Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Review: How to Be Alone (Book 29 of 100)

How to be Alone with an 8-Disc Audiobook narrated by Jonathan Franzen whose other book “The Corrections” I reviewed rather unfavorably earlier in this list of 100 books. That being said, I also gained some knowledge and found a new research project from reading it. As a result of reading this book, I found a new research project. I began to wonder what would happen and how one would perform homecare for someone with dementia. I begin to wonder what would happen to anyone like me who has been a homecare advocate all of her adult life if said person were to become demented. Would I have to go into a nursing home? Or could there be support prepared for me given my new intellectually impaired condition. I’m sorry to report that I have done no research on this project other than thinking about it a lot.

The first essay in this collection was “My Father’s Brain.” Franzen’s father who had Alzheimer’s was the basis of the main character in “The Corrections.” The author and I apparently disagree strongly about whether people with dementia should be cared for in the home. He thinks nursing homes are a good thing. I don’t fault him for this belief. I just think it’s misguided. But I suppose that like many able-bodied people, he assumes that if his dad would have lived at home, he and his brothers would have been forced to move back to Saint Louis and take care of him. Clearly, he has never heard of homecare. Not that service in Missouri is that good, but I’m sure something could have been worked out, especially given the fact that his son was a famous novelist and therefore had money.

While Franzen and I may disagree on the best method of long-term care provisions, I do relate to one thing he says about accepting that fact that his father is dead. “The only story we can tell now was the one we already had.” I, myself, have felt this way upon learning of the deaths of friends and colleagues more times than I care to remember.

In the second essay “Imperial Bedroom,” he makes the rather unique argument in modern American society when everyone is worried about identity theft and so forth that we don’t suffer from a lack of privacy; we suffer from too much privacy. The problem in America, he argues, is that people are not used to behaving in publically acceptable manners. We often go to work in our pajamas if we work at home and our television programs are “devoid of shame.” We lack the “enforced decorum of fully public places.” Where most of us are still “trying to fool each other.” While you may disagree with this argument, he holds up his case rather well.

The third essay in this collection is titled “Why Bother?” It’s the first essay on the disc that’s about writing. The last essay on the disc is too, but I’ll get to that later. Being a writer myself, I really enjoyed hearing someone else give voice to concerns I thought were only my own. He speaks about wanting to create the great social novel which is also my goal. Upon graduating college, he thought he could “trick Americans into confronting [things that made them uncomfortable] if we could package his subversive bombs into sufficiently seductive narratives.”

But then he went on to discover that in the modern world, novels matter less than they used to and the “dollar is not the yardstick of cultural authority.” This lead him into a depressive episode which began a “profound, urgent, and dangerous” departure from normal social functioning. After some years and a divorce, he began to reengage with the world saying “The world was ending then, it’s ending still, and I’m happy to be a part of it again.”

The next two essays “Lost in the Mail” and “Erika Imports” are both narratives about work and the people dedicated to it. “Lost in the Mail” tells the story of a woman dedicated to reclaiming a properly functioning Chicago Postal Authority. She opted to blow the whistle on federal workers wrongdoings in terms of mail delivery. This essay is the conical of the grief it brought her and how she still hangs on to the hope that her beloved post office will reform itself. The second essay is about the author’s own experience working as a packing boy for an old woman who ran a gift shop supplies for hospitals. While both these essays were enjoyable and the author tells a good tale, they were definitely my least favorite in this collection.

“Sifting the Ashes” was the next essay. It’s the author’s take on big tobacco and how he finally overcame his addiction to make himself the non-smoker everyone thought he was. Personally, I’m not sure how he was able to hide this fact because all the smokers I have known smell badly. Being a health educator, I am one of the people who assume that big tobacco and all people associated with it are as the author puts it “evil with a capital E.”

I was especially alarmed when he discussed tobacco advertising at some length. In a 1916 Atlantic Monthly advertisement aimed at women, which he describes cigarettes were once viewed by many as “the symbol of emancipation, a temporary substitute for the ballot.” As a feminist, I can’t tell you how deeply that idea offends me. In yet another indictment of advertising, he takes on one more of the health educators hated tobacco icons. Franzen says, “cuddly, penis-faced Joe Camel must rank as one of the most disgusting images ever to appear on our cultural landscape.”

In the end, Franzen concludes that big tobacco is guilty of “selling its soul to its legal advisors” thereby “inhaling contradiction and breathing out ambivalence.”

Next in the collection is “The Reader in Exile.” It’s basically one long lamentation about how people don’t read anymore. With all the new technologies, he concludes, “the novel is dying because consumers don’t want it anymore.” The thing I like most about this essay is that it gives you lots of other books to read if you want to explore this particular topic in greater detail. He recommends Being Digital and The Gutenberg Elegies, both of which I ordered upon his recommendation.

