Thursday, June 28, 2012

"A Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah

With a lot of popular nonfiction, I'm left with a dilemma. Can a book be "good" just because it has a compelling story? Actually, I already talked about this in my review of Unbroken, so I won't rehash it here, but I finished A Long Way Gone with much of the same sentiment.

The book is written by Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone. The book recounts the initial attack on his village, his long exodus from his hometown, his initiation into the army, and his eventual rehabilitation. Though he does later immigrate to the United States, that portion of his tale is not included.

Beah obviously has a compelling and troubling story. The near apathy he had to develop in order to psychologically survive what was happening is horrifying, and even worse is how easy it was for boys like him, in those circumstances, to become merciless killers. Surprisingly, relatively little time is spent on Beah's time in the army (much more time is spent on his ceaseless walking), though I didn't mind being spared at least some of the gory details. Ultimately, Beah's story is one of survival in the face of terror, and his ability to recover and develop compassion after being a soldier is remarkable.

Nonetheless, I had a hard time being absorbed in the story. Beah recounts his tale straightforwardly, point by point (even though the piece isn't entirely chronological), as if he were speaking to a friend. That style probably appeals to some people, but I found it dull and lifeless. Without any sense of style or narrative convention, the pace felt plodding, with no tension or climax. Even Beah's transformation after being released from the army has no emotional charge; his terror or joy are described to, but not felt by, the reader.

Certainly Beah's novel describes an atrocity that some people probably still aren't familiar with. And I think the book's style and structure might appeal especially to weaker readers. I'm sure it can be a book used well, even if it wasn't great for me.

Monday, June 25, 2012

"The Power and the Glory" by Graham Greene

I'd never heard of The Power and the Glory before it was given to me by a friend. Written in 1940, the novel takes place in Mexico during a time in which Catholicism has been outlawed and priests are being hunted and killed. The book follows one priest as he attempts to escape while trying to reconcile his failures as a man of God.

In The Power and the Glory, the setting is elaborately rendered, with the heat, stench, and oppressiveness of the Mexican rainy season weighing down constantly (oddly, the atmosphere reminded me of The Great Gatsby). The unnamed "whiskey priest" is fully described, particularly his ambivalent attitude toward his vocation. The reader can feel his pain, fear, and fleeting hope through each plodding (not in a "boring plot" way but in an "inexorable march towards a dreaded fate" kind of way) moment of the novel.

The whiskey priest is tortured by the knowledge that his only solace is in duties (praying, serving the sacrament) he can no longer perform, both because they are outlawed and because the priest is unable to repent of his sins. There's of course something very human in a man who hates and yet cannot abandon his transgressions (his child; his drinking), which perhaps is what makes the whiskey priest so relatable.

After reading the novel, I was left with one central issue. (but first, a related tangent) I don't believe in God, and my husband does. For him, there's comfort in knowing that there's something greater than himself and that there's a purpose to existence. On the other hand, I find a lack of God far more reassuring. If there's no Plan and Purpose in life, then we can live life more fully and freely, unconstrained by arbitrary rules of what we "should" do. The novel, to me, seems to describe the danger and pain of (a certain type of) religious belief. In The Power and the Glory, the whiskey priest is tormented by his failure. He's failed to perform his duties as a priest; he's failed to abide by religious rules. Then what's the point of his Catholicism? He's miserable with his unworthiness, which gets him no where.

This point is made especially clear in the end when the whiskey priest is executed after finally (willingly) being caught by the police. His death is juxtaposed with a woman reading an obviously mythologized story of Juan, a saint who contently prays the night before he's executed and exclaims, "Hail, Christ the King" as he's killed. In contrast, the whiskey priest stays up that night in fear, drinking, and when he wakes, it is "with a huge feeling of hope which suddenly and completely left him at the first sight of the prison yard.... He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all" (210). What is the point of a religion which only highlights and reinforces humans' unavoidable inadequacies?

On the other hand, the priest's greatest sense of comfort comes when he spends the night in filthy jail, pushed up close to all kinds of people. He's repelled by the pious and judgmental Catholic woman and instead sees beauty in the world around him. Damning the people with him, even the couple having sex, for their sins seems pointless. Compassion, instead, is the only obvious answer. Even in such a place, none of the "brutes" turns him in for reward money once they learn he is a priest.

Though to me the novel is a call for a care for human life and possibilities over dogma, perhaps Green is instead advocating for religion focused not on damnation but on love (something many denominations today certainly do).

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Catch-22" by Joseph Heller

Though audiobooks obviously take me longer to "read" than traditional novels, I still typically finish one or so a month. I've been listening to Catch-22 since mid-March, which means this one took me three months to finish. Oops. It was life craziness, not the book, that caused the lengthy timeline, but in some ways I'm glad it took the time it did as that meant I got to savor the novel for a long while.

