Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book review: "Freedom"

I was rabidly excited to read Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom."  I loved his previous novel, "The Corrections," and am a long-time fan of his non-fiction pieces in the New Yorker.  He writes with a strain of effete east coast snobbery that I sadly recognize in myself, but he doesn't seem too burned up about it.  As if his past work wasn't enough, Franzen was being proclaimed The Great American Novelist on the cover of Time, Oprah picked his book for her club, and he was the subject of many long, fawning reviews that I wallowed in reading, sometimes twice.

Of course, I should have been warned when those same reviews contained sentences like this: "Franzen cracked open the opaque shell of postmodernism, tweezed out its tangled circuitry and inserted in its place the warm, beating heart of an authentic humanism."  My thought was: Wait a second, did he write a book or build a robot?  I was also irritated by the use of the verb "tweeze."

Despite this, I forged ahead.  To read this book I broke my own personal rules about waiting until the paperback edition, and about not spending unnecessary amounts of money during this age of austerity.  I even returned the first copy of the book that I purchased because I realized that I could save $2 if I ordered it online.  And so, late last night, after purchasing in total two copies of this book, I finished the damn thing.

How do you describe the sound of the air leaking out of a balloon?  I kept waiting for the brilliance, the cohesion.  Franzen is an undeniably compelling writer, and I devoured this book -- but I never saw it as a masterpiece.  The main characters and plots were described opaquely, elliptically -- through the perceptions of the neighbors, through an interminable autobiography of 200+ pages.  I kept waiting for a strong narrative voice to come in and unify the characters, the ideas.  Instead it felt like a negative portrait of the characters -- Franzen stuffed the margins with contemporary ideas and name-droppings, filling in the excess with riffs on war profiteering or mountain-top removal mining, and what remained, silhouetted in the middle, were the main characters. (Perhaps the previous sentence is as bad as the one cited above, but then again, this is not the NYT Book Review.)

I appreciate a writer with ambition, and Franzen plotted the hell out of this -- intricate, complicated, with dynamics that emerge once and resurface again later -- but the structure and episodic nature of the book made it difficult to embrace as a unifying work.  The characters seemed flat, caricatures of actual humans: the aging rocker; the desperate former athlete/housewife, the "Republican" son, who never did anything remotely Republican; etc. 

Although Franzen nodded to contemporary events and motifs, he seemed to just throw them all against the wall in the hopes that the mere mention of Sarah Silverman or YouTube would somehow transform the book into an engrossing portrait of the era.  As if mere reflection and recitation were enough, instead of the deep digging I was hoping for.  The characters were ciphers, vessels to carry these labels, yet they never engaged with them.

Personally, it was interesting to read about Franzen's idea of UVA during 9/11, which I was present for, or of McLean, Virginia, which is my hometown.  He was sort of right and sort of wrong about both.  His writing often fell flat for me -- none of the casual poetry of Ian McEwan or Lorrie Moore -- and there were some sentences that seemed as if they had been dashed off in an email, rather than as part of this year's Great American.  Too much dialogue in ALL CAPS.

But did I enjoy reading the book?  Yes, I did.  I couldn't put it down.  There were a few emotionally resonant scenes, and I enjoyed how he toyed with the idea of freedom -- its blessing and its potential danger in our modern society.  The opening and closing sections were strong, steered by an omniscient narrator who could survey a broad community of characters and ideas, who could describe the sunset falling over a lakeside community, who could write with biting wit.  If only Franzen had not ceded the book to so many other, lesser voices.

As far as the chorus of ecstatic reviews go, I think I have been burned by the literary hype machine.  Once again I asked L if perhaps I'm just a lazy or shallow reader, but I don't think so (I've got David Brooks and B.R. Myers in my corner).  Perhaps the overwhelming praise is for Franzen's ambition, if not his execution; perhaps it's for our own self-indulgence as we read a novel about liberals with irony and Twitter streams; or perhaps this is a round of literary self-congratulation to which outsiders are not invited.  The final disappointment came when I realized that the people to whom the book was dedicated were Franzen's agent and publisher.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mel's Burger Bar: Never again

We just came home from a singularly shitty meal at Mel's Burger Bar, at 111th Street and Broadway.  We had made plans to eat there with John and Anna and Naomi early, at 5:30, so that we could return home in time to put the children to bed without any major meltdowns.  This is smart, right?  This was good thinking.

