Summer to Fall; Canoe to Classroom

I spent half of the summer sleeping in a tent; the other half on a squeaky cot likely double my age. Working at sleep-away camp means a lot of things: jumping in the lake even on the chilly, rainy days, eating countless s’mores, routinely facing wind and whitecaps in a canoe, singing songs in the key of loud. Each night I would fall into bed – no matter whether my sheets or my sleeping bag – and find hardly an ounce of energy left.

At the start of the summer I set myself a goal: two books a month for June, July, and August. Though I brought a book on every trip and one sat by my bed at camp each night, I finished just one: John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, about the vast wilds of Alaska and the people who care for the land with strong and conflicting convictions. Its review (which will be posted in the next couple of days) is my coming out of the country, leaving the towering white pines and crystal clear lakes behind for a classroom and another group of young people to lead on a very different set of adventures.

Ole’ Southern Anxiety: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

Crack open a Flannery O’Connor short story and you’ll almost certainly find a couple of things. The rural south in the middle of the last century. Catholics and Protestants and Atheists. Believers and Non-Believers. An odd protagonist, who doesn’t quite fit in: a child fascinated by religion, a woman who runs her own farm, a man who is weak and plagued with nostalgia. In any other tale, O’Connor’s characters would be the sidekick or the comic relief. Here, they’re front and center.

In A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, things are never totally what they seem. It is not the deception of a murder mystery in which the writer wields misdirection as a storytelling weapon, but a worldview in which apparent advantages are not so advantageous, in which violation and trickery are commonplace. Pay attention to the titles: they almost always refer to someone or something different than they first appear to.

O’Connor is a famous short-story-ist for a reason. The stories in this collection are well-crafted, thoughtful, and entertaining. The catch is that, at this point, they’re dated and they speak to anxieties about religion and livelihood and attitudes about gender and race that haven’t translated to an urbanized, increasingly connected world. This is not to imply that these aren’t modern issues, rather that O’Connor’s characters’ approach to them sets off, well, alarm bells. The fetishization of a disabled body. The frequent assessment of people of color as stupid and lazy. Xenophobia against immigrants. O’Connor’s stories provide a snapshot into a particular way of thinking at a particular historical moment. Insofar as they have a larger message or moral, it has not carried across time to reach universality.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories contains engaging and unusual stories. It doesn’t pierce the soul or strike awe into the heart.

Up Next: Underworld by Don Delillo
Why? I’m tacking one of the longest novels in my library.

Bad Teacher, Bad Novel: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Let the record state that Miss Jean Brodie (whether in her prime or not) is the worst kind of teacher. She keeps a math problem up on the board during the period when they’re supposed to be doing arithmetic. She tells her students to keep their books open on their desks, so it appears they’re doing history. Instead, she tells them stories of her life, particularly of her stirring romance with her perfect man in the marvelously orderly Mussolini-controlled Italy. This man, conveniently, tragically died in WWI, opening the door for two sort of love affairs with other male teachers. She chooses favorites, a group of girls acknowledged by the whole school as the “Brodie set.” She meets with them on weekends and treats them to the theater and outings on her dime. She tells her students to study on their own, so they’ll pass their end of year exams. And, despite all of this, the headmistress can never quite nail her on any fire-able crime. She deserves every scornful stare sent her way by the other teachers at the school who, presumably, are actually doing their jobs, however boring they may be to the Brodie girls. Continue reading

To Be Jewish and To Be American: Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

Good luck identifying a protagonist in any of Philip Roth’s stories. The good are never fully good, or they don’t stay very good for very long. Good and bad? It’s all relative, to one another, to community, to circumstance. Roth writes characters with the best intentions and the biggest flaws, a recipe for delightfully surprising fiction. How can you, as a reader, not be endeared to his quirky, sincere characters? Once you’re wrapped around his finger, Roth sends you through the wringer, revealing previous blind spots and facing you and his characters with questions of ethics and morality, of right and wrong. The only thing definitively good is Roth’s writing, with its ear for how people talk and a knack for expressing how they think. Continue reading

Narrative History and “So What?”: Hiroshima by John Hersey

It began as a normal day in Hiroshima, till a blinding flash of light destroyed a city and killed thousands. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a singular moment in the history of warfare. Though armed conflict has, of course, changed and evolved in the 70 years since the end of WWII, nuclear weapons — and who does and doesn’t have them — still puts diplomats the world over on edge. John Hersey’s masterful narrative history Hiroshima illustrates why we care so much about nukes, even if another nuclear weapon is never detonated again. Continue reading

Linked Together: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Whether you love it or hate it, Love Actually shows the connections between a group of ostensibly independent Londoners. Liam Neeson’s wife just died; Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman’s marriage is on the rocks; Hugh Grant is the Prime Minister and lusting after his assistant. Three separate, distinct stories. But Liam and Emma are old friends; Emma and Hugh are actually siblings. Each story in Love Actually connects to another.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is Love Actually’s superior predecessor. In Woolf’s post-WWI London, a unified narrative voice swoops from the interiority of one character to another. How many thoughts do you have in a day? How many revelations? In a day, in a life, what stays the same?  In a day, in a life, what can change? Slowly? Suddenly? Though Woolf’s narrative voice is consistent, Mrs. Dalloway illustrates how different people and their perspectives are. Ultimately, though, that consistent voice demonstrates an interconnectedness that transcends our differences. Continue reading

Smirky Millennial Nihilism: Middletown by Will Eno

There are some things that are not meant to be recycled. Waxy cardboard milk cartons. Used paper plates. Our Town by Thornton Wilder.

Like a well-intentioned but intoxicated fraternity brother who puts the used paper plates in the recycling been where they do not belong, Will Eno in Middletown attempts to recycle Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic for the urban millennial set.

It doesn’t work. Instead, Eno sucks the charm and generosity of Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, leaving Middletown’s Middletown a soulless place. Continue reading

Beckett’s Bones in Shakespeare’s Sandbox: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard

If you haven’t read Waiting for Godot, stop everything and do it now.

No, seriously.

I’ll wait.

Without Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett there is no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Stoppard is indebted to Beckett for the skeleton of his play. Two men talk, wait. The occasional visitor disrupts the status quo, but only until they depart. The two men go on waiting, playing games, contemplating their existence. Continue reading

Anchors Away: Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brian

The year is 1800 and Jack Aubrey is master and commander of His Majesty’s Sloop Sophie. But he is neither the master of the sloop — that is Mr. Marshall — or a true post-commander in line for promotion to Admiral. Indeed, the Sophie is not actually a sloop – for she has two masts, not one – but is nevertheless called a sloop by the Royal Navy.

In the wind-powered world of the Napoleonic British Navy, seamen described their ships and surroundings in a dialect all their own. Patrick O’Brian in Master & Commander narrates in this vernacular. Though challenging to the uninitiated, the novel breathes with authenticity: to describe the sails and maneuvers of the Sophie with any other language would do a disservice the harsh beauty and nuance of the seaman’s life. Continue reading

An Espionage Oddity: Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

Call Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene an espionage thriller. Call it a political satire. Call it a character study. All of those are accurate but best of all it’s a Monty Python sketch stretched to novel length: absurdity and that straight-faced, dry British humor thrive from the colorful and sunny Havana streets to the underground London headquarters of the British Secret Service.

Wormold is a struggling vacuum cleaner salesman. His daughter, Milly, desires a horse and a country club membership and who is Wormold to say no? But Wormold doesn’t have the money until a bewildering encounter in a men’s restroom. He knows nothing about spying but suddenly he is MI6’s man in Havana. Continue reading