Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

Bam! Two in as many days. That's getting back into the swing of things.

Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory is a heartbreaking book about an unnamed priest in an unnamed Mexican state (probably Tabasco) in which Catholicism is outlawed and priests forced to marry or killed. The priest runs all over the state, trying to escape a Javert-like lieutenant who pursues him, traveling from town to town trying to deal with his own inadequacy as a priest and a human being.

Greene has a style that's difficult to quantify, but it's beautiful. It has a sort of otherworldy quality that makes Mexico seem like a place out of a dystopian novel, not a work of near-contemporary fiction (Mexico cracked down on Catholicism in the 1930's, this book was written in 1940). Though the priest is a flawed and ugly character who has a problem with alcohol, cowardice, greed, and adultery--he fathered a child in his parish--he becomes a Christ figure. Here's a passage I like particularly:

But at the centre of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery--that we were made in God's image. God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge. Something resembling God dangled from the gibbet or went into odd attitudes before the bullets in a prison yard or contorted itself like a camel in the attitude of sex.
The book is about retribution; when the "whisky priest" crosses the border into the safe state to the north but returns to give confession to a dying murderer at the behest of a man he knows has designs to betray him and take the reward money, we know that he has achieved it, though he does not realize it himself. I love books like this; though they can be morose and heartbreaking they are at their heart an affirmation of existence: the cold and calculating lieutenant believes that life is essentially pointless, but for all his sadness and self-loathing, the priest knows that even the ugliest and most horrendous of men are the image of God.

Recommended; appears on this list, bringing my total to 16.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Last Orders by Graham Swift

Last Orders is the second winner of the Booker Prize I've read in a row, after Disgrace, and later this year for my English class I'll have to read Kashuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. It's about the death of Jack Dodds, the local butcher in Bermondsey, London, and his last request: that his three best friends and his son carry his ashes to the British beach of Margate and scatter them to the sea.

The book tells the story of Jack and his family and friends via flashback. Each of the characters, plus a couple of others, including his wife Amy, gets a series of short chapters in which they tell their version of events, so to speak. If a book about transporting someone's remains told with a shifting point of view sounds familiar to you, it should: That's As I Lay Dying.

But whatever. Swift doesn't crib from Faulkner directly, though he has pretty clearly lifted the plot. He does all right by it, though: the characters, who at first seem to run together like any trio of old strangers sitting in a London pub might, eventually separate themselves into quite convincing portrayals. Peculiarly, Jack is the main character of the book (while Faulkner's matriarch almost certainly wasn't), even though he is dead, because the format allows us to see him from every angle: his faults, his assets, his passions and character. Swift seems to imply that the line between existence and non-existence is not death but memory; once you are forgotten you truly cease to exist. This explains why Jack's wife Amy continues to see her mentally retarded daughter June in an institution every week, though Jack refuses to come: it's as if when Amy stops coming to see her, June will cease to exist because she is completely out of mind. Last Orders is a book keenly interested in what it means to exist at all.

This is the second book in a row I've read that dealt heavily with the theme of aging (and, by extension, death). That may be all well and good for my professor, but it seems as if the course is missing out on literature that deals with my own problems and questions. Surely these books are worth reading at any age, but I can't help but feeling that I won't be able to understand them on the deepest level for some time now. Hopefully, a very long time.

There was a movie made of this with Michael Caine. It's probably pretty boring.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Candide by Voltaire

Candide was recommended to me by Liz, another Fifty Booker, a couple of years ago. I knew that it was a work of satire, but beyond that, I had very little knowledge of the book.

Translations are extremely important in works such as this. The bookstore that I normally go to had about four different editions of Candide, so I pulled each one off the shelf and compared them side by side. This edition, translated by Leo Cuffe, was far superior to the others. The primary reason was the detailed endnotes (I wish they had been footnotes, instead) that helped to explain some of the passages whose meaning I no doubt would have missed. At many points the satire can only be fully appreciated with some specific knowledge, for which the endnotes were a valuable resource.

The book follows a young man by the name of Candide (Hey, that's the title of the book!) on his many misadventures. Throughout the book Candide's general outlook on life, that this is the best of all possible worlds, is continually tested. At times Candide is disturbingly graphic. Horrific fates befall many of the characters of the book.

