Thursday, December 17, 2009

Points of View

Points of View (1956) is an anthology of short stories I've had at my bedside for about a year now. The stories are arranged by point of view - Interior Monologue, Dramatic Monologue, Diary Narration, Subjective Narration, etc, which will prove uninteresting for those of us who have been reading for a while but might be interesting for young readers. There are, nevertheless, a few great short stories in it - A And P, by John Updike, which improves with every reading - really fantastic story about a young man working at the A And P in a tourist town. The eery The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson, which I just heard for the first time myself on one of my podcasts (I forget, either New Yorker: Fiction or Selected Shorts, both are terrific and you should subscribe if you haven't already. I like to listen to them at night if I'm too tired to read with my eyes.) Jackson's story sticks with you long after you wish you had forgotten it!

I'd been reminded of Flowers for Algernon recently when I read Push. Rereading Daniel Keyes's story confirmed for me that there are some similarities in the two stories, although, of course, Precious is responsible for her own growing knowledge, not some artificial means.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this particular anthology, but I do love some of these classic short stories.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What Are You Like?

I discovered Anne Enright about a year ago. The Gathering really moved me, and The Wig My Father Wore was a fun literary experience for me.

On a recent trip to NY, we hit our favorite book store - The Strand - for which I had specifically left space in my suitcase. I spied a copy of The Gathering for my friend and What Are You Like? for myself. Like her other books, Enright's incredible prose is relentlessly invigorating. It's easy to get lost in the way she combines words - I think she benefits from multiple readings.

What are you like begins with a fairy-tale-like story of a pregnant woman who tries to undo things - "She pulled him to her every night, as though to make children where there was already a child, as though to unmake the child and let it swim away."
There was a kind of pleasure to it that he had not seen in her before, never mind the crockery in the hot press, the cutlery in bed. The house filled up with unread books, and she sang to the radio as she cleaned.

After that thrilling beginning (Enright has incredible pacing), the book focuses on two seemingly unrelated young women on somewhat similar paths. As the title suggests, she explores why people do the things they do. Themes of identity and nationality emerge:
She took a baby clam on the end of her fork and look at it. So this was who she was. She was a person who picked at her food. She picked at her food because she was a woman. She picked at her food because she was English, because she was Irish. She picked at her food because she was a Capricorn, because when she was a baby she had choked on a on a spoonful of puréed parsnip, because she was a famine gene, or a food-picking gene, or because when she was young her mother told her to sit up straight and not wolf her food. She picked at her food because she was middle class.

It's a lovely book. I suggest reading it. Twice.

Check it out! There's a preview on Google Books:

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood's latest book is The Year of the Flood, a follow-up, in a way, to her 2003 Oryx and Crake.

I did not enjoy Oryx and Crake (you should not consider it a prerequisite), but I did enjoy The Year of the Flood very much. It tells the story, going back and forth in time, of the "waterless flood" - an apocalyptic moment in time that lead to a massive devastation in population. The main character are "God's Gardeners" - a group of people who anticipate the approaching deluge and live off the land, as much as that is possible in a barren landscape. Motivated by a quasi-religion, the doctrine of which is modified along the way to reinforce their teachings (much like, hey, lots of religions!) and make up songs to remind them which weeds and mushrooms are edible.

One of the major themes of the book is food - how over-processed and dubious it is before the flood, how people either eat it or avoid it, like the Gardeners, and how after the flood, there's nothing available but dwindling supplies of pre-packaged food and animal meat, if you've got what it takes to kill the animal. Not surprisingly, a fair number of Gardeners survive, but find it necessary to overcome their strict vegetarianism.

Atwood seems to ascend to no less than visionary status with The Year of the Flood. I read her descriptions of a popular food chain called "Secret Burger" at the same time I was discovering that some yogurt and orange juice brands are not vegetarian (come ON!). I found myself thinking, IS milkweed edible? I'd better pay attention to that rhyme!

Ultimately I found Atwood's book thought-provoking and positive. Lucky for me, my whole reading experience was enhancing by having recently seen her read from the book. What an inspiration she is (not to mention she's 70 years old and writes with such freshness of language!) Here's one of my favorite passages:

Surely I was an optimistic person back then, she thinks. Back there. I woke up whistling. I knew there were things wrong in the world, they were referred to, I'd seen them in the onscreen news. But the wrong things were wrong somewhere else.

By the time she'd reached college, the wrongness had moved closer. She remembers the oppressive sensation, like waiting all the time for a heavy stone footfall, then the knock at the door. Everybody knew. Nobody admitted to knowing. If other people began to discuss it, you tuned them out, because what they were saying was both so obvious and so unthinkable.

We're using up the Earth. It's almost gone. You can't live with such fears and keep on whistling. The waiting builds up in you like a tide. You start wanting it to be done with. You find yourself saying to the sky, Just do it. Do your worst. Get it over with. She could feel the coming tremor of it running through her spine, asleep or awake.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Pictorial Webster's

Pictorial Webster's is getting a lot of press as a charming book. The book itself is beautiful, and the idea is good, but I'm not sure I was utterly charmed by it.

The book features illustrations from early versions of Webster's - copies of engravings and some etchings. It's organized alphabetically, with 20 or so pages devoted to each letter. I LOVE that type of illustration, with repeated lines for shading. But, I thought they chose odd images. It's full of pictures of fish and birds and insects. Listen, you need one fish, under F, one bird, B. Seriously. There were also oddly a handful of images regarding medieval torture devises, like pillories and stocks and a disturbing "ducking stool" which features a woman waving jauntily as if she's on a Ferris wheel.

The back features some rudimentary information re: printing processes, which will probably be somewhat interesting to general audiences (but not me, harrumph). In any event, I'm glad I just borrowed it from the library instead of purchasing it.