June Reading

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Here’s what I read in June.

The image above is the June illustration from the Tres Riches Heures manuscript, depicting the peasants out mowing hay in front of the Hotel de Nesle.  I’ve been using illustrations from this book every month for my “What I Read This Month” posts, and this is the last one.  It’s been a year.  Tempus fugit. 

1. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
I can be certain that most of the students who show up in my 9th and 10th grade classes have read two books: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien.  There is a wonderful middle-school teacher at our school named Ms. Tsuna, and she teaches these books every year.

So, imagine the horror in their eyes when I tell them that I’ve never read The Hobbit.  This is their favorite book we’re talking about here, or maybe their second-favorite, depending on where they fall on the Mockingbird vs. Hobbit continuum.  “You’ve never read The Hobbit?” they ask, jaws slackened, and I realize that I’ve just lost a little bit of the respect they had for me. 
I promised them I would read the book, and I did.  And I learned that people take their experience with the book very, very seriously.  People who saw me carting it around suddenly adopted stern looks and asked me what I thought of it.  But they were just asking me so they could tell me which they liked better, The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings.  Each had his own preference for the order I should read them, or which one failed to live up to the other’s promise, or even how I should pronounce the word “Tolkien.”
The seventh-grade version of me would have devoured The Hobbit.  It’s like The Goonies, only much more exciting (and with more in-roads to another seventh-grade necessity, Led Zeppelin.) I enjoyed The Hobbit as an adult, more or less, though I wasn’t able to take it as seriously as those who read it younger than I did. This one I’ll pass off to my son in a few years.
2. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
I am glad that I read Sag Harbor so shortly after my dissatisfying experience with my new least-favorite book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  Sag Harbor is everything that Wallflower was not.  Both are coming-of-age novels from the point of view of adolescent teenagers, each with his own awkwardnesses, disenfranchisement, and familial secrets.  However, where Wallflower was cloying and sentimental, Sag Harbor was fresh and snappy.  Wallflower attempted to capture the language of an inarticulate teen and failed; the characters in Sag Harbor are virtuosos of their profanity.  Wallflower read like the journal I kept when I was 17 (and which I placed in the trash can in shocked horror when I rediscovered it ten years later), but Sag Harbor handles the embarrassment of the teen years with humor and insight.
I guess what I’m saying is that I liked Sag Harbor more than The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Whitehead’s strength lies in his ability to describe, with great verisimilitude, the minutiae of the material world of a teenager.  There are many such instances of his observational skills, but here’s one I chose almost at random, about a Labor Day cookout.

Today was the Sag Harbor Hills Labor Day Party.  Card tables replaced the cars outside of houses, set a-wobble by pitchers and Tupperware.  We camped out, sharing our food and drink and stories.  Mayo glued globs of potato salad to spoons, you had to shake hard to plop it into the compartment on the blue plastic plate.  Potato salad, where would we be without potato salad clumped with yellow ladybugs of yolk, potato salad by the bushel and crinkled aluminum tins of greens steaming over Sterno cans of murmuring fire.

The paragraph I quoted to show the strength of the writing in this novel, which was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award, also highlights the weakness of the novel as a whole.  In Sag Harbor, which lovingly describes the joys of potato salad, the travails of working a first job, and the joys of underage drinking, nothing really happens.  It is the chronicle of a frustrating, impatient, anticlimactic, unsupervised summer, much like the one you experienced when you were fifteen years old.  
It seems as though something tragic is going to happen when the narrator and his friends discover B.B. guns, but that incident immediately flames out after a minor mishap.  It seems that something will develop between the narrator and a willing female friend, but then this scene screeches to an unsatisfying halt.  Just when we think we are about to get some insight into the strained relationship of the narrator’s parents, they are dropped altogether.
We were all teenagers once, and we all had that first crush, the first job, the flameouts and disappointments, our own brushes with disaster, our failed attempts to act cool, our friends that we drifted away from, etc.  All of our childhoods were variations on the same sticky song. It’s fun to remember these things, but it’s disappointing for a novel to wallow in them at the expense of an arc.  Sag Harbor is strongest when it dramatizes a few shocking scenes between the boy and his father, a character who is begging for more development.  It’s weakest when it circles the drain of nostalgia. But it’s so well-written that it satisfies nonetheless.

