Sunday, March 02, 2014

BooksFirst - February 2014

Books Bought  
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain  

Books Read  
The Left Hand of Darkness by by Ursula K. LeGuin  
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

 Books Heard  
The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman  

The Left Hand of Darkness is a multi-award winning novel by Ursula K. LeGuin which has long been a book I've been needing to read out of some sense of historical literary obligation. Unfortunately, I found it as tough a slog as the long trek through the frozen wilderness that makes up the last third of the book. My science fiction professor in college warned me as much when he said the somewhere along the line the LeGuin had gotten a snootful of Ulysses and everything had to be an epic journey.

The premise of the novel is that an emissary from the Galactic High Council or whatever is trying to make first contact with a lost colony. The twist is that not only is this particular planet a marginally habitable world that makes Hoth look like Club Med, but the inhabitants have all evolved (it's not ever clear how much genetic engineering is involved) into an androgynous single gender so it's the male human from another world that is the sexual freak. However, not much is really done with this. LeGuin goes a little into how a single gendered society would work (more caring, less warlike, and absolutely embracing of family leave) but except for some unrequited sideward glances, nobody breaks any taboos in any interesting ways. Perhaps this was much, much more groundbreaking in the pre-Stonewall 1950s but now it seems almost tame.

I just never quite knew what the book was trying to say and despite being only 200 pages in my paperback edition, it took a long time not saying it.

Epic long books have to be really, really good to merit their investment in time and paper and The Goldfinch manages it. I came in with low expectations and was rapidly blown away. Speaking of expectations, low and great, I was not far into this book before I started making obvious parallels to Dickens. A young semi-orphan is shuffled around in several socially distinct milleaus where he is forced to survive. There is a scampish sidekick on the blurry side of the law. A sickly romantic interest that fate keeps away. A cruel and dangerous father. A kindly benefactor. And odd coincidences and circumstances to just tread the line of laughable implausibility. And I'm not alone in this observation as nearly every review I've read has made the same observation. Charlie might has well have been credited as cowriter.

The MacGuffin of the novel is the titular painting of bird chained to a post. I quickly realized that I had seen this painting very recently. It was one of the Dutch masterpieces that was an exhibit with another painting with literary inspirations, "The Girl With The Pearl Earring". In The Goldfinch, Donna Tarrt rather than wrapping a story around the creation of the painting, literally wraps the painting up in mystery and adventure. The painting is enigmatic even before it it burdened with the weight of all the symbolism that ties it to the perch.

And despite the length, the book is well-paced and taut. Everytime, just as I was getting bored or distracted, some plot twist would come along and suck me back in. My one peeve was that the both the main character and his buddy Boris do an incredible amount of drugs. Then I got to the end of the book and read the About The Author which said that Tartt went to Bennington College. Having just read The Rules Of Attraction by Brett Easton Ellis, all of a sudden everything fell into place.

Very early into The Bedwetter, Sarah Silverman semi-apologizes for not having an exciting enough life. And that in itself is very interesting. It's just as fascinating to learn that she grew up in exurban New Hampshire. But her soul was clearly meant to be in New York City and she does migrate there as quickly as possible.

The first third of the book deals with her titular childhood problem which becomes a metaphor and a motif for the rest of the book. Oddly, Rob Delaney, another stand-up comic spends a good bit of his memoir discussing the shame that comes along with that problem. Silverman makes some other tossed-off confessions. She went through a verrry promiscuous phase in her early 20s. Good for her. That's the time to do it.

She also has a great mantra for all sorts of personal indulgences including sex and drugs which is Make It A Treat, which she explains is different from moderation. The more she talked about her current situation, the less interesting the book became.

The books does have some nice meta-schticks like how show inserts all the e-mails about the naming of the book. One long running battle was whether the subtitle should be Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee or Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee. It's a funny and mildly self-deprecating incident. I've been a bit of a Silverman fan particularly because she is so deliberately transgressive. But a little Silverman goes a long way.

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