Monday, December 15, 2008

Some Books Make Nothing Happen

Yesterday a friend who just moved to town was looking at our books, and he held one of them in his hand and said "this is the right size for a book; it fits in the hand just right." Usually I don't think about books this way, but sometimes I do read something because it fits into a pocket or purse or whatever bag or armful I'm taking with me. I have a stock of paperback Tess Monaghan books, by Laura Lippman, that I'm very gradually making my way through, primarily when I need a small paperback to take somewhere with me, and the most recent one I read is entitled In A Strange City. Tess is a private detective in Baltimore, and this one centers around the mystery of the annual visitor to Edgar Allan Poe's grave. It's a good story, as usual, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, especially when I got to this:
Tess had a poetry-loving friend given to fits in which he rearranged Auden's famous edict about the inherent limits of verse. " For journalism makes nothing happen," Kevin Feeney would begin to intone, somewhere between martinis three and four. "For government makes nothing happen--thank God. For God makes nothing happen. For nothin' makes nothing happen."
Don't you just wish you knew someone who did things like that? I do. Characters in books who quote poetry are so clever, almost as if they had time to think of the things we all wish we had said! (And if the quotation is still tickling your mind and you can't quite place it, it's here.)

I've also been reading some smallish library books, YA books that fit well in your hand. One I picked up because it's a post-apocalyptic tale, The Secret Under My Skin, by Janet McNaughton. It's a good story, although the degradation of the environment coupled with growing distrust of scientists strikes me now as a derivative type of apocalypse in fiction (The Handmaid's Tale showed that so much more forcefully in the 1980's). (Not that the environment is no longer a concern.) But the book is well-written and has some original ideas, like the story of the protagonist's name and the interruption of the fictional world by the "technocaust," which is a word I enjoyed every time I saw it. The protagonist's guide through the adult world is a woman who used to be
"A historian at a university. If people like me told the truth, everyone would know that the degradation of the environment goes back centuries. I know about the growing hole in the ozone layer, the gradual rise in the earth's temperature. I've seen the treaties signed at the end of the twentieth century, supposedly to limit CFCs and CO2 emissions. I saw how those people, our ancestors, refused to take responsibility for the future, for our lives and the world we would live in." She sighs. "And I know what the world was like when there was democracy. Near the end of the technocaust, history was outlawed. Libraries and archives were destroyed, and I ran."
So, all in all, a perfectly acceptable book for whiling away a winter afternoon.

The third small book I worked in during my course of things to do and people to see is Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You. The title is taken from Ovid, and as Pages Turned revealed, there are some stunningly original facets to the protagonist's (James') character:
"The main problem was I don't like people in general and people my age in particular, and people my age are the ones who go to college. I would consider going to college if it were a college of older people. I'm not a sociopath or a freak (although I don't suppose people who are sociopaths or freaks self-identify as such); I just don't enjoy being with people. People, at least in my experience, rarely say anything interesting to each other. They always talk about their lives and they don't have very interesting lives. So I get impatient. For some reason I think you should only say something if it's interesting or absolutely has to be said."
I've had first-year college students like this in the classes I teach, with a similarly disdainful attitude toward their peers and an unwillingness to be interested in anything that is said in class. I've always been impatient with their behavior, especially their rudeness when they're asked to participate in small group work. Reading about James didn't give me any additional insight into why they act the way they do. Despite a formidable intelligence, he remains a child, emotionally, growing increasingly scary as his emotions grow increasingly disembodied, like one of those children who accuses an adult of some dreadful crime and then sits there satisfied, watching adults run around in panic. By the end of the novel, James begins to budge from his stubborn refusal to like anything or anybody, but there wasn't enough resolution to satisfy me in the way he doesn't manage to avoid taking a phone call.

All three of these books are worth carrying around to forestall a few minutes of boredom (maybe to forestall actually having to interact with people while in public?), but they aren't books that made anything happen, for me. No new ideas, no new perception of the world, just entertainment.


lemming said...

You prompted a post, in fact.

Glad your new neighbor is settling in.

witchcat said...

I, with a vested and genetic interest in lemmings and their companions, as well as your new neighbor, look forward to encountering you in person in years to come. "We live in troubled times," and your blog decreases the mandatory fear