choosing

1.) Nixed Swan Thieves. Probably could have plodded through—I had made it some 40 pages in—had I not happened, while searching for a visual of the (real? fictional?) painting in question, onto the headline of some Boston newspaper oh-so-wittily describing the book as “art-filled, but not artful.” That kills it for me. I hate reviews. I don’t even want to know what you think of a movie trailer before I see it. It doesn’t matter that it shouldn’t matter. It does. Other views have tainted my unsullied taking-in of the book, and now, encouraged by whoever at the Boston Whatever, I allow myself to see things I am otherwise very good at blocking out. The prose’s dullness compared to Colum McCann’s. (Even if that is a hard act to follow.) The tired familiarity of yet another well-off middle-aged doctor seeking to spice up his well-off, moderately boring life with danger and delusion. The unearthed remembrance that it’s not that The Historian changed my life or anything; it just steeped me in Europe when I was in Asia, and wanted to be somewhere else. All these things made going onward unappealing. I used to doggedly plow through any book, no matter how unloved, but no more. So:

2.) Picked up The Sparrow, thinking to reread a book I read 15 years ago and whose scenes, a handful of them, remain as stark and educational as if some grandparent had sat me on their knee and explained what was what. But, first page read, no dice. I don’t want to be told a story like it’s a news bulletin. Not following the luminous writing of Zoli. I know you can overdose on that; you can get tired of being lifted up by the shape of the words and want only for them to nudge you placidly along toward some plot-driven ending, but while I wouldn’t run out and borrow another Colum McCann book (if there are any left I haven’t read), I don’t want the news bulletin style. Next candidate:

3.) Peace Like a River, which meant something to me even before The Sparrow? Nope. First page. Don’t want to be told a story all hyuckity-hyuck, back-in-my-day-we-walked-uphill-both-ways. I don’t mean to demean the book; it was my favorite for a time and it touched me, but I don’t want to be talked down to like that, not now. Next:

4.) Bad Dirt? Annie Proulx? God no. Why is this even here? I only finished The Shipping News because I read it in my finish-it-at-any-cost phase. I don’t care that she hand-writes everything in cursive on yellow notepads before typing it all up. What’s that supposed to say to me? Dedication? OCD? Her writing makes the world seem like a shitty place to live in. Moving on.

5.) Another rereading, lighter this time: Bard? By Morgan Llywellyn? Almost, but no. There are scenes from this that have become indelible, too, instructively so, and I don’t want to ruin them yet by potentially rereading them as an adult and finding what I though I learned from them ludicrous. I learned this from Bard: even in the most supposedly understanding and perceptive people there can be terrible shallowness, all of a sudden. At one point Amergin, who has up until this point been a relatable, even admirable human being, striving so hard to record things—mentioning at some point how it is his job, he is realizing, to be a step back from everyone else, to record and not to take part, so that someone would know we were here—reflects on his wife’s (or just lover’s? I can’t remember) throat, saying essentially that even this most gorgeous lady on the planet has this patch of rough skin in the hollow of her throat and that with time he supposes we all work to view the failures of those near us as strengths or quirks or important indicators of uniqueness. Which is all fine and good, but—seriously, dude? Her neck isn’t soft enough for you? That he cared so much about this is what shocked me—not his drawn-out observation, which made sense enough at the time. But for real? The hollow of her neck is subpar for you? You just finished ravishing her on some beach and you’re complaining about the roughness of, what, a square inch? I think I read this when I was 12. It seemed pretty clear, upon hitting this, that spending puberty trying to get the attention of men would be a complete waste of my time. Her neck, for godsake. Forget it. If even the hottest princess in all Gaul can lose points due to imperfectly soft neckflesh—just forget it. …and if I were to reread it now, and realize I was a complete fool to take that passage that way, well, then I’d lose this good story, and I’d rather not. Next!

6.) The Riders, by Tim Winton. This I can do. Another reread but still. The first page. “In a moment fire roared like a mob in the hearth.” Yup. This was the first of Tim Winton’s books I read and my favorite; I have tried to get many other people to read it and they never do. I was very busy at the time but I stayed up late, spending a few days with little more than four hours’ sleep each night. I told people it was the plot that made me do it, though the first page tells me it was more than that. The scenes I remember from it aren’t teaching scenes—the aisle of a drugstore in Amsterdam and a girl he finds there; his daughter white as a sheet in the belly of a boat. In my head I confuse Tim Winton and Graham Swift, which makes little sense, because the former is raw in a way I wish I were, and the latter is sad in a way I hope never to be. But the version of TW trotting out in this book, anyway, is a suitable follow-up to CM. Less luminous, more like pressing your palms into your eyes till you see stars. A self-inflicted kind of awe.

telltale book twitch

I finished Zoli on the bus, my eyes glued to the page. At one point a woman sat down next to me and said something I didn’t catch. “What?!” I snarled. “I just…I just like your top! That’s all!” she blurted, scooting away for the rest of the trip.

