Saturday, February 19, 2005

BOOKS: Do I Look Tired to You?

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (#9)
I have this longstanding fued with Rusty Iron about books. Despite his many good traits, the dude hardly ever reads novels written by women. In fact, I can tell you the last such book he read: Annie Proulx's Postcards. And that was about seven years ago. It's a fine book, admittedly (and much better than her later novel, The Shipping News, if you'll pardon the digression), but you can only coast on it for so long before I start to question your chick-friendly cred.

Now, when I take him to task for this, he argues that he needs to read books that are relevant to him as a 21st-century male. My counter-argument is that books are meant to expose us to other people's perspectives... and therefore it behooves us to read books by and about people who are very different from us. And Nick Hornby doesn't count. You just can't convince me that a white, thirtysomething, middle-class British guy is all that different from a white, thirtysomething, middle-class Canadian guy (outside the whole calling soccer "footy" thing).

All this is by way leading up to my point (and I do sort of have one): in the right writer's hands, any human experience, no matter how foreign to one's own, is compelling. Such is the case with Jonathan Lethem and his most recent novel, The Fortress of Solitude. It's the story of Dylan Ebdus, growing up white and motherless in all-black Brooklyn in the 1970s, and other than the growing-up-in-the-'70s thing, it's about as far removed as you can get from the story of yours truly, who grew up white and with a mother on a dairy farm in rural Ontario. Outside of Jon Jon on Sesame Street and Arnold and Willis from Diff'rent Strokes, I didn't even see a black person till I was 14.

Half coming-of-age story, half social anthropology (I'm the first to admit that what I don't know about race issues and hip-hop culture would fill a library), and half surreal urban comic-book-slash-fairytale (so fractions aren't my strong suit... sue me), Fortress is one of those insidious books that sucks you in like quicksand till, next thing you know, what started out as a plan to read a few pages at bedtime has turned into one of those six-hour marathon page-turning frenzies that make you hate yourself at work the next day.

Really, I should have known better. The exact same thing happened when I read Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (a fantastic noir novel about a third-rate detective with Tourette's Syndrome) and Amnesia Moon (an excellent sci-fi story reminiscent of Oryx and Crake, but better... sorry, Margaret Atwood!). I picked them up and literally couldn't put them down till the end.

So, yeah... The Fortress of Solitude. Read it. But not on a weeknight.

In that spirit, here's a list of some other novels that have put bags under my eyes:
  • Clarissa by Samuel Richardson - You don't think a 1600-page 18th-century epistolary novel can be a page-turner? Neither did I, till I stayed up all night to finish this one.
  • The Beach by Alex Garland - I'm not saying it's the best book ever. I'm just saying that it totally sucked me in, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - See my notes re: Clarissa about the deceptive tiger-trap allure of some classics.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien - Before the movie ruined the ending for everyone, I couldn't sleep till I knew how things turned out. But man, I really think Tolkien could have used an editor for the final section on the scouring of the Shire.
  • Skeleton Crew by Stephen King - I was 15 years old and it was my first night sleeping in our new house. I've never been good at sleeping in strange rooms, so I picked up this collection of short stories. Then I was so creeped out I really couldn't sleep. I ended up putting the book in the hallway and shutting the door.
  • A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley - I blame my weakened, fatigued condition for the fact that I actually cried -- no, wept -- in outrage at the father character. I haven't flat-out hated a literary character that much since Noah in Timothy Findlay's Not Wanted on the Voyage.
So what books have been keeping you up at night?


Anonymous said...

Running with Scissor by Augusten Burroughs - I was disgusted by his living conditions, and lack of parental guidance, but I needed to know how he came out in the end. How he lived through a life like he did, I'll never know.
The Stranger by Albert Camus. I've read the book about 20 times, yet I hate to put it down. I find something new everytime I read it.

Rebecca said...

Jeffery Eugenedies' Middlesex - I stayed up until 4am to finish it.

I had a similar experience with Stephen King, The Mist when I was 13. I read it during the day, and that night we had a huge thunderstorm. I don't think I slept much for the next few days.

Dave said...

