Gone with the Wind

“Oh, you’re smart enough about dollars and cents. That’s a man’s way of being smart. But you aren’t smart at all like a woman. You aren’t a speck smart about folks.” (Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell)

Gone with the wind coverI assumed I’d enjoy Gone with the Wind for its writing, its atmosphere, for all of the good things that people talk about when they mention this mid-century classic. I did not expect to like Scarlett. I certainly did not expect to be able to relate to her in a way I seldom am able to relate to female protagonists. Though she doesn’t stop much to analyze her own feelings, in one passage Scarlett admits to herself that she’s lonely. I can’t get that admission out of my head. When has a strong female protagonist ever admitted that she’s lonely? Almost always, strong female characters are either incredibly popular with other women (and small animals), or too strong to ever admit a weakness as fundamental as loneliness. I, being a strong female protagonist in my own life, am also lonely. And also, perhaps, not so good with folks.

Everyone who caught me reading Gone with the Wind seemed somehow impressed by its length. But, any reader knows that if you are always in the middle of a book, if you have a rock solid habit of reading in your life, reading a large book is no different than reading two, or maybe three, books right in a row. Just as librarians complain about a lack of diversity in literature (especially children’s literature), I think that there’s a lack of diversity in book lengths these days. Publishers believe that customers only read a standard American 300 page novel, and so that’s what they publish. Nice, lovely, long reads get put out of print, or never make it into print in the first place. So, I’m encouraging you to not be impressed when you next see someone reading a large book. Don’t even be impressed with yourself when you finish one. Simply delve into long books whenever the mood overtakes you, and enjoy the different quality of writing that length brings.

Recommended Action: Buy - BorrowTBRAvoid
Ending: Frustrating if you’re interested in the romance, perfect if you’re interested in the development of Scarlett’s character
Incidental Learning: Civil war, southern life, Atlanta in 1860’s
Further Reading: Somehow, this book has always been associated in my mind with Lonesome Dove. Another long, atmospheric book I intend to read pretty soon.

Rabbit Redux

“Your life has no reflective content; it’s all instinct, and when your instincts let you down, you have nothing to trust. That’s what makes you cynical. Cynicism, I’ve seen it said somewhere, is tired pragmatism.” (Rabbit Redux by John Updike)

Rabbit Redux CoverAs expected: ten years of practice does make a better writer. Here, in Rabbit’s second incarnation, Updike is better able to flesh out his world and secondary characters. The paragraphs themselves reflect the experience, being fuller, fatter items taken as a whole, not the weak, skittering paragraphs of the first book. Superficially, Updike spends his time tracking Rabbit’s mind-set as his carefully unloved life falls apart. Rabbit reveals himself as an unsavory character, unable to consider the consequences his actions might have both on himself and those he loves.

But, in a very large sense, you do not read this book for Rabbit. You read this book because Updike is not scared of anything. He is does not shy away of describing, in minute detail, any part of the human body. He does not shirk his duty in lying bare the basest thoughts of his beloved characters. He does not worry that you may not like his language, his politics, his racial prejudices, or his heroes. He is not vague, or sappy, or particularly careful with your emotions. He is truthful and, for those who do not look away, endlessly fascinating.

For all that, Updike disappointingly relies far too heavily on the ‘sacrificial lamb’ plot. It seems that he knows no other. Hopefully the next book in the Angstrom series show as much development in plot crafting as the last one did in writing.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid

Length: 448

Ending: open

Incidental Learning: 1960’s america

Further Reading: More Updike – perhaps even the next book in the series, “Rabbit is Rich”.

In Cold Blood

“Nobody ever comes to see him except you,’ he said, nodding at the journalist, who was equally well acquainted with Smith as he was with Hickock.” (In Cold Blood by Truman Capote)

In Cold Blood CoverThese days, there is almost a pathological need to insert ourselves, as authors, into narrative non-fiction. We were there. We read it. We did it. We interviewed whomever, we saw whatever. So we should be in the story, right? Capote, despite his true emotional involvement in the Clutter case, refers to himself only once as ‘the journalist’ (see above). Nothing, absolutely nothing, comes between the reader and the content. There is no ego, no author, no imposed emotions. Just those involved in the case speaking for themselves, in their own words.

Capote doesn’t even take liberty with the paragraphs he must himself compose. The writing is clear; precisely configured not to distract the reader from the content. It is a story laid bare and stark before the reader, and it is all the more haunting and poignant for what it lacks. I can’t help but feel, after reading this pristine example, that all of the ‘work’ authors have done improving the narrative non-fiction genre in the past 50 years has been for naught. Instead of adding things, adding ourselves, adding emotions, maybe we should try taking them away again.

 

Recommended Action: Buy – Borrow TBRAvoid

Length: 343

Ending: appropriately unhopeful

Incidental Learning: The Clutter Case, Mid-century Kansas, psychology of the criminal mind

Further Reading: Other Capote. Modern narrative non-fiction (such of the much-lauded ‘Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks”) will only disappoint for its lack of cleanliness and restraint.

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.

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