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November 21, 2022
"Mes de los Muertos"

Oort Cloud Oddities: Meaningful Books

By Alexandra Queen

Lately, I've been trying to read meaningful books like Cold Mountain or The Lovely Bones.

It's been a problem.

I know how to read -- that's not the problem. I can get help with the big words. (Me: "What's 'emulate'?" John: "What K and L say when the ABC song gets delayed.") I can handle non-fiction and I can handle cheap fiction.

But when friends hand me a book and gush, "It changed my life!" or when literary critics get teary-eyed and squeak, "It was so hauntingly beautiful," I know I'm going to have issues getting through it.

This is why.

Those books all tend to paint their characters as poignant in their angst. Somehow lovely in their suffering and confusion. They are populated with people like the Woman With Faraway Eyes, unfathomable, unreachable, beautiful like the ocean as she tries to figure out why she ditched her husband and kids to go "find herself", or the Tormented But Very Attractive Man, stoic in his perseverance, deserting his comrades in arms and fighting to get back to the woman he loves (or at least the woman he talked to once or twice who didn't call the cops when he smooched on her unexpectedly that one time).

It's not that I don't find conflicted characters interesting. It's not that I automatically sneer at people who make bad choices, or don't think that sometimes a bad choice might be the only decent option available sometimes.

No, my problem with these books is that in my experience, real life doesn't let you pose so prettily for any significant length of time.

Here's a few real life examples to demonstrate:

Meaningful Book: The heroine reaches out to her estranged husband. He looks into her eyes, past the tired mother she has become, to the mysterious, sensual girl she once was.

Real Life: I realize I've been snippy with my husband all day, so I reach over to him and tenderly pull the blankets up around him. Or try to. Instead, the corner of the blanket catches the huge glass of ice water he -- just -- filled up, knocking it all over his side of the bed and his end table, dousing his book and pouring over the side of the table directly into the only pair of shoes he owns that do not cover his feet with blisters. I am left to grin wanly at him and offer him my (dry) side of the bed to sleep on as he lifts first one shoe, then the other, wordlessly disgorging a steady stream of water from each.

Meaningful Book: The faithful, brave dog senses a threat to the family in the back yard. The hackles on the back of his neck lift as he rumbles a low warning, then barks once sharply to ward off intruders. Inside the house, the mother feels a chill and pulls her child in close, grateful for the safety a large dog offers.

Real Life: Our German shepherd, Babe, is asleep when he passes gas. Mistaking the sound for a homeland security breach, he explodes from his slumber and goes tearing out the back door, bellowing like a professional wrestler trying to be heard through a concrete wall. He forgets that there is a screen in the door and hits it so hard he is literally knocked off his feet and back twice his own body length. On the opposite side of the impact, the screen door will no longer close and cannot even be hammered back into proper shape. Inside the house, the mother pulls her child in close and hopes the baby has the good sense to not stand between the door and the dog the next time "Uncle Babe" is feeling a mite bit windy.

Meaningful Book: The hero rides his motorcycle, lost in thought, oblivious to the melting of women as he passes by.

Real Life: My friend rides her motorcycle, taking a moment to enjoy the figure she must be cutting as an attractive young woman on a well-kept machine. Immediately, it being almond blossom season, a bee flies up her nose. No one melts as she pulls over and must "okie blow" a live, angry insect from her nose. Unless perhaps you count melting in laughter.

Perhaps other people like to imagine characters sorting through life's turmoil in silent dignity, so beautiful in their flawed attempts to make sense of what fate has handed them. But in my personal experience, you have to claw, scratch and bite to maintain any sort of dignity whatsoever, while Life continues to pin "Kick Me" signs to your back and deal you birthmarks in the shape of Groucho Marx glasses (replete with big nose and bushy eyebrows).

Sure the heroines in the books always paint such a poignant figure as they're baking in the kitchen. How come they don't have spiders appear out of nowhere and fling themselves into the cake mold while they're pouring the batter? That's the type of thing that happens to me.

So keep your award winning, meaningful authors. If I want to read something that gives me insight on how to deal with the hurdles of my every day life, I'll read something by Douglas Adams or Dave Barry.

Comments and poignant moments to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.

This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin on Oct 9 2004.

Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-11-20
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