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LitMonkey – May 2013

June 4, 2013

LitMonkey is a monthly series where I discuss the books I’ve read over the past month in a highly personal way.  It is in no way an exact clone of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.”  This is the seventh installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

Books I Read:

I’d like to begin this month’s Stuff I’ve Been Reading with the book I finished most recently, Two-Part Inventions. This beautiful novel takes place in Brooklyn, the place where author Lynne Sharon Schwartz grew up. Schwartz began writing when she was a 7-year old child in 1940s Brooklyn. Accordingly, you can feel the authenticity in her words as she describes the protagonists childhood spent on the Brooklyn streets, then riding the subways into Manhattan, and eventually leaving the nest. Brooklyn has become so hip of late that it’s easy to forget that it was once (and still is in many neighborhoods) a provincial, working-class borough. A someone who grew up in “old” Brooklyn, I can appreciate Schwartz’s novel for that aspect alone. Similarly, as a music lover, I can appreciate the role that classical music plays in each of the characters lives, even though classical music is a genre that has always eluded me. Between the old world charm and the existential questions and examination of what music means to different people, this novel is one that should have mass appeal.

The only thing this novel is missing? A plot. I can understand why for some that would be a deal-breaker. For me, it makes the book all the more appealing. We learn within the first few pages – actually, right in the book jacket – that the main character, Suzanne, has died. There is no mystery here. Nor is the cause of her death or its timing or any other related aspect left as a mystery that the book intends to solve. The structure of the novel is remarkably unique – after we (and Suzanne’s husband Philip) find her  in the kitchen having died from a stroke, we are taken back in time to Suzanne’s and Philip’s childhoods, to see their development up to the present day. The entire purpose of the novel is to understand the psychological makeup of these two lead characters, as well as the two other supporting characters, Elena and Richard. These four people, whose lives continually intertwine, spend their lives in music; meanwhile, Schwartz leads the reader to reflect from each character’s perspective on what things like life, truth, authenticity, and the self all mean. It’s a beautiful story, and one I recommend if you care more about introspection than mystery, character development over plot development.

It seems that every month I pick up a book in the library on sight alone and find it to be thoroughly mediocre. Not necessarily bad – I don’t feel like my time was wasted or that I wish I’d never picked up the book in the first place – but not particularly enthralled either. In April it was Chris Hardwick’s The Nerdist Way, which I didn’t realize was a self-help book. The book did little to help my self, and was written rather poorly, but Hardwick makes you laugh and throws out some good bits of general common sense. In March it was Man in the Empty Suit, Sean Ferrell’s high-concept psychological science-fiction self-exploration that he didn’t have the skill to pull off. In February it was Sarah Vowell’s Take the Canolli, a collection of scattered yet humorous autobiographical essays that failed to get beneath the surface. And on and on it goes.

This month’s Canolli Award goes to Lauren Leto, for her book Judging a Book by Its Lover. Leto is the author of Texts From Last Night (based on her blog of the same name), which I understand is very funny, if not my bag. When I saw that Leto wrote a book that was “a hilarious send-up of – and inspired homage to – the passionate and peculiar world of book culture … at once adoring and skewering everyone from Jonathan Franzen to Ayn Rand to Dostoyevsky and the people that read them,” I was pleased to discover that this funny person had decided to take on one of my worlds. All in all, the book isn’t bad; Leto is often funny and it’s an easy and quick read. She clearly knows her way around the world of literature, and so it’s a pleasure to work through both her adoration and her skewering without feeling like it’s all a bluff. But given all she’s read, Leto should be the first to realize that Judging a Book by Its Lover really isn’t a book. Yes, it’s typed onto paper and bound and distributed by a real book publisher, but that doesn’t make it a “book.” Judging a Book by Its Lover is a collection of funny bits, lists and anecdotes that would fit better arranged as a website or blog. I’d like to come back to it over and over, use it as a reference guide, and point other book-lovers to a link to it, rather than digest it all in a few sittings, straight through. The humor is there – while there are parts that are funny and parts that are less so, any comedian putting out 250-plus pages of jokes should expect that some will land and some won’t. So while Leto is obviously both funny and well-read[1], I don’t think writing books is her forte. She’s a new media personality (as evidenced here) trying to also make inroads in an old medium. I can understand why she’s chosen to do this – the woman loves books. Going forward I’ll probably just follow her on twitter.[2]

Speaking of The Nerdist Way, I wrote about that book that “The advice is generally very basic, which means that in the section about the mind, I learned very little. I’ve read and learned enough about how the mind works to be well beyond anything that Hardwick has to offer.” That may be true, but there is still so much to learn about the mind and emotional intelligence, and apparently one person who is able to teach me is The Dude. I anticipated The Dude and the Zen Master to be a silly read, but I’m enough of a Lebowski fan to have given it a shot. You may notice that I both borrowed this book from the library and purchased it this month. That’s because after reading it and benefitting from the wisdom of Jeff Bridges and Zen Master Bernie Glassman, I decided that this was a book I needed on my shelf , to be available for further reflection. I am not a “Zen” person; I know nothing about the teachings of the Mahāyāna or about any aspect of Buddhism for that matter. I’ve never meditated. Hell, I’ve never even done yoga. (Is that even Zen?) Therefore I implore you to take my review with a huge grain of salt. It is possible that if you are well-versed in the Zen school of thought – or even if you just have a basic working knowledge of it – The Dude and the Zen Master will read to you like The Nerdist Way did to me.

