Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Policy of Truth

My heavens, sometimes I read them so you don’t have to. I finished Paper Covers Rock this week, a book about boarding school that wished it was A Separate Peace, but was not. It wasn’t The Catcher in the Rye, either, even though this book referenced it multiple times, pretending to disdain. Budding teen poet Alex is writing out his shame and guilt after a swimming accident killed his best friend. It’s not a spoiler to say that the boys were drinking before they went swimming and that Alex was goofing around and didn’t notice that Thomas was hurt. In fact, he tells you that pretty fast, but he doesn’t tell his headmaster. He flounders for the entire novel, crippled by guilt that he was drunk, too, and should have been expelled. I swear, I kept waiting for Alex’s real secret to come out, like he pushed Thomas off the rock or held him under, or something, but that was it. He just wanted absolution for being drunk and lying to the headmaster about it.

Rock Covers Paper is set in the mid- 1980’s, and I know I didn’t go to a boys’ boarding school, but the homophobia is insane in this thing. One boy takes the fall for something to avoid the threat of someone starting a rumor that he might be gay. Another boy might have committed a major crime to avoid people questioning his sexuality. I would really love to know whether the hint of gay was enough to ruin you at boys’ school or if the (female, former teacher at a boarding school) author might have had a skewed view of what boarding school was like for a gay male student.

And this guy calls himself Is Male. Like freaking Ishmael from Moby Dick. It was a literary pretention that made me grind my teeth every time I read it. And he referred to himself in the third person A LOT.

If you get bored with my literary efforts, with the plot or characters, if you find that good ol’ Is Male is putting you to sleep, read a real novel, a Great American one. Read Moby-Dick.

If that didn’t make you a little sick, then I don’t think we read the same books.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Come, Gentle Peace

Talking about war reminded me how much I like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, about WWI.

For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress – to the future. We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us only in phrases and in cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.

I interned for a time cataloguing artifacts of a World War II training camp, at a period when the 50th anniversary of D-Day was coming up and many of the veterans were still alive to be interviewed. I’ve always wondered what made their war portrayed so differently in the media, when I’ve read enough books to know that WWII was as horrific as any war. I think there was a special brand of American pluckiness during that time that wouldn’t allow these soldiers to come home and admit how awful it is to shoot and be shot at. I don’t think they particularly did future generations a favor by mostly portraying war as a football game.

Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why did they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony – Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up – take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

It’s the End of the World

I’m almost finished with the Hunger Games for the second time, but I’m not planning to hit the movie on opening night, so I probably could have slowed way down on reading them. If you haven’t figured it out by now, though, I’m an absolute sucker for end-of-world dystopian books. I’ve read Stephen King’s The Stand at least a half-dozen times and Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma is in my top 20 book list.

There’s this thing that happens in most of the dystopian books where the chaos and horror of so much death renders each individual death meaningless. The characters are watching as 90% of the world dies, and even the loss of your mother or spouse becomes secondary to the need to find someone else alive and not be alone. After the mass casualties end, though, death becomes meaningful again and individual losses can be mourned as they happen. I really don’t have any idea if there’s a philosophical reasoning behind this, or if it’s artistic license that each author uses as a shortcut to get to the action sooner, but I think it’s interesting. It makes me wonder if older wartime, when your entire group of brothers-in-arms might not make it back with you, was like that, too.

I really mostly love the parts where the characters work to figure out what parts of modern life they don’t want to lose and try to get them back, like lights and antibiotics. (Or twinkies – Go Zombieland!). King’s characters work to restore safety and security, while Coupland’s try their hardest to pretend the whole thing isn’t happening, like the girls of Night of the Comet. It’s like a choose your own adventure – What would you work your hardest to not have to lose? I would somehow figure out the secret formula and become the local Coca-Cola producer and just have to hope that somebody else learned how to hunt. And do dentistry.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Goody Two Shoes

I read a chick-lit/romance novel a few years ago by Pamela Morsi called Doing Good and I think it’s probably one of the biggest influence on my volunteer life. I jokingly call it my companion to the Bible, but I’m only half joking. The premise of the book is that our heroine, Jane, escapes certain death in a car accident by promising God that she’ll do good for the rest of her life if he saves her. She’s spoiled and shallow and it’s enormously hard to reset her priorities. Most of the book is romance novel classic, but there is a central tenet that I return to again and again – the Jewish code of tzedakah, or charity.