“First City” comes next. This essay is about how society is being realigned to favor the suburbs over the city. Legislation is passed all the time to give preferential treatment to those who live in the suburbs, while other laws are passed at “target city centers like ICBM’S.” In this case Franzen refers to a powerful bomb commonly used by suicide bombers.

Scavenging is my second favorite essay in this collection. It tells the story of how the author must learn to repair things that he’s been told he should throw away because they are obsolete. Often he keeps things going because he can’t afford to buy the latest new device. I can relate. Since I don’t have cable anymore, I use my DVD player, which is plugged into my VCR which is still compatible with my old TV. If I didn’t still have my VCR I would have to buy a new TV in order to play a DVD. Buying a new TV is not happening on my budget. Writers and artists who are inherently poor as a group are charged with “taking the world has abandoned by the side of the road and making something beautiful out of it.” I think that’s the best description of my job ever.

“Control Units” is, in my opinion, the widest departure from what I have come to classify as Franzen-esque although this is only my second taste of his work. It’s a study of a particular prison in Colorado. Local residents were promised an abundance of jobs at this prison, but what they got was “traffic dust and bar trade.”

The residents of the community of Florence, Colorado actually purchased the land that the jail sits on and gave it as a gift to the bureau of prisons and then got screwed. When the jail came in, they bought their own construction crews and guards. Additionally, people who work at the prison don’t like to stop in the town to patronize local businesses. They prefer to drive out to suburban malls. One shopkeeper Franzen interviewed said he didn’t know if he would be in business for even two more years. In fact, when Franzen bought a pair of jeans from him, the shopkeeper gave him a free t-shirt with a picture of the prison on it.

Franzen both advocates for prison reform and advocates for the communities that get stepped on by the prison industrial complex. Many people work on only on of these issues but ignore or are not aware of the other. It was nice that he combined both key points.

Why is it that ever essay collection I read by a heterosexual man has to have a sex essay in it? “Books in Bed” was Franzen’s nod to this fixture. The funny thing about this essay is that it is not actually about sex. It’s about books that tell people how to have better sex. He laments on how as society becomes more open about sexuality, people get “mugged by a norm.” This means that people who now know what their neighbors are doing are busily comparing themselves. Apparently, there is even a book about how to write sex scenes called rather unoriginally The Joy of Writing Sex. I don’t foresee myself adding that to my collection of books about the craft of writing. For himself, he says that when he is reading a good story where sex suddenly appears, he has “orgasmic collapse” and stops believing in the story.

For me, this was very validating because I have frequently had the experience of reading a short story novel in which a sex scene appears out of thin air often with an un-introduced character. This bothers me immensely and I don’t normally read second books by authors who practice this substandard and unrealistic form of writing.

“Meet me in St. Louis” was the saddest piece in the book. It was all about how the author had to travel back to his hometown of St. Louis after both his parents had died in order to appease Oprah Winfrey who wanted to feature his book The Corrections in her book club. He and Oprah had some difficulties based on his reluctance and subsequent refusal to enter his childhood home which was now under new ownership.

As a writer, I wonder how I would feel going to back to Penbrook, Pennsylvania after both my parents had died and I didn’t own the house anymore. I’m not even sure the emotional upset would be worth it for Oprah and all the millions of readers her endorsement would get me. I’m not so sure I could say no to all those zeroes though. Being on Oprah means you’re officially famous.

My favorite essay in the collection is “Inauguration Day January 2001.” I think I might like it merely because I was at the same event as Jonathan Franzen although I never heard of him at the time. We both rode somewhat smelly yellow school buses down to Washington D.C. to protest the election of George W. Bush. Franzen took the bus from Hartford which was paid out of pocket by David Smock, a card-carrying member of the International Socialist Organization. My own bus was financed by UMass economic graduate student aptly named Jonathan who used his inheritance from his recently deceased parents to rent the bus.

Franzen managed to capture the mood of that rainy, horrible January day in a way that makes readers feel like they were there even of they weren’t. As a person who tries to document activism while engaging in it, by means of a pen and body, I know that this can be really difficult. Truth be told, this attempt by Franzen beats every attempt I’ve made. Maybe that’s why he’s millionaire.

I really liked this book of essays and have thus concluded that Franzen is much better essayist that fiction writer. This book really has no weak pieces which is difficult with expository writing. If you want to find some pretty deep thoughts and discover some new books to read (always a good thing in my opinion) you probably want to try this book. I rate this book an 8.25 out of 10.

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