Sunday, March 9, 2008

Treading Water

Every so often I find myself with too many choices. This week has been one of those times. The week starts like any other. I choose a book and begin to read. But something just isn't right. The book isn't moving quickly enough, it's too vague, the author takes his time getting to the point, the dialogue seems forced, there's too much dialogue or not enough. I don't want to read about Eskimos or endangered species or hobgoblins after what happened on Monday or didn't happen on Tuesday. Suddenly, though nothing has changed, the story's fire has dimmed while another book on the shelf starts blazing with light. So I pick up that book; I'll finish the first one, sure I will...just let me read this one first. Suddenly I look around and find that the stack by my bedside is about to topple over with the half-read and the put aside. That's what happened this morning. I took a good look at the bedside stand.

The book that's been there the longest (or at least the oldest one I'll admit to) is The Duke's Children. You'll remember that I started that back before the New Year. It was to be the last book that I read in 2007 but instead was pushed aside by the glittering possibilities of 2008's reading. Steve has been at me non-stop about this fickleness towards one of his favorite authors. Even I had thought my romance with the book was over but this morning I woke up feeling flushed with nostalgia and moved it back to the top of the stack. Maybe this time I'll follow through. Yes, definitely this time.

Next we have two books that I started before going on vacation a few weeks ago, Garcia's Heart by Liam Durcan and Wise Children by Angela Carter. Garcia's Heart is a first novel and was recommended to me by The Mama Chan. She has never steered me wrong and this book is no exception. It is good. Not flashy, just very solidly good. It's about a neurologist who travels to The Hague to sit in on the trial for war crimes of his old mentor, Hernan Garcia. He knew Garcia and his family in Canada, where the Honduran cardiologist had settled down to run a small store and forget his past. The protagonist cannot reconcile this man with the one portrayed at the tribunal and neither can we, the reader. There is also a subplot involving the protagonist and Garcia's daughter, who used to be his lover. This is not nearly as interesting as the main plot and is probably what keeps me from finishing it. I don't care about this romance and my reading gets derailed every time the writer switches over to it. What I want to know is the secret that Garcia's heart holds.

Wise Children is quite the opposite. It is filled with flash and glitter, dancing girls, ponies walking on their hind legs, magicians making beautiful girls disappear, etc. It's a three ring circus in other words. I spent two round trips to work on the subway reading it and here's what I know. The main characters are two elderly, bastard twins who made their living in vaudeville. Eccentricity is everywhere. It is just the kind of story that I love, so what happened? I went on my vacation, leaving it behind and here it still sits. But, yeah, I'm going to read it...soon...

And with that, we arrive at the top strata. You're not feeling ill are you? We do have oxygen handy, should you need it. At the top we have two books, King Dork by Frank Portman and Lost In Translation by Eva Hoffman. I can't say very much yet about King Dork; I've barely cracked it open. It's a teen read that caught my eye because the main character has his life turned around by Catcher In the Rye. I'm bound to have more to say later.

Lost in Translation is a beautifully written memoir of a Polish girl who moves to Canada in her early teens and finds herself untethered by the experience. I'm about half way through reading it and am a bit in awe of both the writing and the girl's experience. I could open the book at random and find something worth quoting. For example:

The yellowed pages I take out of the library draw me into them as into a trance--but only on the condition that they create a convincing mimetic illusion. I feel subtly cheated by Alice in Wonderland, because it is all pretend, a game, and of what interest is that? My reading is all mixed up, and it's not so long after I read Alice that I'm given War and Peace. This is something I should read carefully, my parents convey to me, a classic, something very important--but the usually discouraging invocation of duty has no effect on me this time. I don't notice that War and Peace is a book, something I'm
reading. Surely, this is just life.

What's the problem, then?, you ask. You love it, read it, you say. Aha, here's where you are not me. Although I love it, I'm finding that it reads slowly, because I must stop and think about each passage. I can read the passage above, for example, set the book down and drift away in my own thoughts for a half hour or more. Can one be thrown off by reading something too damned good? I find that I don't want to pick it up because I'll only put it back down. (I never finished Tess of the D'Urbervilles because I loved it so much I couldn't bear for it to end. I still have two pages left after 5 years of reading it.)

There are also those books that are getting very close to joining the pile and may by the end of today. A new one by Steven Millhauser, Dangerous Laughter, because it's very, very shiny and Oblomov, because some book I've read recently kept referencing it. Also drifting towards the stack is a book by Stephen Fry, because I signed it out from the library and it's winking at me suggestively, not to mention whatever new thing that Steve shoves at me.
I guess the only answer is to brew a giant pot of coffee; the Camels are just not going to cut it tonight.


steve said...

This is the abiding problem with books - if you only LISTEN to them, of course you'll be pulled in eighty different directions. Not only do books make sure that happens, but book marketing divisions do too. The only way to make progress is to make THEM listen to YOU. Pick a book, Beepy! For pete's sake, pick a book!

I of course vote for 'The Duke's Children,' although it must be said that in light of this latest entry of yours, 'Oblomov' is certainly the most ironically fitting choice.

Kevin Caron said...

I think I'm with Steve here - I was going nowhere, reading 10 books at once but finishing few, until I resolved to just read one at a time. It makes for a better reading experience, I found, to focus on one book and see it through.

elmo said...

As long as you're reading comics and magazines with this book, too (tee-hee).

steve said...

See??? Kevin thinks I'm right in everything I say, all the time!

Kevin Caron said...

I do.

Except when you're talking about movies, television, or comics.

Oh, and Hellmo's right - while it's better to pick one book and go with it (or one for home and one for transit, as I sometimes do) - it goes without saying that you should be reading 9 or 10 different ongoing comics and 3 or 4 collected comics trades per month.

At least.

Avoid all magazines, except Harpers and National Geographic.

steve said...

And the New Yorker. And New York. And GQ. And Vanity Fair. And Natural History. And Esquire. And the New York Review of Books. And the London Review of Books. And Publishers Weekly. And The American Scholar.

steve said...

and Bark, of course, but just for the articles...

Kevin Caron said...

Nope. Just Harpers and National Geographic.

Beepy said...

Kevin & Steve, generally speaking I do just read just two books at a time. I have the main book which I read at home and then one for the subway. When I finish the main book, the transit book moves up to become the home book and I start a new one on the train. I have a long trip by subway and this plan works quite well.

Every so often, though, I go through a stage like I'm experiencing now where I get overwhelmed with books and can't settle down to just two. I end up with between five and ten half finished books. Usually what happens then is I concentrate on one or two and the rest just "disappear" back into the stacks. This time though, I'm going to try to get through them all one by one (okay, two by two.)

Sadly, I don't read any magazines although I'd really love to keep up with a couple. The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harpers, National Geographic and one of the news magazines (Newsweek probably) would be my choices. Oh, and some of the short fiction magazines.

Sam said...

Hmm, Harper's has been consistently letting me down for years now--I'm more or less just trying to wait out the tedious, tendentious Lapham reign; although he'll probably be replaced by some variety of Foer, so things may not much improve.

The New Yorker and The Atlantic are still really really good, for all the legitimate quibbles one can have with them. And obviously, everyone should read The New York Review of Books, and marvel at the splendid typesetting.

And Time Out New York, to know where to hit da clubs.

Beepy said...

Hey, I finished one! Tonight I finished reading "Garcia's Heart." It had a very strong ending, so thumbs up there.

I think I'll go with "The Duke's Children" as my next home book and the Eva Hoffman for the train. That'd be three non chick-lit books in a row and Steve can bite me.

steve said...

Can and WILL, my dear! Can and will.