And for a few weeks past. It's a smattering: I'm trying madly to keep up with the madness that is The Morning News' 2013 Tournament of Books. This year I'd read a whopping one (1) (uno) of the books on the list when it was announced in December (Gone Girl), so I've had a lot of reading to do - since December I've read Arcadia, How Should a Person Be, May We Be Forgiven, The Orphan Master's Son (mostly - augh that thing was long), Bring Up the Bodies, and The Song of Achilles. I did my darnednest with Where'd You Go, Bernadette, but I could not stand it (the snark. The snark killed me). I'm still working my way through the marvelously uncompact Building Stories (it comes in a box, with "Multiple easily lost parts," according to the instructions to the library cataloger) and sure-to-be-one-of-my-year's-faves, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. I've read enough Alice Munro to get a sense for what Dear Life is like and I've probably seen at least a few of those stories already. I've got Round House on hold (until July, I'm guessing. A smarter person would just buy the book already, but my shelf is full. And do not talk to me about the anathema that is the ebook. I do not want one.) So, out of 16 books, 9 down, 3 in progress. Not bad (pause for a moment while I pat myself on the back. Bear with me: this is one of the few areas in my life where I accomplish things.) Also, it gets my current fiction itch scratched for a while. I'm not always a very engaged fiction reader, I'm sorry to say. Get to the point already! I might think, as I peek to see how many pages I still have left to read. Or: Is this going to be worth my time? Or: Who's this Greg guy, again? I'll own it: I'm a purpose-driven reader. I'm a sucker for any and all self-improvement projects, especially if I can do them in bed with the overhead light off. Reading fiction just because: difficult to justify. Reading fiction because someone told me I should: sign me up!
So I'm reading Building Stories and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Also my first entry in my TBR pile, Mean Spirit, by Linda Hogan, and a collection of essays by Elliott West (my mind is already blown, and I've only read one. Not so much from sheer brilliance - these are standard academic essays - as the way in one essay my admittedly limited understanding of the Cheyenne Indians was totally knocked down, run over with a steam engine, and put up in a completely different place. All with the same source material as I've had all along. Man.)
Building Stories, Chris Ware: like I said, it comes in a box. It looks like a board game, an expensive, heavy one, until you open it and pull out all the pieces: two or three single cartoon strips (it's a graphic novel, or a book of graphic short stories all focused on one person - what is a novel, anyway? What's a short story? What does it mean to read? These are all questions I start fiddling with when I'm pulling the pieces out of the hat), a few soft cover books, a hard cover book, a board game (no pieces, alas.) I'm so intrigued I immediately start thinking of making my own novel-in-a-box: would it be feasible to include animal bones, do you think? Probably not. Anyway, these cartoons will be familiar to readers of the New Yorker: they center around a depressed young woman to whom nothing huge happens, just the usual growing up stuff, no real beginning or end. Very like real life, and like real life you can assemble the pieces in different ways, read them in your own order, skip back and forth, etc. Less like real life, to me, is the persistent feeling of generic-ness: these stories feel less like they've been struck with the lightning of truth and more like they're someone's idea of what a depressed young art student might feel if she were crowdsourced. I get claustrophobic after not very long, reading these.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain. I've been wanting to read Ben Fountain for a while, and so even though the subject matter of this is the kind that makes me go, huh (a company of Iraq war heroes are featured on stage at a Superbowl Halftime show, written by a nonsoldier), I was eager to pick this one up. And so far, five chapters in, it does not disappoint. Every page, every sentence, almost, I feel like I'm discovering something new, something that I knew all along. The author has a wicked ear for dialogue, and zeroes in immediately - but with compassion! - on some of our weaknesses, as a society.
Mean Spirit, Linda Hogan. I've been reading this for over a month, and for a long time I just sort of read a few pages dutifully at the end of the day, to fulfill the agreement I'd made with myself in January. I thought it fell wearily into the expected trope of Indian-helpless-and-good, White-Man-predatory-and-bad: small town fiction with a helping of victimhood. The gentle pace didn't help. Only, imperceptibly, it grew on me. It knows stuff. The Christian preacher, half Indian, half white, going into his closet to ask his Indian grandmother's medicine pouch what's going on when things start to get crazy: I didn't expect that. The man, buried accidentally (everyone thought he was dead), who crawls out of his grave and walks around town unmolested, because everyone, white and Indian both, think he's a ghost: I didn't expect that, either. Actually, right now it's got a circus's worth of insanity happening on every corner, the book still has this gentle pace and gentle tone that make me take it more seriously than if the tone were more self-consciously arty or manic.
I'm also listening to Wild, by Cheryl Strayed: almost done. I suppose like everyone who reads this, I kind of want to go out and research hiking the Pacific Crest Trail; what I think about most, though, is why this is so popular. Don't get me wrong: it's a fine book, if occasionally a little magazine-style generic in tone (the death of Jerry Garcia, which happened while she was hiking, felt not just like a death but like "the end of an era." To cite just one example.) It's also a story to which I can relate, even while I don't actually relate to very much of it at all (hmm: maybe that's my answer right there). But I'm always curious what grabs the zeitgeist and what doesn't. I'm glad this one did, but I still don't quite get it.
Okay: that's my book talk from this week.