october 2013 books.

Short list this month, mostly because I picked up a really long book that I am very close to finishing.

The Rebel Angels
Robertson Davies
There is a thrift store in Raleigh that has giant bins of free books. We have too many books, and so it's easiest if I don't even look in the book section when shopping, but I always check the free bin. Since the books are all tossed in there, you have to dig a bit, which is just fine because I'd rather not find anything. Usually what happens is I get to the last bin and find something amazing, then I go back and really dig through the rest because I think the Free Book Gods must be smiling at me. Sometimes, and this is silly, I take books that I already have, just so I can take them to the used book store. It's not really for the store credit, but to save a good book from certain death.

Anyway, one day I found a Robertson Davies book in the free bin. I'd never heard of the guy, but the cover looked like the kind of thing I'd like, with positive reviews from trusted publications (like The New Yorker, not Cosmo). I looked the book up on my phone, where the Amazon reviews were also uniformly glowing, with phrases like "the best writer I'd never heard of." So I added the book to my pile. Then I kept digging, and I kept finding more Robertson Davies. Some Davies fan must've died and their estate, having never heard of the guy, donated all the books, where they ended up in the bins, having already languished away on the shelves, passed by others who had never heard of him. As a result, I have five Robertson Davies books. Never read a single one until this month.

It was really good!

The book takes place at a small private university, with various amusing campus characters. Davies, a professor himself, was incredibly well-read, so he drops references to things all over the place. It made me feel smart when I got them (lots of references to Rebalais, and even a shout out to Beerbohm!). It's not a plot-driven book; there are several interweaving storylines going on that come together very nicely in the end, but the focus is really more on the characters. And it was very funny stuff. There was a gypsy Christmas dinner that was particularly wonderful.

One of the main themes was about finding value in the dirty or broken (appropriate for a book from the free bin). One of the professors is studying ancient folk traditions, specifically ones using excrement, which leads him to meet some gypsies, who use horse dung to rehabilitate broken violins. Several professors are in the process of cleaning out the estate of one of their deceased colleagues, who hoarded works of art. The title refers to a myth about some angels who got kicked out of heaven for giving sacred knowledge to the humans (sort of like Prometheus). University professors are compared to those angels, still imparting sacred knowledge to the pitiful humans after all these years.

Good stuff, which is lucky because I've got several more Davies books to read.

The Master of Go
Yasunari Kawabata
When I went looking through my unread books, I deliberately picked books by authors that I have multiple works by. Months ago, I went to the estate sale of someone who was apparently a Kawabata fan. I bought them all. I am a sucker for translated books, because taking the time to translate a whole book into another language seems like a pretty good vote of confidence. Plus, the cultural differences always make for interesting reading.

This book was a work of sports journalism, about a championship game of Go that lasted for six months (not continuous). There were extended sessions, and a couple of huge breaks because one of the players was very old and in poor health. I have never played Go, though my understanding is that it is similar to Othello, which my brother taught me to play twenty-some years ago. Despite being a retelling of a game that I don't understand and which is about as thrilling as chess, the book was pretty suspenseful. It was told as a battle between old and young, both in terms of the players, the evolution of the style of gameplay, and the nation of Japan. While the match took place before World War II, the book was written afterwards, when Japan was irrevocably changed. Though the war (and the bomb) changed the country, the old ways were already disappearing beforehand.

While I wouldn't read it again, the fact that Kawabata made me care about the championship match of Go indicates that he's a pretty good writer, I think. A really good writer can make you care about most anything.

Crooked Letter Crooked Letter
Tom Franklin
Our book club selection this month. It's a crime novel of sorts, one crime being recent and another one thirty years old and still unsolved. It's set in small town Mississippi (thus the title), and deals a lot with race and class division. The interesting thing to me about was that it was set in partly in the 1970s and partly in modern day. It seems like a lot of books that deal with race are set in the really bad old days before integration, as if everything immediately got better. But this shows that there was still a lot of very open racism in the 70s, and that it still exists today, though it is muted.

The book was okay. I feel like I never have anything good to say about book club books. It's possible that reading them in between established classics is not putting them in the best light. Even when they are solid books, like this one was, they seem pretty ho-hum in comparison to the best writer you've never heard of.

I've actually decided to give up my moderator position at the end of the book club year in February. At that point, I will probably switch to another club that reads things more aligned with my reading interests. I really like reading with a group, because so often I feel like I need some extra insight to really get a book. I rarely feel that way about the books we read in the club. I don't need help picking up the subtext; frequently, there isn't any. But I think book club has been good for me in terms of thinking about books and discussing them. That is why I joined it, so mission accomplished.

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