Quick Look: Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

I recently joined in with my coworkers in reading a book from the Great American Read, and began reading Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s a lengthy paperback I picked up, over 500 pages, a size I’ve been avoiding for the most part with the limited reading time a needy toddler gives to me. But as I started reading it while my daughter fell asleep on my shoulder one afternoon, I turned the pages, faster and faster, and though I still have half a book to go I am chomping my way through Adichie’s book faster than I would have thought.

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I look at the way Americanah is written, and I should not find it so appealing. So much narrative summary, going quickly over the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze, should leaving me feeling separate, distant from the characters. Instead Adichie’s words and sentences coil around me deeper and deeper into their thoughts, their worlds, until I am enmeshed in the story of a girl who grew up poor, who moved to America and was so disheartened with the path her life was taking she shut out the person she loved the most; the story of a boy who grew up comparatively privileged but enters adulthood to find life so much harder than he thought it should have been, every dream he had suddenly unreachable. There is so much history to the she writes about, and I’m impressed by this writing that is so different from what I write, from what I thought I would want to read.

I didn’t mark a particular passage that I can quote now, and when I flip back through the pages I can’t find the one line to illustrate what I mean. It’s the whole thing, the cadence of the sentences strung together, and I am pulled deeply in before I even realize what has happened.

Quick Look :: Being Understood in Pops by Michael Chabon

In Michael Chabon’s essay “Little Man”, found in his collection Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, Chabon talks about following his son Abe around fashion week in Paris. It was something he didn’t enjoy, something he wasn’t able to connect with his son over a mutual love. In fact, he realizes towards the end, his very presence may have impeded his son’s full enjoyment of the event.

I had been only his minder. I was a drag to have around a fashion show, and because I could not enter fully into the spirit of the occasion, neither could he.

The time his son was truly able to feel comfortable in the event, was when his father pulled back and didn’t take part in the event, and Chabon realized his son had found people.

You are born into a family and those are your people, and they know you and they love you, and if you are lucky, they even on occasion manage to understand you. And that ought to be enough. But it is never enough. … [My son] was not flying his freak flag, he was sending up a flare, hoping for rescue, for company in the solitude of his passion.

This reminded me of when I first started going to anime conventions, all those many years ago. (Seriously, half my life ago, oh my god, augh.) The first few times, my mom actually took me and my friends. Now, I’m pretty sure my mother had no idea why I liked anime so much. She spent a lot of time trying to convince me to stop spending all of my expendable income on DVDs and posable figures. But she booked a hotel, drove us into the city, stood in line with me while we waited for the dealer’s room to open. Even before that, she took me to the fabric store and watched me wrap duct tape around a giant cardboard spatula for my costume.

Like Michael Chabon to his son, my mother was my “minder” for the weekend. But she also stepped back, left me to my own devices, and allowed me to have my fun. I wouldn’t have been able to scream and freak out and sink down in this pool of nerds if she’d been on my all the time.

This was an occasion in which I was understood–at least enough to be seen that this was important to me, that I had found my people, that I wasn’t “flying my freak flag” but finally, comfortably, fitting in.

Quick Look: Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

Lately I’ve become a fan of books where the narration manages to be funny without throwing jokes and punch lines at you. Basically, a light, comedic tone, that just makes reading the story feel good. Terry Pratchett achieves this for me. And, recently, Lissa Evans.

After reading the description of her adult novel, Crooked Heart — a lighthearted tale of the London blitz — I had to pick this one up. There were a lot of heartwrenching moments (Noel is an orphan whose beloved guardian has died; Vee is his new caretaker who has never felt truly loved in her life) there are funny bits, too, many of which come from having gotten to know the characters. For instance, Noel’s tendency to speak like a professor, despite being ten, and the uneducated Vee’s difficulty and frustration trying to understand him.

‘…What were you thinking? No, Never mind–‘ He was starting on one of his explanations, and she wasn’t in the mood for polysyllables.

There are plenty of other lines that I probably should have marked off, but I was too busy enjoying myself while I read this book to think of that at the time. Besides, I think this line does a great job of showing what these two characters are like, and the relationship that begins to develop between them.

