Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Heading from the BIG office to where I'm staying, I took advantage of the extra hours of daylight and the pleasant temperatures and wandered my way through neighborhoods that - as it has been pointed out to me on several occasions - most of us couldn't afford to live in.
But here's the thing. Even though it was still quite lovely out, even though the outdoor seating at the restaurants and bars I passed were bustling with happy people and rushing servers, I couldn't help but notice how empty these large homes and spacious apartments were. There were no signs of life in the yards or in the darkened front windows.
There were no kids in playing on the stoop or friends sharing G&Ts in icy kitchen glasses. Dozens of dogs ran at one another, rolling around on the fake turf of the gated dog park while their owners stood one next to the other on the edges of the fray.
Which is why I started to construct an elaborate scenario in my head, about unhappy people, working late to cover their mortgages. Of elderly empty nesters, who bought their now impressive homes when these neighborhoods were more dangerous than destination. But now, the kids are gone to their own families. The house that went from bargain to status symbol is now rambling and empty. The prosperous-looking owners have long since run out of things to say to one another.
All very dramatic. All very dark.
And, also, very much fueled by the homes I visit when I find myself back in this fair city. Homes that are warm, but not stately. Homes that are crowded with bits of homework and undone laundry and dogs that beg for just a little more attention. Stiff drinks in mismatched glasses and dinners where you help yourself at the stove. Stories that have no purpose mix with inappropriate jokes and outsized laughter.
I was judging the book by their covers.
The chaos of my friends' houses and apartments make them homes. The magazine quality of these massive stone buildings that I walked past made them cold.
The long walk home reminded me once again how much I want to be a writer.
If you're wondering about that cover over there...the one floating around stage right...it's another case my judging a book by its cover. I picked up Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter out of curiosity. What I'm quickly discovering is that it's one hell of a piece of writing.
Monday, May 9, 2011
Or a crank.
I am, however, quite admittedly, not a glass half-full kind of guy.
By nature or nurture I am a worrier. I see obstacles as obstacles and not challenges. I worry about the details because I live my life with relative certainty that it is the tiny details that will eventually cause you the biggest problems down the line.
So, when stuck sitting in the middle of a terrible, no good, very bad day, and that terrible, no good, very bad day is populated by the vaguely bored, apathy-prone individuals that make up those uniquely insular communities that are airports, it is easy to get me going.
For example, while I have come to expect very little from chain bookstores and even less from airport bookstores, here's a first world issue that's completely on my nerves.
Say that there is an author whose newest book has been released to great reviews and with even greater enthusiasm. More than that, the release of this new book (1), without fail, mentions the stunning collection of short stories the author (2) previously published.
So you go, feeling more the need for a collection of short stories than a novel right now (3), and you are informed that the book is out of print. You can, however, order it online. And you are told this same story at multiple bookstores - chain, independent and that valley of the damned that is the airport bookstore.
"What's the big deal?" I hear you asking yourself. "Move on. There are countries where people are starving/rioting in the streets/living in the shadow of nuclear disaster/dealing with flooded homes/rampant unemployment/unidentifiable skin conditions. It's a book. You can order it online.
"What's your damage, Heather?"
I don't know what my problem is, to be very honest. Except, well, this.
The narrative that most people are all too comfortable with says that people do not read anymore. They don't buy books, they don't read newspapers, we need to put it online with lots of bells and whistles. There's no money in publishing and the only books deserving of attention and publicity are those written by celebrities about how they lost weight/got off drugs/discovered happiness through world travel.
Which is not to say that Baron Brussel is a struggling artist eeking out her books in a windowless garret heated with lumps of coal.
But, really, what's a person got to do to keep a book of literary fiction...particularly a short story collection...in print? What does it take to keep your place on the shelf?
And what will it ultimately take for publishers and, frankly, the buyers who stock the shelves of all these airport bookstores, to pay a little attention to those of us, dying breed that we are, love to read, and buy books in the real, live world?
These are, unfortunately, questions that I will need to leave hanging here in the ether as, it seems, my laptop battery is officially half-empty.
1. The title of which rhymes with "bwamplandia".
2. Whose name rhymes with "Baron Brussel".
3. Though you are absolutely planning to pick up this book that rhymes with "bwamplandia" because not only does it sound wonderful it has a cover to die for...
Or, more accurately, it started well but quickly derailed and now I find myself stranded in an airport trying to distract myself. I've tried to get some work done but that's not happening.
I've tried to read, but no.
Tried to buy a magazine or two but, no. That didn't work out.
Until just a bit ago the airport was filled with Marines (1) which made getting on the wifi pretty much impossible.
The televisions are all tuned to Fox Headline News which, while not an automatic non-starter, it's Fox Headline morning news which, apparently, means that all the on-air talent is either dressed for cocktails or closely resembles a gang of pastel-shirted insurance salesmen a few drinks into happy hour. You know the way, the ties are on but the jackets are off, the sleeves are rolled and buttoned but the shirts have lost enough starch that you know these are "regular guys" delivering the sports and weather.
And the cheer. Oh, the sheer joy that these people have for everything. The fake banter. The practiced, but pretty, amazement, shock, or puzzlement.
And now, finally online and able to get online I'm listening to Terry Gross on NPR's 24-hour live stream. This should be a tonic. This should be the thing that's helping me rally.
This re-broadcast of Fresh Air Weekend is a discussion with Janny Scott, the author who wrote A Singular Woman, a biography of Barack Obama's mother, Ann Dunham. Which isn't exactly the issue.
The issue is the fact that Gross begins the interview with a quote from the President who, according to Gross and, apparently, Singular Woman's preface, has said that if he had known his mother was going to die of cancer he would have probably written a book that was different from the one he did write, Dreams from my Father.
It's an idea that infuriates me because, as a statement, it's as hollow as the playful back and forth between the Headline News crew.
Yes. Of course. The passing of a spouse or friend or parent or family member often becomes the kernel that inspires the writing of a book. At its best, that seed will flourish into something lovely and smart and, ideally, more about the person or the relationship between the author and the person about whom they are writing. At worst, and I think of this based on a Facebook post that I read yesterday afternoon, it becomes a strange and narcissistic journey. A chance to dab your eyes for the audience, to generate sympathy rather than empathy. To not so much talk about the person you are ostensibly honoring by capturing their life in words (2) but making sure it remains all about you and how good you are for being the faithful biographer. The selfless mourner. The brave soul left behind.
And, hell, if you're a writer whose impulse leads you to give a parent immortality on the printed page, there's really no rule that says you need to wait for them to, you know, die from cancer.
Which is why that reported statement really gets under my skin.
If a book about your mother was truly in you, you should have written it. Otherwise, all I'm hearing is an expression of guilt hoping for an audience ready to offer an audible, heartfelt absolution...preferably one that lands you once again on the NYT Bestseller list.
1. What does one call a large number of Marines in one area? A troop? A flock? A gaggle?
2. As is done often and fantastically by the good folks at Story Corps. and their traveling studio.