The first sign of trouble came when we asked the waiter to give us a minute to look at the menu, and he disappeared for 15.  When we finally placed our orders, the food took almost an hour to arrive.  In the meantime the babies were fussing and various adults in our party were taking turns jostling the kids, walking them around, or trying to distract them with napkins and the smacking-the-table game.  When our food did eventually arrive -- after several conversations with the waiter in which he invariably assured us that it would be out in a few minutes -- my entire order was missing.  Once my hamburger arrived, I had to ask yet again for my fries.  They also messed up John's order too.  I finally asked to speak to the manager, and the young man who I took for a busboy turned out to be it.  He explained that the kitchen was slow and that the restaurant had gotten slammed. He was not very apologetic, and did not seem to care, although he did offer to pay for our drinks.  When the food finally arrived we devoured our meals in about ten minutes; we had to go home to put the children to bed.  Our waiter came back eventually and asked if we wanted a refill or anything, but I was too pissed to look at him and declined, even though I was dying for another Coke.  I had a point to make, and opted to stew in my own martyrdom.  When the check came, we decided, after much deliberation, not to leave a tip.  And I think that was the right thing to do, under the circumstances.

What kills me about a blown meal -- whether due to restaurant staff incompetence, failure of a delivery to arrive, or the classic table-side interpersonal argument -- is that you have no way of recovering the time and the experience: that was your dinner, as shitty as it may have been, and that's that.  You'll just have to wait for the next meal to try to have a nice time.  At one point tonight John remarked that the evening was just totally gone for me, with no chance of redemption, and unfortunately he was right.  Maybe I'm being a jerk by wallowing in my own frustration, but I still have to ask: why do I, as the diner, have the burden of addressing the shitty service that the restaurant is providing?  I don't want to be confrontational.  Why doesn't the restaurant realize that the best way to build loyalty among customers is to proactively respond to a bad experience?  Had the manager acknowledged how badly the dinner had gone -- had he bought us dessert or comped the meal, or even just genuinely apologized -- we would have had a great time and would have had a positive experience at Mel's Burger Bar.  Instead here I am writing about this, trying to repeat the name of the restaurant (Mel's Burger Bar) to improve its Google hits and noting that other diners across the internet have also experienced similarly bad service at this place, which is called Mel's Burger Bar.

I think I was a little riled up based on hearing about John and Anna's encounter with a surly, unprofessional security guard at the Natural History Museum, and my own interaction yesterday with an obnoxious line-cutting woman at Absolute Bagels.  (She cut in line ahead of me to join her friend, and when I started trying to place my order, she tried to cut me off, at which point I said, "Sorry, I didn't see you standing here this whole time," and then she gave me a dirty look, although I feel I won the karmic battle when her order got messed up and I completed my transaction and left the place ahead of her.)  It's incredibly frustrating when people treat you thoughtlessly, or contemptibly, and you feel you have no recourse but to sit there and take their shit.  I don't know if it is a new confidence, or a new pettiness, or a new crankiness, but there are some times when I find myself uttering a snotty remark, or leaving a tip of exactly $0.00, because it's the most appropriate way I can think of to politely suggest that somebody can go fuck themselves. 

And that's the end of my rant.  I feel angrier than your average Tea Party participant right about now. 

Friday, October 08, 2010

Into the (pregnancy) archives

One housekeeping note:

Back when we found out about the baby, I started a private blog to write about some early pregnancy stuff.  In the interest of efficiency, and to assist my future biographers, I imported those posts into ol' Clarity.  So if you're interested in reading about the heady days of July and August 2009, here are the links to those stories:
Day one/Dandelion -- July 22, 2009

Collect $200 -- August 6, 2009

Telling my parents -- August 6, 2009


I am finding myself a little bored these days.  When the evening rolls around, we know we have to be home around 6:30 for LB to go to bed.  And, unfortunately, when the baby falls asleep, you still can't leave the house and go out for the evening -- that's frowned upon by most childcare experts.  Consequently we're left with this cavernous four-to-five-hour block of time to fill before we officially go to bed.