(Check out Whitehead’s twitter feed.  It’s pretty entertaining.)

UPDATE!  Thanks to the miracle of internet technology, I received feedback from Mr. Whitehead himself less than two hours after publishing this post.  It truly is a wondrous time to be alive.

3. Good Poems for Hard Times, selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is a writer, humorist, radio show host, singer (?), and entertainer.  I dislike just about everything that I see or hear him in, except for one thing: The Writer’s Almanac.  I love The Writer’s Almanac, and I miss the days when I taught at a place where my smoke break (I used to smoke) fell right at a few minutes till noon, and I’d drive my car to the parking lot of the movie theater next to our building, smoke two cigarettes, and listen to The Writer’s Almanac.  These days I never catch the show unless I download it on iTunes and force myself to sit at the desktop computer in my annex and listen to episode after episode.  And I have a great admiration for Billy Collins, but the show just isn’t the same without the gravitas of Keillor’s voice.

Keillor’s taste in poetry is a lot like mine, and more often than not I find myself stirred by the poems he reads on the air.  That’s why this book was perfect for me.  It is a collection of hundreds of poems that have appeared on the show, in a loose thematic arrangement that lends itself to compulsive reading.

There are so many wonderful poems, and they’re all available online through The Writer’s Almanac.  So what’s to keep me from linking to a lot of them?  Nothing!  Check these out:

1. The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb by Sharon Olds
2. Theater by William Greenway
3. To a Daughter Leaving Home by Linda Pastan
4. My Agent Says by R. S. Gwynn
5. After Love by Maxime Kumin
6. In the Middle by Barbara Crooker

4. Mystery Train by David Wojahn

So I’ve been reading a lot of poetry these days, and my new friend Ashely suggested I check out this book by David Wojahn.  Included in this collection is a sequence of 35 poems, many of them sonnets, that revolve around the mythology of American rock n’ roll.  He takes the familiar characters that have been written about so much that they’ve become cardboard characters–Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan–and somehow finds a new perspective that we haven’t imagined before.  Here’s Jerry Lee Lewis getting chewed out by his manager for marrying his cousin, or Buddy Holly skipping school to watch James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.  My favorite one is titled “Elvis Moving a Small Cloud: the Desert Near Las Vegas, 1976,” which is about exactly what it says.

5. Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere by Lucas Mann

Rock n’ Roll is so difficult to write about without falling into cliches and platitudes because so many obsessive people have written so many books and articles and bad blogs about it.  Same thing goes for baseball.  It is amazing how quickly baseball writing can slip into tired stereotypes, rehash the same old  myths, and turn rancid.  I went on and on about this when I read The Art of Fielding, a book that got fantastic reviews even though the final act of it played out almost the same way as Major League’s did.

Which brings me to he last book I read this month, which was also one of the best books I have read in ages–Class A.  Lucas Mann spent the entire 2010 baseball season with the LumberKings, a low-A minor league team from Clinton, Iowa.  He reports on the state of the players, many of whom are teenagers, scraping by on subsistence wages, sleeping three-to-a-floor in a crummy apartment.  Mann gravitates toward the Central American players, incredible athletes who were scouted out when they were fourteen or fifteen years old and shipped to the United States in an unlikely attempt to stand out amongst hundreds of other incredible athletes.  When they are sent down or cut, which happens frequently in Class A, it is devastating.

Intertwined with the story of the team are two other stories.  The first is of the town itself–Clinton, Iowa, a dying place that was practically choked out of existence thanks to Archer Midlands Poly and scab laborers.  The second story is that of the author’s haunting past.  Mann was a failed baseball player, one of those who had talent, just not enough.  He is plagued with doubt and self-consciousness throughout his interactions with the LumberKings players.  Adding to this doubt is the memory of his older brother, who died a drug-related death ten years earlier.

The blurbs on the back of the book compare Mann to writers such as Joan Didion and Gay Talese.  I’m not sure if that is a fair comparison, but Class A is an incredible piece of reportage and a wonderful, if terribly pessimistic, view inside of baseball.

I get it.  There are nine chapters, like nine innings.  Cute.

Oh no!  We’re going into extras.

16 innings!  That was awesome.

UPDATE: Here’s a response from Mr. Mann himself

Much Ado About Nothing

It seems fitting to mention that I also saw Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, and was entertained and impressed.

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