Tag Archives: Literature

Hundreds…

So far, I haven’t even hit the one-third mark in a year of reading a book a day. But I have logged more than one hundred books and a trillion hours of reading and some serious blog time. The epiphanies have been much more modest than the effort and they are more like observations than revelations. But there are a few.

Many books that seem juicy and eminently readable are HUGE—800 pages or more. Many. This is really really difficult to manage when you are juggling making a living and running a house at the same time. Skip too much sleep and your eyes go blurry—reading speed slows and the brain turns to mush. Skip the rest of life and no one gets fed, the rabbit runs out of hay and paying work evaporates like ocean spume on black sand. I started Marukami’s 1Q84 and had to return it to the library before I was finished. And it was good—I wanted to read it but it wasn’t happening in one day. Back on the endless library list now to check it out again so I can discover whether the entire book is as good as the beginning. Tackled a massive life of Mahler, another doorstop, and dropped it back in the book bin. Deadly. Not worth the epic read to get it finished.

One casualty of the daily deadline is reflection. I have to forego savoring clever or beautiful writing—or contemplating imaginative ideas—when it’s essential to push on through and complete the book. On the plus side, how fiction works and how language supports it get clearer and clearer the more books I read. A good biography will typically have a classic hero’s journey, even if the hero loses in the end. A good mystery will weave a believable world around a murder with no false step to jar you out of it. Some genres that I never read but pick up now to add variety to this daily adventure are actually entertaining—romance, for example, although I doubt I will ever spend too much time in the land of brooding heroes and heaving bosoms.

So, how is this changing my life? Obviously, it’s eating my time. I’m working my way through a lot of books. I’m also forced to produce some writing every day, tired or not, inspired or not. That has to be good practice for a procrastinating writer. And I have reinforced the knowledge that, if I sit down and begin, I will always find something to write. Never fails. I have more respect for genre books now—I always liked certain kinds but, a hundred books in, I understand that they are often more readable and enjoyable than the well-reviewed “literary” novels that display a mastery of dog-and-pony tricks but don’t pull me into a world. I still want characters who care about things and count for something. Being trapped in a book with a self-absorbed nihilist is a fate akin to falling in love with a vampire—it can never end well and the experience will probably be very painful to boot.

My suspicion is that reading a book every day for a year is an odd kind of creative writing MFA. Some of the stories are very good, some not, but all of the books have a narrative to discern, and lit tricks to make the puzzle pieces fit. I’m better at picking them out. The randomness of the books I select increases the odds that I will learn as much about how to make a book as I do about the women who changed paleontology or where to sit when straddling a dragon in-flight. A book I might consider a fail has as much to reveal about the art of writing as a clear, fluent read with every note pitch-perfect.

I love reading and I’m not sick of it yet, although keeping a stack of books on hand requires a constant hustle. This challenge has intensified my appreciation for the public library. We should treasure our libraries; we would be savages and philistines without them. And one more trivial observation—the doorstop books are awkward to heft and uncomfortable to hold after a while. Their weight and bulk make a compelling case for the convenience of a slim, lightweight e-reader, however much you prefer the experience of curling up with a good, turn-the-paper-pages book.

Good Bones and Simple Murders — Margaret Atwood

Kindle-only edition from Amazon


Good Bones and Simple Murders is a collection of Margaret Atwood’s—umm—short bits? Mini-stories? Musings on our twisted society? Whatever it is, it’s amusing, witty, brilliant as the author and, incidentally, illustrated by her, as if you weren’t already impressed with the poetry, fiction and journalism Atwood turns out, seemingly on cue.

The bits hit on many of Atwood’s themes and spare none of the comfortable clichés of literature or life. “The Female Body” explores the fragile imperfect thing a body is, a light-up see-through anatomical model, the culturally determined accessories required for the social display of the female body and, finally, that queen of accessories, the doll herself—giant boobs, teeny waist, pointy little feet, long legs, no cellulite, and bouncy vinyl hair, probably blond. What a small girl can do to a Barbie doll is a sadistic and very satisfying thing. Read all about it.

“Poppies” is a creative writing exercise–she calls it “variations”–that uses the lines from “In Flanders Fields” to inspire a series of anti-war texts. But that oversimplifies. Atwood describes history, aftermath, toy soldiers, male violence, fearful women and an arsenal’s worth of topics that circle around her point before they explode—with those words from the poem italicized in case you failed to catch the clever trick.

“Gertrude Talks Back” gives the queen some centerstage that Shakespeare never scripted. She would have called Hamlet ‘George,” thinks he ought to get himself laid and find a real girlfriend, not the bordeline Ophelia, puts the Prince of Denmark straight about sex, booze and his frigid, abstemious father. Atwood’s Gertrude is drying her nails, not wringing her hands, not the least bit angsty, entirely unapologetic. The angst he must have gotten from his father.   

In “There Was Once,” Atwood deconstructs a fairy tale with some combination of political correctness and obsessive editing until the story becomes untellable. In the title story, she deconstructs bones—the lacy bones of the old, the high cheekbones of the young and a cemetery full of good and bad bones mixed with some thoughts about calcium and mortality. In “Hardball,” she creates a horrible post-apocalyptic world where the rich live on the top deck with access to pink strawberries and pale yellow carrots. Severe shortage of real estate for agriculture, human habitation and corpse disposal but pretty good protein when a baby is born and someone is selected for the meat grinder. Is it recycling or a demented form of composting? We may soon find out.

Good Bones is very entertaining and very brainy and both fun and not-so-funny at the same time. I read it on the subway en route to a client meeting downtown. I read it on the way home, subway again. I changed trains twice going down and once coming back. It’s a good book to read on the subway. Oh, and the illustrations aren’t bad—probably better than you could do.

Good Bones and Simple Murders   Margaret Atwood   Doubleday  1994