Saturday, January 22, 2011

Howards End is on the Landing, by Susan Hill

The full title of this book is actually Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading From Home. I actually love the title of this book, but I'm not sure I can articulate the reasons. Howards End is a book I have read only recently (within the past 3-4 years), and it made a powerful impression on me. Then the title is both evocative and enigmatic, and it is long--so blatantly different from the short, punchy titles popular with modern novelists (The Road, Twilight, The Notebook, Freedom, and so forth).

It's not a thing I do very often anymore, but if I were browsing in the stacks of the library, this title would make me pull the book off the shelf and investigate further. And it would repay my effort for doing so.

One autumn day, the author was looking for a book in her home. There were a lot of bookshelves, in a lot of different rooms, and tucked into nooks and crannies such as landings. (I have books on my landings, too.)

Surrounded by all those books, which were her own possessions, but also "old friends," she decided somewhat impulsively to spend an entire year reading only from her home library, which meant, for the most part, only rereading, and not reading anything she had not read before. (She made a few exceptions, connected with her professional obligations.)

This book is partly the story of that year, but mostly it is sort of bookish memoir, looking back at people, places, and books that made up her reading life across many decades. Looking back, and thinking over all the books she has read, it occurs to her how unlikely it is that there are two people living who have read exactly the same books, and only those books.
So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA.

I have not hurried through this book, and it has been a pleasure to glimpse the literary soul of someone as well-read as Susan Hill. I could not read this book without frantically making lists of authors I never heard of (how did that happen?) and particular books by authors I have heard of that I must read, immediately, right now, so I can enjoy them as much as Susan did. I know that we are kindred reading spirits, because of all Dicken's novels, she did not care for A Tale of Two Cities. I think I'll stop feeling guilty about finding it my least favorite of all I've read so far.

Ms. Hill doesn't have much use for electronic readers, and has some rather bitter things to say about them. I only found this amusing, because I was reading the Kindle version of the book. I love physical books for many reasons, but I love my Kindle, too. Just think--I can download every single Thomas Hardy title she recommends most highly, and I won't have to find space on those already-full bookshelves to house them. She also warns:
The internet can also have a pernicious influence of reading because it is full of book-related gossip and chatter on which it is fatally easy to waste time that should be spent actually paying close, careful attention to the books themselves, whether writing them or reading them.

So here I am, contributing to the noise by telling you about this book. But there it is. We live in a world of contradictions. The internet takes up too much time away from books, but without it, I probably wouldn't have heard about this book at all (I've never seen a real-life copy), nor read it, nor told you about it. I'll stop now, and let you get back to your library, literal and virtual.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Island of the World by Michael O'Brien

There could hardly be a larger gap between the worldview expressed in this book and the one shown in the last book I reviewed. From hopeless relativism, we turn 180 degrees to face redemption and responsibility.

I've put off writing about this book, because it's hard to know what to say--how much to try to convey. It's a very long book. I read the Kindle version (a surprise gift), but I understand the print version is over 800 pages long.

The story begins in a mountain village in Croatia, during World War II, and ends more or less in the present, thus encompassing the reign of communism in post-war "Yugoslavia" from beginning to end. However, the story is not especially political--quite the opposite. It follows the story of one man's life--Josip Lasta--from his boyhood in the village to the end of his long life. Josip's happy childhood is interrupted by the violence taking place throughout his country, not just during the war, but immediately after.

He adapts himself to a certain extent to his new reality, and shapes a life for himself in Yugoslavia--one of the most peculiar countries ever to be found on a map (only old maps, now). Most of the story is the struggle of Josip to survive, not in body (although he has to fight that battle as well), but in his soul. I love my fiction laced with philosophy, and this book is full of profound questions, deep thoughts, and soul-searching complexities.

In my last post, on Blindness, I said that one of the things I most intensely disliked about that book (and other post-modern fiction) was the lack of names for people. It depersonalizes the characters, making them less than human. With that on my mind, I was struck forcefully by the importance of names in Island of the World. Part of the story takes place in a soviet-era, hard-labor prison camp. The prisoners use monikers instead of names for themselves--"the owl" or "the wedding guest." For a few men who allow themselves to trust each other, sharing their real names is an act of fellowship, trust, bonding, and an assertion of the importance of individuals. Each one matters. No one is expendable.

This quote from the book summarizes the ideas contained here:
It all fits together, and it moves in a marvelous order. This is the first time he has seen it with his eyes. Though of course, his textbooks and Tata's lessons have already inscribed it in his mind. Now it lives. It is immense, complex, and so moving that tears spring unbidden to his eyes. "Oh cosmos!" he gasps.

That sense of order--of all things, including suffering, grief, and loss,fitting together into an order too great for us to comprehend entirely is integral to the story, and to life.

"My father was a literate man," says Josip to Ariadne. "Not in the sense of one who merely filled his mind with the contents of what he read. He understood that words of beauty and truth raise man higher than himself."

How many ideas are packed into that little morsel? 1. Literature contributes to moral growth. 2. There is more than one kind of knowledge, and "mere contents" is the lesser kind. 3. Man is not the pinnacle of worthiness, and not only can he be raised higher, but he needs to be. 4. Beauty and truth are means to that elevation. ...and I've probably missed something.

