Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lives Less Ordinary...

I grew up in love with libraries. When I was old enough to walk from my house to downtown (which was, in the 80's, probably substantially younger than I'd even consider letting Ethan play on his own in our front yard, but whatever), I used to trudge down Concord Street & Main Street, past the town square, the Dunkin Donuts (oh, New England, how I miss you) and the building that housed the town's newspaper, to arrive at the library--silent and waiting for me, housing a billion lives for me to choose from.

The childrens' section always overwhelmed we with it's bright colors and giant books with more pictures than words, and posters of famous people I didn't know, reading. Even before I was old enough to read the grown up books, I loved walking through the aisles in the adult fiction section--running my hands over the cool plastic protective covers of the spines, pulling the books with interesting titles off the shelf and flipping the covers open to read the synopsis on the inside. I couldn't wait for the day that I could choose 15 books, by their covers, naturally, throw them in a big bag and walk home with the weight of them on my back and lose myself between their covers.

Not much has changed. Sure, I went through a long protracted phase of dropping an obscene amount of cash on books--in Barnes and Noble, Borders, in college at a used book store called Bold Faced Books--anywhere I could. Before I moved from NH to Washington, DC, I donated at least 100 books to the library (and while it felt good to donate to the library of my youth, I would by lying if I said I didn't regret it and miss those books, whatever they were). People hate helping me move---they do it (or did it, before the age of hiring movers) because they love me, but seriously, I am a big old pain in the ass to move. Because of all the books. I've become better at shedding them as I go, lending them to people, mailing the to friends in far off places knowing I'll never get them back, etc. But I remain a bit of a book hoarder. I feel okay about it, though, because not much makes me as happy as the random piles of well-worn books that can be found in most of the nooks and crannies of our house.

But given the economy and the cost of living in our chosen area, I've reverted back to wandering the aisles of the local library. I've been picking out 15 books at a time (this time based on authors and awards and recommendations from trusted friends and sometimes, the cover) tossing them in a bag and walking home with the weight of them on my back. Lives to be explored. It makes me very happy.

Two books I've read recently which I've really enjoyed are A Window Across the River by Brian Morton and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.

A Window Across the River is about two artists, Nora & Isaac, former lovers, who rediscover each other after 5 years apart. One a writer, the other a photographer. They are reunited at a point in their lives when one's career is taking off and the other's career has most likely peaked (and far below the artist's expectations and hopes). Morton is not especially kind to his characters--he draws them overflowing with faults (the biggest of which for Nora is that she bases her fictional characters on her lovers and is incapable of writing any of them sympathetically--this gets her into some trouble, both with those she loves and with her own sense of self and goodness) and forces them to face their inadequacies as individuals and as a couple as the story progresses.

The novel is, at its core, a question about whether the artist can remain true to his/her soul-devouring creative impulses and still have room left over in their world for the rest of their lives. And can they exist as a couple, given what they must do to be true to their art. And I love the way Morton answers this question at the conclusion of the novel.

Bender's novel reminds me a lot of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife or Her Fearful Symmetry, where a family's drama meets the supernatural in a way that seems completely plausible and not at all CRAZY. Even though a girl who can taste the emotions of the person who made a cake (or any other food) just by taking a bite of the cake, kind of is crazy. I'm always so impressed by authors who can craft character that are so believable and fully-developed that you can totally buy their step over into supernatural. The second that character becomes a cliche or stock, or the focus of the conflict ceases to be the human cost of the supernatural element of the story, the whole book falls apart, in my mind.

But in this case, like in Niffenegger's books, the supernatural is just a part of the conflict, a part of the dynamic that makes the characters lovable, if not relatable. Even without her ability to taste emotions in her food, Rose Edelstein is a fascinating, lonely character lost in the silence of her family's dysfunction.

Rose's "gift," she discovers throughout the course of the novel, is not the only gift in the family and in a way, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake's conflict is similar to that in Morton's story. How consumed do you become in your own gifts, art, secrets, etc, before you are absorbed by them and lose your ability to connect to the people closest to you? And what would happen if you truly revealed yourself to them? Would the result be acceptance or rejection?

So these two books are heading back to the library and I will dig into that pile on the dining room table, now about 12 books deep.

Today I am starting Richard Bode's Beachcombing at Miramar: the quest for an authentic life. I'm sure it's a result of the blog-to-book phenomenon that has taken place in the past few years, but I am really drawn to memoirs these days because I'm loving the idea of reading about the experiences of real people, whether they are travels, family dramas or mid-life crises. I love the truth that we all have our own stories to tell and that while fiction can take us to amazing places we'd otherwise never experience, our real lives are rarely ever as "ordinary" as we think.


Mama Bub said...

I have been spending an obscene amount of money on books lately, and need to rediscover my library. Maybe one day when the three year old is in school and I can actually make my way away from the kiddie computers.

Corinne said...

There really is something about the library...
(I remember riding through Hampton with my brother on our bikes, at a very very young age, to get to the library! So not something I'd let my kids do!!)

Becca said...

Oh yay, I love books!! I like the library too, but I really love hoarding books at my house. We have a great used book store here to be my supplier. Thanks for the recommendations!

Anonymous said...

will definitely check out window across the river. i'm glad you liked lemon cake! i just read "girl w/ a flammable skirt" by aimee bender and her short stories are really good too. (her first novel, "an invisible sign of my own" wasn't as good) i am a burn-through-money on books person, i have to admit. i should take this as motivation to hit the library more... oh, have you read "who will run the frog hospital?" by lorrie moore? really good too.
kita (too lazy to log in)