Sunday, June 24, 2007

Chat Amongst Yourselves

Sherman Alexie's new novel, Flight, contains a reading group guide so thorough and meticulously written that you might think you could skip Alexie's own words and get the gist of his work with the guide. The reading group guide, 44 elaborate questions filled with quotations from the novel, even has its own author cited (actually, the credit says "prepared by"), Barbara Putnam. (Personally, I prefer to have my meals prepared and my books written.) It's like buying The Sound and the Fury with the Cliffs Notes bound in.

I must admit I have a love/hate relationship with these reading group guides. I can't tell you how many times a decent reading group conversation at the store has screeched to an abrupt halt because someone pulls out a question from the book's guide. It's usually something absurd: Do you think the narrator's love of cats influenced her decision to strangle her child in the sandbox? Or perhaps just a bit more subtle: The author mentions popular songs in several scenes. What do bands like U2 and The Police mean to the main character? What does music mean to you? I sigh loudly when these questions are brought into the conversation, feeling like I'm back in school with a mediocre English teacher. I really don't want to be back in a high school classroom. I really don't want to feel like the love of literature is being beaten out of me by a bored wannabe poet who is just trying to make it to summer break.
The few times I enjoy the guides are when I'm reading a book on my own and I'm left confused or uncertain about a character or a plot element. Sometimes ruminating on the questions in the back of the book brings me to a point of clarity that I couldn't have achieved if I had just put the book down and moved onto something else. Am I the only one who thinks reading group guides are much better without a group?

My biggest problem with reading group guides, and frankly, with reading groups themselves, is that style and form are almost never discussed. The questions are always about plot, motivation, setting and what the author's opinions might be. Those aren't very interesting topics for discussion.
Instead, I want to know why an author chose to tell a story in first person instead of third person. Can we trust the first-person narrator? If not, where are the hidden clues that make us doubt? I want to talk about why an author chooses certain words, and how that language creates a mood or a setting through its sparseness or volubility.

The best reading group guides, including some of HarperCollins' P.S. titles, contain interviews with the authors, or lists of further reading put together by the author. This was the case with Janis Hallowell's excellent and underrated novel, The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn. My favorite feature was Hallowell's list of recommended movies that are on the same theme as her book. Hallowell came in to speak to our store's reading group about her novel, and when we asked her about the reading group guide, she seemed a little embarrassed by the whole thing. We assured her it was great, and I can only hope that if the publishers are going to insist on including these guides, the authors will be involved in creating them. Somehow, this adds some humor and makes it feel less academic.

Back to Alexie's novel for a moment. I really loved this novel and enjoyed its quirkiness, its shifting time periods and the growth of the narrator, Zits. When I finished and saw that there was a reading guide, I was actually kind of excited. On the surface, this novel seems like a simple tale. An half-Indian boy living in various foster homes falls under the spell of an evil person, goes to a bank with a couple of guns and starts shooting. Just as he is shot dead on the scene, his consciousness is jettisoned out of his body and out of the present day, into an FBI agent in 1975. This time-travel-body-shifting continues, and he picks up a few lessons along the way, until he is reunited with his own body. It's a lark, like Vonnegutt's best work, and it makes you think differently about familiar moments in history.

But I knew that it couldn't be as straight-forward as it appears on the surface, so I turned to the reading group guide. It was a slog. I know that these are well-thought-out questions, but by the fifth one I needed a drink and by the tenth one all the joy I had from reading the book was seeping out of me. I had to stop. These were questions for teachers or professors to use in their classes. These were questions that deserved essays in response, not flippant, wine-soaked, book-club chatter.

Here's an example of one such question: "As in the Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, we are startled to read about people rummaging through Dumpsters for food just to survive, even in this land of great plenty. Zits says, 'I hate my country. There are so many rich people who don't share. . . . They're like spoiled little ten-year old bullies on the playground . . . if you try to get even one spin on the merry-go-round, the bullies beat the shit out of you' (page 26). Do you see any of this in your community?"

So what if I see people dumpster-diving in my community? That doesn't particularly help me to sympathize more with Zits. It certainly doesn't bring me any closer to understanding the depth of Alexie's work.

