A slow reading week…

I haven’t read much in the last week or two, and before that was not reading much that really excited me (other what I’ve already posted).  I have allowed myself to become addicted to a television show (Grey’s Anatomy) and have been watching it on DVD – between that, work and having a life, not much reading going on. Pretty unusual.

I saw the movie Watchmen when it was in the theater (the best friend is a huge Jeffery Dean Morgan fan, and I am a big comic book geek).  We were both horribly disappointed and irritated that we’d wasted money and time on such a bloody, violent, depressing and (most important to me) pointless flick. I can do without the blood and violence, but that wouldn’t be enough to turn me off of a movie.  And I am fine with depressing and meaningful, or pointless and fun.  But depressing and pointless – well, that’s a load of crap.  I had been meaning to read Watchmen because it was highly lauded by critics – surprising for a graphic novel.  After seeing the movie, I was compelled to read the book and find out what the movie had screwed up on.

Alan Moore’s graphic novel is much, much better than the movie based upon it (a movie that Moore refused to be affiliated with because he didn’t believe it would work).  But I still didn’t like it very much. I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t seen the movie, I would have had a different reading of the book, but it’s too late for that now.  The book has three or four sub-plots that are completely missing from the movie and added much to the point Moore seemed to be trying to make – that you cannot do evil things and not become evil.  The comic book is as violent and bloody as the film, but in comic-book form, the impact of the violence is more cerebral and less disgusting.  The book was compelling (while the film dragged on) and while still be depressing, at least was not pointless.  There is a lot of irony and contrasting of stories that is completely missing in the movie.  The character of Dr. Manhattan is much more developed in the book, and there is some fascinating stuff about the nature of time and experience that adds much to the backbone of Moore’s concept.  All in all, the book was enjoyable, if not something I would highly recommend.

I also read Kaye Gibbon’s The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster – follow-up to her first hit novel Ellen Foster. Ellen is a girl who’s lost her mother and somehow manages to stay driven and positive in the face of abuse, crushing poverty and racism in the South.  Both books are written in the first person.  I remembered liking Ellen Foster, so I picked up the sequel (written a decade or two later) when I saw it for $3.  TLAAMbEF was not the powerhouse the first novel was, but those who loved Ellen from the first book would probably enjoy seeing what came next.

I recently got a gig reviewing books for a newsletter/website called BookBrowse.com – soon I’ll get paid (a tiny bit of money) to review new books!  My first book is The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt – and it’s due in two weeks, so I had better get back to reading soon!

Mystery Solved – sadly

The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint is the story of a young woman (Grace) who dies unexpectedly but, instead of Heaven or Nirvana or nothingness, what she gets is a rebirth in her apartment – but in a world inhabited only by all those who died in the same small area of town in the last 50 years.  A twist on a familiar theme, it is the story of star-crossed lovers with a serious impediment – one of them is dead.

I have already sung the praises of de Lint once or twice in this blog, so I won’t tell you again how much I love his work and how I feel like some of his books have literally changed my life and my way of thinking.  Someplace To Be Flying and Forests of the Heart are books I will have to bequeath to someone, because they will be in my book collection until the day I die (hmm, maybe I’ll have them cremated with me).  Unfortunately, The Mystery of Grace fell short of the incredibly high bar de Lint has written for himself.

I am most certainly not saying that TMoG is a bad book. It is not.  It is a good book.  Grace is a girl who loves hot rods (as I do) and actually works on them (as I do not), and the guy she falls for is someone I would probably fall for.  But as I read the book, I felt like I’d read it before – not the details, but the general storyline (TMoG is brand new).  At first, I chalked it up to having read and re-read the 50 stories or whatever that de Lint has written in his decades of writing (he has lots of short story collections in addition to a dozen or more novels).  Then I picked up Promises to Keep this week – another de Lint I thought I hadn’t read before. Well, I had read it before – it’s really more of a novella, published as a young adult fiction novel.  It is the story of Jilly (a recurring character in many of de Lint’s Newford books) and how she is offered the perfect life by a friend of hers – a life in a world where some of the dead go after they pass on.  The bones of this world – which Jilly ultimately rejects – are the same as the afterworld in TMoG.  That’s why it all seemed so familiar.

It’s clear that the idea showed up in Promises to Keep, and de Lint developed it much more fully (and more interestingly) in TMoG. but it still bugs me.  It smacks of a lack of ideas – a need to fulfill a contract and recycling stories to do it.   And I expect a lot more from my uber-favorite author – probably unfairly.

