Finding a Good Book

Last weekend I returned from a week-long, beach vacation in Mexico. I did nothing other than sit on the beach, read, people watch, jump in the Pacific and eat and drink my way through the town.

This was basically my view for about 8 days.

book, beer, beach.

Before going I had asked friends for suggestions of good beach reads – nothing too dense, fiction, perhaps suspense or mystery. I received plenty of ideas, and in addition to having my Nook with me I picked up two paper backs. (I’d rather a paper back be destroyed, stolen or lost, so they were my intended beach-time indulgence.) I downloaded a free sample to my Nook of both books and read them on the plane to figure out which I would read first.

We arrived on Saturday, and by Thursday I had completed the first book. It was fine, it was interesting, it was the right mind-candy. THEN I started the second book.

Just as I had done with a bowl of Lucky Charms when I was a kid, I saved the sweet marshmallows for last. I was immediately intrigued by this one with the sample, and by the time we left on Sunday I was about two-thirds through it.

Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close by Jonathan Safran Foer quickly moved into the ranks of some of my favorite books.

It hadn’t been a suggestion, but the recent movie ads had intrigued me. It seems like it might be a bit sappy, but the story struck me as possibly being imaginative and epic. I came across the book on one of my final dash-to-Tarjay-and-get-stuff-for-vacation trips and I was still searching for a second book. They didn’t have what I was seeking, but I saw this, I picked it up and thought…well, why not?

As with most people, when I read a book there’s a specific voice that I hear. It gets established quickly in my head and remains there unchanged. (I don’t know how it happens or how it all works. I’ve talked to people about it and my experience makes sense to some, but I’ve had a few people who think I’m a bit looney.) This kid’s voice in my head narrating the book was immediately charming and fun. His words and the writing flowed easily from one thing to the next, like some kind of ADD issue was involved, but I flowed with it, enjoying the ride and feeling very much in tune with him. It was going to be a perfect read.

The only problem was every once in a while I’d have to put it down. There I was in a tropical, relaxing setting, and suddenly because out of nowhere would come this beautiful or touching image or passage or something that reminded me of someone or something….I’d find myself gasp at a line, and tears would roll down my cheeks. I’d have to put it down.

Yes, it’s about 9/11, or at its basis that’s the event that propels the story, but it’s really about so much else. Family. Relationships. Wonder. Hope. Fear. And there’s no evil in this book. The, for lack of a better phrase, heart wrenching elements are out of compassion and kindness. And there are surprises and twists along the way. Also, it’s a visual book. There are graphics and photographs and fonts and text designs all along the way. There’s a whole monologue for two pages written in numbers because it’s spelled out on a telephone keypad. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the specific words (although I want to translate it now) because I know what the character was saying – and it was beautiful and touching. There are places where words are missing or written over each other and illegible. It’s not just text. The art here is also in these visual elements. It makes for a brilliant package.

What I really wonder is how the movie could possibly be made. There are, essentially, multiple story-lines happening, and in fact the POV of the writing changes between three different characters. (I suspect the movie doesn’t do this.) Any one of these points of view make for a good story, and as I was reading it, with the words flowing so naturally and interestingly as they do, I kept thinking how I wished this were an unknown writer and not a book with a major film version, because I would love to create a stage piece from these characters and words. In my head I could see something imaginative and playful and just a bit stylized, as if Dominique Serrand or his now defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune had created it. It’s that kind of lovely. That kind of creativity.

I don’t know. Maybe I was in the right place at the right time to read this. Even if that’s just the case, I relished my time with it and I’ll miss these characters.

Of course, I’ve already downloaded Foer’s other book.

The Non-fiction Fiction in Our World

Just now, sitting on my patio on a beautiful late-summer morning, I finished reading a long, and sometimes drudgingly difficult, book. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson wasn’t quite what I was hoping it to be, mostly because one of his earlier books, Devil in the White City, is one of my—if not the—favorite books. Devil has a combination of history, Chicago, architecture and serial murder. Some of my favorite topics. I had also read his Thunderstruck, a non-fiction dramatized book about the development of the wireless radio signal, full of passionate pursuits and unknown (to me) history.

This latest book was a bit more complex but also involves history, a world class city and murder: it’s about the American ambassador to Germany and his family in Nazi Berlin. It wasn’t an easy read mostly because I’ve learned how little I know of the details of that time – names of people (and there are a lot!) and the structure of the American ambassador/consulate departments and the structure of pre-WWII German government, etc. It was a lot of things to track and try to get through.

Sadly, I almost gave up.

It was only in the last third or so of the book that it all started to come together for me. Larson is a heady-writer. Extremely academic, very journalistic, but with an occasional (though less in this book than previous) flowery, romantic descriptive passage. Now I realize that what he does, especially here with the Ambassador Dodd and the Nazis, is slowly paint a picture in bits and pieces. It’s a kind of journey where along the line few parts of the road, in and of themselves, are interesting, But somewhere along the path they all start to come together as a whole, and then his writing seems a bit genius. While first half of the book felt as if it were taking forever, the last half all fell in to place easily.

There were numerous (perhaps too numerous) characters (actually, people) to follow, and follow for years. In the end though it presents a picture of people at a remarkable time in our and Europe’s history; a time that none of the players involved could have any idea how important it was or what was going to happen in the coming years. I think the combination of history and Larson’s dramatized narrative is cleanly woven. It’s not textbook – it’s non-fiction fiction, as he includes descriptive passages and dialogue that he couldn’t have garnered from his 70 pages of bibliography and notes at the end of the book.

That lengthy documentation puts in to perspective about the breadth and value of research and homework when writing on a subject. Being that my own most successful writing was a dramatized piece of nonfiction (albeit a play) I should remember to be diligent about such thoroughness.

