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Posts Tagged ‘literature’

I wanted to love On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Maybe in a less fraught time I would have. I recognize it as beautiful, imaginative, and important for representing immigrant experience and gay coming- of-age experience. Maybe I’m just weary of pain and suffering — in literature, in the news, in the world.

This is the story of Little Dog, a young Vietnamese American boy who falls in love with a white boy, Trevor, a little bit older and just as scarred. Both have single parents. Little Dog lives with his mother and intermittently, also his aunt and Grandmother, all of whom have trauma from wartime and postwar experiences and also live with mental illness. They are poor; the book also touches on some of what the a series in the New York Times exposed about immigrant nail salon workers.  Trevor lives in a trailer with his Dad. They are also poor, and traumatized by loss and violence and pain. As in so many families with trauma, they all hurt each other.

The story ranges from the 90s (with a few older flashbacks reflecting Little Dog’s family’s experiences in Vietnam) into the 2000s and touches on a few of the more recent cultural traumas, like 9/11 (very briefly) and the opioid crisis (which plays a major part in the story). So. Tough to read.

It’s meant to be a letter from Little Dog to his mother, but not one she’ll read (she can’t read). But it isn’t a letter that follows a narrative arc or tells a straightforward story. There are many asides, including, woven throughout, some digressions about Monarch butterflies.

Lovely? Even a little bit warmly humorous? Yes. Try this:

“My reflection warped over the storefront glass as we rode. The stoplights blinked yellow and the only sound was the clicking spokes beneath us. We rode back and forth like that, and for a stupid moment it felt like that strip of concrete called Main Street was all we ever possessed, all that held us. Mist came down, difracted the streetlights into huge, van Gogh orbs. Trevor, ahead of me, stood up on his bike, arms out on both sides, and shouted, ‘I’m flying! Hey, I’m flying!”

Yes, like the scene from Titanic, which Vuong references in the next sentence for those who might not make the connection. Perhaps he is a prize-winning poet, his editors wanted to ensure that readers of the future will get the reference, when Titanic may not be as familiar.

As I said, I get the literary merit. And beneath the sorrow, it’s a love story, about young love, and about Little Dog’s family. I didn’t enjoy it. I think that’s ok. It would hard to be human and enjoy this much pain.

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I picked up The Life You Save May Be Your Own: an American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie, at the Five Colleges Book Sale two springs ago. This fall after reading The Seven Storey Mountain,  it struck me as time to dig into it. Elie describes the work of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and and Walker Percy, and their lives as thinkers and writers, as one “narrative of a pilgrimage, a journey in which art, life, and religious faith converge.”  He describes pilgrimage as “a journey undertaken in the light of a story . . . . The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience.”

It’s taken me a month (in part because I’ve had less time to read) to get through this book but I’m glad to have read it. The slow going is because it’s a dense mix of criticism, biography, and exposition of the literary philosophy and faith of these four writers. The way their lives intersected is fascinating, as is the ways their work addresses belief by inviting readers into their experiences, imagined or real. Elie’s thorough exploration of what each of the four were trying to say about God and about the human capacity to find God is both deeply encouraging and somewhat sad, given the fact that he concludes, “We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places.”

It’s going to take a while to digest this book, and it’s left me with an urge to read more — more Merton, more of O’Connor’s stories and essays, to explore Dorothy Day’s writing which I am not familiar with, to read more than The Moviegoer, which is all I’ve read of Percy’s work, and to revisit some of what these writers read as well, which Elie goes into in depth. But my initial thought is that they are still being discussed and written about and studied and examined (Elie himself just wrote about The Moviegoer again in the New Yorker this year), because they each in their way offer paths for readers to follow, questions to ask, and entry points to engage with the one true faith — faith in man’s potential to encounter belief on man’s terms and in doing so, find God.

If that sounds heretical — obviously the phrase “the one true faith” recalls very deliberately the Roman Catholic faith that Day, Merton, O’Connor, and Percy shared — think about the nature of faith. It’s relational. You can’t have faith if there is no God to seek and you can’t have faith if there are no people to find God. These four writers took an ancient and still in their time very traditional and mediated religious belief, one that required people for the most part of know God through the hierarchy of the church with its patriarchy and its prescriptions for how ordinary people should act and think and relate to God and they blew it wide open. Day said that we could know God through radical love for each other, particularly the poor. Merton said we could know God by using our own minds, through contemplation. Percy and O’Connor both said we could know God by entering another’s story, and viewing it from inside but through the lens of our own understanding as well. Merton and Day felt this as well, and wrote to each other about the fiction they read.

All four of them said we could know God by living, and reflecting on our experiences, seeking and trying to understand. I don’t think that has changed, even if fewer people may put it that way today. Even in a world where “the Church” is worthy of our skepticism — whether the Catholic church for its abuse and coverup, or the Evangelical church which claims to promote life while embracing policies that destroy lives — most people I know are still trying to seek and understand, even if they aren’t necessarily naming what they seek “God.”

Anyway, whether you’re interested in faith or social movements, fiction or history, culture or criticism, this is a thought provoking and substantial read.

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Simon at Stuck in a Book commented here at bookconscious recently and I checked out his blog. When I saw the #1930club post, I looked around at my shelves and realized I had a to-read novel, Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse, which was published in 1930.

