Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - again

At times, Dave Eggers stream-of-consciousness writing makes me uncomfortable. He actually says the things that I often find myself thinking, but would never say aloud for the simple fact that to expose my crazy thoughts to the world would likely result in my getting alienated from my social network and cast straight into The Cuckoo's Nest. It was stressful to read this man's thoughts as they vacillate between self-loathing and self-love, from being caged in by responsibility to being righteously validated by it.

Brazen Careerist blogger Penelope Trunk once wrote: "...the difference between a blog post that reads like a diary entry and a blog post that someone would want to read is usually just time passing." The same should be said for memoirs. At bookclub, many of my fellow readers expressed frustration with the tumultuous writing and layer upon layer of life and thoughts and thoughts about the life and thoughts about the thoughts about the life. Get on with it already! they seemed to want to scream. I felt the same for much of the text. And then suddenly, someone would speak out-of-character to deliver a monologue of wisdom that allows Eggers to express growth and learning that he could not express himself. His own character within the narrative could not have expressed it because the story is written so you feel taken along with him on the journey that was his early-twenties AS IT HAPPENED. (In first-person present-tense for all you lit-analysts.)

Why I think this book works is that indeed there was time that passed between the living of this period of the writer's life and the forming of the literature. He learned! He grew! He developed and was able to recognize some of the errors of his youthful ways! The backbone of any good character-story is such and Eggers successfully implements it, in a sneaky, unexpected way. Bravo.

Where the piece fails I think, is that we are not given a like-able protagonist. I found myself wanting him to pull it together, but not necessarily wishing any other success. Correct me if I am wrong here, but shouldn't you be the most like-able character in your own story?

As I mentioned in my first-half review, text within A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is so thick with narcissism as to be ironic, however - the book is so long that that the irony devolves back into nonsensical narcissism until the very end of the book. Not good for readers with short attention spans likely to quit a story in favor of one that appears better.

A coterie of articles that validate the truths within the narrative along with a rant from the author about being a "sell out" can be found here and here. Brace yourself, the truths are as sad and shocking as any heartbreaking work of fiction. More so because fiction, they are not.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Stones From The River

As hard as it is to admit, aren't we all drawn with hideous curiosity to those who are different - strange - weird? We want to look away, we know that staring is rude but we can't help it, and yet, we won't dare get too close just in case we could "catch" their affliction?

Stones from the River could be described as a fascinating book about characters plagued with circus-freak misfortunes, set in the middle of Germany during the Holocaust. Not quite light reading. The stories of the boy who is raised as a girl and the son who gains the weight his parents eat, as well as other outsiders in the fictionalized town of Burgdorf are collected and spun and re-told by a Zwerg - a dwarf, a Little Person - who suffers great pains simultaneously ignoring and celebrating her uniqueness and the uniqueness of others.

Great writers are said to paint pictures with their words. Ursula Hegi paints in 3D. With her exceptional style, I feel like I could not only walk through Burgdorf without getting lost, but that I would know each inhabitant by sight and understand them completely.

Page 154: "For weeks it kept raining, and the river kept rising... Trudi helped her father carry the books from the pay-library. The flood covered the two lowest shelves throughout the library, soaked the legs of the wicker table, and stained the underside of the sofa, even though Trudi's father, with the help of Herr Abramowitz, had lifted its legs onto bricks. They wound the ends of the long drapes around the curtain rods, creating an odd rococo effect that made the living room look far more elegant than before.

The third week of the flood the rain ceased, but the surfaces of St. Martin's Church were half under water, and the people took boats to the chapel which stood on a hill near the Sternburg. It looked as if all the pigeons of Burgdorf had sought sanctuary on top of the bell tower, and it was impossible to see the slate roof tiles among the swarms of gray and iridescent birds."

It's in the little details that we comprehend the town as a whole, the persons in it, and the ability of the author to coax beauty from the everyday.

Unfortunately, it takes a long time to read this kind of detail.

With 525 pages, littered with "Frau's" and "Herr's," and a litany of other German phrases I was not accustomed to, I became acutely aware that in 2010, I have a short attention span that fights against the character-novel in a way that doesn't happen with the plot-novels that are experiencing greater popularity these days. In the last few weeks, I felt like the slowest reader on earth, but I am glad I stuck with it. The character development was amazing, the German perspective on the atrocities of WWII was something I had never engaged with before, and I really enjoyed the bait-and-switch paragraph structure used by the Spokane, Washington-based author. Take Page 291: "After six years of polite engagement to the elegant and accomplished Fraulein Raudschuss, the dentist, Klaus Malter, fell in love one hot June afternoon of 1941 - fell in love recklessly and irreversibly - shocking the town two months before his long-scheduled wedding day. His bride had her gown hanging in her closet , and every detail of the dinner had been planned, right up to the lemon and parsley fans that would decorate the cheese trays."

