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.