Rabbit, Run

“Everybody who tells you how to act has whisky on their breath. ” (Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Rabbit, Run was Updike’s  first novel; he originally intended for it to be a novella and, at the time of writing it, didn’t even consider himself to be a novelist. (paraphrased from introduction to Rabbit Angstrom)

Rabbit, Run coverEven if you neglected to read this informative statement before starting in on the book itself, my guess is: you’d be able to tell. This book has ‘first attempt’ written all over it. You can foresee Updike’s greatness in his insight into characters, but the novel is so sparsely flushed out that it barely even suggests an environment – it hardly has the outline of a real plot. Yet there is something about Rabbit that compels the reader on, on and on, through the four books of Rabbit’s life. Perhaps it’s all the sex scenes… but more likely it’s Rabbit’s ability to act impulsively and without reason, just to see what will happen to himself next.

Ah, the Sex scenes. If you haven’t read Updike before, you probably won’t have associated such a great mid-century name with sex. But there it is. Rabbit, Run must have been quite scandalous in its time. Updike’s subject material is composed almost entirely of the sex lives, affairs, and impure thoughts of normal people. Yet, despite being absolutely riddled with explicit scenes, Updike is primarily a moral author. He simply makes his claims about the best way to live in the most subtle, least Victorian-novel way, possible.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 336
Ending: open, ambiguous
Incidental Learning: How to Recognize a First Novel, mid-west culture in 1960’s, religion
Further Reading: You will not be able to stop yourself from picking up the next Rabbit book, which starts precisely 10 years after the ending of the first book. You probably don’t want to start reading this series at all if you don’t have time for the 1,519 pages that make up the whole tetralogy.

 

Watership Down

“The May sunset was red in the clouds, and there was still half an hour to twilight. The dry slope was dotted with rabbits-some nibbling at the thin grass near their holes, others pushing further down to look for dandelions or perhaps a cowslip that the rest had missed.” (Watership Down, Richard Adams)

watership down coverOn the surface, Watership Down is not particularly interesting: some people seek a new place to live because their old home was overcrowded; they struggle against nature and their own species to succeed. In fact, its positively hum-drum. Sure, the fact that the main characters are Rabbits adds some spice, and the supernatural prophet element helps too, but in essence, its a simple adventure story with broad, sweeping, none too meaningful themes.

I think where Adams digs a little deeper is when he creates a shared mythology for his world. Rabbits share the stories of their ancestors, and those stories affect who they are and how they act in the present. Our particular rabbits come into contact with many different rabbit societies; each society knows the stories and how they tell the myths discloses who they are. Our main characters tell the stories simply, honestly, and well – so we know that we can trust them, that they are good rabbits. But if a society has a tenuous connection with traditions and the past, they are suspect, and perhaps devoid of morals. This interaction between the rabbits and their mythology is just fascinating – how they are inspired by the stories, how they judge others by their interpretations of them, how the stories inform their ideas about what a rabbit should be. Its the most true and honest part of Watership Down, and I’m sure someone already has written a fine paper about how Adams reveals our own relationship with our traditional, human, myths and legends.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBR – Avoid
Length: 476
Ending: Satisfying
Incidental Learning: Rabbit eating and mating habits
Further Reading: I’m having a hard time thinking of more books where characters interact so strongly with stories. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell certainly has myths and legends that affect the future. The Wheel of Time series, maybe.

American Pastoral

“The detailthe immensity of the detail, the force of the detail, the weight of the detail- the rich endlessness of detail surrounding you in your young life like the six feet of dirt that’ll be packed on your grave when you’re dead.” (American Pastoral by Philip Roth)

American Pastoral Cover

American Pastoral focuses on The Swedea perfect man blessed with everything America had to offer, as he starts to develop an inner world so powerful it dominates the actual world in front of him. Roth starts us off with the bare facts: The Swede’s daughter builds a bomb and kills a man. At first, it’s easy for the reader to feel callous, to feel as though the event should be quickly gotten over, buried, or dismissed. But Roth doesn’t allow us to do that – he forces us to follow, step-by-step, the disintegrating mind of the Swede as he tries to equate his lively, precocious child with the raving lunatic teenager she turned out to be.

