What I’m Reading: Listening, Heft, Nerds, Holmes, and Coraline

May is a distant memory, and along with it, the books I read during her springtime days.  Luckily, I wrote some words down about each, for your reading pleasure.  Good month, good books, good times had by this book nerd who prefers words on a page to anything in reality with people.

Listening is an Act of Love – ed. Dave Isay : Dave Isay recorded his grandmother telling her story when he was nine years old.  Years later, he recorded the stories of homeless men, who when they touched the book that told their stories, danced and said, “I exist!”  With these experiences, among others, he started a nonprofit company called StoryCorps. Based out of NYC, they are focused on telling the stories of American life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Individuals make an appointment and bring someone to interview.  For forty minutes, they tell their own story, the amazing outlandish beautiful stories of regular Americans who live in small towns, work at insurance companies, raise families.  At the end of the time, they are given a CD of the interview, and a copy is archived.  As Isay says, it is about the act of interviewing, not the final edited project.  It’s like those homeless men who finally believed they existed because someone heard their stories.  We exist when someone tells us that our stories have meaning.

This book is beautiful.  It is individual stories of people.  People who survived airplane accidents.  Who recently were released from prison.  Who battle depression.  Other people remember their parents who worked hard so that they had something from nothing.  Love stories.  Tales of going to college as adults.  Loss of children, loss of parents.  Kindness and hope.  Stories of men who fought in wars a long time ago and cannot escape them.  Each story is truly exquisite, truly important.

The end of the book has to do with two of the greatest tragedies in American history: 9-11 and Katrina.  These stories record the depths of despair.  A woman who worked in a hospital in Louisiana and had to take care of her patients despite having no supplies.  A man who watched his daughter, wife, and mother drown.  Men who worked at the dams.  A man who was on the 105th floor of the WTC, saw the second tower be hit, made decisions that saved his life and saw others who didn’t.  A love story, about a man who lost a beautiful woman the day the towers fell.

This book made me believe even more in the power of our stories, but not just them in and of themselves, but also the power in communicating them to someone else, to giving them value and meaning, to making them live.  It’s why I write; why I want to hear and tell people’s stories.  To read this book is to be blown away by the power of the extraordinary normal lives of folks in the country.  Powerful stuff.

HeftLiz Moore : This novel is hard to pin down.  On the one hand, it’s about a grown man who has isolated himself from the world.  Arthur Opp is obese, addicted to food, and never leaves his home.  Once a professor, he had an apparently chaste fling with a student named Charlene, and when the incident was revealed, he retreated into his home.  On the other hand, it’s about a young man who straddles two worlds: one the world of the rich, where he attends school, and the other the world of the poor, where he feels at home.  Kel Keller is a natural athlete and by default, popular, though his mother was only the school secretary and is no longer as she has fallen into depression.  He holds their world together, until it become too fractured.

Moore balances the two voices deftly, using different tones and grammatical structures to differentiate between the two.  At times, it feels like a young adult novel, as we follow this high schooler through the trials and angst of his life, but when we switch to hearing Arthur’s side, a maturity is embedded within the tone.  As a reader living somewhere between the two characters’ experiences, I found Arthur’s story to be the more intriguing one.  His explanations of his habits and his shame when others see them remind me of many addicts I know, including my own tendency to hide my bad habits.

These two characters are connected–by letters.  To Kel, Arthur Opp is a character in a fairy tale that his mother used to tell him, the old professor that she admired.  To Arthur, Kel is an anomaly, an unknown variable, but a piece of Charlene.  And other people come in and out of their lives, affecting this relationship they have.  It’s an excellent tale.

Nerd Do WellSimon Pegg : I was predisposed to love this book, because I love Simon Pegg.  I find him quite funny and charming in a nerdy way.  I myself have been quite immersed in Nerd culture these days, so I was interested in learning more about the man behind Shaun and Hot Fuzz. Yet for all of my celebrity crushes and desire to adore things, I am also extremely hard on books.  I hold writers to an incredibly high standard.  With that as a disclaimer, I can’t say that I loved this book.  The man who wrote it is obviously very intelligent, which comes across in his writing.  And yet, the structure and organization are all over the place.  I knew what I was getting into; in the preface, Pegg admitted it would be tangential, but even so, I had trouble following his rabbit trails and keeping my interest.

The book concerns mostly Pegg’s early years, before he gets “famous,” and is filled to the brim with primary school stories about girls and grandstanding.  He explains how he caught the bug of acting and how it manifested itself throughout his life. It’s cheeky, and I had to chuckle at the chapters starring “Simon Pegg” as an international spy with his robot sidekick, Canterbury.  Pegg gets to fully explain and explore his nerdom, which is something I appreciate though can’t fully understand when it comes to Star Wars and the universe.  The parts that intrigue me most are nearer to the end, as he waxes philosophical about the “coincidences” that facilitated him meeting his best friends and his wife, as well as the love letter to The Shepherd pub that he frequented and that the Winchester in Shaun of the Dead was based on.

