Beach Reading

I'm on vacation, so I won't be posting often, I'm sure. I am about 1/3 of the way through W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, and I'm not sure I'm enjoying it, but I am interested in where this character, Philip, is going. Philip is on hold currently, though, because one of my vacation-mates has with her the final installment of the Twilight series, which I am hating but must finish to feel complete in my estimation of it. This last book is long, but requires no effort whatsoever, so I should knock it out soon. Will comment upon the conclusion.


Ten Indians by Madison Smartt Bell

Ten Indians by Madison Smartt Bell is a slim, multi-vocal novel. Each chapter alternates between different characters, which is typically a technique I like. It did not disappoint here. The chapters are also numbered, but not traditionally. The first chapter is unnumbered and introduces us to Trig, and then each chapter after that is numbered counting backward from ten. And though you hear more from Devlin throughout the story (his chapters are the only unnamed chapters), it is Trig we begin with, and Trig we hear from at the end. The cycle works quite nicely although it feels a little contrived seeing it written down like this. It feels more contrived when you deduce that one person dies in each chapter (thus the counting backward), but somehow, it doesn't feel mechanical or stilted in the execution. Interesting choice of words, that.

Execution is a common theme, and though some of the language and artifacts are dated (mid-nineties street is totally different from 2009 street somehow), the feeling of hopelessness and hope intertwined rings true still, at least to this average white girl who doesn't have any firsthand knowledge of "slanging." I thought Bell did a good job of overlapping his knowledges neatly and making it all sing for the reader.

There were no notably fine passages to record, nothing that made me pause at the words themselves, but the story and the characterization speak to his skills, and I am glad to have read this one.

The little question mark in my head keeps blinking, though, if I think too hard about the dynamic of race underlying this story. No doubt, there is great truth to the racial realities Bell portrays, but it is too hard to separate the omniscient narrator that tells us about Devlin from Devlin himself. Thus, we see the power is all in the hands of the white author and the white wannabe savior character. The black characters are all reduced to physical characteristics and tags that help us identify them. Without the fringe and the glasses would we still recognize Trig? It makes me think too much of those people who claim all black people (or Asians or Mexicans etc. . . ) look alike.


Finished BLJ . . . starting Ten Indians

I thought I would finish Blue Like Jazz before now, but several nights of dozing off while reading made it go a bit slower than I expected. However, it is not a slow read. While I don't always agree with everything Miller writes, I found myself regularly nodding in appreciation at his thoughts and definitely slipping through the pages without much friction at all. Actually, that statement is not entirely true because this book has given me plenty of friction in terms of things I will ruminate on for weeks and that convicted me, but it wasn't difficult reading at all.

I think my favorite chapter (essay? musing?) was the one entitled "Belief: The Birth of Cool." Perhaps it's because he echoes my thoughts about love ("Love is both something that happens to you and something you decide upon."), or perhaps it's because he makes such a good point about how important being cool is in our world (". . . in the end, the undercurrent running through culture is not giving people value based upon what they believe and what they are doing to aid society, the undercurrent is deciding their value based upon whether or not they are cool."), but I think it's mostly because he elucidates so honestly the thought that it's not enough to be passionate about our beliefs; what we believe is actually more important than how we believe in it ("Andrew is the one who taught me that what I believe is not what I say I believe; what I believe is what I do."). I love this closing thought to this chapter:

I am learning to believe better things. I am learning to believe that other people exist, that fashion is not truth; rather, Jesus is the most important figure in history, and the gospel is the most powerful force in the universe. I am learning not to be passionate about empty things, but to cultivate passion for justice, grace, truth, and communicate the idea that Jesus likes people and even loves them.

Finally, his words on wonder (from a different chapter) really resonated with me. He writes here what I've tried to explain many times over:

I can no more understand the totality of God than the pancake I made for breakfast understands the complexity of me. The little we do understand, the grain of sand our minds are capable of grasping, those ideas such as God is good, God feels, God loves, God knows all, are enough to keep our hearts dwelling on His majesty and otherness forever. (202)

The only bad part about this book is that it was borrowed from a friend, so I'll have to put it on my list of "Books to Buy" at some point. It is exactly the kind of thing I hope my children stumble across as teenagers - I only hope it will still be relevant then.

Next up will be Ten Indians by Madison Smartt Bell. I'm actually drifting in and out of MSB's Narrative Design as well, but this will be my first reading of his fiction.


Rabbit, Run and Blue Like Jazz

So, I finished Rabbit, Run this weekend to little fanfare and started Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. The conclusion of R,R was climactic for sure, but I still was not impressed with the character or the arc of the story. I don't mind a novel that highlights the small realities of life without a screaming amount of action, but I just couldn't get with this tale at all. Perhaps I simply want to hope that people like Harry Angstrom don't actually exist, therefore rendering the "small realities" part unreal.

