Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On the 7th Day of Christmas: Unfinished Books

One of the frequently told jokes about George W. Bush, without getting into any further political commentary, deals with the fire in the presidential library that destroys both his books, especially sad considering he had not finished coloring the one. So it was with amazement and amusement (plus a feeling this was really satire) that I read this article in the Wall Street Journal by Karl Rove about the books he and the President had been reading.

Of course, you would expect a President not to have much time to do a lot of reading much less for one to tally up, say, 95 books. What??? George Bush reads???

Biographies of past presidents like Lincoln, LBJ and Andrew Jackson I could understand, and about popular figures like Babe Ruth and even Mark Twain, along with historical accounts of past wars, even to some extent novels by Michael Crichton or stories about detective Travis McGee by John D. MacDonald – but Albert Camus’ “The Stranger”?

So I feel totally humbled by the fact the President of the United States accomplished way more reading than I managed this year!

Though I like to read, I’m not one to find a lot of time to do so, especially when I’m composing. Then my reading time is usually late in the evening when I’m surrounded by cats who are determined to sit exactly where my eyes are trying to focus or I’m so brain-dead, I drift off easily into the Land of Nod. And this year, I’ve actually done a lot of composing. And nodding.

True, during November, when I was trying to write a novel, I didn’t spend any time reading except when I was doing what writer’s lamely call “research.” Otherwise, the writing style or subject matter you’re reading will find its way into what you’re writing. So during the month of November, I picked at things like, oh... something about the history and geography of Ohio (from the 1930s) called “The History and Geography of Ohio” because one of the settings was an imaginary town in southeastern Ohio in the 1950s... or paging through some 1800 pages of two volumes of a four-volume Mahler biography (I never found volume 1 and the fourth volume was published just this spring but cost $140... I bought the others at a close-out sale for $20 each) which actually did come in useful since there were a couple “composer inspiration” anecdotes that I could make use of for one of my main characters (especially the one about the laxative...).

But there were so many books this year that I picked up to read and for whatever reasons put down and never finished. Yeah, I managed to read a war-horse like Tolstoy’s “War & Peace” again, blogging voluminously about it, but since then I just haven’t settled into one I could ride all the way to the end.

Usually, after a Big Fat Book or something very serious and intellectual, I tend to pick up something of a more popular nature or some lighter fiction, though I’m not into what most people would consider “popular” fiction. But sometimes I’ve just found it difficult to make a commitment.

One book I did finish (and in a matter of just a few days) was P.D. James’ latest, “The Private Patient.” I’ve always been a fan of hers and have read all her published mysteries even though I would not consider myself a fan of mysteries in general. My mother read little beyond the category - but she would often read 1-3 books a week - so I’d gotten her turned on to P.D. James several years ago. For some people, her style would be a challenge but what got me interested in her was a critic’s description of her style being more like Henry James. Since Henry James is one of my favorites – I’ve read all his novels (except one which was not only no longer in print but not even in the library) and some 40-50 short stories in chronological order back in the ‘80s – starting to collect her books was a no-brainer.

But there was, oh... a New York Times best-seller that sounded intriguing until I got half-way through it - Michael Gruber’s “The Book of Air and Shadows” - when I realized Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Shadow of the Wind” (one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time) did it much better. Next to it, there’s a copy of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone” - in German: thinking the writing level might be comparable to what I had managed after a few years of high school and college German, it could be both entertaining and educational, but it turned out to be just one of several miscalculations I've made this past year.

The major “non-finish” so far is Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Unconsoled.” There was a lot to like about the book – the style, the structure, the fact it’s about a classical musician – but there was a lot that was annoying about the main character, a concert pianist who’s in town for a big concert but who seems not to realize that for several days he has not done any practicing until he’s half-way through the book - and who cannot say no to anyone who imposes on his time and good nature. At first, its Escher-like setting-twists confused me but then that became fascinating – how he’d drive miles and miles out into the countryside to attend a reception and then, walking down a dark hallway, go through a door and find himself back in the lobby of his downtown hotel. The fact he has no first name, always referred to as Rider or Mr. Rider, adds an air of mystery but more mysterious is the apparent double-life he seems to be living – a stranger to this town, he appears to be married to the daughter of one of the hotel’s senior bell-hops - and he has a son though there is a great deal about this relationship he can’t quite remember. The occasional flash-backs to his own childhood make me wonder if it isn’t going to end up that the scenes with the woman and the boy are actually going to be about his parents and he is actually the boy. With all the other turns in the story reminding me of prints by Max Escher, it wouldn’t surprise me. And so I’ve felt like I should persevere and just keep reading. But once I put it aside for my novel-writing month, I’ve been unable to convince myself to pick it up again.