I couldn’t get into the style, unfortunately, though I really wanted to.  It’s a mixture of serious and intellectual, with f-words and an interesting conversational pacing.  Pegg’s also very honest about his feelings about the Star Wars prequels and memoirs in general.  I think that’s maybe what bothered me most about the whole thing.  I enjoy a conversational tone, but I prefer a more structured and literary convention, where the author isn’t constantly referencing the self-indulgence of memoirs.  We all know they’re indulgent.  No need to reference it.  But maybe that’s just me.

I still want him to be my friend, though, even though I didn’t love his book.  Does that ruin my chances of being his buddy?  Or did the fact that he’s famous ruin my chances?  Hard to tell…

Same Kind of Different as Me – Ron Hall & Denver Moore : The thing I love about book group is that we often read books I wouldn’t normally pick up.  I don’t know how to classify what I read, but you could probably find a through-line: this leads to this which leads to this or that.  Also, a lot of obsessions.  But this is a book that I had meant to read, just never got around to it.

It’s more, for lack of a better term, Christian-y than I usually read.  The tale written in two voices, that of Denver, the homeless man who moved from the South to Texas, and Ron, the art dealer who got involved in a homeless shelter in Fort Worth because of his wife.  Denver’s life has been beyond rough, the son of a sharecropper who had no opportunities in life and eventually wound up in prison.  Ron made his way to wealth, though that almost tore apart his family.  These two unlikely men meet in a homeless shelter through Ron’s wife Deborah, who feels called by God to invest in the folks in that community.  But that’s just the beginning.

The majority of the book is about the two men’s relationship as it has to do with things that impact the Hall family and Deborah in particular.  I don’t want to give anything away, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  It’s not a treatise about poverty and a western response.  It’s the story of two men dealing with a hard time, which is fine, but again, not quite what I was expecting.  I’m sure it’s encouraging and challenging to some, but I wanted a bit more.  It’s hard to explain.  While it was good, it wasn’t a favorite of the month, due to the writing.  The story itself was interesting but not outstanding.

CoralineNeil Gaiman: I haven’t read any Neil Gaiman.  I’m not sure his adult novels would be my cup o’ tea, from what I’ve heard of them.  As alternative as I try to be, I’m pretty middle of the road.  I love a bit of sci fi, some futuristic stuff, but nothing too crazy.  But I know of Neil Gaiman because of his love for Doctor Who and the episode he wrote for said series which was fabulous.  Then I read some interviews with him, and listened to some podcasts, and I respected many of the things he said.  He falls into a Stephen King camp for me; I love King’s On Writing, haven’t read anything else.

I knew of Coraline (of course, due to the movie) and since it’s more of a kid’s book, I thought I could handle it.  Which I could and did and loved.  I thought the novella was beautiful.  Gaiman uses a very simple tone and style.  He chooses his words carefully, and sentences are sparse.  And in the sparceness, the space between the words, that’s where the mystery starts in.  The story itself is about a bored girl named Coraline who doesn’t appreciate her parents, who are normal parents, a little busy, a little frazzled.  She finds an alternate world through a door in her flat, with an Other Mother with buttons for eyes who comes on a little strong.  It seems a bit creepy, but nothing too bad, until she finds out her real parents have been kidnapped and she must save them.  She’s only got a cat for company, and a cat that doesn’t seem all that reliable at that.  It’s clever and a bit frightening, and lovely.

The Final SolutionMichael Chabon : As you may recall if you follow my reading journey, I raced through all of the canon Sherlock Holmes novels in less than a year.  Though I could read them again today, I thought it would look lame on my reading list (and I’m all about vanity.) I needed another Sherlock Holmes outlet, since my beloved BBC miniseries is on hiatus until late next year.  Who knows if I’ll even be alive then, BBC?!?  Let’s not dilly-dally; life is short!  Anyway, I digress.

So I’ve been looking outside of the canon for some Sherlock Holmes goodness, and this novella came to light.  Written by prolific writer Michael Chabon, the story isn’t Holmesian in name.  The main character is never named, in fact.  He’s just described as “the old man,” an elderly detective who lives alone and cares only about his bees.  By chance, he meets a young mute boy who has a grey African parrot that sings and counts in German.  The next meeting, the parrot is gone and a man is dead.  The old detective is called in and does his thing, though the mystery isn’t the focus of the story.

Nearly every chapter is from the perspective of a different character.  The bird even gets a go.  The characters are beautifully drawn, each with their own secret needs and desires.  The major question is how does a detective retire, and what does he do when his faculties, that which he has always prided himself on, start to leave him behind?  It’s both sad and beautiful, with a sense of yearning for the past.  There’s enough little clues that are dropped, to make it clear this old man is Holmes, and he is very lonely, while also being fine.  Also, resonance is given to the setting of World War II, and the fact that the little boy just narrowly escaped being sent to the camps.  I loved it, and highly recommend it to anyone interested in Holmeslore.  A different look at the old detective.

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