What I’ve Been Reading – May 2007

Travels with CharleyLicks of Love - The Little Prince

Books Acquired:
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #23 – McSweeney’s Press
Hangman’s Root – Susan Wittig Albert
Firmin – Sam Savage
Vanishing Acts – Jodi Picoult
Green Eggs and Ham – Dr. Seuss
The Little Engine that Could – Wally Piper
Wiggle – Doreen Cronin and Scott Menchin

Books Read:
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #22 – McSweeney’s Press
From the Notebook
The State of Constraint
Travels with Charley – John Steinbeck
The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #23 – McSweeney’s Press (nearly finished)
“Rabbit Remembered” from Licks of Love – John Updike (nearly finished)

The time crunch threw me for a loop this month. I left two books nearly finished before this post went to press, unable to complete them for lack of quality reading time. Where did my time go? What will happen when I have a child?

Well, the two questions go hand in hand. I lost time because we’ve been so busy getting ready for child-to-be. We’ve been preparing for day care. We’ve been moving things around the house. Even when Kerrie left for a week, I found my reading levels diminishing rapidly as I finished projects I wouldn’t have time for once Baby Vilhauer popped into the world.

(Meanwhile, Kerrie read four books on her vacation, a feat I’m immensely jealous of. She finished three of the abovementioned Books Acquired, all of which were purchased for her enjoyment on the poolside verandas of sunny Florida. Thankfully, two of them looked pretty darned good – Sam Savage’s Firmin was a Lit Blog Co-op pick and Jody Picoult, Kerrie says, is a fantastic author. Wittig was an admitted beach read – the one listed was purchased, while an older one was read.

She also picked up three more children’s books for our children to stare at blankly for the next three years as he/she decides whether or not to learn how to read. We’re already expecting too much.)

And when the baby comes? My reading will be even more trashed. Completely gone. Sure, I’ve heard that you can still read when you have a newborn baby – after all, if people can watch movies or television, why can’t reading be accomplished? – but I just don’t think the chance will present itself very often. I think you’ll see the hit first hand as the list of “Books Read” dwindles smaller and smaller, until all I’m posting about is a small pile of old New Yorker columns and an assorted short story or two.

Short stories, really, are going to be my savior. So much so that I’ve placed them on moratorium over the last two months leading up to the Impending Birth. They’ll be perfect for the 15 minutes of reading I anticipate snatching each night. But before the moratorium began, I needed to catch up on the back issues of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern that had piled up.

Well, piled up isn’t really the right word. After all, I just received the most recent one, so I only had two to read. Technically, it’s still a pile, depending on how you stack the books.

I digress.

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern
, as has been mentioned before, is sent to my door step once a quarter. It’s McSweeney Press’ way of collecting unknown and well-known authors together in one short story collection. And since I love short stories, I’ve rather enjoyed this subscription – enough, in fact, that I actually renewed the subscription (something I never do).

Some of the issues are designed beautifully; creatively and brilliantly inventive, they’re the talk of the literary town. Some have been bundled together like a package of mail, or delivered with a comb and pack of playing cards. They always look great and they pop out from among the other drab and colorless books they stand beside.

Sometimes, however, the covers are rather ordinary – not boring, but not great, as if all of the energy spent on the great covers left the editors exhausted, culminating in an 11th hour “Oh, shit, we have a book coming up!” frantic collection of random stories and random art. Compared to anyone else, the bland books are still brilliant. But compared to what had come before, they are certainly lacking. It’s this High Point Low Point trade off that makes each new issue a gamble. What will they do this quarter? Will I get 3-D glasses and special disappearing ink? Or will I get another hand-drawn cover featuring busy artwork and another story from Michael Swartz?

