Category Archives: Book Shelf

Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf: Death With Interruptions

So about six months ago, I was about 50 pages into Jose Saramago’s Blindness, which, at the time, I thought was the best novel I had ever read. For those of you who don’t know, I’m going damn blind. Getting my first pair of spectacles is one of my earliest memories. And every six months, sometimes twelve, I pop in to see the eye doctor, because my glasses are no longer good enough to let me read road signs and books and things like that. Now, I can’t always get to the doctor right away, and my vision is bad enough that my new specs generally run me $300. I’ve given up on contacts, of late, just because their expense was even more devastating to my frequently meager wallet. Sometimes, the vision changes so harshly and frequently I’m struck by bouts of misery, as I can’t really do anything. My night vision is terrible, and in the winter (ya know, like right now), I generally go to bed much earlier and sleep somewhat later than I do in summer, because I struggle to see in the dim lighting of evening.

So, needless to say, when a Nobel Prize-winning author produces a novel about a world gone blind, I’m interested, because it’s playing directly into, perhaps, my most primal and unabating fear. That particular novel starts is absolutely heartbreaking fashion, and that sadness is replaced by hope and inspiration. The book begins astonishingly engrossing. It then becomes ruthlessly vulgar, and repetitively so, and I couldn’t continue. I finish every book, as a rule, and I’ll finish Blindness, sooner or later, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, and I’m terrified at the prospect of seeing that movie.

But, back in the summer when I was in those bright, sunny, early sections of Blindness, Amazon, in their devious wisdom, sent me an email to let me know Saramago had a new novel coming out, and I could pre-order it. And I did, and by the time it arrived, I was so disgusted with Blindness that I wanted no part of Death With Interruptions. Having run through a couple of non-fiction books in rapid succession here (most notably, this book, as a reference because Mrs Thursday and I are getting one of these), and finding myself unwilling, at the present, to tackle Vladimir Nabakov, I decided to take a crack at Saramago, again.

The beginning is similar to Blindness, in that a supernatural, and, in many ways, catastrophic event strikes an unknown country. In this case, everyone has stopped dying. Unusually, however, Saramago spends the first 150 pages of this rather short novel (only about 230 pages total), characterless, painting the story in very broad strokes, so to speak. His narrative pops in the the Prime Minister here, an unknown family there, the despondent undertakers over there. The narrative meanders, but intentionally, until, with 2/3rds of the novel extinguished, Saramago introduces, finally, a named character. That is, of course, death, herself, with a lowercase “d”.

The death storyline is truly bizarre. Having decided to start killing people again, after seven months vacation, she decides to give people a little notice of their impending deaths, by delivering to them violet letters with short and clear messages that the recipient will die, irrevocably, in one week. Then, of course, a letter is, mysteriously, returned to sender. Her efforts to confront that confounding fact make for the book’s finale.

My favorite literature is able to engage me both intellectually, and emotionally. Death With Interruptions does the former admirably: I’m not sure how many books I’ve read that have been more fascinating that this one was, once it got rolling. But the dearth of characters, and their short and limited existences, make it difficult for me, the reader, to cling to anything in the book emotionally. The book is brief, however, and its brevity serves it well. Certainly, the scant necessary days to complete its reading are worthwhile.

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The Klaw 100

There’s a meme for personal blogs and online diaries: a list of movies or books or whathaveyou is passed around.  The blogger publishes the list on their blog, marking the books they’ve read or movies they’ve seen.  We haven’t done that ’round here because, for one, this isn’t really a personal blog, and, for two, we don’t really know anyone who keeps that kind of blog anymore, so no one passes them along (thank God).

Anyway, Keith Law–baseball writer, connoisseur and bookworm (he’s Mr Thursday, on HGH, if HGH did anything useful)–has decided to create a list of his favorite 100 books.  He estimates he’s read 400-500 books.  I don’t really know how many I’ve read–I’d guess it’s 30 or so per year, depending on the year.  Far more than that in high school and college, at least double that rate.  Anyway, we’re going to take his list here, and give you a few comments on the books he’s listed that we’ve read.  Or, if we have anything to say about the one’s we haven’t read, maybe we’ll comment on that.

He’s divided his list into 5 parts.  We’re just lumping everything together here, in one overlong post.

