National Delurking Week is winding down, but it's not too late to say howdy. It's okay if you're shy -- so am I! And don't worry if your grammar ain't up to my snuff. I only judge my own (and that of The New York Times). I'd like to say I don't bite, but that would be a lie. In my own defence, let me add that I rarely break the skin.
I know you're out there. I can hear you breathing. Tell you what: I'm going to tap on my side of the monitor once, to say hi. If you can hear me, tap back twice.
Well, it was worth a try.
We're less than two weeks into the new year, and my reading luck has been incredible. Not only have the books that have come my way been consistently excellent, but at the rate I'm going (four and counting) I'm destined for 100 books this year. (Note: This will not happen. Something -- Moby Dick, a root canal gone horribly wrong, etc. -- will intervene. But it's nice to dream, and it's still early enough in the year that I'm letting myself gently tend a few delusions as if they were brand-new Tamagotchis.)
All this reading, however, comes at a price. You knew it had to, right? That price has been sleep. But hey, I can sleep when I'm dead. Can I read when I'm dead? Probably not. The choice is a no-brainer.
Coincidentally, death seems to be coming up as a weird recurring issue in half the books I've read so far. But not in the first one of the year, so let's start with that.
by Roddy Doyle (#1)
I loved The Snapper, so when I learned that it was part of a trilogy, I knew I'd end up reading the other two books in the set. Since I inadvertantly started in the middle, which is fairly typical, I wasn't too fussed about whether I moved backward or forward, so when The Van -- the final book in the series -- came my way, I was all over it.
Much as I liked The Snapper, The Van is an even better story. It focuses on the character of Jimmy Sr., the patriarch of a large working-class family in Dublin, as he struggles with unemployment and his feelings of inadequacy. Jimmy is an ordinary guy, a charming guy, a nice guy, and a bit of a dick, too, and it's to Doyle's credit that he's able to bundle these incongruencies -- incongruencies that apply to pretty much every normal person on earth -- into a likeable, believable character. He reminds me that what I love most about Doyle's writing is his huge talent for creating dialogue that's real and funny, and often really funny.
The Van is a comic novel, but like every great comic novel, it's also sad, with the ability to blindside you with moments that are terribly, terribly poignant. Apparently, The Commitments is widely considered the best book in this trilogy. I'm going to give myself a few months to let the anticipation build, and I'm definitely going to pick it up.
Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures
by Vincent Lam (#2)
So, after reading The Van -- this awesome, funny, life-affirming story -- I'm thinking I'm ready for Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, the most recent winner of the Giller Prize by first-time author Vincent Lam. It turns out I wasn't, but that's okay. It was an amazing book, and I forgive it for holding all my worst fears up to my face and laughing at me.
In my past, I have been obsessed with death in ways that have bordered on the unhealthy. If I were a bit younger, I might have even gone through a goth phase, though probably not, because I hate jobs that require a uniform. Instead, I am a (relatively) normal-looking person with an abnormal fixation on death. You could argue that a borderline obsessive fear of death is just good survival instincts -- if you worry about dying, you're more likely to be careful with your person, right? Unfortunately, caution doesn't seem to help the characters in these stories very much, which isn't very reassuring.
Oops. I've backed into my topic again. Okay. Again. From the top.
Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures is a collection of stories loosely gathered around a group of characters as they enter medical school and following the first few decades of their careers. Lam is, himself, a doctor, which lends these stories a degree of verisimilitude that is frequently unnerving, especially if one tends to be so squeamish that even hospital dramas on TV are too much to take.
The takeaway from this book is, in a nutshell, this: bad shit happens, usually for no good reason, and at the end of the day, we're all going to die anyway. That old pessimist Thomas Hobbes was right: life is nasty, brutish and short.
Or maybe not so brutish after all. Interwoven among the hyperreal scenes of hospital drama are passages of truly lovely writing, and maybe THAT is the takeaway from this book. That old saw about carpe-ing the diem. Find the beauty where you can. It's out there.
Crap. Was that depressing? It wasn't meant to be. Er, have a great weekend!