Sunday, June 23, 2019

Classifying the Classics, and Who to Trust

One does not just trust every critic — at least, a Discerning One does not trust every critic. But how does One determine who is worthy of that trust? For me, in the Case of The Beach-Book Critic, I used two factors: representation and Lolita.

Recently, I read The Odyssey (technically, Claire Danes read it to me) and I was amazed at the crap Odysseus managed to get away with. He slept his way home, killed lots of people, wounded a god's child, made some dumb-ass mistakes, lost more crew than I could count — and still made it home to sex his wife and kill lots more men and women. It was a fascinating read, but I found myself asking the same rhetorical question: "Why is this a classic?"

I have begun to look beyond my lit class must-reads for some great titles, like Tales of the Genji, the first novel ever written, by Murasaki Shikibu, an eleventh century Japanese noblewoman. Also left off my lit class lists was The Heptameron of Margaret, Queen of Navarre, a book inspired by The Decameron.

When I stumbled across the book Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits, I was intrigued: what would Professor Murninghan include on his list?

He included a few chestnuts: The Illiad and The Odyssey, the Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments), The Aeneid, a few from Charles Dickens, a little Charlotte Brontë, a little Jane Austen.

The modern classics, though, is where he lost me. I have a hard time justifying Tropic of Cancer as a modern classic, notorious for its graphic sexual scenes (including what is now, nearly a century later, recognized as non-consensual sex). I couldn't grasp The Man Without Qualities, a book completely absent from every college lit class I took.

I was willing to agree to disagree with his classifications of "worthy" because it's his book — and I was glad he was much more inclusive as he neared the 20th century. I actually enjoyed his short description and a few tidbits, including: What to Skip, What's Sexy, Best Line, and What People Don't Know (But Should). I was zooming along, agreeing and disagreeing, nodding and shrugging... until I came to Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.

I have been trying to sidle up to that novel for a few years. I have it in print and in Audible (read by Jeremy Irons, as if that would help). I kept telling myself I need to read it so I understand how the sexualization of a 12-year-old girl by her stepfather is literature. However, after reading "what's sexy" in the book and feeling literally ill, I will stop forcing myself to read this "classic."

In the end, I may never understand the literary significance of James Joyce's Ulysses, and I doubt I'll ever delve into Herman Melville's huge Moby-Dick. However, I will truly never understand why books notorious for their sexual taboo-breaking get a spot in the canon for that fact alone — especially when the tome glorifies non-consensual sex or the sexualization of a child — no matter how "good" the writing.

There are great classics in the world waiting to be read, and I will seek them beyond the Twentieth Century Canon. Please share your suggestions in the comments below and help me discover more classic books that deserve to be read.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

When Book Worlds Collide: Unexpected Connections Between Fact and Fiction

Spoiler alert!

This post references pivotal information in two books: The Lost Man (Jane Harper) and No Visible Bruises: What We Don't Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us (Rachel Louise Snyder). 

If you do not want information, clues, observations, and possible plot complications revealed about either book, please stop reading now.


You have been warned.

This summer, I experienced an unanticipated book collision. Two recently released books on my nightstand could not have seemed more different on their faces.

One book is a novel written by an Australian woman that takes place in the Australian Outback. The third-person narrator is male, and most of the main characters are male. There are women in the story: family of the narrator and main characters, with only a few exceptions.

The other book is a non-fiction tome written by an American woman, a journalist. The main story, and much of the follow-up, take place in Montana, USA (so far; I am only halfway through the book). The main character, for lack of a better description, is female, as are the others — but males are almost evenly represented.

Two very different stages are set — but Harper's novel resolves itself, slowly and surely, with a storyline that profoundly crashes into Snyder's book.

Rachel Louise Snyder has written a remarkable book that examines domestic violence and asks crucial questions: What if we could end domestic violence? What if we gathered information, put all the pieces together, and could recognize it and prevent the chaos, death, and destruction it brings?

I have read about half of Snyder's book so far, and I am enjoying it (if one can say that about a book on the subject). It's gorgeously written with respectful and fair language. It is crisp and clear and very easy to read. I understand why it is on everyone's must-read list, and I am glad I put it on mine.