If not, if you’re a novice like me, and you have even a cursory fondness for The Big Lebowski, run out and read this book. It is funny, smart and full of practical real-world advice. The goals sprinkled throughout the book are accessible – it’s not about changing the world (OK, it kind of is, but in small tangible ways), rather it’s about making a little bit of a difference in your life and others’ so that you can live life, well, like The Dude. The Dude is not a Zen Master, as Bernie says, “the Dude’s a lot like us. Stuff upsets him, like when someone pees on his rug. He has thoughts, frustrations, and everything that we all have, but he doesn’t work from them. He works from where he is.” How exactly does The Dude do this? Here are some tips:[3]

  • Wake up every morning, go to the bathroom, pee, brush your teeth, look in the mirror and laugh at yourself.
  • Plorking: Not playing and not working. Play doesn’t have to be a frivolous thing. Or, as Oscar Wilde said, life’s too important to be taken seriously.
  • Don’t pursue happiness. It’s right here, under your feet. Wherever you are, that’s the goal line.
  • Don’t corner a rat. If someone does something you don’t like, don’t set them up to show up to show them how wrong or bad they are. It’s OK to be opinionated, but always leave the other person a way out.
  • Look at the ingredients you have, make the best meal possible, and offer it. Just cook, eat and appreciate the meal. If you just bitch about the ingredients you don’t have, you’ll starve.
  • Now is always the time. But if you feel like you can’t handle it now, don’t force yourself. Wait.
  • It’s OK to say no. If you feel “no” and you don’t express it, it just festers inside and gets expressed unskillfully. No is beautiful. It clears the way for yes.
  • Finally, maybe the simplest one, which at once is both the most Zen and also the least. Both Jeff and Bernie like to smoke cigars. Jeff: “How does smoking cigars jibe with the ideas that the body is a temple and all that stuff?” Bernie: “The body is the temple, so you should offer it some incense … sacrament … But I don’t want to put in on such a high plane, I just dig cigars.”

Bernie Glassman is the founder of the Zen Peacemakers, but to consider his comments about peace is to understand what The Dude and the Zen Master is all about: “I believe in working towards peace.… But I don’t believe I’ll ever reach peace if what’s meant by that is that no one will ever fight or kill…. That’s the flow of life…. Wolves attack sheep, weeds kill flowers; that’s life. I’ve worked all my years to reduce suffering, but I don’t try and change the wolves or the weeds.”

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, after calming my mind through the Zen teachings of The Dude, I scared the sh*t out of it by reading Eleven. In a simple short phrase, this is what Eleven is – horror for the mind. No one scares so much using so little like Patricia Highsmith.

It’s been a while since I’ve read anything from Highsmith. I first picked up The Talented Mr. Ripley after seeing (and falling in love with) the movie starring Matt Damon and Jude Law back in 1999. Ripley was so good that I proceeded to read all five of the books in the series and then another Highsmith book whose name I don’t recall. That last book had all of the wonderfully detailed description of strolling through Europe, passing the time while meeting people, that the Ripley books did, but without any plot. I don’t know that I ever before or since read a novel with literally no plot to speak of, but I made a decision to put down Highsmith after that experience. Luckily, Eleven gave me an opportunity to give her another chance without a significant investment of my time, as it is a collection of short stories (11 of them of course), all about 10-20 pages long. As I remembered it, the risk/reward of a Highsmith tale was extreme, as the good stories were excellent (and unlike any other writer I know of), while the bad ones were quite tedious. Short stories were a perfect way to minimize the risk while hopefully seeing the reward.

Unsurprisingly, Eleven was a little uneven, but there were many more hits than misses. It was more than strong enough overall to remind me what I loved so much about those Ripley books. Highsmith consistently creates a foreboding atmosphere despite not providing any literal reason for the reader to be scared. At her best, in stories like the “The Snail-Watcher” and “The Terrapin,” nothing has to actually happen for me, as reader, to feel bone-chilling horror. Some of the notes I wrote after reading these eleven stories:

After the first story, “The Snail-Watcher”: “Feels like I’m going to vomit. Yet can’t wait to read another.”

Somewhere midway though: “This sh*t is f*cking intense. My heart is in my throat.”

And, after the last story, “The Empty Birdhouse”: “This was scary as sh*t, in the same way they all were. Major apprehensiveness throughout. I didn’t dig it as much, but still I shudder.”

Note all the swearing, and the images of fear working its way throughout my body. Highsmith leaves you feeling disturbed, terrified. As noted, not all of her stories work. While the collection holds up very well (despite being over 40 years old), “Mrs. Afton” feels quite dated in its handling of psychology. People seem to like “The Quest for ‘Blank Claveringi’” but I found it to be too ridiculous, reminding me of a 1980s home video game. “The Heroine” needed more room to develop, but that is actually a stealth compliment, since what I really mean is that I wish it had been a full book unto itself rather than a 20 page story. Unfortunately, that book does not exist, but I will carefully choose another Highsmith novel when I’m ready again to be shaken to my core.

Until then … The Dude is not in. But also, The Dude abides.

[1] Proof of both comes from my favorite one-liner, in the chapter “Stereotyping People by Favorite Author.” Under Joshua Ferris she writes, “Someone who hasn’t read The Unnamed.”

[3] I’ll be paraphrasing here a variety of quotes of Jeff’s and Bernie’s.

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