I have been doing a fairly good job of reading books that have some degree of literary merit. It’s funny though, because I don’t find myself discussing them with anyone. The only gauge I have about whether what I’m reading has left an impact is that I find myself mentioning aspects of the books to the MoH. He’s just a sounding board, though, because he doesn’t read. Well, he reads numbers. Mmmm….numbers.
I can’t imagine not reading. Not being interested in reading. Not wanting to read. Being able to live one’s life each day without knowing that when it’s late, and it’s time for bed, there’s a book just waiting to be opened. If anything can take my mind off of my own pettiness and worth in this world, it’s a book.
The biggest difference between the books I read that I describe as having literary merit, is that I might be able to actually discuss them. You know, while standing in the line at the grocery store, or with the guy who comes around to check on the landscaping in the complex. “So, how do you feel about the dry wit of the storyteller in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and its juxtapositioning with the “re-education of the “young intellectuals” in China by Chairman Mao?” I could ask of one of those innocent victims. If I actually did bring up something I’ve read (and no, not at the grocery store), the mention would only go so far as to sound as if I’m in the know with regard to said book. The next person would launch into her query,” Yes, but have you read…,” or perhaps, “I’m reading….” and there wouldn’t really be a discussion about any of the books mentioned. Or should I say titles mentioned. The idea of starting a bookgroup has come up, but that’s all. We do a lot of that.
So reading is yet another semi-private part of who I am. Who I am, not what I do. When I read books of a finer quality, it is the writing that fascinates me more than the story. I don’t know that the story would intrigue me without the writing. It seems ridiculous to separate the two, because how could one exist without the other? A good example would be to consider a less than literary book — one that is packed full or intrigue, or tear-jerking drama. Evocative desires and feckless females. Men with big pectorals. When I read books like this, it is the
steamy sex and diabolical schemes of the evil antagonist story that keeps my attention, and I race through them. Although many are enjoyable — especially when I just don’t feel like doing the laundry, weeding the planters on the patio, or cooking dinner reading about the pain of all human suffering — I have difficulty remembering most of them for any length of time after I’m finished with them. And it’s not because my memory is going to crap. They all blend together. I remember the author’s name most of the time, but rarely the title. Yes, some of the writers are better than others with the best being those whose dialogue, or characters don’t interfere with racing through to the finish. But many aren’t. It must not matter, because they certainly can sell books. And they probably make quite a bit more money than most of those who publish “literature.”
Lately, I’ve been pressing ahead with choosing books for their writers first, and the story second. This has slowed my reading down quite a bit, but it has also kept me engrossed in the craft of writing. That has been very worthwhile.
“When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.”
— From The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
How could I not want to read this book? The character and everything that I came to know about him is completely wrapped up in that very first passage. The voice chosen. The phrasing. The language. How does Krauss switch from Leo’s perspective, to that of fourteen-year-old Alma, the daughter of a woman who writes translations of books, and who is lonely after the death of her husband. Alma’s “chapters” not only sound different than those of Leo, they look very different.
25. MY BROTHER, THE MESSIAH
That night while I was reading, Bird came into my room and climbed into bed with me. At eleven and a half, he was small for his age. He pressed his little cold feet into my leg. “Tell me something about Dad, ” he whispered. “You forgot to cut your toenails,” I said. He kneaded the balls of his feet into my calf. “Please?” he begged. I tried to think, and because I couldn’t remember anything I hadn’t already told him a hundred times, I made up something.”
This is a book that I will pick up, turn to a page and reread a passage just for the way it sounds. The writing makes the story, a remarkable one, unlike anything I’ve read. The History of Love will not be a book that is forgotten, and I want to read more of Krauss.
I’ve been on an interesting train of reading translations or about translators. It hasn’t been by design, but it certainly adds to the thinking I do about what I read. A few months ago, I finally read the Carol Brown Janeway translation of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. I’ve had the book for at least five years, successfully moving past it on my shelf each time I searched for something new to read. No wonder. I wouldn’t have been able to contain my emotions had I read it earlier. I had trouble as it was.
Sometimes when the beauty of a phrase or the uniqueness of an idea expressed stands out, I turn down the page. I know. You hate that. They’re my books, I paid for them, and they’re trade paperbacks, not hardbacks, and certainly not first editions. Someday they’ll end up in a used bookstore, someone else will notice the creases in the lower corners and wonder what it was about that page that caught another reader’s eye. So yes, I turn down the page. Or in this case, turn up the corner. It would be a bit strange if i whipped out my yellow highlighter, don’t you think?
