Thursday, December 31, 2009

Favorite Passages: Coraline, by Neil Gaiman

I have come up with a short list of New Year's Reading Resolutions. They include reading more female and contemporary poets, reading more short stories, and re-reading Fitzgerald's novels. But the resolution I'm most excited about is my goal to read as much Neil Gaiman as possible. I've written here a few times before about how much I admire Gaiman as a writer and as a champion of storytelling. His books are strange, fantastical adventures, but they are always rooted in human feelings and relationships. The emotional underpinnings in his fiction are just as important as any scary monster or complicated plot. So while I spend the next three months waiting to hear back from graduate schools, I plan to read a lot of Gaiman to take my mind off things. I think it will be a fantastic time.

In the meantime, here's a passage from his children's novel, Coraline. In this scene, young Coraline is telling a story about her missing father to the mysterious and helpful Black Cat. Coraline is looking for her parents in some weird parallel ghost-world, and she uses this story about a day when her father and her explored nature to explain why her quest is so important. This entire section is really poignant because at the beginning of the book, Coraline feels a bit ignored by her parents, and this scene demonstrates how when it comes down to the moments that matter, Coraline and her parents will fight for each other.

From: Coraline, by Neil Gaiman

"We must have walked for about twenty minutes. We went down this hill, to the bottom of a gully where a stream was, when my dad suddenly said to me, 'Coraline -- run away. Up the hill. Now!' He said it in a tight sort of way, urgently, so I did. I ran away up the hill. Something hurt me on the back of my arm as I ran, but I kept on running.

"As I got to the top of the hill I heard somebody thundering up the hill behind me. It was my dad, charging like a rhino. When he reached me he picked me up in his arms and swept me over the edge of the hill.

"And we stopped and we puffed and we panted, and we looked back down the gully.

"The air was alive with yellow wasps. We must have stepped on a wasps' nest in a rotten branch as we walked. And while I was running up the hill, my dad stayed and got stung, to give me more time to run away. His glasses had fallen off when he ran.

"I only had the one sting on the back of my arm. He had thirty-nine stings, all over him. We counted later, in the bath."

The black cat began to wash his face and whiskers in a manner that indicated increasing impatience. Coraline reached down and stroked the back of its head and neck. The cat stood up, walked several paces until it was out of her reach, then it sat down and looked up at her again.

"So," said Coraline, "later that afternoon my dad went back again to the wasteland, to get his glasses back. He said if he left it another day he wouldn't be able to remember where they'd fallen.

"And soon he got home, wearing his glasses. He said that he wasn't scared when he was standing there and the wasps were stinging him and hurting him and he was watching me run away. Because he knew he had to give me enough time to run, or the wasps would have come after both of us."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Rest is Awesome

I finally finished The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross's awesome history of 20th century classical music. For those of you who don't know, I love music. The only thing that comes anywhere near my love for books and poetry is my obsession with classical music. And it just so happens that most of my favorite classical pieces come from the 20th century. My two favorite composers are Bela Bartok and Dmitri Shostakovich. So I am basically the ideal audience for Ross's book. And I was not disappointed.

Ross performs the miraculous feat of writing very meticulously about music while still making it accessible to general readers like myself. I admit that having taken a music appreciation course and a basic music theory class in college helped me to understand what Ross talked about, but as someone who can't read or really comprehend music in any tangible way, the book was still easy to read. Ross even manages to be unbiased and even-minded, although the careful reader can still see where his prejudices might lie (hence entire chapters on Sibelius and Britten, as well as constant references to Mahler).

I have to admit I enjoyed the first half of the book much more than the second half, probably because these parts take place during more interesting historical times - the world wars, Soviet Russia, etc. My favorite chapters were the ones on music under Stalin and Hitler. The Stalin chapter, "The Art of Fear," centered around Shostakovich and Prokofiev, with riveting details about how their government trapped them as both artists and as people. I've always found Shostakovich an extremely fascinating figure, and Ross is obviously as intrigued by him as I am. He spends a lot of the rest of the book referring back to the tragic Soviet composer. "Death Fugue," the chapter about Hitler's manipulation of Austrian/German music is completely bone-chilling. Ross's depiction of a government that values and undermines its art at the same time is terrifying and relevant. This is what makes the book so wonderful. Ross can seamlessly compare the history of the West in the 20th century with the history of its music.

