A day or so ago I finished the 100th book of the year (Darin Strauss’s Half a Life). There are 62 days left in 2010, so my plan to give every book an entry, however minor, is a colossal failure. As always, the recognition of such a deep and unfixable failure has me limbered up and productive. For the past two weeks, I’ve been sitting down for 10 or 15 minutes a day and typing at a great speed about a book. This doesn’t lead to much deep thought, and a couple of times barely any thought at all about the actual book at hand, but it does feel good. So I’m going to start posting those, ragged and wandering as they are, and we’ll see how much I can pare down the unwritten-about list before I feel obligated to do an annual wrap-up.
I’m traveling later this week, and while I haven’t even started to think about which clothes to pack, I’ve already devoted at least two hours of thought to which books to bring. There are two long flights, the associated airport time (extended edition, due to the recent Yemen events), and much public transportation time planned. My phone is not smart. My phone barely manages texting. There is a lot riding on my book choice here.
–The Voyage of the Narwal, by Andrea Barrett. Paperback, long, liked previous works by Barrett. I haven’t read any novels by her yet, and I worry about the historical fiction part, but this could be a great choice: nothing soothes frustrating travel delays and irritations like comparatively worse (while still engrossing) accounts. I might be stuck sitting on the floor of an airport with people screaming into their phones for six hours, but at least I’m not in the Arctic, losing my toes to the cold.
–The Half-Life of Happiness by John Casey. Paperback, long, loved his shockingly unknown novel Spartina (shocking because it won the National Book Award and I’ve never talked to another person who has read it). I know almost nothing about this book. It takes place in Virginia, where I will be staying, and that might be nice, the match of my physical and literary space. Then again, the mismatches are also memorable: Holland is the Russia of Anna Karenina for me (days spent with an unexpectedly old friend-of-the-family couple who wouldn’t let me out of their sight and fed me herring on buttered rye toasts with black currant juice in between my hours-long dives into Tolstoy while on their stiff brocaded furniture), Minneapolis for a long iced-over weekend is all Magic Mountain (hundreds of pages of Hans), and an epic Amtrak journey from CA to MI, stop-and-go days across the frozen plains, is reading and then rereading Jane Austen (while listening to early Portishead and eating only satsumas and tamari almonds).
–The Lecturer’s Tale by James Hynes. Paperback, long, thoroughly enjoy academic satire. I started this a few weeks ago after my Lionel Shriver-sparked health insurance freakout. Something funny, I thought. There’s health insurance panic in the first handful of pages. Back on the shelf. I’m much recovered now, for the moment, and this is the clear winner in the potential fun category. Maybe I’ll take two.
–Mortals by Norman Rush. Paperback, massive, his Mating is one of my top-ten books. Given that, I wonder, as I skim the shelves for my next book, why I’ve had this for years now and haven’t read it. The major strike against Mortals is that I did once take it with me out of town (not far out of town, but Away From Bookshelves); in 70 pages, I was not swept up, was still working hard to be in the story. Mating may have been like that as well—my place memories of it are ten-page runs on the light rail, twenty over lunch. Short enough pieces, read daily, so that I stayed with the story but had time to look up the unfamiliar words (bolus! echt!) and give some thought to the problems of socialism. Rush might need more of my brain than will be available, and I might need something more friendly to being read for hours on end.
This pains me: I’m giving up on Petterson’s new novel, I Curse the River of Time. I’m interested in the story and the characters and the setting and the conflict, but it’s time to admit, at over 100 pages in, that the frequent comma splices and run-on sentences have done this worn-out proofreader in. I don’t know anything about Norwegian punctuation; I’m assuming that they deal with compound sentences in a different way than English does. This is a translation issue, one I didn’t have with Out Stealing Horses (a glance back to that book shows that the splice issue is mostly dealt with by just adding coordinating conjunctions, which I approve of). I feel fussy and unfair, but it’s like nails on a chalkboard, every page. I’m fine with sentences like these used for occasional emphasis: here it’s too much. Here are a few sample sentences—if reading ones like these each page doesn’t irk you right out of the story, I’d still suggest the book. Petterson is a hell of a writer.
But the reason I was there that day was not just the fact that I was broke, not at all, being broke was a way of life, I hardly noticed it any more.
I often went to the Munch Museum on Sundays to stand before the colourful, soft yet sinister paintings I loved so much, and I really didn’t want to disappoint anyone, that’s the way I have always been.
But I no longer stopped on the stairs or outside the windows looking in, I was beyond that, I no longer wished to be inside, I held my life in my own hands.
Like I said, fussy, but there are so many other books to read where I’m not thinking about punctuation constantly.