Monday, May 7, 2012

Reading roundup

It's been a while since I've talked books here. Since that, or something in that neighborhood, is this blog's ostensible purpose, I'm going to do so now, albeit briefly.

I've read 30 books so far this year. Aside from those I've already blogged about they're a motley lot. The list ranges from great classics (Anna Karenina) to overhyped "edgy" first novels by supposed wunderkinds that I didn't like very much at all (Citrus County, Hemlock Grove) to several bleh-to-meh embarrassing pop brain-vacations (Pompeii, The Gargoyle, Sister) to one deeply insipid celebrity memoir (Diane Keaton's Then Again) to one disappointment (The Prague Cemetery) to one interesting work to which I had a complex reaction that I just haven't had time to parse here (Open City) to several books that I just pretty darned well liked. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips, Middle Age: A Romance by Joyce Carol Oates, The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, Shifting through Neutral by Bridgett M. Davis, Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin, The False Friend by Myla Goldberg, Assumption by Percival Everett.

There were two doozies too. Really wonderful books that got to me the way I always hope a book will as I turn to its first page.

One of those is The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis. With writing that soars to lyrical heights, with deep emotion, with charged political consciousness, this novel tells the tale of three generations of women in a family whose struggles and travails tell a larger story, that of Uruguay in the 20th century. I am ashamed to confess that, until last year when I read the magnificent Memory of Fire trilogy by the brilliant Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, I did not know that the working class of Uruguay endured the same kind of fascist suppression, and in the same period, as did the workers of Chile under Pinochet and Argentina during the Dirty War. Nor about the great history of working-class and communist organizing in Uruguay. With this wrenching novel, De Robertis corrects my ignorance, and wins me over as a literary fan in the process. She has a new novel out, Perla, which looks like it takes on a story of the children of the disappeared of Argentina. It's a definite to-read.

The other great book I recently read is The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. In not much more than a hundred pages this exquisitely written, heartbreaking novel packs the kind of wallop few fatter tomes manage. Otsuka pulls off something amazing here. She makes the reader care, pulls the reader deeply in, yet there is no one protagonist, no unitary story. Rather, the book is written in the first-person plural—that is, in a sort of a chorus of voices. Whose voices are they? Japanese women whose families have made marriage agreements with men in California in the period just after World War I. We first meet them on the boat crossing the ocean. And we follow them for the next quarter century or so, as nothing they were promised comes true, as they live hard lives, toiling in the agricultural fields, raising children, trying to survive, always in the face of racism, always dreaming of something better. At the same time, and this is crucial, this choral narrator is not of one voice and she—they—do not in any way conform to stereotypes. It's impossible to unpack how Otsuka does it, but somehow sentence by sentence she both brings to life many individuals with as many dreams, aspirations, disappointments, loves and hates, and conveys an overview of what life was like for the community as a whole. Which all comes to an unbearable climax in the weeks and months after Pearl Harbor when, at the order of FDR, that entire community is forced from their homes and into internment camps in the middle of nowhere. The final pages are full of pain and terror. And then, at the very end, Otsuka does something truly audacious. The final first-person-plural chorus of voices concluding the story—telling of the empty houses, of the neighbors at first missed then quickly forgotten, the sadness shrugged off, the questions not asked—are the Anglos who go on living their lives, who spread out in fact, taking over the empty shops and farms and houses, as if those forcibly removed had never been there at all. Stunning. Devastating. Damned great writing.

Finally, I'm currently reading Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman. It's so-so and I may or may not bother finishing it. Stylistically it's a clunker, ploddingly written and unbelievably repetitive. What actual information and analysis is here is thin. Basically it's one of those books that should have been, and perhaps had its first incarnation as, a journal article and should have been left at that. Ehrman's argumentation, too, is not very satisfying. The greatest part of it consists of circular reasoning, basically that because everybody says so it's true. The earliest Gospel writers, he tells us, were clearly retelling or embellishing stories they'd heard from others, and in a leap that doesn't quite do the trick of convincing me he avers that this proves the stories are true, at least the bottom line of the stories, the existence of this Jesus fellow. I don't have a strong opinion about whether there was a Jesus fellow or not though I lean more toward thinking that there was than that there wasn't, but Ehrman doesn't provide much solid evidence to support that position. I like reading this stuff on occasion. I've read a couple of Elaine Pagels' books, I read Karl Kautsky's The Foundations of Christianity, I read articles now and then on all this business. It's interesting, how it all unfolded, though why is more interesting and Ehrman, so far at least, doesn't have anything to say about that. Meanwhile there's lots of criticism of this book, lots of back and forth polemics slinging their way across the Internet, and after reading some of it I must conclude that Ehrman's scholarship is less than stellar. So. I may stick through to the end. Or I may not.