Sunday, April 26, 2009

Full in the Everyday - Book #7

Since finishing Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, two tasks have plagued me. The first impossible task is to find the words with which to tell you just how much I enjoyed this book.  I will be unable to find the appropriate words, I can assure you.  The second task is to find a contemporary book that I will like better than this one.

Renee Michel, the leading lady of this story, is a concierge for wealthy tenants of an apartment building in Paris.  She is brilliant and well-read.  She is witty and sarcastic.  She knows music and art and food.  Based on her conviction that a concierge is meant to be uncultured and illiterate, Renee purposely hides her intellect and knowledge from everyone except her cat. Paloma is the supporting character of this story.  Also desiring to hide her brilliance from those in her circle (which happens to be her wealthy family), she plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday because she believes her life just isn't worth living among all of the stupid people with whom she must spend her days. And in the climax of the book, which comes at you quickly and unexpectedly, Renee and Paloma discover each other's brilliance and become fast friends. At its core, this book is about finding beauty in the things of everyday, which, added up, becomes life. The book fed  my soul.  That sounds so trite, but I simply can't manufacture another sentence to describe just how much I enjoyed it.

I must provide a disclaimer.  Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is my favorite book of all time.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog references the brilliant classic work. That's not the only reason I loved the book, but it is one of the reasons.  And for that reason alone, many of you readers may not enjoy The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  If you are not a lover of Tolstoy, I urge you to give him another try.  "Urge" as in, right now, get out of your pajamas, turn off the television, find your library card, go to the library and check out Anna.  It is that good.

I digress.  Back to the hedgehog.  You may be pondering the title.  This quote will end the mystery.  And as you read the quote you will grasp the beauty of Barbery's writing.  As Paloma discovers Renee's personality she says, "Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog; on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog;  a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant."

Barbery includes a little bit of economic class and pop-culture commentary in the story.  One of the best lines in the book is this:  "Television distracts us from the onerous necessity of finding projects to construct in the vacuity of our frivolous lives:  by beguiling our eyes, television releases our mind from the great work of making meaning."  I enjoy a well-done sitcom or drama like the next gal, but does television ever aid me in the "great work of making meaning"?  I think not.  Later, Renee muses, "Literature, for example, serves a pragmatic purpose.  Like any form of Art, literature's mission is to make the fulfillment of our essential duties more bearable."  Note to self:  buy stock in tomorrow.

Maybe one of the reasons our culture is drawn to the television more than it is drawn to books these days is because it is easier to share thoughts on Lost than it is to discuss Anna.  To discuss Anna with someone, the someone has to have read Tolstoy.  To discuss Lost with someone, the someone has to have passively watched a screen for an hour while folding laundry. For me, I have not finished reading a book until I've discussed it with someone.  Then We Came to the End was a great book.  It became a satisfying book for me after my husband read it.  In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Renee experiences that kind of joy for the first time.  She describes the experience like this:  

"When did I first experience the exquisite sense of surrender that is possible only with another person?  The peace of mind one experiences on one's own, one's certainty of self in the serenity of solitude, are nothing in comparison to the release and openness and fluency one shares with another, in close companionship...When did I first feel so blissfully relaxed in the presence of a man?  Today is the first time."

This book is about the everyday and how the beauty in it draws human beings together.  And if the love of art, classical music, literature, good vocabulary, excellent grammar and tea are a part of your everyday, you will love this book. As Renee says, "Those who feel inspired, as I do, by the greatness of small things will pursue them to the very heart of the inessential where, cloaked in everyday attire, this greatness will emerge from within a certain ordering of ordinary things and from the certainty that all is as it should be, the conviction that it is fine this way."

Friday, April 17, 2009

Empty at the Beach - Book #6

Pat Conroy's Beach Music is the story of Jack McCall, a man trying to raise his young daughter after his wife's suicide.  He flees his small, wealthy South Carolina town for Rome with the hope of escaping his family, his friends, and his past. When an emergency beckons him home, he is forced to deal with his past. This past includes high school friends who became college friends and their dysfunctional families, his own dysfunctional family, a near death experience at sea, the Vietnam War, and the Holocaust.  He also has to face the present, which includes terrorism, insanity, cancer, Hollywood, harboring a criminal and a new love.  This book is chock full of themes.  Why then, the emptiness?  The book was just too full.  

Consider these sentences:

"Though both of us were glad of the armistice, neither of us knew what strategies would lead us around the impasse of distrust and hatred that we both felt whenever our eyes met."  
"A breeze lifted off the ocean and several hundred notes from the wind chimes tinkled like ice shaken in silver cups.  They altered the mood of the forest the way an orchestra does a theater when it begins tuning up its instruments."