Truthfully though, the things I was thinking as I finished the book this morning was what’s happening in our own world and country these days. How will today’s international relations and political strife and despots be seen in 75 years? And like Dodd, who is speaking the words that are falling on deaf ears?

I don’t mean to sound political (as I’ve vowed not to do in this blog) but this world is ripe with topics that writers and artists should explore, and explore well.

Two Nights, Two Plays, Two Worlds

This week I saw two shows by two different companies whose work I admire. They couldn’t have been more different from each other, but both were thoroughly enjoyable. The contrast was striking.

Thursday night after the show, talking to a few of the cast and the producers I expressed how I thoroughly I enjoyed this naturalistic, realistic, down to earth story and people. The whole play took place over a cookout in someone’s back yard. If permits had allowed they’d have been able to actually turn that gas grill on and cook the food. (If permits had allowed and I were directing it that’s what I’d have done.) It was that kind of kitchen-sink realism.

I feel as if I don’t see that kind of stuff often enough. Watching the delicacy and detailed elements of the actors’ work was a real treat. I love nothing more than watching actors enliven their characters so thoroughly. At one point at the beginning of what would be a long story-telling monologue the actress blanked. You only knew because the pause was just a tad … too …. long … to be anything else. But she remained perfectly in character. There was no deer-in-headlights. The beauty was that her husband’s character was sitting right next to her and we knew that he knew the story she was about to tell, so that actor simply prompted her by starting the story himself, and allowed her to take over. They were like a married couple finishing each other’s thoughts, which they were. And it worked.

Later, when the actual climax of the play hit it was real, it wasn’t forced, it was genuine, and it took your breath away for the slightest of moments. Because it was so accessible and so complete. And the play didn’t end completely tidy and neat, wrapped up with answering every question. Like life, you couldn’t be sure about what would happen. And that’s ok. Sometimes neat isn’t interesting.

Twenty four hours later I was finishing up seeing another show, at the other end of the spectrum of realism (if it really is a linear spectrum) and again spoke to a cast member and producer and said how I had no idea what it was that I had just seen, but my mind was reeling. It was an original, company-created completely experimental piece, based on real people: essentially a one time successful writer who has become a shut-in (along with his sister, and they live like hoarders) struggles to continue writing or rather to stop the stories in his head. I’m not sure which. Possibly both.

There was nothing straightforward about this piece, and it’s stuck in my head since I left the theater Friday night. Nothing about this was realistic, even when it contained naturalistic acting styles at moments; it was pure absurdism, or more truly perhaps expressionism.

This was a company I’ve watched and admired several times before. They have a unique process for creating their scripts which are done virtually from scratch as an ensemble. There are pitfalls in this kind of work, the primary one being not able to get the story over to an audience or being able to draw them in emotionally. This time, for me, I was pulled in and fascinated by the people and story and where it was or wasn’t going. I may have left with many questions. And that’s ok.

There were many fascinating things visually, including little details like a dirty line on the wall going up the steps where clearly someone has spent years slowly traversing them with a hand on the wall for stability. With that simple design element I formed an image of someone before the character even appeared at the top of those steps. One of the true elements of expressionism was this group of characters who first appear in one scene and then became at the end of that scene these people who secretly inhabited the house and that the main character had to essentially keep under control, and from whom he had to protect his family or hide from his family.

I’m not sure which or if it matters.

So many things are sticking with me and I can’t even articulate it.

The one thing these two shows had in common was that moment of reality, that wasn’t forced, that seemed truly genuine which took your breath away. In this case it was shedding the layers of absurdity like some fog clearing for just a moment in Don’s mind long enough that he could see and respond to his sister—who may, in fact, be normal after all.

Or perhaps not.

Neat and tidy isn’t very interesting.

One side note: Sandbox is all about experimental, company-created theatre and it’s striking to me that they’ve produced this and previous shows at the Red Eye, a company which many years ago built its national reputation on experimental theatre. It’s as if a torch has been passed. Or, at least, shared.

Tell me a Story

I’m an avid reader, and always have been. I can hardly go to bed without reading some beforehand, and usually have several options on my bedside table, along with things I’ll read next and things I finished months ago. I read a few dozen books each year, a mix of fiction and nonfiction, authors I know and others I just want to try out.

Right now, I’m struggling because the other thing about my reading habit is that I always finish any book I start. It’s like I can’t not finish it. In the last twenty years I can only recall one time when I stopped reading a book because I was bored, and strange enough, it was about 30 pages until the end. I should’ve stopped much earlier, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not sure why. I remember feeling bad or something about it, like I let myself down. I want to liken it to not finishing your plate at dinner, but that’s really a different issue since someone else can read my unfinished book, right?

How bored am I with the book currently taking prominence on my bedside table? I’m struggling at the moment to recall the title or the author’s first name.

Give me a moment…..

Light Before Day, by Christopher Rice

[Honestly, I wanted to say it was In the Light of Day by Tim Rice. But I Googled that and found I was wrong. My apologies to Mr. Tim Rice, by the way.]

I’m half-way through this book, and my recollection of the title and author are telling. Perhaps telling me to put it down and move on.

I picked it up initially primarily because Christopher Rice is the son of Anne Rice, who has a number of books that I really enjoyed. They were good reads, page turners, mind candy and pure entertainment. That’s often what I’m looking for—a good bedtime story. This book, In the Light…er Light Before Day, is sort of billed as a murder story/suspense/thriller. Perfect fare for me.

I’ve been reading it for over a month now. I think I have to stop. If I’m enjoying a book, then part of my nightly getting-ready-for-bed routine actually involves recalling the book and the story and the characters, usually as I’m brushing my teeth, and I’m thinking, “Oh, yay! I get to go visit that world.” Recently I’m just putting off going to bed, and play one more round of some game on FB.