I’ve been having a really good time following the race for the Democratic nomination. As is usually the case with me and politics, I’m far more interested as an observer than as a participant. The daily maneuvering makes for good reading. I’ve mostly been following the action at The Note, the daily column put together by ABC News’ political unit. It’s a great behind-the-scenes look at the process. All of this politicking has got me thinking about one of my all time favorite books. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 combines, in a way that only Thompson can, political reporting with author’s deteriorating ability to keep it all together. I enjoy this book the most out of all of Thompson’s books because it provides a terrific outsider’s look at the mealy insides of American politics. Thompson sharing the back of a limo with Nixon on a ride from Boston to Manchester is priceless. But it is also amazing because it comes at an odd moment in Thompson’s career, the point of transition from the clear-headed, idealistic recklessness of Hell’s Angels to the addled egotism of his later work. The book got me excited about politics, but I was frustrated that Thompson wasn’t able to keep writing at this level for the rest of his career. Still, it remains a fantastic book for anyone who is interested in history or politics, especially if you have taste for Thompson’s singular, stylistic flair.
There’s a lot for readers to look forward to in the second-half of the year, and high up on the list is Zadie Smith’s first novel in seven years, NW. Lydia covered the book in our big preview published last week, “NW follows a group of people from Caldwell–a fictional council estate in northwest London whose buildings are named for English philosophers–and documents the lives they build in adulthood. Smith (who since 2005 has become a mother, NYU professor, and Harper’s columnist) has variously called this a novel of class and a “very, very small book” (highly unlikely). Smith’s own deep roots to London, and this particular corner of London, were most recently aired in her stirring defense of London’s local libraries for the New York Review of Books blog.” Smith sets the scene evocatively in the book’s opening paragraph. The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.
I know this is old news, but I thought I’d give my brief thoughts on the stories from the New Yorker debut fiction issue. I wasn’t bowled over any of the stories, but I was most impressed by Umwem Alpem’s “Ex-Mas Feast,” not so much for writerly virtuosity as for the glimpse of the exotic the story provides. Perhaps because so many short stories seem to be set in the suburbs, I am always drawn to stories set in faraway places. I was somewhat less impressed by Karen Russell’s “Haunting Olivia,” which I thought would have been a more successful story if it had been half as long. I did, however, enjoy how Russell injected a bit of the surreal into her story. I was also dutifully shocked upon discovering that she is only 23 years old, even though I should know that the New Yorker loves to find these fiction savants. Least interesting of all to me was Justin Tussing’s “The Laser Age,” which, at first glance, I thought was going to be a story of the twisted not to distant future, but instead was just another mismatched boy-meets-girl tale.
The emergence of the New York Review of Books publishing arm has been a treasure. They have managed, with this line of books, to package the feeling of falling suddenly in love with a book that you only even opened on a whim, perhaps being drawn in by an intriguing cover or title. They have hand selected the most deserving of the unknown and the out of print and returned them to bookshelves. Among the hundred or so titles that they have put out in their four or fve years is the book that I will keep mentioning until everyone on the planet has read it: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. Thanks to the Book Expo’s being in town this weekend, I had the opportunity to talk to Edwin Frank the editor of the New York Review of Books series. We discussed Maqroll at length, of course, trading theories as to whether or not the Gaviero will appear in print again, or whether it is up to us readers to track down his further adventures on our own. (Read the book; you’ll understand). We also talked about uncovering lost treasures in used bookstores, at good will, and at sidewalk book stalls. We also discussed several of the other titles in the series. When I asked him for the hidden gem among the hidden gems, he passed this title my way: To Each His Own, a Sicilian mystery by Leonardo Sciascia. He rated this one among the very best of the series, and since he’s the one who picks the books, I can’t help but trust him.
Call me Galadriel.
(Also Rosalind, Tyrion Lannister, Remus Lupin, and Fanny Price.)
Do you know me now?
The rash of character personality quizzes that recently popped up on my Facebook was delightful at first. Of course I wanted to know what Harry Potter or Shakespeare character I was. What ’90s rocker, what Downton lady, what David Bowie.
It was fun. I took them too. I am in favor any declaration of readerly passion.
But, as the quizzes multiplied, I started to get an awful, queasy feeling. I was troubled as I saw post after post that read: I am this person in this book. We are the same. This is me.
