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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: October 2007

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Charles Burns

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: October 2007

Nick Hornby
13 Snaps

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Weetzie Bat—Francesca Lia Block
  • Necklace of Kisses—Francesca Lia Block
  • Holes—Louis Sachar
  • The World Made Straight—Ron Rash
  • Eagle Blue: A Team, A Tribe, and a High School Basketball Season in Arctic Alaska —Michael D’Orso
  • Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin —Lawrence Weschler
  • A Disorder Peculiar to the Country—Ken Kalfus

BOOKS READ:

  • Weetzie Bat—Francesca Lia Block
  • Tom’s Midnight Garden—Philippa Pearce
  • The World Made Straight—Ron Rash
  • Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences —Lawrence Weschler

The story so far: I have written a young-adult novel, and on a trip to Washington, D.C., to promote it, I met a load of librarians and other assorted enthusiasts who introduced me to a magical new world that I knew nothing about. I really do feel as though I’ve walked through the back of a wardrobe into some parallel universe, peopled by amazing writers whom you never seem to read about on books pages, or who never come up in conversations with literary friends. (The truth, I suspect, is that these writers are frequently written about on books pages, and I have never bothered to read the reviews; come to think of it, they probably come up frequently in conversations with literary friends, and I have never bothered to listen to anything these friends say.)

It was in D.C. that I met David Almond, whose brilliant book Skellig started me off on this YA jag; and it was in D.C. that Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat, first published in 1989, was frequently cited as something that started something, although to begin with, I wasn’t sure what Weetzie Bat was, or even if the people talking about it were speaking in a language I understood, so I can’t, unfortunately, tell you what Weetzie Bat is responsible for. When I got home, I bought it from Amazon (it doesn’t seem to be available in the U.K.), and a few days later I received a very tiny paperback, 113 large-print pages long and about three inches high, and suspiciously, intimidatingly pink. Pink! And gold! The book is so short that you really don’t need to be seen with it on public transport, but I wouldn’t have cared anyway, because it’s beautiful, and I would have defended its honor against any football hooligan who wanted to snigger at me.

Weetzie Bat is, I suppose, about single mothers and AIDS and homosexuality and loneliness, but that’s like saying that “Desolation Row” is about Cinderella and Einstein and Bette Davis. And actually, when I was trying to recall the last time I was exposed to a mind this singular, it was Dylan’s book Chronicles that I thought of—not because Block thinks or writes in a similar way, and she certainly doesn’t write or think about similar things, but because this kind of originality in prose is very rare indeed. Most of the time we comprehend the imagination and intellect behind the novels we read, even when that intellect is more powerful than our own—you can admire and enjoy Philip Roth, for example, but I don’t believe that anyone has ever finished American Pastoral and thought, Where the hell did that come from? Weetzie Bat is not American Pastoral (and it’s not “Desolation Row”—or Great Expectations, while we’re at it), but it’s genuinely eccentric, and picking it up for the first time is like coming across a chocolate fountain in the middle of the desert. You might not feel like diving in, but you would certainly be curious about the decision-making process of the person who put it there.

Weetzie Bat is a young woman, and she lives in a Day-Glo, John Waters–camp version of Los Angeles. Eventually she meets the love of her life, whose name is My Secret Agent Lover Man, and they have a baby called Cherokee, and they adopt another one called Witch Baby, and… You know what? A synopsis isn’t really going to do this book justice. If you’ve never heard of it (and of the six people questioned in the Spree offices, only one knew what I was talking about), and you want to spend about eighty-three minutes on an entirely different planet, then this is the book for you.

I read Tom’s Midnight Garden because it finished one place above Skellig in a list of the greatest Carnegie Medalists of all time. (Phillipa Pearce’s classic came runner-up to Philip Pullman. I’m sure the Pullman is great, but it will be a while before I am persuaded that sprites and hobbits and third universes are for me, al-though I’m all for the death of God.) Like everything else in this genre, apparently, it is a work of genius, although unlike Weetzie Bat or Skellig, it is unquestionably a story for children, and at the halfway mark, I was beginning to feel as though I might finish it without feeling that my life had been profoundly enriched. I mean, I could see that it was great and so on, but I was wondering whether my half century on the planet might be cushioning me from the full impact. But at the end of the book—and you’ve been able to see the twist coming from miles away, yet there’s not a damned thing you can do to stop it from slaying you—I’m not ashamed to say that I cr… Actually, I am ashamed to say that. It’s a book about a kid who finds a magic garden at the back of his aunt’s house, and there’s no way a grown man should be doing that.

They’ve been very disorienting, these last few weeks. I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or a dangerous criminal, and as a consequence, I’ve discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that’s filled with masterpieces I’ve never heard of, the YA equivalents of The Maltese Falcon and Strangers on a Train. Weirdly, then, reading YA stuff now is a little like being a young adult way back then: Is this Vonnegut guy any good? What about Albert Camus? Anyone ever heard of him? The world suddenly seems a larger place.

