Monday, August 24, 2009

This summer, I learned how to read.

I'm trying to finish my master's degree, and have been plugging away at it for a while. In March or April some time, I registered for a summer class, just like I did last year. Summer is a slow time at work, so I might as well get a class in. In May, I was informed that said summer class had been listed in error, sorry, no class for you. In a panic, I searched around for another course to take and found nothing.

So I - reluctantly - took a break.

Do you read books for pleasure? Because I used to, in, say, 2007 and before then. But I realize now that I simply hadn't done much reading for pleasure in the past two years. I do recall quickly devouring the first three Harry Potter books on my first winter break, and feeling almost bad about it - they had nothing to do with Big Issues or Papers I Need To Write. It was a stolen, guilty pleasure. In that six-week break I think I inhaled three of those books. And then came the new year of 2008 and another school term and... no more reading for fun.

Finals for my spring term coincided with the busiest season at my job in June, and then suddenly both were over and I didn't have to stay late at work or go to class or do homework. I was a little overwhelmed with free time, and when I allowed myself to reflect on it, I had become dull. Graduate school is threatening to make me even more boring than I was before. I'm not sure that's what I signed up for.

It took a week or two before I started reading things that were actually fun. I had been kept away from it for so long, and I had so much more time to waste - not just a 6-week winter break, but three months stretching before me - that I felt a little uncomfortable. What I did not feel, however, was an obligation to read anything in particular, and that was liberating.

The first book was Tortilla Flat, a paperback that was sitting on our overfilled bookshelves at home, wedged between other volumes of stuff one or both of us will get around to reading some day (though I think my better half has actually read most of them). I read it on the train to and from work, mostly. Each chapter is a self-contained story, and as the reader goes along she gets to know all these quirky characters. It's a good re-introduction to the leisure read. I paced myself. The ending is sad, but it's Steinbeck so I wasn't surprised, and it's poignant and fitting so I wasn't disappointed. I set the paperback down, satisfied... and wanting more.

I decided to do some heavy lifting, to pick up a book that's been recommended to me by several folks (and probably most strongly by my helpmeet): To a God Unknown, which was fantastic. It's a book that I would put down at the end of a chapter and try not to pick up again because I didn't want it to end. But it did, quickly, because I would pick it up again ten minutes later to read more. I was reading it on the train at a particularly tragic part, and found myself staring at the other commuters on the train, wondering how they could just go on with life the same way... didn't they know what had just happened?

Immediately I started casting around, looking for the next good read. My mother-in-law had a dogeared copy of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which two people in two very different areas of my life had recommended. They were right - I read it quickly, absorbed in the characters.
Still interested in China, I read The Joy Luck Club, another home-bookshelf selection. It's a classic on its own, but I think I gained from having a bit of cultural background from Snow Flower.

Are you keeping track? In the span of something like 4-6 weeks, I had read 4 novels. I haven't had time or mental energy to read more than quick newspaper articles or blog post for roughly 2 years.

Then, over the week we took for vacation, I read a thin volume of nonfiction, half of a novel that didn't hold my attention, and three-fourths of another novel that grabbed me with such a force that I then finished it in the bathroom of our apartment back home at 1:30am on a Tuesday. I simply couldn't put it down... which was why the trick ending felt like a special kind of betrayal.

That novel, which I'm not sure I want to name, insulted me. I read 500 pages thinking the author was doing something cunning, and the last 5 pages made me feel like a turd. Not a "Woah-ho! You're so clever, author!" feeling, but a "I'm sitting in this tiled room on the toilet lid with a numb butt in the wee hours of the day while my spouse sleeps in the next room and you give me this? I want my money back." But it was a borrowed book. When I paged back through it, I realized I had forgiven the author some repetition, cheesiness and clunky language because I was just so darn interested in the characters. It's a shame. I wish those characters had occurred to someone who cared a little more about them, because that ending was just cheap.

Still annoyed, apparently.

A few days after that disappointment, we decided to go on a little date to the library, where, after wandering around the fiction section for a few minutes, I found myself standing in front of the Stephen King books. Several years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed King's On Writing. Up until that day in the library, however, that - and a couple of newspaper columns - was all I had read of Stephen King. (I had had my reasons, sort of, which involve a traumatic slumber party when I was in fourth grade for which the cool kids rented "Carrie" and I didn't sleep for, oh, a couple of days afterward.) The Green Mile caught my eye, and I picked it up. I knew it was about death row prisoners or something, and so I thought I'd give it a try. Prisoners are a research interest of mine. I can handle real-world scary, I thought. Just none of the murdering prom date stuff.

The Green Mile actually made my heart pound. I had to take a break from reading it because I got so freaked out. A botched execution is about as real-world scary as you can get. But the book didn't give me nightmares. In its best parts (but it's all good parts) it made me want to go hug everyone I love right now. Stephen King did what a lot of stodgy writers about prison brutality don't do very well: he made me feel very deeply the wonder of humanity.

That sounds kind of tacky. I'm trying to find another way to write it, but this is how it is. I didn't cry when I read the bit about the botched execution - I nearly vomited. It was horrifying. Later on in the book - and if you haven't read it I'll try not to spoil it - I did cry, and I think Stephen King did such a fantastic job of holding up the horrifying side of humanity against the beautiful that the comparison is appropriately shocking.

Also - and this is just good writing - there are no tricks. There was something of a treat, a little surprise at the end, but it wasn't cheap smoke and mirrors crap. It tied up loose ends. It left me closing the book slowly, late at night, with still-wet eyes.

Stephen King respects his readers. I got that sense from On Writing, but now that I'm actually included in the legions who read his fiction, I appreciate it even more. I think that may be an unfortunately rare trait in popular fiction authors, judging by the two recent novels I tried reading lately.

Not that anyone is reading this, but if you are, feel free to throw out a fiction writer who treats readers like they're somebody. I've got two weeks of summer vacation still yawning before me, and I'd like to fill them.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

It helps to have a good research assistant

Thirty minutes ago I had never heard the term "Yo-Hah!" (Or yo-hay... or yohay). But Batholudens used his usual prowess with verbiage - and his uncanny skill at opening the Oxford English Dictionary to the Y section - to find it. Fine detective work from a fine life-partner.

Yo-hah is a happy word. An exclamation of joy. I hope that, for the most part, this blog will be just that... though at this early stage I'm not promising anything.