I’m so behind in my book review, and I’ll never catch up if I try to write real reviews. But I’ll never start writing real reviews again until I catch up. You’ve heard of flash fiction, right? These are flash reviews, of mostly fiction, short and long. (A real review, of Joe Wallace’s Diamond Ruby, follows).
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John [NRSV] It is an absurd thing to presume to review the Gospels, but I did read them awhile ago, straight through, and at the risk of exposing myself as the irreverent and unorthodox Christian that I am, here are a few observations, in no particular order: 1) everyone should read these because, you know, they’re kind of important; 2) the disciples are more often than not idiots, which I suppose serves a literary function, requiring Jesus to really spell things out; it’s unfortunate that having done so, his contemporary disciples continue to be, far too often, total idiots; 3) I am just crazy about the Jesus in the synoptic Gospels – mostly what he does is to go around touching people (literally) and healing them (both literally and metaphorically); 4) John is beautiful poetry, but the Jesus in John is almost unrecognizable to me, and seems to me to be the beginning of where Christianity went wrong. Sigh.
Christ in a Changing World: Toward an Ethical Christology, by Tom Driver (1981) This book salvaged Christianity for me, and deserves a real review – a whole essay in fact – which I intend to write some day. In the meantime, what I will say is that it Driver the perfect antidote to everything I object to in John, and pretty much if you want to know why I am a Christian and what I believe (and possibly more importantly, don’t believe), read this book. I loved it so much I bought up a bunch of copies, which I am happy to lend out.
Good Will by Jane Smiley (1989) Julie teaches this in her tenth grade honors agriculture-in-lit class, and I’ve been meaning to read it for ages. I loved the first three-quarters of Smiley’s One Thousand Acres (thought it fell apart at the end), hated her horse book, and haven’t read anything else by her. I thought this story of a family trying to live “off the grid” and in harmony with their values of simplicity and self-sufficiency was engaging and affecting. It captured very well a theme I’m interested in, how to balance passion and a desire to feel whole in one’s values, on the one hand, with the necessity of actually living in the world, on the other. More simply put, how to be in the world, but not of it. As this novella suggests, this balance is difficult to find, and the fallout of not finding it can be awful. I thought a few devices Smiley used to create tension were a bit contrived – I didn’t believe either that this family would send their son to school, or that a black academic would choose to raise her daughter in a small, mid-Pennsylvania town. But still, this is worth reading. Also, it’s an interesting study in a not-entirely-reliable narrator.
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner (1933) I am hardly a young writer, but I am certainly new to writing fiction, so of course I had to read this classic. I highly recommend it, and I actually think it’s probably as helpful for thinking about how to read fiction as how to write it.
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro. (2001) I feel about as prepared to critique Alice Munro as I do James Joyce. And I think she’s every bit as good. I’ve been reading these stories very slowly, and I love them, though they are sometimes hard to read, emotionally. I especially loved Family Furnishings, because it finally helped me understand my in-laws, and What is Remembered, a story about memory, marriage, passion – my kinda stuff. This collection is my introduction to Alice Munro, but I imagine I’ll be reading her for the rest of my life.
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy (2009) Julie picked this up at Prairie Lights in Iowa City this summer and said, “Look, you can stop writing now, because someone already wrote your book.” She knows me well, my Julie. These stories are so deceptively simple, unadorned, so quick and quiet, and yet they pack an emotional wallop. There’s a lot there just under the surface. And yes, I did quite identify with the not entirely sympathetic character in The Children, who recalls “a poem [his daughter] had brought home from college, with the line ‘Both ways is the only way I want it.’ The force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth. What kind of fool wanted it only one way?” Indeed.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (2001) I loved this book a lot. It is a pretty much unbelievable story which you nonetheless get entirely caught up in, like a fairy tale – and this novel has a bit of that aura. A poor South American country is trying to lure a Japanese businessman to build factories there, and they finally convince him to visit by throwing him a birthday bash, the highlight of which is a performance by his favorite – and the world’s greatest – soprano. A band of mostly teen-aged liberation fighters, led by three older “generals,” storm the party to kidnap the president, who has actually sent his regrets at the last minute. A stand-off of several months’ duration ensues, during which beautiful and unlikely relationships are forged. Just like in a fairy tale, I want desperately to believe that sort of love can exist in the world, without the tragic consequences in this tale. I also desperately want to learn more about opera, which may have to satisfy me.