Even without the anecdote, you can tell the end of it upset me by my right eye. It’s twitchy. The right one, as far as I can tell, twitches in fury, which has only been an issue since (ha) Japan. The left one is a far more familiar predictor, of fear, and it has been that way since advanced calculus class in high school, which I was failing, and I had never failed anything before, and I was told that I’d get kicked out of the university whose acceptance I’d received if I continued to fail. My eye twisted and jerked all through the class, through study halls (every one of which I attended religiously), through homework; towards the end, even the mention of calculus would set it off.

Anyway it wasn’t the left one today, it was the right one. And I’ll give you the warning:

Spoilers.

But not major ones. It isn’t the phrasing, or the actual end-of-plot that upset me. It is, comparably I guess, a minor thing. Francesca needed to be slapped, there at the end. My hand itched to do it. Vain thankless cosmopolitan daughter, how dare you drag your ancient mother around the city without recognizing her fear and fatigue; how dare you try and force her to dredge up memories for the entertainment of your drunken academics, how dare you be so flighty and busy and scatterbrained and blind to the fact that your mother’s going to be dead sometime and what did you do when she was still breathing and capable of being with you? Subjected her to the stares of a sodden self-satisfied crowd of people who fancy themselves retroactive specialists of the life she herself led, forced her to conjure polite smiles for your shitty-ass boyfriend who pulls archaic gendered rank and bitches about the claustrophobia she has because OH I DON’T KNOW MAYBE SHE HAS REASON TO FEAR DO YOU THINK?, and attempted to strongarm her into vomiting up all her painful past out onto a stage to better adorn your shoulders as the exotic accoutrements of suffering?

There was a lot of twitching going on.

If she was just a brainless heartless brat—they are everywhere; these young professionals who poach on their old-world parents’ naivete and love; look to everything from Babe to basically Amy Tan’s entire repertoire—it would hurt less. They would set no expectations; make nothing fragile and beloved which could break. But at the very very end, when they are home, and sheltering from the drunken foolishness of her boyfriend who ropes a bunch of guys into coming back and partying in this apartment where his girlfriend’s DECREPIT MOTHER HELLO is trying to SLEEP—when they are sheltering from that, and Franca is apologizing, and curling up and doing things we are told she used to do, they used to do together, alone on the mountain, when she was tiny and half of all her mother’s world—that wrings me from one end to the other. Reading it, I thought of how just a few hours before, while relating the horror story of his weeklong family reunion, my coworker described waking up early the last morning because he knew, as morning people, that his kids would be up, and the four of them tiptoed around all these sleeping strangers of the same blood but of such totally different schedules and tastes and beliefs and levels of integrity—he said, relating this to me, that he missed that, and he was glad he had those moments with them, as he silently made himself coffee and got them their breakfasts, the lone awake souls in a houseful of people whose dreams, if seen, would’ve shown you how far apart they really are, blood be damned. And I thought, and stopped myself from telling him, yes, you should treasure those, I’ve lived so many of those myself, us always the awake ones amidst people we are expected to know better than we do, and it is important, when it is just the two or three or four of you, who see the loon or the rainbow or the deer on the lawn; who are privy to some secret silent thing the others are not there for and are that much farther away from you for having missed, to remember. Remember those, because you’ll never be able to get them back! and when you are no longer close to any of the people you shared this with, it will be those moments that sustain you. That Franca is still capable of having these moments with her mother makes her other daughterly failures more infuriating to read. You know she’s doing more damage, as someone who can still be tender, than as someone who has lost the ability altogether; who can only disappoint.

Now that I think about it I’m not sure that reads as an intended section. Not all of it. Perhaps he was argued into tweaking it. Adding extra crap before the last, glorious line.   It’s not a book-ruining situation, to be sure. I’m just more sensitive to that sort of thing than others, maybe. The first half was still the best, but I expected that. 

And now on to The Swan Thieves, while the last half of the last book of 1Q84 gathers dust on my coffee table. Because if—as a college freshman screamed bizarrely at me, seeing my book, on the way to the bus stop, in the imperative no less—I were to “die reading” (??) I would not want it to be while dragging my way through a mediocre translation of a mediocre book written by a man whose prose is only running through its motions, now: cats, ears, cooking, gratuitous homoeroticism of the barely-legal-and-under. Much better, if the college kid’s curse (or his encouragement? what the hell was that?) were to carry any weight, for me to be reading something by someone who makes me want to go out and see rivers and castles and valleys and skies, instead of someone who reminds me of whole worlds I wanted to blot out of my experience.

rain run

I suppose really Zoli is little different than Alif the Unseen. For you to feel like you belong somewhere, there has to always be that risk of not belonging. Suddenly, violently being cast out. Or maybe a gradual falling-away. Either way, the loss of the community that defined you. The togetherness that defined you.

