college player page. He’s huge. And he’s real. If you read The Blind Side, take a look at this page. You’ll understand who this person is. It will give you a frame of reference.

In the meantime, I also received issue #21 of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, which I devoured. Of course I did – I love short stories, and I get a book full of wonderful short prose every three months. I can never wait around for these journals – I just have to read them. Now.

The design on #21 seemed simple, at least compared to the past issues I have received. But on the inside, the design became a little more original. Each story is preceded by a hand-drawn representation, in twelve squares, of the plot and its characters – all done by some of the best graphic artists in the business. And, at the end of each story there was a true-to-life letter to Ray Charles. Some of them are crazy. Some of them are kind of sweet. All of them are real.

An intro drawn by the best in graphic artistry. A great story. A letter to Ray Charles. That’s why I love getting McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern.

Okay. Finally, I bought one more book – another addition to The Essentials: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I had to – it’s our book club’s first reading selection.

Wait – a book club? Yes. A book club. Led by Kerrie and me. Me. Who hates book clubs.

Well, I’ve gotten over it, and I’m actually kind of excited (as long as some people show up for it, that is.) And I wanted to start White Teeth, but instead I grabbed another Essential – The Great Gatsby, the second greatest novel of the century, according to a bunch of other people who know a lot about novels.

Remember: I like stories. I appreciate characters and plot and locations more than I appreciate writing style and semantics. With that said, I really enjoyed The Great Gatsby. But the second greatest novel of the 20th century, behind only James Joyce’s Ulysses? What, were all of the voters incredibly rich and in need of companionship?

Gatsby is about a group of wealthy people and the twisted threads of love that complicate their lives. It’s well written, and quite possibly one of the best books I’ve read in the past year, but I see it as something simple – painfully simple, almost. We have luxurious descriptions of things I’ll never be able to afford and quaint little connections between people – remember, it’s not what you know, but who you know! – and a story that is at times tragic and exhausting. It all adds up to be a great short story, extended into novel form.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that The Great Gatsby is exactly that – a short story stretched, an idea that couldn’t be reigned in, and instead served as one of the crowning achievements of English literature. It’s no Steinbeck, or even Hugo, but it’s good all the same.

So I’m two books into my quest. The Essentials are falling before me much easier than I had expected. And I’ve found that there’s really no surprise as to why these books are called classics. The Great Gatsby is truly one of the best – though not really THE best – and Hunchback is a marvel in description and a textbook in setting the scene. At this rate, I’ll be quite learned in a few years, able to understand the fine differences between different styles of prose; to differentiate between post-modern and magical realism, and to understand the hidden themes and symbolism of Dostoyevsky’s work.

But until then, I’m content knowing that Fitzgerald writes about rich people, and Hugo writes really long books. That’s good enough for me.

McSweeney's #21The Great Gatsby

This was lovingly handwritten on November 30th, 2006