Although it is only about a tenth as long, and was published nearly a century and a half later than Cervantes epic masterpiece, Candide bears many similarities to Don Quixote (a book that I am still working on). Both authors use their works to publicly skewer their enemies and critics, often without much subtlety. Much like Candide, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are repeatedly presented with wild coincidences, such as running into friends they thought were dead, or encountering neighbors even though they are far away from home. This may be a tenet of satirical works of this period, for all I know. I am not that smart. Luckily you don't have to be too awful smart to enjoy this book.

Although at time bordering on naivete, there was something endearing about Candide's optimism. As he and his companions were faced with each calamitous incident, I found myself genuinely hoping that things would work out well for them. Do things work out well for them? Well, you'll just have to read it and decide for yourself.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

This is another book that I somehow missed when I was a kid. In a way, I am glad that I did. I wonder how much I would have like the book had I read it when I was ten. This is no reflection on the book. I'm just not sure how I would have reacted to this book as a child. Although I thoroughly enjoyed Bridge to Terabithia, it filled me with deep sense of nostalgia and at times melancholy, something that I would no doubt not have felt had I read the book at a younger age.

Quite simply, the book is about a friendship between a boy and a girl who live in the countryside of Virginia. Jess and Leslie (Jess is the boy, and Leslie is the girl) develop a close relationship that helps them both to grow as individuals. In other words, it's a coming-of-age story. Katherine Paterson creates beautiful scenes with her simple, delicate prose, rendering the handful of illustrations by Donna Diamond nearly superfluous.

I can't imagine that the recently-released, Disney adaptation of Bridge to Terabithia will be anything but a disservice to the book. From the trailers alone, it looks like they have taken some fairly extreme liberties with the plot. But who knows, I could be wrong.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Berlin, City of Stones by Jason Lutes

(Yes, Alsyon, I did read another comic book. And there's nothing you can do about it!)

It’s hard not to be moved by something written about the holocaust, or simply about war, especially something very well-written. Jason Lutes' Berlin: City of Stones, however, was something surprisingly powerful. Rather than focusing on the plight of Jewish families in war-torn Germany, Lutes writes (and draws) about the tensions between opposing factions in the years leading up to the Second World War. This is one of probably a very small selection of historical graphic novels, and I would wager that it’s easily the best.

If nothing else, Jason Lutes can certainly draw. His grasp of human anatomy and emotion isn’t the best I’ve seen, but all of his figures are stylistically pleasing, and his attention to detail in faces, dress and gestures does a lot in terms of advancing the plot without a narrator. I was impressed by his ability to draw (as far as I can tell) a completely believable 1920’s German cityscape, down to each stone in the road. His bird’s-eye-view opening or closing scenes alternatively give a strong feeling of the city’s European beauty and then of its decrepitude. I found myself lingering over panorama landscapes, picking out individual faces in Lute’s carefully drawn crowds. But it was his impressive ability to pack so much into an image without making it to busy that I found most pleasing about his style.

The story itself follows the dialogue of a few main characters, internal monologues of complete strangers, and first-person narration through journals. The beauty of Lute’s Berlin was that he didn’t have to explicitly guide the reader to conclusions about public discontent, rising discrimination against the Jews, and tensions between National Socialist and Communist worker parties that all come to the point of erupting by the end of the book. But Lutes doesn’t have to show all of this coming to a head; his reader clearly knows how the story ends. I was surprisingly moved by the personal narratives mixed into the story and was made to view the effects of such a grotesque war from a new, very human perspective. I forget which publication rated this as one of the top 10 graphic novels of all time, but I would suggest it to anyone with an interest in a wide range of subjects from the war itself to European architecture. Overall, an unexpectedly strong book, visually and in its plot; Lutes’ drawing and writing style complement each other perfectly to make a powerful end product. I found myself reading it so quickly that I was worried I wouldn’t fully appreciate it, but I couldn’t slow myself down.

Brownsville, Brooklyn by Wendell Pritchett

I had never heard of Brownsville prior to reading this book. It is a neighborhood in Brooklyn, probably most famous for producing people such as, Danny Kaye, Aaron Copeland, and Mike Tyson. Now I know what you're thinking, Hey Danny Kaye is a talented guy; I like the music in those beef commercials; and I find most everything Mike Tyson does amusing. However, while the author Wendell Pritchett mentions these famous Brownsville natives, it is only in passing. The book is essentially a community study, beginning with the creation of Brownsville in the late 19th century, and taking the reader up to the present (well 2002 anyway).

