April 1, 2016


Watership Down by Richard Adams (book club, re-read) - I read this long long ago, and I remember loving it.  Part Odyssean epic, part fairytale-folk-lore (rabbit version, of course), part social commentary, part Arthurian quest, and fully nonstop adventure story.  My very favorite part this time through was the chapter epigraphs, some of which I was more familiar with this time around; and the ones I wasn't familiar with I was able to conveniently get the background from the good (if slightly irreverent) people at Schmoop.  These epigraphs are genius clever intros (and spoilers!) to each chapter.   Leadership, friendship, teamwork, power, pitfalls of pride, freedom vs safety, the nature of home, man vs nature, nature vs nature, thinking/planning/brainstorming outside the box, bravery, sacrifice, overcoming fear, building and preparing for the future ... all themes/threads/philosophies addressed within this story.  It's a worthwhile read.  But.  I didn't love it this second time as much as I did 20 years ago.  In fact, honestly, it was a bit of a hard slog, broken up with copious skimming.

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion - this is a total put-yourself-in-someone-else's-shoes and see-the-world-thru-his-eyes/mind kind of book.  The words "autism" and "aspergers" are thrown about in both this book and its prequel, The Rosie Project, though Don Tillman, the main character (in whose shoes we're metaphorically walking) is never overtly identified as being on the spectrum (tho the author clearly wants us to believe he's there).  But we DO KNOW that Don is not exactly "normal".  We know that he always means well, has good intentions, tends to be very literal, takes science very seriously, and is not capable of clearly understanding social or emotional cues.  I very much enjoyed The Rosie Project, and I think I value The Rosie Effect even more highly.  It tugged at my heartstrings.  The stakes for Don figuring things out were so much higher in this book than the former.  His few friends are a motley crew.  They (mostly Gene) are at once, both worse and better than you expect them to be.  But they have Don's back; and when he can't find his way, they shed light in meaningful ways.  Good book.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James - In a word: Enigmatic. Second word: Ambiguous.  Third word?: Claustrophobic.  Henry James, I do believe you mean to mess with us, your readers.  I know I was kinda clueless when reading Maisie, but I thought it was my fault.  This time, in Screw, I was reading pretty carefully (took me several days even though this story is not even 100pp), and I was still clueless; and I'm pretty sure that you, Henry, carefully crafted this story very precisely & definitively to leave me baffled and questioning.  Is this a spin on the Liar-Lord-Lunatic theory? Is my governess-narrator essentially well-meaning, good, and trustworthy?  Is she maleficent?  Is she a madwoman, not right in her head?  Can I trust her interpretation?  One of the first narrators [who frames the story], did. But with no character to corroborate the governess's version of "reality", I do believe that Henry James intends to lead me only to a "maybe" answer.  Frustrating for me, the reader.  Kinda genius of HJ, the writer.  I really appreciated this literary review from The New Yorker (spoilers abound - save for after you read Screw).

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor - oh my.  this is such a dark, strange, twisted story.  Probably a story better read with a group of people who are all ready to dig in deep and discuss.  In fact, I'm doing my best to plunder the riches of the internets to jimmy-rig together a discussion of sorts for myself and for my greater understanding.  Because this book is truly confusing, even though it IS CLEARLY about sin and redemption ... or attempting, albeit unsuccessfully, to run from the reality of both.  A quote from Flannery herself:  "… it is entirely redemption-centred in thought. Not too many people are willing to see this, and perhaps it is hard to see, because Hazel Motes [main character] is such an admirable nihilist. His nihilism leads him back to the fact of his redemption, however, which is what he would have liked so much to get away from."  O'Connor was dismissive of being characterized as a Southern Gothic writer, and yet Wise Blood seems to me to be the very epitome of Southern Gothic: grim, grotesque, peopled with emotionally unstable or delusional characters, darkly humorous.  But all these things are tightly wrapped around a theme of the nature of redemption.  In the introduction to the 10th anniversary publication of Wise Blood [1962]O'Connor states that the book is about freedom, free will, life and death, and the inevitability of belief:  "It is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death. Wise Blood was written by an author congenitally innocent of theory, but one with certain preoccupations. That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for some readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them, Hazel Motes's integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to do so. Does one's integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen."
A couple links that contributed to my "discussion" and gave me greater understanding:
1.  Guardian Reading Group
2.  Series of Lectures at Yale (1st one here)
3.  Interesting essay comparing/contrasting John Huston's film adaptation vs. the novel - with the essayist concluding that the difference in interpretation "
confirms O’Connor’s sense of the significance of belief."
4.  Excellent summary and commentary from a Catholic perspective

