Have you ever been so disgusted with yourself you wanted to vomit? Like you’d rather not be in the same room with your bad ass (or big ass, depending) but wherever you go, there you are? No? Really? Never? Well, screw you. You’re not my friend. And I’d like to explain my disgust but then I’ll just feel more of it.
“Oh, c’mon Jo. Please? Please tell us why.” Well, crap, okay but in a nutshell.
I’m injured. I’ve been injured on and off for the last ten years but nutshell: I’ve had iliotibial band syndrome for the last two months and have only run one day in those eight weeks. I’m miserable, which only serves to make me more miserable. This morning, trying to walk/run, I was nearly in tears, not from the pain but from the state of my mind and body. And by the way, iliotibial band syndrome (ITB) is just a fancy way of saying ‘knee pain’. What am I to do?
Today, I’m choosing to think of people with real problems. Among my friends and family, there are at least a dozen issues a hundred times greater than mine. Yes, running has historically been that which keeps me sane and good, but I can walk until my knee gets better and listen to “This American Life” podcasts while I’m at it.
It’s Wednesday, what are you reading? Listening to? Watching?
Over the past few months, here’s what I’ve read and what I want you to know:
Harvard Square by Andre Aciman. (The reviews for this book intrigued me, so I picked it up during the summer.) Aciman, born in Egypt, provides in this novel an excellent example of character propelling the narrative or, more accurately, being the story itself. There is first the narrator, a foreign student at Harvard in the process of getting his Ph.D. in literature. When he meets Kalaj, a garrulous taxi driver from Tunisia, there is Kalaj. He’s an enormous personality, rarely likeable, always fascinating. Had I never encountered someone like him in my life before reading this novel, perhaps Harvard Square wouldn’t have been so enjoyable. But I’ve come across one or two of these characters along my journey, mostly while waiting tables, which is where we spend most of our time with Kalaj – in a restaurant, or several, listening to him describe everything American as ‘ersatz’ while passing the time during the quiet summer months in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The relationship between the narrator and Kalaj is curious, complicated, and believable because our narrator is so human, by which I mean flawed. So is Kalaj, to be sure, but we squirm in Aciman’s novel not because of the enormity of his personality, but because of the smallness of ours. On a scale of 1 to 5 coffee cups, 5 being the best, for Harvard Square I’d fill up 3 and ¾ cups.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. (Been meaning to read this novel for years, particularly because it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for that long.) It’s the late 1950s and Orleanna Price has packed up her four daughters and evangelical preacher husband, Nathan, to head off to the Belgian Congo where Nathan is setting up a mission. The story is told in alternating chapters narrated by Orleanna and the girls – the oldest daughter, teenage Rachel, twins Adah and Leah, and five-year-old Ruth May. Nothing goes as planned, if the plan was anything more than ‘this’ll be over in a year and we can go back to Georgia’. Hardships come often, not simply because of the ‘fish out of water’ element of Americans in the Congo, but because Nathan is a brutal husband and father, not physical abusive but emotionally destructive. Kingsolver gets everything right – character, setting, pace, plot – so I wasn’t surprised by how much I felt in the last third of the book when one of the daughters dies. (I’m not giving anything away. Kingsolver sets this up early on.) In a word, this book is brilliant and one of the best I’ve read in years. Hands down, five coffee cups. The fifth might even spill over.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This short novel, published in June, received so many interesting, glowing reviews, I had to check it out. It remains to this day on the bestseller list and after getting through its 181 pages in a couple of days, I don’t understand why. It’s about a grown man returning to his home in England for a funeral where he gets caught up with the childhood memory of a local suicide, after which he was taken by and taken in (sometimes literally) by a neighboring girl, Lettie Hemstock, her mother, and her grandmother, who live at the end of the lane. Lettie called the pond there her ‘ocean’, hence the title of the book. You know when an author describes a place or image and you just can’t create it in your head? That was this book. What Gaiman tries to conjure in the reader was beyond my visual capabilities. I simply didn’t grasp the effect or emotions he was going for, while continuing to believe it would all come together in the end. At 150 pages, no go. At 170, I lost faith. When I finished, I felt no richer for the experience. Understand, the sentences Gaiman puts together are the stuff of an experienced, talented author. The story? Feh. Barely two coffee cups.