98.  The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, by GK Chesterton. The title of this blog is, in part, a reference to that book.  It’s a comic masterpiece dealing in the existence of God, in rebellion, in fear.  Chesterton’s prose is death-defyingly poetic, and, even more wonderfully, the book wraps up the whole ride in just a touch over 200 pages.  Brief, bright, and beautiful.

90.  The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle. This is, generally, considered the best of the Sherlock Holmes novels, whether written by Doyle or others (in the others category, the excellent The Seven Per Cent Solution reigns supreme).  I haven’t read the book since high school, but I loved the book at the time, and, aside from the iconic Prof Moriarty, the book has everything one could want from the grand detective.

83.  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. I used to read in bed, for at least an hour, every night.  From the time I could read until I got a driver’s license, basically.  Huck Finn was one of the two Mark Twain books I read over and over again (along with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). Admittedly, I read these books, in part, because I was infatuated with their age–the copies my mother possessed, and allowed her grade school middle son to read, were nearly 100 years old.  If I recall correctly, the Huck Finn was a 1900 edition, and Tom Sawyer 1902.

In the end, I loved Huck Finn more than the excellent Tom Sawyer for it’s extraordinary brashness, the spectacular boldness of the story.  The book is vibrant with conmen and swindlers and children trying to escape the confines of “sivilized” life.  I can only imagine that when I, as a child, asked my mom what “nigger” means, she was both shocked at the question, and relieved that she asked at home, and not at school.

To this day, in my opinion, Twain has found no equal in his ability to capture the voice of the dialects of his characters.

77.  Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. This is the only Morrison I’ve read, and to be honest, the only reason I haven’t read more of her is because Oprah and I have generally differed on our literary views, and because Morrison, to me, comes off obnoxiously in interviews.  The book is filled with details without being overwhelmed by them, and the imagery–from the nature of breastfeeding to Doctor Street–are haunting.  As always, whenever I think of this book, I really believe I need to get into more Morrison.

75.  Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. I read this book last summer for the only time–though I vow to re-read it sometime.  The book is the most violent I’ve read.  That violence is crouched in allegory and bizarre, and often confusing events.  I still don’t know quite what to make of the book (though, of course, I’ve still only read it once through), but I will repeat here what I’ve said elsewhere:  when this book is “good”, it’s spectacular.  It’s well worth the read, just to experience the Judge, if nothing else.

67.  Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Whenever this book is mentioned, I fail to understand whether it’s generally considered a triumph, or a disaster of a book.  Regardless of the opinions of others, I love BNW.  The book successfully anticipated a number of late-20th century political and social (and technological) developments, and maintained a compelling narrative for someone who read the book in 2000 for the first time.

65.  The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. Chandler, I suspect, is someone who a reader either adores, or cannot be bothered to read.  I fall into the former group.  My Chandler love began with Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and continued, triumphantly, into his detective stories.  The Big Sleep is the most famous, and, perhaps, the best of Chandler’s considerable work.  Phillip Marlow–the model for all grizzled private detectives–is following a case so twisted and hairy that, even without the red herrings, it can be damn hard to follow.  Even Chandler himself didn’t know who committed all the murders.  For the movie lovers out there, it doesn’t hurt to picture Humphrey Bogart as the leading man, as Bogey played Marlowe in the 1946 version of the book.

57.  Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. I read this in, I don’t know, 5th or 6th grade, for a book report, and loved it.  I ought to read it again.  And, to recycle an old debate from around here, pirates do beat ninjas.

55.  The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. I haven’t read this, but the movie in outstanding (with more Bogart–who’s to complain?), and the book has a stellar reputation.  I love the detective genre–I’ll get around to this, sooner or later.

53.  1984 (George Orwell) and 52.  On the Road (Jack Kerouac). I must be one of the few Americans who had to read A Brave New World but not 1984 in high school.  OTR is a book I haven’t read, honestly, just to avoid assimilating into the hive mentality at college, which involved romanticizing everything, playing acoustic guitar in public places (especially under trees), and reading this book compulsively.  I’ll read them eventually, but I’m in no rush.

48.  I. Claudius, by Robert Graves. As an advanced level Latin student from 6th grade onward, I’ve both read the book, and seen the exhaustive and mostly excellent series based on it.  Incest, violence, fire, insanity, backstabbing, poisoning–it’s a ludicrous soap opera, set 2000 years ago.  Personally, I don’t have much sympathy for the character of Claudius, who, at times, comes across as both cowardly and clumsy, but the chaos that surrounds him is too fascinating to look away.

