Ben/Franzen Update.

Things are still going well for my friend Ben, who has been likened to Jonathan Franzen by his local Starbucks barista since JulyThe last I heard, she was reading The Corrections and loving it; now it appears she has gone straight to the phase in the coffee-maker/coffee-drinker relationship where nicknames are given and endearments are exchanged.  Here’s the latest text from Ben:

I am now officially known as Franzen at Starbucks.  As in, “Hey Franzen, how’s your morning?”

As someone who has never had an easy sort of grace with strangers, I’m incredibly jealous of Ben’s rapport with this mysterious and literary caffeine peddler.  Then again, I don’t look like Mr. Franzen — which, as a woman, I think is a good problem to have.

More On My Friend Ben + Jonathan Franzen.

A while ago, my pal Ben sent me a hilarious email; in it, he described an interaction between him and a Starbucks barista who was convinced that Ben was Jonathan Franzen‘s doppelgänger. Apparently the resemblance holds, since Ben recently texted me the following:

Same barista. I still look like Franzen. She’s reading The Corrections. It’s living up to the hype.

I think this story will always make me laugh and, regardless, it’s as good a way as any to link to an essay penned by Franzen for MIT‘s Technology Review about “cell phones, sentimentality, and the decline of public space.” For those of you who haven’t read any Franzen, it’s a great introduction: funny, honest and thoughtful. Come to think of it, the same words could be used to describe Ben. Maybe they are the same person…?

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

I mentioned the other day that I like to wait for the buzz around restaurants to quiet before going in and sampling the menu. The same applies to how I feel about books; if everyone is talking about a certain book, I can’t read it. Too much market saturation, I suppose. I’ll happily wait a few months or even years to go to the bookstore.

(Strangely enough, this isn’t how I feel about films. I have to see them before the hype builds, otherwise I end up terribly disappointed.)

Jonathan Franzen‘s third novel, The Corrections, is precisely one of those books. It was absolutely impossible for me to read it during the frenzy of The Oprah Incident, let alone the novel’s winning of the National Book Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. There were just too many people talking about this book, and I didn’t want my opinions to get colored by the reviews, by the prizes or by Oprah.  So I went on my merry little way, and read everything I could get my hands on that wasn’t written by Franzen.  It wasn’t until I saw Franzen speak at Grub Street‘s Muse and the Marketplace writers’ conference last month that I realized it was more than time for me to hunker down with The Corrections.

And hunker down I did. At 576 pages, The Corrections is by no means a light read. This is the kind of reading that, should you read while riding public transit, causes you to almost miss your subway stop and makes you bolt madly for the doors before they zip firmly shut on your foot.  This is the kind of reading that compels you to put off cooking dinner, feign a headache and not feel guilty about ordering in some greasy pizza, as a slice is easily eaten one-handedly as the other turns pages. This is the kind of reading that, at the risk of sounding altogether cheesy, leaves you breathless.

Franzen’s writing is funny; it is clever; it is charming; it is painful.  With almost maddening ease, he tells the story of the five Lamberts: father Albert, mother Enid, older brother Gary, middle child Chip, and little sister Denise.  Each Lambert’s past and present swirl around them like so much mist, but Franzen carefully directs us through their chaotic lives with an assurance that is truly enviable.  Each character, for all their faults and deep flaws, is allowed moments of true likability.  It would have been so easy to turn sensible Gary into a cold-hearted brute and yearning Chip into a pervy academic, but instead, Franzen gives his cast something truly special: humanity.

My Reading List, and Some Reasons Why.

Here’s a photo of the books I’ve currently got waiting in the wings, in no particular order. They are all for pleasure, except for The Poet and the Murderer, which is for book club. That’s not say, of course, that the books my friends and I pick to read together aren’t pleasurable — the difference is that I chose the six others for myself, and for no reason other than just plain wanting to read them.

  1. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
  2. The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
  3. Messenger by Lois Lowry
  4. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  5. Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh
  6. The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrall
  7. Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal

Excluding The Omnivore’s Dilemma and, again, The Poet and the Murderer, I purchased these books this past weekend at the Muse and the Marketplace. I attended a lectures by both Jennifer Haigh and Lois Lowry (big surprise, that), chatted with Michael Lowenthal at lunch on Saturday and attended the keynote brunch the following day with Jonathan Franzen. There were several books to be purchased at conference, but I went with these not only because these were the writers who impressed me the most, but also because I had a very limited amount of room in my bag.

  • Do I really need to say anything more about my great affection for Lois Lowry?
  • Jonathan Franzen read excerpts from his most recent book, The Discomfort Zone, and answered many questions on what I can’t help but think of as The Oprah Incident. He also discussed the German language, his unsuccessful pursuit of girls and the contemporary North American writers whose work he enjoys reading. I should also mention that Mr. Franzen’s voice is absolutely lovely to listen to. Immediately afterwards, I went to a seminar with John Sedgwick, who wondered how a voice like that could be attained. Nicotine, he concluded.
  • Jennifer Haigh’s workshop on how to get a novel started was undoubtedly one of the most helpful, and not to mention exciting. In clear, concise words, Ms. Haigh spoke about some of her writing tricks; I know that I’m going to use them myself from here on in, with the hopes of being even a quarter as successful.
  • Michael Lowenthal was a funny and friendly lunch companion — though our eating together was pure happenstance. I nervously sat down at a table, and found myself with published, acclaimed writers and a charming, witty agent. I’ve never felt like such a fraud before in my life. Mr. Lowenthal was easy to talk to, and had so many fascinating things to say about his recent time at the Instituto Sacatar, an artists’ colony in Brazil.