And yet if anything I’ve read is structurally intriguing and comparable to some of the things I’m working on musically – let’s call them “variations on traditional forms” – this should be a must!

I had gotten a number of books this past year which are still on my “to-read” shelf:

Sheldon M. Novick - “Henry James: The Young Master
Oliver Sacks - “Musicophilia” though since I haven’t done more than the first two essays, I could’ve waited for the paperback edition to come out
Jared Diamond - “Guns, Germs & SteelANDCollapse,” both
Daniel Pinchbeck - “2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl
Doris Lessing - “The Golden Notebook” I bought it after it was announced she’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year but only read the opening chapter at the time
Francine Prose - “Reading Like a Writer” though it’s excellent to dip into for a few pages here or a few more there
Richard Powers - “The Goldbug Variations” which I’ve started twice but never get more than a few pages into it though I enjoy it (having gotten about 40 pages into another of Powers’ immense books, “The Time of Our Singing,” which I enjoyed not so much) – it’s probably more a time-commitment issue, especially after having downed “War & Peace” in a single stretch of several months
Ann Packer - “Songs without Words,” bought because of the musical title but after realizing it dealt a great deal with suicide, I figured I might wait till a more settled time in my life before breaking into this one
Mark Haddon - “A Spot of Bother” even though, waiting in line at the bookstore and reading the opening pages, it was about a man in a clothing store, buying a suit to attend the funeral of a friend who died suddenly of a heart attack, discovering what he assumes to be a cancerous lesion on his leg... as if I’m not already enough of a hypochondriac, worrying about every little change that could be dismissed as “you’re just getting older”
Randall Jarrell - “Pictures from an Institution” which could be inspiring or dangerous, considering how much of my own novel ambulates around the academic world
Virginia Woolf - “The Waves” speaking of structural wonders, I began reading this earlier in the year but had to put it aside for something else, whatever it was - definitely must get back to this

Part of the problem, no doubt, is this “to-read” shelf is beside my favorite “to-read” chair which is usually full of cats (see right) or, if not, will be as soon as I sit down. While it seems to hold three or four cats with no great sense of discomfort, it is completely impractical as a reading chair when I am joined by even two cats who want to spend quality time with me or, more likely, who want me to vacate the chair completely to them...

I suspect I will have more reading time on my hands, having just made arrangements for the first surgery in my life - fixing the pair of work-induced hernias now that the workman’s comp issues seem to be (please be more than only “seem to be”) cleared up - when I will have a few weeks’ recuperation time in February, just two months short of said hernia’s two-year anniversary. It’s very likely I won’t feel much like composing or writing then, so hopefully I can at least settle into a comfortable chair, cover my lap with something like a tray-table to keep the cats from jumping up on the incisions (ouch) and just read.

At the moment, I am wrapping up a year that began with Harold Kushner’s “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments” by reading David Sedaris’ latest collection, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” which sounds like it should be, perhaps, its sequel, suitable to end the kind of year it’s been.

And I’m also reading Vicky Myron’s story of an orange tabby named “Dewey,” a stray cat who finds a home in a small town library in Iowa. My cats love it – especially the four orange tabbies who kept looking at me like “shouldn’t you be reading that aloud to us?” until I did. They didn’t care much for the bits about the author’s home-life or her growing up, but the part about Dewey checking out the library Christmas tree seemed to go over very well with them even if they found the scene where he ran tearing around the library chased by a plastic shopping bag he’d gotten entangled around his neck very scary (Charlie and Abel then proceeded to show me how this would be acted out in the movie version, but without the plastic bag – that could be added by special affects). It made me very glad I did not, as usual, have a Christmas tree of my own.

One of the things I’ve discovered is of the two birds/one stone variety. My mother had an exercise contraption in the living room, though she was reluctant to use it. It’s a treadmill but she was always afraid she’d get stuck on it when the controls would inexplicably increase to warp-speed and she’d be hanging on to it for dear life, hair and legs streaming out behind her... It’s like taking a stroll or going for a walk but it shouldn’t really be called a stroller or a walker, terms that show the symmetry of life’s stages whether you’ve met Benjamin Button or not. Calling it a treadmill sounds so industrial but after spending a few minutes on it, watching the squirrels feasting on birdseed on the porch, I do feel something like a hamster on a wheel but without the joy. If I try to read, however, I find I can go for 30-40 minutes before I realize I’m getting tired. Reading “War & Peace” on the treadmill was a third bird, I guess, incorporating weight lifting into the exercise regimen.

So that will probably be two new year’s resolutions – read more... on the treadmill.

- Dr. Dick

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