41.  Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien. Love the series, and The Hobbit, to boot.  Mrs Thursday loves Fellowship most, whereas I prefer Return. The books work as a sort of Dumas story with gravitas.  Certainly not for weak-eyed readers, as the print tends to be small on these books which clock in at well over 1,000 pages.  Worth the effort of going through at least once, though I imagine I’ve read the series more than any other books, as I tried to do the trilogy on a yearly basis from childhood until college.

38.  Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Read it.  It’s a fun book, though it wanders a bit in the middle.  The circular nature of the language is downright astounding, and even more impressive, though subtly, is the circular nature of the storytelling.

34.  The Trial, by Franz Kafka. This is not my favorite Kafka, as I think his short stories tend to be stronger than his novels, and I’ve only read The Trial once, and The Castle I haven’t read at all.  The story is disconcerting, at the least, and the stark narration is terrifying.  Dark, dark stuff.

30.  Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. This book came recommended to me by a smart and enthusiastic reader.  Normally, I avoid Pulitzer Prize winners the way I avoid Oprah recommendations, but, hey, it was there.  The climax is startling, for certain, but the trouble of small people in a small town in Maine is discernible.  Excellent book, and probably the most recent on Law’s list, though I prefer other newer books to this one.

17.  The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald. To be honest, when I saw this book at this spot on the list, I was disappointed.  I utterly expected Gatsby to show his face in the top 3.  This book, for me, falls in that myriad list of  books I read in high school, and while I didn’t dislike it, I struggled to grasp the hype.  It deserves a re-read, I suspect.

14.  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami. Hey, Amazon just delivered this book to me, today!  I’ll let you know how it goes.  Honestly, would have guessed this to make the top 10.

13.  A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Law mentions that Walker Percy was less than kind in his introduction to this book.  It’s been years since I’ve read the book, but I don’t remember him being particularly mean.  Of course, when I read the book, I was still enthralled with Percy after reading Lost in the Cosmos, which, at the time, I found outstanding.  CoD, is, of course, one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.  Ignatius is vile and lazy and utterly hysterical.  A despical Don Quixote, set in New Orleans.  Book doesn’t have a lot of drive, as it’s just about the meandering adventures of a fat guy, but it entertains enthusiastically.

4.  To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. This has long been my pick for The Great American Novel.  Worth every ounce of praise it’s ever received and then some.  The story is effective for its ability to take a very personal and quirky story and turn it into something universal and culturally significant.  The reader ends up joining the peanut gallery in the courtroom.  I’ve written a bit of fiction in my day, and sometimes, I start to hate my stories for failing to achieve that feat.  Harper Lee is called a one-hit wonder, but to me the title is misplaced.  One-hit wonder implies a failed effort at a second hit.  Lee never attempted to publish another novel.  Which, of course, is an absolute shame.   Anything half as good as her opus is well worth the read.

1.  The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. I’m intrigued by stories that take a long time to write.  James Joyce famously took more than 13 years to write Finnegans Wake, which is a fascinating book if you’re patient but is an absolute bitch to read.  Virgil famously (among Latin scholars) spent the final 10 years of his life on The Aeneid, which he (probably) failed to complete.  Bulgakov spent (with some interruption) the final dozen years of his life, and the book was completed by his wife.  While Joyce’s Wake is enormously long and riddled with inscrutable, multi-level and multi-language punwork, and Virgil’s masterwork is enormously long (for a poem), and riddled with complex and astonishing wordplay, Bulgakov’s finest is relatively short and straightforward.

The book as all the more incredible for that.  It’s a novel of perfect economy, with no wasted words or sections.  Every phrase advances the plot, and every step the plot takes forward transforms either the characters themselves, or our understanding of them.  There are a number of memorable scenes–the broom-ride, the ball, the conversation between Yeshua Ha-Nozri and Pontius Pilate, and, perhaps, no scene more wondrous than the opener, which is much like that of The Man Who Was Thursday, except that the devil gets involved.  While Blood Meridian’s Judge as Satan is all horror and vile, black, evil, Woland is a tempter, dignified and polite and cunning.  His works are more subtle, but just as damning.  I don’t think I’d call it my favorite book, but Klaw certainly didn’t make a bad choice here.

