Sunday 21 August 2011

A caffeine withdrawal-related miscellany

I have a complicated relationship with the noble coffee bean. I love coffee just for the taste, and that's normally why I forget the kind of headachey, sleepy, confused, and indecisive withdrawal week I just went through and start eventually drinking it again. When I do start drinking it again after a period of abstinence, I feel amazingly good and am stupidly productive...which eventually ends in complete dependence that provides no such boosts and I'm drinking it just to avoid the headache, etc. Which, understandably, I think, quickly becomes unacceptable, and I quit, again. I haven't had a coffee, or anything else caffeinated, since last Saturday.

But before I quit the good stuff, I finished reading Anne Fadiman's collection of familiar essays, At Large and At Small. Indeed, in a terrible instance of art thumbing its nose at (my) life, I found myself reading her essay about coffee while drinking what I knew would be my last cup of coffee (this time around).

"Coffee" was a great essay, but it filled me with fear because of its discussion of all the great people (Balzac being the one I recall most clearly) who would have gotten nothing done and achieved no fame or fortune whatsoever without imbibing copious amounts of the caffeinated beverage of extreme deliciousness. I don't think coffee can make me as gifted and prolific a writer as Balzac was; coffee is no substitute for natural talent. Yet, reading this piece made me antsy about ever getting anything interesting done again. Have I mentioned that coffee also makes me antsy?

As for the rest of Fadiman's collection, it was not as compelling to me as her previous work, Ex Libris, but I think this has primarily to do with the fact that Ex Libris was entirely about books and At Large and At Small is only partially about books. My favourite pieces in the latter (besides "Coffee") were about Charles Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; her other essaysaddressing such diverse topics as ice cream, butterfly collecting, and the American flagwere incredibly well-written, of course, but their subject matter didn't draw me in at all.

Reading this book has made it even more embarrassingly clear to me that books are my almost exclusive interest in life. Well, at least in terms of reading; I like cats very much, and travel, and hummus, but I don't care much to read about any of these things. Books that are stories and books about books (sometimes) are all I really care to read. Fadiman's superb writing carried me through the essays addressing topics that I had no interest in, but At Large and At Small didn't grab me the way her bibliophilic romp Ex Libris did.

The first few days of life after coffee (LAC) were passed away in the post-apocalyptic YA hell that is Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games. My darling friend Vee sent me the whole trilogy a while ago and I was incredibly grateful to have them here when my brain tried to adjust. The Hunger Games is a fast read as well as kind of an addictive one, but I have to say I don't know why the latter is true, for the novel is highly derivative of all such battle royale plots (especially derivative of, say, Koushun Takami's Battle Royale).

In spite of its being highly derivative, I still think this could have been a really good book, for Collins gestures towards the hideous underbelly of America's obsession with reality TV in conjunction with its love of sensationalist news "reporting". But she just doesn't and this is part of a larger problem: this book was produced by a lazy writer. Collins brings up incredibly fascinating issues and then doesn't bother to tease them out; her characterization is almost non-existent, and the writing is at best merely adequate. I wish either Philip Pullman or Garth Nix had written this book. That said, I will save the other two books in the trilogy for my next bout with the caffeine withdrawal, to help me pass the time.

In the midst of my caffeine withdrawal, which peaked at day 4 and covered my soul with the most sickening and soul-destroying malaise, I dove (gingerly; I did have a terrible headache, after all) into a graphic novel about the goddamn Batman called Knightfall Part 1: Broken Bat. Very few words and pretty pictures were just what the doctor ordered, and making my way through this collection helped distract me from my acute pain and thankfully short-lived despair.

I have read very few graphic novels in my day, but I think my husband may have screwed the form's chances of ever becoming a favourite of mine by having me read two of the best examples thereof to beginWatchmen and V for Vendetta. Watchmen, especially. Broken Bat, in comparison, was amateurish in its story-telling, for each chapter simply detailed the Batman having his ass viciously handed to him by increasingly more dangerous super-villains until he's (literally) broken by the large, hairy, angry, and souped up Bane. I wouldn't say I was exactly bored by the time it ended, but I wasn't sorry to see it go either.

