Wednesday, October 06, 2010

O Canada...

I packed six books for a week of vacation, and read four. Whew, that was close.

What I packed:
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – Phillip Pullman
The Lonely Polygamist – Brady Udall
Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann
Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
Up from the Blue – Susan Henderson
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell

What I read:

While Under the Banner of Heaven was a terrific book about fundamental Mormonism, and I love Jon Krakauer and have read everything he's written, because he’s a compelling writer and a meticulous researcher, there’s no denying that Heaven was condemning of its subjects. But I thought Lonely Polygamist dealt with what we consider fringe elements in a matter-of-fact, enlightening, and empathetic way. I never thought I could sympathize with, let alone like, a polygamist man, but I did Golden. And it ultimately helped me make sense of sense how someone you might perceive as normal would wound up where he did, with five wives, 30 children, and a lifestyle that makes his head – and ours - spin. The book made me think about something I thought I had concrete opinions on in a totally different way, and that is never, ever a bad trait in a novel. Udall's Lonely Polygamist was unlike anything I have ever read before. And, honestly, polygamy isn't that far off my long-held fervor for a nice commune.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – Phillip Pullman. Jesus/Christ is part of the Myths series which authors include AS Byatt, Margaret Atwood, and Salley Vickers, all great company, retelling myths with a contemporary twist. But this one: Yawn. The intricate and lush writing I expect from Pullman, due to his His Dark Materials trilogy and his Victorian melodramas, is absent in this book. I appreciate that he wrote it in the almost childlike style to mimic the style of the Biblical parables and tales he is riffing on, but it’s boring. And splitting the character of Jesus Christ into twin brothers is certainly an interesting concept but the execution is superficial. There were many gaps, missing details, and inconsistencies -- but of course, many of these are the same missing bits that bother me in the actual Gospels. It felt to me that Pullman wrote this as an exercise, to piss off the church, which he has already proficiently and thoroughly pissed off previously.
The best take on this little book comes from Christopher Hitchens’ otherwise ho-hum review in the New York Times: "It is an attempt by an experienced storyteller to show how even the best-plotted stories can get too far out of hand."

Up from the Blue – Susan Henderson.
In the interest of full disclosure, Sue is a friend. I knew her first as the wife of a college friend whose band I often went to see play, and in recent years, I was lucky enough to reconnect with her. Sue and her husband are one of those couples who seem to have it all together – they are both insanely talented and also insanely nice. A solid debut novel garnering excellent reviews could not have happened to a more deserving writer, in my humble opinion. I enjoyed the book, and it took hardly any time at all for me to stop reading it as Susan’s voice and start feeling Tillie’s. In addition, I really enjoyed the way the time period resonated with me, as a child growing up in the late seventies/early eighties. I did agree with this reviewer on Amazon, about the adult Tillie and her lack of perspective: “What felt missing in this novel was an adult voice - a narration that went beyond superficial story telling.” Adult Tillie was just the same as child Tillie; and we all know that attributes one can forgive in a child can be exhausting, exasperating, and unattractive in an adult. But I really felt the child Tillie, and her agony and curiosity and petulance. I cared deeply about her -- but not at all about adult Tillie.

Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann. See my review from a week or so ago. I am still thinking about this book. That powerful.

Next up: the two books I didn't get to, and A Visit from the Goon Squad. But since I am no longer on vacation, it may take some time.

Also, I have two words for you: Nanaimo bars. You will thank me. Or maybe not. Depending on how much weight you put on...


TLB said...

How did you like Wolf Hall? I am still in the middle, having had to abandon it last winter due to looming deadlines.

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