In which I tell Jonathan Franzen to stop trying to distract me with goddamned ducks, dammit:
(Why not call it essays? Or a memoir? Because Franzen is aIn which I tell Jonathan Franzen to stop trying to distract me with goddamned ducks, dammit:
(Why not call it essays? Or a memoir? Because Franzen is at pains to show you what a cool cat he is, that’s why.) Franzen’s a different animal here, is all I can say—or, perhaps more aptly: I come to strange realizations about the big grump I’ve always loved. I was drawn to The Discomfort Zone because he can be so incisive about his family [see his other essays in How to Be Alone and in Farther Away, which I read and enjoyed in last year’s blog-coma] and, consequently, himself; that is, I saw The Discomfort Zone as a back door into The Corrections and partly into Freedom. This is Franzen, I told myself, unadorned—no excuse of fiction to cover it up. This is, perhaps, the curmudgeon explained, if obliquely. (Why do you read memoirs, Sasha?)
Reading The Discomfort Zone, however, I’m reminded of how much I have always hated the man’s digressions. In The Corrections, it was Lithuanian shenanigans; in Freedom, it was the goddamned environment and the frakking birds everywhere. I understand now, however, that this is how Franzen’s mind works: Franzen, I’ve found, shies away from an indulgent narrative about families—about his family, here in particular. Snidely, I think: His essays need to have reach—they shouldn’t only be about the Franzens. And so: Family dynamics should naturally draw on Snoopy and its creator. An awkward adolescence—too enlightening, really: who knew Franzen was such a big dorkus?—dignified by an examination of the youth group he belonged to. Selling the house his mother had spent nearly a lifetime to build—a house full, no doubt, of his mother’s disappoints—should lead to a dissection of real estate in America. And, goddammit, troubles with his wife should veer into bird-watching in them good ol’ United States.
Perhaps he’s living up to that irritating moniker, “a personal history”—that this wasn’t indulgent and navel-gazing, that this wasn’t a book of essays that focused merely on one’s self. This was broad; this tackled Big Issues. But come on, Jon: Your family is the story, your patent uncoolness is the story, your heartaches and your disappointments are the story. Stop trying to distract me with ducks, dammit. I loved him best when he let go, when he so baldly talked about what made him tick. I loved it when he was earnest, if clumsy: I’ve always maintained that Franzen possesses such heart, all the better because it is so unexpected—and it’s no different here. More of that, please.
A tiny voice in my head sneers that this is just about what interests me. I tell that tiny voice that it is mostly right: I wanted a more personal Franzen—I found that in How to Be Alone, and I found that in about one and a half essays in The Discomfort Zone. What these have in common, aside from the family as touchstone: Language and literature, the wielding and the imbibing of. I will argue, though, that those remain personal. That is: I found a more personal Franzen than what we normally see and read. In much the same way I can’t seem to sever my private life from my reading life when I blab here, Franzen assures me that the books one devours and the life one tries so very hard to lead are intricately, if irrevocably, connected. So, you know: More of that, please.
It pains me to say that these stories, though masterful, did not fascinate me the way her stories in Self-Help did. Yes, I recognize how well-writtenIt pains me to say that these stories, though masterful, did not fascinate me the way her stories in Self-Help did. Yes, I recognize how well-written the stories are, how precise Moore’s observations can be, how she has retained her ability to charge a single phrase with so much meaning. The stories in this collection are great stories, created by a writer who knows her way around the craft, has mastered it.
But these stories, they aren’t magical—not for me. I was not compelled to go on a little walk (cigarettes in my pocket, a boatload of heartache as well) after every story. I was not compelled to sigh at the general direction of walls. I was not compelled to run to the nearest scrap of paper and emulate. Kids, I did not gasp. Not once.
But yes—yadda yadda—these stories were written by a master. The craft was flawless. And I’m not even saying these stories didn’t have heart. Because they did. Not just the kind of heart that spoke to mine—these are stories you let a Creative Writing major read, not the kind she has to discover on her own, those stories that spark that Ooh writing is the shiz inside her. Am I making sense?
Well. Which is not to say that I hated this boo. I mean, I like it enough. I like it very much. Sigh. You can’t deny that these are kick-ass stories, ya know?
One of the stories I like best is “Charades”—it’s a night with a family, and this family happens to be playing that most scorned of parlor games. Testament to Lorrie Moore’s genius is how she’s able to create a story about what an awkward little monster a game of charades can be. And, at the same time, display all those undercurrents working within a family? Champion.
Of course, I suspect that given time to soak in, I’ll have other stories “I like best.” I give this new collection—and the author—that: it’s all so very bothersome in oh-so-many levels....more
This is a book-lover’s dream. Or dream dictionary, to be more technically correct about it. This has always been in my “Currently Reading” pile—whenevThis is a book-lover’s dream. Or dream dictionary, to be more technically correct about it. This has always been in my “Currently Reading” pile—whenever I am plagued with that terrible hiccup I’ve dubbed Bibliophilic Purgatory, I skim the pages of this book, picking out choice anecdotes, lingering over highlighted quotations and images. It’s a book crammed with information and trivia about books, writers of books, collectors of books, readers of books, lovers of books. It made me giddy. In some cases, it had me thinking, Hey, I’m doing something awesome with my life.
