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 Ask.com). 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.

3 comments:

Claudia R. (nee Davis) said...

Hey Arsen - I've been wanting to read some Wodehouse...any suggestions for the inaugural?
Hope all's well! xo Claudia

Anonymous said...

Hey Arsen,

I worked for you at Boulder Book Store in the '90s while in grad school. My first book about the bizarre subculture of professional videogame teams is out June 23. It's called "Game Boys: Professional Videogaming's Rise from Basement to Big Time" (Viking). website is www.gameboysbook.com. Maybe you can give it some good visibility in the store???

Hope you're well,
Michael Kane

Anonymous said...

oh, btw, I'm at michaelkane99@hotmail.com if you want to reply. Take care, Michael