Wednesday, September 1, 2010

August Reading in Review

In the short story, ‘More Than Human’, from Michael Chabon’s collection, A Model World and Other Stories, a boy reads a list of his father’s old resolutions which have since been broken, including:
4. I will not claim to have read books that I have not read, or to have been borne out in preductuiobs that I never made.
This scene bought to my mind the young Jay Gatz’s list of daily activities in The Great Gatsby (I saw Ken Duncum’s theatrical adaptation at Circa last month, though in hindsight would have enjoyed re-reading the novel more). But it also brought to mind these monthly reading summary posts.

I started out this year with a similar resolution: to be open about what I’m reading such that it might illuminate in some way my own writing (fiction and bloggy/columny non-fiction). The problem is, I’m too close to make the call about which books will turn out to be ‘overstayers’, as Anna Taylor put it last week, and which will weasel their way into my writing. So, for the rest of 2010 at least, I’ll keep up with these summary posts, despite the temptation to claim to have read classics long ago and to breeze over some of the less-than-classic books.

The Red Tram by CK Stead (NZ)
Like Cities, Like Storms by August Kleinzahler

The Red TramI’d only ever read a poem here, a poem there by CK Stead until the beginning of August. The Red Tram from 2004 (chosen from the selection available at the library on the day of my visit) presented a different poet to the one I expected. Playful, colloquial – at times scatological. The poems were barer and briefer, too, without being trivial. What had I expected? Something similar to Kleinzahler’s poetry, actually. Which did I prefer? As a collection, The Red Tram took me more places. Most of Kleinzahler’s poems are one pagers (not less, not more) about the weather/seasons/nature. But when Kleinzahler’s poems were good, they were really good (‘Song 2’ is the title of one I recall).

Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk (novel)
Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame (novel, NZ)

PygmyI rode the bus a lot more than usual this month (and will continue to from here on out), which allowed me to get through two audiobooks in August. I’ve blogged about the last Palahniuk novel I read (Snuff) back in 2008 and I’m not quite sure why I read/listened to another one. My complaints are still the same. Characters are sketchy, the action herky-jerky, the repetition too heavy handed, blah blah blah. I guess I wanted to see how the unusual narration worked as an audiobook. And it did take some adjusting to (representative sentence: “Operative me, am agitating vast fist of cow father, while free hand of this agent reach to acquire security badge.”), but good heavens, it must have been a difficult week at the office for the voice actor, Paul Michael Garcia. And he didn’t even get nominated for an Audie!

Owls Do CryOwls Do Cry also had its quirks as an audiobook. The recording was from Bolinda Audio, a fantastic Australian company through whom I’ve listened to at least two Tim Winton novels and I’m sure there was another, but exactly what escapes me right now. But being a Bolinda production means the reader, Heather Bolton, is Australian. Her accent was almost imperceptible for the most part, but sometimes when she did dialogue, especially males’, I was suddenly transported from Waimaru (or ‘WAI-ma-ROO’) to Woollongong.

But the book, oh the book. What a gem.

Prose in Paper Form a.k.a. Chabon’s Corner
A Model World and Other Stories by Michael Chabon (short stories)
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon (novel)

A Model World: And Other StoriesI actually went to the library with the intention of getting out The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but left with these two books instead. The first I tried very hard not to like. The stories were too much like SHORT STORIES. The jacket blurb trumpets how most were previously published in the New Yorker, and they are very much in that mold.

In the Afterword for Gentlemen of the Road, Chabon describes his two story collections from the nineties (of which this was the first) as featuring, “unarmed Americans undergoing the eternal fates of contemporary short-story characters — disappointment, misfortune, loss, hard enlightenment, moments of bleak grace”. Indeed, this is what the short story form is well suited to, but it can do more than that, and I kept thinking I wanted more as I began each story in A Model World. By the end of the book, however, I had to concede that I could have asked nothing more. And I wasn’t even in the mood for hard enlightenment or moments of bleak grace!

Gentlemen of the RoadGentlemen of the Road, however, was what I thought I wanted to read. In his Afterword (again; it was the best part of the book) Chabon notes that his working title for this short novel was Jews with Swords. The blurb claims the story summons “the spirit of Arabian Nights and The Three Musketeers”, and (as my reading last month will attest) that’s a style of story I’m quite interested in at the moment. Specifically how to take aspects of swash and buckle but make a story fast-paced and emotionally engaging enough for a modern reader. Well, I was disappointed by Gentlemen of the Road. Profoundly. I found the language of the novel baffling. I wasn’t baffled by the meaning of the words (though the ‘rheumy jargon’ often read like a ‘contumelous’ ‘orgy of interpenetrating runes’ ) as the style. It appears to ape the epic register of a Dumas or a Cervantes, but Cervantes was already aping (and gibing at) the epic register of his forebears (and Dumas oscillates between aping Cervantes and more straightforward epics like Arabian Nights). Most contemporary readers associate the kind of rambunctious adventure played out in Gentlemen of the Road with younger readers, but the style and vocab pitch the novel at a different level to the subject matter.

1 comment:

gnute said...

I recommend CK's Black River, too, especially that marvelous STROKE poem.