Friday, August 10, 2007

Summer Reading: Part 2

Summer equaled freedom for me, as it does for virtually every school kid, when I was growing up. I remember giddily running home with my friends after the last day of school to jubilantly dive into an endless stream of days spent swimming, playing tennis, and just wasting time, glorious time. I can't remember reading much except for the Philadelphia Bulletin's sports page, Baseball Digest magazine, and just about every Hardy Boys mystery I could get my hands on.

My love of summer disappeared when I started my career as a reporter. Suddenly, summer meant swatting away pesky mosquitoes and enduring near 100-degree heat and humidity as I covered Calvert County's team in southern Maryland's black baseball league every Sunday.

Yes, you read that right. There really were separate white and black semi-pro teams within 40 miles of our nation's capital as recently as 15 years ago. There still may be. I haven't gone back to check it out since I escaped to Colorado. I sweltered with the black team (which, to be honest, had one white player) because the level of play was better, about five times as many fans showed up and the food was far superior to anything going on at the white league's games. Still, despite the feast, it was a grind being out there in the blazing midday sun, trying to blink the salty sweat out of my eyes as I gripped my slippery telephoto lens. Most of the time, I prayed for rain -- a biblical rain.

Once I moved to Boulder, summer became the interminable time between ski seasons. Biting flies appeared every other year, making dealing with the summer tourists nearly unbearable at the bookstore. Try explaining in seven different languages and hand gestures that the flies were all part of the local color, something to write home to Switzerland, France or Japan about. While I was stuck dealing with out-of-town customers and their strange requests ("Where is your Danielle Steel section?" "Don't you have a better map of Aspen?" "How long will it take to drive to Las Vegas?" "Don't they have a place that serves meatloaf in this town?") I prayed for October, when I would take my annual vacation. I wanted to do my sightseeing during the off-season, without the tourist mob.

In short, summer had nothing going for it as far as I was concerned. That giddy feeling of my youth had turned into one of nausea as Memorial Day rolled around. I dreamt of spending my summers skiing in Argentina. A perpetual winter was my fantasy.

All that changed when my wife returned to school six years ago and then became a teacher. Summers were once again about freedom for her. That's one thing I've learned in marriage: your wife's freedom might be worth even more than your own. For me it was freedom from the alarm ringing at 6 a.m, freedom from weekend plans ruined by a knee-high stack of papers waiting to be graded, freedom to actually take a vacation and travel together. And finally, freedom to read a real book together.

My wife and I love to read out loud to one another. She does most of the reading, while I listen until I fall asleep. We've read Vladimir Nabokov, Sherwood Anderson and Guy du Maupassant. We've read contemporary novels, short story collections and even a baseball history. As soon as she started teaching, it became almost impossible to read works of any complexity. She needed to relax in her down time. Instead of Lolita, we read Lemony Snicket. Bye-bye Winesburg, Ohio, hello Snoopy's doghouse. In the last few years, our out-loud reading during the school year has consisted almost exclusively of the collected Peanuts cartoons.

In the summer, we can finally break out a novel or some literary stories. See you later, Linus, hello Richard Ford. Ah, that giddy feeling has returned. Here are some more comments about my summer adventures in reading:

They call this Wildlife: After a week of deliberations and false starts, my wife and I decided to read Richard Ford's Wildlife together. The first line caught us and filled us with a feeling of mystery, anticipation and a sense of nostalgia. "In the Fall of 1960, when I was sixteen and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him." The next few pages beautifully evoke Great Falls, Montana of that bygone year: the sounds of the crude oil processing and the smell of the wildfires that blazed through that summer.

As we read the book, we were struck with the simplicity and rhythm of Ford's language. The story plays out at a languid pace and is told without much emotion by the narrator, Joe Brinson. Joe rarely shows flashes of anger and is forgiving of his mother, even though she subjects him to many inappropriate and awkward situations. No kid wants his mother to fall in love with another man, but certainly no kid should have to endure witnessing nearly the whole affair. Joe thinks of his father, who is temporarily away fighting the fires, as heroic and wronged by his mother, but he tries to stay even-keeled throughout this tumultuous time.

