Friday, January 23, 2015

David Zhivago and Yuri Copperfield

photo by Anna Reavis

"I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see." John Burroughs

I’m sure some of my blogging friends think I’ve fallen prey to the dragons at the edge of the world, but I promise I have been reading.  I just haven’t been finishing anything.  For some ungodly reason back in December, I thought it would be a good idea to read David Copperfield to myself concurrently with reading Doctor Zhivago aloud with Ken...because the plethora of characters in either of these novels individually wasn’t challenging enough, I guess. 

Shortly into this literary equivalent of scaling two sheer granite facades at the same time, one with one half of my body and the other with the other half, I realized I would have to study character maps and make profuse notes on each novel to maintain some semblance of clarity.  (This was soon after I imagined David Copperfield heading toward Yuriatin to help Lara hide after she shot Mr. Murdstone.)    So, as if the reading of these two door stops wasn’t enough of a time suck, now there were the notes to make.  Then I got the flu.  Then Ken went into atrial fibrillation for a week and ended up in the hospital.  Let me just say that sickness and hospital stays do not, in fact, lend themselves to reading.  I spent a lot of time staring out the window like someone in need of a lobotomy.  Or a strait-jacket. 
And now we are both on the mend so it's time to head back to London to see how Pasha is getting along with Mr Spendlow.  One day I will finish these books and actually write about them.  In the meantime, I’ll just complete novels vicariously by reading book blogs at work.  (That is NOT true, Mark.  I do not read book blogs at work.  I only work prodigiously on insurance matters at work.  Except at lunch.  At lunch I download porn.) 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Will I Read All of Willa?

photo by Anna Reavis
What was any art but a mold in which to imprison for a moment the shining elusive element which is life itself -- life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose. 
Willa Cather

Let me begin by saying I love Willa Cather.  But I'm having a hard time figuring out what to say about Sapphira and the Slave Girl.  Maybe part of the problem is that I dislike so many of the characters.  And while there is some element of redemption in the fate of one of the main characters, Nancy, there seems to be no change of heart or growth of character in the others.  It's really strange to me that the same person who wrote this also wrote My Antonia.  Some of Cather's works seem more simple and entertaining, while some transcend entertainment and become art.  I have also read Death Comes for the Archbishop and O Pioneers!, and while I don't remember loving them as I did My Antonia, I do remember them as more complex and more...literary?  Is that the word I'm looking for?  Sounds so pretentious to pass judgment on the "literary merit" of a work, but I guess that's what I am doing. 

As a rule, I shy away from using the phrase "favorite book," as it would be impossible and I think unjust to choose a favorite, but My Antonia is certainly one of my favorite books, and it was pure serendipity that I read it at all.  I had read Sapphira and the Slave Girl at Wake in some upper level English class (maybe Literature of the South), and I had read O Pioneers and Death Comes for the Archbishop at some point along the way on my own.  Because I had not remembered loving any of the three, I may never have sought out more Cather.  But...when travelling, I usually read some or all of a random book I find in the house or condo I am in.  On a trip to Alaska in 2000, I found an old, slightly battered copy of My Antonia in the house I was in, started reading it, and fell in love.  I have since shared it with my daughter, and it is now also one of her favorite books.  I'm almost afraid to re-read it.  What if it doesn't live up to the hype I've created in my head?

What I would really like to do is find out more about Cather and her life and then read all her works in order of publication to see if I can gain some understanding of the variance in her work.  Maybe that can be a summer reading project.  January will be spent finishing Dr Zhivago and David Copperfield, both of which I am loving, but neither of which is a quick read.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Unbroken: "Out of the Whirlwind"

photo by Amy Brandon

"Then Job replied to the Lord: I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?' Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me. You said, 'Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.' My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."     Job 42:1-6

(I've convinced Ken to write a guest post on Unbroken,
 because I know I will never read it.  Hope everyone enjoys
hearing from a different voice.)

In the Old Testament, there is a story about a man named Job who endures incredible suffering and loss. It is a grand work of literature, wrestling with deep and perhaps unanswerable questions about the whys and wherefores of the agonies that plague humanity. Much of the book revolves around the issue of the fairness of an omnipotent, all-loving God who would allow such unrelenting woe.