Finally, there was the lovely J. D. Salinger's famous collection, Nine Stories. I actually began reading this small tome about a month ago but let it lay for a long time because the first several stories were just not compelling in the ways I've come to expect of Salinger's work. The first tale, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish", wasn't badbut it's about Seymour, so it should have been bloody fantastic, and it wasn't. And the story that followed it, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut", I thought was actually kind of terrible. So, I put the book down.

But then I picked it up again last week, in part out of guilt and in part out of necessity (for it's due back at the library tomorrow) and in part because I thought short stories might help me get through the final days of caffeine detoxification (I'm feeling excellent now, thank you). The rest of the book is a mixed bag of disappointing and brilliant. I hated "Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes" even more than I hated the wiggily story, but "For Esmewith Love and Squalor", "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period", and "Teddy" were so good as to make up for everything else; yes, it was worth reading all nine just for these three.

And now my reading brain has recovered, I am reading Anthony Trollope's autobiography while I wait for my next Vic Lit project novel to arrive from the library—Thackeray's The History of Henry Esmond. I actually already have a copy of this novel, but when I picked it up to begin it, all the pages started falling out; this is no way to read a Great Book, so I will wait for the hopefully less abused library copy.


Ellen said...

I read the hunger games trilogy so quickly last year (i think in 4 or 5 days) that when I finished I thought, "man! what fantastic writing!" Your complaint about Collins's lazy writing is one I've heard before, so I'm a little nervous that when I go back for a reread I'll be able to pick that up. Maybe I should just drink a lot of coffee and read them as quickly as I did last time?

Oh, and good luck with the coffee. I've managed to moderate it pretty well with two or three cups a day, but there was about a year when I couldn't sleep if i HADN'T had my seven or eight cups. I still don't remember how I got myself out of that, but I'm sure it was hellish.

Meytal Radzinski said...

Even though I hated Catcher in the Rye, I sucked it up and read Nine Stories anyways. I was quite surprised to discover that I rather liked it. Some stories were lame ("A Perfect Day for Bananafish" was just... meh) but I really liked "Teddy", so... it split something like half-half between stories that weren't amazing and stories that were good.

As for The Hunger Games, I can sort of see what you mean about Collins being a lazy writer but I think the addictive qualities of the book outweigh the negative. I do somewhat disagree with you regarding characterization, though. I thought that most of the characters were flat but I actually think that Katniss is a pretty well drawn character... not perfect, but original and kick-butt when necessary. About the comparison to Battle Royale, I've seen many readers make the comparison and Collins repeatedly respond that she'd never heard of Battle Royale until after she wrote The Hunger Games. Who knows...?

Heidenkind said...

Everyone's addicted to something. Better coffee than other things.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

A recent visit to Balzac's coffee pot.

Anonymous said...

A lovely post:) I tend to drink a cup for strong tea in the morning to wake me up and keep espressos as a treat whenever I go to a cafe (or when I'm extra sleepy). Good luck!

I've been meaning to read The Hunger Games and hope to do so before the film comes out.

I also loved Ex Libris and will probably check out her other book too.

Bookphilia said...

Ellen: My gawd, you couldn't sleep unless you'd had copious amounts of coffee! I will try to remember this as a warning when I feel tempted to try coffee again!

Also, I see there's a Hunger Games film coming out next year. Woody Harrelson is in it so maybe it'll be okay.

Biblibio: Katniss was certainly better drawn than all the other characters...but I didn't think she was good per se. Again, I think the movie might be more successful...actors can fill in so much.

heidenkind: Not sure everyone is...but yes, I suppose coffee isn't the worst thing.

Amateur Reader: I want to visit France and drink coffee and wear billowing white shirts like Balzac. But not to die young.

chasingbawa: That's very sensible of you. If I had any impulse control whatsoever, I would do the same. :)