Minor Book Spoilers

Thought I’d come right out in the title and say there are spoilers herein, but I won’t start them until I warn you specifically.

The root cause of this post is that I want you to either listen to or read No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers. Go get them both from your library or independent local bookseller. One’s a history, one’s a novel. They’re both remarkable and I must get you to read them. Or, really, listen to them. They both make ideal audiobooks.

Back to the promise of my title…I despise spoilers. I absolutely won’t read the back cover of books or the reviews because there are so darned many clues to the book that I want to discover, not be handed. I don’t want to know before I read a text where the basic story is going. I don’t want to know how many years Mitchell’s new book spans (thanks for nothing, NPR) because even that bit of information sets up an expectation and the beginning of my calculations.

So in this post, I will warn you of minor spoilers (the type most readers don’t mind), and what I call SPOILERS, which are genuinely much less informative or revealing than any major book review is. So I’m overly careful with what I warn you about. Because I try to preserve your unsullied reading experience as much as I can. I prefer to read completely uninformed, and I assume out of kindness that you do, as well.

Completely unwitting is how I began listening to Dave Eggers’s Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?. I knew absolutely nothing about the novel when I downloaded. And after approximately 4 lines, I was completely hooked.

[next paragraph contains minor spoiler about format and structure]
I’m not sure I will listen to many novels on audiobook, because I prefer to read fiction so I can pause, reread, and stop on the visual placeholder of a word rather than hinging on voices. But [minor spoiler alert] Eggers’s book is entirely dialogue. This theatrical set up is very kind to the audiobook format. When I heard the title page and the list of voice actors, I was confused. It’s very rare to have an audiobook have more than one narrator. (Another minor spoiler alert: Gone Girl had two, because the novel has two narrators.) But each character needed a voice for YFWATATPDTLF to function as an aural text.

Holy gobsmacking guacamole salad, y’all. You have to hear this book. I don’t know if you have to read it. I haven’t read it. I’ve only listening to it read by highly skilled voiceover actors. The New York Times Sunday Book Review was not kind to the novel, in part because the reviewer missed several nuanced points about the characters and dialogue. And I believe the audiobook and the actors cast in the roles were the difference between my interpretation and Phil Klay’s.

[Next paragraph contains SPOILER about acting choices in the audiobook version]
The reason Klay missed something rather important may have been that he read rather than heard the book, for he seemed to have not understood that many of the characters seek to fool the main character. They agree with or disagree with him at various times with the intent of beguiling. Klay seems very angry that some of the characters would agree with wildly inappropriate speeches by a character, but the way I heard the text, those agreeing were patronizing the speaker. Perhaps the acting choices of the audiobook performers made me more aware of this. Maybe giving Eggers the benefit of the doubt for having meticulously rendered several highly flawed characters allowed me to see the dialogue for what it was: not Franzian political diatribe but nuanced interpersonal psychological chess.

[End of Spoilers, and you may now laugh at my definition of spoilers. I warned you. I want to know nothing in advance and try to give you the same courtesy.]

I highly recommend listening to Eggers’s novel. As a character study of desperation and humanity, it’s compelling. As an audiobook, it’s ideal.

I also highly recommend listening to Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time. As a historical study in the way personality flaws form the shifting sands on which history explodes, it’s riveting.

[Update and enormous spoiler, November 19, 11pm: Phil Klay just won the National Book Award for fiction for his novel Redeployment. His misinterpretation of an exchange in Eggers’s novel between the main character and the Senator lies in his misreading a suggestion for the isolation of mentally unstable people as a suggestion for the isolation of former soldiers. Eggers does not conflate the two. The main character does. There’s a big difference between the main character thinking he’s like a war survivor, and the Senator humoring him, and Eggers thinking that all war survivors are crazy. Klay simply misunderstands, an error which I believe would be solved hearing the book rather than reading it.]


I keep meaning to write, but I’ll be damned if I can catch my breath.

We’ve been riding a wave of birthdays and visitors while I try to manage client deadlines and intense sibling yuckiness.

If I had written last week it would have been a whine about being in over my head and forgetting to breathe and wondering whether to do law school or a doctorate to avoid having to make career choices about creativity versus finances.

When I get caught up in maelstroms of bickering and negotiating and working and not sleeping, I forget what’s important and focus in on tasks instead of flow. And when I neglect the things I need, the whirlwind feels faster and faster and bigger and…


So I bought a copy of The Secrets of Happy Families. I’m less than a quarter of the way through, but I’m intrigued at how much breathing room new thinking creates.

