Thursday, July 14, 2011

What I'm Reading - July 2011


On vacation, I watch far less television than usual: in exchange for Red Sox games, NCIS, and Chris Matthews, I spend hours reading. So far this month, I've finished a brilliant 933 page novel by Gregory David Roberts: Shantaram. The book was given to me by a friend a while back who told me I would love it; I started it then and did love it but...well, it's 933 pages and the Sox were winning, Gibbs was knocking Tony in the back of the head, and Chris Matthews was incredulous about how crazy Washington has become. I am glad I had a chance to come back to it: it's beautifully written. Spoiler alert: here comes the last paragraph of the novel, so skip down if you don't like to know how things end!
For this is what we do. Put one foot forward and then the other. Lift our eyes to the snarl and smile of the world once more. Think. Act. Feel. Add our little consequence to the tides of good and evil that flood and drain the world. Drag our shadowed crosses into the hope of another night. Push our brave hearts into the promise of a new day. With love: the passionate search for a truth other than our own. With longing: the pure, ineffable yearning to be saved. For so long as fate keeps waiting, we live on. God help us. God forgive us. We live on.

Another friend gave me Aaron Lansky's Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. I knew nothing about Lanksy or his project to do just what the title says, and I don't think I ever would have purchased this book for myself. But what a great and interesting read!  Lansky was in a graduate program at McGill in Jewish Studies, after completing his undergraduate degree at Hampshire College, when he got this idea to try to save Yiddish books. (I think he's in his early to mid-fifties now.) The book is really about recovering a social and cultural history that was in danger of being lost. It's a quick and fun read with a lot of insightful gems in it; great beach reading! It also set me in search of some short stories on-line, including this one by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gimpel the Fool.

My wife's book club reads a lot of books written by and about women. As we packed up for vacation I asked her to give me one recommendation from the books her group has read in the past year and she suggested Kathryn Stockett's, The Help. Like Shantaram, it's a first novel. And it's superb. Told in three narrative voices--two black women ("the help") and one white woman--it is set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963-1964 as the Civil Rights movement starts to gain momentum. Like Roberts' novel, so here too it is clear that the writer draws on her own experience as a child growing up in Jackson; in the notes at the end of the novel she writes about her own family's maid, Demetrie, and her love-hate relationship with Jackson. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this novel and couldn't put it down; and I was sad when I came to the end of it.

I'm just about to begin (again) to read one of my favorite writers: John Irving. I think I've read just about everything he's ever written: Cider House Rules and Son of the Circus and even The Fourth Hand are all, I think, works of real genius. But A Prayer for Owen Meany remains my favorite. It was first published in 1989 and I'm sure I read it that year or maybe in 1990, when I was a newly ordained campus minister. I'm pretty sure I've read it once since then, but it's probably been at least a decade. I've been holding back, waiting to return to it and now it's at the top of my pile, with lots of summer left.