Category: Novels


We suffer because of the way we are.

Back where C and I did our graduate studies, the name of Wendell Berry was often invoked, at least in some of the circles I ran in.  Despite his ubiquitous presence, I had never read a word by him.  Because of the contexts in which I heard the name, I typically associated him with essays advocating for agrarianism and sustainable agriculture.  I discovered in looking for something by him to read that he is also a novelist, and so I decided to pick up his first novel, Nathan Coulter, because it met one of my requirements (or at least preferences) for reading during the school year: it’s short.

The book is a coming of age tale told from the perspective of the title character.  The Coulters work on a tobacco farm in rural Kentucky, and their life evinces the joys, fears, and tensions that mark most families.  Early on in the story, Nathan and his brother (whom he normally refers to as “Brother” rather than his name “Tom”) lose their mother to an illness.  Because their father can’t raise them and till the land on his own, they move to the next farm over to live with their grandparents and uncle.  The story develops a number of themes, but the one that struck me was that of Nathan’s continually changing relationships with each of his family members, as well as the inner dynamics of the Coulter family in general.  These dynamics strain under the difficulties most families face: sibling rivalry, the desire to strike out on one’s own, transitions, death.  Through it all Nathan learns how much his family means to him, as well as the fragility of day-to-day life.

For the first chapter or so, I had a hard time getting into the novel, perhaps because it was somewhat foreign to my experience.  A product of late twentieth century suburbia, I initially had a hard time relating to the rural way of life Berry describes.  But gradually he won me over.  His writing style has an elegant simplicity that reflects the pace and values of a simpler time.  Moreover, at points Berry writes with poignancy about the difficulty of moving on.  One paragraph toward the end of the story particularly moved me.  Upon realizing that Brother has left for good and will not be coming home to stay, Nathan reflects:

“I could have cried myself.  Brother was gone, and he wouldn’t be back.  And things that had been so before never would be so again.  We were the way we were; nothing could make us any different, and we suffered because of it.  Things happened to us the way they did because we were ourselves.  And if we’d been other people it wouldn’t have mattered… we’d have had to suffer whatever it was that they suffered because they were themselves.  And there was nothing anybody could do but let it happen.”

Despite the somewhat depressing tone of this passage, Berry also highlights the simple joys of time with family, but almost always with a reminder of their fleetingness.  I suppose what I took away from the book is the importance of savoring precious moments with friends and family, because before we know it, they’ll be gone.  Not a bad reminder.

Eight down, (at least) forty-four to go.

Ta,
J

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A Not-So-Strange, Sad World

Today’s book is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Ishiguro is one of Britain’s great living writers and I had heard from  many people that I should read this book. So I picked it up earlier this week and settled into one of the more eerie, haunting reads of recent memory.

Never Let Me Go is a study in subtlety. Ishiguro unfurls the story carefully, slowly, in an almost elegatic tone. At its most surface level the story is about three friends, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, who start off as students in a boarding school, called Hailsham. But right away, you get the sense that this school is no normal school. As Kathy narrates, she notes that she has spent her adult life as a “carer” of “donors” and that eventually all “carers” become “donors.” You get a sense that something is not quite right, but Ishiguro explains this (or shall I say he doesn’t explain it- he leaves the readers to infer it) slowly, carefully– through Kathy we glimpse a world that is strange but also idyllic with children spending hours on art projects, with “guardians” not teachers– and with the itty-bitty infighting that characterizes teenage cliques–the mundane, banal aspects of human life.

Except these children are actually “students” and they are not really human– they are clones that are nurtured to grow up, and die young as their organs are harvested to prolong the lives of “normals”.  You have no sense of the scientists that engineer this horror show, or the outside society that shuns the “students.” Instead,  you realize that the students willingly go along with the plan–there seems to be nothing to force them towards their fates, except their own resigned will. In this way, the book could be classified as sci-fi, but it has none of the traditional trappings of the genre. Instead it is more like a measured study of a dystopian reality– an alternate Britain, that scarily does not look a whole lot different from the world that we currently inhabit.

There is more to the book- especially to the dynamic of the three friends, Ruth the imaginative and pushy, Tommy who is shyer, but prone to fits of temper, and the narrator Kathy’s measured calm- in fact her very voice is distinctive and unnerving, but she is our guide for the journey.  There is so much more, but I will not say more about the actual plot, except that it quietly, unnerves you. Ishiguro is a master of understatement- a master of leaving the reader to infer what it is he really means. He trusts that you will figure out what is going on for yourself, he trusts that you will take something away from the book.

