By Evelyn Waugh
In what is by now, I'm sure, a familiar pattern to readers of this blog, Brideshead Revisited made its way onto my reading list via the community forum here. A then-regular poster described it as "one of the greatest works of twentieth century Christian fiction," and the surrounding discussion piqued my interest. Unfortunately, though I can appreciate the craft that went into the novel, I found that its viewpoint was simply too far removed from my own for me to be able to connect with it.
The bulk of the story is presented as a memory of the narrator's. Charles Ryder, an English Army captain during WWII, finds himself and his unit unexpectedly brought to a new station that turns out to be the former home of the aristocratic (and eccentric and deeply dysfunctional) Flyte family, which he knew and befriended in his younger days. Wandering the grounds and halls of his new billet, Ryder remembers to himself (and, thus, to us) the story of his friendship with Sebastian, the younger son, his increasing involvement over the years with the family, and his eventual estrangement from them.
It's hard for me to know exactly how to interpret this book. On the one hand, it seemed a bit like a deconstruction of English upper-class society and values, since more or less all of the characters that inhabit that social stratum are depicted as shallow, self-absorbed, and boorish. The problem for me was that the contrasting figures--mainly Ryder and Sebastian's sister, Julia--are largely unsympathetic themselves, managing to be just as shallow and unpleasant as the people they sneer at. Additionally, I couldn't help but feel that the author, despite portraying it in what seemed such a negative light, nonetheless had a strong attraction to the upper-class lifestyle.
Most likely, the unpleasantness of the principal characters is meant to give more weight to the religious theme that ultimately is the central focus of the novel. But, here again, I didn't feel as though I had the right context or viewpoint to connect with that focus, especially as it's only fully realized in the closing pages with the conversion of the two main agnostic characters of the story. And even at that, given my own religious leanings, it was hard for me to feel that the payoff as a reader was worth having to endure what was basically an entire novel of awful people being awful to each other. In the end, it simply felt empty to me.
Still, I have to admit that my feelings on this book are largely informed by my own spiritual viewpoint, and I suspect that many Christian readers--especially those with an appreciation for subtlety--will come away with the same feeling of beauty and admiration for the book that the forum poster I mentioned felt. And even though I didn't connect on a religious level with Brideshead Revisited, I have to appreciate just how subtle Waugh's depiction of "the operation of Grace" (as he put it) was. So often writers seem to want to beat the reader over the head with a religious message, where in this book, I suspect that many people might miss it entirely. That may not sound like a virtue to everyone, but for me, all of the most profound experiences I've had with fiction have come from books that made me feel like I discovered something on my own.
Started: 9/13/2010 | Finished: 9/20/2010
The Neverending Story
By Michael Ende
My copy of The Neverending Story is getting a bit worse for wear. The dust jacket has long since been lost, and the lettering and imprinted design on the rust-colored cover are barely visible. The binding has stiffened and the pages are becoming brittle. None of which is terribly surprising, considering that I've had it for twenty-four years, and have read it at least a dozen times.
Like a lot of people of my generation, my introduction to The Neverending Story came via the 1984 film, which immediately became a favorite and went on to become a staple film in my young life. My mom bought a copy of the book a couple of years later--initially it was for her, but it's been mine ever since I saw it lying on a windowsill where she'd left it. Like The Lord of the Rings, it grabbed a hold of me from the first and I've been returning to it ever since.
I love this book. I love the feeling of nostalgia I get when I read it, remembering all the nights I stayed up late as a kid to finish just one more chapter. I love that even having read it so many times, it never feels stale to me. I love that at 31 it still gives me the same rush of adventure and imagination and wonder that it did when I was 7. I love the way it invites you to tell your own stories.
What struck me the most as I was reading it this time is that I can't wait for Jason to be old enough for me to read this with him. As I turned the pages, I imagined the look on his face when he hears about Uyulala, the Southern Oracle, or Bastian's adventure with Grograman, the Many-Colored Death. I even thought about what sort of voices and accents to try with each of the characters. My only worry is that he might learn to read early enough that by the time he's mature enough for this story he'd rather read it on his own than have me read it to him. I know what I was like at 7, and in so many ways he seems to be on the same track I was when I was his age.