Case in point – Issue #22 and #23. Issue #22 was a faux-leather bound cover that contained three separate books held together by magnets. The books themselves were quite inventive as well:

1. From the Notebook is a collection of stories based on the indexed and organized notes of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald left behind tons of unwritten stories – ideas scratched out and indexed almost fanatically. And here, a group of writers take those ideas and create short stories out of them. It’s a fantastic idea, and probably a thrill for any of the writers that participated. I mean, think about it. Imagine finishing the work of a legendary writer. It had to be fun, and it showed. These are great stories.

2. The State of Constraint features the highly experimental writings of Oulipo, or “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle” – a group of French writers/mathematicians. So, as you might expect, these stories are very…original. There’s an oddly paced choose-your-own-adventure, and there’s some weird “only use letters that don’t rise above or below the center” (acemnorsuvwxz) and mathematically (instead of, you know, literarily) constructed sentence stories. It’s all too cute for my liking. There’s being original, and there’s being original to the point of alienation.

3. The Poetry Chains of Dominic Luxford is filled with – you guessed it! – poetry chains, which McSweeney’s describes as poets “picking a poem of their own and one by another poet, who then, thus inducted, do the same, and then again, and again, and so on until an appropriate moment.” I didn’t read this. I don’t like poetry.

One great book, one interesting book and one book of poetry isn’t bad, I’d say. And the design of the book itself is so brilliant that I’ve featured it front and center on my bookshelf at home.

Issue #23, however, was just a series of disjointed short stories with a decently cool cover. Not that there’s anything bad about a series of disjointed short stories with a decently cool cover – they don’t always need to have a common theme, and I was happy to find a Roddy Doyle penned story within – but it was a little bit of a let down after all the lengths they went through with #22.

Of course, I haven’t finished #23 yet. On the same lines, I also haven’t finished “Rabbit Remembered” – the final novella in the Rabbit Angstrom books. I was going to wait to read this, but with Kerrie out of town and seemingly plenty (ha!) of reading time on my hands, I figured I might as well finish off series.

Last month, as you may know if you actually read this monthly column, I read about Rabbit Angstrom in his 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Now, in “Rabbit Remembered,” he’s dead, and it’s 1999. The story picks up where the loose ends left off – what is his wife doing (she’s married to Rabbit’s lifelong enemy) and how his son is making out (he’s found and taken under his wing Rabbit’s illegitimate daughter, who Rabbit always suspected but had been told otherwise.) It’s good, just like the books were good. I love how Rabbit’s personality is still making waves through the family. I can’t wait to finish it, whenever that is.

I did read a complete book this month, by the way – from page one to page last: John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. I brimmed with jealousy throughout, to tell you the truth. This was my first summer camping read of the year, and as I sat next to Lake Vermillion, I dreamed of driving around the United States myself, with my trusty dog and my trusty truck, just as Steinbeck did with Charley.

Additionally, I found my mind wandering even more as the book described a half-century old nation that I could still see, though more advanced and fast. There’s a novelty to reading about the cities you’re familiar with, written through the eyes of someone much older at a time before you were even born – with a surprise, as if those cities could have drastically changed and should be nearly indescribable now. It all brought me back to some of my favorite travel books – the books that rekindled both a renewed love of reading and a desire to write.

So much about the land is in its experiences – the circumnavigation of a culture – and Steinbeck captured it perfectly. Just like Bryson and Theroux did to England. It made me jealous, and reverent, all at the same time. Not bad for the only full book I read all month.

Actually, I’m not being completely truthful. I finished a second book this past month,– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. I didn’t just read it to myself. I read it out loud, to Kerrie. And, additionally, to little Baby Vilhauer. It, technically, is the first book that Baby Vilhauer has ever been exposed to, through my voice, through the womb. And even without that emotional tie, The Little Prince is easily the best book I read this month. It’s touching and filled with life lessons. And, it’s brilliantly written, easy enough for a young person, complex and thoughtful enough for even the most hardened cynic.

So with a baby on the way, I guess I can still get some quality reading done. It’ll just be a little louder. A little less private. But I’m positive it will be a lot more fun.

McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #22McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #23

This was lovingly handwritten on June 3rd, 2007