So what is the book really about? In one sense, it warns us of the dangers of science going amuck–or as my father says “Of man playing God” but that is really the most surface understanding of the book. The way I saw Never Let Me Go is that it was really a meditation on hopelessness, morality, repression and the darkness of the human soul. Ishiguro peels away at the reader’s assumptions and  feelings, until you are there, at the end, standing with Kathy in the grey field, feeling the cold, bleakness of it all.  If this sounds grim, then perhaps it is, but this book is deeply affecting and moving– it leaves you unsettled, trying to sift through all the hidden meaning and pain that you are so carefully and subtly confronted with. It is a book that will stay with you for a long time, to ponder and wonder.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

A punk Pippi?

Today’s book is the third book of the Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

Yesterday was one of those stormy, wet days that discourages a person from even taking a walk with the dog. So I sat down and read this book. All of it.

Like with the second book in the series, one cannot sum up the plot, which if anything, seems even more expansive and rambling on this go around. But the basis of it is that Lis Salander is on trial for attempted murder, dark government sources are at work, and crusading journalist Blomkvist is trying to dig up the truth and save Salander. Okay, so a few thoughts. This book was clearly the least edited of the three–it isn’t as tight and suspenseful (until the last 200 pages of so), and that makes sense given that Larsson died before he had a chance to really edit the original, raw manuscript. But the book is still compulsively readable, and gives a satisfying conclusion to the series.

Much has been said about the violence in Larsson’s books. I have to say when I read the first book in the series (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) this past summer, I was put off by the descriptions of rape and sexual sadism. Granted, Larsson does not linger over them, but they are there, and that is part of the reason why I did not immediately finish the series. This time around with the last two books there is more murder than rape (that doesn’t really make anything better) but again, the descriptions are brief-they exist mainly to move along the plot. Even so, I am still not sure how I feel about this particular issue in the books. I understand why Larsson uses violence in his books, I understand his point, and I don’t think he could have done it any other way– but still, these books are not for the squeamish.

Then there is Lis Salander. My mom read the series before I did, and when I asked her about it in an email after she finished she told me that she was thinking about “Lis Salander all the time.” That is to say, Salander is Larsson’s most unusual creation in these books. Some reviewers have called her a “punk Pippi Longstockings”– Salander is a computer hacker, an wiz kid with Aspergers, and an abuse victim of the most horrible sort. She operates outside of society because society has failed her. It is also important to point out that Salander has a strong set of morals. Her own morality, to be sure, but she has a sense of personal responsibility and a rather unique sense of right and wrong. As a character, she is unforgettable– where Larsson came up with her is beyond me, but she does linger in the reader’s mind (like my mom said) long after one is done with the books.

One aspect of the book that is not written about often is the issue of friendship. I found this particularly interesting given that most of the relationships between men and women in these books are unconventional by (ideal) American standards (although not by Swedish standards if I understand correctly.) Love affairs happen on and off. Characters have lovers, even while married , there are various trysts and so forth, and many of the characters live together while unmarried. Relationships are so varied, that there is not one norm in the book, and I think that is why it is important to notice that one character points out that “Friendship is the most common form of love.”  Because even while the relationships between all the characters exist in a myriad of forms, it is a friendship that propels the books forward–that is the friendship between Salander and Blomkvist. Now Salander doesn’t really want the friendship, but she eventually caves in to Blomkvist when she realizes it cannot be her against the world, even though she is naturally suspicious of anyone and has almost no real friends. Blomkvist himself doesn’t understand why he goes to bat for Salander– he mainly just acknowledges that he cares for her and likes her. Now I think this is crucial–sometimes we cannot control who we love, or who becomes our friends. Sometimes you just love someone and there is no rhyme or reason to it. Larsson gets this, and that is one of the things I felt that was compelling about Blomkvist’s character. In a world where sexual relationships are ambiguous, Larsson paints friendship as perhaps, the one great love that one can have for another. I think he might be onto something here– as a society we put a huge importance on romantic love (talking about “the one” and all that nonsense) but we don’t really talk about friendship in the same way. Friendships are quieter, but they are also just as important because romantic love comes and goes– and even when it stays the basis to all romantic love is a good friendship anyway. I think Larsson gets this, and I think the importance of friendship is a one of the main themes of these books, but it is a subtle theme, something that is humming quietly under the surface.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

The Silence of God

“The Japanese are not able to think of God completely divorced from man; the Japanese cannot think of an existence that transcends the human.”

