january 2013 books.

I read a lot of books this month! That makes up for December, where I read one and a half. I will attempt to discuss the books I read this month. I will pretty much fail to communicate anything profound.

The Fratricides, Nikos Kazantzakis
Did you know there was a Greek civil war after World War II? Me neither. After the Germans left, there was a power vacuum, and the Communists saw their opportunity. This book takes place in the midst of that war, in a small village, where the local priest wants brothers and neighbors to stop killing each other already. Many of the soldiers don't understand the fight at all. They want to fight for Greece! But which side is that?

The priest, after going between one camp and another, trying to convince everyone to just stop fighting, after begging God to intervene and bring peace, concludes that God cannot bring justice and freedom and love to the world - "so freedom is not almighty, it is not immortal, it too, is the child of man and needs him!"

Heavy stuff.

A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Karen Armstrong
This book took me forever to finish. My reading pace was slowed considerably by the amount of info, and I took a bunch of notes. And then I lost the book for a couple of weeks in the bag that I took to the tailor's containing my special bride torture devices undergarments. The whole thing is sort of an overview of the history of the concept of God, as opposed to god. Monotheism!

I read religion books sometimes, but I don't know anything about God. I used to feel like I knew some things, but then I learned other things that seemed like they contradicted the things I learned in the first place. It made my head hurt, so I didn't think about it much for a long time, because I was afraid of my own conclusions. At some point, I was like, maybe there isn't a God, but then I was like maybe there isn't that one God that I was told about. And now I am here, where I am just like, heck, I dunno. Could be!

This book introduced me to lots of other people's thoughts on the thorny subject. Some of them resonated very much with my experience and others struck me as kinda out there. For instance, there is an idea that God is pure thought, and all He does is consider Himself. As a result of His Whateverness, stuff is created. Emanations, they're called, and that's our us and universe. He doesn't care about these emanations, because He doesn't know they exist, because He is considering Himself still. Weird, huh?

There is a lot of discussions about the philosophers versus the prophets. Whether God can be reasoned out, or whether he can only be verified by individual religious experiences, which are subjective. Western religion has mostly followed the philosophers, while others, including Eastern Christians like the Greeks, are more comfortable with mysticism, which is fuzzy and mysterious, and they say that's the point.

One thing that I liked was an idea about the unknowability of God. Lots of people talk about God's being beyond our tiny pea brains, but then they proceed to tell you a lot of really specific things they know about Him. Anyway, the idea is that God is beyond our understanding. Like totally. And not only is he too big for our brains, he is too big for our language, a product of our tiny pea brains. So we are limited by our ability to understand and our ability to communicate, which is why you end up with a lot of religious metaphors. Some say that you can only speak of God in paradoxes: God is wise. God is not wise (because we can only understand earthly wisdom, and God is not on that level). God is more than wise. Got it?

So I learned about different ways to think about God, which hardly helped my overall befuddledness, but it was nice to know that I'm not alone.

Maus: A Survivor's Tale, Art Spiegelman
My thanks to my friend Sarah, who introduced me to this book by buying it at a flea market while I was visiting her in Brooklyn. I am sorry the vendor was not willing to make a deal. I got a great deal by waiting a few years and randomly finding it in Smalltown, Tennessee amidst the kinds of books you mostly find in small town thrift stores.

This is a Holocaust book. It's also a graphic novel. If that is an unfamiliar term to you, you might call it a comic book. About the Holocaust. It is an amazing book and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. You might possibly be inclined to dismiss it because of its form, but don't. Art does not care about your attempts to box it in.

The author/artist interviews his father about his experience surviving the Holocaust. He and his wife were Polish Jews. The frame story, which is the guy visiting with his dad, deals with the author's difficult relationship with his father, and also his father being sort of impossible to live with due to having survived such awfulness. His incredible resourcefulness (and also a good deal of luck) is what got him through the war, but years later, he is still living like he might need to bribe a guard at any moment.

I read this book with Remix snuggled up next to me. It's a good book to read while being snuggled.

Foreign Affairs, Allison Lurie
I wrote about this book a while back, specifically talking about how the cover says "trashy romance novel," except for the little gold Pulitzer seal which says "great piece of American literature." I can see why the Book of the Month club might think their readers would enjoy this book, as it was about romantic relationships. However, it did not follow the rules of romance novels, mainly the ones about being only about really, really, ridiculously good-looking people and having a (spoiler alert) happy ending (AHE, as we call it in the biz).

Ms Lurie is a perceptive observer of humanity. Each person introduced was someone that I felt like I had met before. And they all acted like idiots when dealing with romance, which is something that I have personally done before. The book points out how we change depending on where we are and who we are with, rather than us being constants. And it was funny! Seriously, those Pulitzer people know how to pick a book.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand
This was the book club selection for this book, written by the author of that Seabiscuit book. It's a true story about Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner, World War II bombadier, plane crash survivor, and POW. The book is about the knitting club he started when he got old. No, just kidding, it's about that other stuff he did.

I learned so much from this book, one of my favorite side-effects of reading. For example, if ever you are in the water and approached by sharks, open your eyes very wide, bare your teeth, and then bop the shark on the nose with your fist as hard as you can. The author must have done an incredible amount of research - interviewing veterans and their families, reading through diaries and old letters, not to mention the regular kind of research you do at the library. She writes very well, interweaving various sources into a coherent story. I mean, it's a heck of a story, but she told it right. When I think about all that I read, I realize that it was very dense with information, but she did a great job of keeping things moving.

