Friday, June 18, 2010

Reading Update

Book #33 was The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell. The author is a frequent contributor to the radio show This American Life, and the book has something of the style of that show - irreverent, discursive. Improbably, Vowell has written a history of the Puritans in North America, and it's highly entertaining. I liked this parenthetical remark, for obvious reasons:
(After an earthquake shook Boston in 1755 and prompted the usual religious flipouts about the wrath of God, Professor Winthrop delivered an influential lecture at Harvard proposing the earthquake might have been caused by heat and pressure below the surface of the earth. With God's help, of course, but God comes off as an engineer instead of a hothead vigilante.)

Book #34 was The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, by William Goldman. It's almost exactly like the movie, for which Goldman wrote the screenplay. Lots of fun.

Meg Wolitzer's book The Ten-Year Nap was #35. I liked this book and found the characters convincing. Four main characters are stay-at-home mothers in post-9/11 New York City (though one has recently moved to the suburbs), with varying attitudes towards what that means for them and for the way they had imagined their lives. A blurb from Salon on the back of the book begins, "Everyone has an opinion about stay-at-home mothers." Really? How annoying of "everyone." Meg Wolitzer at least seems to understand that there is not one monolithic type of stay-at-home mother to have an opinion about. When it comes to wondering in middle age if everything you had hoped to become was just a great big illusion, I think stay-at-home mothers don't have a monopoly, and this book may be more about being a human being than being a woman taking care of children. But human beings are wonderfully various, and so are the characters here.

I don't know quite what to think about book #36, The Great Lover, by Jill Dawson. It's a historical novel about the poet Rupert Brooke, who died in World War I. When I was fifteen or so, a teacher handed out a mimeographed copy of Brooke's poem "The Great Lover." (Here's the poem.) I remember the giggles as we read the title, and I remember the teacher making a comment about how she knew it sounded like Cassanova. Predictably, I loved the poem, which turned out to be about all the things that Brooke loved, including "White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,/Ringed with blue lines; and feathery fairy dust;/ Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light, the strong crust/Of friendly bread, and many-tasting food." Later, another teacher gave me a copy of a collection of Brooke's poetry, inscribed with these words from one of his poems: "Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given." In college, I wrote a paper about one of his sonnets, and for the first time, read some criticism about his work. One author called him a "perpetual adolescent," which seems a bit unfair since he died at the age of 28, but which made me reread his poems a bit less rapturously and fall a little bit out of love with him. Well! Reading this book would have accomplished the same feat, since Brooke comes across as a spoiled, selfish, obnoxiously entitled young man, cursed by beauty that makes everyone - male and female - chase after him. Dawson portrays Brooke as an amazingly alive character, using lines from his own letters and notebooks and others' writing about him. We witness him trying to choose among his many admirers, fretting over the messy details of birth control, and musing, after writing to a girlfriend, "Sometimes I write well. Better than almost anybody in England!" We read a painfully detailed account of an encounter with another young man (one of the parts of the book quoted directly from his own writing). Fortunately my literary crush had been over for many years already, but I still love many of his poems and I wonder how he would have turned out if he had survived the war. And I do think this book is a remarkable achievement, making a far-off adolescence feel urgent and real.

This post is linked to the June 19th Saturday Review of Books.


Bridget said...

Did you read "The Wordy Shipmates" with Sarah Vowell's voice in your head? :)

Ruth said...

Bridget, I actually don't listen to that show regularly and I'm not sure I'd recognize her voice!