It's two pages before we ever get back to Klaus and the bombshell that was dropped at the beginning of the section. Almost - but not quite - long enough to forget about him and his new love entirely. I loved the gorgeous water-river-based metaphors, and the mythical and mystical stories designed to help us and the people of the small town make sense of their circumstances.

Part One Hundred Years of Solitude, part Big Fish, Stones from the River was ultimately a forced and welcome reprieve from the burden that this Year of 100 Books could become, if I let it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I Was Told There'd Be Cake

Sometimes, honesty is highly appreciated. Other times, it is not. Learning to navigate this precarious line is one of my life's goals.

I first heard essayist Sloane Crosley on The Sound of Young America podcast. America's Radio Sweetheart Jesse Thorn was interviewing her about the collection of coming of age in NYC essays, I Was Told There'd Be Cake.

Let me say this: She's funny. Really funny. And well-educated. Her exploits are for the most part, highly relate-able to anyone who has ever locked themselves out of their apartment, had a bad boss, searched for meaning in their name, or failed miserably in an attempt to be part of polite society. No topic is off limits, although thankfully she avoids much of the overplayed subjects of sex, baseball, and crime that others who've lived and loved in The Big Apple have previously written so well. Or at least so often.

Instead, Crosley boldly admits what all well-meaning community servants have secretly thought to themselves at one point or another: How can I put in the least amount of effort for the greatest percent of self-importance and apparent benevolence? This particular vignette recounts a stint as a volunteer in the butterfly exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. We've all been there, really intending to Make a Difference! And then somewhere between unpacking boxes and giving directions to the directory...good intentions return to those who are truly pure of heart, and you find yourself calling in sick and watching a Tori Spelling marathon on Oxygen.

Reading about Crosley's internal debate over how truthfully to answer a child's question on the state of butterflies in the afterlife made me laugh, and appreciate her willingness to admit the discomfort we all feel when forced to make decisions we really wish we weren't responsible to make.

But then I got to a few essays where "names have been changed" was not enough to protect the innocent. Have you ever seen the movie "Never Been Kissed?" Watching it makes me cringe for Drew Barrymore's character so badly I get face wrinkles for days afterward. This is the same level of discomfort I felt reading as Crosley systematically picks apart a childhood friend who made the horrible mistake of including her in her bridal party. I'm not saying that I've never made fun of anyone, but I know that doing that type of thing to a person is incredibly unkind, and I like to think I'd have enough sense not to highlight my worst character flaws in a published book. But we live in a world where laughs often come at the expense of other people, and self-deprecation is a polished and ribbon-tied form of egotism. More than once Crosley laments her lack of girlfriends and place in her family's hierarchy. No one who reads this book would be shocked as to why; adventures of the Happy Healthy Well-Adjusted and Popular aren't nearly as entertaining. Well I guess I'm screwed -

Some people, like my mother for instance, choose to read romance novels set in beach towns when they want to relax. Not me. When I crave brain candy, I look for essay collections like this one. They are humorous, outrageous and at times insightful. With I Was Told There'd Be Cake in particular, there was a little bit of the predictably unpredictable, and a few times where I would have normally applauded her edginess, but couldn't because I was being beaten over the head with it.

Page 142: [Referencing the gradual forgetting of one's high school experience] "The order of life events gets fuzzy, as if it were not your own life but the life of some historical figure. Did Charles VIII get syphilis before or after he invaded Italy? Was I using tampons before or after I learned to tie a cherry stem with my tongue? I can never remember."

Oww! My head! It hurts!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac

I am a little afraid of failure. This literary journey is only for my personal enlightenment and was never intended to represent my abilities as reader, reviewer or writer. Nonetheless...the idea of not finishing the 100 books in 365 days immediately transports me into a terrified mindset my therapist has called an "Achievement Complex." (To which I plan on addressing, in the not so distant future with The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth.)

That being what it is, I wanted to give myself a good strong showing out of the gate and reached for Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac BA 42-300, subtitled "The Practical Bicyclist's Handbook and Basic Field and Street Manual for Utilitarian Riding."