As I read No Visible Bruises, I also began reading Jane Harper's novel, The Lost Man — a book that was intended to be a distracting and relaxing murder-mystery. For me, murders that appear on the page are fictional, dry, and inconsequential beyond the story, so my fictional mind views mystery-fiction is a victimless crime.

In The Lost Man, Cameron breaks every rule that has kept him alive for decades in the Australian Outback. His family cannot understand how such a cautious man could have made such reckless decisions. The more they investigate, the more the clues don't point to the obvious resolution: Cameron did not commit suicide — which is the only reason a person would do what he did in mid-summer — but there was no other obvious conclusion.

The mystery behind Cam's untimely death unfolds carefully through the eyes of a reliable but wounded character, his brother Nathan. He and Cam had a troubling childhood with a cruel father and a helpless mother. Nate knew what that childhood had done to him, but he was too deep in his own pain to see what it did to the rest of his family.

Readers end with a different story than the one with which we began: a broken family that either doesn't know how or doesn't want to learn how to piece together the clues that will tell the whole tale. In the end, everyone has a piece of the puzzle, and it snaps into place with an earth-shattering, final click.

Snyder asks the same question Harper poses: if people talked to each other, snapped their puzzle piece into place earlier, could loss be averted? How many people does it take to head off tragedy?

I am reading Snyder's book slowly, but I look forward to continuing with rich language and excellent prose, clear and concise and direct. I also will continue to marvel at how two very diverse books came to the same conclusion, on opposite sides of the world, and in completely different genres.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Reading About Animals: The Pleasure and Peril

When it comes to animals — in books, in movies, even in pop songs — I approach with caution. I worry that the poor beasts will be mishandled, will befall some terrible fate, or be sacrificed as a plot complication. Who among us can say with complete confidence that they have recovered from Old Yeller? (Looks around.) I thought so.

On Memorial Day weekend, I began an Audible book as I walked to the library to return a few print books. I loved the sound of Sy Montgomery's voice in my ears as she read How to Be a Good Creature. (Full disclosure: I took a few days off when Tess started showing signs of old age. I can say it was because I didn't want to blubber like a fool on the elliptical — but the truth is, I wasn't brave enough.)

I thought of Cisco and Khan, my cats who died within days of each other in October 2011. The brothers had entirely different types of cancer, but each fell ill suddenly, and died within days of their diagnosis. I was so grief-stricken, I shocked my stepdaughter Valerie when she asked about my birthday plans a couple of months later. The sadness in my voice was palpable: "Nothing. I don't really want to do anything, hon." My house was quiet, my heart was broken, and I couldn't think beyond the next day.

The next week, when we drove down to North Carolina for a major Christmas shopping event, Valerie handed me a small orange and white kitten. I just looked at the kitten and thought, "Can I do this again?" That night, as the newly named Ginger curled up in bed between my husband David and me, I lay awake looking at her: was I brave enough to love her? Now, I can't imagine my life without her, or her little sister Elsie who makes Ginger emit a particular sound when she catches sight of her. I knew Sy would get there, too, and I was with her until she did.

Just the title Dogs of War caused me a bit of concern. I wanted to know more about these brave canines, but I worried about their well-being. Three dogs represented canine troops in three wars: Boots, a collie in the trenches of World War I; Loki, a husky in Greenland during World War II; and Sheba, a German Shepherd in the jungles of Vietnam. No dogs were harmed in the writing of the book, nor were they hurt in their stories. The author's note, however, explains that dogs were considered "equipment" and left behind after the Vietnam War, which breaks my heart (and contributes to Lanford's state of mind when we meet him). 

My childhood companion — and my only dog — was a cockapoo named Frisky. My family drifted to German Shepherds when I was in high school, but Frisky was always "mine." She was a tough little dog who loved me fiercely and protected me fearlessly, who loved adventure and put up with my teen shenanigans. She was my cross-country running partner, my hiking and walking partner, and my park buddy. When we were on vacation in my 10th summer — a rare vacation without Frisky — my family received news that our house had been burgled. My only concern was for my dog. Thankfully, Frisky was asleep at the neighbor's house, safe and sound.

