Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What We See When We Read, by Peter Mendelsund

Peter Mendelsund is a book designer/art director who has used his visual approach to address the question of what and how readers visualize what they are reading about and how that process affects the meaning they ascribe to what they read; eventually, he extends the analysis to include how people "read" reality. Mendelsund draws examples from literature of various vintages and approaches the focus question from a variety of perspectives.  The book is lavishly illustrated with black-and-white drawings, charts, photographs, and manipulations of type.

Unfortunately, I found the book to be a novelty, but one that's a bit of a jumble and lacks penetrating insights. Examples: "A novel invites our interpretive skills, but it also invites our minds to wander." "Words are like arrows--they are something, and they also point toward something." ". . . no matter how pure the data set that authors provide to readers--no matter how diligently prefiltered and tightly reconstructed--readers' brains will continue in their prescribed assignment: to analyze, screen, and sort." Not exactly earth-shattering statements and all too typical of What We See When We Read. Perhaps a more visual person would find the book design and illustrations, which are certainly creative, inspirational, but with a few exceptions, they also failed to move me.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

When I told my son I had downloaded this book from Audible, his immediate response was "Why? You're not interested in running." I admitted this was true, but said I had read that it was actually about writing, which might be interesting--and I had a $10 credit on Audible and the book was less than $10.

In truth, the book was partly about writing, partly about Murakami's life and personality--but in great part about running. The parts about running did start to bore me, although the two sections that had been published in magazines--pieces on an ultra-marathon and running the original marathon route in Greece in the midsummer heat--were well done and engaging. The parts about Murakami's life revealed him to be a rather anti-social and rigid guy obsessed with getting older (the book was written around the time that he realized that no amount of training was going to allow him to improve his performance any more).  It was, however, interesting to read about how he decided to become a writer--while sitting in the outfield at a baseball game, he suddenly had the thought, "I could write a novel." And he did.

The parts about writing were interesting. Murakami sees three things as essential to successful writing: talent, endurance, and focus.  He sees running as a means of both developing his endurance and focus and somehow flushing out the toxins that a writer encounters in the process of plumbing the depths of human character. Working to become a better runner or triathlete allows him to become a better writer as well. Although he does not state it in the same way, he seems to share Jonathan Franzen's notion that before you can write your next novel, you have to become a better person because you've already written the best novel you can write in your previous state of being.

Murakami doesn't seem like a guy who would be much fun to hang out with. He seems to have no sense of humor about himself and is forthcoming about the fact that he is essentially a lone wolf who'd rather follow his own pursuits than worry about building or maintaining social connections (though he's been married for decades). The only relationship I see between his writing in this book and his rather surreal fiction is his frequent use of the well metaphor, which clearly holds deep meaning for him.

I was happy What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was relatively brief but it was interesting enough to keep me listening.

Favorite passage:
Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life--and for me, for writing as a whole.

My American Unhappiness, by Dean Bakopoulos

What could be more rewarding than spending ten years compiling an inventory of American unhappiness? That is the pet project of Zeke Pappas, the executive director of the Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative, which has about run through the $10 million in federal funding a Wisconsin Congressperson sent its way. It is also being audited by an obscure office of the Department of Homeland Security.

Meanwhile, Zeke is also dealing with problems at home. Zeke's father, brother, and sister-in-law have recently died (his wife disappeared a dozen years ago in the first weeks of their marriage).  His twin nieces and mother live with him, but he soon learns his mother is terminally ill and has designated his sister-in-law's sister as the girls' guardian when she dies--unless Zeke can find a wife before her demise. As delusional in his personal life as in his work, Zeke thinks he might be able to convince his assistant, his recently divorced next door neighbor, or the barista at Starbucks to marry him; if all else fails, he has a hunch Sofia Coppola might be interested.

My American Unhappiness ranges from very funny to very sad. I was especially fond of the names of projects funded by the GMHI, which are inserted throughout the text ("The Coming Death of the Postal Service and the Coinciding Decline of American Imagination," "The Weather as Divinity in World Literature"). The answers people give Zeke when he asks why they are so unhappy are both funny and sad, as are Zeke's fund-raising letters. But the story of Zeke's family is sad--Zeke genuinely loves his nieces and is devastated at the thought of losing them. Still, everything he does to try to keep them with him is absolutely ridiculous and ill-considered.  Some of Zeke's critiques of modern culture seem perceptive, but he's so generally delusional that you feel almost ridiculous if you find yourself agreeing with him.

I enjoyed My American Unhappiness, but it's not for everyone. Zeke is not a sympathetic character, and the pop culture references (the chapter titles are Zeke's Facebook status updates) and frenetic style might be annoying to some readers.

