24 November 2007

Disappearing Acts. Terry McMillan.

It was in an excessively costly but otherwise most admirable laundromat in Geneva that I happened across Disappearing Acts. Someone interested in black American culture had apparently been there washing clothes, for as well as the McMillan there was a book of poetry by what I should probably not call a black man whose anger had distorted his judgment. But I shall so call him, for while I left the poetry book sitting there on the table having read only one or two poems, and I carried Disappearing Acts away and read it all, if there was anything that seemed to the idle (or occupied with matters such as how fun it was to activate a soap dispenser, a washer, and a dryer all from one centralized payment machine) and uninstructed eye to unite the two volumes, it was the idea that black men have so much to bear that they must be forgiven all transgressions, as long as they provide a cogent explanation for the warping of their character.

Disappearing Acts says on the back cover (at least of this edition) that it is a love story, and the copy contrives to indicate that follows the standard arc from first meeting to Scrabble to happily ever after. But in fact the great uniting of the initially resistant protagonists occurs very close to the opening of the novel, and from there it is a depressing (though perhaps meant to be uplifting) story of accommodation of expectation to reality. The strange thing, though, to me, was that it seemed quite possible that McMillan saw the whole affair as a balanced one, with equal efforts at accommodation to be made from both sides. She moves back and forth in the narrative from the male character to the female, carefully delineating the hopes, aspirations, struggles, and failings of each, giving each equal time and attention, and counting on her reader to root for the two to make it in the end.

But the woman is, while tiresome, snobbish, and not particularly convincing as a repository of the great songwriting ability with which McMillan has endowed her, pretty much normal. McMillan makes her eat too much, and have trouble confessing that she is epileptic, but these are pretty small and surmountable failings. On the other hand, the man is alcoholic, narcissistic, and prone to fits of destructive violence, his actions constrained by the spells of excessive optimism and pessimism by which he is alternately seized.

They end up together, but they would be better off apart.

But the guy has, in the end, started night school, where he's taken an introductory course in psychology and learned that he has trouble relating to women because he's angry at his mother. So doubtless everything will turn out all right in the fullness of time!

23 November 2007

A Rake's Vow. Stephanie Laurens.

There are few pleasures in life greater than that of picking up a book someone has abandoned somewhere, reading it, and then proceeding to abandon it somewhere else.

In fact, after a moment's thought, I conclude there are in fact no greater pleasures--perhaps one or two equivalently great, but none I can think of touched with quite the same illicit thrill. Maybe in the old days, when one wasn't supposed to, er, well, there were certain things one wasn't supposed to do, er, well, anyway. People probably enjoyed all sorts of stuff a lot, then. But now we are jaded.

But picking up an abandoned book smacks of theft--still forbidden, as far as I know, though certain persons of my acquaintance do seem as if they may view the matter differently. And reading it as fast as one can smacks of not wanting to be caught. And then abandoning it again--that is like littering, isn't it? Or, well, abandonment. Or, you know, some sort of deliciously naughty thing, anyway.

Fondly do I remember coming back one snuffly, cold-ridden July day to the foreigners' hotel room in Chongqing where I'd rented a bed, only to find another foreigner there, with an alarm clock precisely like mine, renting the bed neighboring. She had just finished a book! and wanted to lighten her backpack of it. I took it gladly. It was a war novel by a Vietnamese woman, and I am sorry I cannot remember her name or that of her book, for really it was excellent. I read it on the train to Chengdu, whereupon I took it to the airport and leaned it against an outer window of the terminal, where I was sure some other English reader in desperate straits would seize upon it with joy and delight.

I remember, too, staying up late in the narrow bed in the TV room at friends' house in Juneau, gobbling away at some strange sort of psychological drama from the 1960s that I'd picked out from between two Harlequin romances on the give or take shelf in the Haines ferry terminal, and put back there on my way back through the next day. It was not the sort of book to make any kind of dent in historical memory--it can't have stayed in print for long, and, most assuredly, with the physical decay of the last extant copy all knowledge of the book will be lost from the world. As well it should be. But it was fun, being in such a hurry to finish reading something that probably ought not even to have been written in the first place.

And so it was with The Rake's Vow, one of the awfullest books I have ever read. I had been sitting, that afternoon, in the yellow autumn sun on the ferry from Lindau (oh confounded Lindau) to Konstanz, snuggling my head into my woolly hat and fortifying my mind with Timothy Mo on the rise to historical prominence of the Pearl River delta. Very clever, Timothy Mo. Very edifying. Very admirable, and amusing withal. And there were gulls, and soft-spoken German tourists (none of those dreadfully vocal Koreans and Americans and Hong Kongers I'd encountered on the train ride down), and schools of teeny tiny fish in the green lake waters, and everything was just most thoroughly civilized.