And lo and behold, being intrigued by a book means I pick it up as often as I can (granted, that means a pathetic 15 minutes a day). A pressing desire to read a compelling book reintroduces one pillar of my core: reading. And it means the boys see me reading. I can sit in the same room with them, supervise without helicoptering, learn a few things, and model strong reading behaviors.

Even more breathing, even more engagement. Family time spent on the person who has been viewing family as work rather than a situation or a reality or a backdrop or a network of humanity.

And boy was I tired of family being work. I even texted a friend that I love being a mother but freaking hate parenting.

From a few ideas in the book and my increased mood borne of reading, the sibling fiasco is getting better bit by bit.

And as the siblings chill, I chill. And as I chill I do client work faster, which means more sleep.

More sleep means more chill-tastic moments, more reading, more creative work.

I’m still barely making it each day. But now the water is to my neck instead of my eyebrows. (Or eyebrow, singular, really, because the post-surgery side is still way higher than the other one. Stupid cancer. I hate you and I hate what you do to families.)

I’m not yet recommending The Secrets of Happy Families. I’ll read more and let you know. But I am highly recommending a little touchstone work for those of us who feel we can’t quite make it through the day.

I kept making lists of the things I needed to reconnect with: sleep, reading, writing, blogging, exercising, healthy eating, socializing, creating.

Turns out I just needed to boost one and the others got a wee trickle down. Which means my all-or-nothing philosophy of how to forcefully cram balance into my life took a big hit this week.

Don’t worry. I’ll build my black-and-white world back up once I once again stumble out of balance.

For now, I have to go read a paragraph.



Quick poll

What do you value most in the books you read?

I started a discussion on my other blog about Cloud Atlas and the new film version, in which we’re talking about physical descriptions of characters.

And it got me thinking: what do you like best in your reading material? Great dialogue, stunning plot, relatable characters, poetic descriptions, societal importance, genre? Are you willing to forgive bad writing for a breathtaking plot? Will you endure laborious descriptions for magical fantasy? Do you wade through anything for romance? Do you hate fiction and value nonfiction?

What’s your thing in the books you consider great? And while we’re at it, what do you loathe above all else in fiction?


Hey, now that Peanut is three and I’m becoming human again and reading again and plotting my return to academia again and writing hardcore again, I’m going to do a better job of updating my “reading” page. Please do, as always, send suggestions. My “to read” pile is always hovering at around 20 books, but now that NK has me hooked on the slate.com podcasts, that number is escalating.

If you come across something awesome and want to suggest it, please do.

Aaaah, bliss.

You know, sometimes it’s just good to be exhausted.

Now that Peanut has adjusted to Daylight Savings Time, a little government intervention I like to call The Fcuk with Parents Solstice, which was clearly invented and perpetuated by old men with no sense of empathy for the month that it takes to re-regulate a child’s sleep patterns after the shift, I’ve decided to join a gym that opens at 5am so I can workout before Peanut and Spouse wake.

This seemed more self-cudgelingly painful and ludicrous than volunteering for a lifetime of respecting my child’s needs, but the first morning I slipped out of the house before dawn, every moment was glorious. I woke groggy, but that was no different than the days Peanut wakes me in the wee hours. (Background: I have a kid who doesn’t sleep well. Never has. He wakes every 3 hours or so. He sleeps no more than 9.5 hours total, even with the waking. Totally normal, well precedented in my family, yet totally eroding the little patience with which I came to this parenting game. [NB: Do not email me with Babywise bullshit. Letting your baby cry is not parenting. Throughout the world children do not sleep until 3 or 4. It’s just biology. Stop telling me to force my kid to be different. He goes to sleep fine. He has nightmares. He wakes and needs us. Just because it’s killing me doesn’t mean I need your child abuse handbook.] And because of his sleep pattern, if I spend a little time in the evening with Spouse, and either clean or write, I’m looking at 6 or 7 hours of sleep, which is almost hourly interrupted by either a screaming child or a yowling cat. Daily considering asking the SPCA to take both.)

Being alone in a quiet house was exhilarating. Driving alone in the dark, without having to explain why, yes, we need to share the road with other cars and trucks, and that, if you really don’t want to share you ought find yourself a job and some money so you can build your own infrastructure, because the logistics of buying out the freeway system so you can watch the world go by from your car seat with a view unobstructed with other humans is a little out of mommy’s purview this week, was almost orgasmic. And the foggy sunrise was delicious. But far away the best part of getting up after 5 hours of sleep to exercise my wayward body into some semblance of energy was that I got to start, finally, Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays.

