Sunday, May 29, 2005

Books Read in May

Veronika Decides to Die, Paulo Coelho

This is the only book of his I have read, and now, having read it, I have no desire to read his others. It is agonizingly simple, and the moral message it communicates - life is what we make of it! - makes the reader, in addition to the hero Veronika, decide it is time to die. The spare simplicity of the prose is efffective in that it makes the book a quick read, and prevents prolongued suffering, but there is little positive to say beyond this. At one time in my life, I was sure I was going to read The Alchemist, which has been praised and bought the world over. Now, having seen his way of thinking and writing, I am not so sure.

Alice's Adventure in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

In my opinion, the absolute greatest children's book ever written. As I suggest in my review of The Erasers for this month, this book was perhaps a precursor to modernism, with its inventive wordplays, its authorial self-insertions, and its linguistic inquiries into sense and reality. Read the Penguin Classics edition to get the notes with the text - the complexity of Carroll's thought is amazing, though the downside of such scholarship is that it ruins some of the magical mystery of the book. If you haven't read Wonderland since you were a kid, or have never read it at all, get to it. Without a doubt, one of my favorites in any genre.

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

I have never liked Hemingway. Being a fan of such authors as Joyce and Nabokov and Coover, I have always admired rich and playful prose. Hemingway's writing style, which did win him the Nobel, is quite the opposite: sparse and tense, short and declarative, owing much to his days as a journalist. In addition, his stories have centered too much on man's battle with masculinity. I have little patience for a character or a writer whose thinking is defined by his sex. It is very antiquarian to me, and indicative of a destitute philosophy. But this book, which I only read because I could finish it in two hours and at the same time add to my collection of evidence against Hemingway, somehow won me over. Though the conversations between the old man and the boy are stiflingly stiff and unnatural, the story is astute, perceptive, and ultimately profound. (Not to mention utterly heartshattering.) I was even impressed with the prose - that is, I never noticed, as I usually do with Hemingway, that I wasn't enjoying it. I can see why this book, written just before he won the Nobel, is considered to be the reason for his winning it.

Utopia, Sir Thomas More

Everyone knows the word, but few know the work. More's Utopia, which, as a book, is only a shell for an idea and not at all compelling as a story, is the description of a fictional ideal nation, as told by a gentleman who visited it. Though More's vision of perfection has proved a lasting one - his ideas are still the basis for much of utopian literature - it begs, in our day and age, for improvements. More's Utopia, though no man goes wanting and all religions are tolerated (national qualities foreign even to Americans), has plenty of flaws: man still has to be governed by laws, the breaking of which result either in slavery or death; the legal order is patriarchal, and just as the children are subject to their parents, so is the wife subject to her husband; and war, though used only as a last resort, and conducted when it must be resorted to in the friendliest and most thoughtful manner, is still prepared for and carried out. For the most part, however, the ideas are thought-provoking and still relevant. More's attention to detail is careful and considered, and all areas of life seem accounted for. Not as much a fun read as a necessary one - if only for the sake of knowing what we could be capable of as a society.

My two favorite lines from the book: "...the most wicked are always the most obstinate..." (p. 73); and "...both priests and people...acknowledge God to be the author and governor of the world, and the fountain of all the good they receive, and therefore offer up to him their thanksgiving; and in particular bless Him for His goodness in ordering it so, that they are born under the happiest government in the world, and are of a religion which they hope is the truest of all others: but if they are mistaken, and if there is either a better government or a religion more acceptable to God, they implore His goodness to let them know it, vowing that they resolve to follow him withersoever He leads them." (p. 81) Both page citations are from the 1997 Dover edition.

The Tale of the Unknown Island, Jose Saramago

A great tale of imagination by the Nobel winner. It would take me as long to write a review for it as it would take you to read it, so I'll just leave it at that, and let you enjoy if you decide to this nice story of making the impossible possible.

Public Enemy, Aaron McGruder

The latest collection from my favorite comic strip creator. Tearing apart pop culture and American policy with equal deft, these strips are the sharpest critiques available of modern American life. Warning: Not compatible with conservatism.


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