Pritchett's intention is to show that a myriad of factors caused the community to decline throughout the 20th century. He spends much of the book describing different social and political institutions, both inside and outside of Brownsville, that affected the community. Pritchett introduces group after group, and before long each page become awash with acronyms that are almost impossible to keep straight. There are large sections of the book in which Pritchett focuses on a specific group that no doubt was important to the community, but not as integral as he makes them seem.

After 270 pages describing the failure, or at best the inability of community groups and institutions, Pritchett chalks most of Brownsville's problems up to racial discrimination. While I think he is essentially correct, this conclusion does not fit the rest of the book. Pritchett describes all types of problems plaguing Brownsville throughout the 20th century, and then in his conclusion racism appears like a deus ex machina.

Brownsville was (and is) a unique community. One would be hard pressed to make comparisons between it and other communities; and for this reason it warrants some attention. But unless you really want to learn about Brownsville, Brooklyn, do not read this book. Much of it can only be described as tedious.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer

Let me start by saying that I loved this book. It was phenomenal. Franklin Foer, frequent columnist for Slate magazine online and life-long soccer fan, set out to write a book that would use soccer as a window into the tangled web of current affairs that is globalization. In How Soccer Explains the World, Foer doesn’t so much explain globalization through what he calls “the beautiful game” as he does provide case studies of the political, economic and social developments surrounding soccer in recent years as a result of increased international dependency. Divided into ten concise histories, the book uses various football clubs around the world to show how globalization has affected tribalism (through soccer hooligans of England), ethnic relations, sectarianism, anti-Semitism, corruption, advertising, oligarchies, oppression of women in Islamic nations and American culture wars. It was a bit over my head at times, as I’m not a very politically or economically minded person, but I finished it feeling informed.

Foer is a great storyteller, and more than anything I loved reading his well-informed anecdotes, particularly about the use of the game as a force for political and social change by oppressed Iranian women. He even went on to propose a hypothesis as to why soccer is so unpopular in the United States: yuppie upper-middle class families latched onto the sport as being cosmopolitan and European, and many Americans have resented them for attaching themselves to what they consider the opposite of the most American sport, which, for many, is baseball. It’s a shame too, because after reading this book, I’d love more than ever to be able to watch more matches.

I’d recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the cross-currents of globalization, and the ways that it’s transformed aspects of politics, economy and society in the examples that Foer presents. Although, if you don’t give a rat’s ass about soccer, this book probably is not for you; the most exciting, invigorating writing is reserved for tales of last-minute victories or brawls between emotionally charged fans. It was a highly interesting, highly informative quick read, and one that I’ll be adding to my list of favorites.

(By the way, Franklin Foer is the brother of Jonathan Safran Foer, but I swear that isn’t why I read this book)

American Jesus by Stephen Prothero

I confess, the picture on the cover is what convinced me to read this book. I'm not sure if you can tell by the postage stamp picture above this review, but it features a large hot air balloon in the shape of what looks like a Dreamworks-modeled Jesus, presiding over all the ground beneath his nonexistant feet. How could I possibly resist hot-air-balloon Jesus? How could anyone?

The subtitle of the book is "How the Son of God Became an American Icon," and it is a fitting summation of the book itself. It is a well-researched historical account of the different views people have held on Jesus, organized chronologiclaly in part I, and by particular movements in part II.

Overall, the book is fascinating, moving from the Gospel-based Jesus of the Puritans to Thomas Jefferson's "Great Moral Teacher" (and his piecemeal gospel, The Jefferson Bible, which would later influence the Jesus Seminar), through the various masculinization and feminization of Jesus through the ages, and finally ending up at the malleable, one-size-fits-all Jesus of modern America.

The book was well-written, and it was interesting that the progression in American thought can be traced simply by looking at the ways in which we have viewed Jesus. In the 50's, he was a submissive son. In the 60's, he was a subversive hippie. In the 70's and 80's, he became a celebrity, and in the 90's, he became a poster child for everyone from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism.

Some parts dragged a bit (particularly the section about Jesus in modern Judaism), but there was a lot of interesting information in the book, and I'd recommend it for anyone interested in religious cultural studies, or just society's views of Jesus in general. As someone who would probably be considered a very conservative Christian theologically, I enjoyed it a great deal.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace is about David Lurie, a professor at Cape Technical University who is forced to resign his post because he has an affair with one of his students. For the first half of the book, it seems like the "disgrace" of the title is describing chiefly Lurie's disgrace as he deals with being jobless and being sent to live with his daughter, a lesbian rustic who lives on the East Cape and owns a dog kennel, but the book is split in half by a moment of unspeakable violence when a trio of Africans break into their house and rape Lucy and assault David. In a way, it reminds me of the film In the Bedroom, in which what you believe the movie to be about is replaced by something much darker and more difficult in one fell swoop.

