Monday, February 24, 2014

Does Violence Ever Discount Artistic Mastery? Further 2014 TBR Musings

Reading Challenge Update --

I have finished two more books of the twelve I picked from my bookshelf for the 2014 TBR ChallengeOnce again I am glad I read them.  I liked one of them a great deal.  I hated the other a great deal, although it was more masterfully written.  So I am wondering more about literary mastery than book details here.  

The Passing BellsThe Passing Bells by Phillip Rock

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is the Goodreads publisher's blurb:  

From the well-kept lawns, rich woodlands, and gracious halls of Abingdon Pryory, from the elegant charm of summer in London's Park Lane to the devastation of Ypres and the horror of Gallipoli, this is the story of the Grevilles - two generations of a titled British family and their servants - men and women who knew their place, upstairs and down, until England went to war and the whole fabric of British society began to unravel and change.

Here is my Goodreads review:

I read / own a first edition of this book.   Good historical fiction, with great detail about many aspects of WWI: societal changes, the battles and politics of the battle "plans", the care of the wounded, and the battle for free Press.  Right up there with Birdsong (but not as character  specific) and Fall of Giants (but not as broad and sweeping).  Glad Downton Abbey and 2014 reading challenge inspired me to read this little treasure that was languishing in my bookshelf.  Having said that, the ending was rushed, as if the writer had reached his limit. Still, I'm looking forward to reading the sequels. If you like historical epics with war, politics and romance, you'll enjoy this.

What I find interesting is that I liked this book and look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.  It wasn't fluffy or senseless, but told some things about World War I that other books haven't explored, and I was pulled into the story.  Being a WWI book, it had plenty of violence, but it was content with context.  

I don't feel that way about the next book I forced myself to finish, even though the context can certainly be debated.  I just felt the content went too far.  Does that make me unworthy?  Or, if more than half of the population feels that way, does it bring the worthiness of the book down a notch or two?  And why does this debate even matter?

I guess the last question is easiest to answer.  The debate matters because this book has been put on a very high pedestal as a literary masterpiece.  Now that I've read it, I can firmly say that it is my opinion that it does not belong there.

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the WestBlood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here is the publisher's summation:  

An epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America's westward expansion, Blood Meridian brilliantly subverts the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the "wild west." Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennessean who stumbles into the nightmarish world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving.

Here is my immediate reaction after I finished it, my Goodreads review:

Thank God this is over.  Yes, the allegory is a mind quest and the descriptions of the land are amazing, but they compromise 30% of the book. The rest is blood and guts. I don't see how that combination makes for the praise this book gets, although I do see how violence is arguably a must to make the point.  I think people like the book just because it's difficult to attempt to figure out.  It's the whole emperor's clothing posing as violence in literature.  

What neither of those reviews tell you is the whole mystery of "the Judge," one of the pivotal characters in the book.  Is he Death?  Is he God?  Is he a Prophet?  Is he War?  Is he the Bile of our Souls?  The Pestilence of Mankind?  Is he a Fallen Angel?  Is he the Devil?

He is definitely eloquent.  For example, here is a quote from the Judge that is a summation of his prophetic bent in the book:

“This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one's will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence.War is god.”  

Many have read the book over and over, proclaiming it brilliant and spending much time debating the Judge.  I honestly don't much care what the Judge is.  And I can't believe I am saying this, but I really don't care how wonderful the writing is either.  The bigger question to me is something that readers are discussing on Goodreads about this book, and that is this:  most women hate this book.

I don't like to think in generalities like that, so I am trying to figure out why I hate this book, why I have no use for it.  Is it because I am a woman?  I don't think so.  Maybe it is something more fundamental than even that.  Is it because I have given birth and this book is violently opposed to life?  I'm just not sure.  But that hasn't stopped me from enjoying many other war books.  (See my review above, or my War Book Reviews in November of 2012, or my enthusiasm for The Iliad).  In fact, I have pretty much figured out that if you give me a politically charged historical fiction with war in it, I'm going to love it.  So it isn't war.  

No, it is the overabundance of violence in general.  I can take a bit of it, see it on the news everyday, see it on television, and in movies, and read it in books.  I'm planning to go see MacBeth this weekend at PJC (and you should, too).  But I don't go for horror, I don't enjoy a  slash fest, I don't long for escape in violence, whether by devilish books, TV, or movies.  It isn't my cup of tea.  I don't gain anything from it and I don't see how society does either. 