I debarked in Konstanz and found a narrow little room in a stag-bedecked hotel with a bowl of lovely little tart apples sitting on the front desk for one to grab on one's way out. I went out and wandered until I found a cozy Turkish restaurant with a mysteriously pizza-heavy menu (but no mystery, really--it was Germany, and Germans do love their pizza), where I had wine, and one of the better salads ever, and baked shells with ground beef and tomato sauce and garlic, yes garlic, yes, really, it's okay if you put garlic.

And then it was back to the hotel, where instead of returning to my ever-so-worthy Mo I looked through the little bookcase at the top of the stairs until I found something in English, and I took it back to my room and began to read of the adventures of the lady in the derriere-hugging Regency dress, and the peculiar sensations that passed through her whenever that arrogant devil so mysteriously beloved of his elderly aunt (or was it her elderly aunt, and he was a godson? Or . . . well, whatever) looked at her, or found an excuse to touch her, or rescued her from a ghost, or not a ghost, or whatever it was, or wasn't. But anyway he was mighty sexy, oh, yes.

Before long I grew tired of ghosties and overblown sex scenes, and decided I would rather be asleep. But then it was morning, and it was raining, and I picked it up again, and read until another ludicrous sex scene reminded me that the breakfast room was in danger of closing, whereupon I switched Stephanie Laurens for Zhuangzi and proceeded decorously down to refuse boiled eggs and dine upon muesli and yogurt. And then I went back upstairs and switched back to Stephanie Laurens again, until someone from the front desk called to ask whether I'd had breakfast, and then someone else opened my door with vacuum cleaner in hand, and backed again embarrassedly out, and then I came to yet another of those awful sex scenes, and I decided I really had better check out and go find where I was going to spend the rest of my stay in Konstanz (for I wanted to stay some days, but the stag hotel's rooms were all reserved).

I did find another hotel room, tall and blue, with a view over rain-slick rooftops to the spires of the cathedral. Once there, I did my laundry, thinking how little inclined I was to really do anything, and then read some more, until another really foolish sex scene chased me out into the rain.

I had weak Assam at Osiander, and made my routine check of the Daoism shelf. Then strudel and coffee in a cozy place all dark wood, rose velvet, and mosaic-tiled tabletops, across from the cathedral. And then, after inspecting the massive cathedral doors all carved in relief, I slipped inside, found me a pew, took out my Stephanie Laurens book, and read another sex scene, with a mighty internal cackle at the heights of unfittingness I had achieved.

And, eventually, back at the hotel, finished the book, hid it in the bedside table under the New Testament, and went out to look for supper.

Really it was an awful book, and the sex scenes tediously prolonged and vilely numerous. What does one want a sex scene for at all, in the middle of what is supposed to be a fluffy entertainment?

But the odd thing--or if not really odd, just to me unexpected, since I'd never run into the phenomenon before--was that the sex scenes were far from gratuitous, at least if one chooses to grant the book any right of existence at all. If the sex were left out, nothing either of the main characters did would make any sense whatever. With the sex, it did. Not, perhaps, a very interesting sort of sense, but nevertheless, what they were was revealed in how they acted in the bedroom (I vaguely recall it was always a bedroom and not, say, a cathedral).

It reminded me of a comment someone once made to me about how it was little wonder, considering So-and-so's very annoying habits in playing such-and-such a video game, that he had trouble getting his significant other to have sex with him.

It is all interrelated, after all.

Though one does not necessarily want to read about it, at least when one's taste and judgment are not worn down by rain, drunken Bavarians rising from the mist, and Lindau, everlasting Lindau.

The Goose Girl. Shannon Hale.

This is one of those stories about a princess who is not very happy being a princess, but has some adventures and ends up finding that a princess has to be a princess after all. It is pretty entertaining, but not as interesting as (and published earlier than) The Princess Academy, which is about a bunch of girls who have no interest in being princesses until they are coopted by a coercive state. Though I guess in fact there is a born aristocrat in there, too, who ends up being reinstated in her allotted role, after a half-hearted effort to escape.

I suspect God may be hiding somewhere behind all this, but maybe I only think that because the author bio on the back flap says Hale lives in Utah with her family. People who live in Utah with their family probably have God lurking about them somewhere, don't they?

Hale really is, by the way, an active propagandist for literacy, as displayed in this somewhat illogical (or perhaps I mean hypocritical) blog post. (Kids are to be taught that they should read for the pure pleasure of it--because then they will keep on reading for pure pleasure, and then they will be good at reading, and then they will be good, wealth-producing citizens.)