Even people not familiar with Heller's work typically know what a catch-22 is: an inescapable paradox that today would perhaps be phrased simply as "FML." In the novel, the term refers to the predicament of Yossarian, a bombadier in World War 2, who desperately wants to escape further flight duty in order to avoid being killed. The "catch-22" is simple:
- Any pilot who is crazy cannot fly.
- Any pilot who does not want to fly must ask to be grounded.
- Any pilot who asks to be grounded is sane, and thus must fly.
It's bureaucracy at its best, and though most of us will never serve in war, I think we can all identify with daily absurdities inherent in the idea of catch-22.

The novel is probably best known for its structure. It's non-linear, and even though Yossarian is the protagonist, the presence of a third-person omniscient narrator means that a reader follows multiple characters. The story is more a series of vignettes than a traditional narrative, and the majority of the book is comprised of dialogue between the characters.

This roundabout dialogue is one of the book's highlights, as it draws attention to the maddening nature of communication and the trivial and mundane state of much of our existence. Take this exchange between the downtrodden and timid chaplain and Colonel Cathcart:
“Haven’t you got anything humorous that stays away from waters and valleys and God? I’d like to keep away from the subject of religion altogether if we can."
The chaplain was apologetic. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid all the prayers I know are rather somber in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.”
“Then let’s get some new ones.”
Intelligence, common sense, and human decency are constantly squashed for greed and self-interest. Nonetheless, most of the novel maintains a humorous tone, and the characters' constant exasperation is more funny than saddening.

In the last part of the novel, however, Heller's tone takes an abrupt turn. Many of Yossarian's friends die in succession, and Yossarian wanders through Italy facing cruelty at every turn. Though we might have laughed when a whore beat Orr over the head with a shoe early in the novel, there's no way to laugh when Aarfy rapes and kills a maid. Though the first part of the novel clearly establishes the absurdity of war, this part cements the real depravity of war and human nature.

Given that turn, and perhaps familiar with cynics like Golding (Lord of the Flies) and Orwell (1984), I was surprised that Catch-22 ends with a thoroughly hopeful conclusion. Heller seems to be arguing that life is shitty and frustrating, but that you choose whether to be defined and shaped by that.

I've had a lot of success with listening to classic novels on audiobook, and I would highly recommend this audio version. The narrator, Jay O. Sanders, did an excellent job with an enormous range of characters' voices (though whenever he did a Southern accent he ended up sounding like a parody of George W. Bush, which made me giggle). The dialogue is definitely enhanced by hearing tone (rising annoyance; calm patronization).

As a last thought, though the books are remarkably different, I kept thinking of The Things They Carried while listening. Perhaps because I think both achieve Truth--particularly about something as mythologized as war--through fiction.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is my third David Mitchell book, and it's also now my favorite. I'd call the previous two books I've read by him, Black Swan Green and Ghostwritten, short story collections, though the stories are not disparate but intertwined (e.g., Black Swan Green is all about same boy over the course of a year). Cloud Atlas is somewhat different, being comprised of what almost seems to be six excerpts from other novels. There's (story 1) a man at sea suffering from an odd brain ailment; (story 2) a young composer working with an aged and renowned composer; (story 3) a woman investigating an energy conspiracy; (story 4) an elderly man held against his will at a nursing home; (story 5) a human "fabricant" who discovers she's a slave; and (story 6) a primitive young boy exposed to truths of his world. The novel begins at the chronological beginning with story 1, continues through story 6, then returns chronologically backwards, ending with story 1. In doing so, Mitchell leaves cliffhangers in each story while interweaving each piece together.

I suppose the structure could come off gimmicky, but I quite liked it. I also enjoyed getting snippets of different voices, worlds, and even genres (story 3 is a mystery; story 5 sci-fi). There are some issues--the bad guys seemed too stereotypically bad in story 3, and there's some odd loose ends in story 4--but none of that kept me from enjoying the book.

The stories have some literal connections (like the protagonist of story 4 reads the book of story 3), but the real connections are thematic. In each, the protagonist must become aware of his or her surroundings and stand up for him or herself against greater forces. Not all survive doing so, but Mitchell has given each a sense or glimpse of freedom once that risk is taken.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

"The Code of the Woosters" by P.G. Wodehouse

It's been a stressful spring, to make a serious understatement. My husband and I are moving from the Northeast to the Midwest, and though it's a good change, it's also meant selling our house and finding me a new job. Overall my reading's been down and my mood has been terrible. This past week my life has finally come together--we settled on the sale of our house and I was offered (and accepted!) a teaching job--but I've had a hard time getting out of the anxiety-ridden funk I've grown accustomed to. I knew I needed a book to help transition me into a happier life again. And though The Code of the Woosters is no miracle salve, it was the ideal book for me at this moment.

