Monday, March 31, 2008

Pushkin? What's a 'Pushkin'?...

On relationships, literary taste, an Ayn Rand infatuation, too much Virginia Woolf, and complementary perversions:

When it comes to budding relationships, how much does a potential partner's taste in books (or their lack of interest in reading, whatsoever) really matter? For many - writers and bloggers, alike - a lot, apparently. According to the NY Times' Sunday Book Review essay "It's Not You, It's Your Books" literary taste has become a handy measuring stick for potential compatibility.

Anna Fels, a Manhattan psychiatrist and the author of NECESSARY DREAMS: AMBITION IN WOMEN'S CHANGING LIVES says that inspecting a date's taste in books is "actually a pretty good way — as a sort of first pass — of getting a sense of someone. It’s a bit of a Rorschach test."

Laura Miller, the book critic for Salon confesses to dumping a guy because of his infatuation with Ayn Rand. Jessica Crispin of Bookslut wouldn't undress for a guy who says his life was changed by an inspirational book about dogs, and James Collins, the author of BEGINNER'S GREEK, has written off potential partners for reading Baudrillard (too pretentious), John Irving (too middlebrow),and Virginia Woolf (too Virginia Woolf).

So is there anything to this judgment by book? Maybe. We all surely have our own standards when it comes to picking a partner. But this bookish girl has to confess to feeling that many of those described in the essay come off as incredibly superficial and, to borrow one of Collin's words, pretentious.

The article begins with one of the author's friends justifying breaking up with a boyfriend she still loved by yelling, "Can you believe it! He hadn’t even heard of Pushkin!" I hope the author did her friend justice by saying, "Okaaaay. And?" Is it really worth throwing away a partner you love because they don't know who Pushkin is? Or because they like Ayn Rand? Or because they read John Irving?

In a perfect world, we would all be partnered with those of similar literary tastes but this isn't a perfect world, and it seems silly to throw away a perfectly interesting and suitable partner because you think their literature is too high or low brow. If I were that picky about those whom I dated, I'd be preparing to be single for a very long time. I'm much more inclined to agree with this passage near the end of the essay:

Some people just prefer to compartmentalize. “As a writer, the last thing I want in my personal life is somebody who is overly focused on the whole literary world in general,” said Ariel Levy, the author of “Female Chauvinist Pigs” and a contributing writer at The New Yorker. Her partner, a green-building consultant, “doesn’t like to read,” Levy said. When she wants to talk about books, she goes to her book group. Compatibility in reading taste is a “luxury” and kind of irrelevant, Levy said. The goal, she added, is “to find somebody where your perversions match and who you can stand."

I'm not saying that literary taste doesn't matter, I'm saying on the list of things that do matter, literary taste is somewhere at the bottom. I'm much more likely give a guy the book for saying proudly and without any sense of shame, "I don't read" than I am the one who says, "Dan Brown is an excellent writer." That latter, at least, I can work with.

And the Weirdest Title Goes To...

On closure, legs, sexism, pimps, hustlers, and big boom theories:
The NY Times has announced the winner of the Diagram Prize: the award given to books with the weirdest title of the year. This year's award: IF YOU WANT CLOSURE IN YOUR RELATIONSHIP, START WITH YOUR LEGS by Big Boom.

Now, I usually try hard not to be too sensitive when it comes to perceived offenses but... what the hell? Am I the only one who has a problem with this title? This sounds to me like the grossest kind of sexism - the kind that blames all relationship problems on the "oversexed" woman; the kind that absolves boys/men of their complicity in relationships gone bad.

But maybe I'm being too sensitive. Maybe the book's title is merely poking fun at such destructive sexism. The synopsis on the inside flap of the book's cover begins, "After decades of preying on women as a pimp and a hustler, Big Boom knows all the games men play," and convinces me that Mr. Boom is, in fact, very serious. No satire to be found here, which is just what I suspected.

Joel Rickett, deputy editor of The Bookseller magazine, said the title was "so don’t even need to read the book itself." Rickett just might just be on to something here.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Megahearted George Saunders...

On endings, beginnings, megaphones, essays, compassion, disgruntled dogs, immigration, and lonely bookmarks:

Last week's Booking Through Thursday question was:

You’ve just reached the end of a book . . . what do you do now? Savor and muse over the book? Dive right into the next one? Go take the dog for a walk, the kids to the park, before even thinking about the next book you’re going to read? What?