Job's epic came to mind as I read Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken. Having previously read her novel, Seabiscuit, I was looking forward to another good story and was not disappointed. For me, another draw to the book was the subtitle, A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, as the concept of redemption is one of my favorite subjects to savor.
The well-documented story line is a biopic of Louis Zamperini who grows up poor in Depression-era California in an Italian immigrant family struggling to make it. The survival aspect begins early as somehow Louis makes it through a childhood and youth of hell-raising. He is rescued from this period of perpetual trouble-making by his supportive family, particularly by an older brother who guides him through (and sometimes joins him in) shenanigans and who eventually steers him into a more productive form of release:  competitive running. Success in track propels Louis to a college scholarship where he meets with great success and then on to Olympic competition in Berlin, which lent a particularly interesting historical aspect to this segment. He is competitive but doesn't win, so he sets his sights on the next Olympic games in Tokyo where he will be more seasoned and primed for victory.
World War II intervenes, and Louis hangs up his cleats and is soon flying with a bombardier squadron. When his plane is shot down, he floats with three survivors of ten original crewmen for 47 days across 2000 miles of the Pacific. The writing is so compelling that you feel you are there! Starving, sun-roasted, shark-attacked,'s all there, even an albatross omen allusion. The ingenuity, resolve, tenacity, and sheer willpower to live are showcased. They are strafed by a passing Japanese Zero warplane for good measure, but somehow they endure. Finally they bump into the Marshall Islands, only to be captured by Japanese troops. And then the real nightmare begins.
I'll not detail the horrors of this episode, except to say it is one of the most graphic portrayals of brutality I have ever read. There is one gut-wrenching scene of monumental abuse of Louis and other POWs after another, seemingly ever more cruel and unusual. They become emaciated, humiliated, and dehumanized in all manner of ways. Yet somehow, somehow, somehow they cling to life and to some semblance of dignity. A sidebar on the importance of maintaining dignity is one example of the thought-provoking offerings from the author to augment the plot.
Then suddenly with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (again you feel as if you are there), it's all over. After the euphoria of release from all these tormented months, yet another perhaps more distressing crisis afflicts Louis. After reuniting with his family, whom we have kept up with throughout the tale, and marrying, he succumbs to PTSD:  horrible nightmares, flashbacks, fits of rage and the whole bit. At this point, I had to recheck the title. Unbroken? This man is obviously broken. His marriage falls apart. He becomes a bitter, uncaring, mean drunkard. What plane crash, ocean peril, and hellish pit of POW camp could not do to him appears to be carried out by everyday life in crushing this man's spirit. His desire to compete in track is dissolved by injuries inflicted in captivity. He has no resolve to work toward a future. What do you say, Job?
Then God speaks, but not out of a whirlwind as to Job.  Or perhaps it is a whirlwind...a human whirlwind -- one evangelist named Billy Graham. I will have to say I was "blown away" as this scene unfolds. Graham, at this point a relative unknown, came to Los Angeles and set up tent. Sparse crowds became larger. A staunchly resistant Louis (and we know FULL well by now how stubborn he can be!) is  badgered into going. He scoffs, and he dismisses. And then he remembers.  He remembers miraculously being released from wires that entangled him as his plane slipped beneath the waves while he was unconscious, and no one else was around. He remembers bullets peppering the raft as the men lay defenseless, and somehow, the bullets missed. And he remembered promises made to God if he survived, and something clicked. Louis Zamperini came to faith. He found his redemption. He then dedicates his life to helping others find the same, even going so far as to a return to Japan to forgive his tormenters.
~ Ken 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Well and There is Always the Land

photo by Anna Reavis

"But still one thing remained to him and it was his love for his land."
from The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck

Well and I surely do miss Old Wang Lung.  Ken and I finished The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck early last week, and I realized a few nights ago that I missed my nightly visit with Wang Lung, the main character.  Certainly he was an imperfect man, and sometimes hard to pity, but he was such a fully developed, well-rounded character that I feel as if I truly knew him, and now I miss him in my house.  I miss hearing about his adventures and misadventures, his ups and his downs, and his endless, fruitless striving for peace in his house.  And in the vein of most of the best novels, I miss a place and a time I've never actually experienced but feel as if I have.

So many themes were explored in this book: urban life versus rural life; leaving the land and returning to it; mobility versus being tied to the land; new ways and old ways; progress versus conventional wisdom; family values and loyalties and how we imperfect humans so often rip those suckers out and stomp them flat.

One strange thing about The Good Earth was the constantly repetitive use of the word "well" in the dialogue.  I'd be willing to bet this book contains the word "well" more than any other book ever published. At first I found it distracting, but then I, well, I guess I just came to accept it.  If anyone can shed any insight on this odd word overuse, I'd appreciate it.

The Good Earth is the first book in a trilogy about the Wang Lung clan, but the second and third book seem to be readily available only on Kindle.  My mountainous TBR pile warns me against buying them.  If anyone has read either of them (Sons or A House Divided) and would like to offer an opinion, please do so.

Well and I think I've said my peace for now.  Happy Hibernative Winter Reading!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Savagery Is Inevitable?

