TPR Challenge #5 - Alice Munro

It cannot be avoided, so I will just begin with it: this collection, Too Much Happiness, does not exactly deliver the goods its title seems to offer.  That is not to say the collection is not good; it is quite good.  But if happiness is what you seek, you should look elsewhere.

This book was my first encounter with Munro in book length (a scattered story here and there has crossed my awareness), and I'm glad to have experienced it.  But never in my reading did I approach a feeling akin to happiness.  Rather, the 10 stories collected here are dark, foreboding, and weighty, and they took me more time to read than I expected.  Munro is known for her fairly effortless style.  A lightness of touch that animates the anecdotal.  Here, though, that light touch has been applied in the darkest of tones, which creates an odd juxtaposition and a constantly unsettled feeling.  I commented the other day on "Wenlock Edge." It remains the story of the collection that affected me the most.  I'm not sure I could say it was the "best," but it left the deepest impression.  I'm not convinced it will ever let loose of me completely.  I'm not even sure what it changed exactly, but it is one that changed me.

The remaining selections were solid, but they have not lingered as individual pieces.  I did like the title story, based on the fascinating real life of mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky.  And four in succession in the middle ("Free Radicals," "Face," "Some Women," and "Child's Play") were thorough and intriguing in their quiet probing of difficult subject matter.  I do not think that I will remember them distinctly in 6 months time, though.  Instead, I walk away from her writing feeling convinced that she has said things about womanhood that are desperately important still today.  She speaks my dialect of the feminist tongue.  She is not abrasive, corrosive, aggressive, or hurtful.  But she speaks the truth with such a frankness that it cannot be doubted or assaulted.  It simply stands. 

I underlined very little in this text, (which is good because I found the deckle edge to be stupidly un-user-friendly for flipping to find notes), but I would still recommend this book (and perhaps Munro's work in general).  There are decidedly few passages that take your breath away for sheer craft, but the overall effect is one worth experiencing. 

As for the TPR interview, I feel it came too late in her career or perhaps too late in the world of literary interviews.  Maybe that is an insensitive remark, but she seems (at this point, 1994) too practiced at these type of interviews.  One of the great charms of the earliest TPR interviews is that they are so effortless, so informal, so much a peek into the untold sides of great minds.  Munro here seems a bit too accessible, too pre-packaged.  The one revealing bit was about her early suburban life, a time she says she hated so much she's "never been able to write about it."  She says,
In North Vancouver, the men all went away in the morning and came back at night.  There was a lot of informal togetherness, and it was hard to be alone.  There was a lot of competitive talk about vacuuming and washing the woolies, and I got quite frantic.  . . . This was much more narrow and crushing than the culture I grew up in.  So many things were forbidden - like taking anything seriously.  Life was very tightly managed as a series of permitted recreations, permitted opinions, and permitted ways of being a woman.
For some people, the phrase "hard to be alone" gestures at the difficulties one encounters when mired in loneliness.  For me, and apparently Munro, the greater and more tangible difficulty is that of getting to be alone.  I think here she is referring not merely to the physical reality of being without human companionship but to the ability to truly be alone with one's thoughts.  There is a depth and breadth to that kind of aloneness, and some of us crave and cultivate it.  Clearly, this part of her story set off alarm bells for me.  There's part of me that hopes she never releases this struggle to be written about; and another part that will definitely read it once she does.  


'Nuff Said

Ben Folds (music) + Nick Hornby (lyrics)  = Lonely Avenue (album).  See what Poets & Writers has shared with me.


Blue Car Syndrome

Thanks to Greg at The New Dork Review of Books for calling my attention to this fantastic article on David Grossman.  Grossman will be part of my TPR Challenge and would have been next if our public library had had a copy of To the End of the Land.  Grossman is one of those authors who, for whatever reason, I had completely bypassed until this TPR thing.  When I was making my list, I chose this book because I knew it was due to be released in September, and I was looking to get in a few really new books.  Since then, I've had a strong case of Blue Car syndrome.