Maybe even more important is that over the course of my profession I have seen the aftermath of lethal violence.  Murder and mayhem really happen to people.  When it does, absolutely nothing in the legal system can ultimately make it better for the victims. Why glorify it?

So, I'm going to pass on going in depth and studying the gift of this writer.  I've read enough of his books to know that I need to just move on.  I'm not saying that this book should be pulled off the shelf, but I do think it should come off of its high pedestal.  Accolades for literary masterpieces should be saved for those rare books that have something great to offer for society through the ages.  This book does not.   

Does this mean I should never read Lolita?

Monday, February 3, 2014

Not the Secret Lives of Bees, but Much More

The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really wanted to rate this audiobook a 4.5.  It is a compelling story of several women  and how they eventually break from very stringent Charleston convention and laws that upheld slavery and  bridled women.   It is based upon a true story of very early abolitionist /feminist. Kidd did much research and kept this quote on her desk during the process: "History is not just facts and events.  History is also a pain in the  heart.   We repeat history until we are able to make another's pain in the heart our own."

This is a different type of offering for Kidd, so if you think you are going to get another "Secret Lives of Bees" you aren't. Still, if you had the heart to love that book, please read this one and remind yourself, or find out, how we even got to the sixties, and where we are going now. It is huge that we are finally finding the strength to tell and hear these difficult stories. As much as I wish that slavery and the lack of women's rights were not a part of our history, they are. It is important that we look back, so that we can continue to move forward.

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Sunday, February 2, 2014

What do The Iliad and Butterflies have in common?

Sometimes life surprises you.  Well, I'd say most days, actually.  But when it does so with serendipity, that is when you have to stop and acknowledge it. I've just had such a month, culminating in an aha of a day.

The Iliad: (The Stephen Mitchell Translation)

I forced myself to read Bleak House (see review) in January as a part of my 2014 TBR Challenge .  At the same time, I started listening to The Iliad.  My bookclub will soon discuss The Song of Achilles (see review) at my suggestion, and since I had already read it, why not just revisit The Iliad?   I'm absolutely in love with the audio of this edition right now, this translation by Stephen Mitchell, so much so that I also happily picked up the actual book at Book People in Austin.  (There is some controversy with this translation, because it is based on a publication that cut some of the great epic, arguing that it was not a part of the original.  Regardless, the audio version and the book are a real treat.  I promise, if you haven't encountered a translation of The Iliad that leaves you breathless, you are missing out.  I've tried Pope's version, which was Sam Houston's love, but it is beyond me at this modern moment.  Maybe some archaic day.)  Mom & Me & Mom 

Still, I had to have something Non-Bleak Non-Greek to listen to, so I did what I usually do, and just listened to a bit of a few audio books I had in my queue, randomly sticking with the one the interested me the most at the moment.  That ended up being Mom & Me & Mom, by Maya Angelou.  I had just finished listening to this book about a mother and her daughter, when  I went to see Paris Community Theatre's production of Butterflies Are Free.

Oh, and did you know that high school soccer revs up in January (yes outdoors, YAY!)? 

Now, none of these things have anything to do with the other, do they?


Unless you are a mom with a son on that soccer team, who just happens to be a senior.

You see, the play's title, Butterflies Are Free, is from a famous quote from Dickens in Bleak House, and is actually discussed in the play and is a theme of the play.   Here it is:

“I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to Harold Skimpole what it concedes to the butterflies.”

Don Jones references this quote in the play.  Don is a blind man trying to live on his own. Don has a protective mom.  

Don is talking about the poem with Jill, a free spirit, who had basically misquoted it.  The interesting thing about Harold Skimpole in Bleak House is that he is a character who likes to freely borrow money with no thought of paying it back, and he seems to get away with it.  

Of course, no one can go through life completely and utterly free.  Not if you are lucky enough to love someone.  Nor should you entrap a human with your love.  Great themes.  Great truths.

