Sunday, August 14, 2011

Soup and Salad: A Dude's Guide to The Help, Overrated Books, A Good Hard Look at Flannery O'Connor, Melanie Rae Thon Goes Deep, Bookstore Curmudgeon, Reading Retreats, Respectable Characters, Best Last Lines

On today's menu:

1.  Are you a member of the male tribe (which is not quite the same as a male member) who is being dragged against your will to see The Help in movie theaters this weekend?  And does that very thought send lightning bolts of panic throughout your body?  Never fear, The New Dork Review of Books is here to help:  A Dude's Guide to The Help.
No literary novel in the last several years has garnered the attention and readership The Help has. If there's such thing as a modern classic, it's it. So, to consider myself a well-rounded biblio-nerd, I read. Even before I read, it was easy to tell why the large majority of The Help's readers are female: It's a story about women written by a woman. And just look at the cover — the washed-out burnt sienna/yellow color and the precious little birds surely are intended to appeal to women more than men, right? Those are probably enough to ensure most men will only give it a cursory glance. But I'm here to tell you, I liked it, and if you're a beer-swilling, fantasy football-playing dude like I am, you may like it too.

2.  The Ambassadors was a slog through prosaic mud.  Every page I turned, every paragraph I read and re-read (and fell asleep halfway through each time), every tiresome scene of Parisian society written with Henry James' dull pen, was like lifting a foot clotted with eighty pounds of wet clay.  I made it through the 1903 novel for my 20th-Century American Lit class, but just barely.  So yeah, I have definite negative feelings tied to reading that book.  Overrated?  Hell, yeah.  That's why it was a relief to stop at Slate and find a roomful of authors and critics like Tom Perrotta, Francine Prose and Elif Batuman confessing their secret hate for "classics" like Ulysses, Don Quixote and (gasp!) The Catcher in the RyeWhat about you?  What tops your list of overrated books?  Vent your spleen in the comments section.

3.  I wish I could have been a fly on the wall at McNally Jackson Books on Aug. 4.  Not only would it have been cool to look at all those people browsing books with my crazy-thousand fly eyes, but I would have been privileged to hear Hannah Tinti and Ann Napolitano chat about Flannery O'Connor.  The Story Prize blog was there at the event sponsored by One Story and has a report.
Tinti commented that O’Connor’s fiction is “about trying to get to a moment of realization with her characters.” “With” is relevant here; astute readers can sense the author grappling for grace and redemption alongside the reader. O’Connor offers glimpses of salvation—even if the readers miss the textual clues—through a sequence of events that can, as Tinti said, “lead you to a strange place, but when you arrive, it feels perfectly right.”
Napolitano's novel A Good Hard Look features O'Connor as a character and it is one of my most anticipated reads of 2011.  I say "anticipated" because it's still sitting on my shelf, glaring down at me through O'Connorish cat-eye glasses, piling on the Catholic guilt.  (Yes, books have this weird anthropomorphic power over me.)  I hope to get to it soon--"soon" meaning "sometime before 2012."  But if you've got more time on your hands than me, do yourself a favor and read A Good Hard Look--then come back here with a report.  While you're at it, read Tinti's The Good Thief (another book perpetually near the top of my TBR pile).

4.  If you're still hanging around at the TSP blog, you owe it to yourself to check out Melanie Rae Thon's intimate essay on her early struggles as a writer: Catalytic Convergence.
Every piece in the collection can be traced backward into mystery: a rupture in my intimate life (illness, injury, guilt, loss, transcendent love, exceptional mercy) compels me to imagine another person’s experience with greater curiosity and compassion and wonder. Anna Deavere Smith says she recognizes the gap between herself and the people she represents in her plays. The thrill of the experience for writer or actor, viewer or reader, is to move into that space, to become other than oneself while still acknowledging and respecting the infinite unknowable mystery of every other living being.

5.  Jim Toole of Capitol Hill Books might just be my new favorite bookstore curmudgeon:
      I love this work, but can find it exasperating at times. In the store, people leave books wherever they feel like, so I will find Ulysses God knows where. And then, there are the people who argue about prices and don’t understand inflation. I charge less than half price for a book, but if it cost $10 in 1980, it costs more now. I can’t take you in a time machine back to when it was $10. Sometimes I feel like I have to teach these people basic economics.
      And then, there are the rules of the store. First, you can only get in when it is open. Second, no cell phones. This is a book store and not a phone booth. Third, there are words and phrases that you can’t use in my store: like, oh my God, neat, sweet, have a good one, that’s a good question, totally, whatever, perfect, Kindle or Amazon. These words give me brain damage. I’m serious. When people use them in here, I tell them to get a thesaurus and stop being so mentally lame.
Toole even has a sign in his window, God love him:

6.  At Salon, Laura Miller imagines the ideal reading retreat:
(It) would involve four or five friends renting a big country house for a long weekend (at least three full days). They ought to be people who know each other well enough that they won't be tempted to spend all their time either getting acquainted or catching up. Everyone agrees that the rooms with the comfiest chairs are strict quiet zones. Everyone takes turns cooking meals. And everyone reads whatever they want, because trying to get four people to agree on a single book on top of all the above conditions is asking too much of the gods. Lastly, I wouldn't schedule my reading retreat for the summer. It's too easy to be lured away by outdoor activities....Not only are rentals cheaper in the off season, but the fall--with its drizzly afternoons, blowing leaves and crackly evening fires--is far more congenial to the readerly impulse.
The closest I've ever come to long leisurely chunks of reading time was during the two times I've sailed the Caribbean with my wife.  But even then the salt air, the sun and the never-ending food buffet kept distracting me from the pages.  Maybe I need to quit the Day Job and rent an Italian villa with a crackly fireplace.

7.  Sasha & the Silverfish laments: "Characters I can respect--is that too much to ask?"  This would pair nicely with #2 above:
Oh, dear Main Character: See, you don’t need to draw my sympathies. Hell, I don’t even have to like you. But I need to respect you—your intelligence, especially, your willingness to act and think. Beyond your responsibilities to the text you exist in—because, hey, isn’t it your author’s job to make that work?—you need to make sense, goddammit. You need to do justice to the world you exist in. You need to be a person who, regardless of whether or not I agree with your actions, makes the effort to do something. You need to not waste my time. You need to be a person who I do not have to punch in the nargles if I see you idling in a street corner, okay?

8.  And finally, in closing, Stylist has rounded up their 100 best closing lines.  What's your favorite last line?  I might have picked the closer from the Bible ("He which testifieth these things saith, 'Surely I come quickly.'  Amen.  Even so, come, Lord Jesus."), but I'm also very partial to the last paragraph of O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away:
By midnight he had left the road and the burning woods behind him and had come out on the highway once more. The moon, riding low above the field beside him, appeared and disappeared, diamond-bright, between patches of darkness. Intermittently the boy's jagged shadow slanted across the road ahead of him as if it cleared a rough path toward his goal. His singed eyes, black in their deep sockets, seemed already to envision the fate that awaited him but he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping.


  1. If you find that Italian villa, you do realize some of us expect to have the occasional reading weekend, right?

    For closing lines, Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex ends with something like: Not everything in this book is real, but it is all true.

    I like that because that's what the best fiction is: It's true.

  2. Lynne,

    But of COURSE you're invited for the reading weekend (Thrilla at the Villa).

    And that Berger quote is so very, very true. Great line!