Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Problem with Gary Shteyngart

I don't think he's funny at all. At all.

ETA: Here I am being so self righteous. And so wrong!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Nothing Lasts Forever

Sidney Sheldon, the world's most translatable author, died in 2007. I discovered him as a young adult, but my secret compulsion to read him did not quite end there. Once, in my 20s, while temping and snooping around, I discovered a Sidney Sheldon novel in my desk. That was all it took. I began to read it first at my desk, and then since I couldn't stop, under my desk, completely consumed. I could do nothing else but read that book. But that's pretty much what Sidney Sheldon's novels are like. It's not like you even have a choice really. Even his New York Times obituary had this to say: "Though most critics were united in their dismissal of Mr. Sheldon, a few conceded, grudgingly, that his work could be hard to put down." Well, yes, and as the man himself claimed in a 1982 interview: "I try to write my books so the reader can't put them down."

All right. So on this many agree. You can't put a Sidney Sheldon novel down. But why pick one up in the first place? Well, you certainly didn't read his books for their exquisitely crafted sentences. I mean, here's a nice example from Rage of Angels: "She sat ramrod straight, as though bracing herself against unseen ghosts of the past." Exactly. But at the same time who could resist the plot twists of his incredibly unrealistic but extremely satisfying stories of revenge. To generalize: his novels featured a young woman from a sad but hopeful background who struggled her way to the top. By the time she was an adult she was rich and beautiful and had an enviable life. Of course, you could read something like that anywhere. But no, that wasn't the whole story. You see, somewhere along the way, somehow in her life, this woman was wronged. Usually she was wronged by men who had taken advantage of her youth and innocence. It doesn't matter how or why this happened. Once this woman had made her way to the top, she spent the rest of her life tracking down and ruining the lives of anyone who had wronged her. And that was the satisfaction.

Sometimes it would take years for the revenge to take place. The woman would reacquaint herself with the person or people who had wronged her. Of course, now as a rich glamorous woman, she was completely unrecognizable from the poor waif she had once been. Amazingly, and in every novel, no one would ever remember having met this woman before. Which was perfect! She could just take her time, perhaps even allow some man to fall in love with her...and then strike! Revenge could take a number of forms: running a successful business into the ground, destroying a blissfully happy marriage, or sometimes it was just death. I still cannot forget the image of a woman casually tossing a blow dryer into a bathtub, where her unfortunate soon-to-be-electrocuted lover was bathing. This vivid scene taught me, at the age of 12, exactly how water and electricity do not mix.

I suppose what I learned from Sidney Sheldon is that life should not really be like a Sidney Sheldon novel. Spending your time obsessed with payback, though tempting, is probably not the best way to go about your days. And who really has the fortitude to build up a vast empire only to bring it down yourself in a glorious blaze of revenge? I confess that I probably couldn't manage this, no matter how ruthlessly I tried. And to be honest, it's not that I really liked Sidney Sheldon's books, so much as I am glad that I read them. Or rather couldn't help but read them. Or whatever it was that kept me turning the pages until I found that suddenly there were no more left to read.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Reading The New Yorker

If you read The New Yorker, that is, if you subscribe to it, then you most likely have the same love/hate relationship with it that I do. I'm not talking about the actual content, though there is that too. I'm talking about the strategy you have to employ so that you actually manage to read each one, while also reading books, while also not letting too many pile up alarmingly in your house, thereby forcing you to throw out the whole stack and start again.

I once worked with a woman who let her New Yorkers pile up and pile up and she would get around to them eventually, but she never seemed to mind that she might have ten of them sitting around at one time. Strangely she was a producer for a WNYC radio show that involved talking to tons of writers who actually appeared in The New Yorker and you'd think she'd have wanted to be a bit more on top of things. (One of the best moments of that job was hearing her on the phone say, "Oh, Spalding, could you hold on a second?") But anyhow, when I asked her if she minded that she had six-month-old New Yorkers just sitting in a stack in her apartment, she would say cheerfully, "Not at all. I'll get to them eventually." Such optimism she had.