You can see from that little example how much meat there must be in this book--food for thought for a long time to come.

I loved the writing, and I loved the setting. My only perception of Croatia to this point was through television travel-ads (come visit warm, sunny beaches!). Croatia is a popular tourist destination for Poles, not least because the languages are very similar (I understood all the Croatian words in the book, even the ones that weren't translated). This book fleshed out the geography and the country, and I now have a positive desire, which I hope will be fulfilled, to visit Split, one of the cities in which Josip lived.

While I whole-heartedly embrace the central premise of Island of the World--that man is in need of faith, and that he is part of a whole greater than himself--I have to include one caveat. There was one thing that was a bit of stumbling block for me, and that was this: Josip's faith is based largely on mystical experiences, rather than having its foundation in the Word of truth. Part of my disappointment is that readers who sympathize with Josip (and surely that will be most of the people who read this book) will not be having mystical visions in which swallows speak and white horses take them on journeys. They could, however, read the Words of truth which are very life.

Having expressed my one reservation about the book, I still recommend it whole-heartedly to anyone. And everyone. It will help you see, if you want to see.

"We live and move and have our being with a vast masterpiece. Nature itself is speaking or, rather, God is speaking through nature--"
"Yes, everything speaks because it is given by the Creator of all things."
"His hand is upon it all, the damaged and the undamaged. We must learn to see the original intention even in the damaged."

As they continue to follow the path deeper into the woods, the mother keeps an eye on her daughter, but Josip is staring simultaneously inward and upward, and also connecting to the colors blazing all around him. "We are so blind, so blind!" he groans, flailing his arms for emphasis, his face flushing, his voice intense with the excitement of this new discovery. "It's as if heaven is raining miracles upon us, but we cannot see because we do not look. It's as if fabulous birds fall unceasingly from the skies!"

Friday, January 07, 2011

Blindness, by Jose Saramago

In the interest of attempting to blog more regularly in 2011, I decided to post something about my reading. Seven days into the new year, I must confess that I have not finished any books. I am reading at least four books at the moment, but it may be a while before any of them are finished.

So, I cast my eyes back to December, and while none of my December reading made it to my "best of 2010" list, at least it is relatively fresh in my mind. I read quite a bit in December, at least partly because I spent several sick days lying on the couch needing something easy and simple to do.

Not everything was easy and simple, though. I was offered a book from my Bookmooch wishlist, and happily accepted it. (I have plenty of points, and in general, the books I want are not available.) So, one cold day in December, I received Blindness by Jose Saramago. I put it on my list so long ago, I have only the vaguest recollections of the book, but I wanted to read it at some point, so I plunged in and was taken unaware.

I am not post-modernist in my thinking. My world-view is shaped by a solidly Biblical foundation, and I am far more sympathetic to the medieval mind than to the post-modern one. But I live in this age. Whether because the post-modern mindset is crystallizing, or simply because I am older, I see it coming sharply into focus everywhere around me. When I find myself immersed in a post-modern world such as the one in Blindness (or The Road by Cormac McCarthy), I never fail to be moved. I don't agree that the world is as it is pictured--so utterly without hope, without redemption--but my spirit bleeds for those who live in that world, and do think that there is nothing more.

In the story, a viral blindness strikes humanity. Those afflicted are isolated at first, and the story focuses on the first few individuals incarcerated in an abandoned hospital. There is no one to take care of those affected by blindness, because they would simply be blind themselves almost immediately, so they are left to fend for themselves, and naturally fall into anarchy, with the strong preying on the weak. As the situation deteriorates within the hospital, the blind are not aware that the blindness has not been contained, and the entire population is affected. Amongst the blind, there is one person who is not affected--just one person who retains sight. What can one sighted person do for a building full of blind people, or for a city?

The story is meant to be allegorical--it is stated plainly. Unfortunately, accurately portraying a post-modern world is not the same thing as offering a remedy for that hopeless thinking. In fact, it would be altogether un-post-modern to do that. So the book is built up of layers and layers of hopelessness, grief, anguish, loss, confusion, anger (all perfectly legitimate human reality) without a single moment of relief, hope, optimism or redemption. It's a perfect post-modern book, and if you want to read something to illustrate post-modernism, this will fit the bill. I can't think of any other reason for reading it, and I'm not recommending that anyone do so. I read a review of the book which describes the author's writing as "compassionate," and I agree--he tells us very gently about these horrors. But I find that chilling.

One of the things I dislike most intensely is how impersonal the story is. The story focuses on a handful of individuals, but we never know their names. They are always referred to as "the doctor" or the "the girl with dark glasses" or "the first blind man's wife." For the entire book, no names are ever shared. It was the same in The Road--there is a father, and there is a son, and they have no names.

There is no pleasure for me in this kind of reading, but for some reason, every few years, I end up reading a book like this. It makes me draw back in horror...I'd rather read a brutal crime novel or a harrowing holocaust memoir than look too closely at the bleakness of the modern psyche.

But the book does put forth that proposition--when you live in a world of blindness, where the blind are led only by the blind, what is the role for the sighted person?