Monday, March 29, 2010

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon

I first heard about Michael Chabon's writing from his wife while I was on the treadmill at the gym. She was narrating her book, Bad Mother, through my ear pods. Ayelet Waldman's description of her husband's involvement in helping her parent their four children as he churned out novel after novel seemed endearing, if not inspiring. So, off I went to hunt down some Michael Chabon. He won the Pulitzer in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. That title was not to be found at the used bookstore, but The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was. It was $2.99. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was Chabon's first book, written at the age of 21.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is about Arthur Bechstein as he toys with becoming an adult during a summer break from college. The novel profiles his difficult relationship with his father, who is in the Mafia, and it describes the love he feels for Phlox, who is his girlfriend. As he drenches himself in Phlox's affections, he finds himself questioning his sexuality. The focus of that identity question centers around his friend, who also happens to be named Arthur.

The part of me that is enamored by the talent of the novelist is simply floored at the achievement of this novel written at such a young age. The human part of me wasn't all that enamored. The writing is excellent. The plot is a little eccentric, and because of that, it reminded me of a Quentin Tarantino movie. The story is a fairly accurate portrayal of my generation. The picture was not pretty for me, all laid out there in black and white. Oblivious to the enormity of their self-centeredness, Arthur and his friends live in the present without regard for the past or the future. At the beginning of the novel, Arthur says this:

"I smoked and looked down at the bottom of Pittsburgh for a little while, watching the kids playing tiny baseball, the distant figures of dogs snatching at a little passing car, a miniature housewife on her back porch shaking out a snippet of red rug, and I made a sudden, frightened vow never to become that small, and to devote myself to getting bigger and bigger and bigger."

That vow is made at the beginning of the novel. The vow is not rooted in anything except being momentarily inspired. The inspiration does not propel Arthur to do anything "big". It's that kind of thing that seems to be a repeating theme with my generation; get inspired and then do nothing with the inspiration. Of course, I'm not saying that everyone in my generation fulfills this stereotype, but it's out there. Is this stereotype typical of 22 year olds in all generations? I think not. My grandfather was commanding a World War II Navy ship at that same age. His daughter was financially supporting her husband while he attended college at that same age. His granddaughter (me) was, at 22, not doing anything nearly as magnanimous as commanding a Navy ship or putting someone through college. I might be on to something here. And Michael Chabon might agree with me.

While this wasn't a life-changing, keep-me-up-all-night novel, it fulfilled its purpose. Any time a book causes me to stop and think, it is a good thing. You can be sure that I'll be watching the used bookstore for some more Michael Chabon.

An Open Letter to My Former High School English Teachers Regarding Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dear Mr. Sharpe, Mr. Mohan, and Mrs. Balaban,

How are you doing? Remember me? Maybe not. Nevertheless, I loved having you as my high school English teachers, but I need to bring a matter to your attention. Once I do this, I will feel as if I've made a small, but important, contribution to society.

The matter is regarding the assignment - actually lack thereof - of Crime and Punishment. None of you assigned the reading of this novel in any of the English classes I attended. My question is this: What were you thinking?

Full of intrigue, mystery, murder, prostitution, gender bias, history, and romance, this novel is chock full of the stuff teenagers love. Dostoyevsky is clean in the way he unfolds these dramatic themes. Imagine that! Much cleaner than, say, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, which we read and analyzed in detail. As you well know from your many years of teaching literature, the Tolstoy-esque details are absent from Crime and Punishment. The novel is extremely accessible to even the high school level reader.

What is also shocking about the fact that you didn't have us read Crime and Punishment is the sheer volume of moral lessons present in the book. We could have had some really heated debates about whether or not Raskolnikov was forced to commit his crime or not. My classmates would have relished such a discussion!

Truly, though, the most disturbing part of not reading this novel until my 39th year of life is that my brain (and heart) missed the quality of his writing, and specifically, on his masterful use of dialogue to develop plot. Consider, for example, the following:
"Principles! You're always standing on your principles as if they were stilts. You won't move on your own feet."