This evening I finished Shusaku Endo’s Silence.  Endo, as the translator notes in his preface, is sometimes described as the Japanese Graham Greene, and as I read the story I did notice some similarities to Greene’s The Power and the Glory.  Set in 17th century Japan, the novel follows the story of a Portuguese Christian missionary, Sebastian Rodrigues, who heads for the island with a companion despite the recent outlawing of Christianity and accompanying persecutions.

Endo paints a vivid and stark picture of the perils these missionaries and others like them faced.  To reach the island, they have to sail ashore on a beach rather than at a harbor and under the cover of dark.  The missionaries hide in a small hut in the mountains during the day and minister to the underground Christians only at night.  Travel to another underground Christian village is fraught with danger of discovery and imprisonment.  Moreover, the Japanese government offers a generous reward to those who turn in Christians – an understandable temptation to peasants living on next to nothing.  Less than half way through the novel, Rodrigues is captured, betrayed (unsurprisingly) by the very man who brought him to the island, a Japanese Christian who regularly renounces his faith to save his skin.  The rest of the novel describes how the priest wrestles with his faith, particularly in light of the suffering his arrival has brought upon the Christian peasants of Japan.

The silence of the title refers primarily to the silence of God in the face of the horrific suffering the Japanese Christians endure: some are tied to stakes in the ocean and left to die over the course of several days; others are bound and thrown into the sea to drown; another is beheaded by a samurai; and still others are tortured in “the pit,” the gruesome details of which I’d rather not go into here.  Faced with this horrific suffering, Rodrigues regularly asks God why he remains silent.  Ought he not show himself the Lord of the universe when his chosen ones are suffering at the hands of his enemies?  At the same time, the priest frequently meditates on the face of Christ, the one who also experienced the silence of God and whose beautiful face the Japanese rulers want Rodrigues to trample in an act of apostasy.  In his better moments, he sees his own suffering and that of the tiny flock in his charge as a participation in Christ’s own sufferings, but it is clear throughout the novel that his courage and conviction are challenged by his experience.  Add to this experience the weakness of his betrayer and of another Portuguese missionary, Ferreira (an actual historical figure), who apostatized and chose to collaborate with the Japanese, and the temptation to follow suit becomes practically overwhelming.

Silence is a complex, moving, and challenging novel.  As I read it, I felt torn in two directions.  On the one hand, as Rodrigues continually asked God why he remained silent, I wondered how well he had learned the gospel and counted the cost before he set out on his mission.  Jesus never said following him would be easy – on the contrary, those who would follow him can expect the same kind of treatment he received, and last I checked, crucifixion isn’t a walk in the park.  But then I asked myself, how would I have responded in the same situation?  It’s easy to accept suffering when it amounts to an annoying student here, a tedious meeting there.  If I were to witness first hand the kind of horror that Rodrigues faces, could I look it in the eye and remain strong?  I hope so, but I don’t know.

One more theme the book emphasizes is the seeming incompatibility between Christianity and Japan.  The Japanese rulers insist that Japan is a “swamp” in which the sapling of Christianity cannot grow.  William Johnston notes in the preface that Silence caused quite a stir among some contemporary Japanese Christians, who would contest this claim.  Yet I wonder if the voice of the Japanese rulers represents Endo’s own voice.  He himself was a Christian, and he portrays many of the Japanese Christians in heroic ways.  I suppose the ambiguity is one of the things I found compelling about the novel – despite its simplicity of style, the thrust of the story is not necessarily as straightforward as it seems.

If you have any interest in 17th century Japan, the interface of Christianity with foreign cultures, or issues of faith, doubt, and apostasy, then I highly recommend Silence.

Five down, (at least) forty-seven to go.

Ta,
J

Women who hate men who hate women….

