This week's question: now that summer is here (depending on where you live), what is the most "summery" book you can think of? What book captures the essence of the summer for you?
This week's question: now that summer is here (depending on where you live), what is the most "summery" book you can think of? What book captures the essence of the summer for you?
Today's the first day of summer! Given the temperatures and general weather hovering over Hong Kong the last few weeks you would think summer's been going on for a long time. But, depending on what calendar you follow, today is actually the first day of this illustrious season. So this means it is time to reveal my 2009 summer reading list. Before we get to the actual list, a few comments:
This week's question: do you restrict yourself at how many books you take out of the library at a time? Do you borrow books if you already have some out? Do you always re-borrow books you don't get to?
When I picked up Wally Lamb's novel I Know This Much Is True in Page One nearly two months ago I liked what I read in the opening pages, but I wasn't completely sure the remaining 880 pages would capture my imagination the way it has. That's why I was sad to read the final pages and put it up on the shelf with all my other books. Lamb did a fantastic job of roping me in and holding me until I'd followed his leading character Dominick full circle on his own life's story. One drawback was the foul language and crude descriptions of some sexual content that I could have done without. But, it's real and life hands real people both the experiences and language it takes to describe the troubled souls in this novel. So the cussing and graphic descriptions were not enough for me to put the book away, and I expect that for those of you who are mature, they will not either. Do be aware, however, the middle stretch of the novel can create such a temptation. But resist. Read on!
Primarily the novel deals with one key question and four themes common to all of us humans. The question is "who am I?" and the themes are: family (in all its gory details), the dynamic interplay of grandfather-father-son-brother, God, and abuse. It's the psychology of these that Lamb does such a remarkable job of describing to us. In a way, this is every family's story and every man's quest. Who am I? Where did I come from? Where the heck did you come from? And how can I move forward in life while simultaneously understanding my past? This is why dead characters made a significant impact in this story, posthumously.
Let's take the themes one by one. On family the author creates twins, Dominick and his brother Thomas, their Mother and Stepfather, and Dominick and Thomas' grandfather round out the heart and soul of the Birdsey's. Mental illness in all its fury wracks the brains of Thomas, leading to the rather dramatic opening scene and tightening its terrifying grip throughout the story. Clearly anyone with a family member that hears voices and sees things we do not can relate to the honest descriptions found herein. I like how Lamb prints his final page: "Readers wishing to learn more or assist people with schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses may contact or make charitable contributions to The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill." This shows the author has studied the illness in detail and written about its cruel affects on a person and his family. And boy does schizophrenia take its toil on the Birdseys! But that is not the only dynamic.
Abuse is another one. Anyone who's been abused or lived with an abusive parent will know the full extent of this novel's power. The yelling, the screaming, the hurting, and the covering it up. The vicious circle of abuse, from generation to generation. Mental, verbal, physical, sexual, and institutional. We need stories like this that give us hope for healing, reminders that we are not the only one who has ever been stripped of our dignity as we cower in shame, space to reflect on our response to those who have hurt us so badly, and a scenario to imagine what we would say or do if or when we face our attacker who is old, frail, and dying in our town or in our arms. This books holds many surprises in its final pages, but here is one that won't ruin it for you but speaks to hope for healing. "We got to talking about how there'd never been a battered women's shelter in Three Rivers...Next thing you know...the Concettina T. Birdsey Woman and Family Shelter (889)."
Women will love this book, but men are the ones who ought to read it. Why? Because, gentlemen, no matter who we are, no matter where we come from, no matter what language we speak or culture we most identify ourselves with - we are the sons, the fathers, the brothers, and the grandfathers and there is something important about the dynamic relationships we have (or do not have) with one another. This comes running out of I Know This Much Is True. For Dominick Birdsey to achieve some measure of peace and serenity in his young, 41 years of living he must make sense of grandfather and father - from who did he come?, he must make sense of brother - for whom is he with?, and for children - for whom is he responsible and what shall come of him? This is not chick lit. It is male shit.
And finally, God. Here is God from the perspective of Dominick Birdsey, errr...Wally Lamb.
"I don't know. I guess there probably is a God. There has to be...He's not merciful, though. That's a crock. He's more into irony than mercy. He's a gotcha! kind of god. A practical jokester (842)."
"Father LaVie promised me that there was meaning to be mined from suffering - that God was merciful, whether we understood His ways or not. This is pap, I thought - Hallmark greeting card theology. But when I hung up, I felt calmer. Better...It was beyond my control. All I could do now was hang on. Pray for a merciful, not an ironic, god (865)."
For Lamb God seems to emerge as one who probably isn't there, but if he is there then he's cruel, and yet he better be there. He hopes he's there (soft of). And confessing one's sins sure makes one feel better anyway. "I began to weep. I couldn't help it, could not have stopped, even if the whole church had suddenly filled up with people watching me. The sobbing and bellowing that came out of me that late afternoon must have nearly shaken the holy statues off their pedestals. I had no pride that day, only shame (729)."
