September 6, 2016

Follow-up to preceding post re: The Help

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 7:25 pm by chuckredman

Kathryn Stockett’s The Help seems to provoke thought by those who read the book and even those who don’t. On my bus ride home tonight, about the time we got to Ventura County, the fellow sitting behind me leaned forward and apologized if his brief phone call had bothered me. It hadn’t. I’d apparently been engrossed in the book. I’m almost finished. We talked about the book and the movie, and he was very familiar with both, despite having personally perused neither. “I don’t wanna read anything about those times. I lived through it, that was enough.”

He’d grown up in Memphis, Tennessee and, being about the color of Minny in The Help, had experienced Jim Crow first hand. “I read Tom Clancy,” he told me. He loves the action and geopolitical intrigue.

I hinted at the irony that he could read about war and the world on the brink of destruction but not about the plight of maids in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. He shrugged, and I assured him that I understand completely.

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August 24, 2016

Book, film, life

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 9:21 pm by chuckredman

Last week at the Los Angeles Central Library, as I entered the Literature department I saw that their monthly display was books that had been adapted for film. Traditionally I don’t like to read the book if I’ve already seen the movie, but lately I’ve changed. I’ve seen too many films based on books well worth reading but that haven’t been read by me. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is one of those that has been in my mind, and there it was on the display shelf. A minute later there was an empty spot in that display.

I’m more than halfway now and it didn’t take many chapters for the book to garner a solid place on my short list of best American novels of the past 25 years. What a remarkable book, on a human level and societal level. It’s as funny as it is thematically groundbreaking. Stockett blends her fictional characters so seamlessly with the historical events of that time and place, and the result is chilling. Besides its insights into Southern society and race relations, the novel is worth the read simply for its exploration of family relationships and child development.

I’m spending this week at a big suburban house. The owner is at work all day and I’m reading The Help. It’s the day that the cleaning lady comes. She’s a petite Salvadorean woman who cleans the huge upstairs while I read downstairs. She seems very sweet and refined. Her English is limited. When she comes down to do the kitchen and family room, I evacuate to the large backyard where the waterfall splashes into the pool. I catch glimpses of her mopping the hardwood kitchen floor. My mind is wandering and I’m stalled on a page of dialogue between Aibileen and Skeeter. I don’t feel much like petting the little dog of the house while she cleans because she might see and taste the irony.

September 25, 2015

It just isn’t the same.

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 5:12 pm by chuckredman

We were visiting the Seattle Public Library recently and walking down its amazing Spiral of Books, and it made me try to think deeper about what our society is doing to our children and grandchildren. If you are a parent, are you raising your children to read and write primarily on paper? Are you limiting their use of electronic devices, making such implements secondary to books and handwriting? Every year and every time a new thought-controlling device is unloaded upon the public, it gets harder for old-schoolers like me to sit back and not start ranting about Big Brother and Fahrenheit 451.

I don’t want to get overly schmaltzy, but books have dignity, identity. That book sits or, more correctly, stands on your shelf. It stands for something. The voice of its author is undying, and is ready and waiting to tell its story to a new audience. How many other readers have touched that book? How many times has that book returned the favor?

A book can lie on your desk, open to an important page. You can write your name in it and pass it along to family, friends. Give it as a gift. You can run your finger down a page. Feel the paper. Books and paper might be our most noble invention. And one of our highest art forms. A book is a permanent record, an original document. It is evidence. It cannot be clicked away, can’t be deleted, cannot be powered-off.

Toddlers everywhere are delighted when picture or story books are put in their little hands. They also delight in anything electronic, with buttons to push. That’s what worries me.

May 15, 2015

Learning about love in Alexandria

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 7:34 pm by chuckredman

“She lay, staring out those wonderfully expressive dark eyes, as if from a high window in her own memory.” 

I came across it browsing at the library. I had never heard of it, or its author. Had I browsed left toward Dumas instead of right toward Ellison, I may never have discovered Justine. Seldom has a book so intrigued me with its language, flavor, earthiness. By its juxtaposition of intimate detail and vague half-thoughts, the novel builds a mystery in its own world. I was hooked, to the point that I read straight through Justine, then on to her three sister novels Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, which altogether make up Lawrence Durrell’s atmospheric saga The Alexandria Quartet.

