I read this while waiting for a delayed (and ultimately cancelled) flight out of the tiny airport in Florence, South Carolina. I didn't have very high...moreI read this while waiting for a delayed (and ultimately cancelled) flight out of the tiny airport in Florence, South Carolina. I didn't have very high hopes for it (or for my likelihood of leaving Florence in a timely fashion), but I guess it provided a decent enough distraction from my travel woes.
I've read about a lot of screwed-up families, but there was a point in this book at which I was like, okay, enough already, someone needs to step in and extricate this kid from this situation. (And it's a memoir! That makes it even worse!) I'd heard that Burroughs's take on his unconventional adolescence was darkly comic (that may have been from a back-of-book blurb), but I spent more time clutching my figurative pearls and feeling sort of horrified than I did chuckling at anyone's dry wit. While the story itself was fascinating (albeit in a very grim way), the writing didn't sparkle or do much to distinguish this book from the glut of confessional memoirs that revel in the awkwardness of and vague trauma inflicted upon their narrators.
Maybe I'm being needlessly harsh in my one-star rating, but there was something about Styron's memoir that really distressed me. I read it during one...moreMaybe I'm being needlessly harsh in my one-star rating, but there was something about Styron's memoir that really distressed me. I read it during one of my own periods of depression, and for whatever reason I decided to pair it with The Bell Jar, and instead of feeling any sort of comfort or recognition in Styron's words, I just felt sort of angry. I became so hung up on the ways we (women, men, Americans, depressed people, etc.) talk about depression, and on what it means when we call it by different names, that even the very title of the work became grating: "A Memoir of Madness." I started (probably unfairly) projecting onto Styron, grumbling to myself that, sure, when fancy male writers are depressed it becomes madness, like they all think they're King Lear or something. (This is the point at which a simultaneous re-reading of Sylvia Plath became not so helpful, but provided an interesting contrast.)
It was also around the time--and this was in a total fit of unabashed Crazy--that I decided to reclaim the phrase "mental illness." Man, that was a bad week.
But I guess what I really struggled with, in reading this memoir, was the notion of finding anything noble in suffering from depression. I've never felt especially noble or touched by a strange, dark power or whatever--I've spent almost fifteen years of my life thinking that I'm broken and that I should cheer up already. I know that there's no such thing as capital-D Depression, and that we all experience it differently (and maybe even differently throughout our own lives), but there was just something about Styron's tone that really irked me. (less)
One of the back-cover blurbs describes this novel as "kaleidoscopic," and when I read that I was like, "oh, I highly doubt that"...but it actually IS...moreOne of the back-cover blurbs describes this novel as "kaleidoscopic," and when I read that I was like, "oh, I highly doubt that"...but it actually IS kaleidoscopic, a story that shifts POVs and spins in and out and around the interconnected lives of the inhabitants of a small town. At the center is John, a man who's admired, feared, loved, and despised, and the mysterious woman known only as John's wife. When it became apparent that Coover was going to refuse to give John's wife a name, I was a little annoyed--not another story about men projecting their desires and miseries onto a nameless, idealized woman!--but the annoyance fell away when his decision began to make sense, probably around the time that the narrative became slightly surreal and more than a little unsettling. It's a deeply strange story embedded in a deceptively simple suburban-angst package, but it's definitely worth reading, particularly for fans of Don DeLillo, Donald Barthelme, and maybe John Updike (although I don't actually care for Updike myself...)
An interesting but sort of muddled book that traces philosophical, political, and economic ideas of the public good (in particular, as it relates to t...moreAn interesting but sort of muddled book that traces philosophical, political, and economic ideas of the public good (in particular, as it relates to the mission of the public library) and how these ideas have been eroded by consumer capitalism.
I'm not going to dwell on the typos, or on the author's use of the same quotations in multiple instances (sometimes these were lengthy passages from Plato, or a quotation that appeared twice within the space of about five pages), or on the use of explanatory examples that read more like digressions (I'm thinking in particular of a really long explanation of signifier/signified/referent that actually made me forget what any of those terms meant).