And while I’m venting, the gear-head stuff in the book does not ring quite true.  It reads like something very well-researched, but not as believable as almost everything else in his work.  I am a gear-head, I love it, and it felt just a little bit ‘tacked on’ as something cool rather than something real and true to a person.  And in general, the book felt thin – like the world and the characters in general lacked a certain depth.  I’m sure this is partly due to my being spoiled by the Newford stories, where I have dozens of stories worth of history that inform even the short stories.   But this one reads more like something he wrote in the early years – when he wrote short stories.  His writing (like most great writers) has improved over the years, so this one would have been a fabulous short story, but is instead a not-so-fabulous novel.  It pains me to say anything negative about my boy, but I won’t pretend that I loved TMoG. If someone else had written it, I would have said it was a de Lint rip-off that did not quite live up to the master.  That the master himself wrote it does not make it masterful.

Just Can’t Find the Love

Did you ever read a book that you didn’t like – and you didn’t know why?  It doesn’t happen to me very often (I can usually tell you exactly why I didn’t like it), but this is the story of one of those books.

Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd is a book I read in my graduate Contemporary Fiction class.  The book follows several writers in a few different eras, all connected to each other.  Sounds good so far, right?   Thomas Chatterton ( a real person) was a young poet in the mid-1700s that invented a medieval poet monk and published poems he himself had written, claiming that he’d found them in a church.  The poems were very popular and critically acclaimed.  Chatteron died before his 18th birthday – apparently a suicide – so we’ll never know if his talent would have grown.  He is known as a forger, but of course he wasn’t really a forger.  He just lied about being the ghost writer for a non-existent person.

We also meet George Meredith, a real poet who posed for a ‘portrait’ of Chatterton fifty years later, painted by Henry Wallis (the portrait image is on the cover of the book).  In modern-day England , we have Charles the poet (fictional) and his family as well as Harriet the novelist (also fictional).  Harriet is getting old and still ruled by her guilt and shame for plagiarizing the plots of a few of her novels, and Charles is ill and thinks he’s discovered new information about Thomas Chatterton – like the fact that he faked his death and wrote some of the most famous works of the late 1700s pretending to be famous poets.

The whole book is an exploration of art: What makes art great?  Do we read/see art differently based on biographical information about the artist?  Where is the line between inspiration and plagiarism?  Is any work of art ever truly original?  And how can you really know, even if you are the one who ‘created’ it?  I don’t think there are any simple answers to these questions, and the book does not try to answer them, it merely gives the reader plenty of food for thought.

I can’t explain why Chatterton does nothing for me.  It’s not a bad book. It’s not a boring book.  It has interesting themes and characters, and my favorite professor loves it.   I reread it to see if I could figure out what I missed the first time around.  I did like it better this time around.  But in the end, it just didn’t excite me.  No light bulb in my head.  Maybe because I didn’t feel like Ackroyd really added anything to the conversation on art he was so interested in.  Maybe because all the writers in the book are sad creatures that come to sad endings (not poetically sad or lyrically sad, just sad).  I don’t know.  Still.

What have you spent 10,000 hours doing?

I wrote a fan post to Malcolm Gladwell a few weeks ago after reading Blink, so it should be no surprise to any of you that I picked up another of his books, Outliers – this one about successful people and how they did not get that way alone.  As with Blink, this book was filled with much food for thought – and that is exactly why I am now officially a Malcolm Gladwell groupie. He looks at everything from the birth dates of leading hockey players to the rice patties of Southeast Asia to the garment district in New York City during the Depression to show that time and place had as much to do with success as a particular person’s individual skills.

What he’s NOT saying is that people like Bill Gates aren’t talented, hard-working and motivated. What he is saying is that things like where you live, who your parents are and what you spend your time doing count as much as individual effort.  Mr. Microsoft wasn’t just bright and skilled in math, he went to a school that had one of the earliest on-demand computers in the country, and virtually unlimited access to that computer where he could practice his programming skills.  Without that, he may have become Bill Gates, regular joe.

The part I remember most about Outliers is the 10,000 hours theory.  According to many different sources referencing many different skills, 10,000 hours of practice is what it takes to become a master at something – whether it be playing the violin, programming a computer or playing hockey.  Ever since I read that chapter, I’ve been thinking about those 10,000 hours.