What? You don't know about Blue Car syndrome?  It's like this: you've been fine with your old heap of a car until your husband calls your attention to this new model of vehicle.  It's blue and gorgeous, and you love it, but you're not really thinking about a new car right now, are you?  Then, like magic, you see that blue car 10 times on the road in the next week.  Where did they all come from?  You'd never seen one before, and now, they're everywhere.  Surely they didn't just all appear?  No, of course, they've always been there; you're brain just didn't identify them before.  Well, David Grossman is my blue car.  He's apparently been here doing amazingly beautiful things for some time now, and I just didn't identify him as worthy of my attention.

Guess what, folks?  He's got it now.  And I just found out that my university library has a copy of To the End of the Land, so you can guess what's up next in the great TPR Challenge.

And since we're on the topic, I'll be glad to reveal to you that I am currently reading Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness.  It is a collection of short stories, a form I never seem to tire of.  And Munro is an author I hadn't read yet.  Don't ask me why 'cause I certainly couldn't tell you.  The first story, "Dimensions," was quite fine; it had that round, full feeling of a ripe watermelon.  It's all there, and it's all good.  The second story, "Fiction," didn't really do much for me, but that might have been because I fell asleep reading it the first night and had to finish it the next day.  A short story should be consumed in one setting, and a divided reading hinders the whole experience.  The third one, though, just about knocked my teeth out.  I was reading it while in the lobby of my daughter's ballet school.  I sent her off with her little bun and slippers and then I squirmed - literally - as I read this story.  I felt like the whole room was trying to read over my shoulder.  Even though the two ladies to my left were thoroughly absorbed in their conversation about being pregnant and having babies and the woman adjacent to me had her own book, I felt I must somehow hide the contents of the story from their eyes.  I felt they could see through me.  The story is called "Wenlock Edge" in reference to a Housman poem the narrator reads midway through the story.  I'm not familiar with this poem, and I'm glad to not be.  If the poem had resonated with me at all, I probably would have been unable to finish the story.

And here's the thing: I don't want to tell you anything about it.  It unfolds, unravels, unclothes itself before you as you read it, and to allude to the plot would be the death of it.  So, I won't.  But, if you have this collection or are interested in it, let me urge you to read it - or at least this story.  Just try to choose a more suitable time and place, perhaps, than I did.


Why I Don't Do War Dances

Last Monday was an idyllic day.  The boy and I picked up the girl from school and proceeded directly to the library.  I grew up going to the Eastgate branch, and while it is familiar as a spoon, I now prefer the downtown branch.  I tell my kids it’s because it’s closer, and it is; however, I prefer it because of how large, contained, and engaging the children’s section is.  Unfortunately, the rest of the library is pretty dismal.  In recent years, our city and county have half-heartedly discussed the possibility of improving the downtown branch, but politics and money (the heartbeat of all things holy) inexorably stand in the way.  They even paid some consultants to tell them, “Yep, your system is pretty much broken, and your downtown branch is depressing,” but they have not yet found a way to respond to such a critique.  But the children’s section is huge, it has decent light, and thankfully, the computers are not the most important fixtures in the room.  They are there, and for some children, they are a good resource.  But books take center stage here, and their characters populate the walls, the display cases, and, with luck, the imaginations of the kids who come.

My children prefer to start with the board books.  I’m sure this behavior stems from that being the spot where I would dump them as tiny ones.  They would happily gum book corners and look at dump trucks and Moo, Baa, La La La while I quickly skimmed a few and got them in my bag.  Now, they are much too old for such fare, but they still often start there.  Then, they browse the chapter and older picture books for awhile.  Inevitably, one needs to go to the bathroom or get some water, and I can trust them (and the place) to go around the corner on their own.  At some point, they stop to look at the exquisitely crafted mouse house regularly on display.  It is a sculpture about 2½ feet tall, and it shows a family of mice performing various mousely tasks: tucking the baby mice into acorn cradles upstairs, fishing in the pond out front, swinging beneath the branches of their oak tree home, gathering flowers in the yard.  My children (and I) love it. 

