What I’ve Been Reading – October 2007

Paper TrailsThe Elements of Style

Books Acquired:
The Master Butchers Singing Club – Louise Erdrich
Paper Trails – Pete Dexter
The Elements of Style (Illustrated) – William Strunk Jr.
Oxford English Reference Dictionary

Books Read:
The Sportswriter – Richard Ford (not finished)
Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen
Paper Trails – Pete Dexter
The Elements of Style (Illustrated) – William Strunk Jr.

The themes that permeate through this month’s books are both heady and complex. They range from family drama in an almost Angstrom-esque display of dysfunctionality – angry and confused, held together by an odd sexual tension – to a sweet, yet serious look at “new vs. old” – the type of contrast that is often overdone yet never quite perfected.

It’s this theme that framed my reading this month. In more than one way, Pete Dexter’s novel was a tender look at how life has changed in the 130 years since the Civil War. Each character exudes a feeling of grasping angst, as if they’re reaching back for something they forgot several branches up the family line. Sweet Anabelle Duncan, shareholder and slave driver…

I’m sorry. I can’t do this. It’s a sham.

Just between you and me, I wasn’t a very good reader this month.

That crap up there at the top? I made those paragraphs up in an effort to lose the average reader – the one who skims the longer articles in search for Sierra Picture Day posts – and fool him or her into thinking I was actually productive.

As you can see, I wasn’t productive. I sucked. A big one. Boo on me.

I can blame a lot of things for my poor record: Sierra often monopolizes my attention because, well, she’s just so cute, and work intervened and took away some precious spare time and, of course, my birthday celebrations were unceasing in their frequency.

And I might have played lots of Guitar Hero III. And I might have watched cable until my eyes turned red.

But it’s not for lack of trying. I started off the month with a whirlwind, fresh off of the South Dakota Festival of Books (where I had purchased the 2008 South Dakota Big Read selection, Louise Erdrich’s The Mater Butchers Singing Club), ready to sink my teeth into every book I had put off over the past seven years. I began by thinking I’d read Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter.

And I did, for a while. I was lured into Ford’s novel because he was scheduled to attend the South Dakota Festival of Books, and I figured I should at least read something of his in case his speaking engagement turned into some sort of twisted pop quiz.

The engagement never happened, though – some family emergency, I think – which corresponds well with my life since I never bothered to finish The Sportswriter. Instead, it fell through one of those weird cracks that certain books are destined to find themselves in; it’s an involved read (which is getting more and more difficult with Sierra), and I’ve already read the entire Rabbit Angstrom series this year (so I’ve been at my limit for middle aged men in crisis) and it was a little slow to begin with. Strikes one, two and three.

Before you say anything – yes, I plan on getting back into it, eventually. It’s really introspective on the main character’s part and it seems like one of those books that will really stick with me. But, with apologies to Ed Champion, who helped me in picking a Ford book to tackle, I can’t handle it right now. It’s not the book I want to read. Sorry, Richard.

(Now, on the opposite end of the spectrum, I read Water for Elephants – a fast-paced, quick read that we discussed for about 15 minutes at our book club.

Where The Sportswriter seems like a book that is filled with complex themes and interesting side-notes, Water for Elephants was a book that, while good, will be quickly forgotten. I enjoyed it, and I became fascinated with circus culture for the few days it took to breeze through it, but I don’t think there is anything that I’ll remember a year from now aside from the fact that I read it at all.

Except the fact that I always pictured lead bad guy August played by Ian McShane [Al Swearengen from Deadwood].)

So Richard Ford didn’t show up. That’s okay. Pete Dexter did. In fact, he showed up multiple times. It’s as if he was booked for every forum. I couldn’t turn around without seeing his bright pink New York Yankees hat. I couldn’t tell if it was a joke or a true fashion statement. With him, it was probably both. So two weeks later, while I was in Pierre, I turned and – BOOM! – there was his book, again, staring me in the face. I was compelled to buy it.

I did. Regardless of what I said in the first paragraphs, Paper Trails isn’t about the Civil War. It’s actually a rehash of his old newspaper columns – put together by my fleeting connection to the true literary world, Sports Illustrated editor Rob Fleder – and the book harkens back not to a seemingly ancient war but to the simplicities of American life.

And the collection knocks you on your ass from the start. It’s phenomenal, with Dexter describing whatever happens to be on his mind with both brilliant columnist humor and touching (or heartbreaking, in some cases) poignancy.

I love columnists, and I love columns. They’re quick and punchy and easily digested, and they’re even more condensed than short stories. They’re truly as close to poetry as you can get without actually doing poetry – a story boiled down to it’s most basic parts, each word carrying a larger percentage of overall meaning and, therefore, a greater importance.

With Dexter, each piece is a little portion of his personality – weird and funny, yet at times warm and cuddly. Reading great columns helped me convince myself I could write, though I doubt I could ever do it with the skill and ease that Dexter shows.

Not that I haven’t tried. If I did anything right this month, it was in my inclination toward reference and writing books. It started with my birthday – my darling daughter (with help from mom, I suspect) gave me the illustrated The Elements of Style.

I’d never actually read The Elements of Style before. I have a copy at work, but I’ve only used it on rare occasions, usually looking for some obscure grammatical concept that isn’t outlined in the book. But I’m reading it now, and I’m realizing I had it all wrong – The Elements of Style isn’t a grammar book – it’s a style book with grammar notes. Sure, it touches on the basics of grammar, but the real meat is in its style suggestions: simple rules to follow in order to make your writing stronger, shorter – more concise and more meaningful.

At times it had me flummoxed. Since I didn’t pay attention during sentence diagramming and since I don’t have access to a glossary of writing terms, I find myself lost when the text describes what to do with a restrictive clause or an independent gerund or whatever. See, I write by feel – like a guitar player who never learned to read music. It’s not grammatically correct all the time. But I’m learning. It’s just so hard to teach an old writer new tricks.

Like, for instance, staying away from clichés like that one.

(Note: there is a glossary of writing terms at the back of the new The Elements of Style. That will come in handy. As will the beautiful New Yorker style illustrations, all arbitrary in style, naturally.)

From The Elements of Style, I went crazy. I received an Oxford English Dictionary from my grandmother (yay!) and ordered a real dictionary and thesaurus (the Webster New College Etc. versions) and then even found some old reference books at the First Lutheran Bazaar.

But that’s for next month. You know, November – the month when I tire of cable and Guitar Hero III and babies and friends and I spend all of my free time reading and reading and reading.

Yeah, right.

Water for ElephantsThe Sportswriter

This was lovingly handwritten on November 3rd, 2007