Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Year In Books With Piano & Scene, cont'd


East of Eden
John Steinbeck
Published Sept. 1952; Read June 2006

I tend to get caught up in the contemporary. I get overwhelmed when I think of all the books there are to read out there. I get anxiety attacks in the basement of Strand. I get depressed thinking about the fact that even if I put my life on hold right this second and committed myself to reading during every waking moment of the rest of my life, there would still be pages left unread. I realize this isn’t completely normal. But it’s why I get caught up in the present. When I fall in love with a book, I fall in love with the author as well. I want to know everything about them, read everything they’ve written. I want to see them read. There’s nothing worse than finding a new book, loving it, and then finding out the author passed on years ago. It’s hard to be in love with someone who’s dead. Trust me, I’ve tried it. But enough people urged me toward this book – my high school English teacher suggested it, my sister swears by it, even Oprah promoted it, and so finally, I picked it from a shelf. Simply put, this novel is epic. It’s long as hell, but I would dare any American-born human being to read this book and not relate to it in some way. As previously blogged on my own site, www.pianoandscene.com (sorry, had to do it) – you will like this book if you can identify with one or more of the following:

A. You were raised religious.
B. You have a sibling.
C. You want to be good.
D. You worry you might be bad sometimes.
E. You like to read.
F. You romanticize California a little.
G. You like stories.
H. You breathe.
I. All of the above.

I, of course, choose I.

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The Disappointment Artist
Jonathan Lethem
Published March 2005; Read Oct. 2006

Jonathan Lethem equals another obsession of mine. He’s a great writer, and if you haven’t read his novel Motherless Brooklyn, please, for the love of God, do. That book was the hit that got me hooked. You know what I mean – not exactly the first time I tried him, but the time that would lead me down the road of needing to read everything else he had ever written, ever. The Disappointment Artist is his first collection of essays. Topics range from the New York City Subway system to his fixation with Philip K. Dick to his mother’s death. They are beyond smart (I sent myself to the dictionary twice at least), interspersed with pop culture commentary, personal truths, and single sentences that you’ll want to read five times. Lethem is somewhere between my generation and that of my parents (I’m 27, my parents are in their 50s), and so I think he has this sort of older brother power over me and perhaps over most people my age. He sort of guides the reader through the material like that hip, sort of avante-garde sibling that wore all black and listened to the Talking Heads before anyone else did. He played guitar in the garage and still got good grades and might’ve even made eyeliner look cool. I’m too young to have first discovered that obscure Dylan record before any of my friends, or to have frequented that creepy subway station in Brooklyn when it was still way dangerous (I live just a few blocks from it now), but I’m not too young to relate. Lethem falls head over heels in love with everything – books, movies, pieces of art, even subways. I’m the same. Recently I even fell in love with a certain corn muffin found only in the East Village (order some buttons, and I might divulge the secret). When you feel things this passionately, it consumes you, even if only for a moment. But loving this hard has its downside too. When your expectations are sky high, it’s inevitable that every so often they fall. I think that’s how this collection can best be described: to appreciate, dote, love, or obsess, is also, inexorably, to be disappointed. But you’ll have to trust me when I tell you, that above all else, it’s worth it.


The Lay of the Land
Richard Ford
Published Oct. 2006; Read Dec. 2006

Richard Ford wrote The Sportswriter in 1986, introducing his readers to his protagonist, Frank Bascombe. Frank is many things – a failed novelist, a father struggling with the grief of his lost child, a wandering ex-husband, a man sort of in love with New Jersey, an all-around likeable guy. Independence Day appeared in 1995. Frank is then ten years older, a real estate agent who strangely lives in his ex-wife’s house, fumbles around with his troubled teenage son, and owns a birch beer stand. Enter The Lay of the Land, the third and final installment in Ford’s fiction trilogy that came out at the end of last year. For whatever reason, I waited years to read these books. I had somehow been informed that there would eventually be three of them, and so I hatched a pointless plan to wait for the third to come out, and then to read them all in succession. Don’t ask me why I do these things – I just do. I loved all three, but The Lay of the Land was my favorite, though it’s difficult for me to pinpoint exactly why. Each novel revolves around a holiday, Easter, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving respectively. All three deal with dark subject matter – death, divorce, disappearance – but when told through the voice of good old Frank, these stories come across as rather lighthearted. Only when looking back, when connecting the dots, do you truly realize how dark a lot of the material actually is. In Lay of the Land, Frank has left the suburbs for the coast of New Jersey. He has prostate Cancer. His second wife may or may not have left him for her first husband, Wally, long believed to be dead until someone found him on Mull, an island off the coast of Scotland (this little tidbit of plot is only an inkling of the many inventive and interwoven characters and situations that litter Ford’s story like shells in the sand). In many ways his books are mundane. Lay of the Land is just under 500 pages and covers a mere three days, and so every detail is here, down to how many times a day Frank takes a piss. Ford’s writing requires a certain patience that you don’t find in many contemporary works anymore, and so it takes a while to slow down, to ease in, to get used to the precise and detailed pace. Frank takes it easy, and for maximum enjoyment, so should the reader. Perhaps that’s why the third was my favorite – by the time I had finished all three, by the time I had gotten to the end, I had finally learned how to slow down, how to just go wherever the story might take me.


Jed said...

Now you should read Cannery Row. It's Steinbeck, but shorter, and it will make you romanticize California even more.

Karl Ruben said...

And the post where I choose to sing the praises of my favourite new blog, is of course, done by someone else than the main man. C'est la vie.
I love your writing style, your enthusiasm for music and everything, and right now, I love that you turned me on to this other great voice/pen.

Thank you for the music!