Thursday, May 06, 2010

Reading Update

I'm definitely back as a reader. It feels so wonderful to devour books again.

Book #13 of 2010 was Mansfield Park Revisited: A Jane Austen Entertainment, by Joan Aiken. I've read several of the attempted Jane Austen sequels, and most aren't very successful. This one got Austen's diction better than most, but the development was too rushed, and served mostly to remind me of how brilliantly Austen does it. I was curious to see how Aiken would handle Fanny Price, widely believed to be Austen's least likable heroine. She does it by sending Fanny on a trip early in the novel. We only see her at all in a couple of reported conversations.

Book #14 was Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, by Philip Yancey. This book contains profiles of thirteen people who have served Yancey as mentors in various ways: Martin Luther King, Jr., G.K. Chesterton, Dr. Paul Brand, Dr. Robert Coles, Leo Tolstoy, Feodor Dostoevsky, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. C. Everett Koop, John Donne, Annie Dillard, Frederick Buechner, Shusaku Endo, and Henri Nouwen. It's a very idiosyncratic and original list. Yancey weaves his own story through their stories, and the result is compelling and readable. What I love most about Yancey is his honesty and his ability to present reality in all its confusing ambiguity. Many Christian writers aren't willing to do this, but the Bible describes people in the same way: warts and all. I liked this book very much and recommend it.

Book #15 was another Anita Shreve book (I recently read A Change in Altitude). This one was called Body Surfing. Body surfing is an apt metaphor for the way the protagonist, Sydney, lives her life, after losing two husbands, one to divorce and one to death, by the time she is 29. Now she has a job helping a young girl, Julie, to prepare for her SAT, and she is living with the girl's family. She seems to be drifting, or, rather, catching waves that rush in on the beach. Then she meets the girl's two brothers, Jeff and Ben. I don't want to give away more of the plot, but the story is deftly told and I couldn't put the book down until I was finished.

When I was eleven or twelve, I had a teacher who required us to keep a reading journal and I invented the abbreviation CPD for "Couldn't Put it Down." At that age most books got a CPD rating. Body Surfing would get the CPD, but the next, book #16, was not as gripping. It was Anita Brookner's The Rules of Engagement. Like other Brookner books I have read, this one was cerebral and well-written, but the characters felt muffled. It reminded me of reading Henry James in college, and thinking, "Huh? What just happened?" It wasn't that I couldn't understand the words, it was just that the changes in the characters' thoughts and behaviors were so subtle that I felt I had missed something. Elizabeth doesn't body surf, like Sydney; instead, she analyzes every action to death. Yet her life doesn't seem to have any more direction than Sydney's.

I can't believe I chose book #17, One Amazing Thing, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Here's the beginning of the blurb on the jacket:

Late afternoon in a passport and visa office in an unnamed American city. Most customers and even most office workers have come and gone, but nine people remain. A punky teenager with an unexpected gift. An upper-class Caucasian couple whose relationship is disintegrating. A young Muslim-American man struggling with the fallout of 9/11.

OK, I was hooked, and added the book to my pile. Indian writer: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Diverse characters gathered in one place. Immigrants, visa office. No doubt, themes of alienation and cross-cultural communication. Sounds like my kind of book!

It wasn't until later that I read the rest of the blurb. It finished the list of the characters and then went on:

When an earthquake rips through the afternoon lull, trapping these nine characters together, their focus first jolts to their collective struggle to survive. There's little food. The office begins to flood. Then, at a moment when the psychological and emotional stress seems nearly too much for them to bear, the young graduate student suggests that each tell a personal tale, "one amazing thing" from their lives, which they have never told anyone before. And as their surprising stories of romance, marriage, family, political upheaval, and self-discovery unfold against the urgency of their life-or-death circumstances, the novel proves the transcendent power of stories and the meaningfulness of human experience itself.

I almost didn't read the book, once I saw the word "earthquake." (What is with that? Everything I read has earthquakes in it all of a sudden!) But I am very glad I did. Uma, the graduate student, has her copy of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in her backpack, and this is obviously a similar idea to that, or to the Decameron. The stories pull the reader away from the dire circumstances the characters are in, and it's always a shock to be pulled back into the room where they all huddle. Of course with my own recent earthquake experience, this book brought up all kinds of emotions. The main thing it reminded me of was lying on the ground with my family the night of January 12th, listening to my husband tell my children the story of Sir Gawain and Green Knight (a G-rated version) to help them relax enough to sleep. A bittersweet memory of the power of stories in the middle of disaster.

This post is linked to the May 8th Saturday Review of Books.


Janet said...

Book #14 sounds like one I'd like to read.

Book #17: wow.

Even without hitting so close to home, it sounds excellent. But still... wow.

I love the detail about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Glad you're once again putting me to shame with your reading pace.

Tricia said...

I agree - wow. I'm glad you were able to read book #17 and find power in it.

[wv: humbelly - the noise your stomach makes when you're really excited by the smell of a meal you're about to be served]