Meanwhile, I can pull books from shelves, read, admire Giselle Potter’s artwork, giggle at Mo Willems’ Piggie and Elephant, listen to my children pulling Magic Tree House books they’ve already read from the shelves and laughing again at names like Stinky and Pinky from Pirates Past Noon.  I can eavesdrop as the librarian praises an 8 or 9 year old boy for his recent report card.  He’s there with his tutor, working on his reading skills.  He’s there every week, and he knows this place as well as my children do.  He trusts its transformative power, too.  Like satellites, my kids return at intervals, checking that I am still the largest thing in the room, and then scamper off again to revel in the beautiful mystery of so many words.  I don’t find many things more pleasurable.

When we finally left, arms full of books, we made our way to the check out where I allowed myself to browse the new books shelves.  I haven’t done this since the girl (now almost 6) was an infant.  I’ve mentioned before the burden my TBR shelves have placed on me and how I have eschewed the library in an effort to focus more on those I own.  This time, though, I found several I wanted to check out.  And ignoring that little voice in my head, I brought one home: Sherman Alexie’s War Dances.  
I first read Alexie in the Spring, and I was captivated by the strong narrative voice in Flight.  I’m actually teaching it for the first time later this semester, so I’ll be interested to see how students respond to it.  War Dances is a collection of short stories with poems interspersed.  There were moments of stark brilliance, but overall, I was not taken so willingly captive.  I can point to no particular wrongdoing of Alexie’s.  The poems offered a thoughtful counterpoint to the stories, and I liked some of the wordplay he used.  The stories themselves were cogent, cohesive, and weighty.  However, they did not sing to me.   And I think I know why.  The stories are populated with people, mostly men, who are brash, forceful, angry at times, and coarse.  They use profanity and discuss tits while dealing with real and difficult life experiences like alcoholism, adultery, and homicide.  I don’t think Alexie is wrong to draw these men in this way; in fact, I feel they are probably familiar to Alexie’s reality, so it’s appropriate.  However, it is not my reality.  My reality is quiet libraries with imaginative, precious children; my reality is red metal picnic tables, umbrellas, and sounds from nearby climbing walls; my reality is nap time and prayer and meals around the table.  Really, it is.  I recognize fully the place of privilege I inhabit.  I know I have a power to exclude certain things from my life that others have no control over.  But there are stories, there are entire bodies of work (David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs), that force me to enter into a reality I just don’t want to make room for.  Lest you think me closed-minded, allow me one moment of explanation.

I believe one of the greatest measures of good writing is exactly the way it allows or even forces us to enter into those “other” places.  I believe it is important to see through those lenses, to feel the anger, the self-righteous burn of those who have been oppressed, especially if you have been among the oppressors.  I believe it is enriching and fulfilling to live in other times, other places, other people’s realities for a time because it allows us to be more in our own.  So, do not mistake my discomfort for disapproval.  I’m glad Alexie has written what he has written and the way he has written it, and I hope he will keep singing his song.  I’m glad for his voice, his experience, as well as the numerous other authors who say and do and feel things I’d rather not know about.  I just don’t want to learn the words to their songs by heart.  I’ll stick with Fais Do-do and Sun Salutation and the downtown library’s children’s section.  At least for today.


TPR Challenge #4 - Haruki Murakami

Yesterday morning, at 7:45, I left my home.  1 hour and 40 minutes later, I returned, having run 10 miles.  On Saturday, I will leave a Nashville hotel room before dawn, stand outside the Country Music Hall of Fame, and wait for my wave to start on our 13.1 mile journey.  I'm running my first long-distance race, a half-marathon, and I started training for it back in mid-summer.  Prior to that, I hadn't run seriously since college, and serious might be an overstatement there.  Since we started training, I have run only one race, a 4.7-mile, hilly course in town, and I managed to come in 3rd in my age group.  Though I have no aspirations of awards on this one, I equally do not fear the distance.  I feel confident in my ability to complete it, and I have a time goal I would like to reach.  I am, essentially, racing myself.

I also feel confident it will not be the last distance race I run.  Some people do something like this just to say they have done it.  Mark it off the list; consider it a task completed.  I, on the other hand, rather like running.  I like the quiet company of my breath.  I like the clarity of my legs turning themselves over, my arms moving without effort, my mind a mere accompaniment.  I like the screech of the trains, the smell of the joint being lit across the street, the utility company graffiti on the sidewalks.  So, I know I will continue running even after those 13.1 miles are logged next week.  And I'm thankful for Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running for helping me see how relevant this act should be to my life and my writing. 