It is impossible for the reader not to rationalize, to think that the child must have always been selfish and mad, or that the parents must have been abusive somehow, but Roth does not allow us that escape either. He painstakingly, lovingly, takes us through each detailed reflection that proves Merry, the child, was wonderful, bright, energetic, smart, while Merry the teenager was fat, unruly, bitter, and a murderer. The parents were just normal, flawed, loving parents. When Roth is done with us, there is no way out. There is no one, easy, pre-packaged, reason to point to for why Merry murdered a man and fled. The reader is forced to wonder, just as forcefully as The Swede: How does it all hang together?

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 432
Ending: subtly dramatic, leaves you questioning
Incidental Learning: Vietnam war, Glove-making, History of Newark
Further Reading: This definitely made me want to read more Roth. Another author with a similar way of attending to detail is Franzen, though he doesn’t have the same level of respect and compassion for his characters as Roth. The last ‘volume’ also reminded me a bit of The Dinner, but Roth is more subtle in how he reveals the psychological horror of his characters.

 

Children’s Literature

Should adults read children’s literature? I used to think so. I was whole-heartedly behind the idea. I used to bemoan the fact that my library separated the adult and children’s sections by a hallway and atrium because it limited my ability to show Origami Yoda Coverchildren’s lit to adults. I was convinced that children’s lit fixed what was wrong in adult lit: it couldn’t rely on sex and drugs as plot fillers, so children’s books had to rely on excellent, clean plot lines. Now, in my second (and somewhat work-imposed) foray into children’s lit, I’ve been less impressed. It may be that I’ve already read the big, impressive classics, but I see now that children’s literature relies every bit as heavily on fart jokes as adult lit does on sex and violence.

Perhaps, as with everything, children’s literature must be read at the right time and place, and in the right mood. Read it when you’re in need of uplifting. When you find your outlook has grown pessimistic and dull. Read it when you are stuck in the doldrums, or when you don’t want to be bogged down by responsibility. But, for heaven’s sake, do not make children’s literature the only thing you read as an adult. As with every genre: if you stay too long, you’ll get bored.

the one and only ivan coverSo, before I move on to my normal reading patterns, here’s a not-so-recommended list of the children’s books I’ve been working through:

The One and Only Ivan: Sparse, poetic prose. Interesting attempt to get into the mind of an animal without overly anthropomorphizing it.

Artemis Foul: Hilarious, up to a point. But, this is definitely a fart-joke heavy book.

H.I.V.E.HIVE cover: Ridiculously, over-the-top evil, which makes it quite funny. Sort of a sci-fi antithesis of Mysterious Benedict Society.

Hoot: Why is this book so beloved and talked about? Somehow, all of the wrong things were overly realistic – the setting and characters were boring suburbia – while all the character’s motivations were unfathomably unrealistic.

Origami Yoda: Excellent, engaging narrative structure (case files) with interesting, true-to-life problems a middle schooler might deal with. Easy to see why this series does so well with kids.

The Rangers Apprentice

“Will couldn’t help grinning. That was high praise indeed from Halt. Halt saw the expression and immediately added, ‘With more practice – a lot more practice- you might even achieve mediocrity.’ Will wasn’t absolutely sure what mediocrity was, but he sensed it wasn’t good. His grin faded…” (Ranger’s Apprentice by John Flanagan)

The Rangers Apprentice CoverOne of the best parts of reading children’s literature, especially fantasy, is apprenticeships.  A kid gets specially selected for a job, usually a mysterious one, and proceeds to spend the next few years of his/her life being trained. Like they were meant for just one thing in life. Usually, the kid discovers that they are particularly talented in a specific area and they quickly outstrip their peers. Perhaps this says more about me than it does about the appeal of children’s literature, but I just love the whole subgenre: the long hours of training, the curmudgeonly teachers, the minor failings along with the comebacks , and, of course, the outstripping. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone saw one special quality in you as a child? If your life had had a specific purpose and goal (so unlike real life today)?

