Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2007. It has been read and reviewed all over, but that probably won't stop me from adding my thoughts to the mix.

This was the first book I have read by this author, and his style is not pleasing to me, but it did not bother me in this book (though I was put off by some others I looked at in the bookstore). The spare, staccato sentences have a rhythm to them that matches the story, and it fits too well to imagine the story being told in any other way. The occasional repetition of certain phrases adds to the lyric effect.

"You have to talk to me."

"I'm talking."

Although, the way Cormac McCarthy writes it, there are no quotation marks or apostrophes.

This is a post-apocalyptic story, with no explanation of how the world came to be as it is. It reminded me of earth's surface in the movie The Matrix, but without the machines. In the movie, the humans declare, "It was we who scorched the sky," and in The Road, that is precisely what has been done. Some years ago (at least 5, I think; maybe as many as 10), the sun was blotted out, and the greater part of the population was killed. The world is ashy gray, and cold, and comfortless. In this world, there is no way to start over. Without the sun, there is no way to produce new food, and so the survivors are reduced to living as parasites on the decaying civilization, scrabbling for the remnants, of which it is only too clear that there must be a limited supply.

The book is the story of a man and a boy (his son)--nameless, ageless, hopeless. In this world, the weak and alone fall prey to bands of modern savages, who hunt the only thing left to be hunted. They are moving along the road, moving south toward the ocean, hoping it will be warmer. Along the way, they scavenge for food, try to avoid other people, and rarely remain in one place more than a day or two.

Early in the book, we understand that the father is dying, but he insists that they press on, down the road.

I don't want to give away the ending. Others have written that they thought about the book for days after finishing it, and it has been the same for me. The father insists that they press on because they "carry the fire." Not long ago, I read one blogger who thought the "fire" might be hope, but it didn't feel quite like hope to me. Nothing could be more hopeless than the circumstances of this world. Or at least, maybe the fire is just one small aspect of hope--the will to live, no matter what. But not to live as a savage--to live as a man, to preserve what shreds of dignity and fineness man has left, and they are not much.

One of the reasons I think this will to live is the "fire" is that the man actually has a hard time sharing his will to live with his son, who has known no world but this one. He has instilled in the boy a just horror of the worst kind of savagery known to man, but the boy is astute enough to see that they are not really much better--they may not kill outright, but when they steal or eat some food, they are contributing to, if not causing, the death of others. He doesn't want to be what he almost has to be in order to survive, and so his will to live wavers.

This book doesn't feel like realism or a "true" story to me. It has more of an allegorical fairy- tale quality--the dark woods, the wicked witches, the big bad wolves--but there are no heroes to make it come right. It was an interesting book--one to ponder--but not one I'd enthusiastically recommend to be enjoyed. You read this one to peer into the heart of man and see the worst that he can be, and how inadequate he is even at best.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Original Sin by P.D. James

I like P.D. James.

I like detective stories.

Ergo, I ought to have liked this book, and I did. (I stayed up too late more than once while I was reading it!) I also like my fiction laced with philosophy, and James obliges this taste, too.

Aside from the basic murder story, which must be solved because Adam Dalgliesh (detective and published poet) is on the case, this is a book about atheism. I was rather surprised by all the references to religion and atheism, but that's because I don't always pay attention to things I should: the title of the book is Original Sin, after all.

You've got dyed-in-the-wool atheists, a Jewish atheists (who feels he ought to apologize to God for not believing in him--traditional Jewish guilt), Anglican atheists, and, finally, not-atheists.

I'm still not sure I have entirely grasped P.D. James's message, but this is what I think it is. Man requires a god. Rejecting Diety by refusing to believe in it (as if that makes a difference) means that something else will stand in first place, and most often, that is man himself. In this book, we see various characters "playing God"--making judgments that are not truly theirs to make.

One of the characters--the murderer, and one of the atheists--declares, "I don't believe that our existence here has a meaning or that we have any future after death. Since there is no God there can be no divine justice. We have to make justice for ourselves and make it here on earth." (Oddly enough, I'm not sure the concept of justice has any meaning at all apart from divine authority.)

