Thursday, September 25, 2008

love in unexpected places (such as story collections and potato pots)

My reading tastes are both expansive and narrow—expansive in that I like more books than I dislike, and I need a blend of high and low culture to keep me feeling connected to the world at large. A little Remembrance of Things Past (which I started a few days ago out of some masochistic desire to read a 1,018-page book—and that’s just volume I), a little Us Weekly. Maybe a lot of Us Weekly.

But I’m narrow-minded in that if you drop me in a bookstore, I’ll end up in the fiction section like water sliding toward a drain. And within that section, you’ll find me reading novels, probably American, probably realistic and literary in tone, probably written after 1980.

So while Aimee Bender’s Willful Creatures isn’t an earth-shaking, drain-moving departure (she’s a contemporary American fiction writer—she even lives in L.A.), I was still surprised how much I liked it: It’s short stories, and so frequently I find short stories to be mean little teases, like the first date that either fails to get your attention or refuses to call you back. Also, it’s whimsical. Her characters have keys for fingers and pumpkins for heads. And while I love the idea of such charming absurdity, I often find it irrelevant and overly cutesy in practice (see Everything is Illuminated).

Except somehow Willful Creatures overcame my prejudices and became, possibly, one of my new favorite books. The stories are about love and family and war in the most surprising ways. “End of the Line,” about a man who keeps a tiny man in a cage as a pet and then as a torture victim—and then feels bad for torturing him but has no idea how to atone without causing more trouble—sums up U.S. foreign policy better than any New Yorker article I’ve read (not that I’ve read a lot. The David Sedaris essays and long articles about the history of, like, lettuce keep me pretty busy).

“Dearth,” about a woman with a magically regenerating pot of potatoes that eventually turn into babies, is a subtle and beautiful story of someone moving ever so slowly from a state of bitter mourning to a state of living, and it made me cry.

The moral of this story is that it’s good to open up one’s reading list just a crack. Hopefully I’ll do more of it this weekend at these readings:

From Daylight to Midnight: Benefit Poetry Marathon
Featuring Eloise Klein Healy, Pam Ward, Terry Wolverton and many, many others
10 a.m. to midnight
Ave. 50 Studio
131 N. Ave. 50, Los Angeles, 90042

The Literati Cocktail Hour/Rhapsodomancy Sampler
Featuring Jamie FitzGerald (yay!) and more
11:30 a.m.
The Robertson Coffee House Stage at the West Hollywood Book Fair
647 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood, 90069


Peter Varvel said...

Every now and then I give in to my mind's craving for People magazine and indulge in - savor, even - the mental junk food.
It's kind of the opposite of the "extremely rich food reading" of books like Memoirs of a Geisha.

Cheryl said...

It's salt-and-vinegar potato chips for the mind, and it's why I like to get in really long lines at the grocery store.