This is my definition of heaven.

I would do the elliptical backwards for four hours straight to read that man’s writing. (I wish I could footnote in wordpress [not for some hackjob parody, but because I really need to add a few notes that are too long to put into the text], but I’m angry about the new design so I’ll do parenthetical asides, instead.) (To wit: ) (This month, I have to do the elliptical backwards because of the cast I’m in for the next month. And I get my actual fitness from the erg, but I can’t read while I row, and I can’t get my pedal stroke to functional at all well the cast. So elliptical backwards until I lose feeling in my foot, then switch to the erg, silently debating Wallace’s arguments in my head until I can feel my toes again.)

And Consider the Lobster,  and thoughtful and moralistic and borderline self-righteous (in all the right ways) collection of essays (predominantly articles he’s written for some of this country’s finest magazines) has eye-rollingly pleasurable topics nestled within. I’ve often recommended that my fair readers read or re-read Infinite Jest. But honestly, I may have found my favorite DFW piece, blissfully ensconced as I now am, seven pages into Wallace’s review of a grammar usage text. This chapter/article/review has me deliriously happy.

Without fail, Wallace’s writing brings me to two, independent, and wonderful conclusions. One, I am not crazy, but if I am, I am not alone in my particular breed of insanity. If no one else does, David Foster Wallace understands me. [NB: Yes, I know I should use the past tense. But because I am still coming to grips with his death, and because I prefer the critical approach of reading the text as always present tense, as always available to us regardless of the author’s state of being, I will say that he understands me, by which I mean that I feel understood when I read his work. I attribute no intention to this sensation, for I do not believe he wrote for me, personally. Issues with the whole “not knowing me,” bit, and all.]  Two: I need to get one hundred times smarter and better each day, and read more and write more because I am compelled to express myself as beautifully, compellingly, intelligently, and hilariously as this man did. I won’t get there, but I’ll live trying.

Now, of course, wiping away tears in the gym, thrice, I have a new conclusion, one I’ve been working on since September 15 when I found out: This world, each day, is poorer for having lost him. I, again, offer condolences to his family. And I, again, roll myself into an intellectual black hole wanting more of his mind spread—-like a freshly blended hummus made from a secret family recipe that will be lost after its last knowledgeable chef burns it in a passion-fueled fire and vows, because of the pain cooking causes him in the wake of a divorce from a woman who was his gustatory muse, never to blend that garbanzo-tahini-garlic extravaganza again—-across the pages of book and magazine. May Hollywood never, never violate his words with a film version. (Just saw Into the Wild last night, finally, and found, yet again, that the book was far better. Sorry, Mr. Penn. Love your work. But the film didn’t do justice to the epistelary memoir.)

Wallace’s review, the fourth piece in Consider the Lobster (after a riveting and pathetic look at the porn industry’s Oscar night, a scathing review of Updike’s latest self-absorbed book, and a brilliant explanation of what I’ve always found interesting about Kafka’s work—that it’s funny in a way few people comprehend) offers frenetic  grammatical satisfaction to those among us who cringe at the general linguistic ignorance of those around us. If you get off on words, and are passionate about the language in which you read, write, and speak, turn to “Authority and American Usage.” It strokes the grammar wonk’s ego, it oxygenates the fires of grammatical anger, and it offers 62 juicy pages of critical argument about the political nature of language.

62 mathafuckin pages, y’all.

Laugh all you want. I gladly fly my geek flag, higher today now that I know Wallace’s flag is right there in my courtyard, too.  To read that DFW, a man whose work I admire more than any other author I’ve read, in whose words I’ve found a friend and a home, and for whose memory I plan a long critical academic career (which might well having him doing subterranean 360s), gets just as frothy as I do when college students submit their first papers riddled with such eggregious errors that we feel the need to conduct an emergency English grammar seminar in our classrooms, pushing literature and critical thinking off the gurney and diemboguing our linguistic scalpels with the sole intent of making the world a better place to read.

I’m actually ready to get out of bed every morning, with maybe five hours of sleep behind me, to read David Foster Wallace’s essays again and again. I only wish I hadn’t quit reading his work during my grad school and baby years, because I feel like I’m playing catch-up, devouring his writing like a person who finds herself, after a full day of unblinking focus on a newborn, starving and ready to eat anything in the house; and just as she scours the cupboards for something edible, she turns around to find a gorgeous, tasty, well balanced, hot meal from a caring and likeminded friend just sitting there, as though it’s been waiting for her.

Goddamn he’s good.