And then later:
"I didn't kill a human being! I killed a principle!"

What high school student wouldn't love to ponder this statement as he or she is contemplating the future:
"You see, Rodia, it's my considered opinion that all you have to do to make your way in the world is the right thing at the right time."

I'll give you all the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps one of you assumed that the other was going to cover the novel in a later class. Hopefully in the past 25 years you have worked out those kinks and you are not withholding the gift of this novel from your beloved students.

I know you are holding your breath, worried that I'm holding this against you. Really, I'm not. I'm just glad that I can read Crime and Punishment now. It's unfortunate, because I like the book so much that I'd really enjoy writing a paper on it at 39 years of age. However, you can bet your bottom grammar text that I'm going to make sure that all of my friends' English teachers made them read this book, because I wouldn't want them to miss out on what is, by far, one of the greatest novels in existence.

Respectfully yours,


Friday, March 5, 2010

The History of the Medieval World, by Susan Wise Bauer

This book is nothing short of a masterpiece.

I have been following Susan Wise Bauer and her writing for many years. The Well-Trained Mind is the foundation of the academic pursuits of my four children. The Well-Educated Mind saved my sanity as I coped with leaving my career for motherhood. The four volumes of The Story of the World series have made history one of the most exciting topics in our household.

About seven years ago, I heard Bauer give a lecture and I remember her saying, “History isn’t a subject. It is THE subject.” That sentiment may have led her to embark on the mammoth task of writing the history of the entire world in narrative form. The first volume, The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, made me a better teacher of ancient history. I recently finished the second volume of the series, The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. I’ve been working on it since November, as I was allowed access to an online copy in exchange for a review on my blog.

Bauer begins her story of medieval times with Constantine’s Christianity and she ends with the Crusades of Christianity. The middle includes the stories of the Romans, the Ostrogoths, and the Vikings, among others. Throughout the 746-page narrative the reader is provided beautifully constructed maps that clearly show the boundaries of the various empires and therefore aid in the understanding of the historical events. The end of each chapter has a vertical timeline that summarizes the major events in the current chapter compared to the events in the previous chapter. This is a gift to the reader, as the timelines show what was occurring in one empire as compared to what was occurring in another empire. Illustrations included also enhance the reading and understanding of the history. The notes at the bottom of many of the pages provide explanatory notes that are delightfully different from the normal history text explanatory notes.

As well done as the technical details are, it is the masterful telling of history as a story that makes the book so remarkable. Bauer explains why the accounts of a certain event may not be as accurate as they should be by listing a historian’s possible bias and how that would affect the accounting of that event. As I read, I felt as if I was sitting in a history class with a most exciting professor. The writing is interesting, informative, and conversational. In the chapter on Japan between 884 and 940 Bauer explains, “Yozei was never imprisoned; his psychopathy took an occasional downward turn (he was reputedly responsible for at least two murders), but he seems to have been allowed to roam through the mountains on horseback, hunting and sleeping out and sometimes appearing without warning at the gates of one or another great landowner, demanding to be let in.” Bauer does not just give textbook-like facts; she provides reasons for why events occurred or men ruled: “This was exactly why he had appointed a pope who was both German and a blood relation.” And whether the medieval times were really funny or Bauer just chose to include all of the humorous events, the book has some downright hilarious parts, in a dark sort of way. Did you know that Maximinus Daia drank poison to kill himself, but it took four agonizingly painful days to die because he ate an enormous last meal right before he swallowed the poison?

I simply cannot fathom how Bauer possibly summarized the events of an entire historical period in a manner that is easy to understand and interesting at the same time. I had a sorry excuse for a history education in public school, and because of my college major, I did not have one single history class during my university studies. This history series has made the facts of my own history less regrettable because I am learning THE subject, and it is THE subject that helps me to understand not just the past, but also the present.