Tag Archives: reading

The Reluctant Read

28 Nov

Have you ever read a book you were certain you would despise?

Someone forced it on you, for one reason or another—the teacher of a college class or a kindly but pushy relative—and every ounce of you resisted. You took the loathsome lump of a novel in your hands and a frown unfolded from every crook in your body. Your mouth turned down at the sides, your shoulders slumped, your stomach boiled with an unpleasant acid, and you turned to page one.

Stupid, you thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Trite. Dull. Idiotic.

But, if you were lucky, something else started to happen. That relative of yours, who’s actually very intelligent aside from his prescriptions for your life and your reading habits, maybe have given you something good. You squinted your eyes at the page. The acid in your stomach slowly subsided, then transformed. Your dull aching dread became something light—a nervous, floating excitement—and suddenly, beautifully, you were hooked.

Watch out. A book like that can be dangerous. Afterward, you might find yourself irrevocably altered. You might return to that book, year after year, and find it like a lover you can’t quite bleach from your heart.

This week, I finally sat down to read Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, grimacing even as I flipped past praise from The New York Times and one of my favorite and most respected authors, Richard Ford.

Cover of "Both Ways Is the Only Way I Wan...

The truth is, my reluctance to this particular work was born from my own embarrassment. Last year Ms. Meloy came to read at Vanderbilt, and though I enjoyed the reading, I was having a fit of awkward. It comes on sometimes, despite my best intentions at nonchalance, and there I was, fidgeting and unable to speak, when after she sat in the hallway outside the reading room, selling and signing copies of her book behind her plastic foldout chair. The book was around $15—a price I didn’t feel like paying at the time—and there I was in front of her, feeling the money drawn from my hands, and gasping out stupidly that I loved Montana, too! She signed it “For Liz, a fellow Big Sky fan,” and I left feeling outraged at my own jellyfish spine, convinced I would never read her book, more out of principle than anything else.

Over the next few months, I glowered at the book on my shelf. I felt upset when The New Yorker published her story “The Proxy Marriage” in May, and even more upset when I actually enjoyed it. When another story of hers, “Demeter,” was published in The New Yorker two weeks ago, I decided to bring Both Ways home for Thanksgiving break—not to read it, but to pass it off to someone else, so I wouldn’t have to look at it anymore. The book was abandoned to a countertop, and then my cousin—also a writer and reader—picked it up.

“I don’t know about that one,” I said, eyeing it narrowly as she flipped through the first pages. “Don’t blame me if it’s bad.”

But soon she had finished the first story, and over the course of the day, juggling her 6-month-old on her arm, my cousin continued with Meloy’s book. At 11 p.m., she was still reading. All I can say is that I was confused. When I went to bed around midnight, my cousin stayed up with the book.

The next morning I asked her how it went. Guess what? She’d loved it.

So I began to reconsider. After all, it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. After all, my revulsion at the read was petty, idiotic, and nonsensical.

“You’ve got to read it,” my cousin said. “Really.”

“Okay, okay,” I said.

I packed it in my bag, drank a glass of wine as I waited in the airport, and flipped through the pages to the first story. Then I read the second story, the third, and the rest of the book over the next week.

Oh my Lord, was it good.

As George R.R. Martin once said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

For me, good fiction occurs when you are shocked into the consciousness of a fully realized character, in a fully realized situation. Good fiction opens us up to new identities. What’s so wonderful about Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It is that it allows the reader not just to have new experiences, but also to return to something recognizable—to encounter a long lost feeling—really a kind of subconscious tone of experience that’s been buried deep or glossed over by its banal surface. Her stories strike deep emotional notes subtly, gracefully, and with almost no visible artifice. It’s astounding.

As Curtis Sittenfeld put it in his review of Meloy’s collection, “They are people who act irrationally, against their own best interests — by betraying those they care about, making embarrassing romantic overtures and knowingly setting in motion situations they’d rather avoid — and Meloy’s prose is so clear, calm and intelligent that their behavior becomes eminently understandable.”

He goes on to say that her characters act with “a kind of banal, daily desperation”—perhaps that’s the feeling I recognized in myself, when reading her prose.

Every page I turned I heard myself apologizing to Meloy in my head—I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—how could I have dismissed her, this?