And there’s more to this life-changing D.C. trip. While I was there, I learned about something called the Alex Awards, a list of ten adult books that the Young Adult Library Services Association believes will appeal to younger readers, and I became peculiarly—perhaps inappropriately—excited by the idea. Obviously this award is laudable and valuable and all that, but my first thought was this: You mean, every year someone publishes a list of ten adult books that are compelling enough for teenagers? In other words, a list of ten books That aren’t boring? Let me at it. I bought two of this year’s nominees, Michael D’Orso’s Eagle Blue and Ron Rash’s The World Made Straight, having noticed that another of the ten was Michael Lewis’s brilliant book about your football, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, and a fourth was David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, which I haven’t read but which friends love. Whoever compiled this list knew what they were talking about. Who else might have won an Alex Award? Dickens, surely, for Great Expectations and David Copperfield, Donna Tartt, for The Secret History, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, probably Pride and Prejudice and Le Grand Meaulnes. This Boy’s Life, certainly, and The Liar’s Club, Roddy Doyle for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha… In other words, if a book couldn’t have made that list, then it’s probably not worth reading.

Like every other paperback, Rash’s book comes elaborately decorated with admiring quotes from reviews. Unlike every other paperback, however, his Alex nomination gave me confidence in them. “A beautifully rendered palimpsest,” said BookPage, and I’d have to say that this wouldn’t entice me, normally. You can see how a book could be a beautifully rendered palimpsest and yet somehow remain on the dull side. But the Alex allowed me to insert the words and not boring at the end of the quote. “Graceful, conscientious prose,” said the Charlotte Observer—and yet not boring. “Rash writes with beauty and simplicity, understanding his characters with a poet’s eye and heart and telling their tales with a poet’s tongue, and not boring people rigid while he does it,” said William Gay, almost. You see how it works? It’s fantastic.

And The World Made Straight really is engrossing—indeed, the last devastating fifty-odd pages are almost too compelling. You want to look away, but you can’t, and as a consequence you have to watch while some bad men get what was coming to them, and a flawed, likable man gets what you hoped he might avoid. It’s a satisfyingly complicated story about second chances and history and education and the relationships between parents and their children; it’s violent, real, very well written, and it moves like a train.

When I was reading it, I ended up trying to work out how some complicated novels seem small, claustrophobic, beside the point, sometimes even without a point, while others take off into the fresh air that all the great books seem to breathe. There would be plenty of ways of turning this book, with its drug deals and its Civil War back-story, into something too knotty to live—sometimes writers are so caught up in being true to the realities of their characters’ lives that they seem to forget that they have to be true to ours too, however tangentially. Rash, however, manages to convince you right from the first page that his characters and his story are going to matter to you, even if you live in North London, rather than on a tobacco farm in North Carolina; it’s an enviable skill, and it’s demonstrated here so confidently, and with such a lack of show, that you almost forget Rash has it until it’s too late, and your own sense of well-being is bound up in the fate of the characters. Bad mistake, almost. There is some redemption here, but it’s real redemption, hard-won and fragile, rather than sappy redemption. The World Made Straight was a fantastic introduction to the Not Boring Awards. I was, I admit, a little concerned that these books might be a little too uplifting, and would wear their les-sons and morals on their T-shirts, but this one at least is hard and powerful, and it refuses to judge people that some moral guardians might feel need judging.

Lawrence Weschler’s Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences is never going to be nominated for an Alex, I fear. Not because it’s boring—it isn’t—but it’s dense, and allusive, by definition, and Weschler’s thinking is angular, subtle, dizzying. I feel as though I only just recently became old enough to read it, so you lot will have to wait twenty or thirty years.

It’s worth it, though. You know you’re in for a treat right from the very first essay, in which Weschler interviews the Ground Zero photographer Joel Meyerowitz about the uncanny compositional similarities between his photos and a whole slew of other works of art. How come Meyerowitz’s shot of the devastated Winter Garden in the World Trade Center looks exactly like one of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons? Is it pure coincidence? Or conscious design? It turns out, of course, to be something in between, something much more interesting than either of these explanations, and in working toward the truth of it, Weschler produces more grounded observations about the production of art than you’d believe possible, given the apparently whimsical nature of the exercise.

And he does this time and time again, with his “convergences.” No, you think in the first few lines of every one of these essays. Stop it. You are not going to be able to persuade me that Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings can tell us anything about the recent history of Eastern Europe. Or: no, Newt Gingrich and Slobodan Milosevic have nothing in common, and I won’t listen to you trying to argue otherwise. You got away with it last time, but this is too much. And then by the end of the piece, you feel stupid for not noticing it yourself, and you want Gingrich tried for war crimes. It’s an incredibly rewarding read, part magic, part solid but inspired close practical criticism, and the best book about (mostly) art I’ve come across since Dave Hickey’s mighty Air Guitar. When I’d finished Everything That Rises I felt cleverer—not just because I knew more, but because I felt it would help me to think more creatively about other things. In fact, I’ve just pitched an idea to Weschler’s editor about the weird chimes between the departure of Thierry Henry from Arsenal and the last days of Nicolae Ceausescu, but so far, no word. I think I might have blown his mind.

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