Favorite passage:
. . . we, as a nation and perhaps as a human race, recently stopped loving stories about the other; we began to love stories only about ourselves. We love stories in which we are the protagonists in search of truth. I do not want to judge this. But my feeling is that we can cope with the increasing smallness, rapidness, and indifference of our changing, violent world only by seeing ourselves as nobel characters caught in the struggle. . . . YouTube, Myspace, blogs--all of these things are ways for us to make ourselves protagonists on a very crowded, violent, and unjust stage.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Florence Gordon, by Brian Morton

Florence Gordon is a 75-year-old feminist writer and thinker, an icon among a certain group of women, including her daughter-in-law Janine. Then her latest book receives a glowing front-page review in the NYT Review of Books, and she achieves a certain celebrity. At the same time, she is having some health problems and is dealing with her family--son Daniel, Janine, and their daughter Emily are in New York (they normally live in Seattle) for the summer.  Not being a warm and fuzzy person, Florence doesn't enjoy hanging out with the family (her ex-husband Saul is also inserting himself into her life, hoping she will find him a job).  Yet, when Emily volunteers to act as an assistant for the summer to help Florence work on her memoir, she accepts. The two begin to forget a tentative but largely tacit understanding.

Meanwhile, Emily is dealing with a former boyfriend and decisions about having sex and using drugs; Janine is starting an affair with the psychologist supervising her work on the fellowship that brought the family to New York; and Daniel, the son of two academics who became a cop, is spending his vacation reflecting on his life and his marriage.

Florence Gordon has some features of a typical family drama, but Florence's refusal to compromise who she is and how she chooses to construct her life make it anything but typical. Some of her "adventures," like her encounter with a deluded "writer" who drives her to an event on her book tour, are very funny; others, like her interactions with an even older friend who has hygiene issues, are equally sad. Questions about her health and whether she and Emily can build an enduring relationship provide compelling through-lines. Janine's and Daniel's stories are less interesting, but help convey the idea that people are often unaware of their loved ones' concerns and perspectives.

An unusual stylistic feature of Florence Gordon is the varying length of chapters. Many are very short, even though the next chapter continues the same event. Other chapters are much longer. I couldn't fathom exactly why Brian Morton did this or how he decided which scenes would be cut into short chapters or which would be contained within a single chapter, but it did disrupt the rhythm of reading in an interesting way.

Florence Gordon is not a character the reader exactly likes, but she is compelling, making Florence Gordon the novel a book I would recommend.

Favorite passage:
She'd been a young woman during the 1960s, and if you were young in the sixties--"bliss was it in that dawn to be alive"--there's a sense in which you can never grow old. You were there when the Beatles came to America; you were there when sex was discovered; you were there when the idea of liberation was born; and even if you end up a cranky old lady who's proud of her activist past but who now just wants to be left alone to read, write, and think--even if you end up like that, there's something in your soul that stays green.

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment is, of course, a classic, and you can find synopses, analyses, and glowing reviews all over the Internet. Thus, I am not going to say much about it, since I found myself bored to sleep (literally) by the constant yammering of an array of mentally unstable, manipulative, morally corrupt men trying to justify unjustifiable acts.  I bow to the intellectual superiority of anyone who finds this discourse engaging in the 21st century (perhaps I would have found the philosophical arguments more interesting had I read it in, say, 1870). If you haven't read the book and decide to do so, I recommend keeping a character list, as every character is referred to by multiple names in the Russian tradition, which can be quite confusing. Personally, however, I wouldn't recommend investing the time in reading this monster.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Some Luck, by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is an author whose work I have loved (Private Life), hated (Ten Days in the Hills), and found myself utterly indifferent to (Good Faith). I had high hopes for Some Luck, the first book in a planned trilogy about an Iowa family, the Langdons.

Some Luck covers the span of Walter and Rosanna's marriage, from 1920 to 1953. Most of the book revolves around the couple and their children--Frank, a brilliant, handsome boy with trouble connecting to people; Joey, less brilliant and less handsome but drawn to the farm; Mary Elizabeth, who dies in an incident involving a lightning strike; Lillian, Rosanna's perfect girl; Henry, quirky and intellectual; and Claire, a seemingly average child who is Walter's favorite. The story is told from all of these characters' perspectives (the passages narrated by baby Frank are some of my favorites)--and more, including most notably Rosanna's sister Eloise who goes off to Chicago and marries a man who is both Jewish and a Communist (not your typical Iowa boy).

A lot happens to the family, often in events that seem to be paired: the family goes through the Depression, Rosanna experiences postpartum depression following Henry's birth; a relative commits suicide and Walter considers the same drastic action when things are worst on the farm; Frank goes off to college and becomes friends with a charismatic young man and Lillian runs away from the farm with a charismatic young man. As family history develops through marriages and births, the history of the heartland unfolds in the larger context of American history, from the Depression to World War II to the Red Scare of the 50s--and the family is part of it all.

Although a lot happens, the story feels very flat because the Langdons must be among the least reflective families in literature. I grew up on a farm in the Heartland and recognize that these folks--my parents' and grandparents' generations--were not big navel-gazers. But the result in Some Luck is a distancing from the characters and their journeys.  I found myself wanting more from Some Luck, more reaction, more thinking, more of the characters' interior lives. But I still have some hope for the remaining titles in the trilogy, as Smiley moves generations more prone to reflection.