When I was a teen, Frisky would sit at the bottom of the stairs that led to my bedroom to tell me when my date was over. My dates would laugh, but her word was law. (The ones I liked who came back were worthy of my time.) As her muzzle grayed and her steps slowed, I would carry her up the stairs and settle her on the bed. She grew blind, deaf, and arthritic, but remained loyal and loving: when she recognized the vibration of my footsteps, she would come out from under the side table in the den and greet me every day of her 15 years. One day, even that was too painful. She died in my arms at the vet's office. She shaped my understanding of animals, and I am grateful to this day for her love and patience. How anyone could think an animal, a dog, was equipment is beyond comprehension, and I grieve with every soldier whose animal companion remains in the field of battle without them.

I love animals, and well-placed animal characters are a great addition to any story. I prefer they be well-treated, but as long as the story ends up well, I can forgive perilous storylines (as with A Man Called Ove). Non-fiction is perilous, but I will do my best. My reading companions alert me about how they think I'll respond to an animal storyline, and often encourage me to read books I might otherwise eschew (like Water for Elephants). I will try to extend the same kindness and awareness to my fellow readers — and I hope you will, too.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Summer Reading Club Book: A Ghost of a Tale

Do you want to ramp up your summer reading? Join your fellow book-clubbers in reading a fascinating book selected by Intrepid Reader Karen.

Karen has discovered a phantastic book titled The Ghost Studies: New Perspectives on the Origin of Paranormal Experiences by Brandon Massullo.

The Ghost Studies, according to Google, provides scientific explanations for paranormal occurrences, including:

  • New and exciting scientific theories that explain apparitions, hauntings, and communications from the dead
  • The latest research on the role of energy and electricity in hauntings
  • The role that emotions, bioenergetics, and the environment play in supernatural phenomena
  • New research into why some individuals are more prone to ghostly encounters

I am as skeptical as the next person, but I have had some inexplicable experiences that make me wonder what else there is in heaven and earth, and I'm willing to find out what Mr. Massullo has to say on the subject.

Readers, let's begin discussing the tome on September 2.

Oh, and start planning for our Autumn Read: The Iliad, a new translation by Caroline Alexander.

What books would you like to read together? Offer some suggestions in the comments below, or email me and I'll share your ideas with the rest of the group!

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Review: The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster

So, the Polar Book Club book took me a little longer to read than I anticipated — but I have finished The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster by Scott Wilbanks.

Intrepid Reader Karen suggested the book for our Polar Book Club because it sounded amazing: a young woman in San Francisco wakes up one day to discover a 19th century Kansas wheat field in her backyard, along with a letterbox that contains a letter addressed to her — from the year 1890.

The wheat field appears soon after Annie takes delivery of an old red wooden door purchased from a local antique shop. After a little digging, she discovers the door was once owned by the magician David Abbott, who was killed only days before it was sold at auction more than a century before. Her new "neighbor" Elsbeth dated her letter only days before the magician's murder. Can the crime be prevented and a life saved?

From the beginning, I wasn't sure what to make of the characters: Annie, a recently orphaned, terminally ill woman who speaks, dresses, and acts like a 19th century woman; Christian, her contemporary who survived a terrible accident and lives with the horror every moment of every day; Elsbeth, a widowed, retired schoolteacher who doesn't suffer fools and is all-business about everything in life; and Edmond, a gardener and friend of Christian's who is the key to this mystery — or is he?

Throw in David, an other-worldly magician doing the impossible with an ordinary-looking door; the good-natured but wary street urchin Cap'n who leads a perfectly oiled team of hungry, homeless kids; and truly evil, remorseless henchmen — and you have the motley crew who make up the story.

The book's characters seemed to embrace the outlandish premise too quickly. What would a time traveler need to do to convince you of their story? Would you travel across the country at the drop of a hat upon request and receipt of a pre-dated news article? What would you do for a virtual stranger: risk your life, your health, your future — or your present?

The book started a little slow for my taste, then began throwing in one bizarre vision, connection, and coincidence after another. In the end, it amounted to one too many coincidences, misjudged pop culture references, an implausibly violent scene in a rather soft-edged story, and an improbable ending that tidied up every conceivable loose end. However, I'd still consider it a three-star read: it is good time travel, and it presents an interesting premise, and a pretty intense ride full of surprises and familiar themes.

Polar Book Clubbers — and other readers of the book — what did you think?