With God Under the Bed: Darwin’s immediate book meme

Speaking of books, let’s do this thing about what we’re reading! (I can’t remember why I wrote “speaking of books,” but apparently I was when I started writing this. Well, there are worse things to speak of.)

1. What book are you reading right now?

Meh. I’m in the middle of a bunch of books and not happy about any of them. 

Whisper My Name by Ernest Hebert

is a sequel to a book I loved, The Dogs of March. The series takes place in Darby, a fictional version of the exact spot in NH where I live, and boy does he understand what it’s like here. Dogs of Winter was like Faulkner meets Hemingway. Whisper My Name is veering a little bit into Walker Percy-style “man meets troubled girl, and va va voom” territory and it’s making me itchy, but I guess I’ll keep going. 

Also re-reading Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, about terrible people in Academia,

which is making me laugh out loud but feel bad about it. I just finished scene where he makes several choices about how to deal with the fact that he set his boss’ wife’s guest bed on fire and it just about murdered me. The protagonist has a habit of swiftly and privately making grotesque faces that express how he feels about people he encounters, and that reminds me, it may be okay that we’re supposed to start wearing masks again. 

Also re-reading Morgan’s Passing by Anne Tyler.

If you haven’t read an Anne Tyler novel (and there are about 700 of them), I would recommend Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant, where I think she was at her full powers — the least prone to precious quirky self-indulgence, and the most fearless and tender toward people doing dreadful things for understandable reasons. (Homesick Restaurant has scenes of child abuse.) Morgan’s Passing is pretty good, but I think she’s a little too patient with Morgan and his midlife problems. I just want to kick his ass.

1a. Readaloud

Just finished The Princess and Curdie.

The kids had a bit of a love/hate relationship with it, as is appropriate for George MacDonald. I know I’ve complained before about the profoundly Victorian unreadability of some of his sentences, and I’ll do it again. Just say it, man! 

But the Curdie books are probably the most accessible of his, except for The Light Princess, which is the easiest to read and also the most coherent and straightforward story. The Princess and Curdie is a sequel that’s better than the first book (The Princess and the Goblin), which we also read aloud. It has such good images in it: Young Curdie and his aged father meeting each other halfway up a hill, and if you saw them from a distance, you wouldn’t immediately know who was climbing and who was descending. This idea is carried forward when Curdie is given the power to identify what it is that people are becoming by touching their hands. Some hands feel human, but others feel like the paws or hooves or tentacles of animals. And the reverse is also true: There are fabulous avenging monsters in the story, who are apparently working out their salvation and becoming human again.

You can see how MacDonald’s great admirer C.S. Lewis was influenced by (or at least agreed with) this idea that, by the way we live, we carry heaven or hell within us even before we die. This idea is in The Great Divorce and The Last Battle and probably several others. 

Anyway, between that and the imagery of the great princess purifying her beloved children by heaping burning roses on them, and weeping as she does it, I’m glad we read it. BUT THE ENDING. If I had remembered it ended that way, I would simply have skipped the final page. I was reading the book to the six-year-old and the ten-year-old, and some of the teens were listening in. The ending is basically: The young princess grows up and marries the hero and the kingdom is wonderful. But they don’t have children and then die, and then there’s a bad king, and things get worse and worse until he literally undermines the kingdom and it all crashes down and everyone dies, and then no one even remembers it existed. Well, goodbye!  Generally, I respect authors to do what they want with their stories but there was no preparation for this happening, other than a general feeling that the story was a broad analogy for humanity in general. Truly unnecessary and the kids were rightly horrified. Boo.

Up next: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Tolkein.

The Green Knight movie comes out soon and it looks absolutely swell.

I read the Sir Gawain by Marie Borroff to the kids many years ago (that’s the one we read in college), in our last year of homeschooling, and they were spellbound. I remember skipping all the other lessons for the day because they wanted me to keep reading to the end.  But [sighs until dead] it was a lot easier to spellbind them in those days.

Here’s how the Tolkein begins:

When the siege and the assault had ceased at Troy,
and the fortress fell in flame to firebrands and ashes,
the traitor who the contrivance of treason there fashioned
was tried for his treachery, and the most true upon earth–
it was Aeneas the noble and his renowned kindred
who then laid under them lands, and lords became
of well-nigh all the wealth in the Western Isles. 

More fun to read aloud than ol’ George MacD, anyway! Heck, maybe I’ll pay the kids to give the first few chapters a fair shot. And then buy them movie tickets. Those poor children, how they suffer. 

2. What book did you just finish?

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

At first this struck me as a rather heavy handed “Have you ever seen such cruelty” kind of book, ala Isabelle Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea or Tracy Chevalier’s The Virgin Blue, but it grew on me, and I was impressed at how the author brought two stories together. It follows the lives of two girls in Afghanistan, one born in the late sixties and one in the late seventies. The prose is a bit movie storyboard-y at times, but it’s very sincere and creates a strong mental image of the setting. A painful and beautiful read. As far as I know, it’s a faithful rendition of the history, and fleshed out my skimpy understanding of the era before 9/11 (but it definitely reads like a novel, not a sneaky history lesson). The reading level seems aimed at smart middle school or high school age, but it includes fairly graphic scenes of rape and violence, so reader beware. 

