August 19, 2011

Lazy Summer Reading

Margarita, with obligatory summer toes
Summer is considered over now, in my neck of the woods, even though the temperature is just now really cranking up. All the kids in our district went back to school last week, so while we'll still have pool days and be wearing shorts for the next couple of months, “Summer 2011” as a concept is in the bag.
This summer was a lazy one. There were many, many days when the kids and I didn't get dressed and leave the house until the afternoon. When we did leave, our aspirations were low: a trip to the library, or Jamba Juice, or the discount movies. (We also spent a week in Arizona, but that was way back in early June...that was late spring, to be exact.)
I felt our laziness to be some failure of imagination and ambition on my part. Last summer, I had a big butcher-paper list attached to the kids art easel, full of ideas and plans. But in truth, this summer really was quite eventful, and featured a couple big rites of getting bigger: The kids playing at our nearby park all by themselves! Both kids swimming in pools without my help! My Monkey Girl getting her ears pierced!   Also, there was Scripps Aquarium in La Jolla, Girl Scout camp,  and my girl's immersion and total geek-out into the world of Harry Potter books. There was Monkey Boy, saving his allowance for a DSi, so he could quit pestering his sister to borrow hers. And various play dates and sleep overs and trips to a couple of new, modest water-parks around town. 
Monkeys, with complimentary apples at our pool cabana in Scottsdale
You get the idea. And where was I, in the midst of all this kid-centric activity? Reading scores of blogs while ignoring my own (ahem), blogs with lots of peaceful photos of coffee in pretty mugs and late-afternoon sunlight striking glasses of white wine, with bloggers waxing poetic about staying present, staying in the moment, holding onto every sweet drop of life.

Right. So when I wasn't feeling guilty from either reading too many blogs, or from the blogs themselves, I often avoided the kids and thinking about my life and cleaning the toilets by reading novels. Some were good, some were instantly forgettable (which is why I can't list them), and a couple were Big Novels. Novels in the grand tradition of the Great American Novel.

The first of these was Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. This was the first of anything I've read by Franzen, who got famous after the The Corrections – and turning down Oprah's invitation to be on her show, after she'd selected the novel for her book club. Evidently, he's a serious writer
I really delved into Freedom, and found it was a good, involving read. Lots of commentary on the current culture through the interlocking fates of the characters, who are mostly all from one family. Also, in Patty, the wife and mother, he creates one of the most disagreeable, annoying, and yet ultimately fascinating female characters I've met in a long time. The only section of the book that slowed down for me was the long section dealing with the politics of coal mining and mountain top removal in Appalachia, and their role in the ethics crisis of another major character.   

And, I will say that Franzen's writing is really top-notch, specific and revealing. This was most evident when I moved onto the next book I attempted after Freedom, which was The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass.   I think some of the plot elements of her book felt too similar (a family saga, commentary on the liberal lifestyle and the push for gentrification, environmental activists, etc.)  Maybe I should try it again, as I really loved Glass's first novel, Three Junes.  But I gave up this novel after several chapters, feeling that the writing definitely suffered in comparison to Franzen's. 

 The other Big Novel of the summer was a re-reading of William Styron's Sophie's Choice. I had actually meant to re-read this last summer, but I wasn't able to get my hands on a copy. Shamefully, my local library doesn't carry anything of this late, great Southern writer's works, except a slim collection of military short stories that appeared much later in his career. So recently, in a used bookstore, I bought the mass paperback edition of the book, the same edition of the book I'd read way, way back when I was in junior high. It's kind of funny now to think of me reading this in junior high, because as mentioned, this is a Big Novel, with big themes about guilt and grief and passion and the Holocaust and sex and sex and sex. 
 Sex and sex, because the narrator, Stingo (not-so loosely based on Styron himself) is a young man from the South living in Brooklyn in the first years after World War II, and he's a very inexperienced and lonely and horny young man. And his first encounter with Sophie and her lover, Nathan, is when he's subjected to hearing their very loud and enthusiastic lovemaking in the room above his, in the boarding house where they all live during the fateful summer of the book.

Sophie's Choice is a wonderful book, not least because of the evocative descriptions of place, from 1940s New York places like Coney Island and Flatbush and, in Sophie's retelling, to pre-war Crakow, the Warsaw ghetto, and the terrible sights and smells of Auschwitz. It's also just a great story, a tragic one on many levels, and reading it decades later, as an adult and a mother, opened up new layers of the story to me.  Layers that I probably didn't quite appreciate when I first read this at thirteen or fourteen, and was likely just shocked to see the word cock repeated so often in book. (One joke from the book has stayed with me all these years: when non-native speaking Sophie refers to Stingo's dapper suit as a cocksucker, rather than a seersucker.)

So now the kids are back in their classrooms, and I'm blogging again, something I found too time-consuming and guilt-inducing (there's that word again)  with children sometimes literally at my feet, moaning aloud their boredom.

And I'm still reading; this time not a Big Novel, but a quiet little book that I'd never heard of, The God of Nightmares, by Paula Fox. This is heady good stuff here, about a diffident young woman who leaves her lonely home in upstate New York to live among a cast of artists, drunks and young people in the French Quarter in 1941. Sometimes (often) the best books are those desperate choices I make at the library, when nothing else I'm searching for can be found on the shelves (note again, dear Riverside County Library system, your grevious lack of the works of Mr. William Styron).

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