Those are beautifully written, aren't they?  I certainly could not have come up with material as good. However, this 800 small-font page book is covered in sentences such as these.  It is so full of similes and analogies that the good sentences get lost in a sea of adjectives.  It is like a salad with too many herbs; the good flavors get so mixed up you don't know they are good anymore.

When Jack returns to his childhood home, he finds his beloved books in the attic.  He thinks, "A good movie had never once affected me in the same life-changing way a good book could. Books had the power to alter my view of the world forever.  A great movie could change my perceptions for a day."  We would be hard pressed to find a disagreement with that view.  Beach Music wasn't a book that had the power to alter my view of the world forever, but there was a chapter that did.  I have read good amount of material regarding the Holocaust.  I have an acquaintance who was an integral part of setting up and opening the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  I thought I had a fairly good handle on the horror of that time in history. Chapter 34 of Beach Music made me realize that I really don't have a depth of understanding at all.  In that Chapter, Jack's father-in-law describes his experience of living as a Jew in Kironittska, Ukraine during the Holocaust.  I can honestly say that I've never been so horrified by anything I've ever read as I was when I read this account.  And, I'm assuming, based on the credit he gives some Holocaust survivors at the beginning of the book, that the account is based on truth.  Some startling (that's putting it mildly) quotes from Chapter 34 follow:

"Ah!  The Holocaust, Jack.  Yes, that word again.  That stupid word, that empty vessel.  I am so sick of that word.  It is an exhausted word that means nothing, and we Jews have shoved it down the world's throat and dared anyone to use it improperly.  One poor word cannot bear that much weight, yet this poor word must stagger under that load forever...Holocaust.  One English word should not be required to carry so many human hearts."

"In Yiddish, he keeps telling his sons that Yahweh will protect them.  But Yahweh is taking a long vacation, far away from his chosen in people in those years.  He was not in Eastern Europe, Jack, of that I am certain."

"You think you have heard and imagined the worst that can happen to the ghetto Jews.  Then something else happens so horrible that you shut down completely.  You pray that you can imagine nothing.  Your prayers are answered.  You learn that evil is bottomless.  The despair I feel in my stomach is like a paralysis."

"Despair is a daily bread and there is plenty enough to go around."

"We are not survivors.  None of us.  We were dice.  We were thrown, hurled into the mouth of hell, and we learned that a human life was as worthless as a horsefly...Dice are simply thrown, cast into the abyss.  I can tell you how to find your way around in nothingness.  I have the map in my possession, Jack.  All the street names are covered with blood and the streets are all cobbled with the skulls of Jews.  You are a Christian, Jack, and should feel right at home in this place.  I hate your Christian face.  I am sorry.  I always have and I always will."

Those are just some thoughts that are woven throughout the story that Jack's father-in-law tells in Chapter 34.  The story is stunning and it needs to be read and remembered.  But it gets lost in all of the rest of the book's sub-plots.  I wonder if the author felt like he needed to nest this description of the Holocaust into some other themes because he was trying to give Jack's father-in-law a happy ending. We can see no happy ending to the Holocaust.  The story, though, needs to be told.  And we need to listen and ponder and think and act so that the story is not forgotten.  Go to your library, find Beach Music, and turn to Chapter 34.  Read all 35 pages of it and be empty.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Friendship Fluff - Book #5

I am not a creature of many habits.  I love spontaneity.  However, there are a few daily rituals that provide me with some comfort.  One of those rituals is to turn on late night television.  It rarely has my full attention.  It is fluff that I use as background noise when the house is too quiet.  Something that I noticed only because of the repetitive nature of this ritual is that Conan O'Brien (before his 12:30 am show ended) would open his monologue the same way each night.  He would say, "We have a great show for you tonight!"  Every night was a great show.  I would often think, "How can EVERY night possibly be a great show?  Every night can't be great."  This blog was taking a similar tone, as each book reviewed was great.  Fear no more, viewers.  Every book is not great.  Some books, like late night television, are just plain fluff. They will provide some background noise for your brain, but they won't provide a whole lot of significance to your life.

Leah Stewart's The Myth of You and Me is a fluffy chick book that, if read at all, should be consumed at the beach where you only need to have half of your brain engaged.  Men, stay away.  You really won't like it.  It is the story of two teenagers, Sonia and Cameron, who become best friends in high school.  They attend college together and immediately following graduation, they have a falling out over - can you guess? - a boy.  Their falling out deeply affects the life decisions that Cameron makes.  And, predictably, those decisions do not appear to be good ones.  As she approaches her 30th birthday, Cameron makes a new best friend with her 90-year old boss who encourages her to reconcile with Sonia.  The reader realizes that if the two friends could just reconcile, Cameron's life would be okay again.  