Reading Wildlife out loud enabled us to slow down and enjoy its meditative qualities. Not much happens, and there are only a few scenes, the entire novel taking place in just three days. Talking about each scene, each scrap of dialogue allowed us to tease out the subtle nuances that are the hallmarks of Ford's fiction. Reading it quickly and silently would have been much less satisfying and perhaps even boring. It was a great way to appreciate one of Ford's forgotten works.

The Joys of Podcasting: Speaking of Richard Ford, one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had this summer was hearing him read John Cheever's magnificent short story "Reunion" on a podcast from The New Yorker magazine. Ford's southern lilt brings out the hopes and disappointments of this story in which a teenager meets his father in Grand Central Station after a long separation. The boy's worship of his father soon turns to keen embarrassment as the father's boorish behavior and alcoholic ways come to the forefront in the brief time they spend together.

Cheever's story is a true marvel in economy. It takes Ford less than 10 minutes to read it and yet it contains a whole world. We see the boy, the child of a divorce, passing into adulthood in this simple encounter, and we see the father spiralling downward, unable even hold a conversation together, let alone a marriage. After he reads the story, Ford answers some questions about it, and his insights truly shed new light on the tale.

I have since subscribed to the The New Yorker's monthly fiction podcast, as well as the The New York Times Book Review's weekly podcast from iTunes. They're free. I've been rewarded with intelligent conversations on books, including lengthy discussions about Joyce Carol Oates and Tessa Hadley, an interview with Stephen Carter, and Junot Diaz reading one of his early short stories. It's a great feature of iTunes that an old musician friend of mine turned me on to. I asked if he downloaded music, and he replied that he was addicted to podcasts, and that there was an amazing array of literary podcasts on iTunes. I scoffed at him, until I heard Ford reading Cheever -- now I'm hooked.

Can't ask Jeeves, Try Baxter: Each summer when I'm in Cape May, NJ, I read one of P.G. Wodehouse's works. Somehow, amidst the Victorian mansions and beautifully tended gardens of that beach town, it seems fitting to delve into the world of British Lords, their wayward family members and their all-knowing butlers.

Wodehouse seems out of favor these days. Hardly anyone I know reads him, and when I mention him to people, they often think he's probably a bit stale and irrelevant. Nothing could be further from the truth. His humor is no more stale than Shakespeare's, and his sense of irreverence towards the moneyed classes has become even more relevant as the income gap continues to grow in this country.

The reason that more people aren't reading Wodehouse is that he is writing in a genre that is largely forgotten -- the farce. On the surface, his tales of mistaken identities, goofy subterfuges, and misplaced love appear to be silly. Even if you get beneath the surface, his plots are still quite ridiculous. But his writing and his wordplay are remarkable. He sets up verbal conundrums and deftly works his way out of them with clever witticisms. No contemporary author, not even David Sedaris or Dave Barry, makes me laugh out loud as often. I am terribly annoying when I'm reading these books because I insist on interrupting my wife, regardless of what she is doing, to read her humorous passages. She always laughs, usually because she knows I won't stop until she does.

This year, I read a collection of stories, Lord Emsworth and Others. These stories don't include his most famous character, the brilliant butler Jeeves (whose name is only known to many people because of the Ask Jeeves website that has since been simplified to Most of the stories in this collection are set in Blandings Castle and feature Lord Emsworth, a complete dimwit, who believes he's an expert gardener (sounds a bit like the current Prince of Wales). The plots usually revolve around the Lord, his butler Baxter -- who actually runs the estate and drives Emsworth batty -- and his bossy, imperious sister Lady Constance.

The Overlook Press has done a magnificent job over the last several years in reissuing Wodehouse's books in small, attractive and very affordable hardbacks. The books are actually the perfect size, smaller but much more sturdy than trade paperbacks. They remind me of the old classic Modern Library titles or of the editions that Algonquin used to put out of Kaye Gibbons' and Julia Alvarez's novels. They just feel good in your hands.

There's no better way to spend a summer day than with a book that feels just right.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

After the Summer Hiatus

It's been a long, hot summer here at Kash's Book Corner. We (my wife and I) took a three-week trip to the East Coast to visit, literally, a hundred relatives. During our adventures to my mother-in-law's family reunion, we managed to squeeze in the Maid of the Mist boat ride at Niagara Falls, July 4th fireworks in Washington D.C. and a dolphin-watching trip off of the coast of Cape May, New Jersey.