Are you reading anything that makes you smile? Are there any lines or pages of a book that have stood out strong to you? Let me know!

Quick Look: “Here Comes Mud Season” by Sean Hurley

Driving to my job a couple Saturdays ago, I turned on NHPR and listened to Weekend Edition to get my through the last twists of the road, and a new story by Sean Hurley came up.

I’ve heard Sean Hurley on the radio before, and I’ve always liked his stories, and the way he reads them — such a deep, soothing voice, he sounds like a storyteller, like someone you want to listen to. Even so, his name never stuck in my head until this new essay, “Here Comes Mud Season”.
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I loved the tale, describing his son breaking the thin sheets of ice in the winter, followed by splashing through mud puddles when winter gives way to the “softness” of spring. I especially love his statement, that “This used to be my job.” It’s one of those things that every kid in four season part of the world does, a universal experience, but you don’t always think of it as such.

What really drew me in, trapped me, were his descriptions, some of them funny, some of them beautiful. One in particular grabbed me right in the chest, when he describes what everything looks like now that spring has begun:

My neighborhood looks like a wet cat waking up in an unmade bed.  Like we didn’t know it, but secretly we’ve been living on a planet made of damp paper bags.

The words drew a long, whispered “wow” out of my chest. They were perfect, making up one of the most correct descriptions of something I’ve ever heard. It’s exactly the way I want to write. Phrases like that, so different and exact, are what I reach for whenever I stare at one of my generic metaphors and try to make it something more.

That morning, sitting in my car, waiting for Hurley’s essay to end — even though I knew I should be going inside and preparing for the line of patrons at the door — not only reminded me of the damp beauty of the state I decided to live in, but also of everything I hope to be when I sit down at my desk with my notebook, and scribble, and cross out, and scribble again.

Quick Look: Hidden Details in Harry Potter

Continuing my bout of rereading the Harry Potter series, I’ve noticed again the details that were invisible to me on m first trek through. Little things that not only make Rowling’s world rich and real, but prove that she wasn’t making this series up as she went — everything was planned.

Just finishing (re-finishing?) The Half-Blood Prince, the main thing that popped out was the Horcruxes, and the fact that Harry finds one without even realizing it when he tries to hide his book in the Room of Requirement.

Would he be able to find this spot again amidst all this junk? Seizing the chipped bust of an ugly old warlock from on top of a nearby crate, he stood it on top of the cupboard where the book was now hidden, perched a dusty old wig and a tarnished tiara on the statue’s head to make it more distinctive, then sprinted back through the alleyways of hidden junk as fast as he could go…

Rowling includes so much detail in this paragraph, so the mention of a “tarnished tiara” hardly stands out. But, we learn towards the end of the seventh book that this is Ravenclaw’s tiara, and one of the Horcruxes Harry has to destroy. She tucks the detail in there so perfectly that no one but Rowling knows its importance, and also grants it the delightful feeling of an Easter Egg when us readers return to the story with our future knowledge.

I’ve never written anything meant to be a series (my current manuscript has potential for a sequel, but that’s different) and it’s only the daunting anxiety I have with world-building that gives me an idea of the forethought and planning that goes into story elements like this, ones you can’t go back and retroactively insert once earlier segments are published. It’s one reason why Rowling is a master, and one reason why returning to her books is a delightful journey–and teaching experience–for me.

Quick Look: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

I just finished reading Let the Great World Spin for the first time, and I’m a little stunned by it. It’s basically a collection of interconnected short stories, all circling around the day Phillippe Petit strung up a wire and walked between the twin towers. It’s a beautiful book, and a great deal of care obviously went into deciding where to place each story. In addition to the artfully constructed plot, there are also moments where his wording, the way McCann conveys a feeling, feels like music.

The simple things come back to us. They rest for a moment by our ribcages then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backward.

I don’t want to spoil the piece of this story, since his slow reveal of information in this chapter was the best part about reading it, but basically the character here is remembering something simple, and nice, and you feel the calmness of it with the way the moment “rests”, which is what a nostalgic moment feels like. But then it “twists” her heart back (such a harsh word, when you think of it, say it out loud) and brings her back to the painful thought that ultimately accompanies any small, good memory she has.