Let us skip hand-in-hand through the chapters of this wonderful book—those most memorable to me, of course. [That’s how much I adore it—I’ll talk about it at the risk of boring you to tears with my inane rambling! Wahoo!] [Re the details, corrections from those who have read this are always welcome! :p]
1. The Magic Door. A chapter on general book-loving. Basbanes gives us [tear-jerking] stories of bibliophiles—most of them displaying the lifelong attachment of people to books. One is about the woman who wrote to May Lamberton Becker (who penned a column called “Readers Guide” for New York Evening Post, among others), asking, “May I ask you to tell me of a few books that you have loved, that have made you sit up and just shout with delight? I am going to buy a four new books this winter…” Imagine stretching your budget to accommodate your love of reading—and even that having only enough for four choice ones. And then there’s the story of A. David Schwartz, owner of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, who took his time among the shelves of his stores, looking for that “good book to die with.” All of the stories are amazing.
3. Eye of the Beholder. A chapter that deals with the whole business of talking about books—on what “good” books are, what their “true value” is, on censorship. We’re given a run-through of the whole Shakespeare-Bowdler hooplah, as well as a profile of and interview with Harold Bloom [who makes many appearances in this book]. Here’s one of the quotes I went away with from this chapter (I couldn’t agree more with it):
"I learned early on that when people share their reading habits with you, what they are really granting is privileged access to their deepest interests and predilections, even their dreams, needs, and anxieties." (p.47)
5. In the Margins. No doubt my favorite chapter—it gives us a concise survey of the history of marginalia among notable personalities, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the forefront [Trivia Alert! Coleridge is “credited with bringin the word ‘marginalia’ into English usage from the Latin to describe his habitual process of writing in books.” (p.91)] It’s also the chapter that has to be blamed for the fact that I now scribble on the pages of my books. Basbanes just makes it sound awesome and historic to write on one’s books, haha. Basbanes quotes Heather Jackson, a professor at the University of Toronto who has studied the phenomena of marginalia:
“One of the most intriguing qualities of marginalia, the attitude of defiance in which they are often produced,” an altogether “elusive but important quality” of the practice. (p.93)
11. The Healing Art. Among the topics found in this chapter: 1) Where we get our love of reading—one Robert Coles relates how he grew up with bibliophiles for parents, parents who taught him the love of reading, where no book was too daunting, parents who read to each other every night; and 2) How vital books are to our lives, [if we let them]. Robert Coles talks about one Walker Percy, a Southern writer, in a way that, I suppose, applies to anyone who loves books:
“Through novels he found kindred spirits, writers who could conjure up this world, help him to understand his won world, and also make him feel less lonely, because when you read, you are in the company of another person. The other person’s words and thoughts become part of yours, and connect with you, and reading is a kind of human connection. It’s an embrace of another person’s thoughts, ideas, suggestions, premises, worries, concerns—the whole list of nouns is what I think reading enables, and prompts in a person. We are the creature of language, and through language we affirm ourselves, we find out about the world, including ourselves, through words, and we share with one another through language.” (p.263)
It’s a well-researched book, yet the language is never stilted, never boring—you can take in so much information without feeling nauseated by all of it. I suppose it’s because Basbanes’ prose is easy to follow, fluid, as fascinated by the wonders of books. And I can feel how Basbanes himself is afflicted with this “gentle madness” of bibliophilia—this is not a disaffected survey of literature and the manias associated with it. Basbanes loves what he is doing—there’s no doubt about that.
So. What does it mean to love books? [Answer: It means awesome.] How does one love books? [Answer: Awesomely.] It’s a dork-out read for sure. But it’s a book that allows you to dork-out with pride. [That is a great catchphrase, if I say so myself, haha.] Darn it, but I love this book....more
Quite possibly one of the most stressful romance novels I’ve ever experienced. This is nerve-wracking, I tell you—I have never had to dutifully and diQuite possibly one of the most stressful romance novels I’ve ever experienced. This is nerve-wracking, I tell you—I have never had to dutifully and distressingly slog through so much suffering and despair. The Imperial Russia this presents has never been so hostile to characters of the romance novel—were these two ever happy in the normal way? And not in the Oh goodie, your tyrant of a husband—who happens to be my boss—didn’t even think of killing you this time around way? Dude. The heroine—spirited Sophy something or the other—marries some asshole who happens to have had the hots for her mother, whom he’d conspired against in the days of yore. The hero’s aforementioned husband’s aide-de-camp.
The adultery doesn’t make this book peculiar, it’s all the goddamned obstacles Jane Feather threw their way, all the life-threatening and politically damaging consequences that’d come by the hero and the heroine if they decide to fight for their stupidly intense love. There’s a guy named Boris! I have nothing else to say about the plot, I’m too wrecked!
I like angst in my romance novels. This is not angst. This is just giving the characters one strong kick in the gut very early on, and then keeping them down until the Epilogue. Ugh. It was not so much rooting for the characters to find love and keep that love peacefully, deservingly, romance-novelly. It was, by god, a matter of Justice. I closed the book nearly weeping with relief. If this Happily Ever After had feet, I would throw myself at it.