You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Month of Sundays

With the recent passing of John Updike I realized that I'd never read anything he wrote. I hope to soon start his Rabbit series, but when I was at the library a couple of months ago I picked up a copy of A Month of Sundays. The setup for this novel is that Tom Marshfield, an Episcopal priest, is visiting a sort of rehab center that specializes in wayward clergy. He spends his mornings writing and his afternoons playing golf. Each chapter is another days worth of writing.

Tom has been sent away because he has been cheating on his wife and having sexual relations with his parishioners. He is obsessed with his girlfriend Alicia, the organist in the church. He has gone so far as to arrange for his assistant Ned to spend more time with his wife. However, he is dismayed to discover that Ned and Alicia are sleeping together. Alicia tells Tom's wife about the affair, in a attempt to force Tom to make a decision to leave his wife or stop sleeping with Alicia. Tom's visit to the center is precipitated when he tells Alicia she is fired and she goes to the church deacons and tells them about Tom's affairs.

Tom's fascination with Alicia is mirrored by his strange attraction to Frankie, the wife of one of the church leaders. Frankie tries to seduce him, but his image of her as a pure woman keeps him from fulfilling his desire for her. She refuses to renounce her faith for him so that he may get properly aroused. It seems to indicate that deep down he knows what he is doing is wrong and is damaging to his faith and his congregation as well as his marriage. In fact, he seems largely oblivious to the havoc he is causing, not even understanding why firing Alicia is a bad idea when his wife and Ned try to talk him out of it.

Updike is a master of language. The whole book is filled with plays on words and linguistic games. The narrator Tom will bring attention to Freudian slips of the finger as he types. He delights in body parts of his lovers, and even delights in his wife after the affair is revealed. His prose is poetic, and it brings attention to Tom's misplaced fervor for other woman over his own or his calling.

The novel ends on an ambiguous note, as he begins writing to the nurse or caretaker at the facility, Ms. Prynne, whom he imagines is reading his words and hoping to be seduced by him. When this doesn't happen he turns bitter, and when he leaves the facility he seems to accept his punishment for his transgressions, but doesn't appear truly regretful. The story can be seen as a celebration and a condemnation of infidelity. Certainly most of the language takes joy in forbidden fruit. However as a character Tom is quite shallow; though we can understand his cold feelings toward his cold wife, he is also distant to his two teenage sons, who seem to have no part in his life. Though the book is fun to read, at the ends it leaves one just a bit hollow, like all of Tom's sexual pursuits don't amount to much. B+

Monday, June 22, 2009

Bard of the Middle Ages: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer

Bard of the Middle Ages: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer is a Modern Scholar lecture course presented by Professor Michael D.C. Drout. Professor Drout starts with the background of Chaucer and literature in his time. Chaucer was writing in a time of change in literature when there weren't a lot of written works in Middle English. Middle English was just coming into use as a language for literature over Latin or French.

Chaucer's early works get a good overview. The Parliament of Fowls sounds the most interesting: it is a story about birds that come together to find mates but have to wait on the highest ranking female bird to make a choice. She is presented with three males who offer different ideas on the meaning of love. This sounds like an interesting treatise on love.

Professor Drout talks for two lectures about Troilus and Criseyde. It is an epic written in rime royale, using events from ancient Troy. It is essentially a medieval romance where Troilus falls in love and pursues Criseyde, who must be convinced to see him by her uncle Pandarus. The story ends tragically when Criseyde abandons Troilus for another man, though she has good reason. This work displays the Drout calls the malady of love, the medieval beliefs that being in love is a physical ailment. Troilus is always going around saying he is going to die if his love is not returned.

The last half of the lecture is on The Canterbury Tales. It is a series of stories in a narrative framework where pilgrims are traveling and telling tales. The first few tales work around the idea of marriage and relationships. One set of tales is told by men and women of the church. Many stories are responses to other ones, and the pilgrims start a sort of competition. The tales range from eloquent to raunchy.

Professor Drout does a good job describing the works. I really appreciate his comments on Middle English and his reading some parts of the works as they were written. He illustrates how the tales interact with each other and the narrative framework itself. I enjoyed the course and I hope to actually read some Chaucer soon. A-

Monday, June 15, 2009

Lord of Snow and Shadows

Sarah Ash's fantasy novel Lord of Snow and Shadows starts with Gavril Andar being kidnapped and taken to his ancestral home in Azhkendir, a cold and barren country. Gavril discovers that he is the only son of the murdered king of Azhkendir. He is heir not only to the kingdom but also the curse of the Drakhaoul, a demon/dragon that gives him power but also drives him to feed on young women.

Ash develops this familiar fantasy device by providing another young person with newly discovered powers. Kiukiu is a young woman who is a servant in Kastel Drakhaon, Gavril's new home. She is singled out and picked on by the other servants and eventually forced out by the lies of Lilias. Lilias is a woman who is carrying a child who may be Gavril's half-brother, or may be the child of Gavril's nemesis Jaromir. Gavril's father killed Jaromir's family, so Jaromir is the natural suspect for being the assassin who killed Gavril's father. There are different connections between different characters, and nobody is really just as they seem.

Kiukiu leaves the kastel and serendipitously encounters a woman who turns out to be her grandmother. Malusha tells her about her special powers, which involve singing to ghosts. Kiukiu is in love with Gavril and wants to protect him.

