December 18, 2013

The title of the thing is “Dissident Gardens”.

This is not just the setting, but the place in Queens is a character in itself.

I find that when you can say that about a novel, you have a heavy burden to populate that setting with interesting characters.  I think Lethem failed on that account.  

The novel covers three generations of leftists who live in the housing complex, focused on one family.  It opens with about eighty pages of a mother and a daughter arguing.  I had trouble figuring out who was who.  Then it switched places and time and looked at this other guy, then this other guy, and then finally this other guy.  

There’s a part where a character hallucinates that she is part of Archie Bunker’s crew hanging out at the bar.

In the span of three pages, Lethem kills off three characters with only a later elaboration on what happened. 

You start to care about the characters, and then he switches from their narrative.  It is only much later in the book when it starts to come together, but buy then I was reading to finish the thing and not to enjoy it.  I read this book over the course of three or four weeks, and I wouldn’t have finished it if not for the fact that it was a library book that was coming due.

And it is a shame, because in earlier – less ambitious – works I loved the city and the characters and the story that Lethem created. 

He doesn’t do that here, and that’s a shame.

December 17, 2013

A Personal Reflection on Religion

We were never part of one denomination.  My dad was raised catholic, but isn't religious as far as I know.  We moved a lot and went to mainline protestant churches.  I don't ever really remember believing, but that may just be looking back and creating new memories. 

I do remember sitting and church, and being young, and during silent prayer, thinking how absurd it was that I was silently talking into my hands.  That may have been first or second grade.  The last time I can remember even praying was about 4th grade, hoping to win a football game.

In late middle school, I was taken on an ice skating trip with a friend's church.  i was angry that no one told me that there was a religious ceremony beforehand.  I was "Saved" that day, but looking back, I think the lightness I felt was one more of relief, when your anxiety is proven to be baseless -- or resolved (I felt the same way as if I had received punishment, I knew the answer).  That led me to read the whole of the bible, in a modern translation.  I was trying to recapture that feeling, the affect of the whole thing but it was gone.  I started to recognize religion as much as a cultural thing as a spiritual thing.   I continued going to church, thought I hated it, mainly because my friends went there.  I stopped going once I left the house.

That emotion I felt I have replicated in a way.  In college, I was taught Buddhist meditation.  Later i was a teacher at a Catholic school, and we said the rosary once a month for about an hour with my home room.  There's a lot to be said for that mindset.  It focuses you and takes you away from the  mundane.  But for me, it was more about the process.  It feels good, but not good enough that I have sought it out in the last five years.  It is comparable to some drugs.  Sometimes, with the right people, and the right mood, and the right substances you can capture that.  I understand seeking that feeling of lightness, but it's not the supernatural.

I was never a strong believer, so I don't feel like I left anything.  The only thing I feel I lose without a church of some type is the sense of community.  Learning about the world, through science or the arts widens your view and makes accepting the culture you were raised in more difficult to do without thinking critically about it -- the standard religion is just one aspect of it. 

On a more personal level, I have never been able to resolve the theodicy argument.  Why is there bad and evil in the world.  I lost two close friends when I was young.  Allison was 12 when she was hit by lightning at a church softball game.  Tamra was the most pious woman I have ever met, and she was struck down at 20 with leukemia that came back.  If that was the work of God, I wanted no part of his world. 

I try to be moral in my everyday life.  I feel I am not as vocal as some atheists I know, but I think a lot of people are reactionary.  There was no big turning away for me.  Religion is not a part of my life, but I recognize that it is a part of the culture I live in.

December 11, 2013

Rob Delaney: No Filler (Reading the Book by the Comic)

I only know of Rob Delaney because of Twitter.  He is one of the funniest people I have come across.  He is able to pack a lot into those 140 characters. He’s a little raunchy on there, so don’t let your kids follow him.
On that site, he has been promoting his book.  Heavily.  I figured, since I like what he does with the short form, I’d read what he has to do with the long form.

He does pretty well, but I have to warn you.  The book is funny.  But that’s not all it is.  It is deep and thoughtful and poignant.  Delaney writes with the best of the comic memoirists of the past couple of years: Oswalt, Silverman, Brand, and Fey.  What makes these people tick, to generalize is often more interesting than the short things that you see that make you laugh.  Their lives have created the angle in which they see the world and explain it to their audience.

This book is more than funny because Delaney opens up his life to the reader.  He is honest about his faults: the bed wetting; the substance abuse; the hooking up with and falling in love with random Dutch women. And through this, he is able to bring light to his humor.

It is, broadly, a narrative about addiction and recovery, but it isn’t heavy-handed or cloying.  Delany’s smart, and funny, and you should read his book.  You might just see some of yourself in it.  Or you might not.  Either way, you will laugh.

Some notes.  It is relatively short, so if you’re like me and you start reading and you can’t put it down, you won’t stay up all night.  Finally, the subtitle is misleading.  I found no references Delaney being a Cabbage, and unfortunately there is no index to verify my misgivings.