But we'll leave that problem for when or if it comes. For now, I'll just savor the anticipation. Because if he really is like me, then Jason is absolutely going to flip for this book.
Started: 9/9/2010 | Finished: 9/11/2010
By Elie Wiesel
Our copy of Night has been sitting on our nightstand for a long time. Juliette bought it in 2006, shortly after Oprah put it on her book list. I appropriated it a few months later, intending to read it quickly. Somehow, though, I just couldn't bring myself to read such a heavy story--I must have picked it up ten times over the past few years, only to quit after the first page. Last week I finally found myself with literally nothing else left in the house to read, so with an effort of will, I forced myself through it.
It's not that I have a problem with Holocaust stories, exactly. I read The Diary of Anne Frank in school, like everybody, and I went to see Schindler's List and Life Is Beautiful in the theater, and was moved by both. I'd even go so far as to say that I feel a certain responsibility to read books like this--the war and the Holocaust weren't so long ago, but they are far enough in the past now that they no longer feel immediate or real to many people. I think it's important that books like Night exist and are read, because what happened to the European Jews under the Nazi regime was a crime the magnitude of which should never be forgotten and must never be repeated.
But, responsibility or no, I just couldn't look forward to the prospect of experiencing such a story. It's just too much to bear, even just reading it. Admitting that makes me feel shallow and self-centered; if I am, then so be it.
Now, having finished the book and had some time to reflect on it, I can say that my fears were borne out--reading Night, with its brutally sparse and honest writing, was a harrowing, deeply disturbing experience, not least because I've been feeling my own mortality more keenly the past few years than I ever did when I was younger. And honestly I can't say what, if anything, I gained from the experience. Am I shocked and horrified, outraged at the ordeal the Jews went through? Of course. But then, I already was. In just the same way, after having read Night, I feel an immense respect and sympathy (if that's the right word) for the survivors of the Holocaust and their families, but I already felt that before I'd even heard of the book.
Nevertheless, I do feel like it was important for me to read this book and I feel I've done something worthwhile by having done so. It's not an experience I care to repeat, but that I had it at all feels meaningful.
Started: 9/7/2010 | Finished: 9/8/2010
The Name of the Wind
By Patrick Rothfuss
About two years ago, I solicited some book recommendations from the forum community here at Sakeriver, and a few people enthusiastically offered The Name of the Wind as a good choice. That was the first I'd ever heard of the book, not surprising since it was author Patrick Rothfuss' first novel. I put it on my list, but held off because it was the first book in an incomplete series and I generally hate having to wait to finish a series. I was burned by Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time and George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, and in no hurry to repeat the experience.
A year later, I still hadn't gotten around to picking up The Name of the Wind, but it came up again at the forum. Interestingly, one person said that he didn't think people needed to wait on the second book to come out before starting this first installment. "Even if it never comes out," he said, "[The Name of the Wind] is well worth reading." I still put off buying it, though, for another six months, at which point I was flush with Christmas gift cards and in a hurry to buy a whole stack of books.
Nine months after that it was still sitting on my nightstand, a victim of my inabiity to start an unfinished series while I still had any other books in the house left unread. But, finally, last week I picked it up off my nightstand and started in on it. Three days later--including one night staying up until 3 AM reading--I was done.
I wish I hadn't read it.
Not because it was bad, mind you. No, I wish I hadn't read it because it was probably the best new fantasy novel I've read in years, and it absolutely kills me that the second book won't even be out in hardcover until at least March. Possibly even longer--it's already been delayed several times over the past couple of years.
The Name of the Wind is the tale of Kvothe Kingkiller, a legendary adventurer in the world of the story who, at the book's outset, is living as an innkeeper in a small, rural town, having apparently faked his own death some time before. He's eventually tracked down by a famous writer, who convinces Kvothe to tell his life story. Warning the writer that the tale will take three days to tell properly, Kvothe launches into it, beginning with his youth in a family of travelling minstrels. As the story progresses, he tells of his time as an orphaned street urchin in the huge city of Tarbean, finally making his way to the famed University, where he studies to learn, among other things, the power of the name of the wind.