I know this isn’t an original or terribly perceptive thought.

This morning, running, in the downpour, I was trying to make myself run faster, and remembering the night in the snow when I almost lost my dog while visiting my parents’ house. Running through backyards, vaulting fences, screaming her name and setting off motion-sensor lights, my mind fiddled as with a rosary with ideas of the propoganda campaign necessary to get her back. Posters, flyers, sidewalk chalk. A bribe to the evening news to show her picture? (This was me thinking this over this morning, not then.) But then, I thought, that would be useless—who gathered to watch the evening news there? Or anywhere? Where could you reliably put a piece of localized information such that everyone in a given area would become aware of it? There is nothing. Nowhere. Nothing unites us, I thought, slapping through the rain but remembering gasping through the falling snow. There is nowhere you can say a thing, and have your neighbors know by morning. Everything is fractured.

At least you can never be cast out of the fractures? Deemed polluted, and shunned? They would not notice when you left, and they would not notice when you came back, so there is no pain in leaving, and you can always return. 

But to what?

from zoli

‘You’ve got to drive me through the mountains,’ she pleaded, ‘I can’t stand the idea of those tunnels.’

And yet we were in a tunnel anyway, we knew it, and maybe we always had been. We had sped into the arch of darkness, slowed down, steered a moment in the unusual cold, until it felt right, and then we’d jolted the bike forward again, pushed against the headlong wind. We had recognised a pinpoint of light, a tiny gleam that kept growing, and the longer we journeyed in the darkness the more dazzling the light had become, ever brighter, more brilliant, and we leaned forward onto the handlebars, until eventually, like everyone, we had approached the mouth of the tunnel. Then we smashed that motorbike out into the sunshine, momentarily blinded, stunned, and we stayed so for quite a while, until our eyes adjusted and we began to blink and things came into focus and all around us were pebbles and among the pebbles, stones, and among the stones, rubbish, and among the rubbish, small grey buildings, and between, and beyond, pockets of grey men and women, a wasteland of them—ourselves. Instead of letting our hearts sink, we closed our eyes once more and we rode that bike into another darkness, another tunnel, thinking there would be a brighter light just a little farther along, that nothing would derail us, and that belief, like most beliefs, was more precious than the truth.

something in her

I am reading Zoli now, because Colum McCann could read me the phonebook if he wanted, and I am out of new recordings of him reading. (If you have not, listen to Transatlantic! The pull and the stretch and the perfect pauses—that man knows how to TELL a story. Not just write it.)

I am in the second section, told by Swann. And every other page or so we read “something in her” does this and “something in her” likes that. And I wonder if all men in the grip of infatuation are that way. Dumbfounded by their beloved, so quick to ascribe what they don’t understand to magic and the unfurling of forces greater than they. I’m not ridiculing him. (Swann.) Or demeaning him by saying it’s cute. I’m just a little taken aback by the breadth of his wonder. Does it not occur to him that there are depths to her that are dark? But which were put there by a logical course of events? Must we all hold magic in the sway of our hips and the curve of our lips? Can’t it just be muscle and bone that makes us? Isn’t that enough?

Everyone Has Their Amon Hen

I am notoriously bad at friendships. Bad at making them, worse at maintaining them. Usually when we part ways it is because of some infuriating ideological difference—like the girl who insisted that all bisexual people were greedy sluts, or the guy who said ambition in females was really just a sign that their sex lives weren’t fulfilling enough. I feel no guilt for these kinds of endings. I am best, though, with childless people 10-20 years older than me. That’s the golden zone. Old enough for them not to be annoyed by my earnest desire to learn from them, but not old enough that they begin to feel a biting need to impart knowledge, to have something of themselves live on elsewhere. Childless, so there isn’t that chasm of understanding between us. So we can talk about the darkest parts of life without desperately pretending we’ll fix it in time for the next generation.

Anyway, this friend fell right in that golden zone. And maybe more importantly—I could always make her laugh. I can’t stress enough how marvelous this was. I’m not a funny person, or good at reading people. But I always had her sense of humor pegged right, and knew the perfect thing to say at the perfect time, with the perfect cadence, and she’d be wiping tears from her eyes. And now she’s moving. It’s a fantastic thing for her—she felt trapped here, and in her line of work I’d feel trapped too; and she gets to move somewhere exciting and different, with a job and some friends waiting. And I am sad.