(Obviously, there can be more than one answer, here–a book with a cliff-hanger is going to engender different reactions than a serene, stand-alone, but you get the idea!)

I thought this question would be especially pertinent today since I finished a book last evening: THE BRAINDEAD MEGAPHONE by George Saunders. What did I do after I finished it? Well, a number of things, actually. The first of which was to restrain myself from going back to page 1 and beginning all over again, which usually means I enjoyed myself a great deal. I did. On a very random whim - and I do mean random - I pulled this book from my shelf on Monday. It wasn't as if I didn't have other things to read, nor was it as if I wasn't already in the middle of reading five other books. But as it happens from time to time, this book started calling to me from the shelf and my lack of resistance when it comes to beckoning books is well-documented by now.

For four nights and three days I engrossed myself in Saunders compassion, his empathy, his humorous prose, and his transparent love for and undying faith in humanity. Before I began this book, I already had a full-fledged literary crush on Saunders - now it's unabashed love. Any writer who can go from embodying the voice of a disgruntled dog contemplating biting off the "various hangie-down things" of his master because --

There are times, deep in the night, when you have been "tippling" and/or "imbibing" and/or "getting pershnockered," when, perchance overwhelmed by joy (I hope it is joy, and not something darker), you shed your puzzling overskin and stand in the kitchen, moving hips and all, to that melange of painful-high-pitch and human squawling you call "Purple Rain." ("Woof: A Plea of Sorts")

-- to putting human faces and human hearts on the "illegal alien crisis" --

Tonight, America seems like the for-centuries-dreamed-of rescuer of the Little Guy, the place that takes a guy like Hector and puts some pounds on him, sets him on his feet, puts a spring in his step, and ends, forever, his flinching hustle for two-dollar hot dogs. But first he has to get here. ("The Great Divider")

-- this guy is a guy I can love. Saunders doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve, he wears it in his writing, and it's our luck as readers that his writing is a great as his heart is big.

Which is why as soon as I finished THE BRAINDEAD MEGAPHONE I wanted to read it all over again. But we all know I don't have time for that. Besides, getting back to my original discussion, the second thing I feel after I finish a book is that unquenchable curiosity - the driving force behind my passion for literature. After I've finished one book, I begin to wonder about all those other closed books sitting on my shelves that have yet to reveal their secrets - secrets that have the potential to be as awesome, or if I'm lucky even more awesome, than the one I've just finished.

So I did what I usually do when I suddenly have a bookmark without a home: I went scouting around for another. I didn't go very far at all. It went from Saunder's collection of essays to his collection of short stories: IN PERSUASION NATION. To be fair, I started the stories long before I started the essays which was some time early last year. But I got bogged down, and the book got replaced with something else. But inspired, and on a Saunders high, I decided to give it a go again, and it's going much smoother now. The clear-sighted empathy I saw in his essays is not hard to find in his stories. I anticipate that in another week, I'll have added this to my "retired bookmarks" list as well.

And that's where we are now. To sum: what do I do when I've just finished a book? I turn right around a read another. Or, if I'm really in a good mood, I'll start five.

by George Saunders
Riverhead Trade / Sept. 2007
272 pgs.; $14.00

Now 'N' Later Coveting...

On prep schools, superstar English teachers, groupies, Michiko Kakutani, David Sedaris, flames, and impatience:

For some reason a few years ago I bought and read Tobias Wolff's short novel OLD SCHOOL. I'd never heard of him - or, more likely, I might have, and simply never paid much attention - nor had I heard of his book. But there was something about the New England prep school scholarship kid which caught my attention, and, as it happens with so many of the books I read, on a whim I picked it up, read it, and absolutely loved it.

OLD SCHOOL is, among other things, a celebration of literature and the potential momentous effect it can have on our lives. In the prep school of Wolff's creation, the English teachers are superstars; according the narrator they were the only ones who knew "exactly what was most worth knowing." And as superstars often do, the English teachers have a core of student groupies, which includes the narrator. In addition to competing for the English teachers' attention, the students compete in annual writing contests for the chance at a private meeting with heavy-weight writers such as Earnest Hemingway and Ayn Rand (the novel is set in the 1960s).

