One of the interesting things about being the author of an obscure blog is seeing how much I influence world culture. A day doesn’t go by without my opinions being parroted on music video channels and being reprinted on the backs of cereal boxes. Why just the other day I happened to be watching opening round action of this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, and I couldn’t help but hear CBS Sportscaster Dick Enberg describe as worthy of Don Quixote, a speech that Mike Gillespie, coach of the 16th seeded Florida A&M Rattlers, was giving to his team before sending them out on the floor to face basketball powerhouse Kentucky. I, of course, immediately assumed that Enberg made this comment because, as an avid reader of The Millions, he knew that I was reading the Edith Grossman translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and reading along at home, he felt comfortable throwing the literary reference into his broadcast. Or there is another explanation that, I will concede, is equally plausible. Don Quixote, like other literary first ballot hall of famers, Hamlet, Gatsby, and Holden Caulfield, is so ingrained in the public consciousness that such a reference will be understood by nearly all who hear it. Not bad for a 17th century Spanish epic. Enberg was using the name Don Quixote the way most folks do, to describe a foolhardy quest. And yet it would seem that Enberg was implying that there was something noble in all this, to use another often cited reference, something akin to David and Goliath. Before I ever cracked open the book, I had this impression as well, that there was something noble about this knight who wears a bowl on his head and tilts at windmills. I see it a bit differently now, even though, admittedly, I am only a quarter of the way through the book. Certainly in telling the story, Cervantes is turning the idea of chivalry on its head, and in doing so is nobly attempting to undo some of the harmful social mores of his time, but the character of Quixote isn’t particularly noble. In fact he is a rather sad specimen who is either totally mentally ill or utterly incapable of recognizing the consequences of his actions; probably he is a little of both. So far, he has inadvertently caused a servant boy to be beaten by his master, he has bludgeoned a number of innocent passersby, and he has allowed his faithful squire, the very likeable Sancho Panza, to be repeatedly thrown to the wolves. In fact, I am starting to see that it is perhaps a disservice to compare the coaches of underdog basketball teams and others who embark on impossible quests to Don Quixote, who, I should also mention, is turning out to be rather unhygenic. Better that these noble folks be compared to Cervantes, who, even 300 years later is still managing to take on the big shots. Like I said, though, I’m only a quarter of the way through. Once, I have finished, and once I have read the Harold Bloom essay that precedes the text, I may have different take on the whole thing, so stay tuned, America.
Looking at what people are reading while they ride to work on the train is an odd hobby, but I’ve been doing it for several months now and I can’t seem to stop myself. In fact, it’s become all the more fascinating now that I’ve noticed some patterns emerging. Here’s what I observed during my travels between the North Side and the Loop on Friday:Reading for school: This is the broad category that includes everyone from high schoolers reading Shakespeare to the upper echelons of post-graduate academia. Since school’s out, you mostly just see the post-grad end of the spectrum at this time of year. Friday’s sighting: Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000 by Kevin Fox GothamConsumers of popular non-fiction: This may be the largest group of readers on the train. Perhaps fiction is too light (or too heavy) for the commute, and these nine-to-fivers require something concrete, yet engaging, to bookend their working day. Friday’s sighting: Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich; Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer; Arc of Justice by Kevin BoyleReading for fun: These people, on the other hand, require a diversion on their way to and from work, something boldly written and fast-paced to inject a little excitement into the weekday. Spotted on Friday: The Broker by John Grisham; Harry Potter #4 and #6 (Potter – and not just #6 – is nothing short of ubiquitous on the train these days)The readers: These are the people I envy. I like to imagine that they’re not on their way to or from work but that they ride the rails, like modern day hobos, all day long, enjoying the gently swaying carriage with their noses buried in books. Spotted on Friday: Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.
