Theft by Finding Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris

20180104_1125272117159122.jpg

That’s the thing with diaries, though. In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it’s so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it. (p.9)

Reading David Sedaris’ book, Theft by Finding, is making me feel like I live a very mundane life. While I have been afraid of making mistakes, or getting in trouble, or wondering what other people think, he has been doing whatever he wanted.

Things I like about this book:

  • It’s honest and vulnerable.
  • It shows how everyday life can be fascinating.
  • It’s funny.
  • David is only five years older than I am, so I can remember the places and things of which he speaks that aren’t around any longer. Like Ronald Reagan and gas going up to $1.00 a gallon.

Things I don’t like about this book:

  • After awhile it sounds like whining.
  • This man is crazy.  What I thought was an interesting way to live, I’m now considering to be largely haphazard. No wonder he couldn’t pay his phone bills to Ma Bell if he didn’t hold a steady job and took meth all the time.

In summary, who doesn’t love to read someone’s diary? Even if you can’t relate, or end up being disappointed, getting insight into someone else’s mind has always interested me. Keeping a diary has always interested me.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent, a book I can’t leave 2017 without talking about

20171228_193110952217714.jpg

He doesn’t want to hurt me. He loves me more than life itself.  He’s not a perfect person sometimes. Sometimes he’s not the person he wants to be. But he loves me more than anybody else has ever been loved. I think that counts for everything. (p. 254)

Turtle believes this about her father. That he loves her more than anything. Children believe what they want to believe, when everything points to a truth they don’t want to believe.

Everything about you, kibble, is perfect. Every detail. You are the platonic ideal of yourself. Your every blemish, every scratch, is inimitable elaboration on your beauty and your wildness. You look like a naiad. You look like a girl raised by wolves. You know that? (p. 268)

In the same way that A Little Life made me gasp and cringe and read compulsively onward, My Absolute Darling carries a similar effect. It is gorgeous and sorrowful and courageous all at the same time, and unlike any other book I’ve read this year.

No, she thinks. No, it cannot be that at the end of it all, I am like you. That cannot be. Those parts of you I turn from, I will turn from forever and I will not at the end of it find that I am like you. She makes a wedge of her hands, fits it between her thighs, sits clenching them. (p. 267)

When her father leaves quite suddenly, for weeks and weeks, Turtle catches up with her friend, Jacob. He is a boy whose normalcy throws her off guard, and strengthens her during her father’s absence. Yet even their friendship is fraught with danger. She has taken severe beatings from her father for even wanting to  befriend Martin; she has almost died with Jacob when they were caught unaware by a tide and stranded, wounded, on an island.

Jacob does not understand the severity, or the complexity, of Turtle’s relationship with her father. He does not have any idea about the fragility and desperation of her life: loving her father, and slowly dying because of his violence, at the same time.

We long for Turtle to find the strength to live independently. We know how brave she is, despite her terror and confusion. But, we don’t know who will emerge victorious in this terribly dysfunctional relationship.

How can I say that such a horrifying book is one of the best I’ve read in 2017? Because it speaks of courage and strength and an indomitable spirit in the face of terrible circumstances. Because it skitters around the edges of a life I once shared with my first husband, an unpredictable and sometimes frightening man, who was also someone I loved.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King (about the story this time)

IMG_4351

Roland, the gunslinger, isn’t any one I can admire right now, even though he is clearly the hero.

He isn’t a hero as I would define one: honest, fearless, and loyal.

He wanders through the dry desert, following the tracks of the man in black, leaving  destruction in his wake. Allie, with whom he has slept (for information) is dead; the town, Tull, is destroyed behind him.

He meets a boy, a brave boy named Jake, who has somehow withstood the heat, the lack of food and water. They go together, the boy clearly admiring the gunslinger and asking for stories from his youth. How, for example, did Roland become a man?

The answer is less than pleasant. The gunslinger used a trick against his teacher, choosing a weapon which was perfectly admissible and yet most difficult to take a position against. The battle is bloody, and I can tell this is just the beginning of many such battles.

For there are hints that Roland will exchange the boy, use him as “a poker chip” which Jake himself knows, when next they meet the man in black.

It ain’t no Girl Scout camp, this journey to the Tower. The fact that Roland came from New Canaan ought to be enough to tell you that, for as anyone knows, Canaan was not a land of the noble or good. No matter what Stephen King may tell you.