And he is answered, "If you want to act like God, you should first ensure that you have the wisdom and knowledge of God." Because he has made a terrible mistake, and the "justice" that he thought he was enacting was no justice at all.

One of the characters observes a couple of people praying in church, and "wondered what it was they found in this quiet place and whether, if he had come with more humility, he might have found it also."

Bingo, P.D. James. One passing sentence in a 425-page book, but she nailed it. Humility is out of fashion, but wisdom and faith demand it.

This wasn't the best P.D. James novel I've ever read, but I'm not sorry I read it. My February list of books to show that I've been reading a lot of less worthy books! Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile story and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Reading Log, January 2008

I am a bit shocked by how much I read in January. If I kept up at this rate, I'd end up reading over 100 books in 2008. I have read over 100 books in other years, but it does seem unlikely. I reverted to my old habit, a couple of times, of reading a whole whole book in a single sitting or two. It's not that hard for me to do, but it does require neglecting some things that probably shouldn't be neglected. Ahem.

Murder is Easy
by Agatha Christie--A comfortable reread, in spite of the fact that it involves neither Hercule Poirot nor Miss Jane Marple. Plenty of red herrings and suspects from which to choose. Classic Christie. Love it.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card--Another reread, and in fact it is the second time I have reread the book. I find the story very gripping, partly because it combines educational philosophy (of a sort) with a good story. Although I already know what is going to happen, I still find the process and the story interesting. I've read all 8 or 9 books connected with the "Ender" story, but I don't know if I'm up to rereading all of them.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini--Gratified, I am, to discover I am not alone is rating this book less than spectacular. I do trust my own judgment, but I was afraid I might find myself all alone...or afraid that I had missed something hugely significant. However, I rather think not.

Dear Enemy by Jean Webster--An audio book, and although it was not what I was expecting, it wasn't that bad.

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro--This is such a fascinating author.

Psmith in the City by P.G. Wodehouse--An audiobook, with too much cricket, but kind of fun to listen to anyway. This was my first encounter with Psmith, and he's not anybody I'd want to know in real life.

Original Sin by P.D. James--I wrote a review of this one that I'll post in a day or two. It was a very engrossing mystery and story.

Persuasion by Jane Austen--A reread, of course. I did not read any of Jane Austen's books in 2007, the first year in ten that such has been the case. Clearly, this year is going to be different. How many authors can have their books read and re-read to such an extent and still be captivating? Jane never disappoints. My 14 year old daughter read all my Jane Austen novels in 2007!

Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander--A children's books I preread before giving it to my 10 year old daughter. I have nothing to say about this book, which probably speaks volumes in itself. I think it will be most enjoyed by children who already have some knowledge of history, so that they will recognize the time-periods in the book. I liked the Prydain Chronicles by this author much better.

The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella--I found this English book in a Polish thrift shop, so I picked it up for next to nothing. It was funny and entertaining, and an interesting view of how much women (and men, too) give up when they buy into the fast-paced, "success"-oriented lifestyle so glamourized by the media.

The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye--I've wanted to read this forever, and included it as one of my non-fiction books for January. Reading it on top of John Erskine was interesting, because much of what they say is the same, and THAT is because they both hearken back to Aristotle's Poetry for their ideas.

Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt--I wasn't able to join in all the discussion about this book, because I fell behind in my reading, and in fact, I still have a few chapters left to finish. But I will finish it!

Pickwick Papers by Charles Dicken--I'm sorry to say that I haven't finished this yet, but I did read from it during January.

"A provincial guy," "Holobutow," "A very controversial discussion with God," and "A Nihilist" by Adam Zielinski--short stories translated from German. They were all very short, and not especially remarkable, but that is at least in part because they are rather badly translated. I may skip finishing the rest of the stories in this (library) book because the prospect of reading more of them holds no appeal at all.

I have bumped into interesting-looking reading challenges on several blogs lately, but I am steadfastly resisting them all. I must make my own challenges. So, for February, I plan to read two more non-fiction books--The Tale of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane and Exit Into History by Eva Hoffman. I will also be reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Nobel Prize winner in 2007), rereading another Austen novel, and after that, who knows? Oh, I also have to finish Pickwick Papers and the the Hazlitt book, of course.

And find another audiobook to listen to.