Dark North. Gillian Bradshaw.

Oh, the joy that swelled in my breast when I realized that Bradshaw had abandoned (at least for now) her only moderately amusing contemporary science-fictiony thrillers and returned to period novels. The hero of this one has both tracking skills (combined, of course, with the ability to move undetected) and political ones of sorting out friends from enemies and taking care what he says to either. I was filled with admiration and envy (given my own tendency to snort and rear and trample shards beneath my feet) and forgave Bradshaw for chronicling his conversion to literacy.

17 November 2007

Bidding for Love. Katie Fforde.

If I could get myself to stop reading Katie Fforde I would, but since I can't: Something that I like about Fforde is that in every book there is, twined about the love affair with a man (usually fairly tiresome), a love affair with a job or occupation (sometimes rather interesting).

Fforde also makes me laugh aloud, though when glancing back through this book I couldn't figure out exactly what it was that I was laughing at.

Then We Came to the End. Joshua Ferris.

I was sixteen years old when I first visited a German-speaking country, and naturally I assumed I would learn to read German someday. Such an easy language, so much like English: it seemed merely a matter of time. I might as well get a head start, though, and always it's good to have an excuse for a visit to a bookstore. So I went and I browsed (I think it was in Nuremberg), and I came away with a translation of a Rosemary Sutcliff novel. Then I sat on the train every day (it was the first visit to Europe for everyone in the family, and we were 走马看花, glancing at the flowers as we flitted past, getting a general overview of the terrain) looking up words in my dictionary and writing them down in my notebook. By the time we reached Lisbon, I had read three or four pages, and felt well on my way to full competence.

My second visit to the region came on the eve of my experiment with Chinese history school, and while I was taking Japanese for my second foreign language (look at the bibliography of any book published in English about China, and you will find many more Japanese titles than German, or French), I figured that sooner or later I would need to read something in German. And was it for nothing, after all, that I spent all those days getting sunburnt on the top deck of that Yangtze River ferry, squinting at a German textbook and listening to the people congregated at my back muttering to each other, "What is she reading? It's in a foreign language! She's reading a book in a foreign language!" I stood behind the Hofburg and gazed at the Roman ruins, and then I went to a nice tall, narrow bookstore and looked about until I found a book titled something like National Unity and the Multiethnic State, and then I found myself a notebook composed of tremendously gray and gritty recycled paper, and then I scrabbled away for days, to my immense self-satisfaction.

This year, I am old and gray (or so my brother claims, anyway) and sober and sensible. Having come to a mature accommodation to my own grave limitations, I flew blithely over to Germany without the slightest linguistic preparation. I ran cheerfully about mangling German and forcing other people to speak English. In the many bookstores I visited, I noted that no one had Zhuangzi but there were great numbers of translations of the Daodejing (though not so many, of course, as we have in English, and at least one of them a retranslation of one of the more notable English versions). I looked at the names of authors in the fiction sections, finding that though the bulk of the books available were translations from English, some authors were much more popular there than here. I observed that even if I squinted, the stores were clearly not American ones, the sizes and shapes and colors of the books being somehow just slightly different. I bought no books, nor did I attempt to read anything.

The one small exception was the first paragraph of Then We Came to the End. This is one of the most impressive opening paragraphs I have thus far encountered (you can find it here, if you click to skip the intro, click to continue, and then click on the EXCERPT tab), and I thought it worth seeing how it looked in German, so I picked up the novel from the stack and opened to the first page.

It looked incomprehensible.

I read it through.

It was incomprehensible, though it stirred some small twinges of memory.

I have lived perhaps half of my life, certainly (barring curious sociotechnical innovations) more than a third. My hard-earned Chinese is slipping away, and it is exceedingly unlikely I will ever read German.

So it goes.

13 November 2007

The Feng Shui Detective. Nury Vittachi.

Everyone says it is dreadful in Singapore: hot as sin but without any of the interesting dirt and decay you'd expect from the tropics, no good Chinese food, and if there's a landmark there no one has ever told me about it.

So I'd never so much as considered visiting until I read The Feng Shui Detective. But now that I've read it, I'm terribly anxious for my sister-in-law to get a job there (she's got two interviews next week), so I can go and visit and see if the people there really talk in as amusingly chaotic mixture of tongues as Vittachi makes them appear to do.

Of course, Vittachi lives in Hong Kong, not Singapore, but . . . they're close together, right? Surely he knows what he's talking about. If you don't trust Nury Vittachi, who can you trust?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. J. M. Rowling.

There were those who went on summer vacation under the redwoods and hid under an electric light hooked to a portable generator for most of the week, until at last they were done with Harry Potter, whereupon they emerged, looking distant and troubled, to don bathing suits and freeze themselves in the river.

