Sunday, September 25, 2016

Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout

A pastor confronts the sins of the world

Tyler Caskey, newly ordained Congregational minister, a local Mainer, is assigned to the small town of West Annett. At first Tyler is happy with his vocation, his lovely young wife and newborn daughter. But inexplicable tragedy strikes, and it takes time and healing before Tyler can lead his flock again. As he struggles with his weaknesses, his inefficacy, he muses often on the life and writings of Dietrich Bonheoffer, a minister executed by the Nazis, though the Nazis were unable to quench his eloquent witness. As the pettiness of his congregation's concerns, the gossiping ladies, the Christmas and Easter attendees, erode his patience, he finds a kindred spirit in his housekeeper, uneducated eccentric Connie Hatch. Tyler endures his sorrow and learns more about actual human nature, finding it increasingly difficult but necessary to love the deeply flawed residents of West Arnett.

I hated Olive Kitteridge, but I admired this deceptively simple story, which opens like a fairy tale or folklore. At opportune moments, the stakes were raised and surprises unveiled. All Tyler wants is to live his life as a devout Christian and teach his flock to live as Christians, but over and over he is confronted with surprisingly serious Ten Commandment level sins. At first he doesn’t know how to respond. The fully developed slightly comical characters of West Arnett are, most of them, ornery.  This novel also succeeds as the portrait of a town, a town with some resemblance to Peyton Place. The careful delicate prose was deployed effectively. As the novel proceeds, the story gets dark – even Tyler is guilty of serious things. The happy ending feels a little tacked on. I definitely will go back and reread Olive Kitteridge.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Iliad by Homer translated by Alexander Pope

The overpowering wrath of Achilles is no match for all too human Hector and his beloved city

Agamemnon, chief of the Greek armies assembled to defeat the walled city of Troy, grievously insults Achilles, his best warrior, by appropriating his war prize, the beautiful slave Briseis. Achilles then decides he’s had enough of the whole glory and honor thing, and removes himself and his fearful Myrmidons from the fight. Without Achilles, the Greeks in battle are overmatched by the newly emboldened Trojans. Meanwhile, Hector, crown prince of Troy, must rally his people and comfort his wife, all the while staving off the destruction of his culture just because his pretty boy younger brother abducted a Greek wife. After that introduction, there are lots and lots of killing: arrows through jaws, heads lopped off, javelins through hearts, steaming entrails falling to the mud. Lots. Once kind Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend, is killed by Hector, Achilles goes on a rampage that concludes with the death of Hector and the ignominious drawn out degradation of his body. King Priam goes to Achilles’ tent in the dead of night and humbly asks for Hector back and the book ends with Hector’s royal funeral.

The Iliad is one of the foundational classics of Western Civilization. The characters are completely recognizable, fully three dimensional – responsible Hector, inhuman Achilles, sneaky Ulysses, regretful Helen, arrogant Agamemnon, gentle Patroclus.  The list of characters includes the Olympian gods, who aren’t above fighting dirty. Like Dante, the poet uses humble metaphors to strike an emotional chord. Scene after scene concerns a parent’s protective love for their child. The stakes are huge, especially for the Trojans – their culture will be destroyed if they lose.

The gods hardly ever appear as themselves, but take a human form. For them, this all encompassing war is entertainment, but for the humans, it’s life or death. I loved the beautiful description of Achilles’ shield - forged by a god; it depicts the sun and the moon, the ideal Greek life in peace and Greek life in war. It took me a while to get used to the depiction of women here– fully human, fully respected by their family members, however, once captured, the women become currency. That is why Andromache, Hector’s wife, fears having to draw water as a slave. The whole idea of consent is a modern one, apparently. And it does seem that Briseis, after her entire family was killed, had made her peace with being Achilles’ concubine. She weeps for Patroclus, who was nice to her.

I am not that eager to return to the poem – the endless hacking and the decapitations and the soldiers slipping on the gore caused by the human sacrifices started to get to be too much, started to bore me. A huge chunk of this falls in the Song of Roland and Aeneid prior to television teenage boy entertainment. Most of these pages were exactly like a video game. Or like a Red Sox/Yankees game.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

A sensitive girl loves her disabled brother

A girl, brought up fatherless in an overanxious religious Irish home, reaches maturity, alternately dismayed and protective of her brain-damaged older brother. As a thirteen year old girl, she loses her virginity to an uncle by marriage. Eventually the bright girl leaves home to attend college in England. On a trip back to Ireland, she re-encounters the uncle. Their sexual attraction ignites and he secretly starts to visit her in London. Meanwhile, the girl tries to numb her pain through excessive drinking and masochistic sex in the bushes with random local lads. Once the brother’s brain cancer re-appears, the girl must decide what she is going to do.

This was a unique book – a big part of the experience was the stream-of-consciousness prose style, headlong and rushed, a unique language driven experience. The novel adapted the structure of Portrait of the Artist as well as the The Sound and the Fury, that is, a plotted story told, at first, through the voice of a child. The unusual prose, stuffed with cursing and prayers, did not bother me – I felt I understood what was going on; especially what was going on with her emotionally. However, I wouldn’t call this a beach read. The book was also a social window into an Ireland growing richer, up from the sheep farm and the fifteen kids, towards with the college educated and the fancy cars.

The novel rests on the older brother’s disability.  Nobody in the family talks about it; the schoolchildren cruelly taunt him.  His fate he cannot escape, while she wastes no time getting out of town. What makes this book work is the love between the sister and the brother; otherwise, the story would collapse into a steaming pile of victimization. At times, it was a chore to read the girl’s humorless take on life and the book ends with a monumental masochistic, perhaps not motivated, Liebestod.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Canada by Richard Ford

 A couple's foolish decision affects the lives of their children

The story of a mismatched pair’s brief career as bank robbers is narrated by their son, fifteen year old Dell Parsons, who lives in Great Falls, Montana with his parents and twin sister Berner.  Dell is shy, still physically a boy, loving school and longing for a well ordered life.   He has begun to study chess and beekeeping, imagining participating in those clubs as a freshman, eager to embark upon his new mature life.  However, his parents’s almost immediate arrest after their ill conceived scheme sends his and Berner’s life spinning off into other, more dangerous, directions.

I loved this recursive novel – the story is tentatively painted, then repainted, using foreshadowing and suspense.  Right from the beginning Dell tell us what the story will be about.  The novel is a meditation on chance, how a stupid decision can derail your life and the lives of those you love.  Many chapters end with:  And I never saw him, her, it again.  The novel was much longer than average, but the storytelling gripped me.  The surprises are effectively doled out, especially the surprise of the mother’s fate.  Themes reoccur – the bees, the bell on the Lutheran Church, Niagara Falls.  The casual cruelties of the townspeople are shocking, as well as the life changing kindness of a stranger.

The book is split into two halves, recreating the same situation – an older man, unable to recognize the boy’s innocence, trying to draw Dell into a crime.  The sorrow of losing the parents and their replacement by other much more imperfect parents.  I was trying to figure out why I loved this so much, and I think ultimately it was the characters – they were fully three dimensional and memorable, at least a dozen of them.  And they all are just trying to do the best they can.