The book is predictable, juvenile, and easy.  Shouldn't I have known as much when the cover quotes People Magazine as saying, "A smart, exceedingly well-written story about the mysteries at the heart of even the most intimate friendships between women.  You'll be reading into the wee hours."  Alas, I decided to read it anyway for my upcoming book club meeting.  

I feel a twang of guilt for criticizing this book because I'm not a writer, and Leah Stewart could write paragraphs around me.  I am just a reader with a reaction.  To alleviate some of my guilt, I'm going to give you some of Stewart's non-fluff:

"A person is not a suitcase, with a finite number of items to unpack."  This is true, no?  Just when I think I have someone figured out, they surprise me.  That's a wonderful thing.  Like I said, I love spontaneity.

"There's something to be said for living a life subject to someone else's needs - you never have those empty periods of vague discontent brought on by too much freedom, too little purpose." This is so true, isn't it?  Oh, and look!  There's that empty theme again.  It even shows up in the fluffy books.  Huh.  Interesting.

With that previous quote, we see that Cameron loves routine.  Later on, she makes this observation, "Nothing is stranger than the familiar become unfamiliar.  A house on your street that you never stopped to see before, so that it seems to have been dropped into place with its rosebushes, its bicycles in the yard, like a fairy cottage appearing from the mist.  A birthmark on your back that you never noticed in twenty-five years of looking at your own skin.  Why, you don't know anything, do you?"

My favorite three sentences in the book are these:  "There's nothing lonelier than being angry at someone who's indifferent to your anger.  It's like playing catch off a wall by yourself. Everything you feel just bounces back to you."  Thank you, Ms. Stewart, for that.  

The last notable paragraph is this one, and I share it only because it provides fodder for the upcoming review of Beach Music.  Cameron's father is discussing Dickens' Great Expectations with her. 
"If I remember right," he said slowly, "he meant to give that one an unhappy ending, but then he rewrote it to make it happy."  He looked at me and smiled.  "To give love a victory."  I crossed my legs and sat up straight.  "But that's not what life is like.  So why rewrite it?"  He paged through the book without appearing to see it.  "You know," he said, "a happy ending isn't really the end.  It's just the place where you choose to stop telling the story.  Why not make everything work out when you have the chance?"

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tomorrow is Easter...

but today is Christmas.  

Picture it.  As typical of me the day before a holiday, I've been cooking since the wee hours of the morning, my sink is overflowing with dishes, and I look a little disheveled.  My doorbell rings and I find a package on my porch.  Imagine my delight when I opened it with my frosting-infused hands and found four, count them four, books from one of the fabulous Bac Ninh ladies.  Included was a note directing me to read them and pass them along to all the rest of you Bac Ninh ladies.  Needless to say, I was extremely appreciative and utterly excited.

The titles in my Christmas box were:

Ahab's Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund
How Full is Your Bucket?, by Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton
The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

So, readers...any suggestions on which to read and review first?  Has anyone (and I mean anyone, not just BN Ladies) read any of these yet?  

Merry Easter, Happy Christmas, and Peaceful Passover to you all and to all a good read.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"Struggling Against Our Rescuer" - Book #4

It is so difficult to be objective, isn't it?  Even with the most valiant attempts to be fair and balanced, we bring our experiences to the table.  That said, I should not have been surprised when I skimmed the online reviews and found that my take on this book is quite different from, say, a literary expert's take on the book.  From my perspective, Gilead is about faith.  Faith is very important to me.  From the perspective of many readers, Gilead is about fatherhood.  It is interesting and somewhat humorous to note in this context that the narrator of the story is a father writing to his son.  The author of Gilead is a woman named Marilynne Robinson.  I was completely convinced of the "father voice" as I read, but maybe that's because I'm a woman and so is the author.  Maybe if a man wrote Gilead the father voice would be portrayed differently.  We all bring something to the table.

So, from my perspective, this book is about faith.  And, from my perspective, it is a fabulous book.  The way Robinson constructs the thoughts of this man is simply gorgeous.  As seems to be my trend of late, this is another book that requires some concentration.  You should see my copy of it.  Almost every page is marked or folded.  There is some deep stuff in here and I would often stop and think - A LOT - about the sentiment oozing from the pages.  If you've read the book and if, from your perspective, this book is not ultimately about faith, let me know.  

