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?

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