I also recently finished The Shadow Guests by Joan Aiken.

This one is a YA book, but Joan Aiken always uses her whole butt and doesn’t talk down to younger readers. Really never read a dud by her. The Shadow Guests is a weird, compelling story about Cosmo, a teenage boy who’s sent to live in the countryside with his great aunt after his mother and older brother apparently killed themselves to avoid succumbing to a family curse. But the past isn’t done with his family, and Cosmo becomes entangled with previous generations. It sounds dark and awful, but it’s very entertaining and funny in parts, and the dialogue and characters are so skillfully and realistically done even as the plot itself is outrageous. We recently read Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase out loud, and it was just as good as I remember. Aiken’s male teenage characters are the most appealing people you’ll ever meet. 

3. What do you plan to read next?

Watership Down by Richard Adams

I started it several years ago and didn’t get very far, but I hope to keep going this time. Damien’s been recommending it for years.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

ANY BOOK. I have almost completely ruined my brain with social media, so if I could finish anything at all, I’ll be pleased. 

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

With God In Russia by Walter Ciszek

I’m a bad Catholic reader and I should feel bad. I have now officially lost this book under the bed twice, once under the old bed and now once under the new bed. With God under the bed, I guess. 

6. What is your current reading trend? 

See (4.) 

That’s about it! Check out Darwin Catholic for the source of this meme, and let me know if you have any recommendations or dire warnings!

What book gets your region right?

town pound

It’s hard to say which is more satisfying: a book that introduces you to a fascinating, new, unfamiliar world, or a book which is set in a time and place that you know intimately, and which really nails it.

For me, The Dogs of March by Ernest Hebert is a great example of the latter. It’s set in a fictional small town of Darby, New Hampshire, and man, is it familiar. It gives us painfully accurate picture of the small town full of foster children, incestuous shack people, pompous little fief lords, renovating interlopers, and limping, buck-toothed junk car collectors, who see no difference between the beauty of the snow on a stone wall and the beauty of a burnt-out washing machine riddled with bullet holes for target practice.

The Dogs of March (first in a series, The Darby Chronicles) introduces us to Howard Elman, foreman at a weaving factory in the early ’80′s. He hasn’t yet figured out that he’s going deaf, and he hasn’t yet figured out that there is nothing he can do about the way his world is coming apart and being rebuilt for some new purpose that doesn’t mean anything to him.

Here he appears around Thanksgiving in the dorm room of his son Freddy, the first of his children to go to college, with an early Christmas present:

Father and son looked at each other as if each had come across a crime. Both spoke at the same moment. Freddy said, “‘Lo,” and Howard said, “Where’d you get that goddamn beard?”
“I didn’t get it; I grew it,” said Freddy.
“Ain’t you smart,” yelled Howard. This phrase he could utter in a hundred ways, to convey degrees of sarcasm, exasperation, frustration, criticism, irony, cosmic outrage, even affection; a phrase that filled in when he had no other words; a staple–like rice or potatoes or refried beans–that could be fed into the maw of a starved vocabulary.
“You’re always yelling at me,” yelled Freddy.
Dark hair enveloped his face from the bottom of the eyes to the throat. A pink slash showed where his mouth was. His ears were partially hidden.
“You look like a goddam A-rab,” yelled Howard.
“The word is Arab,” yelled Freddy.
“Ain’t you smart,” yelled Howard.
“Arab, Arab, Arab,” yelled Freddy.
“Ain’t you smart,” yelled Howard.
“Oh, I ain’t smart,” yelled Freddy, with emphasis on the “ain’t.”
“I’ll smarten you up,” yelled Howard, taking menacing steps forward, rifle at order arms, its butt skipping along the floor.
Freddy stood his ground, teeth chattering, clenched fists quivering at his sides.
The two stood breathing fire on each other for a few seconds.
Then Howard backed up. He realized he had been wrong. For  man who had never learned to apologize, he did his best. He brought the rifle to present arms, and said, “Merry fucking Christmas.”
“No, not to me,” said Freddy.
“Trade it for a shotgun, then,” said Howard.
Freddy shook his head no no no no and retreated.
Howard remained in the middle of the room, holding the gun in offering.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with this rifle,” he said.
“I’m not interested in killing animals,” said Freddy with a shrug of hopelessness.
Dread rolled over Howard. College had pulled his son apart, scattered beliefs, habits, and loves like so many bits of a machine, and was now rebuilding him into a customized version of Freddy Elman.

The arc of the story follows a series of losses, errors, and painful discoveries, but it is somehow not a difficult book to read. Along with the brutal and tragic are dozens of little jokes and lavish gifts of beauty, as Howard, his long-suffering, teardrop-shaped wife Elenore, and his circle of malformed friends and privileged enemies rearrange themselves into a new world order — while other things, like Howard’s duty to strike back against the savagery of the dogs of March, never change.

A beautiful, frightening, tender-hearted book. And if you’ve ever been to a town meeting in a small town, you won’t want to miss chapter 13, where the wealthy, litigious newcomer tries to ram through her own agenda; the delusional, power-hungry selectman makes a tactical error; the white-bearded old loon is, as usual, the only one who talks sense, and the single-minded fire chief just wants a new firetruck, and can’t seem to get it.

What book or movie would you recommend, if you wanted someone to understand the place where you live?