What I’ve Been Reading – March 2007
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 22 – McSweeney’s Press
Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day – Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz
Olivia – Ian Falconer
Harold and the Purple Crayon – Crockett Johnson
A Treasury of Curious George – H.A. and Margret Ray
Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak
The Eleventh Hour – Graeme Base
The Road – Cormac McCarthy (checked out)
Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans – McSweeney’s Press (checked out)
Rabbit Angstrom, a Tetrology – John Updike (checked out)
House of Sand and Fog – Andre Dubus III
The Sleeping Father – Matthew Sharpe
The Richest Man in Town – V.J. Smith
Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans – McSweeney’s Press
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
So there’s a danger in assuming National Book Club books are something special – that the people that choose them are looking for the best of the best. And there’s a danger in banking on the artistic quality of these books – thinking that each of them is Pulitzer quality literature.
Sure. Oprah has picked some great books for her book club. I’m never going to disparage the choice of East of Eden, or Night, or Paradise. It’s just that there’s a certain pedantic feeling of disappointment, like the classic you’ve loved your whole life – or the hidden gem that you let you friends know about but never announce to the world – has become cheapened – sold for the highest dollar.
That being said, I’ve always assumed that these books had at least some literary merit. And, for the most part, they do. But when compared to the classics, some just don’t cut it.
Case in point: for our book club, we read House of Sand and Fog – an Oprah choice. I read this because I had to. And what do I think about it?
Ho hum. Whatever.
I loved the individual voices, but I’m a sucker for that stuff. Overall, I guess there was supposed to be a feeling of pity for both main characters – a woman who loses her house wrongly and the man who buys it (legally through auction) and doesn’t want to sell it.
Sure, the woman who loses her house is in a bad situation. It was her father’s house, and she doesn’t want to admit to her family that she lost it. Also, her husband has left her. And, the reason she lost her house was because of a mess up with the county government. But she had been receiving eviction notices for months. Months! And she kept ignoring them. And then some cops barge in and push her out.
Of course, she falls in love with one of the cops. But I hated her. The entire time I kept thinking, “Why didn’t you open those eviction notices? You get no pity from me!”
Then, there’s the man – a Persian dignitary forced to leave his country for fear of death. He buys the house (rightfully) through an auction and fixes it up to sell. He’s looking for a new life. He’s kind of a jerk sometimes, but this is his dream. I feel sorry for him. But I couldn’t care about him because I kept being distracted by the ridiculous actions of the woman and her cop-friend.
It was fine. A little too ho-hum for me.
So then I dove into another endorsed book – The Sleeping Father (a Soft Skull freebie and The Today Show book club pick). I felt I had to read this too. After all, Soft Skull recently sent me another freebie from Matthew Sharpe, so I figured I’d better get the first one read. Maybe I’d like it. If I did, I had an opportunity to interview the guy. So what else could I do?
Here, we have a divorced father that collapses and falls into a coma. His children take care of him after stealing him from the hospital. His ex-wife lives in California, and his doctor has all sorts of loneliness issues, and lots of weird things happen that would never happen in real life.
Okay, okay – suspension of belief. I know, I know. But I can’t get into characters if I can’t imagine them being real. The kids act unlike any children I’ve ever seen. They’re too random, too weird. They’re written to be as unusual as possible, but they don’t act like kids – they act like characters devised to further the plot along. They don’t seem genuine. They’re like actors who never really got their parts down correctly.
And the weird interplay between doctor and ex-wife, and the split second decisions that lead to some people getting sexual favors and other people naming trees, blah – it was entertaining, I guess, but I don’t know how it ever succeeded in being selected for a nationally televised book club.
I was drowning. I needed to buy books that I could feel good about. So, around this time, Kerrie and I found ourselves buying a crap load of children’s books. We also headed to the library and grabbed a few more books – ones that we could actually read and enjoy. This lead to a wild, attention deficit cycle of book switching, something I attribute to my previous altruistically-driven, nationally-endorsed snooze fest. I stopped feeling a charitable need to read nationally chosen books.
So I started Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying because I felt I needed some substance after a few weeks of drivel. And I liked it, but I put it down after getting the short-loan library books. I switched over to the McSweeney’s collection, which I recommend to anyone who loves online humor.
That sounds weird, but it’s true. There’s a certain brand of humor that is best experienced online – sarcastic, short, to the point and easily linkable. This is the snarky Pitchfork-driven style of writing that has made the McSweeney’s site so fun. And this book collects the best of it – the lists, the imagined monologues, all of it. It took me no time to read, so it’s worth checking out.
I touched back on Faulkner, but then had to speed through V.J. Smith’s The Richest Man in Town. We had recently seen Smith talk, and the book sat waiting to be read, signed, and passed on to the next willing relative.
The book chronicles one man’s discovery of the greatest Wal-Mart cashier ever. It’s touching and cute and heart warming and all of that. It’s a feel good story that, if published by a larger company, would have a good shot of becoming one of Oprah’s book club selections. Lots of people like it. And I can’t say anything bad about it – after all…the guy was so nice and he taught a lot of people what real wealth was – happiness, friends. Caring about people and having people care about you.
Smith himself is a dominating talker – but a word to the wise: if you hear him talk, there’s no need to read the book. His “Richest Man in Town” presentation is really just a Cliff’s Notes version of the book.
So then I finally snuck back to Faulkner. Another book to knock off the Essentials list, after all.
I liked it. I really did. And not just because I’m supposed to. Faulkner’s a hell of a writer – well, I don’t need to tell any of you that, do I? I loved the premise – a family watches its mother die and then delivers it through hardships to her final resting place. It’s filled with hidden themes.
Of course, I couldn’t pick them all up on my own, so I cheated. I do this. I run to the Internet after reading a book to discover the subtle ideas I missed the first time around. It’s cheating, I know. Really, I do. I’ve been accused of it already after searching for White Teeth’s themes before one of our book club meetings.
I don’t have any problem with that, though. I know there are hundreds of books I’d love to read, so I often read in quantity, not quality. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the book. I don’t think anyone aside from a scholar can pick up all the themes the first time around, and without having someone to discuss the book with, I feel drawn to see what I missed. So there. I’m going to say I’m doing all right.
Oh, yeah. I also read The Road.
No. I’m serious. The Road is amazing. It’s sparse, and it’s terribly disgusting and touching at the same time. It’s a father and son story that tugs at all the clichéd heartstrings without turning into a sappy, gooey mess. In fact, quite the contrary – The Road outlines the apocalyptic world that would await us after a full-out, nuclear war. And it made me think of everything we take for granted. Go ahead. Think about it.
Think about brushing your teeth. About drinking a Coke. Shaving. Wearing clean socks. Living in the same place every day, sleeping in the same bed. Sleeping in a bed at all.
About hearing birds. About seeing the green buds of the forthcoming spring, the dying leaves of the passing autumn.
Think about having friends. Think about remembering the face of those you love. Think about knowing where they are. About where you’re going.
And think about your dreams. Because in The Road, there aren’t any. There’s no time for dreaming – no time for considering what lies ahead, what the people you used to know could be doing or where they ended up. Instead, all you see ahead is dark. The only faces you remember are blurred. The only tie to your former life is a child that was born after the destruction, after the killing, after the world slowly spun away, leaving nothing but a charred remain, a zone of impossibility.
Who needs to wait for death when Hell has already made itself known?
I can barely talk about it. The Road is beautiful. It’s haunting. It’s brilliant. It’s the best book I’ve read in five years.
And it’s recently been picked to be the Oprah Book Club selection for the month.
See? Now THAT’S the kind of book she should be picking.