White Noise by Don DeLillo – I’m trying to get through all the books that consistently appear on the lists of great novels everyone has to read. White Noise is certainly one of the more recent, published in 1986, though it perfectly resonates in 2013. Our protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a professor of ‘Hitler studies’ at a small college and lives at home with his fourth wife and their modern family of children. There’s an ‘airborne toxic event’ that sums up the plot, which explores our relationships with new technology, the things we buy, paranoia, our obligations to each other, and the ‘white noise’ with which we surround ourselves. Great characters, funky plot, whimsical relationships that I didn’t always believe. When it was published, I could see giving it four cups, but it’s 17 years later, so White Noise in 2013 will have to settle for three, and a healthy splash for good measure.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple – Every now and then, I just want to read a popular book that everyone’s reading or has already read. Bernadette fit the bill and I loved the NY Times ‘By the Book’ interview Semple did last May. Another example of character propelling the narrative, this novel has two – Bernadette and her daughter – who finagle the story with ease. Told through a series of emails, we spend time mostly in Seattle with Bernadette, her Microsoft husband, the daughter, and school parents we all recognize. Bernadette is profoundly odd but in a down-to-earth way, and deeply troubled but never off-putting – which may be why we’re so easily transported to Antarctica as Bernadette finds her way. It’s a very funny novel, but also warm, engaging, and surprising. Antarctica? Really? I’m filling up four cups.
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy – This collection of short stories is one I picked up last year, read the first two pieces, and then put it down because you can do that with story collections. I’m now convinced that’s not the way to go. By not reading from cover to cover before moving over to something else, I wasn’t able to get Meloy’s ‘voice’ and appreciate not only her style, but the familiar settings of the stories, and the overarching theme. The characters in Both Ways really do want most everything in more ways than one. They’re tortured by their needs, punished for their risks, embraced in their relationships, loved, hated, and misunderstood. Within families, among friends and colleagues, and even to a stranger, Meloy offers human nature, in all its messy glory. Feeling generous, this also gets four cups.
I’m currently reading Amy Hempel’s story collection Reasons to Live. How about you? Please tell me what you’re flipping through and whether any of us should care.
Regarding what I’m listening to, I’ll be brief:
“The Cup Song” – Anna Kendrick. She sang this in “Pitch Perfect” and we heard the single version on the radio in June while up in San Francisco. It’s taken awhile to hit the airwaves here in Los Angeles, but it was worth the wait. So simple, so singable, love Kendrick’s voice.
“Wake Me Up” – Avicii. I heard this well over a month ago and smelled a hit. Reminds me of Mumford & Sons and that’s never a bad thing.
“Royals” – Lorde. Bun Bun made me aware two months ago and it’s all over the airwaves now. That’s okay. The song is unique, as is Lorde’s voice.
What I’m watching? Not much. As much as I love lying on the couch and settling in front of the flat screen, I almost always think there’s something else I should be doing, even now with the fall season’s new shows. I caught “Hostages” and was intrigued by the premise, but probably won’t go back for no reason other than my time at night is limited. It’s still “The Daily Show” every evening and the old standards, though Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” is worth the effort. “Newsroom” ended last week, which made me sad, even if Aaron Sorkin occasional missed and dumped exposition like so much detritus. There’s no new show I’m dying to watch, but if you come across something worthy, please recommend.
Movies? Ask me in a month, when Oscar hopefuls abound.
Plays? We saw “Rapture, Blister, Burn” by Gina Gionfriddo at the Geffen last week. Great play in the vein of “The Heidi Chronicles” by Wendy Wasserstein. More than anything about the evening, it was fantastic to go to the theatre and remind ourselves, yet again, how much we need to make the effort to do it more often.
Please leave a comment and let us all know what you’re reading, watching, listening to.