"And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy."  from William Golding's Lord of the Flies

I finished Lord of the Flies a few days ago.  This book has the distinction of being the only book I've read along with both of my children during their senior years in high school.  Before the recent re-read, I thought I didn't like it.  Upon re-reading, I discovered I had missed a lot the first time.   Honestly, I'll have to say that I remembered almost nothing except that it was about a group of boys who were stranded on an island and who descend into savagery.  I remembered that there was something about a conch and some pigs, that someone dies, and that the boys were eventually rescued.

But what I know is that the book is a metaphor for how quickly we descend into savagery.  I'm sure we'd all like to think, in our high-tech, highly cultured world, that we are above barbarity.  Look around.  Watch the news.  Violence is our go-to reaction.  My "group" can rest, well-fed, in our warm homes, unmolested, always safe because our race and socio-economic status protect us.  We can believe, because it's easier and more comforting, that savagery is far from us.  The truth is the danger of that descent is all around us, all the time.

We can choose to see only ugliness and division.  We can choose to perpetrate divisiveness.  We can choose to reflect only the negative.  Or we can choose to see and reflect the good, the beauty, the hope, the prospect for redemption.  When did reserving judgment and seeking the truth become passe?  Instead of just praying for peace, work for it.  Be the light, everywhere, all the time.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Opposites Attract?


"He was a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would hear.  But so long as he uttered it, in some obscure way the continuity was not broken.  It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage."  from 1984 by George Orwell

My two recently finished books are so totally opposite:  1984 and Gone Girl -- kind of like my seemingly constantly-shifting personalities.  I get frustrated with myself in that I don’t ever seem to know exactly what genre I will wake up in the mood for on any given day.  I guess that’s why I’m always in the middle of multiple books.
Upon re-reading 1984, what I found I remembered about it was only the first part, the happy part.  I had completely blocked the memory of the last part.  I remembered the love and the sex but forgot the torture and the soul-killing loss of true life that ends the book.   That could be an analogy for my own memory choices about my past, but that’s a different blog post.  Anyway, I am glad I re-read the book, which was very well-written, inventive, and forward-thinking, given the time of publication.   It put me in the mood for some more dystopia.  I still haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.  Maybe that will be up soon.

Gone Girl is harder for me to write about.  So many people loved it.  I liked it.  Ish.  I did.  I just think I should have read it when it came out before all the hype.  Expectations, you know, I don’t do well with them.  I did find it to be entertaining and diverting.   I’m going to leave this one as having been over-hyped by the time I got to it.  I do think I will like the movie.
My current reads are Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which I am loving, and The Divide by Nicholas Evans, which I am liking.  K and I also are still reading The Good Earth aloud, and I'm listening to A Tale of Two Cities in the car.  Audiobooks are a new experience for me, but I'm enjoying it.  I may read the sections after I've listened to them just for clarity.  I read A Tale of Two Cities in high school, but I remember little about it except that I loved it then...lo those many years ago.   This weekend I'm reading Lord of the Flies along with Anna.

Have a great reading Thanksgiving week!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Mini Reviews and Hibernating for the Winter

Photo by Anna Reavis

    But words are things, and a small drop of ink / Falling like dew upon a thought, produces / That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.  – Lord Byron

If you're looking for me for the next few months, you'll find me as above.  I love winter because it gives me an excuse to spend days doing exactly what I'm doing in the picture...pajamas and all.

After years of avoiding it, I finally read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.  Seemingly all the readers I knew had read and loved it and recommended it to me as a story of redemption and hope.  I put off reading it because I knew there would be drama and heartache.  I especially avoided it after I read A Thousand Splendid Suns by the same author because that book was so full of heartache.    While I liked The Kite Runner better than A Thousand Splendid Suns, neither is really my kind of book.   I did find it an important work in that it offered an insight into life in Afghanistan over the past decades of which I was woefully ignorant.  I just don’t like books with that kind of heartache and drama.  I’m more of a fan of understatement.  Also after having read both books, I find them to be a little formulaic.

Recently, Ken and I finished reading Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin.  This was a re-read for me of what I had remembered as being one of my favorite books.  I did enjoy it again but not quite as much as I had expected to.  Partly I think this was because the book really doesn’t lend itself to being read aloud -- too much introspection and deep thinking.  I was thinking our next read aloud would be A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, but last night K suggested The Good Earth by Pearl Buck.  I've been wanting to read it for a long time, so maybe we'll put off the Bryson book for now.

A few weeks ago, upon Ken’s and my father’s recommendation, I read The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West.  I did enjoy the points made in the book but found the plot a little scattered and disjointed.  I found the characters to be likeable and engaging and wonder if the current pope has read the book, as the pope in the novel seems to have been a model for him.

I was reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert but half-way through I became weary of some of the things happening to the main character so have abandoned it for now.  Currently, I'm reading 1984 by Orwell with my daughter for her senior English class and am finally trying Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  I originally read 1984 in 1984 when I was a junior in high school.  I am loving it even more now than I did then. 

Happy Winter Reading Everyone!