But that's really what tragic moments like that are like, I suppose: one moment your life is one way and then before you can blink it's something completely different.

This book doesn't seem like it's really meant for me; there's too much about aging. It reads like a book written for those who have to deal with the same things as Lurie: the loss of virility, the acceptance of senescence, the abandonment of previously held ambitions. Still, Coetzee's style is so plain that it's easy to connect with his characters, even ones as unlikeable as Lurie.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

I have fond memories of waking up early nearly every Saturday morning and going downtown to Cincinnati's library with my family. Books were an important part of my childhood early on. Even before we could read, my brother and sister and I would pick out books for my mother to read to us each night before bed. Oddly enough, I had not heard of Number the Stars until this year. I was discussing favorite books over dinner, and Number the Stars was the first book Ann mentioned. Although she had read it as a kid, it wasn't until recently, when she read it again for a class on children's literature that she realized just how good the book was. (I wonder how much her love for the book hinges on the fact that she essentially has the same name as the protagonist.)

I took Ann's recommendation to heart; and it was indeed a great story. The book centers around the Johansen's, a Danish family living in Copenhagen during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. The family becomes involved in smuggling Jewish families over to Sweden, where they would be safe from Nazi aggression. The main character of Number the Stars is ten-year-old Annemarie, a young girl who faces her greatest fears in order to save her best friend's family. While Annemarie and the rest of the characters are fictional, many of their experiences are grounded in personal accounts from that time. In the afterword, Ms. Lowry shares excerpts from some of the documents on which her story is based. Just like the characters in the story, these real-life figures display strength and courage in the face of overwhelming adversity.

While reading the book, I was reminded of a quote by Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran minister who spoke out against the nazification of the world around him. His powerful statement has stuck with me.
"First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little. When they came for me, there was no one left to stand up for anyone."
Number the Stars is a book about standing up--not for yourself, but for others. If you have not read this book, read it. Sure, it's written for children, but don't let that stop you. And who knows, maybe walking through the kid's section of the library will bring back a few good memories.

Monday, February 5, 2007

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Just like the last book I read, this book very much resembles Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (stylistically, at least), although in the case of Nicole Krauss’ book it’s easy to see why (they’re married). This book was written wonderfully, and at times it’s hard to imagine where she found so much of her creativity. Told mostly from the perspective of two main characters, The History of Love tells the story of a Polish Jewish immigrant who came to the United States to escape the Second World War, and to find the woman he loved who had emigrated before him. Beginning with his first-person narration of his self-described old, empty life, the book then switches to and from the perspective of a 14 year-old girl, of Jewish parents, who describes her attempts to find happiness for her widowed mother.

This book demonstrates Krauss’ incredible versatility; she easily switches gears from an aging Jewish immigrant to a 14 year-old girl narrating through her journal. Krauss even manages to write a book within this book, or at least part of one. Krauss’s book centers around an obscure novel, also called ‘The History of Love,’ which is supposed to act as the sort of key that eventually unites the two distinct narratives. The excerpts from this book that she includes are so well-written, and completely different from the way she writes the rest of the book, that I felt myself wishing I could read it in its non-existent entirety. One of my favorite passages was written about the characteristics of angels:
HOW ANGELS SLEEP. Unsoundly. They toss and turn, trying to understand the mystery of the Living. They know so little about what it’s like to fill a new prescription for glasses and see the world again, with a mixture of disappointment and gratitude. The first time a girl named Alma puts her hand just below your bottom rib: about this feeling, they have only theories, but no solid ideas. If you gave them a snow globe, they might not even know enough to shake it.
This book was captivating and told a moving story, but it ended so unexpectedly that I found myself wondering if it was even Krauss who wrote the last 50 pages. It wasn’t that they were written poorly, just that so much was left unresolved that I felt like she had gotten lazy, and thought she would just write some pseudo-profound conclusion, hoping that the reader might just say “Ahh, how unique,” and be satisfied. As Krauss’s second book, The History of Love was a success, at least through page 200 or so. Personally, I was disappointed.

EDIT: On further reflection, this book was much better than I originally thought. I didn't recognize right away how astutely she deals with love in so many forms, not all of them beautiful. Her alternating narration and intertwining plot lines show each character's own form of love for someone (or something) else. It was a beautiful book, especially if you're quicker than I am and able to realize it.