Probably my favorite thing about the book came from its depictions of famous composers. Ross finds ways to be quietly funny and serious at the same time, celebrating and poking fun at a huge personality like Pierre Boulez at the same time. I came away from the book wrinkling my nose at the snobbishness of Schoenberg and Prokofiev, crushing on that rascal Alban Berg (I think I need to go out and pick up a recording of Wozzeck right away), and feeling deeply sorry for Jean Sibelius. I was particularly interested in the book's section on the influences of folk music on 20th century classical composers. While some composers like Bartok (whose Concerto for Orchestra happens to be my #1 favorite musical piece) took the preservation of folk music in classical forms very seriously, other composers (particularly Schoenberg and the hypocrite Stravinsky) thought the entire concept was ridiculous and derided Bartok for the rest of his life. For some reason, I found these little composer tiffs extremely poignant.

Anyway, all you really need to know about The Rest is Noise is that, for this particular reader, it was a total joy to spend time with. It gave me the chance to geek out about my love for classical music in a way I haven't been able to since I graduated college, and for that, I will always hold the book dear.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Poem of the Week: "The Beats," by Charles Bukowski

As many of you already know, I really don't like the Beat generation writers. I find them self-indulgent, annoying, and a bit misogynist. Also, they haven't aged well with time. So when I was reading the last section of Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, I couldn't help but compare the strange avant-garde composers of the 1950s and 60s with the Ginsbergs and Kerouacs of the same time period. Although Ross obviously has enormous respect for these composers (Cage, Reich, etc.), just the descriptions of their lives annoyed me. I realize that's more my fault than theirs; I've just never been a big fan of the avant-garde or music that's more mechanized than emotional. But anyway, all this put me in the mind of Charles Bukowski's poem "The Beats." Bukowski is not a poet I'm particularly fond of, but every once in a while one of his poems really makes me pause to think. This is one of them.

The Beats, by Charles Bukowski

some keep trying to connect me with
the beats
but I was vastly unpublished in the
I very much
disliked their vanity and
all that

and when I met most of them
later in my life
I still felt that most of my
feelings toward
were the

some accepted
that; others thought that I
should change my

my viewpoint remained the
same: writing is done
one person
at a time
one place
at a time

and all the gatherings
and tenderings of
proclamations toward the
had very little
to do
with anything.

any one of those
could have made it as a
shoe salesman or a
used car

and they still
instead of bitching about
the change of the fates and
the ways


from the sad university
these hucksters of the
despoiled word
working the
still talking that
dumb shit.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!!!
I hope all of you have a wonderful Christmas. I have already had a very nerdy Christmas, complete with two signed books, Robert Lowell's Collected Poems, a Mad Men t-shirt, and old movies. This blog will be back up with its regularly scheduled posts next week!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Beth's Best Reads of 2009

Well, everyone, it's that time of year when every pop culture website and publication comes out with its Best-Of-The-Year lists. So, here's another one! These are the eleven best books I read this year. They are from all sorts of years and writers, encompassing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. There were two guiding principles in the making of this list: 1) the books had to be read in the calendar year of 2009, and 2) they had to be first-time reads (no re-readings, which usually make up about half my reading selections in any given year). Reading-wise, this was a great year, and I hope to make next year just as great.

Beth's 11 Best Reads of 2009 (in order from great to greatest):

11. My Antonia, by Willa Cather: When I read this book for an American lit class, I didn't expect to like it so much. I can't really explain why this novel made such an impact, but I think it's because of the way Cather writes so proudly of the prairie and the small town her characters inhabited so many years ago. Not to mention all the sad but earned nostalgia involved, something that always seems to get to me as a reader.

10. The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti: This book isn't particularly insightful about the human soul or human connections, but it IS fun and entertaining. This American Dickensian tale about a 19th-century orphan and the strange cast of characters surrounding him had me sneaking reads at any available moment, all in the name of some good plotting and a nice central mystery.

9. Men in the Off Hours, by Anne Carson: Carson's book of hyper-intelligent, allusion-heavy poetry isn't for everyone. But the literature-loving student in me adored it. Special props go out to the book's poems about Edward Hopper, Tolstoy, Anna Ahkmatova, and Lazarus.

8. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, by Alex Ross: Okay, okay, so technically I haven't finished this book yet (I'm about 2/3 of the way through), but it WILL be finished by December 31st, and it's such an enlightening, well-written history of 20th century classical music that I had to put it on here.

7. Home, by Marilynne Robinson: Nobody does the domestic, small-town novel like the amazing Robinson. This book, a companion to Gilead, touches upon familal connections in the astute, intelligent, and extremely humane way that only such a fine author could create. Gorgeously-written and paced slow as a snail, it's not a book for lovers of plot and adventure. But by the end, it left me in well-earned, bittersweet, unmanipulated tears.

6. Stop-Time, Frank Conroy: We read this memoir in my final college seminar, and I absolutely loved it. Conroy writes honestly about his hardscrabble, strange childhood, and he does it all without ever feeling sorry for himself or wallowing in misery. Instead, the book is very funny, beautiful, and full of glory and pain in equal measure.

5. Persuasion, by Jane Austen: Based on the recommendation of a major Austen fan who claimed it was her favorite book by the author, this made a wonderful summer read. Slight and charming, it features my now-favorite Austen male character, the upright and romantic Captain Wentworth, letter-writing extraordinaire.

4. Spooner, by Pete Dexter: At first, this novel grabbed me because it was so funny and well-written. But somewhere in the middle, it also became a very honest portrayal of the relationship between a man and his stepson. It's a tribute to Dexter's agility as a fiction writer that he can place a theme of connection in the ways we try and fail to love others smack in the middle of a humorous novel complete with ugly dogs, bar fights, and neighborly disputes.

3. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman: I read this children's novel during a single weekend this spring just for fun, and I had no idea it would turn out to be such a fantastic experience. Gaiman is an extremely gifted storyteller who writes loving and humane tales even in the midst of ghosts, vampires, and villains. A funny, absorbing, and occasionally heartbreaking read.

2. Philip Larkin: Collected Poems, by Philip Larkin: I've gone on and on about Larkin all year, and it all started in March, when I bought and read his collected poems (of which there is a surprisingly small amount) all in one week. Larkin writes about everything - life and death, love and grief - with equal intelligence, wit, and grace. I recommend him to everyone, poetry readers and non-poetry readers alike.

1. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson: This is an extremely non-surprising win for those of you who've kept up with my blog since this summer, and there's really nothing more I can say about it. Except this: It's one of those books that made me extremely proud to be human. Absolutely wonderful.

Honorable Mentions: Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich; Coraline, by Neil Gaiman; The Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Poem of the Week: " 'We Don't Know How to Say Goodbye...'," by Anna Akhmatova

Right now, I am reading Alex Ross's fantastic history of 20th century classical music, The Rest is Noise. So far, my favorite chapter has been the one on music in Stalin's Soviet Union. The chapter centers around my favorite composer, Shostakovich, and it's completely heartbreaking to read about how the government's oppression of art literary destroyed so many amazing composers. Of course, this all put me in the mind of Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet I've referenced many times before in this blog (Ross even mentions Akhmatova and quotes some of her poetry in his book). So here we go, a sad but lovely little poem Akhmatova wrote in 1917 about a final visit with a friend who was set to be imprisoned by the Bolsheviks. I urge you to go and check out more work by the poet, as she is a very important human voice amidst the sweep of Russian/Soviet history.

"We Don't Know How To Say Goodbye...", by Anna Akhmatova
Translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward

We don't know how to say goodbye:
we wander on, shoulder to shoulder.
Already the sun is going down;
you're moody, I am your shadow.

Let's step inside a church and watch
baptisms, marriages, masses for the dead.
Why are we different from the rest?
Outdoors again, each of us turns his head.

Or else let's sit in the graveyard
on the trampled snow, sighing to each other.
That stick in your hand is tracing mansions
in which we shall always be together.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Favorite Passages: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

So I totally dropped the ball yesterday and forgot to wish Jane Austen a very happy birthday. I can't believe I missed the opportunity to remember such an important and beloved writer. Luckily, my Austen-obsessed friend picked up my slack in her own blog. Anyway, as a form of penance, today's Favorite Passage concerns itself with the lovely Miss Austen. I am including two short passages centered around one of my favorite Austen characters, the always-witty and loving father Mr. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice.

The first passage comes after Lizzy has turned down Mr. Collins's proposal. Lizzy's mother is furious her daughter would do such a thing, but then as he always so awesomely does, Mr. Bennet sets everything straight:

Mrs. Bennet rang the bell, and Miss Elizabeth was summoned to the library.

