Sunday, June 29, 2008

Summer Reading Season, First Round

Here's a concept: reading books. I lament that it's not something I have a whole lot of time for during the school year. What better time, then, to go on a literary spree than summer? Last summer I hit such highlights as Ken Jennings' Brainiac, and the seventh Harry Potter book (many, many times over). And that's not even to mention the wonderful Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World among others.

This summer, exiled as I am to Alton, Illinois, I decided to continue that fine tradition a step further by packing a backpack full of books and busting them out whenever I had nothing to do. That turned out, and continues to turn out, to be quite frequently. I began actually a bit before the migration started, and now that I'm about halfway through, it's time to discuss the first batch.

John Sanford's Rules of Prey occupied some time in car rides out to Athens (two of them in one week! The horror!) for my cousin's wedding. Definitely an enjoyable book, and highly recommended to fans of the mystery/suspense genres. There wasn't anything hugely literarily significant about it. But like a good episode of CSI, the plot is so cleverly wrought, and the characters are at least interesting enough to string it along, that it's enjoyable the whole way through. Sanford is far from the first author to write about quirky detective-types, and he'll by no means be the last. That said, few if any authors writing today do it better, and I'll make an effort to read more of these books when college affords me the chance.

The Count of Monte Cristo is one of those books you hear an awful lot about, think "yeah, maybe I should read this" and never really work up the motivation. Or perhaps you're forcibly exposed to it through some Honors English teacher. The reason that you're forcibly exposed to it, or that people won't stop talking about it? This book is truly excellent. From the outset, what's not to love about a bunch of French guys getting revenge on each other? The degree of forethought and subtlety in all of the plots, as wrought by both Dumas and his characters, is spectacular.

Some of the side stories are less interesting than the main plot--this is both necessary to keep us wanting to come back to the main plot, and a sign that Dumas is indeed human--and some of the character relationships become a little confusing as the book snowballs on. I might have appreciated a few family trees, a la George R. R. Martin. that told me the given name, the title, and the family name of any given character. (As is common with nobility, at some point, people stop going by their given names and just take on their titular identities.) And I find Dumas' continuous restatement of his thesis, that you must experience sorrow to experience true happiness, toward the end of the book a little heavy-handed. Perhaps I find it heavy-handed because I disagree with it.

But that's not enough to prevent enjoyment of the book, by any means. This book literally "has it all"--intrigue, action, romance, and the religious commentary that's practically required of the Romantic era. Redemption, vindication, treachery, and of course vengeance. Dumas works wonders with character development, both in terms of perceived character development as plots come to light, and in the characters' real development in response to events in the story. The highest praise I can give, though is this: for its daunting volume, most of it clips by at a surprisingly quick speed. Definitely recommended.

Next up on the list was that book-club staple The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, written as a memoir of her childhood. Plenty of peoples' gut reaction to this book is a negative one: "I smell a rat." Maybe it's naivety on my part, but I can't believe someone would make this all up. Why incriminate one's own family so harshly for the purposes of authorship? If she wanted to go through the trouble of writing fiction, then Walls merely could have written fiction. And because she's obviously a proficient storyteller, the resulting tale would have been just as good.

I don't know what reaction Walls was hoping to elicit to the characters in the book. It seems unlikely that she meant to vilify her own family as thoroughly as she does, but I walked away from this book with a sharp dislike for both of Jeannette's parents. Alcoholism is a beast I haven't had to deal with anyone close to me having had, so I'm the least qualified person imaginable to comment on it. But it's very difficult for me to believe that Rex couldn't at least scrape up an ounce of restraint so that he could buy food for his children rather than getting drunk. How Jeannette managed to hold out any respect for the man after that happened--not just once, but time and time again--is beyond me. Not to mention his constant disputes with viable sources of income for the family; getting shunned from jobs just because of an ideological conflict with the boss.

Her mother isn't free from blame either. If you're, say, 26 years old and living by yourself, do whatever you want. Go ahead and say "I know I have experience teaching, but screw it, I want to be an artist. I don't care if that means I only get one meal a day." More power to you. But again, if you're in a situation where people are depending on you for that food, don't condemn them to one meal a day just because you're too obstinate to teach school.

Take home message from this book? Where any number of allegories or propagandas try and convince you that you should appreciate what you have, this book actually succeeds. Reading about some of the absolute destitution that Walls and family end up in, whether it actually happened or not, truly helps you to value that roof over your head and that running water in the sink.