But the true highlight was the family reunion in Allegany, New York. My wife met dozens of second cousins and I spent the weekend wearing a name tag that said, "in-law descendant of Eugene Martiny." It made me feel a bit like an outcast, and for awhile I tried to float the idea of an in-law escape to a minor league baseball game (with all the other guys stuck wearing in-law name tags) or at least organize an in-law-only softball game, but I didn't get any takers.

Once we returned home, my softball career got going in earnest. I signed up with a slow-pitch team for the first time ever and suddenly found myself back on the mound after a 29-year break. It was an eye-opening experience as I got shelled for about 15 runs a game. At least I didn't walk too many people, and now our team has turned it around and we are winning big. I have learned that you can't intimidate hitters by beaning them in slow-pitch like you can in Little League.

In between games, I was at the store helping with the Harry Potter madness, visiting with dozens of reps shilling their Fall books and pulling returns as fast as I possibly could to make way for the new books. All of this as the temperature soared to a high of 87 degrees in my mezzanine office shared with the other buyers and the promotions staff (we have swamp coolers, not air-conditioners at the store). At least at those temperatures, the reps have to think twice before taking the time to try selling me a lousy book.
Through it all, I have had a book, sometimes two, by my side. In fact, I read incessantly at the family reunion, got sand in the spines of two different books at the beach and was toting a large John Updike tome as the bombs were bursting in air over D.C. on the Fourth. Here are some of my thoughts on my summer reading and experiences:

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: I am convinced that we will never again see a scene like the midnight release of J.K. Rowling's last installment. It was complete insanity at the store, with thousands of people participating in activities and waiting for midnight. I spent the night out in front of the store, signing "graduation certificates" to all of the "kids" who completed our various activities. Over 600 people graduated, including several people who were a lot older than Harry Potter.

As midnight approached, we booted everyone out of the store, set up a table at the front door and brought the books out of their secret storage location. The crowd was pushing against the table and people were gazing with a look of savage anticipation at the boxes of books behind the table. The level of excitement was unbelievable. Suddenly, I knew how the Rolling Stones must feel right before they run (or nowadays, limp) on stage. After a raucous countdown of the last 30 seconds until midnight, we began handing out books as fast as possible. We redeemed 850 vouchers in 30 minutes that night, the line nearly two blocks long. Our sales are well over 2,000 copies at this point. All of this at a store where 100 is considered an excellent sale and enough to land a book in our monthly top five.

As a bookseller, it was a thrilling evening, but as a reader, I don't really care too much. I just can't work up any enthusiasm over wizards and school boys. There are enough stories and characters in the real world to keep me occupied. Several people I trust have told me I must read these books, but I just shrug my shoulders and say "someday".

Amy Bloom's Away: I truly admire Amy Bloom's writing. She exhibits a level of craftsmanship and emotional honesty that is rare. Her collection of stories, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You contains some of the most perfect sentences that I have ever read. After I got a few stellar recommendations, I picked up the reader's copy of her new novel, Away, with eager anticipation. The first 90 pages met my expectations. Bloom tells the story of Lillian Leyb, a Jewish Russian emigre in 1924 New York.

Leyb has lived through a pogrom and is now trying to survive in the Lower East side tenement houses by finding work as a seamstress for a Yiddish theater. She soon begins an affair with both the handsome leading man and his father, the theater's owner. These scenes bring to life a lost world in a way that would have made I.B. Singer proud. The writing features finely honed description, beautiful language, striking scenes and characters that are revealed in a few deft strokes.

It's when Lillian leaves this rich world of broken New York Jews that the novel falls apart. She decides she must return to Russia to find her daughter, who she believed was dead. A cousin has landed in New York and told her that the four-year-old survived the night of terror at the hands of Russian peasants and is now living with a neighboring family back in Russia. Because of a lack of funds, Lillian decides to cross America by hook or by crook, get to Alaska and walk into Russia over the Bering Strait. Bloom turns Lillian's adventures into a picaresque. After she exits the world of the Yiddish theater, the novel just becomes a series of events. While Bloom might be able to match I.B. Singer, her Lillian is no match for the hero of Saul Bellow's picaresque, Augie March.