Lamb feels the way I think a lot of us feel - about family, faith, friendship, failure, and our futures. He's a gifted writer with a keen and intuitive sense for the landscape of the human person. I know this much is true, I loved this book. You will too.
This week's question: do you feel compelled to read prize winning books (Giller, Booker, Pulitzer, etc.)? Why or why not? Is there one particular award that you favor?
Part one is here
So, then, what's the deal? Why, as my mother would say, haven't I "met a nice young lady and settled down"? I've got a couple of theories I've fine-tuned in response to Ma's question. Each time she asks me about it on the phone I can feel my eyes rolling to the back of my head as I launch into yet another defense of my actions, or shall we say, my inaction. For starters, I'm shy. I know this sounds like a dumb excuse, a lame way out. Princess Diana was shy and look who she married. But she was beautiful and she was the one who was pursued, not the one doing the pursuing. In the Asian context in which I now live I'll be the one who has to find out my gym mate's name, digits, and favorite night out before I can get an up close and personal. Maybe I should move to a place where the women are a little more aggressive. Indonesia's an option. It's not far from here and I heard the women there can be very forward. Yes, I must note that as an option. "Hey Ma, look who I met. Actually, look who met me!"
Being shy sucks. Take last week for example. I was out at Cobble's having a drink with friends after work and at the table next to us sat five good-looking women. They were celebrating a birthday and pretty supped up on alcohol when we sat down. Immediately Tom Peters starts eyeing the ladies and doesn't even bother to hide his lust, eventually leaning over to offer Sadie a tip of his glass "in honor of your 20th birthday!" I reached for a napkin to expunge dinner. Sick. What a poor attempt at a pick-up line. But, as is often the case, it worked! Within minutes the rest of us corralled around their table and soon we were all singing "Happy Birthday, dear Sadie, Happy Birthday to you." Fast-forward three hours. Tom walked off with Sadie and two of her friends. Paul had Rachel's arm. Dennis had Man-Li's. And I held firmly to my briefcase as I ran in the other direction to catch the last train home. When I got home I looked myself in the mirror with the same realization I'd had since Junior High: being shy sucks.
Unfortunately, being shy isn't my only problem. I'm also terribly anxious. My anxiety leads to fear and fear leads to inaction. I become immobilized around women, particularly attractive women. The fact I am so darn self-conscious doesn't help. This scenario gets played out over and over again: John sees attractive woman, attractive woman sees John. John steps toward woman. Woman steps toward John. Woman looks somewhat interested. John is very interested. Woman gets closer. John gets closer. John's palms sweat. Woman gets closer. Sweat breaks out in John's armpits. Deodorant defense breaks. Woman is still getting closer. See John? Now see John run. See women look away in the direction of some other guy. If I had a dime for how many times that's happened since college I would be rich enough to donate a new library to the school. I just can't handle the pressure, even at 41. What's wrong with me?
My friend Tom says my problem is women like cocky men and if I cant at least play the part then I have no chance. Carolyn (she is happily married) says the opposite: women like a man who is shy, retiring, and reflective. "You have a lot to offer, John, just be a little bolder at the start. Women will like you." Mark tells me my anxiety and fear has something to do with the way my Mom handled me as a child. "You know, the psychology of it." He's even asked me if I was held a lot as a kid? Did I spend more time with my Mom or my Dad? Were my brothers and sisters treated differently than me? If so, how? If not, why not? And Angela, my sister-in-law has a two-point plan for me: "Step one: lose 25 pounds. Step two: take a course in public speaking." Thanks. So, in order for me to ask a woman on a simple date I need to turn into a cocky, arrogant sort, stay shy and "retiring" but believe on the inside that women will like me, and I need to return to my Mom's loving arms and reprimand her for too much love and care, all while I kill myself in the gym and then sign up for a course on how to speak to strangers? Perhaps you can see why I'm immobilized. I wish the whole thing could be a lot easier, which leads me back to thinking about Indonesia.
If you ask me, my religious experience is what really put me in this mess in the first place. I grew up in what my most recent priest called a "quasi-Christian home." By quasi he meant half-hearted. And he defined this for me when I went to him with my 41-year-old virgin problem and he started asking me about my "family of origin." Dutifully, and out of respect for the old bird, I jumped right in telling him about my enthusiastic Christian mother and my I'll-go-to-church-kicking-and-screaming father. I shared with him how much my parents marriage sucked but how much the church just thought we were the perfect little family. My Dad was a deacon by day and a royal jerk by night. My mother was a volunteer by day and a nasty gossip hound by night. But in the eyes of the other families and "singles" (even then that word had a negative connotation) we were something special. It was like a star hung high above our heads and an angel of God shone light all around us wherever we went. I often thought how suddenly that angel could turn of his or her light as soon as we walked inside our back door. It was a sad irony.