I loved every aspect of this book, from the clear and concise prose, to the narrator's love affair with literature; from the humorous portrait of those famous writers who visit the school, to the growing maturity of the narrator not only as a reader but as a writer. All of this, and the book is only 200 pages.

So naturally after having read this morning's NY Times book section, and in particular Michiko Kakutani's review of Wolff's new collection of stories OUR STORY BEGINS, I'm in full covet mode, wondering if I really want to wait for the paperback.

Then again, I was already in covet mode when, on my way out of the door this morning, I happened to glance at this week's issue of the New Yorker, and read this bit of info on the "Contributors" page:

David Sedaris ("April & Paris," p. 38), has a new book of essays, "When You Are Engulfed in Flames," coming out in June.

What's this? A new book? And I have to wait until June? Sigh, yet another reason summer can't come soon enough. But I greet the news of Sedaris' new book with a little worry because, since he writes regularly for the New Yorker I fear I've already read many of the essays likely to be included in the new collection. Of course, my concern is moot because I'm buying it anyway. I'm just wishing I didn't have to wait so long.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Growing Up With Goosebumps...

On R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series, long summer afternoons, sacred texts, Stephen King, and, of course, Harry Potter:

Was anyone else pleased by the NY Times' article "Goosebumps Rises from the Literary Grave"? This former R.L. Stine fan was anyway. The afternoons I spent fighting slimy monsters or conversing with aliens all from the comfort of my bed are too numerous to count and almost all courtesy of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series. The occasion on which I handed those books over to my younger siblings was frankly ceremonial, attendant with solemn promises that they absolutely would NOT wet them, tear them, draw in them, get food on them or in way disrespect my former sacred texts of horror.

I had, by this time, moved on much more scarier things than Stine's really only slightly frightening Goosebumps series. Apparently, during the height of his popularity - a popularity I was completely unaware of until reading the Times article 20 minutes ago - Stine was called the "Stephen King of children's literature." As a twelve year old, I must have thought so too since King is exactly what I started reading when I decided that evil ventriloquist dolls were just so elementary.

That doesn't mean, however, that I don't greet the news of Goosebumps' rebirth with not a little hint of nostalgia - and a bit of chagrined surprise since I wasn't aware Stine had stopped penning them in the first place. Which only goes to show just how completely I left the Goosebumps series behind when I decided to move on to more "adult" material.

I don't know how well the new Goosebumps books will go over with this new generation of children, especially following the Harry Potter series, which I can admit has a more sophisticated plot and better character development than most of the Goosebumps books. But what Goosebumps lacked in sophistication it made up for in the kinds of scary thrills that come cheaply and most welcomely on long and hot summer afternoons. Those it did well. Even now, thirteen years later, I'm still not too old or sophisticated for cheap and scary thrills. I'd like to hope that a large portion of today's children aren't either.

Stephen King wrote an interesting article for Entertainment Weekly some time ago on Harry Potter and his unacknowledged predecessors - the books by R.L. Stine.

What Novelists Strike?

For those of you who missed this very funny article in The Onion: Novelists Strike Fails to Affect Nation Whatsoever --

The strike kicked off last fall when the NGA announced it had hit a roadblock in negotiations with the Alliance of Printed Fiction and Literature Producers, failing to resolve certain key issues concerning online distribution, digital media rights, and readers just not getting what writers were trying to do with a number of important allegorical devices....

So far, sources say, no one has attempted to cross the picket lines, most of which are located in private homes. However, unconfirmed reports indicate that at least one novelist may be breaking the strike by writing under the pseudonym "Richard Bachman."

"We must, as a people, achieve a resolution to this strike soon," novelist David Foster Wallace said at a rally Monday at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, where he is a professor. "The thought of this country being deprived of its only source of book-length fiction is enough to give one the howling fantods."

"I thank you both for coming," he added...

"If this situation is not brought to a halt soon, it could have serious ramifications for, you know, literary culture, I guess," said Kyle Farmer, a Phoenix-area real estate consultant and avid golfer. "It would be tragic if we had to go a whole year without a new novel from Kurt Vonnegut or Norman Mailer," he added, unaware that both authors died in 2007.

Wallace is right - I'd have the howling fantods if I was deprived of any new book-length fiction. Then again, I would have time to read those previously published stacks of un-read books I have scattered around my apartment...