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (book club, re-read) - Little Dude and I read this concurrently.  I probably first read it when I was his age.  As a kid, I loved it.  As an adult, I liked it.  The first person narrative in Huck Finn 14yo vernacular is brilliant - like the very best actor using an accent and never dropping it for even one moment.  It's deservedly lauded as one of America's first great novels (alongside Moby Dick & Scarlet Letter).  I enjoyed this bit of background from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History:  Ernest Hemingway was right when he announced that all modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn. Although many previous novels had included dialect (including Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Huckleberry Finn is the first major novel in which the narrator speaks in dialect. Unlike earlier works of fiction in which the narrator speaks in refined language and tells uplifting and ennobling stories, Twain’s narrator speaks in a distinctly natural American voice... which is significant because Twain is showing that moral authority can come from a representative of “poor white trash,” and a juvenile delinquent at that, which was, at the time, something new in American culture. This is what prompted Louisa May Alcott to condemn the novel: “If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he’d best stop writing for them.”  I enjoyed this lecture by Daniel Sundahl at Hillsdale College.

P@per T0wns by J. Green (picked off the YMCA borrow shelves*) - how to explain the depths of my loathing for this book?  I feel like it had a good skeleton of an idea for a story, with a few brilliant one-liners, that got buried and delivered in a heaping pile of stinky, steaming poop.  So much badness.  I will likely never read another JG novel.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (picked off the YMCA borrow shelves) - historical fiction. Historical fiction.  Historical FICTION.  I usually have some hangups about historical fiction, and this novel didn't escape my knee-jerk reactions.  I don't really often read non-fiction.  Thus, a goodly chunk of my present exposure to stories of history comes thru fiction.  But when I read historical fiction, I always have in the back of my mind that real stuff is bumping into and merging with pretend stuff.  So the more heavy-handed, implausible, and drama-filled the fiction side is, the more I question the reality of the history being presented to me, and the less I empathize with the pretend characters.  A double whammy bummer effect.  The fiction side of Shanghai Girls was pretty over the top.  It felt very manipulated to get as much "history" as possible into the story.  The result?  I ended up valuing the novel less, empathizing with Chinese immigrants to a lesser degree than I might otherwise have, and questioning elements of the history.  Oh, and the ending?  Abrupt.  I don't know if it was a deliberate set-up for a sequel, or if I'm to embrace it with a Scarlett-tomorrow-is-another-day proclamation and know that Pearl's Dragon and Joy's Tiger identities will pull them through anything.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard (picked off the YMCA borrow shelves*) - this was great, good, bad, & otherwise.   the great:  this quote in the very beginning "Therefore - the past having proved to her the unreliability of the present - happiness made Jody anxious.", explaining how a family trauma in very young years continued to dictate the protagonist's life.   the good: it was an interesting page-turner "in medias res" whodunnit. I cared about the characters.  I wanted to know what happened badly enough that I blew off my gym class to read instead.  the bad: the ending, the unraveling of the mystery lacked plausibility, didn't satisfy me, in fact, made me feel ripped off after I'd invested time in this story.  I will fully admit, I like my crime fiction to be old-school (plausibility be damned), with "good guys" redeemed and "bad guys" being served justice.  This story's ending was just morally messy all the way around.

You are Here by Jennifer Smith (picked off the YMCA borrow shelves*) - modern, fluffy YA story that ... drumroll please ... I liked.  Even though it was impossible for me to entirely remove my "parent-goggles" and approve a story with two almost 17yos borrowing-borderline-stealing cars and leaving home without informing parents for a spontaneous long-distance roadtrip, I did indeed thoroughly enjoy this book.  Kudos to Jennifer Smith (who, I'm going to go out on a limb here, and guess, is NOT a parent of teens) who wrote a very sweet story with believable, likable, fallible, well-intentioned characters.

True Grit by Charles Portis - I read this at the same time as Huck Finn. So many parallels, not least of which is the 14yo first-person-using-regional-vernacular narrative. It's so good, so dry wit funny.  And the Coen Brothers' movie rendering?  Simply brilliant.  Read the book, see the movie.  Or maybe, see the movie and then read the book (because then you can picture the sprawling gorgeous landscapes as you read).  Mattie Ross is the true equivalent of Grit.

*I label these as such because it sort of explains the totally random way by which I come by these particular books that I might not otherwise ever read)

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