The Klaw 100: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

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Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf: WHAT IS THE WHAT?

Sometimes, I’m not sure if Dave Eggers is a genius or a nuisance.  He’s definitely a prose-wizard, as the term goes, and while every sentence is written with enough skill and nuance to illuminate the most slippery scenes with depth and humor that writers like myself would die for.  Or kill for.  Or maim, at the least.  His major short-coming, as a writer, however, is that his books contain a lack of what Keith Laws likes to call “narrative greed”.  In Eggers’ novelized autobiography, he runs out of over-arching drive after the depicted the death of his parents.  In a way, this is a useful literary device–that the aimlessness of that book would reflect the emotions of the characters.  However, in Eggers novel You Will Know Our Velocity, Eggers finds himself flopping about without the driving force of plot, yet again.

What is the What unites the power of Eggers’ words with a story to match–that of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Sudanese Lost Boys.  The story is biographical–it is of Deng’s efforts to survive, torn from his family at a young age and by necessity he marched hundreds and hundreds of miles across Sudan and Ethiopia and Kenya before finally making it to America.  Deng is, at times, overjoyed, lonely, suicidal, frustrated, confused, aroused and desperate.   The villain of the story, which is all one thing but is embodied by war and racism, stupidity, greed, and ignorance, is fully believable, and utterly relentless.  No matter where Deng goes, he is in danger, and he makes mistakes, and suffers the mistakes of others.   Often, there is nothing he can do to improve his situation, and at times, his actions make his life worse.

The book is called a novel though in Deng’s preface, he acknowledges that the book’s events are all true.  However, Deng is unable to recall precisely the events of twenty years ago, and so while Eggers invented nothing, some of the accounts that make up the books early chapters are, we can assume, somewhat fictional recreations.

The title refers to a story told to him by his father, a respected merchant among his people, the Dinka.  When God created the Earth, he offered the Dinka people the choice between the cow, and the What.  The Dinka chose the cow, because they were familiar with it, and saw What as a fool’s choice.  As the book goes on, Deng learns that, perhaps, this parable did not give the wisest advice, and learns to seek the What.

The book is framed by an event of Deng’s life in Atlanta, GA, and so, despite the constant danger, the reader can know that Deng will survive whatever travesty he is experiencing.   Giving the ending away in this fashion does nothing to diminish the impact of the violence and horror that surrounds Deng, however.  His life has been one of surprising hardship, and it is only the passage that matters.

What Is the What?
Dave Eggers
Paperback: 560 pages
Vintage Publishing

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Mr. Thursday’s Book Shelf: PATHOLOGIES OF POWER

“First, to what level of quality can medical ethics aspire, if it ignores callous discrimination in medical practice against large populations of the innocent poor? Second, how effective can such theories be in addressing the critical issues of medical and clinical ethics if they are unable to contribute to the closing of the gap of socio-medical disparity?”
–Marcio Fabri dos Anjos “ Medical Ethics in the Developing World: A Liberation Theology Perspective”

I took a class in college on medical ethics. Professor Peluchon, a tiny blond professora from southern France, tried to explain to my class (mostly pre-med students and one philosophy major who was, uh, me) the intricacies of ethics concerning End-of-Life issues such as euthanasia or palliative care (treatment which alleviates symptoms without treating the underlying cause). She taught about the utilitarian approach of stem-cell researchers and abortion clinics. She focused on topics that will be important to medical practitioners who will work in the suburbs of America in the future.

Now, I don’t like to think of myself as small-minded, but I didn’t even begin to consider the questions of medical ethics that concern over one sixth of humanity. I thought of medical ethics as abortion, palliative care, drug abuse, and just nominally The Tuskegee Experiment. However, I never took my questions to the next step. I never considered the larger picture. I never looked outside of US healthcare needs, and even then, I barely considered America’s destitute. That’s where Paul Farmer comes in.

Paul Farmer is a Harvard and Duke educated doctor and medical anthropologist. He works in one of the best hospitals in the United States, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA. He co-founded an internationally recognized medical non-profit, Partners in Health. He has also dedicated his life to working with individuals in the Central Plateau of Haiti, and he has been doing it for over twenty-years. I first learned about Paul Farmer’s work in Kenya this summer. Another volunteer raved about him as being inspiring and tenacious. Reading his biography and some of his own books not only inspired her to work in a clinic in Western Kenya, but he also inspired her to return to school for a nursing degree.