Quick Look: Amy Falls Down

Because of a list of great books about introverts I found (forgot to bookmark it, can’t find it, darn) I took Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett out of the library recently. Amy Gallup is a 60-something writer living in California. She hasn’t written anything for 30 years, since her husband (her gay best friend) died, though she does teach a writing group. When the book opens, Amy has an interview coming up, but before that can happen she falls and gets a nasty whap on the head, resulting in a concussion and temporary memory loss. During one of those periods she gives the interview, and has no idea what she said, and later discovers that not only did she sound crazy, she managed to make herself popular again. Soon she’s going on the radio, making lecture tours, and, best of all, writing stories again.

Amy Falls DownWhile I sometimes wonder about writers writing about writers (next post) I really enjoyed this story. I just loved Amy, who was pretty curmudgeonly and no-nonsense, but in a wonderful kind of way. Her whole life attitude, where she sets herself up for failure, is something that I worry about with myself to a lesser extent, so I sympathized with Amy the whole way through. And Willett’s side characters, of which there are many, are pretty complicated, too, even the full-of-herself popular writer Jenny Marzen has buoyant attitude and a thick skin in the face of Amy’s super dry humor and even accidental insults.

There are two portions of the book I want to focus on here. First, at the end of the first chapter, when Amy falls down as she carries a potted pine tree:

All was not lost at this point, they said, but a fall was possible, and Amy, over-thinking as usual, realizing that in such a fall the pine might suffer irreparably, focused on cradling it in such a way that it would not suffer, as though she were sixteen years old and lithe and presented with a smorgasbord of landing-position selections, none of which would injure her in the slightest, whereas what she should have done was jettison the damn plant and save herself, but no, and then she had actually lost balance and was pitching forward, her legs and feet heroically striving to speed, and, seeing that all was lost, she began to twist around in order to land on her back, and then her bare left heel slammed down on a sprinkler head and she heard her ankle crunch, but felt nothing because within the time it would have taken for the pain message to arrive in her brain, she had knocked herself out on the birdbath.

The first thing you might notice is that this is all one single sentence. While I don’t believe Willet employs this technique anywhere else in the book, it works wonderfully at showing the fast, jumbled thoughts barreling through Amy’s head in the one or two seconds it actually takes to fall and knock yourself out. It just carries you along like a cart on a track, until you crash into the end along with Amy. Plus, it’s funny, much like the next bit I want to look at.

Willett has a lot of meaningful moments for Amy through the book, and some beautiful writing, but she manages to stave off seriousness with Amy’s bluntness, and Willett’s own sudden bursts of humor. In this bit, Amy has just given a speech at a conference, and the crowd is applauding right before the moderator goes to the audience — and the Internet — for questions for Amy and the other authors:

     “They love you,” said Jenny Marzen.

“No,” said Amy, “they just love that I shut up and sat down.” Already she was picturing that silver morning train, the Chicago Limited, that wonderful three-day lie-down as her bed clicked and swayed past cities and farmland and through scrub and desert and mountain all the way back home to her dog and her house and her own life. She was done.

“And now,” said Tom Maudine, “let the tweets begin!”

“Goddamn it all to hell,” said Davy Goonan.

And then the chapter ends. I laughed out loud.

Quick Look: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

I recently finished reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a creepy-sad-wonderful book by Neil Gaiman. There’s quite a bit to love about this book: the story of childhood, of being an adult looking back, the scary villains, the superbly flawed (and therefore even more loveable) main character. But this was the quote that struck me hard in the gut, that stayed in my head. It comes about two thirds of the way through the book, when the boy doesn’t believe they can defeat the monster, the adult, who threatens him, because nothing scares an adult. This the response he gets from Lettie, the ageless 11-year-old, lets him in on the secret that there aren’t really any grown-ups, just people who are good at putting on an act and tricking others into believing that they know what’s going on. It’s something that sounds, feels, so very true, and Gaiman conveys it so succinctly, in the most perfect way.

Quick Look: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John GreenI’m a little late jumping on the John Green love bandwagon, and I don’t want to dwell on it, but let’s just say I read Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars and started watching his video blog and now I adore him.