When I was a brand new mother of my baby boy, one night when he was certainly not even a month old, I dropped him on his head.  I did!  I did.  I committed the cardinal sin of changing his diaper without the new one in my hand, so I used my body to hold him up on the table, while I turned to grab the new diaper.  I felt him start to role like a little boulder off of a cliff.  The weight of his head pulled him down quicker than I could grab him. Watching him falling to the floor, without even the knowledge to throw his hands up for protection, was like having my guts torn out by vultures. (I'm sorry if you don't like my similes, but when in Greece, right?)

I was still hysterically wailing by the time he had quit crying.  My husband was forever more deemed the calm parent, which is a wild turn of events.  We still tease our son about how brilliant he would have been if I had not dropped him on his head.  Luckily, it was peer and beam house, with a wood floor.

But that is when I learned the first lesson of the hardship of mothering, the life long quest of parenting.  That lesson is this -- 

[besides the obvious]

The hardest part of parenting is trying to protect that baby, and realizing that you can only do the best that you can do.  You can't protect him.  You can't make sure she is always 100% safe.   Sometimes, you have to swallow your tears and release the butterflies.  And that is really, really hard.  But that is your job, even when you want to swoop in and save the day.

That is what The Iliad  is about, too.  Almost every bit of The Iliad  is about relationships. Except the awesome fighting parts and the beautiful similes. But otherwise, The Iliad is about life, and learning how to inspire persons to heroic, tragic, wonderful action.  It is about loving someone enough to let them go and live or die, knowing that you can't protect them against the perversity of life.  

So I'm loving watching this soccer team, these young gods, these warriors, and I'm hearing The Iliad playing in my head, and I'm looking at my graduating senior knowing that I'm about to have to let him go.  I'm like Thetis, immediately rising in the grey mist to go to Achilles when he needs her, Thetis who lets him be. I'm about to be like Mrs. Jones, who does the right thing with her son, however hard.  I'll be a John Jardyce, who has to let the wards grow up and go their way. Maybe someday when he is in trouble,  I will pull through for him, the way Maya Angelou's mom, did (would someone PLEASE make a movie of this!!!).

Low and behold, at the same time I am processing all of this, our preacher, Rob Spencer, preached about when bad things happen in his series reflecting on how we Christians get it wrong.  Because the truth is that we do get it wrong, I certainly have.  The other truth is that of those four parents I mentioned above, at least half of their treasures suffer difficult or tragic outcomes.  Life is like that.  So what do you do if your outcome is horrible?  What do you do if you know someone who is living through that horrible outcome?  Do you say something innane?  Do you tell that dear person that it is all in God's plan?  I have a really hard time with that, whether it is true or not.  Don't say that to a grieving person!  If it is so, let them come to their own conclusion and declaration.  What do you do instead?  Here is what Rob told us in his sermon that he thinks (reprinted here with permission), and I agree with him:

[Rob was reflecting on how he felt when his son was about to start driving.]

I do not believe that prayer is magic.  If I just pray hard enough and long enough that my son who is turning 16 in July will somehow have a protective shield around him when he drives!  I don't believe that.

I do pray that God would help me be the best teacher, and help him be as prepared as possible for those teen driving years.  But even if I am the very best teacher and if he is the best student, it in no way fully guarantees his safety!!!  But it can help me appreciate every minute that I have with him.  There are no guarantees that when he walks out our front door he will return the same way.

Sometimes we make good decisions and sometimes we don't.  Sometimes the decisions of others impact us. And sometimes bad stuff just happens.

When tragic times come my way, I may turn my back on God.  I may curse God.  But I believe with all my heart that God will help me through those dark valleys of life.  

And I believe that he will do it with people like you! 
Amen, Rob.  And may it be so.  May I be one of those persons.  May you be one of those persons.  And may we have the strength to allow our warriors to grow up and go to the beach of their destiny.  May we allow our butterflies to fly free.   

Inspiring Amazing Mom & Maya Angelou

Mom & Me & MomMom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The world will never have enough excellent books about Mom. This is one of them and it needs to be made into a movie! Who knew?  I won't tell you the surprises, just leave it to you to read this short little gem.  This is for all those imperfect moms out there and their children who will get it right, eventually, because of the bigness of their love. This was food for the soul for me because I have teens right now, and somehow feel I will never get it right again,which is a weird place to be.  Now I have renewed hope.  Don't miss this little gem.

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