Thursday, February 14, 2019

What I've Been Reading

I found this book at our local library -- A Thousand Books to Read before You Die. Some of them I had read already, and some I had tried and don't want to read; but a lot of them I either hadn't read or passed over. This book gives brief explanations of the content of each book and why you might want to read it, along with notes about similar books, and so on.

As y'all know, I am a reading junkie. So far this book had provided me with ten or twelve new books to read, and I am only up to the D's. (It's alphabetical by author.) Here's a few of the books I've read, on the advice of James Mustich:

Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh

This was one of the books I'd picked up or thought about picking up maybe fifty times, but never actually looked inside. The title put me off. It made me thinking this would be one of those preachy religious stories.

And indeed there is some religion! But it is mainly the story of the Pontifex family, from the great-grandfather John down to the narrator's main interest, the great-grandson, Ernest. The narrator is Overton (if we learn his first name, I missed it) who knew Ernest's father, aunts, and uncles as a child, and becomes Ernest's godfather.

Overton watches Theobald, Ernest's father, grow up and grow into a small-minded, narcissistic, sadistic man, who both emotionally and physically abuses his oldest son. Most of the book concerns the effect of this abuse on Ernest, and how he recovers -- somewhat -- from that abuse.

The part of the book which is about religion mainly concerns the ways in which abusive people use religion to justify their abuse, and the difference between healthy and unhealthy attitudes toward religion. Butler also wants us to notice that making religion into an industry leads inevitably to abuse.

This is a very readable and thoughtful book. If you like 18th Century fiction (though technically it was published in 1903), give it a try.

E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady

I have no idea why I never read this one -- I actually remember checking it out of the library once. But it's a lot of fun.

It's just what it says on the tin -- a (slightly fictionalized) diary of a woman who lives in a small village in England in the 1930s, and her minor adventures and troubles. She's always overrunning her allowance (of course she has a trust fund), her children are ingenuous and troublesome, her husband is a sit-com husband.

Don't look for great depth, but if you want pure entertainment, this one is delightful.

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

This one reminds me a bit of Helen DeWitt's The Last Samuri, in that it's a discursive book without a really strong plot line that is nonetheless compulsively readable.

That said, there are things that annoyed me about it, and I probably won't read it again.

The premise is that a woman has been "mentored" by one of her old professors all of her life, since she was in his creative writing class as an undergraduate. Now he has died, and she inherits his dog, a Great Dane named Apollo.

Like Helen McDonald's H is for Hawk, which I liked a lot, as you'll recall, lots of this book is not even about the plot, such as it is. Lots of it is about dogs, dogs in literature, dogs owned by famous people, dogs the narrator has known, dogs in the abstract and the specific. More of it is about her relationship with Apollo, who soon comes to replace the dead professor in her heart.

But some of it is about the professor, who slept with everyone, especially -- or perhaps exclusively -- with his students. In fact, he commits suicide, the narrator believes, because he grew too old to be pretty anymore, and his students stopped finding him sexy and started finding him offensive.

Though that is not quite how the narrator puts it, which is the part I don't like about this book. The narrator, who herself slept with the professor, clearly thinks professors should be allowed to sexually exploit their students, at least the young pretty women students, and that it is only this snowflake generation that takes offense at such things.

This is why their writing is so bad, she explains. They're too quick to take offense at everything, and that leads to them writing bland stories about nothing -- oh, except for one very brave young man in her writing class. True, he turns in bland stories entirely about men slaughtering each other. But later he confides in her that he does include women in the stories -- rape victims, and incest victims -- he just cuts them out before he shows the stories to the class, because, after all, his fellow students would just get offended and probably report him for sexual harassment if he included such scenes.

This little rant is at the very end of the book, and quite frankly such a cliched rant, straight from the propaganda machine of Turning Point USA, spoiled what had been an engaging and charming little book. I winced my way past it and finished the book, but I can't say I recommend it. Read H is for Hawk or The Last Samuri instead.

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country.

This one I do recommend. It's also not very plot-driven -- it doesn't have much of a plot at all -- but the writing is beautiful, and Carr's ability to create characters is wonderful.

The plot, such as it is, is that a veteran of WWI, suffering from PTSD (or shell-shock, as they called it then), comes out to a village in England in 1920 to work on restoring a mural in a local church. He spends a summer (not a month) at this work, and gets entangled in the village culture and its people. He develops a crush on the vicar's wife, who reciprocates, but neither of them do more than flirt with one another. He builds a friendship with another WWI veteran, who is excavating a piece of land near the church. At the end of the summer, he returns to London.

That's it, so far as the plot is concerned. It's the wonderful writing and the narrators ruminations on art and war and existence that make this book stellar. It's very short, and I read it all in one gulp, staying up until 1:00 AM to do so, even though I had to get up at six for school.

Well worth it.

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