An action-packed adventure story does not suit Bloom's skills. We learn very little of Lillian's interior life, and the characters she meets are barely more than caricatures. We even get the tough whore with the heart of gold, for god's sake. It is terribly disappointing that Bloom would hurry a story along like this. I only know of one other person who has reacted to this novel as negatively as I have, so perhaps it will be a big hit. Maybe booksellers will be pushing it into the hands of female readers, but I, for one, will patiently wait for Bloom's next effort.

Sex in the Sixties: Ian McEwan's version of sex in the early 1960s, as depicted in his new novel On Chesil Beach, is bleak. Two lovers on their wedding night are horrendously awkward with each other in a beach side resort on the Dorset coast. Edward is so excited by the thought of finally possessing Florence (of possessing anyone, really) that he can't even manage to get her dress off. Florence is so repulsed by the idea of sex that she hurries things along because she can't stand the feel of Edward's tongue in her mouth.

Much has been made about how 1962 was really still the 1950s as far as sex was concerned. In a short film about the novel made by Powell's Bookstore, McEwan's esteemed editor Nan Talese makes that exact point. People were uptight, little was said about sex and wedding night disasters were not uncommon during the early 1960s.

I was feeling relieved not to have lived during the repressed times of the Kennedy administration, until I read Couples by John Updike later in the summer. This 1968 novel is set between the fall of 1962 and the spring of 1964. It's initial action, which involves wife-swapping, clandestine affairs, and outrageous flirting, occurs at almost the same moment in time that Florence is trying not to puke during her wedding-night French kiss.

Couples is the story of 10 married couples in their thirties living in the small New England town of Tarbox. They party, go on ski vacations and jump into bed with each other. Two couples, the Applebys and the Smiths, are so entwined that that rest of the couples refer to them as the Applesmiths. It all made me wonder if people like McEwan's Florence and Edward really did exist in 1962. Perhaps if Florence and Edward can just survive their honeymoon, the secret world of marital sex and extramarital sex will suddenly open to them.

I've come to think that these two books represent sexual extremes of that year. In Updike's America, where the pill has taken hold, these bored married couples are free to experiment in ways that weren't open to them previously. In McEwen's England, the pill is just a rumor, and in the straight-laced world of Oxford's upper crust, sex is only whispered about.

I found that reading these two books within a few months of each other was a fascinating look at what fiction can do. I realized how it can illuminate the inner lives of people and the complex attitudes of a time much better than history can. My guess is that both of these sexual realities existed. It entertains me to think about Florence and Edward leaving the Dorset coast behind to emigrate to the hothouse of Tarbox.

A World Where Lattes are Offensive: Nathan McCall, the author of the superb memoir, Makes Me Wanna Holler, tackles the issue of urban gentrification in his debut novel, Them, to be released in November. Set in Atlanta, Them shows how young, white, rich couples (gay and straight) come to take over the neighborhood of Martin Luther King's birth home. We see the story through the eyes of Barlowe Reed, a single 40-year-old man renting a home in disrepair with his 25-year old nephew.

McCall's novel does an excellent job of getting in the heads of both white and blacks in this neighborhood. What seem like improvements to the whites (bike lanes, coffee shops) are anathema to what is important to the black residents, who are just trying to pay their next month's rent or mortgage. Barlowe is trying to navigate this world as he begins a wary friendship with his new white female neighbor. They talk through the fence that the white neighbor has put up about the changes in the area and how they feel. As halting and as misunderstood as their conversations are, they seem to represent about the only attempt being made to bridge the gap between the races.

McCall is not the most nuanced of writers. Some of his scenes seem too direct to be realistic, but he creates true characters on both sides of the racial divide. He allowed me to see this issue in a much more human way. Every year, and this summer was no exception, my wife and I visit neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. that have been gentrified in the last 10 years. Sometimes we enjoy our latte at a cool new coffee shop without even considering what might have stood on that spot before the cafe, filled with smartly dressed whites, took over.

McCall makes it clear in an entertaining and interesting way that gentrification has its human toll, and that we need to recognize this before these traditionally black neighborhoods disappear. There is history and life in those ramshackle neighborhoods that whites are scared to even enter, or that they drive through with their windows rolled up tight. There is community and common decency, even if the yards aren't kept up and there isn't a place to get a good cup of coffee.