Why choose this book? 1) It's thin - only 126 pages, and 2) It came into my possession for a mere $6 at the incredibly entertaining bike 'n beer festival Tour de Fat this past summer. A nice guy from Oregon sold it to me while dressed in vintage men's golfing knickers and a newsboy cap.

Now it may have been the numerous New Belgium libations offered at the festival, but at the time I couldn't think of a better purchase than what I thought was a handbook for the would-be hardcore urban cyclist, which incidentally, I am not. Now, having read every word of Boneshaker 42-300 - I've come to the conclusion that "Almanac" was a strange word choice for this nifty little book. As a child, I remember paging through a couple of farmer's almanacs that were kept around my grandparents' house from way back before weather reporting was a beautiful people's game. They were full of planting tips and graphs charting the phases of the moon - not - as far as I can recall, interviews with gardeners who hate non-gardeners or poetic chapters depicting the righteousness of farming in the worst of conditions. Both of which can be found within the pages of my 2009 bicycling almanac, should you replace "gardener" and "farming" with "cyclist" and "riding."

Despite the inclusion of multiple anti-motorized vehicle stories, the editors of Boneshaker manage impressively to stay pro-bicycle in a completely non-judgmental way. Take Boneshaker's review of a collection from the 8th Annual Bicycle Film Festival 2008 on Page 75: "Solid. An impressive blend of cycle-centric pieces. One worries, though, about the effect the highly stylized (and totally fucking exhilarating!) shorts about alleycat/street/stunt races will have. Do they give a dangerous/rebellious name to cyclists, especially to the motorists who are, albeit stuck in traffic, following the rules and not wreaking havoc?"

Its length allowed me to finish the book quickly, and in just a few pages, I learned about a painter who turns antiquarian bike race photos into awesome works of modern art. I read a want-ad seeking a non-motorized companion for a '98 Korean sportscar, and laughed outloud with the cyclist who tosses used cigarettes BACK into the vehicles from which they came, before pedaling off in indignation. Pages 112-115 claim indebtedness to Thomas Stevens, Pee Wee Herman, and all persons and things in between. At the end, I think I learned a lot more about the bicycle culture than I'll ever learn about changing a bike tire or how much weight a barnacle basket can handle before taking down the beach cruiser to which it is attached.

This short collection may be appreciated by avid cyclists, readers who are curious about the seemingly free and fearless riders passing them on the street, and anyone who enjoys a good beer-and-poem combination.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

I'm cheating a little.

First day of the new year and I'm already justifying the chocolate cake. Ahh well, that is the nature of New Years Resolutions, is it not?

But this time, I think it is okay. I am giving myself a head start on The Year of 100 Books by counting Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as book numero uno even though I am already half-way through it and started it last week. I'm not allowed to read the second half until after January 15th anyway because that is when my bookclub meets and we're splitting this one into two chunks because its kind of long.

So far, I'm cautiously optimistic. The first premise of the book is depressing, it being a memoir of the time when both of the author's parents died of cancer when he was 21. (At least I think it is a memoir - at this point I'm not entirely sure whether Dave Eggers the Author and Dave Eggers the Character are two different people. Or whether it is actually Dave Eggers the Caricature that narrates the story.) Either way, the internal dialogue of the Author-Character is so completely chaotic that you almost can't ruminate on his sad situation without missing something, which is just as well because I really don't like depressing books.

The first part of the book, as written by a twenty-something self-nominated Voice Of A Generation, is so completely narcissistic that I cannot decide if I love it because it is so unabashedly representative of those of us in our 20s growing up in the 90's and 2000's, speaking with clarity about the complex issues that we balance in our own little pieces of America. I also might hate it because it represents the worst of the worst self-involved, self-centered products of a generation who has been called out on its sense of entitlement more often than I care to remember.

Page 193: "...I won't apologize for having been brought up in what was, at least in my part of town, a pretty simple suburb - trees and a creek, nice parks. It's not like we had a choice, that at eight or nine, whenever, we could have left home, moved somewhere less horribly fraught with this hideous prosperity."

At this point, I'm hoping that the narrative is all completely ironic, and therein lies the Staggering Genius of this Heartbreaking Work. Otherwise, how could it possibly have won so many awards and have been praised by so many respected people? Then again, it wouldn't be the first time that the masses have missed a point.

Its entirely possible that I'm missing a point. I'm curious to hear what the girls in my bookclub have to say about it.