Saturday, December 1, 2012


I am very fortunate in many ways and one of them is that people give me books and I am a print junkie. I don't read novels much anymore, though I'm always reading a few just not as many as when I was younger. I generally read what people give me either because they think I'll like it because they did, or because it reminds them somehow of me, or because they or a friend of theirs wrote it and they want to share that (and maybe have me write something about it too I guess). But I usually forget who gave me what. I just want anyone who does to know I appreciate it even if I end up not digging the book as much as they thought or hoped I would.

I have a few big stacks of them next to my bed and read in a few of them every day, or actually night usually. I recently finished two. One of them is Kurt Vonnegut's TIMEQUAKE. I knew him and liked him a lot. He always treated me not only with respect but even at times with what seemed like deference. Maybe it was my political activism, though when I knew him best was when I was living in the city in the 1970s and early '80s and I suspect my arrogance in those days made me think it was my writing that made him treat me that way. But for all I know he treated everyone that way.

I was a giant fan of his books when he first started publishing his work before he became a literary figure and was just a paperback writer. CANARY IN A CATHOUSE was a book my first wife and I read together, usually me reading out loud, and fell in love with. So when I finally met him in Iowa City at the University in '66 it was a big thrill. But I have to admit I stopped reading him after a while.

In fact, I may have been one of the few people I knew who didn't totally dig SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE which put him on the literary map and forced his publishers to reissue all the earlier books in hardcover. I wanted less sci fi and more biography or more realistic fiction. I felt the same way reading TIMEQUAKE. I'm glad I read it because I enjoyed the biographical details that I hadn't read before or if I had didn't remember them so they seemed fresh.

I even enjoyed his take on the clan he came from and his up to date philosophizing.  But the sci fi alter ego and discursions (I don't think that's a word but it seems so much what I mean I'm leaving it, unlike the many words I've retyped because they weren't what I meant) I found distracting and even a waste of time and there seems to be less and less of that to spare.

Colm Toibin is an Irish writer whose work I know from The New Yorker and elsewhere. I never met the man but know he's won some literary prizes, or at least as the cover on his novel BROOKLYN has it has been "twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize"—a literary honor that seems to have eclipsed most others in recent years.

I can see why after reading BROOKLYN. His attention to detail and voice seem pretty accomplished and impressive, and his style is accessible but still very finely tuned so that you know, or at least I felt I did, the writer is a very learned man. The story of an Irish immigrant woman in Brooklyn post World War Two was compelling even though the focus was narrow and the drama extremely limited. More a snapshot than a film.

But in the end, I found the story's sudden resolution dissatisfying which made me feel a little bit tricked, like a promise had been broken somehow. And it made me think of so many novels I've read that get so much less attention and praise and all that goes into making a book sell well and yet deserve it so much more. I'm sure there are other books of his I might feel more satisfied by, but in the end, despite how much I enjoyed reading BROOKLYN up until the third act, so to speak, when I finally put it down it was with a yearning for not so much a different outcome but a different way of getting to the one that was used.

Hey, there's still lots more books to come, including the ones I'll be reading a little later from the stacks beside my bed. For which I am grateful as I am for these two no matter what I ultimately felt about them because in the end, I just dig reading what others have to say whether through novels or otherwise.

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