If Flight had to include a reading group guide, I wish Alexie would have done it himself. He is a funny and insightful person with a lot to say and many interesting opinions about American culture, history and politics. Ironically, this reading guide makes it seem like he's a dead white author, instead of a vibrantly living American Indian writer.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Joyce Carol Oates in Boulder

I can clearly remember my first encounter with Joyce Carol Oates. I was suffering through a hot and humid summer in Calvert County, Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C. without air conditioning. On the days when I didn't have a game to cover for the paper, I would dress up in a button-down shirt and nice pants (to look like a respectable consumer) and sit in the furniture sections of different stores reading a book or the Sunday Washington Post to get out of the heat. One day, I took the new book that I'd discovered displayed at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle, Oates' paperback Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart.

It was while sitting on a cool, leather La-Z-Boy chair in a mall just south of Annapolis that the intertwined fates of Iris, a white girl, and Jinx, a promising black basketball player who kills a white man to protect Iris, drew me in to the unique world of Oates' writing. I read the novel for hours as the agitated and bored sales clerks periodically asked me if I needed any help. I'd wave them off and say I was just testing out the chair. By the time I got up to leave, the mid-afternoon sun was setting, and the heat of the day was finally dissipating.

My energy was certainly not dissipating as I left the mall just in time to see carloads of high school kids arriving to watch Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Despite sitting still all day, I was completely wired, as if I had lived through a movie thriller. My senses felt heightened, and my mind was filled with thoughts that would haunt me all through another sweaty night. Oates' prose, her diction, her fevered descriptions had entered me like a virus. Reading her was like tumbling down a hill when you are a little kid. It starts out as a fun lark, but if the hill is too steep, it becomes unstoppable, almost dangerous, and it leaves you dizzy. With Oates, the hills are often treacherous cliffs.

After that, I was hooked on the adrenaline rush that her prose gave me. In the last 15 years, I have read over 20 of her novels, some under her pseudonyms Rosamond Smith or Lauren Kelley, and more than 10 collections of her short stories. Among all of these works, only three of her other novels struck me the way the tale of Iris and Jinx did in Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart.

You Must Remember This, another in Oates' line of simply but superbly titled novels, tells a tension-filled story set in a small industrial town in 1950s upstate New York. The model family unravels under the incestuous passion between a niece and her uncle. Felix, the ex-boxer uncle, is one of Oates' most memorable characters. What I Lived For features a minute-by-minute first-person narrative of a small-town politician over a long Memorial Day weekend. As all facets of his life seem to come unglued at the same time, the reader becomes transfixed by Corky Corcoran's rush of thoughts, anxieties, and bad decisions. Finally, her National Book Award winning Them is an extremely satisfying epic that views American life from the Great Depression to the tensions of the Sixties through the eyes of one family.

Given my near obsession with her work, I was extremely excited when the bookstore was able to schedule her for an appearance in Boulder for her new novel, The Gravedigger's Daughter. Before I even knew what I was saying, I volunteered to do the introduction. As the weeks wore on, I began to agonize about what my remarks might be. What could I possibly say that wouldn't sound trite?

I had seen Oates speak once before, at a multi-author breakfast, and it was a truly brilliant performance. Even people who weren't fans of hers, and there were many in the audience that day, sat with mouths agape as she regaled us with tales of her family, a perfect 5-minute exposition on Darwin's theories of natural selection and other asides that left no question that we were in the presence of someone with a renaissance mind. Perhaps most surprisingly, she also had the crowd in stitches with her self-deprecating wit and well-timed bon mots.

Finally, on the day of her talk, I sat down and composed my introduction. I tried to keep it simple; after all, no one would be there to hear me talking. When I was finished delivering the intro, she thanked me and said she was honored by my "gracious" words. I realize that "gracious" does not have the connotation of "brilliant" or "witty" or "insightful," but hey -- to hear one of your favorite authors say your name into a microphone and attach any sort of compliment to it is more than you can hope for, really.

