Abraham, Rachel, Soren and Liam. Our life together in Smalltown, Idaho.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Bevy of Brief Book Reviews

This is what I've been reading lately:

David Copperfield
Charles Dickens

This one I read during the deepest throws of morning sickness.

In lieu of an original review here, I'm simply going to copy-and-paste from a letter I wrote to my mother-in-law, who loves Mr. Dickens, around that time:

"It's funny that you've been reading Dickens lately, because I, too, have been engaged with one of his books. But with a different response than yours, I am sad to admit. I'm reading David Copperfield, which I bought years ago because it was a required read for an English Novels class I took in college. I only got about halfway then, and -- fortunately for me -- my professor didn't like Dickens enough to test very heavily on that novel. I picked it up again just recently because I wanted something to read that I didn't mind associating with nausea. Well, I've again read through about half of it-- happily, but not lustily-- and am again contemplating laying it to rest. Dickens' prose is delightful and his characters endearing, but delightful and endearing can only get me so far -- about 400 pages of teeny print far-- before I start wishing that there was something more meaty to the text. Perhaps I should try one of his other novels."

(I didn't finish it.)

Long Quiet Highway: Waking up in America
Natalie Goldberg

Long Quiet Highway is the spiritual autobiography of Natalie Goldberg, who has most famously written "Writing Down the Bones," a book about writing that I adored. Unfortunately, I did not adore this book-- though I did, at least, read the whole thing.

In LQH, Natalie Goldberg details her journey from life as an a-religious secular Jew, to years lived openly as a spiritualistic hippie, and ultimately to her discovery of and integration into Zen Buddhism. The primary insight I gained from this book is that a daily spiritual practice is the central core of any sustainable spirituality. The two things that kept me from really enjoying the book were as follows:

1) Goldberg's spirituality seemed to degrade from an awareness of truth and light to an intense hero worship centering around her Zen Master. I wanted to shake her and be like, "This isn't about Katagiri Roshi! This is about sitting sazen! Aren't you listening to yourself?"

2) The writing style started to wear on me after a while. Goldberg is really big on concrete details, which can be charming, but after hundreds of pages of, "My friend and I sat in an rusty brick restaurant with black-and-white-tiled floors and shiny red booths. The waitress had puffy blonde hair and wore pink lipstick. We drank cups of black coffee and licked the dry crumbs that fell from our Danishes while we talked...." I started to get really sick of concrete details. Again, you might chalk this up to the fact that I was just plain sick.

Cold Sassy Tree
Olive Ann Burns

Excellent. I am a sucker for a good Southern novel. And this was a really good Southern novel. It had an excellent premise, fabulous writing, and very real characters. I can't describe it any better than the book review on the front of the cover: "Rich with emotion, humor and tenderness...A novel about an old man growing young, a young man growing up, and the modern age coming to a small southern town."

Two thumbs up for Cold Sassy Tree.

The Shell Seekers
Rosamunde Pilcher

One of my college roommates--an English major, even--really loved this book. She would vehemently defend its merits against the attacks of my other two English major roommates. My mother has had a copy of it sitting on her paperback shelf for as long as I can remember, and I finally decided to pick it up and give it a go. Fifty pages in I decided to give it a pitch.

It read too much like a cheap romance novel. There was a whole bunch of "telling" vs. "showing," long paragraphs of background information that would have fit better in flashbacks and hints, lots of fakey details you could tell were included by the author as a bit of wishful thinking--a childless career woman who slept with men like they were bed pillow, an apartment decorated all in white, a mother who spent her days feeding strangers in her warm kitchen while she mended at the "freshly scrubbed table." I kept getting the distinct impression that this book was not so much an attempt to tell a story as it was an attempt by the author to escape her own reality. I decided to endure all this, however, and see just what it was that English Major #1 liked so much about this book, but when I got to this scene, I hit a wall and couldn't make myself go any more:

(The following describes a woman who randomly met a man at a boat party in the middle of the Caribbean, spent two days frolicking with him on an island, and decided to leave her life in London as a successful magazine editor in order to live with him.)

"She finished The Mill on the Floss and started in on Wuthering Heights and then Jane Austen. She read Satre, Recherche du temps perdu, and, for the first time in her life, War and Peace. She read classics, biographies, novels by authors she had never even heard of. She read John Cheever and Joseph Conrad, and a battered copy of The Treasure Seekers.

"And as these books were all familiar old friends to Cosmo, they were able to spend their evenings deep in long literary discussions, usually to the background accompaniment of music; the "New World," and Elgar's "Enigma Variations," and symphonies or operas in their entirety."

Because every straight guy that you meet randomly at a boat party in the Caribbean is going to feel that he could include Middlemarch and Mozart on his list of old familiar friends. The entire image that came to my mind at this point--I could just see the two of them wearing matching turtleneck sweaters, Cosmo waving a pencil blithely in the air to Ein Klein Nachtmusik while pointing out a significant passage in Bronte --was so utterly repulsive to me that I actually slammed the cover shut. I felt brain cells draining out of my head and, though I frantically tried to stuff them back in, it was too late. They were gone forever. Don't let the same thing happen to you, my friends.

Jerry Spinelli

This was donated to my workplace and, after giving our clients ample opportunity to pick it out of the donation bin, I finally decided that it was meant to be mine. Loser, like every Spinelli book I've ever picked up, was a delightful read. Spinelli hasn't forgotten what it's like to be a child, and his novels really show that. Each one provides fresh insights into the innocence, vulnerability, and wounds of childhood.


breckster said...

Thank you for the reviews! I read Cold Sassy Tree a couple of years ago but couldn't remember the title when I was trying to remember what it was called so I could read some more from the author.

I think we might have very similar taste in Literature, or at least reviewing approach.

Natalya said...

You are too funny! I laughed out loud for The Shell Seekers. Also I wanted to note I have read a Spinelli book that I couldn't finish because it seemed too...what's the word. Like it had too much of an agenda? I guess blatant agendas offend me? I can't remember the name of it, but it was a collection of 4 short stories. I was puzzled because I thought he was a good writer. Must have been some kind of pressure situation.....


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