What I’ve Been Reading – December 2006

White TeethThe Life and Times of the Thunderbolt KidMy Antonia

Books Acquired/Checked Out:
My Ántonia – Willa Cather
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir – Bill Bryson
The Writer’s Block – Jason Rekulak
Oblivion – David Foster Wallace
Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
Oh, Play that Thing – Roddy Doyle

Books Read:
White Teeth – Zadie Smith
My Ántonia – Willa Cather
Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir – Bill Bryson

I really tried to be good this month. I read books I had on hand. I checked books out from the library. I didn’t buy a single book. Not one! I was being a good kid – after all, why buy books when Santa would surely bring me some in my stocking, right?

With this in mind, I sought out a month of consumer-free reading. I had purchased more books than was really necessary over the past three months and knew that in order to keep my relationships healthy and my bookshelf free of clutter, I needed to cast away the demons and refuse the purchase of any new book until the New Year began.

It should have been easy. All the books I read were out of pure necessity. My Ántonia is South Dakota’s choice for The Big Read 2007, and since I’ve began helping out with that project I figured I’d better read it for myself. White Teeth is the first ever Vilhauer-led book club selection, and with the first meeting in early January that made yet another required read. Finally, Bill Bryson’s memoir showed up at the library, conveniently attached to a 14-day loan period. It had to be read. And it had to be read now.

With those three books taking up my entire month, what time did I have to buy books?

Ha! You overestimate my ability to shun demons! Of course I was going to buy books! I mean, just one book came during the holidays (The Writer’s Block, a quick reference prompt book for those days I fail to conjure up any original ideas). But a gift card did. So with that gift card, I had no choice but to cave.

I ended purchasing a trio of cheapcheapcheap books off of the Barnes and Noble discount rack. Two of them – David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion and Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude – belonged on my list of The Essentials, so my hand was forced, if you think about it.

The third book was not needed, but sorely desired. I loved Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, so it only made sense to buy the sequel, Oh, Play that Thing. I mean, this is about Henry’s escape from Ireland to the mob centered Chicago scene. From frying pan to fire, really. If it’s as good as A Star Called Henry, then it was well worth the five bucks I plunked down.

One thing I’m glad I didn’t plunk any money down on was Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Not that it wasn’t a good book. Because it was. I mean, it was good in the way that any fluffy memoir is good. But I think calling this a memoir is a little sketchy, especially considering what most memoirs of literary figures usually possess. This was more of a fun romp through childhood – a welcome distraction, but certainly no A Walk in the Woods.

There are no stories of Bryson finding his muse. There are no moments of crazy desperation, of living life wildly trying to make a living. There is no mention of becoming a writer, really, and little consideration as to why Bryson ever ended up the way he is. Really, there’s no need – Bryson has been writing about his life all along, through his travel memoirs. Every age, from his first visit to Europe to his trip around England (where he got his first job for the Times and met his wife) to everything since, has been spelled out already. The only thing left, really, was his childhood.

Since Bryson grew up in the 50s and experienced the simpler, more vibrant years of America’s boom, this memoir is naturally filled with a Christmas Story-like charm. It’s all about the over-exaggerations of a grade school boy and the basic pleasures that come therein. Sure, sometimes the talk gets serious – hydrogen bomb scares and Communist hunting ran rampant, after all – but it’s primarily a time capsule documenting a love for small-town America. It’s a tribute to a time that many – including Bryson – long to have back.

This theme of looking back ran straight through the entire month, actually, albeit usually with stronger motivation: relearning life in a new place and looking to the homeland for answers. I opened and closed the month with two books of contrasting imagery – two books that had common themes of immigration but presented them in differing ways: White Teeth and My Ántonia.

White Teeth follows a narrative through two generations of London outcasts – a pair of immigrants, their friends (one of which is also an immigrant) and their children. From World War II to the present day, two sets of parents watch their two sets of children grow and interact through a city that doesn’t really care much for them. Every character has a sort of pained disdain for every other character, which leads to a wonderfully rich web of alliances and experiences. It’s written with such snark – full of potent turns of phrase that leave the reader almost jealous. I was really jealous. I mean, I wish I could write this way. I’d be a lot more popular.

And here’s the crazy thing: this was Zadie Smith’s first novel. Surprisingly, she doesn’t just write a funny, sarcastic story with loads of great characters either. She also touches upon the bonds of parenthood and searches for meaning within the failed expectations of a child led astray. Oh, and she manages to grasp the bonds that tie us to our religion and sort them out, all the time illustrating how complicated religion can be, even among people of the same beliefs. Smith tames religion by showing us the difference between intent and action, leaving us to ask – which is more important? The intent to do good? Or the actual doing of good, even if on accident? And which, ultimately, will win out?

My Ántonia, meanwhile, takes a simpler approach, painting a beautiful picture of prairie life through the relationship between a young white boy and an immigrant girl, Jim and Ántonia. Even this relationship is simple. It’s almost precious, filled with sibling rivalry and genuine caring. But these two characters are merely pawns driving the real inner workings of the novel: the hard life of homesteading.

Throughout the book, Cather manages to put words to the simple and majestic trials that once encompassed all moments of the homesteading life. My Ántonia is just as much about the land and the process as it is about Ántonia herself. It illuminates the contrast between those who were born to work the Nebraska land and those who had recently discovered it after searching for a new life in America.

The two books are as different as can be. But they both tie together in a strange way; through two completely different aspects of living post-immigration. In My Ántonia, it runs parallel to the American Dream; immigrant families did what they could to become part of the land – to blend in and create their own little piece of United States culture. It is written in a time of discovery – of peace and beauty.

White Teeth looks at immigration from a more resistive stance, one that is tense, sarcastic and angry. These people moved from high status to low, from small-town India and Jamaica to London, where they are easily lost and often mocked. Instead of helping to create the land they are moving to, they are expected to fit into the land, slowly fading into the background until they have become a forgotten relic of some ancient culture. Until they are more British, really, and less whatever they used to be. Instead of blending, they are becoming.

All three books, if we can include Bryson’s memoir, constantly look to the past for answers. It’s only natural. We all dream of the past – of what we once had and the simplicities of living – but we can never really recover it. Our rose-colored past fogs out anything negative or unseemly. We forget most of the pain and tedium, and we build legend around seemingly inconsequential things. The past we look back to isn’t really the past – just a nostalgic haze of memories quilted together to form a blanket of remembrance.

We can’t go back. Ever. And knowing that, it’s only natural that we long for it.

This was lovingly handwritten on January 1st, 2007