Fourteen of the 218 pages are turned down in The Reader. Going back to read some of the passages overwhelms me and I want to read each one again, and more. How does a translator capture the essence of a writer’s words, his characters, their thoughts? It makes me want to be able to read in another language to see for myself instead of wondering about it.
“But there was so much energy in me, such belief that one day I’d be handsome and clever and superior and admired, such anticipation when I met new people and new situations. Is that what makes me sad? The eagerness and belief that filled me then and exacted a pledge from life that life could never fulfill? Sometimes I see the same eagerness and belief in the faces of children and teenagers and the sight brings back the same sadness I fell in remembering myself. Is this what sadness is all about? Is it what comes over us when beautiful memories shatter in hindsight because the remembered happiness fed not just on actual circumstances but on a promise that was not kept?”
— Michael of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
And where do authors get their ideas? I know I have captured an interesting few myself over the years, but they’re just sitting in a notebook. Waiting. In The Ice Queen, by Alice Hoffman, the book I’m currently reading, a woman is stuck by lightning, causing her life to take a different course than one might expect it to after such an event.
“You’re always so negative,” my grandmother said.
“You got all the positive genes.” Amazing, considering her condition, considering the condition of the world.
Toward the end of her illness, even my grandmother had to face sorow. She cried in her sleep. I couldn’t stand to hear her suffering. I left the cat I’d adopted to keep watch over her, curled up on the hospital bed I’d rented, and I went to stand outside, where I could breathe in the brackish air. It was spring and there was pine pollen everywhere; things had turned a sulfury yellow. That night I wished that my whole life had been different and that i could start all over again, in Paris, or London, in Italy, even across the river in New York City, where I’d gone to school. I was still young. I wished I could shed my skin, walk away, never look back. But starting a new life was not my expertise. Death was my talent; before I could stop myself, I wished my grandmother’s pain would end. I wished that this world would no longer have a hold on her.
She died that night while I was sleeping on the couch.”
The woman has a knack for her wishes coming true, and it is with a sense of being no one, and having no life, that she tells her story. What makes a writer think of telling a story about someone being struck by lightning? Of telling a story that puts the reader so perfectly inside the head of a seemingly dreary woman, but doesn’t give her a name. Does she not have a name because of her existence? I’ve looked back through the pages I’ve read, and I still can’t find her name. It’s strange, but intriguing, and I need to know what will happen to her. To find out what sense she’ll make of herself and others in her life –several of whom have also been struck by lightning. Hoffman’s writing is almost stream of consciousness at times. Raw and private, evoking surprising emotion as I read. And hope.
In another day or so, I’ll start A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a novel by Marina Lewycka. Of course, the title caught my attention, but so did the summary. It’s about two sisters who put aside their differences to save their father from a “voluptuous gold digger from the Ukraine.” It sounds hilarious, and better be, as I’ll be needing a break from the seriousness of what I’ve been reading.
Okay, so I did read Goodbye, Jimmy Choo before The Ice Queen, but I can’t just read earth-shatteringly serious books one after the other. They make my head and heart heavy. But now that I think of it, Goodbye, Jimmy Choos — was built around the idea of taking things for granted and how seriously lives can change after an unexpected event occurs. Sometimes, covers can be deceiving.
I did break down and buy a Nora Roberts novel at Target a couple of days ago, though. It seems ages since I’ve languished in one of her books, but it’s only been less than a year. Ahhh…it has bathtub and wine or staying up half the night with the light on while the MoH is trying to sleep written all over it. I can’t wait. I’ve read about 20 or 25 of her G.P. Putnam and Jove titles and am amazed at how she just churns them out. Think what you want. Look down your nose, say that what she writes is “easier” or takes less thought than someone who is recognized with the Pulitzer, the Booker, or the National Book Award. What it takes is discipline — something I seem to lack these days.
But I have to wait to read my new Nora Roberts. I have to read Fat Girl first. It’s a true story (something I rarely read) by Judith Moore, who struggled with food issues her entire life. And I say “have” because it’s sort of like taking 3200 mg. of calcium each day.
It’ll make my bones stronger.
Because I have something to write about that could be “brilliant and angry and unsettling,” too.
I just don’t know how to begin.
(And just in case you’ve been paying attention, all but two of the books I’ve mentioned are new books, purchased AFTER I said I had to read all of the books I own before I purchase another…So many books, so little time…)