With that introduction to my introduction, here it is:

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the world's most eminent literary authors. She has written short stories, novels, poetry, plays and essays since the early 1960s. Her debut collection of short stories, By the North Gate, was named a New York Times Notable book of the year in 1963. She has followed that up with 38 more books that have made the Times' year-end list. Oates won the National Book Award for her novel Them in 1970. She has been featured in Best American Short Stories 17 times. The O'Henry Awards have twice given her a special award for continuing achievement for her short story writing.

Oates' vivid characters, riveting plots and breathless prose (her writing often leaves me breathless with tension when I'm reading it) are the hallmarks of both her novels and her short stories. In novels such as Them, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart and We Were the Mulvaneys, Oates' intensely realistic and psychologically rich characters bring to life some of America's most difficult issues, such as racism, sexism, violence and poverty, in ways only great fiction can.

It is in part because of this willingness to tackle humanity's most difficult challenges, and to bring to light the biases that women face, that she was just named the 2007 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.

I cannot think of a more apt award for Joyce Carol Oates (unless it would be the Noble Prize in Literature) because through her work, one can gain a clearer understanding of humanity in all its various guises. Characters ranging from innocent high school girls to serial killers, from corrupt local politicians to crusaders against corporate corruption, from poverty-stricken inner-city men and women to wealthy suburbanites are all given their due in her work. When Joyce Carol Oates creates these characters, it is never as a stereotype, and we as readers find our sympathies going out to people who on first glance we would revile.

Tonight, she is here with her newest novel, The Gravedigger's Daughter. It is the story of a girl, Rebecca, born to Jewish parents forced to flee Hitler's Germany. After they arrive in upstate New York, they find that the terror that they escaped in Europe still torments their relationships and lives. Rebecca, left orphaned through terribly violent acts, must make her way through an America rife with danger.

Please welcome Joyce Carol Oates to Boulder.

A few notes on the event:
  • I asked Oates about the Humanist of the Year award. She seemed pleased but a bit befuddled by the whole thing. She had just received the award last weekend in Portland. "They are kind of an odd group," she said. "Well-meaning, and very idealistic."
  • She read several short sections from The Gravedigger's Daughter, setting each of them up with an explanation of the setting and the characters. She called it her most personal novel -- it is based on her grandmother's life -- and one that she found extremely difficult to publish. She wrote it and then threw it in a drawer for several years before taking it to her publisher.
  • During the question-and-answer period, she was asked about On Boxing, her book of essays centering largely on Mike Tyson. She talked at length about what drew her to the sport and her experiences in watching Tyson. She approaches boxing from a proletariat point of view. She looks at the waves of immigrants getting involved in the sport over the years and thinks about this in literary terms. She was shocked by Tyson's ear-biting of Evander Hollyfield. "He might have had the talent of a great champion, but he didn't have the heart."
  • Oates said that she imagines the scenes of her novels and stories as if they were movies while she walks or jogs. Before she sits down to compose the words, the scene is nearly complete in her head. She also mentioned how important structure is to her. "You wouldn't build a house by putting a board here and then another one on top of it. You have a plan, a structure. A novel is the same."
  • Before the event, she signed dozens of copies of books for the store. When she was finished signing the books, she wanted some time to herself before her talk, so she could continue reading Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes. It's the only Conrad she hadn't read yet, she told me as I left the room.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Meeting Philip Roth

Kashkashian's complaint

Book Expo America was held in New York City's sterile and hard-to-reach Jacob K. Javitz Center last week, but the show's real excitement happened in restaurants, bars, apartments, and the rooftops of Manhattan, where booksellers got to mingle with authors, editors and publishers. I'm usually immune to celebrity and consequently manage to get myself into in-depth, interesting and sometimes absurd conversations with various authors at these get-togethers. Heck, two years ago, I ended up talking to Edie Falco (her uncle wrote a book) about women's shoes.

