Tag Archives: NYRB

Please make this true, or how the New York Review of Books changes my life…

I recently treated myself to a subscription to the New York Review of Books.


I haven’t had one for years. It’s an expensive subscription, a bit pricey if you neglect to appreciate the pages of excellent writing therein, but more so because of the time required to read it as deeply as the articles demand.

Consequently I am always behind in reading them, and gradually the pressure builds (as with my to-be-read-bookshelf-of-books, which has now expanded to double layers in some places), and I settle myself down and throw myself in.

I honestly believe the NYRB is one of the last bastions of proper journalism. Articles that presumably are there to review books bring in such knowledge and analysis, and I learn so much I can feel my brain stretching.

Every once and awhile I find an article that makes me cry out with delight. I’ve always been a fan of George Saunders’ writing, but this review of his latest collection of stories, Tenth of December, written by Wyatt Mason, was so beautifully done that I am fighting the urge to run out and buy the book to front load onto my aforesaid bookshelf.

I was captured from the first quotation Mason uses from the book, “The pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs,” immediately envisioning my son back when I was learning to give the kids haircuts and the horrible way I sent him out into the world (Sorry, J). Mason goes on to excerpt more of the story, a heartbreaking one, ultimately redemptive.

Mason contrasts Saunders with Franzen and David Foster Wallace, and makes the conclusions that made me cry out in delight. You have to read the article. I’ll include the last sentences as a temptation…the problem is that, standing alone, the might behind the comment is missing, the discussion of Saunders’ Buddhism, his perspective on writing fiction, and much more.  Go read it. Better still, subscribe to the NYRB. You won’t regret it.

“But if fiction is to continue to exert an influence over a culture that finds it ever easier to connect, however frailly, to the world around them through technology, Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather, his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.”

Oh heck, I’m just going to have to buy Tenth of December!

the ability to pay attention

David Foster Wallace seems to have been an author of intense focus. I don’t know that I have the intestinal fortitude to read one of his books, Proustian in length and depth that they are, but in a recent review by Jonathan Raban in the NYRB (May 12, 2011), he quoted something that reminded me of mindfulness meditation and all those other practices that help one go deeper.

“Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.”

I’m not sure about this.  It’s not a new thought. Poor Mr. Wallace found life intolerable and removed himself from it – so perhaps the boredom won out, or the colours were too bright in the end. Still, I think that the bliss he describes is possible, without the agony of boredom beforehand.
I can’t say I’ve ever been that bored. Even watching televised golf can intrigue me. But I do try to pay attention, and perhaps this is the key thing, more so than the boredom. Perhaps the ability to look at a thing so closely, as through a macro lens, gives us the ability to really see it in its glory. Photographers, like my friend Gerry Fraiberg, know this. They spot the soul, the brightness of the thing. Artists capture it, potters pot it, writers write it. The sharper we pay attention, the more we see and the bigger bliss punch we get. When we get it right, there is no feeling like it. It IS  like going from black and white to colour, like stepping through that doorway into Oz.

As Dorothy Parker put it: “The cure for boredom is curiosity.  There is no cure for curiosity.” Wallace seems an intensely curious man.  It’s sad that he wasn’t able to explore that curiosity without losing himself in the process. Perhaps the world was just too full of interesting things to be borne. It IS full. And time is short. How I wish I could explore it all, myself. Instead, I must rely on authors such as Wallace and Raban and artists and others to share  their findings with me.

Today the rain is splattering in choral mumblings against my window.  The dog sighs in his sleep, dreaming of runs on sunny beaches. Dora, the parrotlet, meditatively chews her seed husks, wishing for that tropical environment her genes know but have never experienced. My Cousin Grace’s clock is ticking loudly, slightly off true, limping a bit in its old age. Put them together and it is a harmony of a rainy day, of solitude, of the opportunity to explore new ideas, stretch curiosity. Or escape into it and get soaking, soaking wet.

Perhaps a wee bit of both is in order. Followed by some tea and dry socks. Ah.  Coming in from the rain. Is there anything better?

photo credit: http://www.island-images.dominica-weekly.com/dominica-images/raindrop/