At the same time, though, I’m happy with how things turned out. If you’ve hardened your heart to a book, and the prose stills find a way to maneuver through that tough casing, you know you’ve come across something great, something beautiful, that will be a part of you for a long time. Maybe forever.

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Read “Birnam Wood” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

21 Sep

Vestal, New YorkMy aunt learned to read tarot cards in college as a party trick. Now, every New Years when she comes to visit, she’ll pull out her stack of cards from their purple velvet pouch, shuffle them between her long-nailed fingers, and lay them out in a Celtic Cross spread across the floor in front of us. The penultimate card, the last to be revealed before the outcome, is the card that dictates the inquirer’s Hopes and Fears. Even though the Final Outcome card may allow you to “know” what will occur in the next year, or semester, or month of your life, when it comes down to the actual living, the outcome isn’t the focus. What matters instead are the hopes and fears. Those emotions are the way you will live your day to day life, and those are the emotions that give the outcome meaning.

Sorry to go off on a tarot tangent. And sorry if you think they’re bizarre. They are, it’s true, but I write of tarot cards because they seem to work well with this week’s story, which has reverberations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Birnam Wood,” published in The New Yorker in August (available online here) is the story of a young couple struggling to live in upstate New York in the 70s. The summer has ended, winter is setting on, and meanwhile Keith and Nora are struggling to pay the bills for a cold, leaking shack. Resentment brews (bubble, bubble, toil and trouble) and miraculously, they are offered an out: a chance to house-sit in a beautiful mansion in Birnam Wood, which includes its own pool table and a private lake. To convince the elderly couple that they are responsible young adults, Keith and Nora pretend they are married. So begins the domestic experiment, both of them hoping the resentment they felt over the fall will fade, both imagining what it might be like to really own this home, to really belong to each other.

In the past, Boyle has been deemed a maximalist, a writer with melodramatic tendencies and a flare for the bizarre that he sometimes includes to the detriment of his stories. Personally, I love the Boyle that busts with raw humor and dark absurdity. If you have a New Yorker subscription, you can read the archive: the man has written a story called “Thirteen-Hundred Rats,” (it’s ridiculously morbid and strange) and his use of the fantastic in the story “Los Gigantes” still works within a complicated, thought-provoking piece.

But “Birnam Wood” operates on a subtler plain, and the paring back of the bizarre allows us to really focus on what matters in this story: the splintering cracks in Keith and Nora’s relationship.

After they move in to the mansion, things are good for awhile. The tension dissipates, and they try to experience the last days of summer:

“Whenever we could, we went out in the rowboat, and though we never acknowledged it, I suppose we were both thinking the same thing—that we’d better take advantage of it while we could, because each day of the sun might be the last.”

(A metaphor, of course, for the way Keith and Nora cling to the last days of their own relationship.)

The story blows up emotionally (in a good way) after Steve from the bar arrives at the house, and Nora understands what Steve and Keith have talked about in the bar. It’s a terrific, forceful moment in the story, and what follows after is really just Keith coming to terms with all he has lost.

He wanders out across the frozen lake, where he sees into the bedroom of a house, where a man and woman lie side by side, reading before they go to bed, and the narrator sits there, in the icy dark, and watches them until the light goes out.

The scene mirrors an earlier moment in the story, when Keith falls asleep to Nora reading in her separate bed across the room from him:

“…when I switched off my lamp and turned to the wall the last image fading in my brain was of the steady bright nimbus of Nora’s light and her face shining their above the book.”

In both scenes, Keith is closeted in his personal darkness: there is Nora, and there are the people in their beds, two images of celestial domesticity—the kind of happy, secure life that Keith craves. In the first scene, he turns away from the light—just as he will turn away from Nora, and at the end, he cannot help but stare into the house, into the light that he’s lost now, forever.

Our Hopes and Fears are strange forces. They lead us in all sorts of zigzagging directions, and as we follow behind, tugged and pulled from one place to another—a giant mansion, a frozen lake—it’s hard to say what that 10th card will mean to us, when it arrives.

English: T.C. Boyle at the powerHouse Arena, D...

Author T.Coraghessan Boyle

The New Yorker interviewed the author about “Birnam Wood.” You can find the Q & A is here.