Thursday, July 26, 2007

New Yorker Fiction Podcast

I highly recommend checking out the New Yorker: Fiction podcast. The fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, speaks with an author who picks a short story, then the story is read. It's perfect for distracting oneself on ones long commute (ok, that's when I listen to it). It's a new podcast, and it looks like they only intend to add new stories once a month, which is a bit of a shame. Richard Ford reading a John Cheever story called "Reunion" is really quite amazing, but my favorite is Junot Díaz reading his own 1995 short story “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)." An initial listen might indicate that it's nothing more than a Dominican-American kid talking about how to get in a girl's pants, but it's rather wonderful (and funny) story about race, gender, and diaspora. Also, it's a beautifully produced piece led by Díaz's powerful voice and interspersed with a woman's voice as well. The "guest" author, Edwidge Danticat, defends Díaz's artistic expression to write about a young, latino man who, perhaps lacks some integrity, and how a story like this might be misinterpreted as autobiographical and, paradoxically, about all latino people. "No one assumes," she says, "that John Updike is writing about all white men."

I'm not familiar with Diaz's work, but I'm pretty excited to read more - here's a story online, "Homecoming, with Turtle." Same for Edwidge Danticat, here's another short story from the New Yorker by her.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Cat Getting Out of a Bag

My friends C&D gave me a copy of Jeffrey Brown's Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations. Brown's a Chicago-based artist with some indie-comic cred for his autobiographical work like Unlikely (the tale of loosing his virginity) and Every Girl is the End of the World for Me. Cat Getting Out of a Bag is less confessional, but a very sweet ode to cats (particularly a kitten named Misty) and the charming and not-so-charming things they do. He does a particularly good job of capturing the wide-eyed excitement of cats. They're both funny and touching, like "Crying" where Brown is sitting on the couch ("sob, sob, sob") and Misty comforts him by purring and gently biting his hand, then curling up on his lab. Dog people who hold that cats are solitary animals without need of companionship might be surprised, but cat lovers won't.

This strip does a great job of summing up, well, one reason Brown wrote the book, and what kind of person I am:
Ever since I read it, I've been laughing at odd moments and saying, "Check out this cat!"

Speaking of...

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I reread Harry Potter book 5 over the weekend in preparation for the movie, which opens tomorrow (yea!) The thing I loved the most about book 5 was how well Rowling captured adolescent angst. All those kids lurking around, ultra-sensitive, getting upset with each other over every little thing - THAT'S what childhood's all about. As a kid, I don't really remember reading any books that came close to the reality of tortured adolescence. Uhm, maybe Blubber (Judy Bloom, 1974) came close. A few years ago a friend told me about a book called A Separate Peace (John Knowles, 1959) about the cruelty of boys toward each other at a boarding school that really touched a nerve with her. Things get tied up a little too neatly in Blubber and are surprisingly violent in A Separate Peace, but Harry Potter finds a happier medium. In the Potter-verse, most characters aren't clearly "good" or "evil" (ok, ok, maybe Voldomort) and the young wizards face conflicts both magical and mundane. When Harry has his first kiss and tries to explain it to his friends, Hermione explains how Cho must be feeling:
"Well, obviously, she's feeling very sad, because of Cedric dying. Then I expect she's feeling confused because she liked Cedric and now she likes Harry, and she can't work out who she likes best. Then she'll be feeling guilty, thinking it's an insult to Cedric's memory to be kissing Harry at all, and she'll be worrying about what everyone else might say about her if she starts going out with Harry. And she probably can't work out what her feelings towards Harry are anyway, because he was the one who was with Cedric when Cedric died, so that's all very mixed up and painful. Oh, and she's afraid she's going to be thrown off the Ravenclaw Quidditch team because she's been flying so badly."

A slightly stunned silence greeted the end of this speech, then Ron said, "One person can't feel all that at once, they'd explode."

With Hermione in a preternaturally mature role, young readers have a guide to reason and old readers like me sit back and espouse Girl Power. These type of books have a big impact on readers young and old because they address highly emotional situations that affect us all (I mean, do you know anyone whose tween years didn't suck a golden snitch?)

I'm also quite fond of Rowling's set-up for each book - Harry at the Dursley's. I find the Dursley's hilarious, and added benefit of book 5 is that we learn a little bit more about Harry's relatives. Wanna hear something sad? It's my hope that in the final book (coming out the day before my birthday!) the Dursley's tell Harry how much they really love him. But, just like in real life, I might have to acknowledge that things might not work out perfectly for Harry, but I think it's pretty amazing that Rowling's fantastical series is the closest thing to reality I've seen in a long time.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Howards End

I read Howards End because I was interested in how Zadie Smith used the 1910 novel for her own On Beauty. I'll have to save that comparison for another day. I wasn't expecting to enjoy Howards End, just to read it critically. I gave E.M. Forster's Passage to India a try many years ago and was so bored I couldn't finish. But Howards End was wonderful - it's the story of two women - Margaret and Helen Schlegel, liberal, early-feminists, and another family - the Wilcoxes - different from the women in almost every way. The book is very sympathetic to the women, and I found myself getting so indignant every time the Schlegel's encountered the Wilcox rudeness. Look what Forster has to say about the Wilcoxes:
Day and night the river flows down into England, day after day the sun retreats into the Welsch mountains, and the tower chimes: "See the Conquering Hero." But the Wilcoxes have no part in the place, nor in any place. It is not their names that recur in the parish register. It is not their ghosts that sign among the alders at evening. They have swept into the valley and swept out of it, leaving a little dust and a little money behind.

One of the themes of Howards End is the Home. Margaret repeatedly remarks that one of the downfalls of society is that so many people are nomadic - everyone rents, feeling no permanent homestead anywhere. This struck a note with me because several years ago we got ousted from an apartment we loved because it "went condo" as they say these days. The Schlegel's long-term rental also essentially "went condo" and they found themselves in a desperate search for a new home. The Wilcoxes had a home - Howards End, which was loved by the Wilcox matriarch but unappreciated by the rest of the clan.
Marriage had not saved her from the sense of flux. London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!

Near the end, I feared I was being led through one of those awful, 19th century-ish British morality tales, but ultimately, I saw the book as a progressive look at the modern family and a tribute to the generosity of spirit.