Saturday, January 24, 2009

Burns Night

I will soon be off to celebrate Burns Night for the first time. If you don't have any Robert Burns on your shelf, or haggis in your kitchen, then at least try to read a poem today.*

*January 25th, in case the time stamp doesn't show up the same in more westerly parts of the world.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman

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As I've said, I'm not here to review books. But Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman is truly a delightful collection of stories. I recommend this book more than any other such collection I've read in ages.
Last week, when I suggested picking up a collection of short stories, there was more behind my encouragement than the hope of getting pages into your hands that you could read in manageable chunks of time, although that benefit was indeed a major motive. No, what I really wanted (apart from just getting you people to read, dammit!) was for you to discover something simple and incredible about short writings that novels, no matter how wonderful they are, just cannot have.

Short writings, and short stories in particular, are able to capture some essence of humanity. Not in a Sistine Chapel sort of way. More like fireflies in an old mason jar.

Even when the stories encompass the bizarre, the almost other-worldly, they can feel like part of our world - or, at least, like they could be part of it. We might be able to relate to the characters or the situations in a larger piece, but come on, most of us don't lead the sort of lives that are Pulitzer Prize-winning-novel material. It's not that our lives aren't interesting (read: completely messed up, with some chance at resolution or redemption, if we're lucky); it's that our lives aren't, to borrow Gaiman's term, "story-shaped." Neither are our night-dreams. (Although our day-dreams always seem to go that way, don't they?)

But in a short story, the story-shape isn't as big, as unwieldy, as unrealistic as in a novel. Whenever we tell other folks about our day, about missing the bus* or what Finkelman did in the lunch room, or about that crazy time last summer (it's always last summer, isn't it?), we are putting our lives in short story shape. And when we fail, our recollections seem somehow flat, and people wonder why we even bothered to tell the story at all.

In a way, I think the short story might be the most human way to express ourselves. (And the short story need not be fiction at all. Relating to what I said in the last post, I think even a good recipe tells a story. As do poems, good journalism, travel writings, yadda yadda.) And when we read a good short story, we feel alive. We can say to the page in front of us, when we finish reading it, "Hey, now I've got a story for you." And the wonder of it is, I think we really do have such stories.

*Which I did. This entry was originally written and posted in the precisely twenty minutes I had in my apartment on the morning of January 22, between missing one bus and being sure to catch the next. Whoops. I later amended it to, you know, sound better, so this is no longer the rushed original version.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Thrill of Short Writings

Right now I am reading Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wondersby Neil Gaiman, which is turning out to be quite a remarkable collection of short writings -- stories, poems, and so far one true story. I will write a proper post when I'm finished with the book (which shouldn't be long from now, at the pace I'm enjoying it). But, in the meantime, I'm encouraging each and every one of you to do this:

Go get a collection of short writings.*

You have no excuses not to enjoy them. You can get short stories, if fiction is your bag, or short travel adventures, or short poetry, or hell, even a cookbook, especially if it's got more than the recipes and pictures. You can read them out of order, if you're feeling dangerous. Don't have time for a novel, or that thick book on Kit Carson your Aunt Ethel gave you that really does look interesting ("Honest, Aunt Ethel!")? There are five or ten or fifteen minutes somewhere when you can force yourself to sit down and read just one piece. I've done it the last two nights, and I've been tired.

Then give yourself two minutes to think about what you read. Just trust me on this one.

*Preferably by legal means.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk

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I used to work in a bookstore, and my fellow employees either loved Chuck Palahniuk’s writing, or they hated it. Choke is the first of his pieces I’ve read, and if it is possible to have two such opinions at once – let’s call them “enjoyed” and “not sure I actually liked what I enjoyed” instead of “loved” and “hated” – then I have them about this book.
I never want to give this blog a rating of any sort, but if I’m going to follow the premise and discuss my thoughts on every book I read, then some of them are just going to be downright crude. And, well, the first book of 2009 will not be given by me to my siblings. Take that as you will, and proceed on your own free will.
Now why is discussing sex (and particularly sexual deviance) so uncomfortable? Why is simply reading about it so uncomfortable? Personally, I have very little problem doing so, and I imagine my tolerance for such readings and discussions is higher than other folks’. But there are passages in this book I wouldn’t read again in front of females I know and whose opinion of me I value, half because of the tent I might pitch and half for the reasons in Choke why my jeans might decide to go camping. (I’ll just say the scenes in Palahniuk’s book aren’t of the romance-story variety your grandma might read to get her ya-yas out. Unless your grandma would belong in this book.) And while I tried to view the sexual conversations and scenes in Choke as an integral part of the story, tried to understand what purpose they served to the rest of the writing, I couldn’t help but think of how many people would be downright uncomfortable reading these passages.

