Wednesday, October 03, 2012

what i read and killed in september

Here are some things that happened last weekend.

1. My car died. In a CVS parking lot two blocks from my mechanic. I hiked up the hill and talked to Jeff. “You have Triple-A?” he asked, not unkindly. “Call Triple-A.” I trudged back down the hill and waited by my dirty car until the tow truck came. I got a jump and drove back to my mechanic.

2. Because of #1, we got a late start on our drive up north for Meehan and Sally’s wedding.

3. Meehan and Sally got married.

4. But we missed it, because first AK got sick. We pulled off the 101 thinking maybe we’d use the bathroom at Starbucks in Soledad, California. There was an urgent care next door, so we used that instead. The doctor thought she was having a bad reaction to an antibiotic.

5. Oh, but between #2 and #3, I ran over a squirrel on an off-ramp. I know I probably kill a dozen polar bears a day just by consuming products that come in plastic packaging, but I still burst into tears. Later Jody tried to make me feel better: “Survival of the fittest! Maybe that squirrel had really bad eyesight.” Christine said, “I can’t believe Jody’s people have survived this long. They have terrible eyesight.”
Survival of the most musically inclined.

6. Some nice things: post-wedding breakfast on the beach in Carmel, where even the sand seems high-class, all fine and white. Fish tacos on the pier in Monterey with Colin, who talked about self-help books and deep-sea devil squid and the fact that pelicans also have bad eyesight in their elder years and die when they can’t fish anymore. I’m so jealous of what a culturevore Colin is. He is this sponge of information. There but for my love of fashion magazines and daily requirement of stupid, pointless shit….
Before Clint Eastwood talked to empty chairs, he was mayor of this tree.

7. Back in town, my car overheated. My dad thought it might be the thermostat. Jeff couldn’t find anything wrong. His motto is, if it’s only partly broke, don’t fix it.

I’ve been telling people: At least my weekend was better than the squirrel’s.

Here are some things I read last month (yeah, I’m reviving that—never my most popular feature, but I’ll never know if you leave right now and go Google devil squid).

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman: Stories of precocious, neglected, abused children are only slightly less abundant than actual children who fall into that category. The perverse challenge, then, is to make the terror fresh (and/or sad, redemptive, sparkling, etc.). Tupelo Hassman’s novel-in-vignettes hasn’t succeeded to the extent that the blurbs on the back and the review I heard on NPR would have you believe. The voice of Rory Dawn Hendrix--the daughter and granddaughter of “feebleminded” women who got pregnant young and stayed poor and addicted--is overly precious (not to mention punny and tangled) at times, and doesnt seem to grow as the character does. The apparent inspirations that distinguish the novel--the Girl Scout Handbook and Buck v. Bell, a Supreme Court case granting institutions the right to sterilize mentally disabled women--get a little bit lost, surfacing without a lot of purpose.

But it’s also that lost-ness that makes the story feel true. The telling does sparkle, riffing on everything from the Girl Scout Handbook to standardized tests to the prayer on the back of St. Jude candle, as if it say “This is what the world has handed us. This is what we must work with, even though its never enough.” Also, god bless any novel that believes neglectful, addicted mothers might still love their children, and that their children might not be so crazy to love them back. Im really responsive to any story that unwraps that mother-child ache, and suggests that motherhood shouldn’t be off limits to even the most feebleminded among us.
I'm all for card catalog nostalgia.

How Fiction Works by James Wood: What I like most about this book is how James Wood dismantles certain fiction-workshop cliches like “no flat characters” (what does that even mean? he wonders) and essentially says to realists and postmodernists, “Can't we all just get along?” The two camps have more in common than they think--realists know they’re not actually replicating reality, and pomo folks still rely on the conventions of language.

The title of the book pretty much describes it: Wood is a nerdy and insightful critic who is fond of really, really close reads. As such, he can tell you more about a novel and how/why it’s effective than most authors could. Mostly this is wonderful and illuminating. Occasionally I feel like I’m reading a manual that breaks down how to drive a car in excruciating detail, and I’m certain that when I get back in a car, I’ll either be the best driver in the world or so bogged down by over-thinking that I’ll be totally unable to turn the key.

My Life as a Man by Philip Roth: While I was reading this book, I kept telling people that the gist of it was “bitches be crazy.” It’s true that the only sane woman in Peter Tarnopol’s life is his mother (oh, wait, but his therapist dismisses her as the castrating source of his narcissism). Maybe his sister? At least Peter/Roth realizes that it takes a crazy bitch to know one. The novel is Peter’s obsessive, claustrophobic investigation of why he can’t stay away from his banshee of an ex, who makes his current insecure, mildly suicidal lady seem like a catch. (It didn’t help that I listened to the audio version, and the actor gave all the women screechy, hysterical voices.)

But watching them all torture each other makes for somewhat torturous reading. Rarely have I felt so viscerally turned off by characters, which may be a testament to Roth’s writing? And yeah, he does all sorts of nifty meta things to show Peter’s attempts to process his relationships, and time doesn’t unfold so much as tie itself in knots. So this was a useful book, I guess, just not a remotely enjoyable one.

1 comment:

Claire said...

Sorry about your car and AK getting sick and the squirrel. That's quite a weekend. But yay for the good things!