"Come here, child," cried her father as she appeared. "I have sent for you on an affair of importance. I understand that Mr. Collins has made you an offer of marriage? Is it true?" Elizabeth replied that it was. "Very well - and this offer of marriage you have refused?"

"I have, Sir."

"Very well. We now come to the point. Your mother insists upon your accepting it. Is not it so, Mrs. Bennet?"

"Yes, or I will never see her again."

"An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. --Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."

This second passage comes towards the end of the book, after Mr. Bennet has given his blessing to Lizzy to marry Mr. Darcy. This piece of dialogue always cracks me up. For those of you who've read the book, or at least seen the wonderful BBC mini series with Colin Firth as Darcy, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do:

Elizabeth had the satisfaction of seeing her father take pains to get acquainted with him [Mr. Darcy]; and Mr. Bennet soon assured her that he was rising every hour in his esteem.

"I admire all my three sons-in-law highly," said he. "Wickham, perhaps, is my favourite; but I think I shall like your husband quite as well as Jane's."

Happy Belated Birthday, Jane!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Top Five Words of 2009

As you can probably guess, I love words. I love their meanings, the sound of them, how they look on paper. So it's no surprise that every year a handful of words completely absorb me. Here's the five words that got under my skin in 2009. Feel free to add your favorite words of the year in the comments below.

Top Five Words of 2009

1. susurrus - noun: soft whispery sound; There is no question this word is my most beloved of '09. There's so many things to love about it: the way it sounds, the squashed way it looks on paper, the fact that pronouncing it makes it sound like its own meaning - This word rocks! And, to no surprise, I fell in love with it because of the way it was used to wonderful affect in Gilead.

2. litany - noun: repetitive recital, almost like a listed prayer; Given in the right context, this word is absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately, it tends to be overused as a synonym for a tedious telling of a story or list. That makes me sad; I am totally reclaiming this pretty and sacred word for the purpose of heartbreak and beauty only.

3. eyesore - noun: something unfortunate to look at; This is a word I've heard a million times. But lately, its existence has really gotten to me. I mean, think about it - isn't this a supremely weird term? And yet it's so descriptive and painful and affective. I can't help but like it.

4. fallow - adjective: not used, often used to describe plowed or unused fields; This word also sounds a bit like its meaning when said aloud. I've always thought it sounded like the words "field" and "shallow" thrown together, which is exactly what it means. It's a word that sounds so nice in poetry or pastoral prose.

5. fiduciary - I have to admit I don't actually understand what this word means. It has something to do with trusts and money and blah blah blah. But for such an important-sounding meaning, the word sounds completely ridiculous. It has the sound "oosh" in it!

So there you go, the five words of Beth's year. I hope to incorporate them all at least once this week.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Poem of the Week: "You Can Have It," by Philip Levine

Those of you who know me well know that my favorite literary topic (really, my favorite musical, film, and television topics, also) revolves around brothers. I don't know why, although I assume I'm fascinated by the relationships between men because as a woman, I don't fully understand them. Anyway, because I've been listening to the song "Blue Ridge Mountains," by the Fleet Foxes (who have a surprisingly large number of songs involving brothers), I've had brothers on my mind. So naturally, I turned to Philip Levine's poem, "You Can Have It," which is about a memory the speaker/poet has of his twin brother coming home exhausted from work as he prepares to leave for his own job. Levine explores the blue-collar existence of the urban Midwest (specifically, Detroit) better than any other poet in America, and this poem is just one fine example of his work. So here you go, a brother poem, which is a tad ironic when you consider that my own brother comes home for the holidays this week.

You Can Have It, by Philip Levine

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one. You can have it, he says.

The moonlight streams in the window
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon. He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.

Thirty years will pass before I remember
that moment when suddenly I knew each man
has one brother who dies when he sleeps
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,

and that together they are only one man
sharing a heart that always labors, hands
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?

All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray box-car at a time

with always two more waiting. We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.

In 1948 in the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purpose
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctor's appointments, bonds,
wedding certificates, drivers licenses.