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Today’s Book review will be the second part of the Steig Larsson trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire

Before I get to the review I just want to say hello to all our new readers and welcome! We are very excited to have you along on our reading journey. After J’s review of  Carr’s book we got a lot of thoughtful feedback, and we really appreciate it. There is one thing I want to address–a  lot of people mused on the issue of how one can get children to engage with books when they have so many other distractions in the world. I can tell you from experience, that kids won’t read if their parents don’t set the example for them. I grew up with a mother who loved to read. Reading is what she did in her spare time. Although I grew up in the pre-internet age, we did, of course, have a TV and there were other distractions around like Nintendo (Duck Hunt anyone?). My parents never forbade these sorts of things, but by example they made it clear that it was better to read. I received books as gifts, books for good grades, books all the time- and because of their encouragement I loved to read. So if you want to help a young person love books you have to walk the walk, so to speak.

Okay onto my review. Larsson’s second book is difficult to review because you cannot sum up the plot. It is too complicated, plus that would spoil the fun of the book. The Lis Salander trilogy is extraordinarily popular, and much has been written about it by loftier critics than I, so I have decided that I will only address a few themes of the book in this review and then deal with the rest with my review of the third book of the trilogy (which I am reading right now.)

First of all, Larsson’s Sweden is not an Ikea-furnished utopia. It is a dark and dangerous world, and while this outlook was probably born from Larsson’s own perception of his home country it is  something I find intriguing. His descriptions of places in the book are spare, and in your mind’s eye you cannot help envisioning a cold, grey, place, thick with intrigue. I am sure this is intentional–it is also what helps with the pace and atmosphere in the book. Everything is urgent, interconnected, a web– and nothing, chief of all the main character, is as it seems.

Ah the title character, Lisbeth Salander– she’s one of the more original characters to come out of fiction in a long time. I actually plan to dedicate much of my next blog post on Lisbeth, because I just cannot shake her from my mind. But anyway, Lisbeth is a woman, who in Larsson’s words ” hates men who hate women.” And I think that  statement is one of the keys to Larsson’s main themes. In the world of this book, and perhaps in Larsson’s mind, many men hate women, and treat them despicably. The issues of abuse, rape and sex trafficking come up in this book (and in the other books in the trilogy) time and time again. Clearly, Larsson believes that many men  hold misogynistic ideas about women. While Larsson’s books are extreme in one aspect, they aren’t in another. The fact of it is that around 1/4 of all women in the US have been sexually assaulted. Think about that number. One in four. That means you likely know someone who has. And many of the assaults (both sexual and physical) are at the hands of men that they know-boyfriends, lovers, husbands, family members. Sorry to be such a downer, but one truth from these books is that women often do suffer at the hands of men– and especially at the hands of men who were supposed to protect and love them (as does the protagonist Lisbeth Salander.)

Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but I do think that is the main message of Larsson’s book. That we live in a world that is dangerous, especially if you are a woman, and I do think that in some aspect he is true. It is correct to say that women’s lives have become markedly better, that women have come to achieve so much in the recent decades, but I also think that it is no mistake that Larsson’s books are set in Sweden, which is not only his home country, but a country that is regarded as having the most equality of the sexes. I think that Larsson is taking a swipe at this vision of Sweden with his books.

As to the book itself, it is fast-paced, violent, and intriguing. The heroine, Lisbeth Salander is both infuriating and brilliant. When you read this book you really cannot put it down, so consider yourself warned–you need to make sure you have plenty of time to read it, or you will risk a “reading hangover” like I did, furiously reading at the wee hours to finish and only have a few hours to sleep before you wake up and go to work. I think that everyone will react differently to these books, but there is a reason why they are bestsellers.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

(Cecilia)

The Extraordinary Wonder of the Ordinary

I’m a G. K. Chesterton fan.  For those of you who don’t know, Chesterton was an English journalist born towards the end of the 19th century who wrote reams and reams in a variety of genres: essays, novels, poetry, Christian apologetics, short stories, plays.  Never afraid of an argument, he crossed swords, both in print and in public, with the likes of George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and even Clarence Darrow, the famous Scopes Trial attorney, though sadly no record of the debate remains, as far as I know.  And yet he managed to maintain close friendships with men like Shaw, much though he disagreed with their ideas.

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Chesterton’s novels in the past, and so I decided to pick up one I hadn’t read yet, Manalive.  The plot is typically outlandish and Chestertonian, and, alas, too complicated to summarize.  Instead, I’ll reflect on some of the themes that stuck out to me.