I was consumed with the last three Dark Tower books during January. I had the last book in my possesion before starting the fifth and I was terrified of the possibility that I could just pop straight to the last chapter and see how the whole thing turns out. I'm not proud of being consumed by Stephen King, but two of you have outed yourselves already so I got a little brave.

It's very rare that I'm emotionally affected by a book (turns out I'm dead inside, FYI.) The only exception is A Prayer for Owen Meany. I got near the end of 'The Finger' chapter, and I had to put the book down. I've never felt so present, so part of a scene, before or since.

Anonymous said...

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's "Random Family" blew me away by page five. It is non-fiction but reads like a novel, and damn is it compelling. In case you want to move on to other borroughs, Tammy, this Bronx-based book may be one for your list!

Anonymous said...

I Was emotionally disturbed by Wally Lamb's "I know this much is true" I couldn't stop reading until it was done and I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks after

Anonymous said...

Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game. Stayed up all night and had to face the next day on exactly no sleep at all, but at least I finished the book.

Meanwhile, you read all the way through Lord of the Rings and the bit you thought needed an editor was the Scouring of the Shire? Are you serious? Three words: trip through Mordor. My God. The first time I tried to read LOTR I petered out in that part (okay, I was nine, it was kind of heavy going for me). The second time I made it through, on all subsequent readings I've skimmed those bits at pace.

Tammy said...

Meghan, Running with Scissors is nuts! I have nothing but respect for someone who can not only survive an upbringing like that, but also cultivate a nicely dark sense of humour about it AND score a book deal. Interestingly, I read Burroughs's previous (and only, to my knowledge) novel, Sellevision, and it was absolutely, irredeemably crappy. Which goes to show you can be a good writer but a kak novelist.

Rebecca, I loooved Middlesex. I've loaned it to every one of my friends, and they've all loved it to. Unfcortunately, it hasn't come back to me yet, and I can't remember who borrowed it last, and now everyone claims not to have it. I know they're not lying, but someone's definitely developed amnesia about it. Sigh. Perhaps it's gone to a better place...

And "The Mist"! Is that the long short story (or novella? I can never keep those straight) about the mysterious fog that rolls in and it's filled with weird creatures, and once you get lost in the fog you're screwed? If so, I remember that story. Man, that freaked me out. In fact, all horror stories freak me out. I have no idea why I used to read them so compulsively.

Dave, if any novel is going to act as a defibrillator for your soul, A Prayer for Owen Meany ought to do it. Maybe you should also try James Agee's A Death in the Family. I haven't actually finished it myself, because about a third of the way through I was crying so hard I had to stop. And contrary to any indicators I might give on this site, I'm not a crybaby. Anyway, apparently it won the Pulitzer, but you never hear anyone talk about it and it's never taught in schools. Probably because it's so fucking sad.

Libby, I'm adding Random Family to my reading list. Despite never having been to New York, I've had a lifelong fascination with the city. When I was kid, I was utterly enraptured by stories about precocious New York kids... Harriet the Spy, the Melendy kids from those Elizabeth Enright novels, The All-of-a-Kind Family, you name it.

Anonymous, I'd forgotten about I Know This Much Is True, and it totally belongs on my all-nighter list, too. A couple of summers ago, the mister and I went camping in the Rockies and on this one hike it started raining and hailing stupidly hard. So of course on the way down the mountain I slipped on a wet tree root and had the hardest fall I've ever had. For a second, I thought I broke my ass. When we got back to our tent, everything was soaked and I was already starting to stiffen up. So we (temporarily) abandoned our campsite, grabbed the bare necessities, and drove to a nearby lodge where we rented a cabin. Despite having a real bed, I was way too sore to actually sleep, so I ended up lying there reading I Know This Much Is True from cover to cover. And like you, I couldn't get it out of my head for a long time. Man, that dude had some bad case of Murphy's law.

Heheh, Rae. Point taken. Upon subsequent re-readings, I can see many places where an editor might have been handy, but the first time through the series I was fine till the Shire bit. Then I just wanted the bloody thing to finally be OVER.

You know, I was thinking about this, and the tragic thing is how little pity anyone is willing to give you when you're exhausted from a book-induced all-nighter. I've seen people at work get more sympathy from coming in hungover. Bastards.

