We're Reading Archives
Since time available for reading (and blogging, obviously) has been seriously cut back due to a longish driving commute, my progress on Then We Came to the End has been slow, slow, slow. I'm also now leaning toward disliking the book, which doesn't up my enthusiasm for getting to the ending.
Although some of it is acerbically funny, a whole lot more is depressing. Take Janine Gorjanc, whose daughter was kidnapped and later found murdered. To make matters worse, the missing child billboard erected during the search remains standing long after the body was found and serves as a constant, painful reminder. As a result of the trauma, Janine's marriage breaks up, her personal hygiene begins to slide, and she goes on several psychiatric medications. Since the main premise of the novel is built around office gossip, no one speaks to her directly about her problems. So, her cubicle's adornment with photos of the dead daughter and ex-husband become a source of discomfort to those around her, people whisper about her smell, and an unhappy co-worker steals her meds for himself.
For the most part, my issues with the book relate to the characters themselves. As the layoffs begin and progress, they become disfranchised admen who engage in over-the-top antics as rebellion. But since Ferris also offers a look into their sad home lives, jokes that might have seemed funny to me a moment earlier suddenly become tragic. I know too much about them to laugh at them and they never laugh at themselves with me (the reader) even though they spend plenty pages laughing at each other.
I'm going to try and suspend my final judgment on the book until the end because I've been told there's a payoff. I hope so.
Hardcovers, Why Can't I Love You?
Imagine the scene: it's the 2007 National Book Awards. In the banquet hall, each table features a centerpiece made up of copies of the nominated titles. Invited guests polish off their desserts while, up in the balcony, the press and a small pack of bloggers put some polish on their writing. Fran Lebowitz speaks the last words of her closing remarks and the awards ceremony officially ends. Lured by the scent of freebies, crazed bloggers stampede down the stairs and run through the banquet hall grabbing books as authors and industry-types topple in their wake.
Well, it wasn't exactly like that. But I'm sure I moved at a quicker clip than usual. And I did stick my finger into an untouched dessert tray just for a little taste. Whatever happened, my copy of Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End started out as an NBA centerpiece.
It's a hardcover and it has been pissing me off. Not the story, which is entertaining enough, but the actual, physical object.
First off, I took off the dust jacket. Such action is sort of counterproductive since the jacket exists as protection, but I find it a nuisance. Jackets tend to creep skyward on me, making books too tall and gangly. Up to now, Then We Came to the End has been at home, at work, in the car, and on several lunches. The poor thing is becoming positively filthy, and it bothers me more to wreck a hardcover than a paperback.
When at lunch, the damn thing is simply too heavy and inflexible to hold open with one hand while eating with the other. I am forced to read with it lying on the table, so it also has been doubling as a placemat.
Then yesterday as I rode the elevator, I dropped the book on my foot. One of its corners got smashed in the fall and I have a little round bruise on the top of my foot. I'm glad I didn't break a toe, but none of this is helping me love the thing.
Hoo boy, I am ever so glad last year is behind us. A topsy-turvy end to 2007 rendered me incapable of reading nothing more rigorous than wine bottle labels. And even those sometimes proved too difficult to sort out: "Cabernet Sauvignon? Merlot? Pinot Noir? I will be serving meatloaf. Is there no hero to rescue me from the Wines of California aisle of the discount liquor mart?"
Drying out and getting back in the swing, I'm currently making my way through Joshua Ferris' NBA nominated Then We Came to the End. Just prior, I re-read Matt Beaumont's e, a comedy about antics at an ad agency which is comprised entirely of e-mails. Ferris' book is also a comedy about an ad agency, but the gimmick here (Do all novels about ad agencies have a gimmick?) is that it's written in first person plural. I'm only a handful of pages in and am waiting to discover what merited the NBA nomination, but I've been assured by others that the end of Then We Came to the End is where I'll hit pay dirt. Thus far, however, e is still winning in chuckles and has a slight edge because it only requires a commitment of a few hours.
I have been meaning to write a wrap-up post about the NBAs, but at this point I feel as though all my strength is going toward surviving until the four-day weekend. Although I believe a relative is expecting me for the holiday, I think I'm going to beg off and hole up at home.
In the meantime, I have been devouring audiobooks because the arrival of winter weather has nearly doubled my commute. A book on tape makes the drive bearable. It took to about halfway through Stephen King's Dreamcatcher before realizing that I have already both read the text and seen the movie. Obviously, either occasion wasn't memorable enough to keep me from grabbing it on tape. I wish I hadn't remembered the movie, though, since now I can't get the image of Donnie "Duddits" Wahlberg's bald head out of my mind. Now that's horror.
Has it really been ten days since I last posted? Time moves too quickly.