I also hit a book called None So Blind by Joe Haldeman, a collection of science fiction short stories. Most of them are quite good, not going full blown Star Wars level of sci-fi, just altering one aspect of a story to make it paranormal. Perhaps one character has advanced technology. Perhaps there's an alien. Maybe technology has advanced from where we are now, but only significantly in one area, and that's the area Haldeman explores. Most of the time, this turns into very, very good reading. Haldeman's biggest weakness is that he insists on tying his Vietnam experiences into each and every story. There were maybe two stories in the entire book that didn't mention Vietnam at all--there was almost always a character that makes an offhand mention of having been in Nam. Ignoring that, or just taking each story for itself individually, it's a fine collection, and a good choice for sci-fi fans. (Yes, Nick, this is your book that you lent me about four years ago. Yes, you will be getting it back in the fall.)

Finally, we come to a literary giant, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Heretically, I really didn't like it much. That goes against everything I've heard from people who've read it, and everything I'm supposed to believe as an American reading American literature, but oh well. One of the biggest reasons is Steinbeck's dialog. He insists on so closely attempting to match the Oklahoma dialect that he puts an apostrophe in every time a character drops a consonant in every speech. Hell, any given person might say "you and I" and sort of slide off on the d in "and". Or the f in any given "of". Those are understood speech patterns. But every "and" that shows up in the dialog in that book, without fail, is "an' ".

The other huge problem is that Steinbeck loves to have his characters tell stories, and that's fine. But these characters that he's written are not intelligent enough to be able to respond in a coherent conversation to each other beyond a few lines. So you might get one character express some thought, have another character tell a paragraph long tale about some chicken, and then have the first character, who just listened to the story, express the same thought he did before the story started. That's another irritating thing, the characters repeat themselves incessantly. Not repeating thoughts. Repeating what they just said, word for word.

We also see the book turning from simple expose narrative, showcasing the plight of the migrant worker, to a paean to organized labor and socialism at the end of the book. Showing that conditions were really awful for these people is one thing. If Steinbeck were trying to accomplish a social change by affecting people's attitudes toward poor workers, fine by me. That's a good enough cause. I can support him wanting to elicit a reaction akin to "wow, I never realized it, but people really do starve in America. We as a culture ought to do something about that." And this would have had a tremendous impact.

Where I have to stop supporting Steinbeck is when he finally crosses the line and suggests that the government can provide for the citizens much better than the citizens themselves can. And after that point, he entirely denounces the ability of the individual to combat injustice, and throws that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the collective. "If we are to get anywhere, we must abandon our individualism, and once we have done that, attempt to get the government to fix our problems for us."

Political leanings aside, I thought it left a lot to be desired as a narrative, too. Constantly, every chapter in fact, we go from following the actual plot, to some generalized account of the same thing the story is about. Steinbeck might spend an entire chapter talking vaguely about someone going to pick cotton, somewhere, and communicate a the point that there's really not enough work to go around. Then, the very next chapter, we see the actual story describe the exact same conditions--except in specifics this time, featuring the characters the reader actually cares about. Steinbeck could have omitted essentially every other chapter and told the same story. Between that and the fact that the characters are seemingly unable to talk to each other for longer than a few lines and insist on saying everything they say at least twice (if not three times), it would almost be a good choice of book for an ADD patient--except for the fact that it lasts nearly 600 pages.

Structurally, the story didn't really have a climax and lacked a cohesive resolution altogether. Towards the end, a girl who'd been pregnant the entire book miscarries her baby. Then at the very end, she breast-feeds some dying man she comes across in a barn. Seriously. We've been following this destitute Oklahoma family for going on six hundred pages, and we've finally reached the point where they literally have no money or job, and now a flood has destroyed most of their possessions. The very last scene is this girl breast-feeding some random dude. Then, fin. Infuriatingly unresolved, as if Steinbeck said "ah, to hell with it. Time to go write Cannery Row." I understand the symbolism behind this; that she represents rebirth in the face of adversity, and the fact that even in desperate times, there is some kernel of compassion in humanity. That doesn't make it an entertaining way to end a book. And anytime you let your narrative suffer for the purpose of making a statement, you reduce the quality of your writing.

One of the foremost standards I learned from my high school AP Literature teacher, Mr. Norton, was "keep it f'real". Jokey slang aside, his point is a valid one. Don't claim to like a book simply because it's attained the label of "classic". And The Grapes of Wrath is just one that I can't bring myself to like.

Coming up: Canterbury Tales, Catch-22, The Stranger by Albert Camus, my second go with Pope Benedict's book, and probably some Palahniuk and Koontz to round it out.

Currently listening: "London Bridges" from This is Ivy League's self-titled album

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