Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Intelligence and Navel-Gazing

I really want to feel, when I’m reading a book, that I’m in the company of an intelligent person. I do get a kick out of books with literary allusions in them. But it’s so very, very dull to read books about self-conscious English majors who are fond of making literary allusions. The occasional tumble into some postmodern rabbit hole is fine, but I like my novels to inhabit a more diverse world.

All of which is a preamble to praise for Gayle Brandeis’ compulsively readable, moving, and intelligent book, Self Storage. She gives her main character a genuine love of Walt Whitman--a love inherited from her beloved and dead mother--and not much else. We believe in her love of Whitman in spite of everything because she’s a smart young woman who still hungers for more education; we believe in her love of Whitman because the Whitman she quotes is always just exactly right for the moment. She doesn’t just quote the high points, the old chestnuts, the anthology pieces. She gets deep into Leaves of Grass and pulls out tiny little nuggets.

This is the first time I’ve really regretted not spending more time with Whitman. I loved the Whitman she led me to.

I grabbed the book off my shelf for some light reading on the plane to L.A. a couple weeks back. It’s got a picture of a red bra in a jar on the cover. Lauren sent it to me. I expected to be diverted. I was not entirely prepared for such a happy, happy read: it’s just a great combination of a fun, fun, happy book and a smart one that makes you think and care. It goes down easy--which is nice--but it doesn’t disappear.

So. Self Storage is about a young mother, trapped in a depressing faculty housing ghetto in Riverside. She has two grimy, sweet, demanding little kids and her husband is depressed and is so stalled on his dissertation that the topic has become off limits. To relieve all of this, she begins going to the auctions of abandoned self-storage units and selling the junk on eBay and at garage sales. At the same time, she becomes obsessed with (and then, entangled with) the Afghani woman down the block (who doesn’t speak to her and wears a full burkha). Scenes of her in a hospital when a child is ailing cut me to the quick: like the protagonist I, too, failed my daughter in her hour of need (a broken arm only) and it’s a humbling feeling.

It’s a fun premise. She manages the plot--which is compelling and apt--really well and the ending is redemptive and cool. I really liked this book: it seemed to me to solve that problem with which I began. Brandeis is book-smart in ways her characters are not, but some literature matters to some of them and she is never condescending to any of her characters, even that lout of a husband!

1 comment:

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