For a character to feel relatable, of course, is one of the great joys and strengths of fiction, and I myself travel with a posse of characters who have spoken to me as if from inside my own heart: Harriet Welch, Seymour Glass, Fleur Pillager, Joelle Van Dynne, Eugene Henderson, and Mick Kelly, to name a few.
But the most powerful reading experiences I’ve had all happened when I was seduced into the specific and alien lives of characters who are not like me at all. Characters who do things I would never do. Characters with whom I likely do not share common party styles or desired vacation destinations or favorite Beyoncé songs. I’ve gone along for the ride with Úrsula Iguarán’s matriarchal ferocity, Billy Pilgrim’s disorienting despair, Rat Kiley’s misdirected bravado, and Peter Jernigan’s magnificently self-destructive gin drinking. I have loved Lolita with Humbert Humbert and wondered how I felt about myself after. Raskolnikov made me kill an old woman with an axe. I screwed around as Yunior in ways that hurt me more than the girls in question. Jay McInerny told me that YOU, that I, was doing all manner of things I assure you I never had any intention of doing. Hell, Rajesh Parameswaran once showed me what is was like to be a TIGER who brutally mauled person after person in a confused expression of love.
Call it radical empathy, as Colum McCann does. Call it the moral necessity of metaphor, as Cynthia Ozick does. Call it containing multitudes, as Walt Whitman does. Call it anything you like — so long as you think it’s important. So long as you understand that gaining access to identities, consciousness, and experiences different than your own is one of the most powerful and humanizing things a piece of art, particularly a book, can do for you.
This is perhaps never so clear to me as when I am teaching.
When an older, continuing-ed student, so shy she typically blushes when she has to talk, says that she really liked the parts of Persepolis where Marjane was a confident loudmouth who spoke out against the post-war Iranian regime. When a Floridian frat guy says he likes “ghetto-nerd” Oscar Wao and understands how hard it is to not be the person everyone expects you to be. When the orthodox Jewish boy who hadn’t participated all semester was the only one who didn’t think “For Esmé With Love and Squalor” was about a pedophile and defended it to the class by saying: “They’re trying to save each others’ lives.” When the young African-American guy in the nursing school who was only in my class because it was required came to life during our unit on August: Osage County and demanded to read the part of Violet, the cruel Okie-mother. When a kid named Frankie performed the greatest Lear I’ve ever seen in the trailer under the West Side highway that was our classroom with an umbrella for a scepter because it was raining that day…these are the times that I remember why I write and why I teach.
You might point out that there are more important things than a proliferation of online personality quizzes happening in the world this week. There is upheaval in Ukraine. There are protests in Venezuela and Bosnia-Herzegovina. At home, there is Jan Brewer’s terrifying consideration of SB 1062. But I’ll go ahead and say that humans who engage in radical empathy with characters unlike themselves, who experience things beyond the scope of their lives, are more likely to know and care about these events too. Are more likely to do something about them.
So do not ask us which characters we are most like. Forget: “Who Are You?”
Ask us our favorites. Ask us who we love. (And in truth, and in the spirit of February, what says more about a person really, than who they love?)
Because when you list your favorite characters, when you tell us who it is you love, are these the characters and people who are the most like you? I hope not. If you find yourself encouraged to love only characters who are just like you, I want you to worry about that; it means your art isn’t doing its job.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
I’ve been enjoying the discussion surrounding Elizabteh Crane’s LBC-nominated book All This Heavenly Glory at the LBC blog this week. Yesterday she posted on the blog and a discussion ensued in the comments and today there’s a great interview she did with Dan Wickett. There should also be appearances by her agent and publicist forthcoming. I’ll add links to those on this post when they’re up. Also, this would be a good place to throw in a link to Elizabeth’s blog. It’s charming, it’s fun, it’s silly (and occasionally serious.) It’s called standBy Bert.See Also: Crane’s editor posts.
Very interesting article from the NY Times today about Amazon and used books. Many assume that Amazon’s ample selection of used books represents a grave threat to authors and publishers, but some economists who looked into the issue found evidence that just the opposite is true. The key point: “When used books are substituted for new ones, the seller faces competition from the secondhand market, reducing the price it can set for new books. But there’s another effect: the presence of a market for used books makes consumers more willing to buy new books, because they can easily dispose of them later.” Read the whole article here.