It will be interesting to see where this series takes us, if I continue in reading all 7 books. After I get back to the Man Booker list, of course.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King (the most interesting line is in the foreword)

IMG_4350.JPG

Those of you who know me know that I rarely finish a Stephen King novel. I begin with the best intentions, hungry for a good story, but Stephen King knows far too much about the enemy (and the Bible) to be playing around. His novels can cross from being entertaining to being demonic because of this familiarity.

I’m enjoying The Gunslinger because it mimics The Lord of the Rings, a little bit, by King’s own admission. I, personally, would never equate him with Tolkien. But, there are the elements of a quest through interesting landscapes, foreboding events, evil and good characters.

I’m enjoying that part.

Yet the most interesting thing to me so far is this quote I read in the foreword written by the author:

Before I close, I should say a word about the younger man who dared to write this book. That young man has been exposed to far too many writing seminars’ promulgate: that one is writing for other people rather than one’s self; that language is more important than story; that ambiguity is to be preferred over clarity and simplicity, which are usually signs of a thick and literal mind.

Fascinating! I think that he has described the difference between the American novel and those in translation with that one quote. I found Japanese literature so frustrating when I first began to read it. “What?” I thought, “there’s no beginning, middle or end?” I had been trained, you see, from the teachers at Naperville Central High School in the 1970s, not to look outside the lines. Japanese literature is more typically a “slice of life” style of writing, jumping into the moment and leaving before everything is resolved.

So I’ve been caught on the horns of a dilemma: is writing to be clear and simple versus ambiguous? I know that I have been at turns frustrated and thrilled with the ambiguity found in some of my favorite novels: Kafka on the Shore, for example, or Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. I know I prefer Haruki Murakami and Javier Marias to Stephen King. Maybe he’s justifying his straightforward storytelling with that comment, and I do appreciate his ability to entertain with a book that reads like a film unfolding in vivid technicolor.

But as to the quality of writing, give me an ambiguous novel full of gorgeous language any day.

My mind is neither thick or literal.

The Switch by Joseph Finder (“Surveillance is civility. You got nothin’ to hide, you got nothin’ to fear.”)

IMG_4158I might have had trouble with the idea that an important political figure would leave her password on a Post-it note stuck to the outside of her laptop if I hadn’t watched Hillary mishandle her cell phone for over a year. But knowing of the idiotic things that senators (and such) can do with their technology, the premise of The Switch becomes not only fascinating, but credible.

While going through airport security in Los Angeles, Senator Susan Robbins’ laptop is accidentally picked up by Michael Tanner. It isn’t until he gets home to Boston that he discovers the error and realizes their computers have been switched. Then he sees the Post-it at the bottom of the laptop with the password. The more he tries to find out whose computer he has, the more he realizes that he is in possession of top secret files which the Senator and her aide will do anything to retrieve.

A series of ensuing incidents can only be interpreted as threats. There is an ever encroaching danger on Michael Tanner’s life which is only preserved because he is in possession of the MacBook Air which Robbins’ staff cannot find. His reporter friend has been presumed to have committed suicide; he gets a call that his coffee roasting company has suddenly caught fire in the middle of the night.

As he danger increases, so does an understanding of the underlying premises in this novel. Are we a society so caught up in technology that it has power over us rather than the other way around?

Worse still, is it possible for America to become  “a surveillance state, (and) eventually a dictatorship”?

“Forget privacy; what we all really want is convenience. We write private emails that our employer has the legal right to read, am I right? Every time you use your SpeedPass in the turnpike or swipe your debit card at Walmart or buy your meds at CVS, you’re being tracked. You got OnStar in your car, Waze  on your phone? You know they track where you went and how fast to got there, and they can sell your data to anyone they want? And if you don’t know all this, you’re not as smart as I thought. You really think you got privacy anymore? Every time you walk down the streets of the city your picture’s being taken by a surveillance camera. There’s automatic license-plate readers all over the place. Google knows everything you’ve ever searched online. We live our lives in public all the time, like it or not.”

This is an extremely satisfying thriller, well written and thought-provoking, making me question on this Independence Day just how independent we really are. Even in America.

Ought we to be ashamed as readers? Or, at all?