Speaking of quick, Dearly Devoted Dexter was a fast, fun read. The first in the series, Darkly Dreaming Dexter was pushed on me by someone whose previous recommendation made me roll my eyes through 400+ pages of re-packaged thriller cliches. Although I was skeptical, Dexter turned out to be enough of a pleasant surprise to make me want to read the second in the series and make a mental note to watch for the third's paperback release.
In contrast, my current book progresses slowly. Since our Remainder discussion will be reenacted this month, it's fitting for me to be rereading the book. I speculated I might not enjoy it as much on a second go-through, but I was wrong. When I read it the first time, I plowed through in only a few days because I was excited about getting to the ending. Now, however, I'm moving more slowly to capture some of what I missed...much in the same way the unnamed narrator slows down certain scenes.
Um, I already sort of knew Harry Potter represents the anti-Christ, but I had no idea Voldemort is God, Tom Riddle is Jesus, and Lucius Malfoy is the Angel Gabriel.
Nothing good can come of this. Our country is now beleaguered in the Harry Potter merchandize [sic], colorfully, festively almost announcing the arrival of the anti-Christ. The worst product available to corrupt our youth was Potter's vibrating broomstick, now taken off the market under pressure of Christian parents because it taught young girls how to abuse themselves and awoke their interest in the sins of the flesh. This is damage that cannot be undone.
Our own President and his wife have let this evil into the White House and have boasted Harry Potter themed Christmas decorations! The Vatican, not coincidentally located in the centre of Europe, has sided with the Satanists and proclaimed Harry Potter harmless; once again the Catholic Church forsakes the Christ and sides with those who would pull us down with them into eternal damnation. It may be already too late to save our world, but we can save our souls and refuse the ticket for a one-way trip to hell Potter provides. It is never too late to cancel your trip.
Well. Clearly, Satan is his father and his name is Harry. Rowling's Baby aside, anyone else get a Children of the Corn vibe here?
On Tuesday, my dad called to let me know that his car's engine "blew up" and he had a close call with oncoming traffic because people drive like maniacs. He's fine, though. The car will be in the shop until the weekend, so this morning I drove him around to get his errands done.
Since my role was to play chauffeur, I brought a book because I expected to spend a lot of time waiting in the car. I'm mostly through Steven Hart's The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America's First Superhighway. It's the story of the Pulaski Skyway, which spans the New Jersey marshes and connects the Holland Tunnel to points west. If you don't know it, surely you've seen it flash by in the opening credits of The Sopranos.
The Skyway is best-known as the most dangerous stretch of road in the state. As Steven writes in a chapter appropriately named "Death Avenue":
Within weeks of its original Thanksgiving Day opening in 1932, the Skyway revealed itself as a new kind of road in more ways than one. It was indeed a time-saving boon to drivers, but it was also a uniquely efficient generator of traffic accidents. (p. 160)
When my dad got into my car this morning, he picked up Steven's book from its resting place between the radio console and gear shift. He read the title aloud and asked which road was America's first superhighway. Before I could respond, his eyes narrowed as he looked at the picture on the cover. "The Pulaski Skyway! That's where my car broke down. I was almost killed up there!"
So I got to hear the whole story. And I shared my own tale of near-death on the Skyway. Everyone who has lived in its shadow has one.
Today's errands took us from Raymond Boulevard in Newark (the mechanic) to the Meadowlands Parkway in Secaucus (my granny's hospice), but, thankfully, Death Avenue wasn't along the route.
Being one interested in languages, this month's focus on Reading the World has attracted my attention. When choosing a novel to read, I don't generally take much into consideration beyond whether or not the story seems interesting to me. That is to say, in terms of translated works, I rarely notice if the book I have chosen wasn't originally written in English. If I liked it, I might go back to find out something about the author and other work and have been surprised more than once to discover I had just read a book in translation.
When reading books by French authors, though, I usually try to find a copy of the original. I took classes in it through college, did study abroad in Grenoble, and have family living in a suburb of Paris. Although I'd never claim to be fluent (considering how often I find even my native English awkward), I can get by in French and reading it is the best way to keep up vocabulary when there's no one around for practice. Unfortunately, trolling the foreign language sections in the local bookstores reveals mainly Folio student editions of classic authors like Voltaire, Dumas, and Sartre.
I also studied Spanish in school and have had to use it for work, but my skills overall are crap despite its similarity to French. After four years of teaching elementary school in a Spanish-dominant neighborhood, I'm best at yelling at children in two languages to ensure delivery of a message to stop the bad behavior. I also know most of the dirty words used in both Mexico and the Dominican Republic because students love schooling the teacher. Imagine my total spinster surprise when a 10-year-old explained the double entendre of Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina" and the giggles when I exclaimed, "What do you mean it isn't about cars?"