Rebecca said...

Doppleganger - it was the short story, the one you've described. I lay in my bed all night with my eyes wide open waiting for the weird noises to start, and planning how I was going to get my family back together (my dad was away, and my sister was away at some school retreat or something.) And have you read The Virgin Suicides? The narration style is trippy, but is what made me love it.

A. Burroughs is hit and miss for me. I enjoyed Sellevision, but failed to find the humour in Running with Scissors (finished it this morning). Magical Thinking was pretty funny though and quite different from the others. He's no Sedaris, but he's still a pretty good essayist.

Most emotional experience - during one of the books in Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, I had to put it down and walk away because I was so upset about something that had happened to one of the characters. Also, there's a scene in The Value of X by Poppy Z. Brite which just about broke my heart.

Brandon Gaukel said...

Generation X kept me up all night four years ago. It is still my fav. book, love your blog!

Anonymous said...

Wow, it's like I don't know you at all. I despised "Running With Scissors" (fakest "memoir" since "A Child Called It") and "Clarissa" was an offensive rape fantasy disguised as moralistic claptrap.

BUT, to answer your question: the last books I couldn't put down were "Oryx and Crake" (and now I'm curious about the Lethem analogue), "Live From New York" (hard to find a good stopping point), "Under the Banner of Heaven," and "The Corrections."

Tammy said...

Heheh, Rebecca. Yeah, I only read "The Mist" once and it's still stuck in my head, along with a whole bunch of other Stephen King ephemera that I kid myself into thinking I've forgotten, but which is going to come out of retirement when I'm old and senile for the sole purpose of scaring the shit out of me. For the record, I loved The Virgin Suicides, too.

Thanks for the props, Brando! Funny you should mention Generation X. You totally reminded me that Microserfs kept me up all night many, many years ago.

Did you think Running with Scissors was fake, Wing? I just assumed that it wasn't because, compared to Sellevision, which was incredibly badly written, Running seemed so much better written that I attributed this improvement to the fact that it was coming from a more "real" perspective. If it is fake, that sucks for a lot of reasons, obviously... not the least because it's highlighted how gullible I'm getting in my old age.

And I'm not saying I loved, or even liked, Clarissa, just that it sucked me in and kept me awake. (Actually, it was during that brutal month-long bout of insomnia I had in our undergrad fourth year, if you recollect.) In fact, I could start a sub-list entitled "Books That Kept Me Up and Then I Realized the Next Day That Not Only Was I Exhausted but I Was Exhausted Over a Crappy-to-Mediocre Book and Therefore I Hated Myself Even More". That sure describes how I felt about The Beach, for example.

It's funny that you mention Oryx and Crake, because I was on track to pulling an all-nighter to finish it but forced myself to put it down because it was too damn depressing. If there's anything worse than finishing a book and realizing you have to be up for work in three hours, it's finishing said book, realizing you have to be at work in three hours, and wondering WHAT'S THE POINT OF ANYTHING?

I haven't read Live from New York, but I totally agree with you about Banner of Heaven (I read it non-stop on a seven-hour flight) and The Corrections (which I read non-stop on the drive down to Burning Man a couple of years ago -- no Burning Man jokes, you!).

mo pie said...

Most recently, The Corrections, a very polarizing book among my friends and loved ones, but I adored it and couldn't put it down.

Same thing with Du Maurier's Rebecca. So much suspense!

Anonymous said...

'Horse Heaven' by Jane Smiley - bit too big for me to read in one night, but the characters, including the horses, insinuated themselves into my dreams, and the ending was one of the most satisfying I've read! Also the latest novel by a writer from my home state of Queensland in Australia, Andrew Mcgahan's 'The White Earth'...the dread that he creates here is almost sickening...I urge all northern hemisphere dwellers to read this one, or any of his previous three books - 'Praise', '1984' and 'Last Drinks'.

landismom said...

the good mother (sue miller)

adventures of kavalier and clay (chabon)

all the harry potters (ashamed to admit it)

fingersmith (sarah waters)

Anonymous said...

The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas....I read that book ay stoplights in traffic....