Archive for May, 2013

Back from Wilbur, and More Books to Show for It

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

I don’t want to crowd our beloved Wilbur Hot Springs with teeming hordes, but I do have to recommend that you go. At some point. And not in the summer, when the heat will slay you dead. See how beautiful it is? I kind of want to move there. Forever. Because four days in the glory of that place were not quite enough, even though I was excited to get home to see the latest episode of Mad Men.

Here’s something fun that happened: We played a lot of ping-pong. Unlike pretty much every other game/sport/endeavor in this world, at ping-pong we are evenly matched, also known as “John could potentially try a little harder but is happy not to.” We tend to have a lot of exciting rallies, and because we don’t keep score, everyone leaves a winner. (Helpful exposition: I am not a good loser.)

Pool, which we also play, is another story. John is good at pool. I am not. He likes to give helpful hints as to how I might improve, but I don’t want to hear them. All I want to do is hit the white ball and have it hit other balls which then go into the pockets. Which doesn’t happen nearly often enough when I’m at bat, although he pretty much has it nailed. On the other hand, if I use my time-honored strategy of “clog and wait,” I can sometimes win by default—i.e., when he sends the eight-ball into a pocket. It happened twice!

ANYway, I still get grumpy, because it’s not fun to have your opponent dominating the table, even if just moments before, your heart was leaking all kinds of love for said opponent, whom you find eminently nuzzle-able. At one point, we were negotiating the rules (Do you lose if you scratch? etc.), and John was trying to make up all kinds of lying bullcrap that would put me at an advantage. I kept telling him to stop it.

J: What? Rules are just there to make sure you have the best time possible.

M: Are you freaking KIDDING ME? Rules are there to make sure that you WIN WITH DIGNITY.

And there, my friends, is yet another diagnostic for our marriage.

Anyway ANYway, I read some books:

1) The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud. Really good. Gripping, obsessive, angry, fascinating, and exceptionally well conceived. I love the concept! And very well executed, too. Yay, Claire Messud! Keep writing things! I will read them!

2) Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris. I know, I know, it’s David Sedaris. There’s a temptation to be all, like, more of the same, but with David Sedaris, “the same” is largely irresistible. And I think that this book is his best in a long time, absolutely hilarious. If you refuse to read it because it seems like such an obvious thing to read (which, maybe only elitist idiots like me do that, but just in case), you’re only denying yourself pleasure.

What I’m puzzling over is his recent interview on Fresh Air. On the one hand, he sounded more emotionally present and open than I’ve ever heard him. He spoke a lot about his alcoholism, which I’ve never heard him mention before—although it took him an awfully long time to get to the actual word. (There was a lot of “my drinking.”) And he revealed that the persona who speaks in his work is a much more cheerful version of himself, and that he doesn’t share any of the darker stuff he goes through, which I was surprised by and a little sad about. Sure, it’s a hilarious persona, but I care about his actual self, too.

But the thing that most concerned me was his attitude toward his father. Almost everything Sedaris writes about his father—or, actually, everything—makes him sound like an abusive asshole. And Sedaris just doesn’t seem to get that. Whenever he’s asked about it, he says something like “It was a different time,” or “It’s what motivated me to get up out of bed in the morning,” but to me, that just sounds bizarre. I mean, he’s talking about a man who regularly assured him, throughout his childhood, that was “an absolute zero.”

It could just be that Sedaris’s father is still alive, and Sedaris doesn’t want to stir anything up, which I would understand. But in that case, it’s weird to be writing about him. I find it disturbing, and it undermines my experience of his work. It’s as though something very bad is happening in the room, and nobody is saying anything about it. Worse, they’re laughing it off. Don’t like.

Otherwise, though, hilarious book.

Three Books of Late

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell. I felt the way about this book that I did about Swamplandia: undeniably gorgeous and wildly imaginative, but I can’t quite emotionally connect. It’s probably just personal taste, but I wonder if she isn’t holding back slightly? From diving a little deeper? The stunning exception is the second story in the collection, which makes the entire thing well worth it. Shimmering with silken rage, that story.

The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout. I love Strout’s work, particularly Amy and Isabelle and Olive Kitteridge, and this book is marvelous, too—chewy and sympathetic and rich. Very companionable. It’s the type of book you miss when you’re not with it and then feel very sorry to have finished.

The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer. I’m about a quarter* through, and it, too, is companionable—also warm, which is not entirely a compliment. Maybe it’s not probing enough. And I find myself wondering about import, or maybe intensity. Because while I never really tire of reading about everyday people doing everyday things, this type of book seems to recede from memory pretty quickly—as opposed to the sparkly stylization of writers like Saunders, Diaz, Franzen, and Lethem and the drilling intensity of writers like McEwan.

And yeah, I know I just named five men.

Sigh.

Russell is a stylist. Alice Munro is, too. Lorrie Moore. But this is obviously a larger discussion, and one I can’t have when I’m rushing out the door to get my hair dyed silly colors.

5/3/13. Update from 1/3 through: Wolitzer’s dialogue isn’t working for me. It’s too obvious, it’s expository, and it’s treading water, telling us things we already know. Plus, I’m getting a feeling of “Why is this book being told from Character A’s perspective instead of Character B’s?” There’s a Gatsby thing going on where we have the relatable character as our bridge to the more glamorous and inscrutable, but in this case I don’t think it’s working. I’ll keep reading, because for the moment I have enough interest, but the pleasure is diminishing, alas.

5/7/13. Update from 9/10 through: It’s nearly unreadable at this point. Protracted, uninspired, telegraphing events and feelings instead of dramatizing them, tossing away major scenes as though they don’t matter. It seems as though Wolitzer got tired of her material but didn’t stop writing. And where was her editor? Ah, well. In for a penny, in for a pound. I’ll finish.

5/8/13. Hugely disappointing—and even a little angering, because Wolitzer abandons her characters. It’s hard to believe she ever cared about them, when you see the way she washes over their lives. It’s unfortunate, too, that she chose to work with the idea of “interesting,” because you get the sense that she was bored with her own material as early as 100 pages in.