When I lived in New York City, The New Yorker was perfect for the subway. After a couple of days the type would be all blurred and the pages all crumpled, but who cared! You just threw it out, since the next one would be arriving any minute. But then, when I turned 30, two things happened to make my New Yorker reading something of a challenge. One, we moved out of the city to a place where transportation was no longer a passive activity, allowing for leisurely reading, but rather one in which you actually had to pay attention. Two, we had a child.

So the magazines would come, as relentlessly as always, and I found that, on the one hand, they were sort of the perfect thing to read since a novel involved too much commitment at such an intense point of my life, but on the other hand, not surprisingly, I didn't really have the same amount of time for reading any more. In a way, the story of my life (from, say, age 26 on) could be told by just counting the number of New Yorkers in my house. Before the age of 30, you would only find a single one in my house at any point in time. In fact, sometimes there might not be any at all, if I'd managed to finish one before the next one arrived! But by the time my first daughter was born you might suddenly notice the appearance of two in the house, if not more, all turned to somewhere in the middle of an article, with the best of intentions that they'd get finished and thrown out finally. (Note: When I say "thrown out" I really mean "recycled." I don't mean to worry anyone.)

I managed to find a way to make reading The New Yorker easier, however. When my daughter took naps, I pushed her in a stroller while simultaneously reading the magazine. I do tend to like doing two things at once, and believe it or not, it was not at all hard to do. I'm sure I was known around town as that woman who pushes a stroller while reading every day, but I hardly cared. I was really on to something. In fact, my love for the author Alice Mattison began the moment I read the first line of her book The Book Borrower: "Though she was pushing a baby carriage, Toby Ruben began to read a book." This practically sent chills up my spine. Someone who understood!

There was also the problem of not being able to read any books while trying to keep up with The New Yorkers. I'm a fast reader, but come on. I was always relieved when one of those double issues would arrive during the summer or around Christmas. "Now I can read some books!" I'd think excitedly.

But then maybe in the past year or so, though, I started doing something that I really found luxurious: I allowed myself to read only the articles that truly interested me. Always the fiction and then maybe one or two others. And then? I'd just recycle the magazine and move on. I am free!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

No Boats or Sailing or Fishing, with an Exception for William Steig

This is curious. For as long as I can remember I've had what you might call a complete lack of interest in reading about anything to do with boats, or sailing, or fishing, or the like. Maybe the term "lack of interest" isn't quite right. If I'm reading something and I discover that it happens to be set on a boat or that sailing or something is involved, I find that I am instantly not interested and have to stop reading. There's no longer even a question about finishing it. I just sigh and think, "Well, this might be a great story, but I'll never know." I'd like to think that maybe this has something to do with reading too much John McPhee, but really I don't have an explanation for it, and so I have simply accepted this admitted failing of mine. I can't say this exactly translates into real life. I love water and swimming and don't even mind boats. But recently my younger daughter was reading aloud to me from Stuart Little, one of the loveliest children's books of all time, and when she got to the sailboat race in Central Park, I became absolutely antsy for her to finish it. I was tempted to ask if she'd like to skip that chapter, but for some reason she found the description of the boat race "exciting" even with its constant repetition of the terms "fore" and "aft" and all the rest of that.

But then this brings me to one of the most perfect children's books ever written and nearly all of it is set, if not on a boat, at least mostly in the water. This would be Amos & Boris by William Steig.

Now in the years and years that I spent reading picture books to my girls, I often made my preferences pretty clear, which resulted in statements like, "Not Frances again, Mommy!" or "No, I'm sorry, I refuse to read from the Encyclopedia of Horses one more time." But we could all always agree on William Steig. First of all, if you've read anything by William Steig you pretty much have to love him. His books have lines like, "Spinky had to cover his ears to avoid listening to this malarky" and "You worm, you odoriferous wretch!" They are always hilarious like this, but also beautiful at the same time. His characters are never afraid to show their unadulterated love for each other.

