What I Read While I Was Sick

*Note - just edited to correct a couple typos - apologies to those who received two e-mail updates*

If I hadn't felt so awful, it would have been quite a nice reading vacation....

The Shack by Wm. Paul Young
This is one of those “famous” books, in the vein of The Bridges of Madison County (Robert James Waller) and The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks). The plot of The Shack concerns a man, Mack, whose family has met with tragedy, and his journey toward forgiveness and wholeness through God. The journey begins when Mack returns to the scene of the tragedy. There he encounters God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.

Even though I’m not sure I share all the beliefs upon which this book is predicated, I find myself wanting to read it again in order to think more about the concepts of God presented in this book. And I find myself wondering, even if I don’t believe it all, what would my life be like if I lived as if I did?

In brief: intriguing. More at this website.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

A gripping mystery with a fairly believable solution (one of my problems with mysteries is they don’t always work themselves out in a way that seems believable to me). A few chapters into it, I was hooked. There are some fairly gruesome scenes involving sexual violence that I found disturbing; a few times I actually wished I hadn’t read this book. The particular power of this book is in its characters, especially the girl with the dragon tattoo. I am still wondering how she’s doing and what she has been up to since I finished the book. Wondering if she has bumped into Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) or any of the Price sisters (Poisonwood Bible) in Molly’s Favorite Character Wonderland.

In brief: engaging, but a little disturbing.

After that, I needed some comfort reading. You know, the books you go back to again and again, like:

The Dead by James Joyce

This is actually more of a novella than a book. I think the story is probably mostly over my head: having to do with Joyce’s commentary on the lifeless nature of Irish/Dublin society, constrained by a state-sponsored church heavy on sin, fear, and guilt. And made worse by the overwhelming power of memory in Irish society - so that the past held more importance than the present or any possible future. The story also makes me think of the line from the Book of Common Prayer’s funeral sentences: “In the midst of life we are in death.”

Even if it is mostly over my head, I read it and re-read it for its beautiful and haunting final paragraph:

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly up on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling in to the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

The White Album by Joan Didion from her collected non-fiction We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live

I don’t know why I find Joan Didon’s writing comforting. It is anything but: her sentences bore a hole in your brain again and again and again. But maybe because I know I can count on her for that, I go back to her for many second helpings.

She wrote The White Album at a time when both her own life as a wife and young mother, and American society, seemed to be coming apart at the edges (1969 - need I say more?). All that she had staked her claim upon was slipping away under her feet. The White Album is full of reflections and analysis about her private life, and the public life of our country at the time. I am not sure I can come up with anything scholarly to say about it, but it’s riveting. It makes me wonder: where have I staked my claim? Solid ground? Or is it about to give way? And how are we to live then, not knowing?

One of my favorite lines in this piece: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest... .”

In brief: I consider Joan Didion’s collected non-fiction essential reading.

The Big House by George Howe Colt

This is the story of the rise and fall, and eventual denouement, of a Boston Brahmin family’s summer home. Through the story of the house, it becomes a family memoir as well. I have gone back to this book because I relate to the author’s experience of being shaped and formed by a Place. That’s an amazing process, and one worth looking at, in my opinion. The book is well-researched and well-written. The house itself becomes a character in the story. I only wish the author had included photos, maps, and architectural diagrams.

In brief: a great read, especially if you have a Place in your life that shaped you.

This marks the end of the comfort reading section. Next was:

Cost by Roxana Robinson

The cover blurbs rave, RAVE! But I really disliked this book. And not because of its difficult subject matter (a family dealing with heroin addiction), but because it was boring.

Here’s why: Despite the makings for a really incredible and gut-wrenching story, we only get to skim the surface. The characters, who ought to be fascinating (particularly the addict), are not made real for us. Their stories are never really told, their natures never revealed. The story is narrated primarily through the private thoughts of each of the characters. Rather than seeing the characters in action, we mostly just get to know what they think. And mostly we get to know what a guilt-wracked mother, who isn’t sure what she thinks, thinks.

In brief: *Not* recommended reading

In the Beginning: Creation Myths From Around the World by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Barry Moser
I admit it, I am fascinated by all the oldest stories (hence my penchant for the Old Testament). And I am fascinated by these. It’s really interesting to read creations myths from various ancient cultures side by side. There is agreement that in the beginning there was nothing, only water (or darkness, or waste and welter, or the void, or shadows, or night, or silence). Many of the stories have similar elements, which tells me that there is something archetypal in them - that we human beings understand ourselves and our existence in similar ways across time and cultures.

I am particularly taken right now by Turtle Dives to the Bottom of the Sea, a creation myth from the Maidu Indians of California (Michiganders take note: it is very similar to The Legend of Mackinac Island). It is a story of creation and re-creation. At the end after everything is actually made, Earth Maker tells man: “When you grow so old you can no longer walk quickly, come here to this lake. If you have to, get someone to bring you. Then you must go down under the water... and you will come up young again.” I like this promise of regeneration. I like the idea that, if you need help, you should get it. Here is a primordial directive to take care, to seek health and healing, to re-create ourselves and the world. Ancient wisdom.

In brief: You’ll love it; your kids will, too.

And now I am reading:

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

I just started it, so all I can say is that it’s a novel set in India. I bought it on what I refer to as The War and Peace Principle: it’s thick so it ought to last me a while. Picked it up at Sixth Chamber for $4.98 -- at 936 pages, that’s half a cent per page (oh, somebody better check my math - it’s not my forte; I’m a poet).

Happy reading to all of you.

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