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one. Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

On the Sensory Pleasures of a Book

Today at the store, I overheard a woman talking about her Kindle, that electronic device Amazon makes where you can download books and read them onscreen. I considered asking her if she liked the Kindle and might suggest it. Then I argued against myself, resolute in my old Hey-Kid-Get-Off-My-Lawn opinion that Kindles and like devices are an abomination against reading. I know that's not true, and as someone who fears the end of reading for pleasure, I know I should be happy people are reading any way they can. But I can't help it. Because you see, I love books. I'm not talking about the stories or characters or words. I'm talking about the actual object of a book.

I am currently reading Alex Ross's critically-honored history/listening guide to 20th-century classical music, The Rest is Noise. I'm only 20 pages in, but so far I love it. It's full of interesting facts. Did you know Tchaikovsky hated Wagner, for instance? But beyond the book's intellectual pleasures is its sensory delights. This book appeals to my senses in a way few have lately. It's cover has that nice not-glossy smoothness, and the pages almost feel silky, the print perfectly in place. The smell is quite lovely too - very papery and vaguely sweet. I can't help but participate in the sensory details of the book as I'm reading it - touching it, sniffing it, weighing it in my hands (did I mention it has a satisfyingly hefty weight to it?). My obsession might be a tad weird, but I can't help it.

So anyway, this post doesn't have much to do with anything. I just wanted to get out my Kindle frustration. And more importantly, I wanted to recommend you check out the trade paperback of The Rest is Noise, if only just to smell it and stroke it. Is that so inappropriate?

Yes, actually, I think it might be.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Favorite Passages: "The Minor Wars," by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Every once in awhile, I read a short story that's so good I put it on par with my favorite novels. One of these short stories is Kaui Hart Hemmings's "The Minor Wars," which I encountered in an anthology in 2004. It's a lovely and sad little story about a father and his young daughter in Hawaii as they watch over their wife/mother, Joanie, who's in a coma after a speedboat accident. The wife lived a dangerous, overly passionate life that led to her accident, and it's obvious there are many distances between her and her husband and their daughter. The man's relationship with his little girl, Scottie, is also deeply troubled by years of trying too hard to ignore each other's pain. The story feels effortless and complex at the same time, and it remains one of my favorite examples of the power of short fiction.

Interestingly enough, Hemmings wrote a novel, The Descendants, that expanded this story, also told from the father's point of view and including all the same characters plus a few more. Unfortunately, I just couldn't get into the book. What made the characters endearing in "The Minor Wars" made them kind of unlikeable and boring in novel form, and I never got past page 70. Some day I may go back and try the book again because of how much I like Hemmings's writing, but until then, I am perfectly happy to make do with this story.

This passage is where the title comes from, as the narrator father and Scottie spend time at the beach. Scottie has purposely allowed herself to be stung by a swarm of man-of-wars, and her father is completely incredulous about it and angry that she calls them "minor wars" instead of their proper names. Just before this scene, they've encountered Troy, the coma mom's probably-lover who was with her at the time of the accident. This trip to the beach also takes place after another exhausting visit at the hospital, where the narrator has learned that Scottie purposely squeezed a sea urchin and injured herself.

From "The Minor Wars," by Kaui Hart Hemmings

She scratches herself. More lines form on her chest and legs. I tell her I'm not happy and that we need to get home and put some ointments and ice on the stings. "Vinegar will make it worse, so if you thought giraffe boy could pee on you, you're out of luck."

She agrees as if she was prepared for this - the punishment, the medication, the swelling, the pain that hurts her now and the pain that will hurt her later. But she's happy to deal with my disapproval. She's gotten her story, and she's beginning to see how much easier physical pain is to tolerate. I'm unhappy that she's learning this at ten years old.

We walk up the sandy slope toward the dining terrace. I see Troy sitting at a table with some people I know. I look at Scottie to see if she sees him and she is giving him the middle finger. The dining terrace gasps, but I realize it's because of the sunset and the green flash. We missed it. The flash flashed. The sun is gone. The sky is pink and violent like arguing little girls. I reach to grab the offending hand, but instead I correct her gesture.

"Here, Scottie. Don't let that finger stand by itself like that. Bring up the other fingers just a little bit. There you go."

Troy stares at us and smiles a bit, looking completely confused.

