Thursday, August 11, 2011

The 2010 - 2011 Book Reading Project -- Part Seven (Literature)

     It takes a lot of balls to condemn humanity, demonize the Church, paint the history of your nation as a serious of cowardly and selfish acts, call out the virulent and prevailing antisemitism of the day as wrong, and posit a future where the anarchists blow-up 1908.  Noble Prize winner Anatole France comes up with the best premise ever for a novel (though written as a history): what would God do if a near-sighted priest baptized a crèche of penguins?  You get Penguin Island.  I have two gripes with this book.  First, I was unhappy with the sloppy editing – too many spelling errors and other easily noticed mistakes – and giant sized format.  Second, I just couldn't quite figure out if one of the characters was a parody of Napoleon III or a collection of similar era figures.  That is on me, sure, but the rest of the book was so accessible (for anyone who knows a little of French history).  This is the first book that ever made me wish I could read French.

     The Turn of the Screw (1898) is billed as a ghost story.  I read it as more of an examination of the (supposed) effects of sexual repression on the mental stability of the governess.  Seriously.  Young lady starts having sexual fantasies about the man who hires her (and will never be around and has no desire to ever be bothered by her).  She then seduces the housekeeper – theirs is a physical if not sexual relationship.  Lastly, when she learns that the children have been exposed to sexual behavior, she drives one of them mad and murders the other.  The moral of the story?  Let young ladies get laid.  It is well written and paced, though has been so liberally copied for other projects that it is hard to treat it as the original it was.

     Another one of those authors I haven't read much is Philip Roth.  The guy is an American treasure and before I read Everyman (2006) I think my total Roth experience was one short story for an English class as Triton College and the middling film adaptation of The Human StainEveryman is brief – I read it in a single sitting – and does not do much more than examine one sad life.  There is such soul to the telling and poetry to the language (most of the time) that Roth makes it more compelling than the character deserves.  I picked it up because I had just read the play Everyman, but at $13 even the paperback is a bit overpriced.

     If Penguin Island made me wish I could read French, Siddhartha (1922) made me wish I had stuck with learning German.  While I made sure I had a well-regarded translation, I could tell that there was a degree of the poetry of it all that couldn't jump the language barrier.  Sad and uplifting at the same time, Siddhartha may be the most spiritual book I've read in some time.

     Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimension (1884) is a bit of an odd duck.  It is a little too in love with the math of it all, and at the same time doesn't commit to the social commentary it is making.  The first half drags far too much to be enjoyable, but the second half has both good rhythm and prose.  Worthwhile, but not great.

     It took three different tries over the course of four years to finally read Beowulf.  I'm glad I did it.  On the other hand, I don't have any strong feelings about the epic.

     I wasn't sure where to put Ron Carlson's The Signal (2009).  It is nowhere near as good as his novel Five Skies (2008), but it is more ambitious is scope and theme than the fluff I read.  I would recommend Carlson as an author – Five Skies first, of course – but I would also recommend picking up the proof/advance copies that sit around independent book stores. The list price of $25.99 is outrageous.  The $2.95 I paid is much more reasonable.  If you are interested in the modern American West and the inner workings of men, Carlson will speak to you.

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