Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The End Is Here: Oprah's Final Day

When I get home today from school, I will follow a familiar routine. After changing out of my work clothes, and sorting through the mail, I will make a small snack that hopefully will not to turn into a full-on meal. Clothes will be laid out for the next day. Sometimes, if I am feeling frisky, the dishes will be done. And finally, around, 4pm, after all these and other familiar habits are finished, I will settle down on the couch for my favorite part of the afternoon, something I have been indulging in since I got home from school in the 5th grade: I will watch The Oprah Winfrey Show. This day will be slightly different, however, because as all of the world surely knows by now, today is Oprah’s final show. After 25 years of exciting car give aways, butter colored couch jumping, and exuberant yelling of celebrity names; after 25 years of “Ah Ha! Moments” and discovering tons of “Favorite Things” that beforehand were unneeded, but suddenly made life totally and utterly unlivable without; and really after 25 of tears and tears and tears, tears that came from lives touched by tragedy and grace, abuse confessions, and surprise reunions, putting many of us into the now certainly patented “ugly cry,” Oprah is saying goodbye to afternoon television, or in Oprah-speak, having her final “Farewell.” Needless to say, my life will not be the same.

I am a dedicated member of Oprah’s flock and look to her for nothing short of enlightenment. I follow every word she says. I subscribe to her magazine, admiring each of her covers. I think Suzy Orman is fabulous and James Frey is an asshole. Under religion, my Facebook status reads “Whatever Oprah Says.” I will occasionally try to resize women’s bra for them. I even watch OWN. Oprah had me at “JOHN TRAVOLTAAAAA!” and I am not saying this because she gave me a Kindle. She is the real deal, the closest thing to a religion many of us children who have been raised by television have.

Oprah is many things. She is at any moment a therapist/philanthropist/girlfriend. But to me, Oprah is a reader. I do a lot that Oprah suggest, but without a doubt I read what she tells me to, including A New Earth. (I did not, I am happy to say, read The Secret, but only after watching a clip from the accompanying video on an internet satire show.) Her Book Club will stand as one of her greatest accomplishments. In this time of click and refresh news, where shorter and quicker is better, Oprah’s successful promotion of quality books is a phenomenon, an achievement I don’t believe any other celebrity of note could pull off. (“Lady Gaga’s Book Club” anyone?) While her club might have started off lite, and is often classified under the degrading term of “ChickLit,” she has a track record of picking some of the countries finest writers for her club: Toni Morrison (Paradise, Song of Solomon, Sula), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), Cormac McCarty (The Road) and Jeffery Eugenides (Middlesex) have all made appearances. Even dead ones occasionally have shown up, such as John Steinbeck and Carson McCullers (East of Eden and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, respectively). And anyone who can put Anna Karenina on the NYT Bestseller’s List deserves sainthood.

What I know for sure is this: Oprah has made a difference in millions of readers’ lives. She has inspired people who might never pick up a book to give it a try. She actively promotes reading, something usually relegated to library cafeteria posters. If she were only to be judged for just this one little accomplishment, her mission to get her audience to “Live Your Best Life” has been achieved. For this, Oprah, you have my deepest gratitude. I look forward to our final afternoon together.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath

I recently finished Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath for the second time, a reading experience that was as fine as any one I have had. Like most people my age, I first read the story of the Joad “fambly,” migrant workers looking for food and work during the Great Depression, as required reading in high school. To put it mildly, I did was not as attentive a reader as I pride myself to be now. In fact, even though I vividly remember Rose Of Sharon’s “mysterious smile” from the novel’s ending, I cannot honestly say I even finished it. My copy from that time bears distinct weathering of a devoured novel on the first 510 or so pages, and then seems untouched for the last 60, as if the reader lost interest or disappeared. The novel has always stuck in my memory though. The story of the Joad family’s journey from dust-laden Oklahoma to a California filled with so much hope yet peopled with so much despair remains as haunting and powerful today as ever. I held onto my copy knowing someday I would return to it, something I rarely do. I am glad that I did. Even knowing the novel’s ending could not diminish its power upon reading it again. Steinbeck’s lyrical humanism is raw, honest, painful to sit through, yet ultimately incredibly moving. The novel is big, weighing in at almost 600 pages, and a loud call to arms for a people who are failed by their land, country, and even their own family. But Grapes finds its greatest strengths in it small, quiet moments. Steinbeck peppers each section of the Joad’s journey with lyrical chapters that describe everything from a turtle crossing the highway to tractors coldly taking over people’s farmland like a plague of locusts. Steinbeck is able to use the sections to introduce his broader themes, and them intimately demonstrates them with the actions and perils of the Joad family. One cannot leave the novel without feeling the ravishes of the Great Depression and the following displacement and migration of so many workers, as well as the helplessness of all those involved. And yet for all its pain, the novel is not entirely hopeless. Things get bad for the Joads, but the novel never drown in despair. Describing group of workers he has seen on the road, the novel’s fallen preacher Jim Casey collects much of the acute loss of faith many on road to work have felt. “But,” he adds, just when his followers want to give up, “when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang—that’s right, that’s holy.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Coming Attractions

Wonderful news! Jeffery Eugenides, whose outstanding novel Middelsex won the Pulitzer in 2002, will be releasing a new book this fall. The Marriage Plot: A Novel will be available on October 11, 2011. Amazon offers this description:

Madeleine Hanna was the dutiful English major who didn't get the memo. While everyone else in the early 1980s was reading Derrida, she was happily absorbed with Jane Austen and George Eliot: purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. Madeleine was the girl who dressed a little too nicely for the taste of her more Bohemian friends, the perfect girlfriend whose college love life, despite her good looks, hadn't lived up to expectations.