Pathologies of Power is Paul Farmer’s unveiling of a new worldview. It is a worldview that has been violently apparent to the silent multitude for decades, but ignored by the minority who possess power. Those who die prematurely from disease, those who are sentenced to death by disease, and those who are used or ignored by Western medicine are the focus of this book. Farmer asserts, through individual stories and grandiose theory (liberation theology), that the international community has an inherently flawed view of aid especially concerning healthcare. Structural violence enacted against the world’s most desperate cannot be their fault. It is the fault of the Western market economy. And it is the duty of the West to correct this.

He decries the West for focusing on “the right to vote” as opposed to “the right to survival”. He exposes the hypocrisy of Western leaders who proclaim that sufficient care for those with Multi Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (MDRTB) is “not cost effective” although they would demand the best care for themselves. He challenges the reader to truly recognize that all human beings deserve to be treated with respect.

For example, recently there was a study conducted in Uganda that found that circumcision reduces risks for HIV transmission in heterosexual couples. That’s all good. What wasn’t widely reported was that participants (who participated under the promise that they would receive medical care) were not provided any antiretroviral drugs and their spouses or partners were not to be advised of the participants’ HIV status. These individuals were a control group. Those who ran the study believed that their actions were justified for the greater good.

Pathologies of Power forces one to consider the tragic irony of the international aid apparatus. The World Trade Organization is designed to provide guidance on improving healthcare for the world. However, it is restrained by donor states who don’t want to hear that a new TB program in Bolivia will save millions of lives except will be very costly. They’d rather have a program that will save thousands of lives and be “cost effective” or “sustainable”. Paul Farmer rejects this approach. To his (and the book’s) detriment, he is unable to provide an alternative approach to healthcare that improves state apparatus’ from the inside out. He only approves of programs that ensure large influxes of capital into failing health infrastructure. How can progress be maintained? If he has an answer to that question, he does not provide it here.

Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor
Paul Farmer
Paperback: 402 Pages
University of California Press

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Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Over this past summer, at some point, I read my first Cormac McCarthy novel, Blood Meridian, which is a wild sort of Western novel starring a Kid and a Judge and their harrowing deeds.  I didn’t review the book here largely because I didn’t know what to make of it.  At times, the book seemed meandering and lost, which some critics seem to dismiss as a non-problem, but I, however, like a tight, aggressive narrative, which Blood Meridian, at times, failed to provide.  However, the book did possess some spectacular prose and one of the most interesting characters I had ever read.  When the book was good, it was fantastic. 

I assumed I’d re-read Blood Meridianat some point to try to grasp it better, but I didn’t give Cormac McCarthy much thought otherwise, until I saw the trailer for the Coen brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men, which is, in fact, based off a McCarthy novel by the same name.  The trailer is fantastic, and this coupled with the high points of Blood Meridian led to an Amazon package on my front doorstep two days later.

No Country for Old Menis the story of Llewelyn Moss, a sniper in the Vietnam War, who comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone sour in the Texas border area.  While investigating the scene–two trucks, a few dead bodies–Moss finds a sack full of money.  Over two million dollars.  Soon enough, a cold and vicious man named Anton Chigurh is chasing him, with intentions to reclaim the money and kill Moss.  In the wake of their destruction is Sherriff Bell, an aged, small-town lawman, who is always two steps behind Moss and Chigurh, but provides a moral relief for the story. 

Unlike Blood Meridian and, from what I understand, most of McCarthy’s other works, the language of No Country for Old Men is of a simple, stripped down nature.  Few words are spent on scenery.  Nearly every word furthers the plot, every paragraph a step in the book’s relentless action.  Deep breaths are only occasionally taken with Bell’s occasional diary-like entries, talking about life, and love, and the law. 

For a book with so much action, the climax is strangely indirect, off-stage, as it occurs, and is then re-told from one minor character to Bell, after the events.  To repeat, the action has occurred, and we roughly understand the nature of the climax, but we only get its details after we know its results. 

It would seem that the novels main protagonists are Bell and Chigurh, although Llewelyn Moss seems like the obvious main character at first glance.  But Moss is surprisingly static, by the end, whereas Chigurh and Bell seem to find extra depth.  I honestly don’t know what to make of it.  From page 1 through just before the climax, the book reads as a thriller, and a good one.  From the so-called climax onward, the book is not thrilling, but instead contemplative and reflective.  Such a tonal shift is hard to grasp, even as both tones ring strong and loud. 