So Amos & Boris. Amos, a mouse, builds a boat to explore the ocean. He sets off thrillingly and it is only because of his sheer joy at looking at the overwhelming beauty of the night sky that he accidentally rolls off his boat, which floats away forever. Now Amos is swimming desperately, thinking all sorts of awful questions about drowning, when Boris, a whale, appears and saves Amos's life. "Holy clam and cuttlefish!" exclaims Boris upon seeing Amos, which is exactly the sort of thing a whale would say. Boris is on his way to the Ivory Coast to attend a meeting of whales from all the seven seas (a detail that I have always loved for some reason) but agrees to bring Amos home. Amos and Boris become fast friends: "They told each other about their lives, their ambitions." Of course, parting is ultimately heartbreaking, and they promise to be friends forever. But then "many years after the incidents just described" a terrible hurricane flings Boris out of the ocean and onto shore right near Amos's home. Amos comes to the beach and sees Boris lying on the shore and "I don't have to tell you how these old friends felt at meeting again in this desperate situation." Quick-thinking Amos rushes off and gets two elephants to roll Boris back into the ocean. Boris is saved! Then in tears, the two friends look at each other: "They knew they might never meet again. They knew they would never forget each other." I mean, really, it doesn't get much better than this.

And so, because of the great William Steig, I have read through what you might call a "boating story" over and over again. However, I have a completely legitimate excuse never to read Moby Dick.

Quickly and Slowly, An Introduction

The title of this blog comes from the last line of Seymour, An Introduction and I figure that's a pretty good place to start. With Salinger, that is. Because right here is where I plan to write about reading, not even so much books, but really whatever I'm reading. I'm just going to be writing about reading, if you follow.

It all started like this. Just two days ago, I was walking down the street with an Encyclopedia Brown book in my hand, when it occurred to me that I had a whole lot of thoughts about every single book I have read or even glanced through. And being the compulsive writer that I am (and having very little actual paying writing work these days) I thought I might write freely (note use of the word freely) about things that I was reading. Or even walking around with. Like, for instance, Encyclopedia Brown. How I greedily read through those books as a kid! And here I watch as my daughters (ages 6 and 9) read them just as greedily. Observe as Encyclopedia Brown solves the mystery of the egg spinning contest in which one of the eggs (the winner) was actually hard-boiled and Encyclopedia figured this out by realizing that when the guy behind the counter said "Let me sweep up this mess" instead of "Let me mop up this mess" the egg in question was not raw! (This, by the way, is the one Encyclopedia Brown story I have carried with me into adulthood, even though as those stories go, there were plenty of, er, racier ones.) You can see the appeal though, right? A smart-ass kid, called "Encyclopedia" because he's so brainy, is actually respected for his intellect, even by adults! And weirdly, even glancing through the book as an adult, I find myself wondering, "How did Encyclopedia know?" (turn to page 54 to find out)

But back to this quickly and slowly business. That's pretty much how my life goes. My instincts are always to go quickly. For instance, I read in this kind of freakishly fast way that may actually be a kind of speed-reading I taught myself as a kid when reading at a normal rate was not fast enough. I walk quickly too. And I always try to do at least two things at once (walking and reading is one example). But I have been shown that slowly, when slowly means consciously or thoughtfully, is actually the better way. And yet still I try to do both at once, especially when I'm reading. Maybe this is okay. Like I will sometimes fly through a first chapter and then go back and read it again. Once, in the case of Susan Minot's Rapture, I read the book and then immediately read it again. It's a short little book. It's not her best book, but it's good. And then there are the books I must have read a dozen times, like all of Salinger's books, which brings us back to how I started this post. And this is how it ends: "Just go to bed, now. Quickly. Quickly and slowly."