One surprise in the story is Gavril's mother. Rather than accept that her son has been whisked away to fulfill the destiny that she tried to avoid, she goes to great lengths to try to secure her son's safety. I did find it strange that she didn't realize that he had been taken away by the man who arrived to tell him of his inheritance, whom she knew as her husband's right hand man. Her pursuits seem a little far fetched. She gets involved with a diplomat and chief spy of the neighboring country Muscobar, Count Velemir, and through him meets Prince Eugene, the leader of Tielen. Eugene is aggressively pursuing a war to reunite the countries under a single emperor. Of all the major characters, Eugene is the most simplistic. There's very little depth to him and he seems a simple stereotype. In fact most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional. Gavril is the most well developed, but even his character comes across as a bit empty. Jaromir has potential as the rival, but his relationship with Gavril develops in an unexpected and hard to believe fashion. Gavril's mother shows some surprising strength, yet she still comes across as simple-minded, and easily deceived.

The plot has a few twists, but mostly it's pretty straightforward. One thing I couldn't understand was why Eugene was so fond of Jaromir. I wondered whether he was Jaromir's true father, or if they were sexually involved, but it's never answered. Having a mystery like that can work for a story, but I felt it needed more foundation.

The biggest letdown of the story was that the prose seemed dry and plain. Only a few places did I see any hint of interesting diction. The land of Azhkendir is conveyed as cold and stark. Yet the characters are equally cold and somewhat lifeless. C+

Thursday, June 11, 2009

American Pastoral

The title of Philip Roth's novel American Pastoral
comes from the main character's experience of the idyllic American life. Seymour Levov, referred to as the Swede since high school, has created a great life, starting in his father's glove making business and rising to the top, marrying a woman who was Miss New Jersey, settling down into a nice country home, and having a beautiful daughter. Yet it all comes crashing down when his sixteen-year-old daughter Merry bombs a store to protest the Vietnam War, killing a doctor, and disappears. The Swede and his wife are devastated. Most of the novel illustrates how they deal with this loss of their daughter.

The Swede tries to figure out how Merry could have done something so extreme when they had brought her up so conventionally. He wonders if it was a kiss he gave her when she was eleven, or her struggle to overcome her stutter. She had been developing more hard-line views against the war and hanging out with more and more radical friends. Out of respect he lets her have her space and her own views, but later wonders whether he should have been more controlling.

Months after the bombing, a woman who calls herself Rita Cohen comes to the Swede's factory for a tour and then lets slip that she knows Merry. She demands things from him but refuses to tell him anything about Merry except that she hates him and her mother. This is a cruel thought for the Swede to accept, that his daughter is not lost physically but emotionally. He feels she is being manipulated and that something or someone has turned her against her parents, but he is never sure.

Rita manipulates the Swede to get money out of him and attempts to seduce him in an ugly scene. She makes him know that sleeping with her would be destroying his idea of his perfect life and betray everything he believes about himself. His rejection of her indicates that he refuses to believe his life is in any way corrupt, that he is not ultimately responsible for what happened to Merry. Rita seems to be the dark side of Merry, representing everything that turned her against her parents and civilized life.

His wife Dawn has a breakdown and must be institutionalized for a time. She finally begins to get better when she gets a face lift and seems to forget about Merry. Dawn rejects their old house and takes joy in the project of building a new house with an architect friend of theirs. It seems almost inevitable that the Swede feels that her rejection of the house is personal, and realizes there is more going on. Roth has already let us know that the Swede will remarry and have three sons from the earlier part of the book, so there is a bit of expectation of how his first marriage will end. It seems the relationship can't survive the trauma that Merry has inflicted.

Five years after the incident the Swede gets another message from Rita and tracks down Merry in a small dirty room in a trashed house. He is horrified at her appearance. She has turned into a complete opposite from her violent past, shunning meat and bathing and cars. He leaves her there despite his wishes to see her safely at home. He seems to accept that she has defined her own life.

The Swede's struggle to maintain sanity when his life is falling apart is mirrored in the ongoing deterioration of the city of Newark around them. The Swede stays at his factory during the riots of the Sixties with one black woman worker. His own father, the founder of the company but now retired, keeps telling him to close the factory and get out of Newark since it's falling apart. But the Swede fights to keep the factory open even with apathetic employees, though he does open factories overseas. A part of him can see the truth, though he has a hard time accepting it.

This is a novel of character. It shows a man's loss of faith in his life and what it has meant to him. His daughter's radical act turns everything upside down. The Swede's struggles are deep even if he doesn't show them on the outside. It is a moving and complex story. A

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Commodore

Patrick O'Brian's The Commodore finds Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin returning to England after a long voyage across the world. Jack returns to his wife Sophie and his three young children who hardly know him. Sophie has become displeased with Jack because of her assumptions about his relationship with Clarissa, the young woman who returned from Australia with Mr. Oakes. After Mr. Oakes died, Clarissa moved in with Stephen's wife Diana and helped her with their daughter Brigid.

Stephen is saddened to learn that Brigid has a learning disability and doesn't speak or relate to others. However he is encouraged to find that she copies his assistant Padeen and starts to speak Irish. In order to protect Clarissa from legal persecution, he moves her and Padeen and Brigid to his property in Spain.

Meanwhile, Jack is assigned the position of commodore of a squadron of ships assigned to disrupt the slave trade off the African coast. They capture several slave ships, and Jack and Stephen are appalled at the terrible conditions on board. Stephen goes on shore and ends up with a case of yellow fever.

After disrupting the slave trade, Jack's orders are to follow a French flotilla as they move toward Ireland. After a brief skirmish, the squadron captures some French ships and Stephen goes on shore. Stephen encounters an old friend who takes him to the nearby cottage where Diana is staying.

This book is more of a series of smaller stories than a book with a single plot. The pieces work well together, even if they aren't as exciting as larger narrative. It is nice to see the characters reach home again after several books where they're having great adventures around the world. We get to see Jack's and Stephen's families and what they've been through while the men have been away. While not one of the more exciting chapters, it's a pretty good part of the series. B