I've heard of Murakami as the buzz has risen over the years, but I hadn't yet read him when I saw his name among the collected The Paris Review interviews.  Though I still want to read some of his fiction (please make a recommendation below, dear reader!), the timing was too perfect to not take on this memoir/essay collection about distance running.  So, I downloaded the audiobook to my ipod, and on the occasions when my running partner and I were separated, I listened while I ran.  I do love audiobooks, but I rarely ever listen to them.  Typically, I'm not in the car long enough at any given stretch to give them proper listen, and when we go on trips, we listen to lots, but they are all for the 5-and-under set.  So, this was an unusual way for me to "read" Murakami, but his words were the perfect complement to my solitude. 

In fact, there were numerous coincidences that made the experience more than traditionally relevant.  He started running at 33; I've just returned to it at the same age.  He prefers Mizuno shoes; Mizuno is also my preference (although I'm wearing Brooks right now).  He is a Japanese novelist with worldwide acclaim; I - - - oh wait.  But similarities aside, I enjoyed hearing his thoughts on running, on becoming (and staying) a novelist, on living his life as he knows how to live it.  It resonated in me.

I'm not sure I would have appreciated it quite as much had I been reading the written text, but this medium and this time worked for me.  I don't have passages to comment on (as carrying a pencil and a Moleskine is particularly difficult in running shorts), but I can turn to the TPR interview, which was published in 2004, approximately a year before he began writing the essays collected in What I Talk . . .

A lot of the questions (and responses) pertained to craft, style, practice, and while I value those elements, I wasn't taken with them.  Like the Dorothy Parker, my paired reading actually revealed much about the author that was also handled in the interview.  So I had already been enlightened, I suppose you could say.  I already felt I knew this man as a person, much more than as an author, so the interview was just a continuation of that knowledge.  But a few points made me pause.

In addressing his readership in Japan, he says:
The average salaryman spends two hours a day commuting and he spends those hours reading.  That's why my big books are printed in two volumes: They would be too heavy for one.
I am just fascinated with the idea of the average person reading for two hours a day.  What a powerful wellspring for a society!  Can you imagine what it would look like in America if we all chose to read for two hours a day?  It would change the very fabric of our beings, I am convinced.  And I wonder how true it is.  It must be true enough to warrant the separate printings. 

Then, in discussing reality vs fiction, he responds:
I don't want to persuade the reader that it's a real thing; I want to show it as it is. . . .  In War and Peace Tolstoy describes the battleground so closely that the readers believe it's the real thing.  But I don't.  I'm not pretending it's the real thing.  We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news.  We are fighting a fake war.  Our government is fake.  But we find reality in this fake world.  So our stories are the same; we are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through these scenes, are real.
I find this commentary so stunningly astute that the less I say the better.   And I want to see how he works all this out in his fiction, so I ask again:  when I return to Murakami, what should I read?  Do you have a favorite?


TPR Challenge #3 - Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker's "Here We Are" is one of my favorite short stories to teach.  I love that so many kids simply don't get it.  Now, before you think me some evil professor who likes it when her students are confused, let me explain.  This story is accessible on one level, and students understand it fully on that level.  But only some of them can hear the constant undertone of the piece, and only when they do does the story fully come into focus.  "Here We Are" is a genius of multi-vocality, and it is proof enough to me that Parker is a hidden treasure.  Ostensibly, the story is about a newlywed couple traveling by train to the city for their honeymoon.  During the short train trip, they get into numerous petty arguments, and the wife is rather preoccupied with the idea of marriage and divorce, as though she wonders if she has made the right choice.  Many of my students find her infuriating, as do I on a certain level.  How could you not be frustrated by this kind of comment?
I don't suppose I ought to say it about my own sister, but I never saw anybody look as beautiful as Ellie looked to-day.  And always so sweet and unselfish, too.  And you didn't even notice her.  But you never pay attention to Ellie, anyway.  Don't think I haven't noticed it.  It makes me feel just terrible.  It makes me feel just awful, that you don't like my own sister.
When her new husband protests that he does like her sister, she continues unimpressed with his protestations:
It isn't anything to her whether you like her or not.  Don't flatter yourself she cares!  Only, the only thing is, it makes it awfully hard for me you don't like her, that's the only thing.  I keep thinking, when we come back and get in the apartment and everything, it's going to be awfully hard for me that you won't want my own sister to come and see me.  It's going to make it awfully hard for me that you won't ever want my family around.  I know how you feel about my family.  Don't think I haven't seen it.  Only, if you don't ever want to see them, that's your loss.  Not theirs.  Don't flatter yourself!"
How exhausted must this groom have been after only 3 hours of this?  My students can't understand why she would be so difficult.  Why did she marry him if she was just going to argue with him?  What is this all about?

