Monday, May 03, 2010

oldies, goodies and what i read in april

This afternoon I put our ancient office computer out to pasture, which involved wheeling it on a luggage cart through the hallway of our building so I could take it to the dusty gadget-and-repair shop down the street for recycling. Inevitably, this garnered some oohs and ahhs from our building-mates.

As in, “Ooh, that sure is an old computer,” followed by an implied, “Ahh, how hilarious that you actually used it for seven years!”

The supposed hilarity of old electronics is a pet peeve of mine. My philosophy, which I know makes me sound 85, is if it ain’t broke, don’t upgrade just because the new one is shinier. I also tend to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, so making fun of our slow but sturdy computer also just seems mean. (This runs in my family: My sister just bought an iPod Touch and gave me her first-generation iPod on the condition that I not change its name, which is Nigel.)

Saturday night AK and I saw Please Give, a wonderful and thoughtful movie about the pros and cons of being nice. Catherine Keener plays Kate, a New Yorker who owns an upscale vintage furniture shop, acquiring its contents from the children of the recently deceased. She feels terrible about her vulture-ish job, so she volunteers and gives money to homeless people and hosts a birthday party for her elderly neighbor (whose apartment she’s already purchased)—as if these acts are sort of carbon offsets.

Guilt junkie that I am, I thought I would hate her and relate to her. But the movie is kind to even its least kind and most deluded characters, and Kate doesn’t come across as an idiot, just someone who feels things deeply in spite of herself. Moreover, I didn’t think she was running such an evil business: If people really want to get market value for their loved ones’ stuff, that’s what the internet was invented for. Otherwise, Kate will save them the trouble and get something for hers. Sure she’s a vulture, but vultures have an important role in the food chain.

If only someone would pay me a pittance for my old electronics.

Here are some April book reviews, because of course I do believe in buying shiny new books.

The Artist’s Daughter by Kimiko Hahn: This book is a cabinet of curiosities and tragedies: mutant bodies, murders, giant insects, cannibalism, people buried alive. It's not sensationalistic--or rather, it evokes plenty of sensation, but never cheaply. Hahn always takes ideas and associations one notch deeper than you expect.

In "Consumed," she recounts stories of eaters of human flesh lifted from an 1896 book by some guys named Pyle and Gould. After pondering cannibalism, she (in an act of poetic cannibalism?) wonders, "Who was Pyle or Gould?/ Did he spend his days sweating/ in the unheated clipping morgue of the Medical Library?" I can imagine Hahn doing the same: The lover of strange things is inherently strange herself. And as a lover of strange things, I'm glad Hahn is a kindred and fearless spirit.

How to Escape From a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique: You know how everyone always says that small presses are publishing the most innovative and interesting work? (Well, if you hang out with the book nerds I hang out with, you do.) On bad days there's a small skeptical voice inside me that says, "Yeah? Are you sure they don't just get sloppy seconds?" Then I read a book like How to Escape from a Leper Colony and I'm like, "Hell yeah, small presses are where it's at."

The book is billed as "a novella and stories," but actually several of the stories read like novellas, with multiple POVs and sweeping arcs of time. Yet the narration is sharp enough that it would work for flash fiction too. Yanique's characters are a diverse collage of Caribbean island dwellers, from lovelorn prisoners to coffin makers to Carnival dancers. They are black, white, Creole and Indian; Christian, Hindu and Muslim. They aren't prone to happy endings, but they seem to live in a world in which love is plentiful.

My favorite quote from the title story: "Christians love leprosy.... Jesus cured lepers. Leprosy gives the pious a chance to be Christ-like. Only lepers hate leprosy. Who wants to be the one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes, too."

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler: Like a lot of Anne Tyler books, you could dismiss this as light hen lit if you weren't paying attention. The protagonist is a middle-aged, middle-class woman sort of bumping around pondering her life in a good-natured manner. But it's ultimately a philosophical and lovely book that examines aspects of life I haven't seen other writers take on: Rebecca Davitch tries to figure out whether her status as social butterfly and professional party-thrower is a betrayal of her bookworm roots, and I concluded that Anne Tyler is much smarter than all those earnest writers who still believe in the "true self" (whether they'd admit to it or not). Tyler also understands that a party is a character in itself, worthy of careful and spirited examination.

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott: I read this on the heels of Bird by Bird, and found the two books very similar, just with different writing-to-baby ratios. Lamott's style can be schticky at times (she's fond of certain analogies), but I feel endlessly forgiving in the wake of her honesty--I relate so deeply to her battle against envy and insecurity, her desire for meaning, her occasional willingness to settle for drama instead. This memoir of single motherhood and a family made of friendships is a true journal, unfolding in snippets, ending without a real ending--but since so much of watching a child grow (or a friend die) is about the appreciating the momentary and the accepting the unknown, this seems perfectly appropriate.

Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart by Alice Walker: As I read this book, I kept thinking, "Wait, Alice Walker is one of our great American writers, right? What am I missing?" To the extent that there's a plot, it's about a couple who take separate vacations: she to an Amazonian meditation retreat where everyone takes some kind of hallucinogen they call "Grandmother"; he to Hawaii, where he lands in a consciousness-raising circle that raises his consciousness about everything from processed food to the history of transgender shamans. My tolerance for New Age anything is fairly low, and for all the factoids about oppressed peoples that Walker tosses in, her main characters are well-adjusted Americans who live off their art, can afford fancy retreats and don't have any problems that aren't solved immediately.

The latter was my real issue with this novel: Every character has an epiphany on pretty much every page. The protagonist learns in a dream that she's afraid of growing old, and that she shouldn't be. Except she'd been prancing around loving her gray hair up until that point, so it was hardly rewarding to see a resolution to a problem I didn't know existed. I'm sure it's really eye-opening and life-changing to go on a rain forest retreat. Not so much to read about one.

1 comment:

c-saf said...

so you really have a working first gen iPod? i'm amazed the battery has held out. go Nigel!