On Wednesday, the Aloud Series at the Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles hosted writers Antonya Nelson and Marisa Silver in conversation with Bernadette Murphy. The topic was “The Domestic Drama: Novel Form or Formula?” and, after short readings by Nelson and Silver, the conversation began. Why are we, as American writers, so preoccupied with familial dysfunction?Antonya Nelson called our fascination with stories about family a quintessentially American preoccupation. Family, she said, “is where a lot of our personal battles are lodged,” but that those battles, no matter how small and personal, are also political. Marisa Silver agreed. Silver also argued that stories about family provide a “dramatic rubric”; that is, narratives of family are imbued with desire, conflict, and even, say, an enemy. Later on in the talk, Bernadette Murphy mentioned a lecture at Antioch University given by Dorothy Allison, where Allison argued that all good literature has home at its center. Nelson agreed, saying that family is our most powerful institution, and that the home is the most powerful setting for it. She discussed her most recent novel, Living to Tell, in which her main character, after paying his dues to society (in prison), must return to his family to pay an entirely different penance – and perhaps a more meaningful one. (This discussion of home reminded me of Alice Munro, who has described her short fiction – and I’m paraphrasing my former teacher and friend Dan Chaon – as a house with many rooms one can wander in and out of, and not in any particular order. I’ve always loved that.)Although the conversation was enjoyable, the three writers also bandied about the usual platitudes about how reading allows us to see the world better, that it expands our capacity for empathy, and helps us to understand our own lives. I agree, but we’ve heard such slogans before. Instead, since all three guests were women, I hoped they might discuss the role of the female writer in depicting the home and family. Not that male writers haven’t taken up these topics – they certainly have – but, I wondered, are our perspectives on “the domestic” gendered ones? I’m reminded of a Virginia Woolf quote from A Room of One’s Own, wherein she says, “…the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so.” (Really, Virginia, naturally?) Traditionally, women writers have gone indoors, so to speak, to tell their stories, and to explore what matters to them. What about now? How are women writers redefining (or maintaining) notions of family, home, motherhood, and so on? (I know, I know: I should have raised my hand during the q&a.)Other highlights of the night included Silver’s discussion of the mythologies our families create for us, those roles we are given to play and/or reject. I also liked her description of writing as a “limbo between waking and dreaming.” Antonya Nelson’s reading impressed me deeply; I love her work. She read from the first pages of “Nothing Right,” the title story in her new collection. Check out this passage:He was her second son, and he’d never been the one she understood best. Recently, she’d found herself disgusted by him: She didn’t want to share a bathroom or kitchen, bar soap or utensils with her own boy. His brother, who’d passed through adolescence sobbing instead of shouting, had not prepared her for Leo. The pure ugliness of a more traditonal male’s tranformation to manhood – the inflamed skin and foul odor, the black scowl, the malice in every move – might eventually convince a parent to dispair, to say to that child, “You are dead to me.” Because it would be easier–more decorous, acceptable – to mourn the loss than to keep waging a hopeless battle.Nelson also told an amazing story about a baby-thieving nurse, and described her impulse to write as the desire to “investigate a situation,” and to get at “what the police blotter can only allude to.” She said, near the end of the talk, that, for her, writing is “a way of getting to the bottom of mystery.”The discussion meandered naturally, from references to Marilynne Robinson to Peter Taylor to the world famous Octomom. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a Wednesday evening…
Last week, my New Yorker didn’t show up. This has happened a handful of times in the close to ten years I’ve been reading the magazine. Typically, wherever I’ve lived, my issue has landed in my mailbox between Tuesday and Thursday. If I haven’t gotten my issue by Thursday, I tense up a bit and begin to plan, setting some time aside for a run to a bookstore or newsstand so that I don’t fall behind and so that my gnawing yen for the New Yorker is satisfied.But over the last decade, my New Yorker addiction has felt burdensome at times. I like to read – a lot – and yet with busy work schedules and other demands, I don’t have as much time to read as I’d like. And though my Reading Queue occupies several linear feet of shelving, I still find myself devoting about four days a week to the New Yorker (which I read all the way through, skipping only reviews of theater, dance, and music). Being the best magazine in the world, the New Yorker is guaranteed to provide me with at least one transcendent reading experience per month, often more than that, and very few clunkers. It is exceedingly rare that I quit reading an article halfway through. Still, though I love it so, I sometimes grow resentful of the time I must devote to the New Yorker and I sometimes fantasize about the day I’ll decide not to renew, though even formulating the reasons behind such a rash act is difficult.And so this week, when Thursday rolled around and my mailbox was still empty, I again felt that nervous pang and began to set aside some time for the ten-block walk to the Barnes & Noble. But then, I thought about it some more, and decided to miss this week’s New Yorker (though it may still arrive inexcusably late). So far, I feel pretty good, no withdrawal symptoms, and I think, if the day comes that I have to give up on the New Yorker entirely, I’ll survive, bonobos be damned.Update: That missing issue turned up after all.