It's not just my students who miss the full picture.  I've read commentary on this story that merely dissects the depressing quality of newlyweds whose marriage is sure to disintegrate.  Such a bleak picture would not be entirely out of character for Parker, but it is not all this story is about.  The story is really about sex - also not outside of Parker's field of expertise.  Where some readers look to the tension of their whole marriage, I choose instead to focus on the tension of the first few hours.  They will presumably consummate their marriage, and at least one of them (although, I think both is more likely) is uncertain how it will all turn out.  Underneath all this young bride's inanity is a terribly insecure young woman who is terrified of her impending wedding night festivities, and in self-defense, she attempts to fight off her aggressor. 

Parker's mastery here is in the dialogue, where everything has a double meaning.  She is able to portray a realistically naive young woman and her enthusiastic but equally naive groom.  Simultaneously, she is able to make you snicker (and perhaps even guffaw) at the repeated reference to "doing it" and the bride's attempts to convince her groom that she will fall right to sleep as soon as her head hits the pillow.  It is terribly funny.  Finally, she is able to shine a light upon post-Victorian mores and how they affect individuals.  The taboo on sex was still mostly in place in the 30s, and this story does an admirable job of reflecting the fear of such an undiscussed topic. This swirling uncertainty is captured best in the final line of the story, coming in the form of a question.  "Here we are, aren't we?"

So, after enjoying this story for several semesters, I was looking forward to continuing my TPR Challenge by reading Parker's collected stories, which is supposedly in our library.  Unfortunately, it is AWOL.  I checked back several days in a row and even initiated a librarian search for it, but to no avail.  Instead, though, I got Arthur Kinney's fairly comprehensive look at her life and work, Dorothy Parker, Revised and one of her early poetry collections, Enough Rope.  I am now fascinated with this woman and am convinced she will remain a companion of mine for some time.

The poems surprised me because they are entirely metered and rhymed verse, many employing significant wit.  Parker is renowned for her wit; in fact, she laments her reputation being built upon her wit rather than her skills as a writer.  Since I read these simultaneously, I learned of her multiple suicide attempts from the Kinney while exploring these terribly dark poems.  It is a strange and strangely satisfactory juxtaposition to have this light rhymed form conveying such heavy material.  Not all are winners (many are too pat, too much a product for magazine consumption), but the ones that sing are amazing. 

Many readers will discount her because of the simplistic rhyme and meter.  Admittedly, it is not my favorite style.  But once you read several in a row, and you begin to allow the meter to really insist itself upon you, it becomes a means by which she is able to say something important.  She takes this wholly traditional form and uses it to convey nontraditional ideas.  She takes the accepted structure and uses it as a mouthpiece for her unacceptable thoughts.  It is a beautiful example of feminism working within the confines of an existing reality.  The real problem is that her contemporaries couldn't see it.  She secured a unshakable public image, and her writing was hardly ever able to permeate that image. 

The Kinney has urged my curiosity on.  Unfortunately, it has also spoiled some of the bits from the TPR interview.  So, what should have been interesting revelation was at times old hat.  But it did reveal a few new items, and it left Parker more exposed than she perhaps realized.  Her last word in the interview?
I'm not being a smartcracker.  You know I'm not when you meet me - don't you, honey?
Clearly, she has not been able to shed the insecurity, the questioning search of her "Here We Are" protagonist.  She, too, needs to be reassured.  Even in 1956 at the age of 63, she still doesn't trust her opinion of herself to match that of her audience.  It is perhaps the most enduring quality of her life.