No Country for Old Men
Cormac McCarthy
Paperback: 320 pages
Vintage Publishing


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Mr. Thursday’s Book Shelf 9: Birds Without Wings

Mr. Thursday’s Book Shelf: Birds Without Wings

Written by Louis De Bernieres (better known for Corelli’s Mandolin and Nicholas Cage), this is the complementary story of a small, Turkish town’s identity in the face of a new brand new Turkish state. The consequences of World War I, the ascension of Ataturk, and the fall of the Ottoman Empire reflect upon this broken town of Eskibahce in southwestern Anatolia.

The story revolves around Eskibahce (Garden of Eden) and its residents. Muslim Turks and Christians of Greek descent live harmoniously in this out-of-the-way town. Although their religious differences are apparent, it is a regular occurrence for the Muslim women to approach their Christian friends and ask them to pray for them to the Virgin Mary. In the story of Philothei, the most beautiful Greek girl in the village, and Ibrahim the Mad, their religious differences make no difference to the lovers or their families. They are simply a good match.

With the start of World War I and the proclamation of a holy jihad, Muslim boys from the town must march off to war as their Christian friends remain behind to either be sent to work camps or to become out-laws and bandits in the countryside. Bernieres’ description of war electrifies and horrifies. The horrors of trench warfare are illustrated brilliantly and eloquently. Told from a first-person perspective (either experiencing it currently or through recollection) lends to a fuller understanding of the experiences.

Additionally, De Bernieres follows the story of Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk) and his rise through the ranks of the Ottoman military until he becomes the Father of Turkey. He never speaks through Kemal in first-person instead using his own omniscient voice, but he uses fictional village people, merchants, and artisans to express how the international and domestic power struggles affected life on the Anatolian Peninsula.

However, for me, the stories of individual struggles, which are expertly woven together, is the treat of this novel. Rustem Bey, the kindly but proud aristocrat of Eskibahce, and the conflict between his adulterous wife, Tamara, and his “Circassian” mistress, Leyla, is exceptional. The tensions of a man with financial stability and preeminence but who simply wants the true love of a woman is tragic. The appeal for true love is a universal theme. De Bernieres’ understanding of the human condition is the foundation of his expertly crafted prose.

Would I recommend this book? I’m not sure. It is a very slow burner, and it takes a significant number of pages before the plot gets moving.  Nevertheless, Birds Without Wings is a lovely read if you like historical fiction or beautiful prose.

Birds Without Wings
Louis De Bernieres
Paperback: 576 Pages
Vintage Publishing

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Mr.Thursday’s Book Shelf 8: The Sound and The Fury

The title of William Faulkner’s masterpiece is taken from a soliloquy from the fifth act of MacBeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing…”

Now I’m a good enough person to admit that Wikipedia gave me that little piece of information. Nevertheless, the title is as nearly a perfect title as I have ever seen. The Sound and the Fury is split into four sections.

The first section “April 7, 1928” is recounted from the perspective of Benjy, the youngest of the Compson boys. Benjy is either mentally retarded or autistic and this is expressed in the nonlinear, stream of consciousness of the first section. It is especially difficult to read and led me to put down the story multiple times; however, Benjy’s recollection of events in the Compson family (between 1898 and 1928) illustrate a pure sketch of the other characters in the family. It allows the reader to better understand each of the Compson children: Quentin, Caddy, and Jason.

The second section, and my personal favorite, follows Quentin around Harvard and through his recollections of Caddie at home before she becomes pregnant and is exiled from her family. Quentin’s despair for himself, and for his sister’s exile, lead to a nonlinear, cluttered end to the section until his suicide in the Charles River. It’s a complex and layered section.

My favorite part of this section is when Quentin meets an Italian immigrant girl. He spends the day trying to communicate with her to lead her home. He calls her “sister” and fruitlessly leads her around town trying to bring her to a house she recognizes. She follows him until her brother runs up, punches Quentin in the face, and claims that he kidnapped her. It’s beautifully written, and it displays Quentin’s tireless and futile effort to save Caddy from her fate.