My immunity met its match when I was invited by Harcourt to a fairly small cocktail reception with Philip Roth at Cafe Gray on Columbus Circle. Two weeks before leaving for New York, I gingerly held the invitation in my hands, frightened it might spontaneously combust. I called and R.S.V.Ped immediately, and then 10 minutes later I wasn't sure if the phone call had actually taken place, so I emailed. I was like a lifelong, devout Catholic getting a chance to drink with the Pope (you know, Pope John Paul II, not the current curmudgeon). My religion is literature, and the closest thing to the divine that I will ever get is the mind of Mr. Roth.

Once at the show, I stumbled around the hot, humid show floor in a daze on Friday, glancing at publisher's booths, scrawling incomprehensible observations into my tattered green notebook and greeting friends and colleagues alike with a blank stare. I could only hope that my stare and brief mumblings were written off as the byproduct of being intensely focused on the show. But I was really in a fog, thinking, "I'm meeting Philip Roth tonight. I'm meeting the man who created Nathan Zuckerman in a few hours."

Why this adulation? I first read Roth's Portnoy's Complaint when I was a junior in college, in a seminar on Jewish American writers. I wanted to get in touch with my literary heritage, and since there weren't any seminars on Italian or Armenian writers, I was left with my Jewish legacy. The course list was basically a hall-of-fame of living Jewish writers, including Henry Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, I.B. Singer, Cynthia Ozick and Philip Roth.

Philip Roth's contribution to this class, Alexander Portnoy, made me laugh harder then I ever had in my life. I read passages out loud to my friends at night. The biology and economics majors would laugh until they were snorting and tearing up, not quite believing that this novel, filled with masturbation and sexual scenes, could be my homework while they stared at equations and deciphered lab results. Short of sex, what could be a better assignment for a 20-year-old guy than reading Portnoy's Complaint? It would take me years to see the psychological mess that Portnoy was, the unhappiness that prevailed. In college, we all wanted to be Alexander Portnoy. What a glorious misery that would have been.

I began devouring Roth's books once I graduated and was no longer fettered to endless reading lists. First, I picked up Roth's newest novel at the time, The Counterlife. My God, it's as good as Portnoy even though it is completely different, I remember thinking. Roth's narrative tricks, his ability to create fiction within fiction was truly illuminating. He was like a complex, ribald Vonnegut. He was an American Milan Kundera (another writer I was reading like crazy at the time). In the end, I realized he was truly like no one else. Like Faulkner and Bellow, he was simply an American original.

Over the years, I have read and reread virtually all of his books, including the complete tales of his literary alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, starting with the Ghost Writer and clear through to his upcoming novel, Exit Ghost. My other favorites include Patrimony, his marvelous memoir about taking care of his father, and Sabbath's Theater, perhaps his funniest novel. Roth has never disappointed me. His work challenges its readers, assuming that they are intelligent, well-read people who are willing to follow him wherever he may go.

It was with all of this knowledge weighing me down that I entered the Cafe Gray. I spotted him standing by the tall windows facing Columbus Circle. I was relieved to see that he has aged better than Nathan Zuckerman, who is incontinent, impotent and somewhat memory-addled in Exit Ghost. Roth was trim, vigorous and engaged in a lively conversation. He looked wonderful for a man approaching his mid-70s. I must admit, my first selfish thought was "he's got several books left in him."

I was approached by two people at once as I started to slowly drift towards Roth. The first was his editor, Janet Silver. I have met her on a few occassions and hold her in extremely high esteem because she, of all the people in the world, edits Roth, and she is a gracious, down-to-earth, patient woman who is willing to answer a myriad of questions from nosy booksellers like me about Roth year after year. The second was a waiter carrying a tray of appetizers. All three of us converged at once and the waiter held up a tray of mushroom risotto balls for us to try.

I bit into one of the fried balls as Janet said hello. The volcanic insides of the risotto exploding into my mouth and searing my tongue, I tried to remain calm and respond to her. She offered to introduce me to Philip Roth. I nodded quickly and we spoke briefly as we crossed the room towards Roth. He was engaged in a conversation with a few other booksellers. I couldn't take my eyes off of him and felt some guilt for staring at him like he was an animal in the zoo. Here is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author in his native habitat, I thought.