"Slapstick" comedy isn't something I'm exposed to a lot of these days, perhaps because the sitcoms you're most likely to see it in don't typically appeal to me. So I forget how enjoyable the old-fashioned mishaps, mistakes, and misunderstandings piling upon one another can be. In The Code of the Woosters, Wodehouse is at his best as his protagonist Bertie and the loyal servant Jeeves attempt to rectify a situation involving a cow creamer, a missing notebook, a constable's hat, and broken engagements. The novel includes, among other things, pictures being smashed over heads, people escaping on sheet ladders out of windows, and newts in a bathtub.

Bertie's eternally optimistic narration of events and his own self give constant amusement, as do Aunt Dahlia's criticisms (I believe she insults someone by comparing him to gorgonzola at one point). Though Bertie is rather firm in his disparagement of the ladies, he's also hopelessly willing to help when they're in a pickle.

The Code of the Woosters is my type of summer read: light and fluffy (I finished it in one day) without being stupid or dull.

Friday, June 8, 2012

"Railsea" by China Mieville

Though Railsea is marketed as young adult, it's unlike most young adult novels. Part of that is because Mieville is willing to engage in his somewhat unusual style and structure in a genre that's more typically populated by straightforward narratives. The whole thing made me somewhat wary in the beginning, but I warmed to the protagonist Sham, his daybat Daybe, and the railsea itself.

The entire concept of Railsea is a riff off of Moby Dick. Instead of sailing the open sea for the elusive whale, people of this world "sail" the twisting and turning railway lines, hunting the giant burrowing creatures that populate the earth. Young Sham is part of a crew, led by Captain Naphi, whose "philosophy" is to catch the giant mole Mocker-Jack.

The worldbuilding and captain's quest appear rather absurd, but it's to Mieville's credit that the story never seems absurd. The worldbuilding is convincingly done and the characters well-drawn. The novel escapes the pitfalls of much YA literature, eschewing a romance or maudlin relationships.

The structure of Railsea mimics the structure of the railsea, as the novel twists and turns and doubles back on itself, Mieville himself sometimes teasing the reader by suggesting he'll follow one story--only to return to a different one instead. I liked these "meta" moments and even came to love the fact that the word "and" is always replaced with "&" in the novel.

I don't know that I'd recommend Railsea to my students. I think most would find it weird and "boring" (they find everything "boring"). But, I would say any Mieville fans should not be put off by the YA label--it's more a description of the protagonist's age than a comment on the type of story one should expect.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

"The Telling" by Ursula Le Guin

In the library looking for something to read (a rarity for me, as I typically request all the books I read or go in for something specific), I decided to try another Le Guin novel. I know much classic sci-fi isn't a part of my repertoire, and I'd enjoyed my first Le Guin novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. I chose The Telling, one of her more recent books, because it was a nice library copy (unlike the more dingy copy of The Dispossessed, for example), which perhaps was a mistake. Though I didn't hate The Telling, I did find it dull and lacking any innovation or interesting world building.

The Telling is the story of Sutty, an Ekumenical Observer sent to research the state of Aka. Though Sutty had studied traditional Akan language and literature prior to her trip, by the time she arrives, such practices have been replaced by an oppressive anti-religious regime bent on destroying all elements of their traditional culture. However, when Sutty is permitted to travel away from the main city, she discovers an underground world still practicing the Telling. Sutty soon becomes enraptured by their culture and practices.

The most disappointing part of The Telling is how dull the traditional religion is. It's somewhat similar to Buddhism, but mostly it includes respect, healthy living, community, etc. It's any non-religious liberal's ideal religion, and it's so obviously better than the state-controlled propaganda that there's no subtlety to be seen. Le Guin takes some long chapters in the middle of the book to describe the religion, all of which is dreadfully dull.

I often chide my students for complaining that a book is "pointless" because "nothing happens." There doesn't have to be action for a book to be great. But, in this instance, I think the lack of plot is a legitimate grievance. Sutty travels to Okzat-Ozkat; she learns about the Telling. She describes the Telling to us in detail. She travels to the special "holy" place of the Telling. That gets described too. The end. There's no climax nor any meaningful character growth. We learn early on that Sutty comes from an authoritarian religious government, but that doesn't seem to prejudice her against this religion. We also know she lost her partner, but again, it's not especially relevant.

Clearly Le Guin is a master sci-fi writer, but when I try her work again, I'll go with one of her classic pieces.