Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The best parts of Tolstoy Lied

Several weeks ago I got an e-mail from Maliavale containing a book recommendation. For Christmas, a friend of hers had sent her Rachel Kadish's Tolstoy Lied, claiming it was her favorite of 2006. "I'm only 100 pages into it," Malia wrote, "but this book is blowing me away, and for some reason, I keep thinking you'd like it as I read it."

She typed out a passage to demonstrate...

The more things you care about, the more vulnerable you are. If you are part of that epicurean minority in this country that is still offended by violations of the English language, you will be slapped in the face every time you stand in line at the market. Fifteen items or less. Caring passionately about grammar--caring passionately about anything most of humanity doesn't care about--is like poking a giant hole in your life and letting the wind blow everything around. It's like walking out your door with a big sign that says PLEASE FUCK WITH ME. The villain will seize the advantage, take hostages. For every single new thing or person you love, your vulnerability increases by a factor of precisely three billion. Falling in love is absurd. I am an absurd person.

I really can't imagine why Malia read that particular passage and thought of me. Oh yeah. I take that back. I guess can think of a few reasons.

Anyway, I requested Tolstoy Lied from my library, and, as has become my new habit this year, I started flagging passages I loved as I read. When I got to the page containing the passage Malia sent, I flagged it. I also flagged a ridiculous number of other passages. In fact, I wanted to flag the first forty pages of the damn book. Coincidentally, the cover art on Tolstoy Lied depicts a leather-bound book with approximately 35 Post-it flags protruding from its pages...

When I finished this book on Sunday night, I noticed that my borrowed copy looked much like the image on its cover.

I loved this book for a lot of reasons. The writing was smart and well-crafted, and the characters were relatable and real. What sticks with me the most, though, was how Kadish conveyed a love story that is intelligent and rational instead of just fluffy and trite. In the opening sections, she somehow manages to channel the exact thought process of the perpetually single girl (looking in with confusion and distrust at the Marriage Mafia and deciding it's not for her), and yet, by the end, she shows an equally convincing portrait of love the way it's supposed to be--true and comfortable, challenging and changing, without any loss of self.

It would be ridiculous to type out every passage I flagged as I read, but here's a sampling anyway...

Dating emptied me out. One evening, returning from a tepid dinner with a perfectly nice man ("perfectly": adverb of dating doom), I turned on my TV and stared bleary-eyed at a nature special about the tropical rainforest. There, amid platter-sized dasheen leaves and aerial roots... were the hunter vines: stout branches that sprouted from the forest floor, hitched onto the nearest tree, spiraled halfway up its trunk, then--a dozen feet up--groped out into open air to find another, likelier trunk, around which they grew for a dozen months or years until switching to another tree and then, finally, up in the canopy, leafing out into golden sunlight. I thought: I know people like that.

Long ago I came to the conclusion that all married people are with the CIA. Once, they were truthful women and men; friends I understood and knew intimately; people like me, whose every up and down was acknowledged and evaluated in the company of confidants. Then came the wedding... During the ceremony brides and grooms take a vow of secrecy. Afterward, they could tell you what makes their marriage tick; they could explain how they manage day to day without throttling one another; whether they have regrets; and why, in fact, the institution of marriage is desirable in the first place. But then they'd have to kill you.

My fascination with love goes deeper than sex. Love is the channel of mysteries. The unlocker of secrets, decoder ring of souls. People are ciphers until you love them. The prosecutor whose underlings tremble at his command? Love this man and he will show you his Giant Killer Gecko imitation. His hidden fear of drowning. His single childhood memory of his grandfather. Love is a window, and in this city of facades we lone pedestrians can't help trying to warm ourselves by its light.

For my parents, conversation is not a set of exotic pigments. Conversation is house paint. Apply enough to cover the subject. Store the rest in the basement.

...My parents, like a lot of people, successfully raised their child to be an adult they can't understand, in a city they find alarming, in a profession they find impenetrable.

I'm sure there's a lot to be gained from religion... Sometimes I suspect the difference between someone without a clear faith and someone with may be the difference between a stick of wood and a cello. But I can't overlook all the harm religion does. And I don't think we need some big structured community to have meaningful lives.

Here is my recollection of adolescence: You grow breasts (even if they are not particularly significant breasts), and everyone changes overnight. People you used to count on suddenly find you uninteresting. Other people--ones who never had much to say to you--are abruptly unshakable.

Engagement, I am coming to believe, is a second set of breasts.