It was a rough book. Even before he went into combat, people died all over the place because aerial combat was a new thing. We hadn't got the kinks worked out of the planes yet. Thousands of airmen died in training or accidents. Louie's plane went down in a mission to find the guys that were missing from a previous mission. They crashed into the Pacific ocean, where the 3 men that survived the crash stayed on 2 rafts. Provisions were pathetic - something like a couple of tins of water and some chocolate bars. Fish hooks, no bait. No shade. They drifted 2000 miles in the Pacific over 46 days, catching rain and food (birds, fish, a couple of small sharks, but never enough) as best they could to stay alive. Meanwhile, sharks circled them constantly. One of the guys died, one who had been in sort of a state of shock most of the time.

And then they are picked up by the Japanese!

Did you know that the Japanese were, uh, kinda jerks to their POWs? I had no idea how bad it was. Once they are picked up by the Japanese navy, they are then sent to a series of prison camps, where POWs was treated as "unarmed combatants," which is one of those made-up terms that don't mean anything but allow you to lock up people in camps, where you starve and beat them. If you didn't die from malnutrition or overwork or injuries, you would probably die of disease, because you were basically living in your own filth all the time.

Then the war ends, and he goes home, where he marries a nice girl but suffers from what we would now call PTSD. Drinks himself into a stupor everyday, until his wife drags him to see Billy Graham, where he gets saved and never drinks or has flashbacks again.

A couple of the women at book club complained that this book was sold to them as inspirational, where mostly all they got was sharks and prison camps. They appreciated the example of man's resilience. It just happened that there were a lot of examples of man's cruelty.

A question that the author asks, but does not answer, is where resilience comes from. Is it something born in some people, and the rest of us will just sit in a stupor on the raft until we die? Sitting in our comfortable chairs in the frozen yogurt store, it was hard to answer.

It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita, Heather Armstrong
Yeah, I know. Just looking at the title of that one, and you can tell it was no good.

I bought this book because I read and like the blog of the woman who wrote it. She writes very openly and honestly about her life, particularly her problems with depression and parenting. Generally, I like her writing, but this book felt rushed. It covers the same time period as some of her blog, and so I don't know if the text was taken directly from that or if she wrote new stuff for the book or some combination of the two. It just seemed like she spent a lot of time complaining about pregnancy and then gave short shrift to the more serious things, like her post-partum breakdown. And if the book was meant to be helpful to other people out there strugging with some of the same issues, they might have given up during the chapter about her belly-button popping out. I know that those chapters were meant to be over-the-top kind of humorous complaining, which is something that I do myself quite a bit. But I wasn't feeling it, I guess.

I'm sorry, Heather. I still read your blog.

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
The next book on my list was actually a beautiful old children's novel I had picked up, certain that I was finding a lost classic. As it turned out, it was a book that should be lost. I got through about 2 chapters about Calico Cotton, in her calico dress and her cotton-colored mop, before I gave it up. Rather than just skip to the next book in my pile, I asked Josh to pick a book for me out of his collection.

He picked up To the Lighthouse, then put it down because he said it might be too hard for me. I bristled. I mean, I know that I am not great with literature, but I had gotten a lot better in the last couple of years. I had read hard books! I had even understood them, though sometimes I had to look up criticism online to make sure I understood them. I actually had a copy of To the Lighthouse upstairs in my vast to-read pile, though I'd been too intimidated to get to it yet. But I took it as a sign that it was time for me and Virginia to get to know each other. I reasoned that it was better to read something and not quite understand it than to not read it at all.

Alright, Virginia, let's do this.

This book was really hard. Her sentences are long, streams of consciousness from various characters, which she jumps between willy-nilly. I had a hard time staying focused, which meant that I lapsed into skim mode. However, after I finished it, I looked up what other people said about it, and I found that I had recognized 2 out of 3 themes. That is totally success for me. Now, when Josh says a book is too hard for me, I will be sure to let him know that I successfully picked out 2/3 of the themes in To the Lighthouse.

This book made me feel very lonely. Because you are treated to the thoughts of each individual in a scene, and you can see how everyone is sort of alone. They all misunderstand or ignore each other. There is a scene where a woman knows that she is supposed to offer sympathy to a man who is talking to her, yet she doesn't. She knows the part that she is supposed to play in this little scene, but she can't. I have felt like that many, many times. I know what I should say, and it would cost me nothing to do so, yet something holds me back, almost like emotional stinginess.

Nothing at all happens in this book. One day, they might go to the lighthouse. But they don't. Ten years later, they go to the lighthouse. A lady does not finish a painting, but she decides that creating art is more important than being known for it. People walk around and are irritated by each other, even as they wish the other person liked them. I'm being kinda flip, I know, but that's my fault. Even in my frustration with the writing style, which was probably done on purpose to reflect how people's thoughts tumble all over each other, I noticed Woolf's dead-on characterization.

"Half one's notions of other people were, after all, grotesque. They served private purposes of one's own."

Ain't that the truth.

Payback, Margaret Atwood
I've read a couple of Atwood's novels, and she is WONDERFUL. This book was only pretty good. It is sort of a noodling on debt, both monetary and not. Atwood is incredibly well-read, and so she drops references to literature all over the place, which was helpful in doing a study of society's feelings on debt through the ages. She covers debt as sin ("forgive us our debts"), debt as slavery, and the codependent relationship between debtor and creditor. She compares the story of Faust, who made a deal with the devil so he could have lots of money to spend on his friends, with Scrooge, who got his soul saved and then spent all his money on his friends. Debt goes in and out of fashion.

The last chapter was a retelling of A Christmas Carol, but with the Spirits of Earth Day, instead of Christmas. Basically, we are in debt to the earth, and payback is coming. It sounds a little out of nowhere, but she did a nice job of building up to it and integrating it in the previous discussion.

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