Thursday, July 3, 2008

Book Reviews

So one activity I have been up to enjoying while in between being asleep and/or puking my guts out for the last few months has been reading. It was kind of nice to catch up on all the books that I had bought over the last few years and never had the time to read. I am reaching a dangerous zone though . . . I have only one or two more books before I will be wanting to hit the bookstores . . .

I first read Toni Morrison's work in my post-modern American lit class a couple of summers ago when we read Jazz. I expected to be impressed with her work, which I was, and had been meaning to read more of her work but hadn't until I picked up this book. This was a slight departure for her because she takes on a masculine viewpoint for the majority of the work. The title is bit misleading--it references not the Judeo-Christian biblical Solomon and his love poetry that has been debatable in the Canon for centuries--but a colloquial children's song recited by youngsters in the deep south. I once heard Morrison described as a historical revisionist, not in the sense you may be familiar with where crazy people believe there was no Holocaust etc, but the term applies to her in the sense that where history has been written by the "winners," she has attempted to open up a past that has been largely without a voice. The novel opens up in 1930's Michigan, and spans into the 1960's. The heart of this novel is a journey of self-discovery for a man who is emotionally isolated, disconnected--both from the people that ought to be the most important to him, as well as his cultural and familial history. The book takes on issues of race and justice, as well as socio-economic struggles for blacks both with and without money. In this novel her characters are disturbed, searching individuals--and most of the time the main character, Milkman dead, is not a likeable fellow. But what makes this work great is her storytelling ability (I was reminded a lot of the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston) and the power of a cultural and family past over a person and their destiny. I recommend this book to anyone who has read/enjoyed Toni Morrison in the past, or that is interested in African-American literature. It is a tragedy, so don't approach this book with expectations of anything lighthearted or a simple "fun read." It is complicated, at times disturbing, but worth it.

This book I came away from with very mixed feelings. In a nutshell: Nabokov is without a doubt one of the most talented writers I have ever encountered. But after reading his work and some articles written by him about his work and purpose for writing, I have some significant issues with him. I read this book because it is on all the lists for the greatest works of the twentieth century, and I was further interested after having read Azar Nafisi's book, Reading Lolita in Tehran (which is not all about Lolita, they cover many major works including Pride and Prejudice. I highly recommend Nafisi's book by the way). Most people are familiar with the basic concept of Lolita so I won't get into many of the disturbing details of the plot--basically it is about a man who is obsessed with young girls and who kidnaps a young girl of about 14. She does escape by the way. Anyway, I would not recommend this book to many people. If you are a serious student of literature and have been trained to read books like this, then go ahead. Nabokov is without question a masterful writer. I simply disagree with his purpose for writing. I quote, "I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and despite John Ray's assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art . . . is the norm" (Nabokov 314). I also do not like "didactic" fiction, but I feel that Nabokov confuses such fiction for any narrative with a moral center. This disturbing subject I believe he took on simply as an exercise in art--to see if he could pull of something that no one else has. I am more of a proponent of William Faulkner's view on literature, which he elaborates on in his famous Nobel Prize winning acceptance speech. Here is a link-- I highly recommend reading it

After reading Lolita which I found to be a rather depressing work, I needed something of a pick-me-up. I had read Erdrich's novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse so I knew and enjoyed her writing style. I was not disappointed in this novel at all. Erdrich possesses such a charming prose style that is simply put GREAT storytelling. She is a Native American author and so she draws on fascinating lore and folk tales that had me completely enraptured. Her characters span across many of her novels--there is a family tree you can follow between many of her different works. I recognized many of the characters from the book of hers that I had read previously, but the subject matter wasn't tired or contrived. She manages to tell a fresh and interesting story of love, forgiveness, revenge, and ultimately a story of finding identity. It is a relatively short novel, only about 200 pages, and one I highly recommend. I warn you though, her novels are rather addictive. I am now going to have to read the rest of her works . . . again Randy had better keep me away from the bookstore . . .

This next book I probably would never have picked up except that it was sent to me by this book club that I used to have a membership in. This was a very early effort by Capote (most famous for his novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and his groundbreaking work In Cold Blood) so it isn't as polished as some of his other works. I knew going into this book that Capote was a very interesting character himself, but this work surprised me--especially the ending. In any case, it was a very short read--I think I read it in an evening--and I probably won't pick it up again. Granted, it isn't really my niche in literature (white, male, privileged) but aside from that the style and the character development just didn't really do it for me. I am interested in reading In Cold Blood in the future, but aside from this and the other short works I've read by him in the past, I think my Capote limit in literature has been met. If anyone out there disagrees with me, feel free to offer reading suggestions and I will take you up on it.

This book I read because 1. It had been sent to me by the aforementioned book club, so it was on my shelf and 2. I was slightly curious to see what all the fuss was about. I had heard one scathing review by one of my literature professors, Zina Peterson (who happens to be Hugh Nibley's daughter, and pretty much just as brilliant) who gave us a fifteen minute impromptu lecture about the time this novel was big about why she and her father thought this book was complete nonsense, badly researched, etc. So while most of the world has read this book by now and I know it is completely old news, I picked it up anyway. Plus when you don't feel well enough to go to the library, the phonebook starts to look entertaining. In any case, I agree for the most part with my lit professor. It isn't great literature, it is at most entertaining on the level of a great many "best-sellers" of the action/intrigue variety that get made into major motion pictures. The most interesting parts to me were the symbology explanations and the codes, although coming from the theological and ontological background that I have, I tend to arrive at rather different conclusions than the author puts forth. I have always been fascinated by how what I view as eternal truth or pure religion has been mangled and transformed over the years, and found its way into various belief systems and epistemologies. It is interesting for me to see how what I view as truth has been interpreted by other people and other faiths very differently. In any case, as long as you go into this book with a firm grasp that this is indeed fiction, (Mr. Brown in his introductory notes would have you believe that this work is closer to life than fiction) I wouldn't mind recommending it as an easy summer read. But on the other hand, there is so much GREAT fiction out there, why waste your time on the mediocre? Unless of course you are in bed sick, counting the ceiling tiles . . .

And last but not least, I read Baldwin's famous novel, Go Tell it On The Mountain which was really unexpected and interesting to me. I'm not sure I know what I expected going into this book, other than a vague perception that it might be somehow akin to Native Son or Invisible Man. Instead, I found myself thrown into a pentecostal revival that reminded me so much of my experiences on my mission with the black folk in the Galveston projects. This book is all about religious fervor, self-discovery, faith, intermixed with race and social issues. Baldwin's writing style is very engaging, colorful, and full of life. It sweeps you up with the characters, good and bad alike, and shifts perspectives back and forth to offer rounded viewpoints of who these people are, and how they became the way they are. The ending left me a little hanging, but I wouldn't have had it any other way. This novel is a powerful window into the black experience of mid-twentieth century Harlem, and I would recommend pairing this read with Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun."
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