As I was thinking about the novel this afternoon, it struck me that it actually serves as a fitting riposte to the first book I read for this project, even though it was written several decades before Camus’ novel.  Whereas Camus sees the world as absurd and meaningless, Chesterton uses the seemingly absurd to highlight the wonder and beauty of the world.  The novel brings to life some of Chesterton’s characteristic themes.  Indeed, in some ways the book struck me as a narrative version of his classic Orthodoxy.  The main character, Innocent Smith, embodies Chesterton’s embrace of taking a child-like perspective on the world.  He achieves joy because he is good, and he sees the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.  By not taking things too seriously he recognizes their true seriousness and worth.

Manalive thus relies on Chesterton’s love of paradox.  It also evinces his penchant for puzzles and riddles.  The novel resembles the Father Brown mysteries in that the significance of odd details in the story depends on the perspective from which one interprets them.  Is Smith a murderer, a burglar, a polygamist?  It all depends on how one puts the details together.  Smith is an “allegorical practical joker,” a man who seems mad or stupid, and yet the sanest and wisest character in the story.

I know all of this sounds hazy and abstract, but the book is anything but abstract.  On the contrary, it is filled with beautiful and elaborate descriptions, and it emphasizes in good Chestertonian fashion the priority of the local and particular over the global and universal.  While not laugh-out-loud funny, the book is certainly whimsical, and it left me smiling much more than did Camus.  If you’re looking for a lighthearted and yet profound read that will remind you of the joys of the ordinary things in life, then I highly recommend Manalive.

Three down, (at least) forty-nine to go.

Ta,
J

La vie est absurde.

I thought I’d kick things off with something light and uplifting, so I picked up a copy of Albert Camus’ The Stranger.  Okay, maybe not.  In reality, I’ve wanted to read the book for a while, and at a slender 117 pp., I figured it would be a quick read and give me some confidence as I get back on the reading wagon.

Quick it is, but light it ain’t, to say the least.  For those of you who don’t know the story, here is the briefest of outlines.  The first part of the book begins with the stark phrase “Maman died today.”  The narrator, Meursault, has just received a telegram informing him of his mother’s death, and he travels from his home in Algiers to Marengo for her funeral.  After going through the motions of the vigil and burial showing no emotion, he returns to his home and resumes his life as if nothing had happened.  He rekindles a relationship with an old flame, returns to work, chats occasionally (and often reluctantly) with his neighbors, and ends up the following Sunday on a beach excursion with his girlfriend, his neighbor/”pal” Raymond, and some friends of Raymond.  Through a series of events related to what had gone on the previous week, Part One ends with Meursault shooting an Arab man on the beach for no apparent reason.  Part Two chronicles the investigation and trial of Meursault.  Though still narrated from Meursault’s perspective, the second part focuses on the attempts of others – his lawyer, the magistrate, a prison chaplain – to make sense of his actions.  To the end Meursault confounds attempts to explain his deeds, or the world at large.  As he awaits his execution, he embraces the meaningless of the world and opens himself “to the gentle indifference of the world.”

True to my expectations, The Stranger was a quick read, and yet deceptively quick.  I think I would have to reread it a couple of more times to really “get” it.  The nature of this blog won’t allow for that, though, so here are some very brief reactions on my first reading.  Though the topic and underlying philosophy of the book are a bit depressing, I actually enjoyed reading it.  Camus’ style, terse and to the point, moves the reader along quickly and is well suited to the themes of the novel.  Meursault is a complex and bedeviling character.  On the one hand, he seems totally emotionless: he doesn’t shed a single tear over his mother’s death, nor does he want to see her one last time before her burial; when his girlfriend Marie asks if he loves her, he says it wouldn’t mean anything, but probably not; and most disturbing (to me, if not to the other characters in the novel), he feels absolutely no remorse for the murder he committed.  The first words that came to mind as I read the story were apathy and ennui.  On the other hand, Meursault is not a robot: the story ends with him at last finding happiness in the meaninglessness of life.  I suppose at root he is a non-conformist who finds the structures of meaning society clings to absurd, but that could just be my superficial reading (literature never was my strong suit).

On the whole, I’m glad I read The Stranger, but I wouldn’t want to make it (or Camus) a regular part of my reading diet.

One down, (at least) fifty-one to go.

Yours,
J