"All right, that's enough," I say, suddenly feeling sorry for Troy. He may really love Joanie. There is that chance. I place my hand on Scottie's back to guide her away. She flinches and I remove my hand, remembering that she's hurt all over.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Poem of the Week: "To Sleep," by John Keats

Earlier this weekend, I spoke to a friend who was taking a class on the British Romantics. She's become a lover of Percy Shelley, and when she told me this, I probably made a face. Because when it comes to the Romantics, there is only one person who matters to me: John Keats. I love Keats. I don't want to spend my entire day reading him, but a life without a Keats poem here and there would be empty indeed. Plus, he's such a fascinating figure in and of himself, so tragic and talented. Here is one of my favorite Keat's poems. I am particuarly fond of the final lovely couplet.

To Sleep, by John Keats

O soft embalmer of the still midnight!
Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleased eyes, embower'd from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;
So soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the amen, ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities;
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still lords
Its strength in darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, Rainer Maria Rilke!

Today is the birthday of my all-time favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Favorite Passages: About a Boy, by Nick Hornby

Because I am going down to my alma mater to have some awesome adventures with some of my awesome friends, I am in a very good mood. Hence, this week's Favorite Passage being from one of my favorite funny books: Nick Hornby's About a Boy. I'm sure most of you have seen the movie, which is surprisingly good for a book-adaptation, but know this: The book is a hundred times better. It's funny and sad and sweet all at once, with Hornby's prose (much like Pete Dexter's) shifting from laughter to tears in two words. This passage, from the middle of the book, occurs as the main character, Will, is driving and spots Marcus, the pathetic boy to whom he's become a kind of unwilling mentor.

From About a Boy, by Nick Hornby:

Will loved driving around London. He loved the traffic, which allowed him to believe he was a man in a hurry and offered him rare opportunities for frustration and anger (other people did things to let off steam, but Will had to do things to build it up); he loved knowing his way around; he loved being swallowed up in the city's life. You didn't need a job or a family to drive around London; you only needed a car, and Will had a car. Sometimes he drove just for the hell of it, and sometimes he drove because he liked to hear music played at a volume that would not be possible in the flat without a furious knock on the door or the wall or the ceiling.

Today he had convinced himself that he had to drive to Waitrose, but if he was honest the real reason for the trip was that he wanted to sing along to "Nevermind" at the top of his voice, and he couldn't do that at home. He loved Nirvana, but at his age they were kind of a guilty pleasure. All that rage and pain and self-hatred! Will got a bit...fed up sometimes, but he couldn't pretend it was anything stronger than that. So now he used loud angry rock music as a replacement for real feelings, rather than as an expression of them, and he didn't even mind very much. What good were real feelings anyway?

The cassette had just turned itself over when he saw Marcus ambling down Upper Street. He hadn't seen him since the day of the sneakers, nor had he wanted to see him particularly, but he suddenly felt a a little surge of affection for him. Marcus was so locked into himself, so oblivious to everyone and everything, that affection seemed to be the only possible response: the boy somehow seemed to be asking for absolutely nothing and absolutely everything all at the same time.

The affection that Will felt was not acute enough to make him want to stop the car, or even toot: he had discovered that it was much easier to sustain one's fondness for Marcus if one just kept one's foot down, literally and metaphorically. But it was funny, seeing him out in the street in broad daylight, wandering aimlessly...Something nagged at him. Why was it funny? Because Will had never seen Marcus in broad daylight before. He had only previously seen him in the gloom of winter afternoon. And why had he only seen him in the gloom of a winter afternoon? Because Marcus only came round after school. But it was just after two o'clock. Marcus should be in school now. Bollocks.

Will wrestled with his conscience, grappled it to the ground and sat on it until he couldn't hear a squeak out of it. Why should he care if Marcus went to school or not? OK, wrong question. He knew very well why he should care whether Marcus went to school. Try a different question: How much did he care whether Marcus went to school or not? Answer: not a lot. That was better. He drove home.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Something Fun

Thanks to an old NPR article I found yesterday, I discovered this little diversion: Neil Gaiman reading all the chapters of The Graveyard Book. Gaiman, who is a fervent believer in the power of oral storytelling, posted a video of him reading each chapter at different reading events across the country for free on the internet. It's a really fun collection. I've been listening to it as I get ready in the morning, and I absolutely love it. Gaiman is a fantastic reader, and his voice is both lulling and powerful. It's something worth checking out, particularly Part Five, my favorite (and the shortest) chapter from the book, Danse Macabre.