Favorite passages:
. . . something had created itself from nothing--a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Torch, by Cheryl Strayed

Teresa Rae Woods is in her late 30s; in a long-term relationship with Bruce; the mother of Claire (a senior in college) and Joshua (a senior in high school); the host of a hippy-dippy public radio program that ends with the exhortation "Work hard. Do good. Be incredible"; and a waitress at a diner in her small Minnesota town. Then she is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Treatment proves futile, and she dies within months, as Claire and Bruce sit by her bedside and Joshua avoids the rest of the family, starting a career as a small-time drug courier and dropping out of school.

Following Teresa's death, Claire and Bruce join Joshua in a downward spiral. Claire, who has had a brief affair with a man whose wife was dying in the same hospital with her mother, breaks up with her boyfriend, drops out of school, and ends up working in the same diner where her mom was a waitress. Bruce first plans to commit suicide, then--apparently saved by a Kenny G tape--abruptly enters a relationship with a neighbor, marries her a scant three months after Teresa's death, and essentially drops out of Claire and Joshua's lives. Josh gets his girlfriend pregnant and spends time in jail.

Those who have read Strayed's much-ballyhooed nonfiction book Wild know that some aspects of the Woods family's experience mirror the loss of her own mother and subsequent dissolution of her family. This perhaps explains why the descriptions of Teresa's illness and death are both grueling and convincing. Unfortunately, I was unmoved by Claire, Joshua, and Bruce's experiences following Teresa's death--Claire and Joshua are in great pain, but I didn't really feel that pain. The chapters narrated from their perspectives seemed as flat and lifeless as the sappy "Work hard. Do good. Be incredible" tagline that runs through the book. The lifelessness is puzzling; given the devastation Strayed experienced after her mother's death, I would expect her to be able to plumb some serious depths. Yet I was not entirely surprised, since I found the descriptions of her emotional growth in Wild  lacking as well. It may just be that I am too prejudiced against Strayed to enjoy this book, but, whatever the reason, I wouldn't recommend it.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters, by Julian Barnes

A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters is a highly original work, a collection of 11 (or 10-1/2 if you prefer) short pieces--some stories, some more like essays--interrelated by several topics (ships, Noah, woodworm) and larger themes (history, love, the clean versus the unclean, and obsession). The stories are written in a variety of genres from epistolary to pseudo documentary to fable-like.

The first piece is a retelling of the story of Noah and the Flood, told from the perspective of a stowaway, one of the unclean that Noah rejected for passage on the Ark. The narrator (we learn near the end that it is a woodworm) not only despises the "monster" Noah, he points out the illogic of the Biblical story (how could all of those animals fit on a single ship--the ark was actually a small fleet) and the possibility that Noah and his sons had ulterior motives (providing a food supply for themselves post-flood).

The second chapter describes the hijacking of a cruise liner by Middle Eastern terrorists who not only kill passengers held hostage (Americans and Brits are sorted out to die first) but cleverly ruin the career of the story's narrator, an onboard entertainer/lecturer. The third chapter consists of a series of documents from a trial brought by a Catholic Church against a group of woodworms living in the church, whose activity has caused the bishop to fall and become an "imbecile."

"The Survivor" is set in a period following several nuclear accidents, when world war is at hand. The female protagonist sets out in a sailboat to search for an island safe from what she believes is a sure nuclear holocaust; toward the end of the story, however, she wakes up in a hospital, being treated by doctors who believe she had a breakdown because she broke up with her abusive boyfriend.

I won't describe all of the remaining chapters in great detail, but they include an analysis of a real painting and how it does and does not capture the events it depicts; the story of Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis in 1939; letters from an actor to his girlfriend describing a tragic movie shoot in the South American jungle; the story of an astronaut who, while on the moon, hears God telling him to find Noah and his Ark; and a description of heaven, where the occupants define what it is they want to experience in the afterlife. The half-chapter is entitled "Parenthesis"; in it, the author directly addresses the reader, discussing (primarily) love.

I do not profess to understand all of what Barnes is doing or saying in A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters, but it is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Must we love one another or die (Auden)?  Is love what will survive of us (Larkin)?  When history repeats itself, is the first time tragedy, the second time farce (Hegel)? Does myth describe or become reality?  If you want to be challenged while simultaneously being somewhat awed by the author's ability to cross genres impressively, then I definitely recommend this book.

Favorite passages:

Women were brought up to believe that men were the answer. They weren't. They weren't even one of the questions. 

The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections. We lie here in our hospital bed of the present (what nice clean sheets we get nowadays) with a bubble of daily news drip-fed into our arm. We think we know who we are, though we don't quite know why we're here, or how long we shall be forced to stay. And while we fret and write in bandaged uncertainty - are we a voluntary patient? - we fabulate. We make up a story to cover the facts we don't know or can't accept; we keep a few true facts and spin a new story round them. Our panic and our pain are only eased by soothing fabulation; we call it history.