But now, in the spring of her senior year, Madeleine has enrolled in a semiotics course "to see what all the fuss is about," and, for reasons that have nothing to do with school, life and literature will never be the same. Not after she falls in love with Leonard Morton—charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Oregon boy—who is possessed of seemingly inexhaustible energy and introduces her to the ecstasies of immediate experience. And certainly not after Mitchell Grammaticus—devotee of Patti Smith and Thomas Merton—resurfaces in her life, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

The triangle in this amazing and delicious novel about a generation beginning to grow up is age-old, and completely fresh and surprising. With devastating wit, irony, and an abiding understanding of and love for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides resuscitates the original energies of the novel while creating a story so contemporary that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Carson McCullers and the Ballad of the Sad Cafe

My book club has been reading southern writers recently, including William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury), Flannery O’Connor (Wise Blood), and my favorite, Carson McCullers (The Ballad of the Sad Café). I have read many of the works by each of these before; in the case of O’Connor and McCullers, I have read all of their fiction, as well as several biographies of each. Rereading McCullers was a particularly gratifying experience. I was so enamored by her in high school (10th grade), where I devoured everything I could. I hold my reading of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as one of the more formative experiences of my life: I had always been a reader up until that point, but that book made me a believer. Her writing was so precise and spoke so directly to me that I believed I found had a kindred. As anyone who has ever survived the awkwardness of adolescence can testify, making a connection, being accepted, or just simply being understood can make months of unbearable confusion seem passable, even meaningful. Carson did that for me, and for that, I will always be grateful.

And yet, as an adult I have not gone back to McCullers. Carson’s works meant so much to me at such a significant point in time that I have been hesitant to reread her because I am scared to see that meaning diminished in some way. I don’t want to look back at her work and have that impact scarred. More than anything, as someone who also found great meaning in the works of Anne Rice and Tori Amos (oh, the delicious anguish!), I don’t want to be embarrassed by my taste or adolescent passions.

Luckily, rereading Ballad I didn’t cringe once. If anything, I was able to appreciate it more this time, no longer under the spell of raging hormones and sexual anxiety. The story of cross-eyed Miss Amelia, Cousin Lymon the hunchback, and dangerous Marvin Macy, and their triangle of unrequited love still holds the magnificent power it had in its initial release in 1943. McCullers graceful prose packs such beauty and yet remains wholly unsentimental, a feat many modern writers could learn a thing or two from. She captures the pain of loving someone without knowing love in return, and earns the tear it brings. Take this moment, when Miss Amelia, owner of her small southern town’s one café, realizes the person she has fallen for, a hunchback, loves not her, but her ex-husband, the ex-con Marvin Macy:

There were times when Miss Amelia seemed to go into a sort of trance. And the cause of these trances was usually known and understood. For Miss Amelia was a fine doctor, and did not grind up swamp roots and other untried ingredients and give them to the first patient who came along; whenever she invented a new medicine she always tried it out first on herself. She would swallow an enormous dose and spend the following day walking thoughtfully back and forth from the café to the brick privy. Often, when there was a sudden keen gripe, she would stand quite still, her queer eyes staring down at the ground and her fists clenched; she was trying to decide which organ was being worked upon, and what misery the new medicine might be most likely to cure. And now as she watched the hunchback and Marvin Macy, her face wore this same expression, tense with reckoning some inward pain, although she had taken no new medicine that day. (pg. 236, Collected Short Stories of Carson McCullers)

Passages like this one affirm McCullers’ strength as a storyteller. This beautiful paragraph, so exact in its telling, is a mixture of whimsical sadness and southern gothic that defines the best of McCullers’s works. It is a true marvel. Novellas such Ballad are usually called “gems” and this is no exception. Rereading this passage, I remembered why I connected so much with McCullers and her beautiful sad creatures that love and long and dream of snow. She is the real deal, and even the sad creature that I was at the age of 15 could see that. What a wonder she is, and I am so thankful to have been introduced to her at such an impressionable age. It will not take me a half a decade to read her again.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Sound and the Fury: Reading Difficult Books

I finished reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury yesterday, a task that was not as challenging as I first imagined it to be. Other than proximity, I have not really come into contact with Faulkner, other than As I Lay Dying, and “A Rose for Emily,” both of which I read in high school and enjoyed. Living in Memphis, I would say that Faulkner is this region’s literary equivalent to Elvis. I get so accustomed to hearing about Elvis that it is easy to forget he was an actual artist, and not the cartoon that gets paraded around the city on a daily basis. Faulkner is the looming figure over this region. His works are celebrated and referenced, taught in courses dedicated solely to his name. His house is a tourist attraction in Oxford. Several local bookstores even have an entire Faulkner section. But I would question if more people know of Faulkner than have actually read Faulkner. While there are tons of references in the area pointing to the Nobel Prize winner, his actual works are small, challenging, and difficult to navigate, none more so than the opening chapter of The Sound and the Fury.

