What I’ve Been Reading – September 2007

The Whistling SeasonThe Wonder Spot

Books Acquired:
Heat – Bill Buford
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl
The Whistling Season – Ivan Doig
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #24 – McSweeney’s Press
Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen
The Sportswriter – Richard Ford
The Master Butchers Singing Club – Louise Erdrich
Cooking Freshwater Fish – Lucia Watson

Books Read:
The Wonder Spot – Melissa Bank
Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon – Zhou Xun (not finished)
The Whistling Season – Ivan Doig
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #24 – McSweeney’s Press

There’s an uneasy balance in life between necessity and want. It’s part of what makes growing up so hard – the realization that you can’t always get what you want (with apologies to the Rolling Stones). Need outweighs all aspects of life. You want to sit at home all day because you want to play Guitar Hero until your fingers bleed. You need to work because you need food and you need a place to live in order to play Guitar Hero until your fingers bleed.

That balance fueled my literature intake this month. On one hand, I was convinced that the books I had checked out from the library were completely necessary – crucial, even – to my literary needs. And the books I needed to read – the ones that had a deadline: September 28th, Day One of the South Dakota Festival of Books? I figured I had plenty of time to get those read.

My want pile was mainly fluff – Melissa Bank, a book on karaoke, the new McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern – and included some new books we got at a great Borders three for two sale (Special Topics on Calamity Physics and Heat). The need pile seemed boring and so, well, necessary – Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season and Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter (both to be at the South Dakota Festival of Books) and Water for Elephants, this month’s book club book. And I had plenty of time for the need pile. Plenty of time.

Enter reality. You’ve got a little girl in the house now, Corey. Your reading schedule has been obliterated – not wiped out, but strung throughout the day, broken into pieces and scattered around the clock like seeds from a broken dandelion. The nights of reading from 9:30 to 11 are gone. Long gone.

This came as a surprise to me. I thought I’d be able to get my two required reads finished in the last half of the month. We were prolific in our book purchasing, breaking a months long fast (not counting, of course, the necessary Harry Potter). Things were stacking up. With all of these things riding with me, why couldn’t I read Melissa Bank and a book on karaoke at a leisurely pace?

Yes, that’s right. I read a book about karaoke. It was mildly entertaining, more for the little facts I gleaned than the book itself. Karaoke is an incredibly complex concept – a Japanese invention that has swept the world by branching into hundreds of different versions. Some karaoke facts for you:
• The Japanese claim inventing the first machine, but the Welsh claim to have invented the concept.
• Karaoke rooms are weird – it’s you and about four friends in a closed off room with a couch. It wouldn’t work here in the US, but it’s all the rage in Japan.
• In Japan, karaoke is so serious that women are urged to follow a strict set of “commandments” when singing at a work function in front of their boss.
• In Thailand and Indonesia, karaoke is a front for prostitution.
The pictures in this book are hilarious – each one depicting a goofy looking drunk person singing into a microphone. Each picture shows the subject at his or her worst. Though, really, isn’t that what karaoke is in the grand scheme of things?

What I realized after skimming through the first half of the book is that this is far too goofy a subject to be taken so seriously. The writing was reminiscent of a PhD dissertation, with each chapter breaking down the finer aspects of karaoke. In reality, karaoke boils down to one thing: singing while drunk in front of people. In other words, it’s every Friday night for Scott Stapp.

Ha! See that? That’s a Creed joke! Sorry – I’m just trying to distract from the fact that I didn’t really feel as strongly about Melissa Bank’s The Wonder Spot as I did her short story “The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine.” And therein lies the problem with reading a really great short story – you go on looking for more from the same author and, regardless of how good they really are, you find yourself disappointed. Don’t get me wrong. It was good. It’s a female version of David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, a chronicle through life using a series of sort-of-connected short stories. It just wasn’t what I had hoped.

Of course, that’s not the case with the McSweeney’s crew. I always expect something entertaining, and I’m rarely disappointed. This quarter’s collection was filled with manly stories – featuring guns and espionage and private investigating and all of that. McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is even more known for its binding and cover design, and this quarter’s collection was given a high budget. The book is double bound – two books facing opposite ways joined together at the back cover, like Siamese twins who share the same heart.

I’m actually not technically finished with that book (I’ll get to it tonight, I’m sure) and I wasn’t technically finished with The Whistling Season when the Festival of Books came around. Thankfully Ivan Doig didn’t give any of the book’s final twists away. (Thankfully, also, from a “whoops, I didn’t read” standpoint, Richard Ford failed to show up. So at least I wasn’t left wondering what the hell he was talking about.)

The Whistling Season, when I first started reading it, reminded me too much of My Antonia — too much “windy plains living on a homesteaded shanty” and not enough, you know, non-prairie stuff. This is one of the downfalls of the One Book South Dakota selections – they nearly always concern themselves with prairie life. It’s partly necessary. The OBSD is supposed to represent the region, which is why we have had The Work of Wolves, Gilead and now The Whistling Season over the past three years.

Eventually, though, I fell in love with The Whistling Season. I found myself completely entranced with the story – a couple of big city siblings come to the middle of Montana to start a new life. One becomes a housekeeper, the other a teacher – both tied to the same family, a homesteader and his three boys. It’s from the oldest boy’s perspective that we see the book come to life, and it encompasses a wide range of topics – how children learn, the one-room schoolhouse, love, life, all of that crap you want in a book.

So it separates itself from My Antonia and other typical prairie books in having a modern heart. Instead of regaling the reader with grain after grain of wheaten plains, we are instead introduced to relationships, to people who know big words and Latin and astronomy; the farming and homesteading take a back seat to the main story, instead of overpowering it. In fact, I found myself quite enamored with the father – Oliver Milliron – and the carpet bagging, unlicensed but incredibly qualified teacher – Morrie Morris – two characters that simply overflow with clever wordplay. You know Ivan had a blast when he was writing those two characters, and when they meet, verbal acrobatics is the only way to describe it.

Sorry – I have to stop typing. Kerrie has put down Water for Elephants. And I have four days left to read it before book club. There’s nothing worse than cramming for a voluntary group event. But, if anything, at least it will help me learn the difference between need and want. Right?


McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #24Karaoke

This was lovingly handwritten on October 4th, 2007