Friday, May 01, 2009

a readerly roundup

It’s been a week of literary posts, and this is one more. But I guess you’d be watching a vlog if you didn’t like reading on some level, right?

Sometimes I have a complicated relationship with literary stuff—talking to other writers, reading about other writers and going to events can feel like work. I mean, of course it’s work, but sometimes it starts to feel like a job. Which it also is. That’s the deep dark secret of doing what you love (or something adjacent to what you love) for a living (or something adjacent to a living): It makes work fun, but it also turns fun into work.

But the beauty of fiction is that even if I start out thinking, I really should read this book because it’s for my book club/someone I know wrote it/someone I know published it, I inevitably lose myself in the story a few pages in, and reading becomes the wonderful escapist exercise that got me into this business in the first place.

Can you tell I’m ready for the weekend?

But here are the books I’ve been escaping into recently:

The Big Tent: The Traveling Circus in Georgia, 1820-1930 by Gregory J. Renoff: A little more dissertation-y than you want a circus book to be, but this history of traveling circuses in the South is also a history of pop culture in America--for example, the way art and business interact and the way edgy acts gradually become mainstream, for better and worse.

Beautiful Children by Charles Bock: Charles Bock’s first novel--an epic whirlwind of vignettes surrounding the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy in the desert outside Las Vegas--has some first-novel downfalls: The timeline is murky (perhaps purposely, but I didn’t see the purpose), there are a few too many characters, it’s a little too into its own edginess and profundity at times.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t put the book down. Maybe I just like reading about people on the margins (of which many of the too-many characters are), which means I could be fetishizing them as much as Bock does at times. But tired treatises on porn aside, Bock seems to genuinely care about runaways and gutter punks and comic book geeks and accidental adult film stars, and he captures both the exciting and mundane moments of their lives. He also manages to make the 12-year-old kid seem human but not precious, and his grieving parents both average and particular.

This wasn’t quite a great book, but it was a compelling book by someone with the potential to be a great writer.

Cinnamon Kiss by Walter Mosely: I’m no Easy Rawlins expert (I read most of Devil in a Blue Dress in college, but that’s it), but I was happy to jump into the middle of Easy’s crazy P.I. life. The plot of Cinnamon Kiss is heavy on the busywork (Easy has to talk to this guy who knows this guy who owes this other guy a favor, who...), and I rolled my eyes every time Easy met ANOTHER woman who wanted to have sex with him. But I appreciated how Mosley ties local (and world) history into his career-spanning examination of race relations and wraps it all up in a fun genre romp.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: (Shout-out to my book club for predicting the Pulitzer this year!) I like the-novel-in-stories as a form (I wrote one of those suckers myself), and it’s a great way to paint a portrait of a community. The small town of Crosby, Maine comes across as brutal--there’s no shortage of disease, adultery and suicide--but somehow not bleak, thanks to the kindness of the narrative voice. Although some of the characters run together, Olive herself is unforgettable: a cranky, smart-but-not-always-wise old lady whom the author refrains from cute-ifying. If you’re looking for stories that go beyond coming-of-age, first love and other teen territory, this book is a good place to start.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison: As with most of Toni Morrison’s beautiful, dense books, I could probably benefit from reading this a second time. But here’s what I got from the first read: Living in the 1690s is ROUGH. Women, black people, Native Americans, indentured servants from Europe--all are different varieties of slaves (and even if you’re the master, there’s a good chance you could get small pox and die young).

But seriously, this novel poignantly shows how slavery is not the blunt, uniform system that high school history classes portray it as. It’s layered, and peopled by humans--some of whom do their best to find and create kindness within the system. Which is not to say that Morrison is an apologist by any means--rather, by depicting good people trapped in the web of slavery (sometimes literally, sometimes psychologically), she reveals its power and evil. And as always, she does so with compelling characters and magical prose.

Beyond Definition: New Writing from Gay and Lesbian San Francisco, edited by Marci Blackman and Trebor Healy: Published in 1994, this anthology of queer writing is both a fascinating artifact from a time when AIDS was necessarily a death sentence and many gay writers published under pseudonyms, and a totally-ahead-of-its-time/timeless collection (back when few people knew what "FTM" meant, there was apparently already a bit of a scene in SF).

My favorite pieces included Elissa Perry’s empathic story of a bus ride gone bad, Trac Vu’s prose poem about gum and oral sex, and Sparrow 13 LaughingWand’s truthfully raw poem (and his name).


the last noel said...

Your book group sounds way too intellectual than my book group. My group is called the No Pressure Book Group. When we meet it's usually an excuse to have dinner parties. If you don't read the book, no biggee--just pass the salt.

Cheryl said...

Reading the book is totally optional in our book group too. In fact, the woman who led our Olive Kitteridge discussion joined us because her last book group was all exclusive and you had to get voted in. I like dispelling the myth that literature and pressure go hand in hand! (And reminding myself that they don't have to.)