Thursday, May 6, 2010

book report: early May

In the past few weeks, I've been scarfing books like a teenager scarfing mac and cheese between sports practices (not that I was ever a teenager between sports practices, but I've seen a few in my day, and they are master scarfers, particularly of pasta).* In the interest of contributing to public knowledge, especially since as of last week I no longer have a captive audience to listen to me talk about books (they will take their final exam tomorrow: let's hope they learned something in my rambling), I thought I'd try to make a habit of posting about these books. Here are a few:

Life Work and Unpacking the Boxes by Donald Hall

I read Life Work, a slim volume that's somehow about Hall's family heritage of East Coast work and also about his life as a writer, and I found it inspiring. I loved reading about his past, and I loved reading about his work habits (getting to work at 6:00 in the morning, for instance, is incredible and enviable; keeping weekly and daily to-do lists to stay on track is something I can put into practice right away). The way Hall describes work is really quite beautiful, and the narrative is both lyrical and readable. So I read Unpacking the Boxes next, and I must admit I was a bit disappointed. While I was glad to read more of Hall's biography, I really did hope to discover more about his relationship with the late Jane Kenyon, the material about whom, it turns out, Hall's editor had him turn into an entirely separate book, I'm assuming for the sake of sales? I'll dodge that motive and check it out from the library.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Goldstein

Astonishing. This novel manages, all at once, to enter into the recent "God debates" and the so-called "new atheism" and to both engage and gently mock, all the while exploring the textured and complicated nature of any specific life in relation to the debate's abstractions. The book also exposes both the idyllic and the ridiculous in academia, the mystery of relationship and beauty, the nature of belief and responsibility. In describing it, I'm resorting to all sorts of abstractions myself, but I'd say that one of the best parts of this book is that it refuses abstraction and generalization, dealing instead in particularity, hilarity, the strange interplay between philosophical postulates and concrete characters. If you have any interest in the God debates, or Hasidic Judaism, you must read this book, probably several times. The ending is breathtaking.

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

I seem to recall this book causing some scandal in regard to its uncomfortably autobiographical nature (when I was studying incest narratives and memoir/autobiography for my undergraduate senior seminar project, it came up often). I can't believe I haven't read it before now, and while it is terribly painful, I'm glad I finally took it down off the shelf. I do think this book is compellingly written, refreshing in its protagonist's imperfections, and mournfully honest in its conclusion. Of course, since I'm researching women and suffering and gender and abuse and religion, I appreciate of books that deal with these themes in a suitably complex way, which this novel does. That said, it's not for the faint of heart.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Presented as a dying Iowa preacher's "begats," or memoirs, for his very young son, this is a novel of profound beauty. Its reliance on gaps and absences, its slow unravelling of a long history of family and small-town love and failings, its exploration of the desire for faith, its implicit interrogation of a complex narrator's motives and longings -- all these subtle elements add up to a very quiet but very lovely meditation on the complexity and preciousness of life. Especially toward the end, the lyrical prose leaves me ready to copy paragraph after paragraph out for others to read. Perhaps I just ought to recommend the book.

[* I'm aware that this metaphor is too convoluted to be practically helpful, but now I'm too amused to delete it. ]

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