In studying how to be good, Jane learns that there are eight levels of charity, listed from the least honorable to the most. (Some of this is from wikipedia, but paraphrased)
8. Donations given grudgingly (in sadness).
7. Giving less than you should, but giving cheerfully.
6. Giving adequately after being asked.
5. Giving adequately before being asked.
4. Giving publicly to an unknown recipient.
3. Giving anonymously to a known recipient. 
2. Giving anonymously to an unknown recipient via a person or public fund which is trustworthy, wise, and will perform acts of charity with your money in a most impeccable fashion.
1. Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need; forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need; so long as that loan, grant, partnership, or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others.

When Jane is just starting to focus on good, she decided that she’ll work to earn a certain number of points each day by doing good deeds. Each level of charity has a corresponding value and she sometimes has to go searching for a few smaller opportunities to hit her daily goal total. It’s her version of “fake it ‘til you make it.” I think about this book and the idea of tzedakah almost weekly.

We talk a lot in my friend & family groups about whether thoughts equal deed and the value of a grudging favor. I’m firmly on the side of good deeds for less than loving reasons are still good deeds and better than not helping a person at all. Whether I’m rejoicing in my heart over giving you a helping hand or not, you still received the benefit of my help. I’m not talking about making you sorry you ever asked because I won’t stop talking about what an inconvenience it is for me to help, though. That’s just being a jerk and being a jerk isn’t on the hierarchy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Roller Derby Queen

I swore I was going to hermit myself away and read until my eye started twitching, but I did 500 things instead, like road-trips and birthday parties and ROLLER DERBY (you have to say it with ta-da exclamation, you know. When I hear it in my head, it sounds like Oprah.) and lots of work. Anyway, I didn’t read until my eye twitched, but I had an enormous amount of fun and realized that sometimes the book isn’t going to get read and the world isn’t going to end.

I don’t want to not post, though, because no matter how much fun it’s been, it would be so easy to stop and never post again. So you get the random stuff, like ROLLER DERBY. Which was fun, by the way, and making up derby names is a well-rewarding way to spend an afternoon.

I did read a couple of books, but the fact that I would have to look up what they were to tell you about them should tell us both something. I realized the other night that none of us should make fun of romance novels, unless you’re the person who only reads literature (Jon Lovitz voice). Unless the only books you read are the one-offs that win the Booker Prize, your books probably have some amount of formula involved. I’ve gone through phases of devouring British cozy mysteries, chick lit, and legal thrillers along with my literature, and you don’t realize how totally formulaic they are until you move away from the genre and then dip back in. The writing is usually better, but there’s not a whole lot of difference between Larry McMurtry and Judith Krantz in the end.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

No Sleep Till Brooklyn

I keep forgetting to update Goodreads on my 2012 Reading Challenge of 123 books in 2012 and then I have to try and remember what I’ve read for the last week. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but I’ve obviously forgotten to add some titles, because otherwise I’m behind in my reading. This cannot, must not, stand. So when you see the idiot reading at the red lights next week, don’t honk until I’ve reached the end of the paragraph, please.

I have a ton of books in the queue, but I’m going to reread the The Hunger Games before the movie comes out. You need to read them RIGHT NOW, if you haven’t. You won’t understand the glory of casting Lenny Kravitz if you haven’t read the books. I’m almost through with Wendy Holden’s Beautiful People, and I’ve been waiting to read Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF: (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) since January. I’ve completely shut down checking the library catalogue for new books until I read some of the ones I already have. These are probably the most delightful complaints I could dream of having – Waah, waah. Too many books to read!

Life is good. Sleep is overrated.