I guess the big issue I have is that so much of the author's argument is the high culture vs. popular culture one. I think he's absolutely right that libraries--public libraries in particular, but even academic libraries are not immune--have drifted away from education and toward entertainment in response to the pressures of a fragmented marketplace in which citizens/patrons are little more than consumers/customers. The thought of calling what we do at reference desks or in classrooms "customer service" is, to me, maddening, horrifying, and kind of vomit-inducing, so I'm really sympathetic to this argument. However, I lost a bit of this sympathy when I began to realize that the "barbarians" in the title doesn't refer to politicians or other nefarious agents of capitalism, but rather to the uneducated masses, the poor fools who don't know that they're supposed to want more for themselves than the latest bestseller and who need the wise Librarian to set them straight. This kind of thinking--the "grand civilizing mission" idea--is the part of being a leftist that I find both demoralizing and incredibly counterproductive. (less)
Some of my most meaningful reading experiences have been the completely unexpected ones--not the comfort of reading a book from a favorite writer, but...moreSome of my most meaningful reading experiences have been the completely unexpected ones--not the comfort of reading a book from a favorite writer, but the shock of discovering something completely new, the thrill of grabbing a book that, for example, has been sitting on the backseat of my car for four months and for some unknown reason is the thing I pick up as I'm heading into a restaurant I don't even like for a lonely Saturday lunch.
Four months ago, I'd stumbled upon an interview with Alasdair Gray and was intrigued by what he said and how he said it. (On writing: "I don't want to face this world, let's get back to the hellish one I'm imagining.") I grabbed one of the library's very few (although as the English librarian I think I will have to address this via the miracle of COLLECTION DEVELOPMENT) titles by Gray from the stacks, really just choosing 1982, Janine at random.
And then today, I spent the afternoon with a strange, intense book that somehow manages to be several books at once. It's a book about a man spending a night drinking alone in a hotel room; it's a book about power and sex and fantasy and powerlessness (so of course it's also about politics and money); it's experimental and mean and big-hearted, too.
It is a deeply weird book, in all the best possible ways.
In fact, what the hell, I'll just say it: I think it may be the Scottish Ulysses. (less)
When I think "book of essays," what comes to mind is a series of ruminations on how-I-felt-when-I-was-here and what-I-think-about-all-of-this. With hi...moreWhen I think "book of essays," what comes to mind is a series of ruminations on how-I-felt-when-I-was-here and what-I-think-about-all-of-this. With his first collection of essays, George Saunders manages to totally screw up my mental model by pairing these personal-political essays with old-fashioned, honest-to-God satire.
If you've read any of his short stories, it probably won't surprise you to find that Saunders writes satirical pieces in the best possible way--angrily, and with hope, and with a refusal to believe that the worst in us is all we can offer one another. Some of these mean fables really work; some are maybe slightly less successful because, you know, there is nothing easy about satire. Harnessing indignation and making it funny, showing a world turned on its head and suggesting that instead of all of us standing on our heads to make sense of it, we should flip the world over...it's a wonder that the genre even exists and that writers like Saunders (or Twain, or Vonnegut) have attempted it at all.
As an essayist, Saunders is engaging and conversational, and not afraid to interrogate his own assumptions (for example, when meeting the border-patrolling Minutemen in "The Great Divider," or when observing Ram Bahadur Bomjon in "Buddha Boy"). Taken as a whole, the collection exhorts us all to reflect more and to challenge the forces that would keep us fragmented and fearful--not a bad message, I'd say.
Also, fans of Donald Barthelme, writers, would-be writers, and, really, everyone else: check out "The Perfect Gerbil," a short appreciation/why-it-works-and-is-awesome dissection of Barthelme's story "The School." (less)
Lanark is a story (or two) told in the wrong (but really quite right) order, a dystopian take on all the things that so readily lend themselves to the...moreLanark is a story (or two) told in the wrong (but really quite right) order, a dystopian take on all the things that so readily lend themselves to the dystopian treatment: capitalism, power, love, etc. There are funny bits, fantastical bits, postmodern bits, and depressing bits, and Alasdair Gray is beyond smooth at weaving them all together.