And do you know how we usually fill this time?  By watching television!  Depending on the night, we will watch several episodes of a completely disposable, completely interchangeable lineup of shitty reality shows!  Here is how every single show goes:  in the first ten minutes the challenge is announced.  Then we see the contestants work on it.  Then we see the judges criticize their work and the contestants receive their comeuppance.  Then someone wins.  Then there is a small degree of inconsequential suspense.  Then someone is eliminated.  Then that person talks about how they're doing much better now.  And then we start a new show! 

Tonight we were both home at 5:30.  The baby was fussy yet still somewhat patient so we decided, in the a burst of wild-hearted spontaneity, to go to a restaurant for an early dinner.  Alice started fussing but she was content to lie down on the banquette while we quickly ate.  Then we came home and put Alice to bed.  L fell asleep on the couch at 6:30.  I watched "Top Chef Just Desserts," 20 minutes of an Oprah Winfrey show about 30 year-old virgins, and "The Apprentice."  L woke up near the end of that last show.  Then she went into the bed to sleep for real, and I continued watching a random episode of "Big Love."  Scripted television is a rare treat in our house. 

So, in sum, I am a little bored.  I feel guilty going to the gym in the evening because I'm away from my family and leaving L with all the childcare duties.  But damn if it isn't kind of boring to be home all night, every night.  Too tired to read or write, too awake to sleep.  Television is easy, but it's so insipid.  

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


On Saturday we celebrated Alice's baptism.  It was a far lovelier thing than I had ever thought it would be.  

Her christening gown has been hanging in our closet for several months.  We kept it wrapped in its plastic hanger and carried it downtown to the church for the actual event.  L and I changed her from her chic Baby Gap dress into her stately gown in a bathroom tucked away in some far-flung corner of the church, standing Alice up on the changing table to put on her slip and then button her into her dress.  It took me a few minutes to work out all the pins holding the various pieces of the garment together.  We added a bangle that LeeLee had given her, and tied her into some clean white booties, and the final touch was to add the little hat that draped over her head like a wimple.  She looked like a cute little Hester Prynne of a girl.  The shocking thing, though -- the thing that I genuinely did not expect -- was that she looked beautiful.  Somehow the exorbitant dress and the funny bunched-up sleeve and her World-War-I-era-nurse hat all made sense.  She looked beautiful and pure; it seemed like the foreshadowing of a wedding day, almost, and it reminded me of how the Church is supposed to be revered as the bride of Christ.  I did not expect any of this.

She was remarkably calm through the whole ceremony.  She played with the long cords dangling from the sides of the hat, wrapping them around her fingers and trying to eat them.  When it came time for me to lower her over the baptismal font so that the priest could pour water on her forehead, she kept her eyes locked on him, calmly watching the entire thing.  My grandfather said he never saw a better-behaved baby at a christening.  The priest was friendly and kind, calling her "sweet Alice" and making sure the holy water was the right temperature before the sacrament began.

I was struck by the beauty of the language of the baptismal rite.  Here are some parts that I found particularly lovely as the priest recited the words:
My dear brothers and sisters, God uses the sacrament of water to give his divine life to those who believe in him. Let us turn to him, and ask him to pour his gift of life from this font on this child he has chosen. 
Father, you give us grace through sacramental signs, which tell us of the wonders of your unseen power. In baptism we use your gift of water, which you have made a rich symbol of the grace you give us in this sacrament. 
At the very dawn of creation your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness. Your Son willed that water and blood should flow from his side as he hung upon the cross. And after his resurrection Christ told his disciples: "Go out and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Father, look now with love upon your Church, and unseal for them the fountain of baptism. By the power of the Spirit give to the water of this font the grace of your Son. You created us in your own likeness: cleanse us from sin in a new birth to innocence by water and the Spirit.
I was very happy the we decided to baptize our girl.  I'm happy that she is a member of a faith community, even though I have many issues with the doctrine and with the way the current leadership has decided to engage the world.  I'm glad we can tell her some day that it was important to us to welcome her into a formal relationship with God and community.  I think sacraments are important things -- a way to measure life -- and I'm really happy we could give Alice her first one; that we could add her name to the rolls of a church, that we could hear a priest bless her as a member of this flawed yet hopeful flock, that we as an extended family could share a small moment of religious faith. 

I'm also glad we will be able to show her the outpouring of love our little family received on the occasion.  It meant a lot to us to see our parents, grandparents, siblings and friends gathered in that church on that beautiful Saturday.