One thing I noticed with The Fault in Our Stars is how this book is both very sad (the main character, Hazel, is 16-years-old with terminal cancer who falls in love with a boy who’s had his leg amputated from his own cancer) and very, very funny. Often, these two things occur simultaneously, like when Hazel finds out she’ll be able to go on a trip to Amsterdam, and she says to her lungs (which don’t function properly) “Keep your shit together.” Green does this in bigger ways, too, resulting in scenes that must have been so difficult to craft but wind up revealing something so very true about people.

There is one scene in particular that I have been quoting to people since I read it, because it struck me as very empathetic, harsh, sad, and also kind of funny. Hazel is talking with her friend Isaac, who has just had his second eye removed because of his own cancer. Prior to the surgery, his girlfriend broke up with him, “so she wouldn’t have to dump a blind guy.” Now, he’s trying to figure out why she won’t get together with Augustus, who she obviously really likes.

“Do you like him?” Isaac asked.

“Of course I like him. He’s great.”

“But you don’t want to hook up with him?”

I shrugged. “It’s complicated.”

“I know what you’re trying to do. You don’t want to give him something he can’t handle. You don’t want him to Monica you.”

“Kinda,” I said. But it wasn’t that. The truth was, I didn’t want to Isaac him. “To be fair to Monica,” I said, “what you did to her wasn’t very nice, either.”

“What’d I do to her?” he asked, defensive.

“You know, going blind and everything.”

“But that’s not my fault,” Isaac said.

“I’m not saying it was your fault. I’m saying it wasn’t nice.

At first glance, this seems pretty harsh, as it looks like Hazel’s blaming Isaac for getting dumped. But really, she’s just pointing out the truth — for a 16-year-old girl, having your boyfriend go suddenly blind is an emotional shock, the need to be there for him is overwhelming, and while it’s obviously harder for Isaac, he can’t get out of the situation, while she can. This is where the subtle humor comes in, through Hazel’s deadpan assertion that, even though Isaac can’t help it, his cancer (which, as other parts of the book establish, is a part of the sick person, is the sick person) is being pretty mean to his girlfriend. You may cringe, but you also have to chuckle. And then you understand the truth. Most people can’t handle a situation like this, it’s overwhelming, and causes them to be bad people and dump their sick boyfriends, so no, it’s not a nice thing to do to them. It’s really sad, kind of funny, and ultimately empathetically honest about what people are really like.

Quick Look: Winter Journal by Paul Auster

A couple months ago I read Paul Auster’s memoir, Winter Journal, a book I found so stunningly good that I didn’t really know how to talk about it. So many of the passages really struck me, but there’s one that hasn’t stopped ringing in my head since I read it.

So there you were lying in bed in your upstairs room, certain that your crippled dog was safely tethered to his runner in the backyard, when a sudden volley of loud noises burst in on the quiet: a screech of tires in front of your house, immediately followed by a high-pitched howl of pain, the howl of a dog in pain, and from the sound of that dog’s voice, you instantly knew that it was your dog. You jumped out of bed and ran outside, and there was the Brat, the Monster, confessing to you that he had unhooked your dog from his leash because he “wanted to play with him,” and there was the man who had been driving the car, a much rattled and deeply upset man, saying to the people who had gathered around him that he had no choice, that the boy and the dog ran straight into the middle of the street, and it was either hit the boy or hit the dog, so he swerved and hit the dog, and there was your dog, your mostly white dog lying dead in the middle of the black street, and as you picked him up and carried him into the house, you told yourself no, the man was wrong, he should have hit the boy and not the dog, he should have killed the boy, and so angry were you at the boy for what he had done to your dog, you did not stop to consider that this was the first time you had ever wished that another human being were dead.

It’s not particularly the very long (but grammatically correct!) sentences or the use of second person narration (amazingly, deftly used to suck you closer into Auster’s life) that draws me to this passage. No, Auster uses those techniques over the course of the whole book.

What really stuck in my head here is the absolutely true emotion of the moment, the purely hateful feeling of wanting someone to die because of what they’ve done to you that no one wants to admit to, but which most people have probably felt. Auster laid it the feeling down without shame, acknowledging it almost as an afterthought, and I related to it instantly.

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but when I do, this is what I like to see.