I have been having the most interesting conversation with Tom, albeit through truncated comments rather than around a table,  on his post about France’s bookstores. His point, I believe, is that they shame American bookstores. That is a point well taken.

But, I took it farther. I pressed on to say that French fragrance and fashion and food shames American products of the same sort. Tom wishes to keep the critique to art (i.e. literature).

Okay, let’s talk about literature for a minute here. Can we start with what I read my eight and nine year olds in my third grade class?

IMG_4072

This year I was surprised by a group of 8 fifth graders, who knocked on my door and presented me with a large purple cellophane box. Inside, was an item they had made for each read-aloud book I had shared with them when they were in third grade. There was an origami box turned into a covered wagon for The Little House on The Prairie. There was a tissue box covered in spiders for Charlotte’s Web. (“Because you always cry at the end.”) There was a recipe for ladyfingers from one of my childhood favorites, The Pink Motel. I won’t bore you with a description of each item, the point is what I read to them mattered. What I read to them was mostly from many, many years ago.

What matters now? What kinds of books are written, published, or read that matter? Books are available because they titillate, or entertain, or are expected to make a profit for the publisher. But I wonder about the quality of the writing, the worth and lasting value of the books we read today.

Perhaps this is why, in part, I have turned so eagerly to translated literature. It seems that books from other countries are better at addressing pertinent issues, or at least the large dilemmas in life. I think of the lists for the Man Booker International Prize I have read over the years, each one seared into my memory. (Even The Iraqi Christ, which I loathed.) They are more than a “trite” murder, fantasy, or romance driven novel. They are the bread and meat of which life is made.

And so we come full circle. Ought we to be ashamed of what we read? Are books with little inherent value being published at the fault of the reader or the publisher? Or, perhaps you feel that the books published today, in America, bear no blame at all. But I contend that we are not living with the quality I once knew, nor the quality enjoyed by those abroad. And I think it speaks to a larger issue of loss, a decline in culture, or morality, unlike any time I have seen before.

The Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation

When I started reading this book, I thought she was neurotic. Now I understand that she is just blatantly honest, this mother, this wife, who tells us her story in bits and snippets as though we were reading her journal. Or, her mind.

They may seem disconnected, these stream of consciousness thoughts, but they are interwoven with quotes from poets and scientists, reporters and explorers, priests and Zen masters, to reveal a disconcerting vulnerability. I found my attention captured by this woman who begins by telling us the love she feels for her newly born daughter:

“The baby’s eye were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”

and:

“My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn’t know them.”

But then she segues into marriage, into the abyss of an affair she discovers her husband is having.

“There is a story about a prisoner at Alcatraz who spent his nights in solitary confinement dropping a button on the floor then trying to find it again in the dark. Each night, in this manner, he passed the hours until dawn. I do not have a button. In all other respects, my nights are the same.”

and:

But my agent has a theory. She says every marriage is jerry-rigged. Even the ones that look reasonable from the outside are held together inside with chewing gum and wire and string.

So now this woman at the playground is telling me about how her husband rifles through her purse for receipts. If he finds one for the wrong kind of ATM, he posts it on the refrigerator, highlighted in red. She shrugs. “he can’t help it.”

What exactly am I waiting for her to say? That she married a fool? That her house is built on ashes? And here I am, the lucky one for once. Such blinding good fortune to have married him.

The wives have requirements too, of course. What they require is this: Unswerving obedience. Loyalty unto death. My husband sits in our kitchen and hand-sews a book. I hope that when it goes through the post office no machine will touch it.

and:

She remembers the first night she knew she loved him, the way the fear came rushing in. She laid her head on his chest and listened to his heart. One day this too will stop, she thought. The no, no, no of it. Why would you ruin my best thing?

and:

They used to send each other letters. The return address was always the same: Dept. of Speculation.

and:

The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact).

and:

What Rilke said: I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.

They whisper-fight, now. They hash out their issues in the Little Theater of Hurt Feelings. There seems to be no solution.

There are two women who are furious at him. To make one happy, he must take the subway across town and arrive on her doorstep. To make the other happy, he must wear for some infinitely long period of time a hair shirt woven out of her own hair.

Her writing is segmented enough to be fascinating, connected enough to be brilliant.

But, if it was me? The minute my love wants someone else, he is free to go. I would never, ever, make a place for him to stay, let alone demand it.