It’s not even like we saw each other that much anymore, really. We interacted in a professional manner for a long time—I even managed to write one of those letters of support, which are quite possibly my favorite thing to write ever; they’re not selfish like cover letters and you know that if you do a good job you might really be giving a hand to someone you admire—but once that was done we got busy with other things. Even if we didn’t hang out much, though, it was lovely to sit at my gray desk in my gray cubicle in my gray clothing and know that somewhere out in this city, someone thought I was a riot.

I haven’t lost many people. I divest myself of them before it hurts to lose them. I’m not very good at this.

Sigh.

WoT vs. GoT vis-a-vis the Mat Cauthon Archetype

Let me clarify a few things:

1.) I have borrowed the entirety of the GoT first season from the library. I’m only on disk two. Any later regrets I have for things I say here are entirely allowed. I’ve only just started the series. If a character I like turns out to be a complete wretch, well, I am allowed to retract my fondness. I was, after all, the child who went on and on about how much she loved/felt for/empathized with Briony in Atonement, right up until she royally fucked up everyone’s lives. Whoops.

2.) I am comparing, yes, the Wheel of Time series of books to Game of Thrones the show. I have not read the GoT books out of a.) resentment for the derision and pro-GoT sentiment heaped upon me when someone sees me rereading WoT, b.) a preference to avoid yet more sexist fantasy stereotypes, which I was warned ran rife in GoT even more than in WoT, and c.) trust in the opinion of my husband, who read the first GoT book and said they were dull, clunkily written and subpar to our massive series of choice. (Dated though it may now be.) 

3.) Spoilers, spoilers and spoilers. For both series. (Up to season one episode four in GoT, and book 13 in WoT.) SPOILERS, in case you are skimming. One of the reasons I am so ardent about giving the warning is that I cannot stand spoilers myself. People can condescend to me over how I should be more concerned with style or the artfulness of a book/show/production than the plot, but I remain firm: the plot matters to me, and if you ruin it for me (Anna Karenina! American Beauty! The end of the Thieves’ Guild questline in Oblivion!) you will not be met with a tolerant shrug and a wry grin. 

All this prefacing is merely to say that if I am questioned on my grudging fondness for Tyrion Lannister, given my outspoken disdain for Mat Cauthon of WoT and the provisional similarities between the two, I stand firm in my position. No, it’s not because Tyrion makes token (or even earnest) gestures of goodwill towards various underdogs. Mat, you will recall, fancies himself some sort of father figure for Olver as well, and far from being touched by that I find it a pathetic attempt to make us view as newly responsible and even-keeled a guy who by all rights should have had his brains melted to paste by syphilis books ago. Mat is your agonizingly stereotypical Rascal With A Heart of Gold, always going on about needing a roll in the hay (and getting said roll in the hay by winning bets or some such silly showcasing of economic prowess), but somehow managing, through baldly contrived plot devices like the boy Olver, to make appeals toward our Sensible Thinking Adult sides. You can have the best of both worlds, Mat’s characterization seems to say. You can be your kid’s dad AND his big brother who tells him all about sex and how to get it! You can retain the devil-may-care attitude of your adolescence and still make rational decisions about the fate of the world! You can be a fourteen year old boy, FOREVER!

Right.

It’s not, then, Tyrion’s occasional pause in whoring to draw up plans for the partial rehabilitation of the disabled, or the wise advice he takes the time to give those born into unfortunate circumstances as he seems to consider himself to have been born into, that warms me to him. It’s his realism. His practicality. Unlike Mat, he never once in the midst of his carousing manages to forget the outside world, how it works, or his place and power in it. We are never asked to suspend all we know about his non-sexual experiences, and to view him as simply some lovable scamp. His constant stream of droll responses aren’t just spunky or sassy; they make a point. The world is the way it is, and no preponderance of big boobs is going to change it: a poorer family would’ve left him to die if he’d been born into it; not sharing the same mother is kind of a big deal in a feudal society; and losing the use of your legs sucks. Hard. 

But he works with that knowledge. He doesn’t let it rot him into some bitter husk of a man, nor is he so desperate to conquer his fear of that knowledge that he has to keep up a steady stream of defensive, snotty remarks as a kind of shield. He deals with it. Maybe not always in the most honorable or finessed way, but he deals with it. Whereas Mat’s idea of dealing with it is to either blame Aes Sedai or women in general for the world’s ills, and then to go off and get drunk off his ass playing dice in a pub somewhere. 

So, go team Tyrion.