There were those who exercised great self-restraint, not buying their Harry Potter until the end of the vacation, when they had exited the campground but had not yet made it home, whereupon they read with all their might (tussling over a shared copy) for two days.

There were those who alienated their friends and spouses by canceling social engagements to stay home and read.

There were those who stole a copy from their children and laid it upon the table in front of them in the office at lunchtime, bending close, with glasses off, and squinting.

And then there was I, who, when I managed to borrow an already much-read copy, some weeks after the release, had trouble summoning the energy to read more than 30 pages at a time.

I think it took me a week to finish the whole thing, and then I kind of wished Harry had just stayed dead at the end so I wouldn't worry about having to read a seven-part series about his children.

08 November 2007

The Sex Life of My Aunt. Mavis Cheek.

I started this book because I was passing through Wallingford, and the Wallingford branch library is little more than a distribution center for things people have ordered through the hold system, with very little else on the shelves. There was an amusing turn of phrase on the book's first page, and so I thought maybe it would do until I had a chance to go to a bigger library.

Why I finished it I don't know, for it grew less entertaining and more depressing the farther in I went, and certainly my life would not be impoverished by lack of familiarity with the oeuvre of Mavis Cheek.

The book is about adultery. For some reason, I do not like to read about adultery. Perhaps if I were married I would find the subject more alluring. But an adultery story almost invariably involves a lot of lying, and I find it painful to read about somebody lying. There are many sorts of misbehavior I can quite easily see how someone might find themself engaged in, but deception generally sounds neither necessary nor tempting to me, so when someone in a story starts lying, I am visited with a great sense of implausibility, and I want to throttle someone. Preferably the fictional character, but since that's not possible, perhaps the author.

What I really should do, unless it's one of those books that serves some purpose other than to hobble you so you can't accomplish anything useful, is just put it down.

07 November 2007

Day 3

I woke up this morning to the beep of the alarm clock and a feeling of deepest perplexity. Why is this happening again? Didn't I go to work yesterday, and the day before? It was reasonably enjoyable, but isn't twice enough?

04 November 2007

The Princess Academy, Shannon Hale; The Braid, Helen Frost.

It would be futile to deplore, I suppose, the tendency of novelists to write about literacy, either directly (as in these two books for children) or in slightly disguised form (as when a character harbors a talent for the visual arts). Writers can't help but draw on their own experience, and writers' own experience consists largely of reading and writing.

I just wonder how it is that the literate experience as depicted in novels is so unremittingly positive. In this Hale book, for instance, one girl learning to read lifts her whole community out of poverty; in the Frost book, characters who can read are the focus of universal envy. There is nothing unusual about these two books' treatment of the matter. Learning to read crops up all over the place in fiction, particularly children's fiction, and almost always it is presented as an unqualified good thing.

Possibly, this bias reflects the inclinations of writers intensified by the filtering mechanisms of publishers. Even if someone should write something about how literacy warps the personality, if it were too convincing it might depress book sales (which are quite too depressed for publishers' comfort already), and so its publication would be at least marginally less likely than that of the average manuscript.

I expect, though, there is more than a natural tendency to self-glorification going on in the case of children's books. Children's literature has always been morally prescriptive, but it seems like in place of all the praying that went on in them a hundred years ago, we now have a great deal of reading (along with a ubiquitous assertion of individual identity and a wide vein of ostentatious ethnic tolerance).

And so now I have come around in a useless circle, for I still don't know what's so all-fired promotable about reading.

How to Be Idle: A Loafer's Manifesto. Tom Hodgkinson.

I was idle all summer and well into fall, so there was little, I thought, for Hodgkinson to teach me. Except perhaps in the chapter on smoking, and really, who’s going to take up smoking? But it was fun to read excerpts from the writings of historical personages on the virtues of lying in bed in the morning, of napping in the afternoon, of prolonged periods of malingering.

I happily followed Hodgkinson's lead in bewailing the Industrial Revolution's squeezing of productivity from the masses, whose inclination had been to work only so often and so much as necessary for subsistence (but I felt smug, for it was midsummer and I was lying on a straw mat in the redwood forest in a quite preindustrial sort of a slow period between bouts of copy editing) and in deploring the hours of sleep lost with the advent of electric light (though I cheated one night, scribbling things in my tent under a flashlight suspended from the gear loft).

And then, some time later, fall came, and my determination faded with the light. I agreed to show up in a particular place every day at 8:30 a.m. and stay there right through to 5:00, and my loafing days were over.

Perhaps I should start smoking after all.

02 November 2007