The Sound and the Fury expresses the deterioration of southern values through the Compson family (it also expresses about a million other themes, but I’m going to focus on this one. I’m not an English major after all). The alcoholism and death of the Compson father, the mother’s insistence that the family maintains the aires of aristocracy, Caddy’s moral degradation, and when her daughter, Miss Quentin, ran away with a carnival man are all indications of the deterioration of the family. It is through Dilsey, the Compson’s matriarchal servant, that the family is mourned.

The Sound and the Fury is a beautiful work, and a major reason for Faulkner’s Nobel Prize in literature in 1949. This book is widely regarded as one of the best in American literature. It’s beautiful, lyrical, and challenging prose. It must be read more than once.

The Sound and the Fury
William Faulkner
Paperback: 336 pages
Vintage International

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Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf 7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Like with most enthusiastic Harry Potter fans, I read the entire book over the weekend.  Amazon didn’t bother to deliver my copy until 6PM, and extenuating circumstances had left me exhausted, so most of my reading was done on Sunday.  I wanted to give myself a few days to digest the book.  My personal history suggests that when my excitement and anticipation are high, I cannot help but overlook a lot of errors and general badness on the first run-through.  (To wit: I adored The Phantom Menace after the first time I saw it). 

It’s been three days, though.  Enough for various Biblical characters to arise from the dead, and therefore, enough for me to analyze Harry Potter.  The next couple of paragraphs are going to be general statements about the book, the series, and the author.  After the break I will have my more detailed thoughts, which will include spoilers.  If you haven’t read the book yet, do not proceed past the break. 

I really do feel like this is, in many ways, the best book in the series.  It’s greatest (and, depending on perspective, only) weakness is a roughly 150 page section in the middle of the book in which there is not much happening.  The narrative follows Harry throughout its entirety, and so when he and Ron and Hermione are stuck and frustrated on their mission, the reader must suffer through a seemingly interminable series of chapters devoted to very little action or plot development.  This may have been easier to swallow if Rowling spent time with some of the rest of the wizarding world (the students at Hogwarts, the Order of the Phoenix members, Voldemort and his crew).  She does not, however, and the book suffers, only slightly, for it. 

There have been criticisms regarding Rowling’s prose in this book.  Actually, there have been criticisms regarding her prose since the beginning of the series.  The main criticism of her prose is that it’s “clunky”.  I am uncertain what this means, exactly, except to say that, perhaps, Rowling’s prose is not naturally rhythmic.  Personally, I don’t think her prose is any different, in terms of quality, than the other books, and I thought her prose was very good back then, too.  It’s an unadorned style of prose, not given to long, fanciful metaphors or asides.  It relies, instead, on clarity of thought.  Rowling’s biggest gift, as a sentence writer, is to convey very clearly what she means at all times, and to evoke the images and feelings in her writer that the story demands.  In some ways, I thought her writing had improved significantly in this book in one respect: regarding action.  In Goblet of Fire and especially in The Order of the Phoenix, her actions sequences were confusing and unclear.  This final book features more, and grander action scenes than any book previous, and Rowling delivers outstandingly. 

Rowling’s greatest strength, overall, is that nature of her imagination.  Her creativity is so boundless, and her storytelling so intriguing, that the so-called flaws of her prose are irrelevant.  She has created a series for all time–to be treasured alongside The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.  I was asked a number of years ago to describe the Harry Potter series, and the best I could offer was this:  Imagine Lord of the Rings, with its vastness, its detail, its magic and wonder; with the wretched might of its villains and grace and courage of its heroes.  Now imagine that the story had been written by Roald Dahl, with his own sort of magic, and wit and wonderment; with his touch gentler than JRR Tolkien’s, and more universal.  I do not feel like I’m crossing a sacred line or being too generous by comparing Rowling’s work here to Dahl and CS Lewis and Tolkien.  She has earned her place within their pantheon. 

Harry’s nickname, The Boy Who Lived, is a stunning phrase, and a perfect term to sum up the series.  A boy who lives is unremarkable.  There are several billion boys on this planet right now.  But it is the nature of the series, that something so simple, so ordinary and natural, should hold such magic and charm and allure.  The Harry Potter series is not about a lost king or any sort of mythical beast of magic.  It’s about an ordinary boy, and that’s what makes everything so extraordinary. 

The series is complete, and its completion is as near to perfect as I, for one, could possibly ask.

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