John Ames is a pastor of a protestant church in Gilead, Iowa.  His father was a pastor and his grandfather was a pastor.  Ames says, albeit unconvincingly, "My vocation was the same as my father's.  I assume that if I'd had another father entirely the Lord would still have called me."  The entire book is written by the dying 77-year old Ames to his seven year old son (note the use of seven here).  Certainly, Ames longs to give his dearly beloved son a picture of his own youth and some advice for the future.  Ultimately, I thought the Reverend was trying to figure out whether all of his life-long beliefs are really true as he prepares to meet his maker.  Here are some of my favorite lines that show just how much he is struggling with his faith:
"The fact is, I don't want to be old.  And I certainly don't want to be dead."
"Oh, I will miss the world!"  
"I have worried some about those last hours.  This is another thing you know and I don't - how this ends."  
And my favorite on this topic of doubt is this:  "My father always said when someone dies the body is just a suit of old clothes the spirit doesn't want anymore.  But there we were, half killing ourselves to find a grave, and as cautious as we could be about where we put our feet."  

Gilead is peppered with references to Karl Barth, Ludwig Feuerbach, and John Calvin.  I happen to be reading Calvin's Institutes each morning, so these references were incredibly interesting to me.  I know a little about Barth, and less about Feuerbach, and I wondered if my conclusions about the book would change if I would read some of their writings.

I spend a good deal of time with pastors, so the parts of Gilead that highlighted the occasional frustration with the vocation spoke to me.  Ames says, "After a while I did begin to wonder if I liked the church better with no people in it.  I know they are planning to pull it down.  They're waiting me out, which is kind of them."  He tells a humorous story of ministering to a widow in his congregation.  Remember, he is dying.  He poignantly explains, "You can never know what troubles or fears such people have, and I went.  It turned out that the problem was her kitchen sink."  Ames even addresses the tricky situation of being your wife's pastor:  "Your mother was startled the first time I mentioned to her that she might as well not do the ironing on a Sunday evening.  It's such hard work for her to stop working that I don't know what I have accomplished by speaking to her about the day of rest."

Interwoven with his thoughts on faith are Ames' thoughts on forgiving John Ames Boughton, his namesake and son of his best friend.  Boughton has committed just about every crime that exists.  He has come to town to "pay his respects" to Ames, his godfather, and his own father (who is apparently dying as well).  This part of the story line is immensely compelling, as Boughton is trying to redeem himself.  In what I think is the most beautiful line in the book, Ames writes, "As I have said, the worst eventualities can have great value as experience.  And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer."  Think about that.  "Struggling against our rescuer."  Oh, how true that has been in my own life.  I've been pondering that one little phrase for four days.  One could say that is the mark of a Pulitzer Prize winning book. 

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Story of the Bac Ninh Book List

Some of you have asked, "What is Bac Ninh?"  This entry answers that question.

Bac Ninh is a town in the northern part of Vietnam.  I traveled to that precious place in the summer of 2006.  Some other women traveled to Bac Ninh as well.  Over the past three years, I've become very well acquainted with five of those other women.  They have welcomed me into their lives when it looked as if we had nothing in common, save our children.  They are brilliant, beautiful, and they are contributing greatly to this ever changing world in which we live.  These women are truly remarkable and I count it a great gift to have them (and their children) in my life. 

When we were all together in February, we loudly and excitedly discussed the books we were reading.  And those loud, excited discussions occurred often throughout the week.  We realized that all six of us are book enthusiasts.  One of them suggested that we all read the same books and talk about them via the Internet.  This blog is my attempt to make that happen.

A review of Gilead, sent to me by one of those remarkable women, is coming up tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Civil Thoughts on the Civil War

Here is another suggestion for your "Books I Need to Read to my Kid" list.  In her Newberry Medal Honor book, Across Five Aprils, Irene Hunt chronicles the life of a family living in Southern Illinois during the Civil War.  Jethro, the youngest child of the Creighton family, is too young to go fight.  After his older brothers leave to become soldiers, he is forced to handle the responsibilities of the farm.  Living in a Union state geographically close to Confederate states, the Creighton family is divided by the convictions of one son who decides to fight in a grey uniform while the rest of the family allegiances lie with Old Abe and the North.  Jethro has to bear the physical and emotional burdens of living as a child during a horrific war.

This piece of juvenile fiction teaches history through telling a story.  The major battles of the war are accurately explained as the Creighton family hears about them in the newspaper.  The reader feels the tenseness of the political climate as the townsfolk debate the issues.  Hunt's descriptions of the soldiers' feelings after battles are startling in an age-appropriate way.  This is accomplished when Jethro encounters a deserter and has to face the moral dilemma of helping him or following the law.  His solution is delightful.

The other piece of this history that is so well explained is how, while the supporters of the North wanted peace, they were significantly concerned about how the country was going to function at the conclusion of the war.  Hunt portrays their hope as centered on Lincoln, and she beautifully describes the grief that ensued when that hope could be no more.  Such descriptions are not the way of the average American history text book.  Neither are thoughts like these:

"When one found comfort, he was grateful, but he was never such a fool as to expect a great deal of it.  The hardships one endured had a purpose; his mother had been careful to make him aware of that." - p. 53, Across Five Aprils