As has been well documented, Benjy, whom the back cover calls a “manchild”, narrates the first chapter of the novel. What the blurb fails to mention is that Benjy is severely mentally handicapped, and his narration is a direct reflection of that mental state. Faulker uses a variety of techniques to reflect this state, none of which make it easy for a reader to follow. The narration starts, stops, jumps back and forth in time. There are no visual clues to help us follow these jumps. While it first appears that italics punctuate each shift in time, Faulkner does not stick with this style. He ignores punctuation, does not identify speakers, and even worse, packs the opening with so much of the novel’s history that it is nearly impossible for the reader to fully comprehend what is taking place in the narrative with extensive rereading. Faulkner is not for the weak, and this first chapter, which I could not navigate without consulting a reference work, is not for the casual reader.

I will easily admit that I shy away from difficult books. My reading time is limited as it is, and I do not want to spend all of it struggling through a work I may or may not enjoy. I read Faulkner as a part of a book club, and I am glad that I did. However, I am not sure that I would call the book pleasurable; I could admire, even marvel, at the book’s style, but found myself so worked up on the simple level of content (what is happening?) that I could not take much enjoyment out of it. The book demands a second or even third reading, and this is not something I am interested in doing. I don’t think of this as a sign of weakness, however. For me, Faulkner failed not in his style, but in his content. The plot of the novel does not hold up to the style. The tragedy of the Compsons, if you can call it that, is not so grand as it is…(please don’t hate me) dull. I can invest in difficult books if I am rewarded on some level, but I could not find myself caring about any of the characters or their conflicts. A difficult book needs not only to challenge, but engage and reward, and in this regard, The Sound and the Fury underwhelms.

I remember feeling the same way the first time I read As I Lay Dying. The shifting perspective fascinated me, and I admired the way Faulkner was able to use a metaphor so distinctly (“My mother is a fish.”). But in the end, I did not care about the Bundren family. It was not until I reread the novel that I was able to appreciate its humor, its style, and its tragedy. I think of that novel and I want to reread it. Perhaps it is not my time with The Sound and the Fury.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How Dare We Be Bored? Franzen on DFW, boredom and solitude

I recently finished Jonathan Franzen’s latest personal reflection in the April 18 New Yorker, titled “Farther Away: ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude.” Franzen, whom I obviously love, has been accused of often turning out what I call “Personal Narratives of Great Importance.” I once heard a reader who was upset enough over these essay state he wrote Franzen to complain, only to follow up his story with the fact that he received a postcard from Franzen stating the reader could rest easy, Franzen didn’t have any more essays like that “in the can.” “Farther Away” begins like one of those narratives. Franzen tells us he needs to escape his busy life as a successful author on a celebrated book tour, and that “substantial swaths of my personal history were going dead from within, from my talking about them too often.” To escape this business, Franzen flees to a deserted island, which was the basis for the novel Robinson Crusoe, as well as a home to the exteremly rare bird, the rayadito. Franzen, a celebrated bird-watcher, hopes to relish the solitude the opportunity will afford him. A beginning like this seems to justify the above reader’s complaints.

Farther into the article, however, one finds a truly exquisite and moving tribute to both novels and David Foster Wallace, as well as a beautiful discussion of the power of “close loving relationships, which for most of us are a foundational source of meaning,” the “infinite divisibility of a single instant of time,” and our complex relationship with that thing we call “boredom.” Several of Franzen’s essays have stirred deep emotions in me, and while I cannot call myself a fan of DFW, I felt, reading the essay, the pain and frustration of not only losing a friend, but of grappling with frustration of that thing inside us that keeps most of us on the side of connection, but also keeps a select few isolated, alone, and unable to see the rare birds in our company. Franzen, stranded on a remote island himself, is able to come to terms with such a duality. Standing on what he calls the most “dramatically beautiful spot I’d ever seen,” he begins to spread a handful of Wallace’s ashes, given to him by the dead writers widow. Here is Franzen’s searing description of that moment:

“I was doing a lot of different things at every moment. Even as I was crying, I was also scanning the ground for the missing piece of my tent, as taking my camera out of my pocket and trying to capture the celestial beauty of the light and the landscape, and telling myself that it was O.K. that I’d failed in my attempt to see the rayadito in what would surely be my only visit to the island ---that it was better this way, that is was time to accept finitude and incompleteness and leave certain birds forever unseen, that the ability to accept this was the gift I’d been given and my beloved dead friend had not.”

It is writing like that (the phrase “and leave certain birds forever unseen” is as powerful as any I have read) that separates Franzen from other writers of today. In fact, I can think of no other working writer today who could write such a wondrous sentence. This reader hopes that Franzen gives us more of himself, and soon.