Saturday, July 23, 2016

Reading Update

Book #92 of this year was Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, an entertaining novel about Hollywood and The Hotel Adequate View on a tiny Italian island.

Book #93 was Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith, by Jen Pollock Michel.  "We want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we wish we were."

Book #94 was Running from a Crazy Man (and Other Adventures Traveling with Jesus), by Lori Stanley Roeleveld.  Each of these essays ends with an invitation to "Ponder the Perplexities," with no attempt to wrap things up neatly.  "Eloquent prose can't cover a heart of stone.  As inconvenient as it is to have a heart of flesh that bleeds and breaks, the sound it makes reaches the throne of heaven.  That is prayer."

Book #95 was Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, a steampunk retelling of World War One.  I can imagine the concept of this YA title appealing to my students, but the telling of it didn't always hold my interest.

Book #96 was Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley.  Warning: it's about a plane crash.  The crash happens a few pages in, and we spend the rest of the book learning about all the people involved and, ultimately, why it happened.

Book #97 was Cashelmara, by Susan Howatch, a retelling of the story of the Plantagenets, but set in nineteenth century Ireland.  I'm a big Howatch fan, but mostly of her Starbridge novels.  This book has many of the same elements: larger than life characters whom we grow to know deeply, multiple points of view, and endless drama.

Book #98 was another Susan Howatch title, The Rich are Different.

Book #99 was Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier.  I had read this before, but this time I read it aloud to my husband, and we both enjoyed it immensely.  Here's what I wrote about it last time I read it, in 2009: "The opposite of forgettable. Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, is the story of Inman, a man coming home from the butchery of the Civil War to Ada, the woman he might love. Both have changed considerably during the years of the war. Inman has seen - and committed - terrible carnage, and Ada, an over-educated young woman, has had to become useful in ways she never anticipated, with the help of Ruby, who shows up to help, demanding that she never have to empty any night-soil jars but her own. To underscore the timeless theme of a man coming home from war, Ada and Ruby read the Odyssey together, but this isn't a book about archetypes but about particularity. Each character has stories to tell, stories of the past before the war, stories of what they have seen during the war, dreams for the future. But one of the most important characters is the landscape. These characters live fully in their surroundings and are aware of the plants and animals and mountains. Ruby is mostly uneducated but knows everything about farming and hunting and every type of tree and flower and herb. And the book is marvelously written - I kept wanting to reread passages or to read them aloud. There's enough action to satisfy the most bloodthirsty middle schooler but there's nothing cartoonish about any of it, and this book is definitely in the grown-up category. Cold Mountain is beautiful, uplifting, tragic, despairing, heartbreaking. Rick Bass is quoted on the back of the jacket as saying, 'It seems even possible to never want to read another book, so wonderful is this one.' I won't go that far, but I do highly recommend it."

This time, this book struck me as being about healing, or at least moving on.  Here's Inman on loss: "You could grieve endlessly for the loss of time and for the damage done therein.  For the dead, and for your own lost self.  But what the wisdom of the ages says is that we do well not to grieve on and on.  And those old ones knew a thing or two and had some truth to tell, Inman said, for you can grieve your heart out and in the end you are still where you were.  All your grief hasn't changed a thing.  What you have lost will not be returned to you.  It will always be lost.  You're left with only your scars to mark the void.  All you can choose to do is go on or not.  But if you go on, it's knowing you carry your scars with you."  But it's also just a great, action-packed story, and it's hilarious in places.  Reading it again seven years after the first time, I still highly recommend it.

Last night I finished book #100.  It's been a long time since I read a hundred books in a year, and it's only July.  Books have helped me get through many difficult moments this year, whether by helping me think about my struggles more clearly, or, on many occasions, by simply helping me forget them for a while.  This book was a little bit in both categories.  Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, is a post-apocalyptic novel set in a world where a flu epidemic has killed 99% of the world's population.  "Twenty years after the end of air travel," we meet the Traveling Symphony, a company of actors and musicians who travel around the ruined United States in horse-drawn caravans performing Shakespeare and various types of music, because "survival is insufficient."  It's about connections, the power of the past, and healing.  "What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty."

I am very thankful for books, and for healing, and for beauty.

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