Novels aside, what I absolutely love best in translation is poetry. If I can get my hands on a bilingual edition of a book of poems, regardless of the original language, I will buy it. Side-by-side translations are wonderful since you get a feel of both the poet's use of words (in the original) and the meaning of the poem (in translation). I own two bilingual editions of Charles Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal, one is literal while the other is representational. Although I can read (and love) his work in French, referencing each very different side-by-side translation has helped me achieve a deeper appreciation of the symbolism, figurative language, and metaphors employed by a master of poetry.
Recently, I have been working my way through a bilingual edition of The Time Tree, a book of poems by Huu Thinh and translated from Vietnamese by George Evans and Nguyen Qui Duc. Ethnically, I am Vietnamese and Italian-American, the progeny of a foreign war and raised in the United States. Thinh's work is filled with contrast between ancestral respect for the folklore of Vietnam and the mourning loss of a witness to modern war. It speaks to me. As I read it, I become simultaneously proud and profoundly sad. When the two bloodlines in your veins once fought to the death, it's hard to reconcile with both hating yourself and celebrating unification.
Following is an excerpt from a poem in The Time Tree (NB: a cuoc bird is a crake):
"The Cuoc Birds Cry" by Huu Thinh
The clouds float off,
We stay behind,
The cuoc birds cry by the river docks.
They cry because the traps are dangerous.
Weeds float on the water.
I silently call out the names
Of tables, chairs, old clothing,
And suddenly my youth returns,
Looking at me in confusion,
Kites decorated like tufts of hair on a child's head
More joyful than the source of joy.
Rice crisps ballooning in the market
Cover some of the sadness.
I sit and call out the names of cards from the tam cuc game:
Chariots, artillery, horses on distant roads.
Only the cries of the cuoc birds remain.
Cuoc birds have been crying since before they were named.
My father mixed earth to pave the road.
He sculpted the kitchen god, a bowl.
The wine drinkers left one by one.
My father held up the bowl
As if holding a part of his life
Dried into clay.
The cuoc birds cry in the far away fields.
Reading Vacation While on a Blogging Vacation
I am alive and doing well, just busier and farther away from the computer than usual. If I have time later, I'll be back with a bookish update because I've had a lot of thoughts rolling around in my head about reading, book reviews, and the industry.
Reading continues at a frantic pace because there are so many titles I want to get through. I'm nearing the end of Jeremy C. Shipp's Vacation and wondering how the author gets his protagonist out of the truly bizarre mess he's in right now. He's about to leave a hidden rebel camp with a subversive list of books designed to spread their philosophy around the globe. Hmm. I hope I get to find out what's on the list.
When I surf around the Internet, I’m always amazed at the books other literary bloggers manage to read. Although I pick up a book every day, I often feel inadequate because I don’t get through enough books and my choices aren’t always “quality” literature. As examples, Patrick of Litblog has finished 29 books so far in 2006, and his list makes me feel like a real dummy since I only recognize a handful of the titles. Mental multivitamin’s most recent “on the nightstand” post features eight books currently in process around the house. And I’d never be able to converse books with Conversational Reading since I haven’t read a one from his massive list of 41 recently read titles.
So far in 2006, I’ve finished 30 books. A decent number, but 13 of them were children’s books, including the last seven from A Series of Unfortunate Events, and didn’t require a whole lot of mental processing. The rest of them weren’t very highbrow, although I did manage to get through A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce and was reminded why I never finished it in high school. I suppose I should just get over it. But I think you can tell a lot about a person by what they read, so I wonder what assumptions some might make about me from my book list.
I wandered around the house this morning and found the four books I currently have in process:
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem was sitting on my dining room table. I already read it once this year with the intention of using it for June’s abandoned discussion. During that reading, I dogeared a bunch of pages to reference in questions and by now I can’t remember what I originally wanted to point out. My plan is to read it again and see if the dogears trigger any ideas. I haven’t been doing so well since I’m only on page 2.
How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons has found a home on the coffee table. It was a gift from a friend who thought it would give me some gardening ideas, so I’ve been kicking around a plan to begin composting.
The South Beach Diet by Arthur Agatston went from storage to kitchen counter after a particularly harsh encounter with the bathroom scale. When I tried the diet the first time, I didn’t lose any weight but didn’t gain any either. I did like the focus on vegetables and eliminating most pound-packing carbs, so I thought I’d give it a go again. However, this morning’s breakfast of Vegetable Quiche Cups to Go wasn’t very filling and I’m already thinking about what else is in the fridge.
The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir was in bed. I don’t have a nightstand, so whatever I do before sleep turns into a bedmate. Other bedmates often include eyeglasses, TV remote, magazines, newspapers, and catalogs. This book was acquired with several others from Kate’s mom, and it fits well into the non-fiction trend I’ve been on recently. Sadly, I’m confused as hell. The narrative is more topical than chronological and I’ve bogged myself down with trying to figure out what happened when. Having to go back and reread is making it last forever, so I may need to sacrifice some understanding in the interest of time.