Sunday, June 28, 2009

Stalled Out

I'm having a problem lately. I think it has to do with over-committment to very large books. See, I started a group read of George Eliot's classic Middlemarch with the gang over at the Fill-in-the-Gaps Project, and then I also decided to finish A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson for my real-life book club, and to join Infinite Summer, an internet group committed to reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest over the course of the summer. So where am I? Playing on the computer and not reading :)

I have missed the deadlines for Middlemarch already - everyone was supposed to be finished with it this past Monday, and I'm only in the 6th of 8 books. I like the book and I want to finish it, but I've been beating myself up a little bit that I got so far behind and didn't catch up in time for the big finale. It's on the back burner for a bit now, though, because I haven't missed the deadlines for the other two books yet, so I need to turn on the heat to get on schedule with those!

For our July meeting, my book club decided that we'd all read different books by the same author and then discuss the author as a whole. Bill Bryson won the vote for which author, and that was fine with me because I was already 1/3 of the way through A Short History of Nearly Everything and figured that might give me the motivation I needed to finish. And I have read a LOT more of it...but I'm still only halfway through at this point. It's just so friggin' long!! I read it for about three hours on a recent trans-Atlantic flight, and I felt like I got nowhere. I'm supposed to have that finished by a week from Tuesday, July 7.

And then there's Infinite Jest, which is a 1000+ page tome that, if you aren't familiar with it, has been lauded as a contemporary masterpiece, one of the greatest pieces of literature to come out of the current generation of writers, and further idealized because of the tragic suicide of the author, David Foster Wallace, last year. I've never read it, and it was on my Fill-in-the-Gaps list. A friend of mine told me about this organized internet movement to read it over the summer, so I figured I might as well join up. I haven't even cracked it yet. The deadline for the first 63 pages was this past Friday, and the next deadline is tomorrow, and I have not even started.

The moral of that story is that I'm a little burned out and overwhelmed. I took on too many hefty committments at one time, and now all I want to do is read comic books. I am going to devote a significant portion of today to reading these books, though, because I don't like reading to feel like a chore, something hanging over my head, and if I make some headway and get a little caught up, it will be better. I am going to tell you soon, though, about the comic I've been reading recently, Scalped, because it's fascinating. But that's a tale for another day. Off to read some gigantic books.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Chick Lit Worth Checking Out of the Library If Your Brain Needs a Break

Wanda, the heroine of Time Off for Good Behavior, just can't seem to catch a break. She crashes through a witness box when she tries to take a swing at the defense attorney of the jerks who caused her office building to blow up (landing her in the hospital with severe burns), hits her head on the floor and ends up in the hospital again in a "light coma." She gets fired for missing too much work - because she was in a coma - and she falls in love with the attorney she hires to threaten her former employee for firing her under such terrible circumstances. And then her psychotic and abusive ex-husband - who has tried to kill her before - tells her he's going to kill her, with all signs indicating that he's headed straight to her town. All this and she has a phantom tune that keeps playing in her head that no one else can hear.

Because of all of this, or maybe in spite of it, she befriends a straight-talking therapist who helps her define what she needs to do in order to take back control of her life and, ultimately, prove to herself that she is good enough for the man she's fallen in love with. The reader learns a lot about all of the crap Wanda has been through - some of it her own fault, some of it not - and naturally pulls for her to get her shit together and come out on the other side as a grown-up who actually does something she likes for a living and likes who she is. Which, of course, she does.

I won't pretend that the story isn't a bit predictable and formulaic. But I enjoyed it nonetheless. I did get attached to Wanda as a character as well as some of the other secondary characters (particularly her friend Elizabeth's kids) and I got some catharsis. It was like watching a reasonably good Lifetime movie (I know, those are few and far between). Since I'm currently reading Middlemarch and A Short History of Nearly Everything with Infinite Jest in line to be next, I needed the mental break!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Meet Manny...

Filled with lots of small, touching, embarrassing, outright hateful human moments, this book is not about a big picture. Last Night at the Lobster is all about the small stuff, and it celebrates that quiet awesomeness of the little guy, and also how he unfairly gets shafted time after time after time...and keeps on being a good, caring guy because that's just the way he is.

Manny is the general manager of a Red Lobster in Connecticut that is being closed down by the corporate headquarters. He and five employees get to move on to an Olive Garden in the next town (with a demotion for him to assistant manager), but at least they will have jobs. It's the last day the place is open, and it's right before Christmas, and a bad snowstorm hits. The whole story is about the history and loyalty and petty grievances of Manny and his crew as he struggles to keep them together and keep the place open until closing time, despite the worsening weather outside.

It's really a very quiet story, and that's why it's wonderful. It's also a really quick read - just a couple of hours, I'd say - and it's well worth the time investment just to meet Manny and get to be his friend for a little while.

My Father Bleeds History, and Here My Troubles Began

Maus is a two-volume comic book memoir written by the son of Auschwitz survivors, about their story of survival and also the author's story of his somewhat difficult relationship with his dad. (An aside here - I had a hard time coming up with that first part, because I didn't want to say "graphic novel" [it's not a novel] and "graphic memoir" sounds like a Penthouse exclusive, and "comic book memoir" sounds kind of dumb, but it's the best I've got. ) As the inside flap of the book says, it's a story about the Holocaust and also a story about those who survived the survivors.

We've all seen/heard/read a million stories about the Holocaust at this point. It's horrible and heart-breaking every time. It never gets easier to witness in any way, largely I think because most people have a very difficult time imagining how anyone could treat another person in that way. People have treated other humans as animals or worse throughout history, and it still goes on today (which is partly why the stories are still so relevant and raw), so I know the attitude is certainly within the human capacity...but I don't understand it. Spiegelman ups the ante a little by depicting the characters as animals already - the Jews are mice, the Nazis are cats, the Poles are pigs, the French are frogs, the Americans are dogs, etc. It eliminates the hackneyed cliche of "treating people like animals" and it also makes you view the story with fresh eyes because it's told a little differently than usual.

As for style, I thought Spiegelman's style of story-telling was very similar to that of Harvey Pekar (of American Splendor fame), which is to say it's very common man, it's a little self-deprecating at times, it breaks the fourth wall on occasion...and something else intangible that I can't describe. I love Pekar's work, and I love this as well. It's hard to choose which parts of the books I liked most. The moments between the author and his father in the present are so realistic, rotating among frustration/anger at his father's irritating habits and attempts at guilt/manipulation, and worry/tenderness over his father's advancing age and physical/mental deterioration, and admiration for the strength and ingenuity his father had in order to survive the Holocaust.

On the other hand, the historical parts about Vladek and Anja in Poland and the many hells they went through to come out again alive and to find each other were so poignant and gripping - those were the parts that were impossible to put down. I'm still affected by this, two days after I finished the books - I have tears in my eyes as I type, thinking about all the people they lost, including their first son, and all the terrible things they saw, and what an unbelievable miracle it was that they both survived and found each other after they earned their freedom (because they were separated in Auschwitz and didn't see one another or hear from one another for a long time).

It's an incredibly moving story told in a somewhat unconventional manner. It has won several awards and a great deal of recognition. All well-deserved, in my opinion.