30 March 2008

Book Reports! (Okay, Actually Just One. Book Report!)

I'm in the middle of re-reading The Corrections, rereading being a rare thing for me these days - there are just so many new good books out there to read! When I was little, re-reading was a way of life. A Wrinkle in Time, The Clan of the Cave Bear, the Babysitters Club super special when they go to California and Mallory dies her hair and Claudia eats escargots? (I'm only ashamed of one of those.) But in my grownup life (ha) I just can't justify it. Sure, I accidentally reread The Time Traveler's Wife when, catsitting for a friend, I read the first 50 pages of his copy to pass some time, thinking it would be like watching half of a movie I already knew well, but then I got home and pulled out mine and read it again. For the third time. I first read The Corrections at some point in college - I remember it as being senior year, but, seeing how it reminds me of all these things I read in my junior year postmodernism class, I don't know if that can be right. It's almost like rereading Brecht and seeing how different a reader I was just a handful of years ago.

But all that is a preamble to the fact that I've recently read, for the first time, two very wonderful books, and am going to tell you about them. (And I suppose I also wanted to point out that this isn't my first time reading The Corrections, that, yes, I live under a rock and have never seen Casablanca or read The Unbearable Lightness of Being or whatever, but Jonathan Franzen made the (entirely arbitrary) cut.)

First, chronologically, because why not - The Book of Other People. I don't often read short stories, and even rarer are anthologies or collections of short stories by different writers. I've had the scary Ben Marcus-edited book of new American short stories for how many years now, and have read how many stories? (Answer to both: three or four.) Maybe it was the fact that library books have due dates, but I plowed through this collection pretty efficiently. Maybe it wasn't the library, but that the stories were mostly really good.

It's been long since returned to the library, so I can't quote from editor Zadie Smith's intro, but the premise is basically that the writers were asked to write a story about a character, a story in which we get to know (or something) said character - "make someone up" - and the character's name is each story's title. Interestingly, several stories featured first person narrators telling about the titular character, but I got to know the narrator much better. Less interestingly, and a little dismayingly, several writers took the opportunity to draw utterly empty, worthless, depressing people, in stories whose sole point seemed to be to show me how worthless, empty, and depressing these lives were. There was a string of that in the first half of the book.

But there were also a lot of really wonderful stories, mostly by writers I don't know (whereas the writers I know got me to read the book, and then wrote perfectly serviceable but unexciting stories, alas) - "The Monster" by Toby Litt and "Theo" by Dave Eggers (a writer I know but who's exhausted my patience, so counts as a surprise good story) take on creatures of varying sentience in really interesting, beautiful ways; I'd never heard of Adam Thirwell before, but will definitely be reading the upcoming novel that his story "Nigora" is excerpted from; Edwidge Danticat, whom I've never read because of that rock I live under, is someone I should read, because her story, "Lele," was rich and beautiful, and because Edwidge is an awesome name; and then Jonathan Lethem's "Perkus Tooth" ruins my theory about writers I knew or didn't with probably the strongest story of the bunch, a story that, while things could be argued to "happen," while you could dig out "events," is really just a portrait, of a character and the narrator's indefinable, un-pin-down-able relationship with him.

There were other wonderful stories, but trying to refresh my memory by a title of contents list of character names isn't working. The stories are alphabetized by character's first name, so there's the weird weighting of the first half with graphic stories and depressing stuff (and the two graphic stories - okay, comics - happen to be two of the relentlessly depressing pieces, though Chris Ware is so damn good that he can sort of get away with it), but it still worked as a straight-through read. You could jump around if you wanted, but I wouldn't skip anything.

Phew, that's gotten very long. Long-winded. I'll come back in a separate post to write a little about Chris Adrian's 600-pages-is-never-enough novel, The Children's Hospital, which, in case you're wondering, is awesome. And also in case you're wondering, I just realized that I read two McSweeney's-affiliated books back-to-back (The Book of Other People benefits 826nyc, and The Children's Hospital is published by McSweeney's) and yes, that feels a little weird.

1 comment:

riese said...

As you know I love The Corrections. Re-reading it, I should do that. As you know also how I feel about The Book of Other People but I agree about the Jonathan Lethem story -- I'd actually read Motherless Brooklyn and though I thought it was an excellent book, it didn't really interest me specifically -- it was defo the best of the bunch (besides the Miranda July story which I'd already read). Also, for some reason, I loved the size? Like, it was easy to read at the gym, because I could fold it all the way open like a magazine.