On a certain level, The Name of the Wind isn't anything new when it comes to fantasy. After all, the boy of humble origins who rises to become a giant in the world is a pretty standard genre trope. What makes this book great is how skillfully it's all executed. Kvothe's time at the University is reminiscent of Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea or perhaps Harry Potter at Hogwarts, but feels derivative of neither. And the layers of story within story not only work brilliantly to give us background without heavy exposition and to bring the characters to life, but also gives us a glimpse of an ending before we've even begun. It reminds me of the effect that the beginning of Gabriel García Márquez's 100 Years of Solitude, and I daresay that what Rothfuss has done here rivals a masterpiece like 100 Years, but with the clean, easy language and approachability that genre fiction really does best.
I hate that I have to wait months still for the next book, and probably years for the third. I even hate Rothfuss a little for making me love this book so much. Life will go on, of course, but it's going to be hard to find another book in any genre that won't suffer in comparison to this one.
Started: 9/2/2010 | Finished: 9/5/2010
The Grapes of Wrath
By John Steinbeck
Considering that Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors and that The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most studied pieces of American literature, you'd think I'd have long since read it. Maybe even more than once. I never took any specific courses in American lit, though, and in my personal reading I just never got around to it. Until just now, that is.
The first thing I was struck with--as I am always struck by Steinbeck's stories--was how deeply concerned with land the man was. Every one of his stories I can recall reading has begun with a description of a place. But "description of a place" doesn't really do it justice, because for Steinbeck, the places where his stories occur are characters unto themselves, and his descriptions are like songs, full of life. I sometimes wonder if a modern author could get away with openings like this, nearly devoid of action or hooks. I suspect they could, if they were writers of the same caliber as Steinbeck.
That's a big if, of course. And sometimes I wonder whether people really appreciate how skilled the man was. He's obviously hailed as a great and important writer, and his stories are read in classrooms from elementary school through university. But how many people actually look at his work for what it is?
Take a book like The Grapes of Wrath for example. It's a fairly simple story, told in straightforward language that makes it quite easy to read. Structurally speaking, there's nothing particularly surprising about the plot--the descriptions of the conditions that the migrant workers had to endure must surely have been shocking to readers of the day, but even at that, an attentive reader would have been able to guess the course of the narrative well before the last page. The morality is clear, even strident. The scenes border on the melodramatic.
All that apparent simplicity belies the subtlety and skill in Steinbeck's writing, though. Take another look, and you see themes developed and woven into the structure of the story, adding depth if you care to find it. And, of course, the characters themselves are so richly realized that you can't help but feel like part of the Joad family, yourself. And something about the way the book cuts back and forth between scenes and descriptive interludes brings it all home in a profound way, even though each individual portion might seem to be beating the reader over the head with message and melodrama. It's a masterpiece.
For me, one of the trickiest parts was in remembering exactly when it was taking place. Given the Joads' humble background and folksy speech, it's easy to picture them as belonging to the age of horse and buggy, possibly even as far back as the Civil War era. Yet Steinbeck wrote the novel in the mid-to-late 1930's, and he set the story contemporaneously. Consider, then, that by the time of the events depicted in The Grapes of Wrath, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong had already been recording for over a decade. Benny Goodman was already the King of Swing. Hitler had already come to power in Germany. James Cagney, Mae West, Clark Gable, Walt Disney, and the Marx Brothers were all already household names. If anything, the abject poverty of the migrants is even more striking in that context.
The Grapes of Wrath was acclaimed a "great work" by the Nobel Prize committee, and has been both praised and damned by critics and readers for over 60 years. You may not have the same reaction to it that I did, but whether you're already familiar with it or whether it's new to you, I'd say that there's enough there to make it worth your while.
Started: 8/18/2010 | Finished: 9/1/2010