Blue Like Jazz is a collection of essays on Christian Spirituality (a term Miller uses often, as though it has a precise meaning), and I am enjoying his readable tone and relevant conversation a lot. I love the wry manner in which he explores his youth and childhood. It is brief, and he doesn't attempt to make it bear more weight than it should. I also like the way he is so honest about his faith and his bumbling attempts to evangelize. Though I thought I wanted to knock out several novels in a row (preferably unread classics), I'm enjoying this quick read in between. The question now is, what's on deck?


Rabbit, Run

I simply cannot appreciate Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. I keep butting my head against the incongruity between what I think of him and what it appears the author thinks of him. I'm almost finished, his daughter has just been born, he's returned to his family, yet there is still nothing redeeming him in my eyes. He is just evil. Well, maybe evil isn't the right word, but he's definitely lacking any sort of moral compass that I would attribute to gentle humanity. For instance, this exchange between he and his wife, who has just given birth some 2 weeks prior:

She asks, "Why can't you try to imagine how I feel? I've just had a baby."

"I can. I can but I don't want to, it's not the thing, the thing is how I feel. And I feel like getting out."

Reprehensible. I just don't understand the appeal of this self-centered monster. I don't mean to imply that readers everywhere are seduced by him, but the characters are. Everyone in this book loves Rabbit. Everyone. And I just don't see how that could be possible. Updike's language at times reveals the gifted artist he proved himself to be throughout his career, but the thin characterization uncovers his youth.

Here's an example of something quite amazingly good, as he describes Rabbit's printer father:

A straight man, who has measured his life with a pica-stick and locked the forms tight, he has returned in the morning and found the type scrambled. (p. 151)


"The Best Girlfriend You Never Had" by Pam Houston

Reading a few more short stories today (from The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike) to make changes to a syllabus, and I came across this quote from the story in this entry's title:

You might forget, for example, that you live in a city where people have so many choices they throw words away, or so few they will bleed in your car for a hundred dollars.


I can't say I'm particularly enjoying Rabbit, Run yet, but I do like sentences like this one:

He cuts through the Sunday-stunned town, the soft rows of domestic brick, the banistered porches of calm wood. (p. 93)

I do find it an interesting parallel to "Gesturing," where the lover is again named Ruth, and there is another semi-fascination with a building outside a window. Here it is a church, and the church-goers generate thoughtful examination although not exactly of the kind you might expect from a man who has run away from his life with hardly a moment of remorse or guilt.


Rabbit, Run and others

I have just begun Rabbit, Run by John Updike, and I've decided to do something different with this blog. Since most of what I've been reading all semester has been stuff I've already read (in preparation for class), I haven't felt compelled to comment on it. Now that the summer is here, I have a fearsome stack of to-be-reads, and I want to chronicle my reading a bit better. So, I'm going to try to post each day or something close to it to allow room for ongoing commentary instead of just the closing thoughts. I think this new format will give me a more complete picture of my reading.

For instance, I read a few months ago Birdy by William Wharton and was considerably interested in the characterization and sheer queerness of this boy who thought he was a bird and his equally odd friend. However, the ending was so disappointing that the overall experience was a negative one. It was as if the author had this tremendous idea for a story and then couldn't at all figure out how to end it. When I post only at the end, I focus primarily on my final feelings, which in this case were less than complimentary. Had I been posting all along, I could have been bringing to light the positive elements (of which there were several): interesting passages, questions, and things I learned along the way.

Other stuff I've read recently doesn't exactly fall in the category of quality literature, but I like to keep an accurate count of what and how much I read each year, so for numbers sake: Fields of Gold by Andy Stanley was "assigned" by our pastor during a 2 week study on giving; The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman came about after a marriage retreat and some subsequent conversations; The Door in the Wall by Marguerite De Angeli was another effort to finally read all the books for young people I have stored in my basement, plus a Newbery Medal winner (although I wasn't thoroughly impressed with it).

And now I've checked out the Updike from the library, and I'm hating on the actual book (not the content of the book) because it's an old paperback with a heavy library binding on it which makes the pages hard to turn, and its old book smell is not a pleasant one. I'm half-tempted to take it back and buy the durn thing instead. But I won't. I will soldier on. And as I am only on page 47, I can't even comment much on the storyline. I will say that I taught Updike's 1980 short story "Gesturing" this semester and really liked the tone he struck. Published originally in Playboy, it contibutes to that great truism that some great stuff gets published in that abhorrent publication.

So, here's an in progress quote from Rabbit, Run, pp. 40-41 - "Throughout the early morning, those little hours that are so black, the music keeps coming and the signs keep pointing. His brain reels like a frail but alert invalid with messengers bringing down long corridors all this music and geographical news. At the same time he feels abnormally sensitive on the surface, as if his skin is thinking."