I sleep fitfully, waking to dial George's number and leave another rambling message. Rising to go to the bathroom, I bump into walls... Proportions confound me. My body is undergoing a transformation, turning foreign. Like Peter Parker getting bitten by a radioactive spider only in reverse: a night of nausea, dizziness, flashbacks... I think of my undergraduate Women's Studies professor and briefly consider looking her up, to inform her. To accuse her. To tell her that evidently those women's studies courses were like vocational training in technical support for Betamax. Teaching me the perfect skills to navigate a system that never took hold.

So now I'm culturally irrelevant, on top of everything? My thoughts scatter. Then, at length, regroup: Literary criticism matters. It's like the computer code behind a program everybody uses. Only a few people care enough to work on the code, but it keeps the program of cultural transmission on course.

I was wrong... Love isn't rest. Love requires you, from time to time, to rip up your soul and replant it. To dare your lover to do the same. To muster sympathy where it seemed impossible. To be, perpetually, two kids joining hands, drawing breath, and deep-diving.

The work of repair is not interesting. It's hours when you expected to be finishing the roof tiles but you're stuck laying foundation -- miles of it. There is, of course, a CIA directive against discussing this part. Love--this is what they don't want you to know--isn't for the faint of heart; it requires modern skepticism as well as an anachronistic gameness for hard labor... Hollywood shows sex because it's easier than showing love. Love--real love--is not cinematic... It's the stuff no one talks about: How trust grows rootlets. How two people who start as lovers become custodians of each other's well-being.

People misunderstand happiness. They think it's the absence of trouble. That's not happiness, that's luck. Happiness is the ability to live well alongside trouble... Every day brilliant people, people smarter than I, wallow in safe tragedy and pessimism, shying from what really takes guts: recognizing how much courage and labor happiness demands.

Oh yeah. I almost forgot. My fewer-than-ten-words review. I didn't really think about that much as I read this one, but how about this, OK?

Literary criticism + intelligent love story = perfect nerdy-girl book


maliavale said...

I am glad you liked it! Wow. For the record, I NEVER meant to imply that you were an absurd person -- in fact, I related to that passage so strongly because I, too, am a words person, and I knew you were also. (I am, however, content to let you hold that reign over the blogosphere. Go 'head, girl.)

stefanie said...

What? No, Malia! It didn't even occur to me that you were implying I'm an absurd person (I mean, I probably am, sure, in several ways, but I didn't think that's what you meant). I understood that the part that made you think of me was the part about caring intensely about grammar! I have proven many times over that I likely care far too much about grammar, so you were right that it totally spoke to me. :-)

Thanks for the recommendation!

lizgwiz said...

That sounds like a great book. And me with a 30% off Borders coupon in my pocket. Might be my lucky day. ;)

-R- said...

That book does sound good!

Unrelated to you post: I can't believe you say "bubbler." Ha!

nabbalicious said...

Huh. I may have to read this! I'm intruiged.

Anonymous said...

Wow... I am really impressed. I've got to read that book! I love her definition of Absurd. It's a compliment, really. Because caring does make you vulnerable, and that is wonderful. Please... call me absurd.

By the way... this is the first time I've commented (I can hardly believe it has taken this long... I lurk no longer). It's me, Amy Louise.

Single Jen said...

I will be going to get this book on my lunch break today.....

stefanie said...

Liz, Nabb, and Jen--Cool. I hope you like it. I don't know why I feel responsible if I recommend something that people then don't like, but I do. So I hope you like it!

R--Cross-commenting. Nice. That always reminds me of when one show has a guest appearance from some character from another show, in order to plug that other show. Like when Noah Wylie and George Clooney came on "Friends" or... OK, I can't think of many other examples. Anyway, yes. Bubbler. That is what it's called. :-)

Amy--Hi! Thanks for commenting. (It wasn't so scary, was it?) :-)

don't call me MA'AM said...

I had to scroll past the majority of the excerpts... I'm freaky about ruining too much of the "surprise" of any book. I won't even read blurbs online, other than brief descriptions.

I want it, though!!

stefanie said...

Sorry, DCMM! I didn't mean to give anything crucial away. I hate it when a movie preview shows you every worthwhile scene in a movie, but in this case, I think there's also lots more good stuff that I didn't copy out!

metalia said...

This sounds fantastic; I have a feeling I'm going to love this. Thanks, Stefanie!

guinness girl said...

Oh, I absolutely must read this now - it looks/sounds fantastic.