While I was reading it, I immediately thought of what I’d spent my 10,000 hours on – reading! Now, of course, I always knew that the reason I was good at English and analyzing literature was because I spent so  much time reading, but this is ‘knowing’ in a different way.  If 10,000 hours of practice is the amount of time it takes to master a skill – well, I hit that a long time ago – before I got to college.  Obviously, I am an expert at reading because I love it – but I also had a big sister who taught me to read before kindergarten, and parents who encouraged reading, took me to the library when we couldn’t afford books, and never told me to put the book down and do something else.

I’m not here to make judgments, but I think – for some people at least – a re-framing of the definition of talent/expertise would be valuable.  How do you get to be a professional ball player? – 10,000 hours of practice. That is a finite – if rather large – goal a person can chip away at.  I find myself wanting to impress this knowledge upon my son somehow – not in a ‘what are you wasting your life on’ kind of way, but more of a ‘you can choose what you will be a master of – what is it that you will choose?’  And if what you want to be a master of is wasting time on the internet – well, at least you should be consciously choosing it!  I wouldn’t be surprised if web-searching wasn’t something you could be employed for in the future.  So maybe we should be less uptight about all that time our children waste on the weird things that interest them – those things could turn out to be something incredible if they are willing to put the time in.

It also puts new spin on those ‘mid-life’ career changes that used to be such a big deal (though increasingly, anyone who hasn’t changed careers 3 times by mid-life is an anachronism).  But if you hadn’t hit 10,000 hours on something by your early 20s (when you had to hit the workforce), you may well have done it by your mid-40s and ‘suddenly’ have a new skill to market.

Maybe I’m making more of this than there is, but, as you can see, Gladwell’s got me thinking in new and interesting ways.  And this is just one facet of a book full of insights like this!

Yes, I am a big fan of analysis and the human experience – why do you ask?  Pardon me, I must get back to working on my second 10,000 hours of reading – or is it my third?  Feel free to tell me what you spent your 10,000 on.

A Master of Illusion

Paul Auster sticks in my mind as one of the most challenging authors I read while working towards my B.A. in English.  We read The New York Trilogy and I liked him mostly because he was really difficult, yet I could understand him. Not to say it wasn’t a great book – it was – just a very complicated, multi-layered text full of obscure references and stylistic flourishes not always easy to understand.  When I had to write my first ten-page paper ever, I chose his book because I knew there was more to write about in that book (all 384 pages) than any two other novels we read that semester.  I got an A, and my professor (thank you, Patty) suggested I present it in a Student Showcase, which I did.  Maybe that was more information that you really needed to explain my positive associations with Auster, but I have a bit more.  I picked up The Brooklyn Follies early this year and thoroughly enjoyed it – another great book by Auster, but much less challenging (though no less interesting).

The Book of Illusions I picked up on that fabulous sale rack at Powell’s.  Now looking at it, the eyeball shot on the cover brings hints of Lost (which I’ve recently become addicted to and watched voraciously for weeks on end).  I must have bought it before I started watching that show, because it never occurred to me before.  I suppose at some point you’d like me to actually tell you about the book I read?  If you insist.

I really enjoyed The Book of Illusions.  It is the story of a man who loses his wife and children when their plane (which he was not on) crashes.  He drinks and drifts for almost a year until he sees a clip from an old silent film on TV that actually makes him chuckle for the first time since their deaths.  He becomes a bit obsessed with the comedian in the film and decides to find and watch all the films he made.  In the process, he discovers the actor is alive and is invited to meet him.  It is a sad, powerful story about grief and guilt and the strange things it makes us do.

I liked the book for several reasons.  It is written almost completely in the first-person (as many of Auster’s books are) and the internal monologue rings true,  painting a vivid picture of David’s internal life.  The narrative is convincingly erratic (like the thought processes of a human being) without being inconsistent or difficult to follow. I love a story that takes the scenic road to get to the point and doesn’t always give you clear directions.  His descriptions of the movies he ‘sees’ are so rich, you feel as if you are watching the films with him.

Some of the themes embedded in this narrative are also favorites of mine – the mechanics of how and why stories work, and why they are important.  The conviction that we all write our own lives (stories), and therefore we can change our lives if we work hard enough.  Affirmation that – regardless of the present moment – the future always offers hope.  So it’s not surprising that I devoured the book and closed it feeling happy, uplifted and wishing I could write half as well.  He is never boring, never predictable, yet entirely convincing.