A big part of why my former co-employees didn’t like Palahniuk is that they believed he writes these sorts of scenes – and, indeed, complete stories – just for the shock value. (To be fair, his latest book, Snuff, which was released while I worked in this bookstore, was all written from the perspectives of three men out of several hundred acting in a single pornographic film. The New York Times Book Review slammed this book harder than a professional wrestler who breaks script.) And the shock value is, I now believe, an important tool in Palahniuk’s arsenal.

But I don’t believe that the sexual passages and ideas in this book are there only for the shock value. I won’t pretend to understand Palahniuk’s motives. But what passages like the ones he writes force us, as readers, to do is to face the sexuality that we each possess as reproductive mammals. For very few of us is sex an entirely approachable subject, despite the fact that it’s one of the few things that every single person who reaches puberty on this planet thinks about.

Not all of us think about sex the way that Victor Mancini does in Choke, but that’s because not all of us are sexual addicts to the extent that Victor is. In the context of the book, it makes sense that so many of his thoughts and so many of his actions center around sex, the possibilities of getting it, and how sex (and not, say, murder or theft) is what Jesus would not do. But whether we are repulsed by Victor’s ideas and actions or secretly aroused by them (or – and why not? – both), by reading this book, we confront his sexuality and our own.

I think as humans (especially those of us from the United States), we need to be confronted more often by our own sexuality. Living in Germany, people in Europe and America ask me what the differences are between the two cultures. Of all the differences, the biggest one I can point to is the way we treat violence and sex. In the United States (and elsewhere in the world), we hide sex and sexuality. We ban it from television, we don’t talk openly about it within families and among friends, we put magazines in plastic wrap on the top shelf behind a black barrier. Some of us think abstinence is the only answer for teen pregnancy, and not least of all because that means we don’t have to talk about sex with our teens. And we take our five-year-olds to the theater to watch people get shot and blown up and tortured. In Europe, sexuality walks the streets like all the other citizens. Naked people appear in television commercials. Nudie magazines are sold on street corners – and even the newspapers will show an odd breast on the cover. Teenagers having sex? Yup, it happens, and the funny part is, they educate and talk about it. But you don’t see half the death glorified on screen that we get in the U.S.A.

I don’t believe that sex should become a Huxleyan freedom, where everyone belongs to everyone else and sex is purely recreational. And if someone chooses to remain celibate, well, power to them. But that doesn’t mean one doesn’t have sexuality, or even that one is repressing it. We all have the drive to copulate, and even if we don’t all get it whenever we want it, even if not all of us do want it, our sexuality is always there. Why the hell can’t we talk more openly about it?

Choke does. And even if I didn’t try out the advice Victor gives about getting laid on a Boeing 767 – despite being on a Boeing 767 while reading it – I’m a little more open than I already was to talking and hearing about human sexuality after finishing this book. The sex here has a purpose, and although Palahniuk might take it a bit over the top at times, Victor’s sexual addiction is no more repulsive than an alcohol addiction or a video game addiction. I have to believe all addicts (and who among us isn’t one?) would benefit from a bit more openness with one another.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Suggestions for a New Year

This year will be (and already is) one of new beginnings. I recognize that this blog is among the lesser beginnings that 2009 has already seen, but personally, it is important. And I hope that it becomes a part of the lives of others this year, too.

From the start, I want this blog to belong to everyone who reads it. That doesn't mean you get to edit the contents or the format, but you can certainly influence them. This blog will be my forum for reflecting upon the books I read -- not for reviewing them, necessarily, but for contemplating them and the thoughts I have while reading and after reading them. And while my bookshelf is as full as ever of books that I haven't yet found the time or the opportunity to read, I (and now, this blog) am always open to suggestions and recommendations.

So, if you've got a book you think I just have to read, or a book people keep telling you you have to read and you want me to be your reading lab rat, be sure to let me know. I'm open to and ready for whatever this year is going to throw at me, even (and especially) if it has a hard cover.