As all you other "good Christian boys and girls" out there know, treating sex like the plague and girls if you're a boy and boys if you're a girl like people who had the disease was a top priority for all Christian parents, Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, and old, fat, hairy, angry church leaders who caught you in a dark hallway about to kiss Julie Davis. (I was so close, too, and then he came emerging from the shadows where he had been lurking, old Mr. Sanders. It was like he wanted to kiss Julie the way he practically ripped off my right arm, which had been resting perfectly normal in the small of Julie's back.) But I was an obedient little soldier in the Lord's army. No kissing, no hugging, no drugging, no drinking, no abomination, and certainly no good vibrations. This was the way I lived, and to be honest, it didn't feel all that unnatural or hard to do when I was 16, 17, and 18. Actually, it didn't feel strange avoiding these "worldly practices" when I was 23, 24, and 25 either. But at 41 I can say without any hesitation, it feels weird. It feels antiquated. It feels abnormal. It feels just plain dumb.
And that helps to explain, to me anyway, why every time I go to ask a girl out I also feel antiquated, abnormal, and just plain dumb. And that's not a good combination for a guy who's looking to unlock the code on marriage.
To be continued.
We lost a great blogger last week, and in honor of Marko, I will pick up on one of his traditions (the Monday morning update) and give you one of my own each week. Mine will appear here on Wednesdays, the halfway point of the week when my mind is already engaged in the week's activities and events. I will only provide links for books. And my standard questions will differ a little bit from his, but I hope you will enjoy staying connected to me in this way. Since this is the Swallow's Nest, welcome to Nesting for Wednesday, June 10th.
Where Am I? Where Am I Going? Currently I am in Hong Kong. My next trip is scheduled for the end of this month when I will be going to Europe, starting in Amsterdam Holland. I was supposed to go to Los Angeles next week, but I am now not going to those meetings in-person, but will join via SKYPE.
What I'm Reading? I am continuing my long walk through It. I am enjoying it very much, but I have made stops along the way for other reads including Prisoner of the State (reviewed below) and related excursions to learn something about that period in Chinese history. I keep eyeing The Search for Modern China and other books related to China. Let's see if I decide to put some of those on the summer reading list I am developing. (Summer officially begins June 21st and that is when my list comes out.)
What I'm Listening To? I'm the type of guy who adds singles to my iPod, not whole albums. This week I added a classic from the Jackson Five that I surprisingly did not have: I Want You Back. I also put on two songs I heard on the radio in the States last month, Other Ways by Trevor Hall and Afraid to Fail by Josh Rouse. All three are great tunes that put a little quick in my step on the treadmill this week.
What I'm Thinking About? What to eat for dinners on this diet of mine. I do fine at breakfast (fruit) and it's an improvement that I am even eating breakfast (since previously I always skipped it). My mother would be so happy. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day". And lunch is not a problem. I either go with the cabbage soup my beloved makes me or a veggie delight sandwich from Subway (really, it is nothing but the vegetables, not even any sauce - this always surprises the folks making my sandwich). And I have eliminated my afternoon snack, which is very very disturbing. But dinner is still tripping me up. By that point in the day I just want to splurge and eat whatever I want. I have no more discipline. Help! Any suggestions? And no, I do not cook. And my beloved isn't going to cook every night either!
What's My Opinion on the News? Tough being those two American reporters caught in North Korea, but I do believe they will be returned to the U.S. soon. It's fascinating to think about what lies beyond that border and if these two young women make it home in one piece, they will be able to tell the rest of us about it. It will be an irony since they went to China to do a story on North Korea and ended up getting quite an account!...Eery thinking about this Air France disaster. The mysterious side of me wonders what was happening to those passengers and crew in the final moments. What are their stories? Someone should write a fictional account of the events and the emotions inside that airplane as they fell to the ground (assuming they had time to know what was happening). A very frightening scenario and a reminder that flight is still a miracle. We should not cease in our prayers for family and friends of the deceased...Obama's speech, attitude, and interaction with the Muslim world is spot on correct and I look forward to seeing it following with action...Finally, you cannot imagine how desperately I want the Orlando Magic to win the NBA Finals. I don't even watch much basketball, but I despise Kobe Bryant. He is the world's biggest cry baby in sports and I would just love to see him lying on the floor crying his eyes out if (and I realize it's a big IF) the Orlando has some Magic left!
How I'm Feeling? Great! Body, soul, mind, and spirit seem to be firing on all cylinders this week.
Bonus question: what do I most want to buy and why? It's this (but I cannot afford it):
The Monticello Revolving Bookstand (US$618.00). Can you imagine how awesome it would be to have this on your desk? I've already dreamed of having it on mine. Here's part of the description: "Made of solid mahogany with a soft, hand-polished finish, the rotating stand holds five books at adjustable angles on rests that fold down to form a 12" cube." Wow!