I think I first heard about it on The Readers and I bought it with a gift card when I left my previous library job. That was about a year and a half ago, but sometimes I think books recede into the shelves until the time is right. I hadn’t read anything else by Hermann Hesse but noticed in the author bio in my ugly little mass market paperback that he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1946. As the world contemplates the bizarre 2018/2019 announcement, marred first by last year’s prize being delayed by scandal and then by accusations that the 2019 winner is “an apologist for genocide,” I read this strange and beautiful book about two motherless medieval men and their search for meaning.

Narcissus and Goldmund is set in a cloistered monastery in Germany, where Goldmund, a fair haired and sweet natured boy, is left by his father to study and prepare to enter monastic life. His teacher is younger than most, still training to be a priest himself, an intelligent and preternaturally observant man named Narcissus. As Goldmund reaches the end of his formal education, Narcissus tells him plainly that his calling isn’t scholarship or the priesthood. He conjures memories of Goldmund’s loving but faithless mother and brings back the pain of her abandonment.

After this crisis, Goldmund’s leaves the cloister on a years long journey of pleasure, responsible to no one, loving as many women as he can, skirting a possible calling in favor of wandering. I’ll leave the details for you to read but suffice to say he has plenty to confess to years later, when he’s in a real scrape and Narcissus manages to rescue him.

They return to the monastery and have a series of conversations about when people can realize their true selves, the role of ideas versus images, whether thinking and ideas are worth anything on their own or are made worthy when they are applied to life’s challenges, and more. Goldmund tries a more settled life and work, and the book’s final crisis leaves both men more aware of who they are and what they mean to each other.

The story feels less like a novel than an allegory, as many key details point to ideas about love, friendship, caring, faith, sin, bigotry, greed, selfishness. The role of nature and study in developing one’s identity, the purpose of art and ideas, and the benefits of ritual and discipline are also among Hesse’s topics. It’s an old fashioned tale, a little more male-centric than I’m used to reading, with women only playing the roles of temptresses or virgins.

Still it was a good read, and Hesse’s writing is powerful and descriptive. Take this passage where Goldmund has come across a house where all the occupants are dead of plague:

“How sad and ghostlike was this small home, with the remains of the hearthfire still glowing, inhabited by corpses, completely filled with death, penetrated by death. . . . What other people performed in the privacy of their coffins, in the graves, well hidden and invisible, the last and poorest performance, this falling apart and decaying, was performed here at home by five people in their rooms, in broad daylight, behind an unlocked door, thoughtlessly, shamelessly, vulnerably. Goldmund had seen many corpses before but never an example like this of the merciless workings of death. Deeply he studied it.”

Pretty vivid. I’m glad I picked it up and that the #1930club gave me reason to read it.

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I love a book that expands my “to be read” list, and Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris did that. Not only does she recommend some classic books about Greece (such as Lawrence Durrell‘s and Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s work) but also, she writes eloquently about Homer and I have had Caroline Alexander’s translation of The Iliad on my shelf for some time.

Mostly it’s a joy to read about someone’s passions, and for Norris, the Greek language, literature, and Greece itself are longtime passions. She was a young copy editor at The New Yorker when she first began learning Greek, and her boss, Ed Stringham, encouraged her and even agreed it would help her work so it could be paid for by the magazine. He encouraged her to travel and suggested things to read (like the books mentioned above). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone came across a mentor like that, who sees a spark and fans it?

Norris intersperses her writing about Greece and Greek with writing abut herself and her family, but this book doesn’t hit you over the head with interpersonal drama or devolve into navel gazing. Instead Norris is thoughtful, observant, introspective at times without being self-absorbed, curious about her family relationships without playing them up for effect. In short, she writes an intelligent, beautiful book that is informative and entertaining. Even though I went through a Greece phase of my own — we took a family trip when I read that there were deals to be had after the Athens Olympics, and I made sure the kids and I were immersed in all things Greek for about six months before we went — I learned a good bit reading Greek to Me, especially regarding connections between Greek and English.

Norris’s descriptive language is evocative and also makes the foreign familiar, as with this passage about the earthquake restorations at the Daphni monastery:  “The scaffolding inside made it look like trapeze school . . . by now multiple earthquakes had shattered the mosaics, which had collapsed onto the floor in jumbles of tesserae. The restorers’ work was of a magnitude I could barely comprehend: they were putting the Almighty together again.” Or this one, about the view from the Kalamitsi Hotel: “The sun left a pink smear above the distant gray-blue peninsula, and the sea was like a bolt of ice-blue satin, with matching sky, except that the colors of the air were not as nuanced, having no surface, existing as pure distance measured in light. In the grove in the foreground the trunks of olive trees twisted seductively A tongue of sea eased in from the Messenian Gulf below a steep hill covered with pines, plane trees, and pointed cypresses . . . .” It goes on, but you should read the book for the full effect.

If you’re staycationing this summer, this would be a great book to take you away, and if you’re planning a trip to Greece, this is a don’t miss. But even if neither of those describes you, this is a wonderful read. I wanted to sit down with the author over some coffee (or ouzo!) and hear more stories, take in her fascinating experiences, and enjoy her voice after I reached the end. In fact, I never looked for her first book, Between You & Me, about her time at The New Yorker when it came out, but I’ve added that to my list as well.

 

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