The Ranger’s Apprentice, as promised by the cover, is a prime example of the apprenticeship subgenre. It’s consistent, evenly paced, properly prosed, and subtly suspenseful. It doesn’t suffer from epic-ness, nor does it succumb to over-attention to details. It isa lovely, well-crafted work that you should read, or put in a child’s hands, at your earliest convenience.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 272
Ending: Satisfying, but also cliff-hanger-y
Incidental Learning: how to use a bow, how to train a ranger’s pony
Further Reading: Obviously, the apprenticeship sub-genre (which I possibly made up) includes most children’s fantasy – Harry Potter, The Sword in the Stone, The Abhorsen Chronicles, and the Sea of Trolls.

 

Booklion Birthday Awards, Year 4

When life evens out – when we are no longer in school or working three jobs, when we are not raising small children or moving across the country – what do we read? When we opt out of obligatory good-wife bookclubs and just say ‘no’ to bestsellers, where do we go?  Your heart my cry out: finally time for my well- and long- loved [insert favorite genre or sub-genre here]! But a few weeks of unvaried reading in a favored genre is the surest path to a lackluster and increasingly infrequent reading habit. So let me take a moment to prescribe a reading regimen.

If you’ve paid attention to the side-bars in the Booklion this year, you might have noticed that I challenged myself to read deeply in an unfamiliar, demanding genre: 20th century classics. I read The Grapes of Wrath for the first time and labored over Infinite Jest for almost two months. I fought through the atrophy that prolonged genre-reading produces until I got back my ability to focus on a perfect sentence, to wholly love conflicted, contradictory characters. I already look back at that time wistfully and think of it as the most satisfying reading I’ve done since 2008, when I read Moby-Dick over and over for a thesis. Comparatively, my reading now seems haphazard and inadequate.

So, this year I want to recommend being purposeful about your reading – instead of simply scraping off the top of your surely well-maintained TBR list, square your shoulders and defiantly pick a long-neglected category of reading to focus on.  Do you Year four awardsfeel like poetry is a weak point? Romance? 1920’s noir? Have you always been curious about the victorian-era classics, or the man-booker-prize winners? Make a list of 10-15 well-chosen books, secure them at your library/bookstore/ebook-provider of choice, and select a deadline. You may find that this new, previously overlooked, category quickly supplants your previous favorite.

So, without further ado, here are the mostly meaningless, yet still fun, year-4 booklion awards:

Best of the 20th-century list: 

Grapes of Wrath

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Best modern books:

Tenth of December

Wolf Hall

Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi/’Weird fiction’

The City and the City

Personal Favorite Post: 

The Road

Most Undecided: 

Infinite Jest

Most Disappointing:

A Tale for the Time Being

The Goose Girl

“The resonance of Faladas voice came softly, an echo of what was once spoken, like the voice of the sea from a shell. They faced each other thus in silent conversation, the shivering once princess and the mounted head of her steed, dead speaking with dead.” (The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale)

The Goose Girl CoverA fantastic, consistent book with lyrical, smooth prose. I read it in snatches of time during lunch breaks, but it was more than difficult to wait 24 hours for the next time I could pick it up. I’m afraid my reading schedule for the past year has been so luxurious that it quite spoiled my ability to wait more than a day or two for the end of a book.

Whenever you experience a drastic schedule change in your life, like when changing jobs or moving, it is always difficult to find where your time to read has gone. Has it migrated to commuting time? Has it changed from large stretches of uninterrupted time to bits and pieces throughout the day? Trust me, it is there. Somewhere. But you must discover it – you must experiment with your reading. I’m not talking about the age old adage about making time in your schedule for the important things, I’m talking about finding the time that is already there. Perhaps, once you try it, you’ll find that you love read/walking, or read/eating. Maybe you’ll find poetry, short stories, or children’s books suit the small chunks of time you have better than long novels do. Or perhaps you’ll find that cleaning your house on a Sunday afternoon is not half as important as finishing a book or two…

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 400 pgs
Ending: Fairy-tale appropriate
Further Reading: Shannon Hale has a host of beloved books, including a further three novels in the Bayrne world. Goose Girl reminds me of Ella Enchanted for their whimsical, quirky twists but classic fairy tale feeling.

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