Suddenly his eyes fell on me, and we were quickly introduced. Now was my moment to speak to Philip Roth. Over the past 20 years, I have come up with hundreds and hundreds of questions that I wanted to ask him about his fiction, about his relationships with other writers, about his views on the world. But now, as I stood before him, my mind was a complete void of all of those thoughts. I held his warm, dry hand for a beat too long and said, "Thank you for all of the years of enjoyment you have given me."

He became animated and said, "But I haven't given you years, I have given you books." I mumbled a reply to the books equaling years. He asked me where I was from, and I told him Boulder, which seemingly left no impression upon him. As I was about to speak again, a waiter popped up between us with a tray of raw tuna. I looked down at the tray and when I looked back up Roth was turning to his right to meet another bookseller.

I moved back and sought the solace of the bar. I had gotten one sentence in to Roth and I had been contradicted. I had been faced, in the parlance of my youth. Well, I thought to myself as I swirled my complimentary Scotch-on-the-rocks, it was a damn stupid thing to say. You've got to be precise when you speak to the master.

As the party went on, I spoke to several other booksellers I know. Almost everyone was jazzed-up and a bit frightened to be meeting Philip Roth. Some even seemed more obsessed with him than I was. As the evening wore on, the cocktails took hold and the waiters broke into almost every conversation with their trays of hors d'oeuvres, and I became determined to work my way back to Roth. About an hour later, he was leaning with his back up to the windows speaking to a friend of mine from Arizona. I wandered over to them and gradually entered the conversation.

I asked Roth about his new book, Exit Ghost, which I was only 80 pages into, and whether it was influenced by Bellow, particularly his novel Humboldt's Gift. Zuckerman ruminates and rereads a favorite short-story-writer from his past, who he had a brief meeting with in the 1950s. Roth said it wasn't, although he thought the Bellow novel was a wonderful book and that he could see how I could have that impression in the beginning of his novel. "It goes off in a much different direction. You'll see."

Just as another waiter threatened to come between us with a tray of oversized shrimp, I moved closer to Roth and boxed-out the waiter. "I have always thought that Sabbath's Theater is one of your best books, one of the greatest novels written in the last 25 years, and yet it doesn't seem to get the same acclaim as some of your other works. Why is that?" He took a deep breath, "I agree with you," he said, "but the women didn't like it." I instinctively rolled my eyes without even realizing it, and a smile came over his face. "You roll your eyes," he said. "I do too. But there you have it."

That was it. I thanked him for his time and moved away. It wasn't a great conversation, but I held the great author's attention for a few moments. It was more than I ever got to do with the rest of those Jewish writers that I admired so much in that class. That all-star cast of living writers, with the exception of Ozick and Roth, have all died in the intervening years, and I never got to look any of them in the eye or ask them a queston.

In the end, it's Roth's words straight onto the page that are what has added so much to my life over the years. Even hours of small talk at a cocktail party in New York could never match a single page of his well-written prose for me.

A few days later, as I read Exit Ghost, I came across the following passage. It sums up, in part, how I occasionally feel about all the hoopla that surrounds books these days, including reading groups, author dinners, Oprah and even blogs like mine. It speaks to the heart of why even the greatest of events, like meeting Philip Roth, can never equal the experience of just reading. In it a character rails against the cult of personality that surrounds literature and how to rectify it.

"I'd forbid all public discussion of literature in newspapers, magazines, and scholarly periodicals. I'd forbid all instruction in literature in every grade school, high school, college, and university in the country. I'd outlaw reading groups and Internet book chatter, and police the bookstores to be certain that no clerk ever spoke to a customer about a book and that the customers did not dare to speak to one another. I'd leave the readers alone with the books, to make of them what they would on their own."

I read this passage out loud to my wife and told her that's how I feel. She laughed and said, "You love talking about literature. You do it all the time. Philip Roth probably doesn't even think that."

She was right, of course. The passage is part of a ranting letter to the editor written by a woman suffering from a brain tumor that has made her mentally unstable. Still, it was something to think about. I continued reading the book, and for the next hour I was lost in a creation from Philip Roth's mind -- true heaven.