Set in pre- and post-World War II Alexandria, Durrell created one of the more existential works around. Much, perhaps, of his close friend Henry Miller, of Camus, of D.H. Lawrence, wanders through its pages, but Durrell colonized a new literary frontier of his own. And when his prose is waxed and polished, which is most of the time, it is stunning.

Now, if you want to read the entire Quartet, be sure you read in the above order, the order in which they were written. The third volume, Mountolive, unlike its two elder sisters, is written in the third person, so it doesn’t grip your shirtfront and pull you into the story with the same intensity. I generally prefer the third person, but as you will see, Durrell’s first person narrative of Justine, et al., is true artistry. Mountolive is a very good book, and it advances the mystery effectively. But you’re almost led to speculate that Durrell brought in James Michener or Leon Uris to write his third part, so that he could take a well-deserved break from the understandable emotional toll of Justine and Balthazar (written in roughly a year or less), and prepare for the climax of Clea.

I have recommended Justine and the Quartet to my daughter, because she is a great fiction reader, and she is a lyricist and artist. She is reading Justine at this moment, and I am anxious to hear her thoughts.

April 3, 2015

Comparative Lit on the brain

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 8:15 pm by chuckredman

Comparative European Lit 101. We all took at least one course in college with a name something like that. But there was always, in the back of my head, a small nagging question: Why do we compare literature? We read it, we enjoy it, we try to understand it. But compare it?

But now as I think about it, I realize that the only way to completely understand books is to analyze the history, culture, language, and personalities that go into them. Besides influencing one another, writers change society, and society returns the favor.

And I find myself, probably more and more as time goes on, doing comparative lit in my head. Spontaneously. Even obsessively. I compare genres, I compare authors, I compare centuries, eras, hemispheres? I need to know where the books I read fit into the world. It means something. It’s important.

But sometimes (oftentimes, really), my mind comes up with pretty goofy groups of books or writers that, for some crazy reason and certainly out of abject ignorance, it wants to read and compare. The silly thing is that these books have no valid reason for being grouped together and being compared. But the surprising thing is that, once in a while, the comparisons turn out to be quite apt.

Well, this is embarrassing, but it won’t be clear unless I give you examples:

Group A: Room at the Top;  Dark at the Top of the Stairs

 

Group B: Lost Horizon;  Teahouse of the August Moon;  The Ugly American

 

Group C: To Have and to Hold;  To Have and Have Not

 

Group D: Samuel Johnson;  Samuel Richardson;  Samuel Butler

 

Group E: The Power and the Glory;  The Sound and the Fury

 

Group F: Rebecca West;  Nathanael West;  Jessamyn West

 

Group G: Thomas Wolfe;  Tom Wolfe;  Tobias Wolff

 

You get the picture. . . Silly, huh? So what I wonder is: am I the only one who makes up these odd, goofy groupings of famous books or authors? If not, I’d be curious to hear the groups that other readers have put together in their own heads. It may be a whole new discipline in the mysterious field of comparative lit.

July 12, 2013

Books about people who like books

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 2:44 pm by chuckredman

I’m finding, more and more often, that the books I’m reading lead me to other books, by the power of suggestion.  For example, I read Cast a Giant Shadow by Ted Berkman, the biography of Mickey Marcus.  Mickey’s favorite book was The Green Hat (Michael Arlen), which by coincidence was already on my future reading list because I had come across it while browsing at the library.  So I knew I had to read it, and I have to agree with Mickey that it is indeed a literary gem.

If you need suggestions for late 19th century or early 20th century fiction, read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.  The book is very autobiographical, and the young protagonist and other characters spend a fair amount of time mentioning the books they read.  They were quite prolific.  In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell’s persona works in English book “sellers”, and he expresses a great many opinions about the particular books, both good and bad, that customers ask for.  Some of the “good” ones I’ve added to my future reading list.  OK, a few of the “bad” ones, too.

Right now I’m reading The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos (a pretty amazing book).  One of his main characters read Romola, by George Eliot.  She’s one of my favorite authors, so Romola has moved way up on my reading list.

If anyone has any other examples of books leading to other books by the power of suggestion, I would love to hear about them.  Thanks!