september 2014 books.

Still catching up.

Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir

A few years ago, I heard a hilarious and sad story on NPR about a little boy growing up as an Orthodox Jew. He starts off the story talking about the day he hears that a classmate's father has died. And he says, "Some guys have all the luck."

No, it's funny, really.

Anyway, that story is the very first one in this book, along with a series of stories from his childhood and teenage years. They are interspersed with stories about him and his wife expecting and then having their first child. It's not really clear whether Auslander even believes in any kind of diety anymore, but he is convinced that God is punishing him. He talks about picturing the horrific deaths of anyone he has ever met and liked, because that's the kind of thing God would do to him. With the birth of a son coming up, he is prepared for all manner of gruesome scenes involving his wife and baby.

Auslander has a very complicated relationship with God. There were a lot of rules stressed in his household, such that God's favor and love seemed very conditional on seemingly minor things, like whether the dairy fork touched the meat fork. His father was an abusive alcoholic, and his mother was the pious type, so her love seemed to hinge on keeping kosher, too. As he grew older and tested the waters of holy rule-breaking, his relationship with his parents grew strained, until he basically stopped being in contact with them at all. He compares himself to a foreskin, cut off and discarded. Vivid.

The Death of the Heart

We had that long talk last time about post-modern literature. This book is considered modern. I don't know what that means either, but I did not enjoy this book. I think that I did not entirely understand the context of it, seeing as it was set amidst posh people. Turns out I might be common.

This is a coming of age book, about a young woman who was raised by her parents and then her widowed mother, living a vagrant's life (or as they put it, "in hotels"). She is sent to live with her half-brother, a gentleman, and his wife. She does not know how to act, and she spends her time observing those around her for clues. They find this creepy, and are therefore mean to her. Not that they are particularly nice to anyone. They are very careful about appearances, but they give very little thought to what other people are feeling or how their own actions actually affect anyone else.

Anyway, the death of the heart happens when the young lady figures out that the man she was interested in isn't the slightest bit interested in her, except for flattering his own ego. She is hurt that he doesn't love her, and he says a lot of nonsense about how you can't trust anything he says because he's so in the moment. I remember being young and stupid, and I suppose if I had met a charming young poet who said that kind of thing and made it sound deep, I too might have fallen for it. But I certainly don't like to relive it.

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

I guess you all know about this book, or at least knew what I knew: dude gets washed up on an island, has a friend named Friday. There are hundreds of pages more to it. In fact, the first fifth or so of the book is before Crusoe gets anywhere near the island. He gets shipwrecked and then enslaved for a while, and then builds a plantation in Brazil. Finally, on the way to go get some slaves for his plantation, the ship he is on is caught in a storm and he is the sole survivor, washed up on a small uninhabited island near Trinidad. He's there for twenty-seven years. At some point, he rescues Friday from some cannibals that came over from their island to have a barbeque. Friday is also from a tribe of cannibals, but Crusoe teaches him to like goat instead.

Most of the book is about Crusoe setting up his dominion on the island. He has some supplies that he rescued from the ship, but very limited tools, so it takes him quite a while to do anything. Luckily, time is something he has. He builds a shelter/fort, raises crops, hunts and then domesticates goats, makes his own furniture and clothing and basically does pretty well for himself. He is terribly lonely until Friday comes along, and then he teaches Friday to speak so they can converse. He spends some time at first cursing God, but then becomes very pious, realizing that he's pretty lucky to be alive on an island that provides him with all he needs and yet has no wild animals (and cannibals only sometimes).

What struck me is that Crusoe is not particularly knowledgeable or handy in the beginning, but is resourceful. In fact, I would say he knows about as much as I do about how to do the things he does. He's never built a table, but he sorta knows how it goes. His first one is terrible, but then he gets better because he has all kinds of time. Same with agriculture, tailoring, milling, etc. It gives me hope that I might someday survive if cast away on a island that had everything I needed, yet with no large predators.

Josh is really attached to keeping a library in case the world as we know it ends and we have to rebuild everything from scratch. This would be a pretty good one to have around after the apocalypse.


This book is actually a retelling of Robinson Crusoe. When I realized that by reading the back cover, I figured I better read the original first, so I knew what was going on. I'm really glad I did, as the Pierce Brosnan movie would not have sufficiently prepared me.

The story here is that a woman is cast away on an island, where she meets Robinson Crusoe and Friday. However, her version is drastically different from the original book. The island is mostly rock, and there is nothing growing or living there. Friday cannot speak, as his tongue was cut out. And Crusoe is just...lame. He did not salvage stuff from the ship, nor does he make any attempt to educate and communicate with Friday. He spends most of his time moving rocks to build terraces on the island. He has nothing to plant on them, but is apparently waiting for someone to show up with a bag of corn. He is sort of addled, and the stories he tells about how he and Friday came to be there often contradict each other. When the woman is disappointed in his complacency, he remarks that not every castaway has the heart of a castaway.

And then, the book sorta lost me. She gets back to England. Crusoe dies on the way, but she takes charge of Friday, not knowing what else to do with him. She sends her story to a writer, Mr. Foe, for him to publish. But she is frustrated because Foe wants to expand the story to something it wasn't - perhaps including her past history (there's a whole backstory about her looking for her daughter) or maybe just making Crusoe a lot cooler than he actually was (hey, there's an idea!). At the very end, the book sorta peters out. I guess it's a statement about the artistic license that one has to take, or that maybe fantastic stories are based in truth, somewhere deep down inside. To me, it just sorta bummed me out. I liked the original Crusoe better.

Reading the wiki article gives an interpretation about how unless we can tell our stories ourselves, we are essentially silenced. I can see that, though I did not see it at all while reading the book itself. Apparently, I was supposed to be relating to the lady trying to get her story out, not to the author who thought a story about a castaway with the heart of a castaway would be way better. Maybe in that way, reading the original first was not a good idea.

What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng
Dave Eggers
Speaking of true stories that have been embellished, this book is labeled as an autobiography and a novel. The introduction explains that it is the story of Valentino Achak Deng, but it's a very long story about things that happened a long time ago, so having actual quotes and whatnot is unrealistic. He told his story to Dave Eggers, the author, who did his author-magic and wrote this book. You know, as tricky a thing as memory is, you could call any autobiography a novel.

So who wants to read a book about the Sudanese Civil War? All right!

Valentino was a little boy, about six years old, when the Second Sudanese Civil War started (I feel lucky just reading that - my country only had the one civil war). The thing about a civil war is that there is really no room for neutrality. Each side takes a "if you're not with us, you're against us" attitude. So the rebels come through and raid the town, then the government troops and the militia come through and burn it down. Valentino escapes death by running away, hiding, then running away some more. He meets up with a teacher from his town who is escorting a group of boys like him. They are walking east, to Ethiopia.

As they travel, they accumulate more boys who have escaped similar destruction in their own towns. There is no food or water, so they occasionally pass through a village and ask for food, where they are sometimes fed and sometimes shot at. They sometimes encounter the militia and government helicopters, who shoot at them from the sky. And since this is Africa, sometimes they are just picked off by lions. Periodically, boys will lie down and die on the path, and the remaining step over and around them.

Finally, the group of boys, which numbers in the hundreds by now, make it to Ethiopia, where there is a refugee camp. Just so you know, from Valentino's town to the Ethiopian border is over 500 miles as the crow flies.

So they stay in a refugee camp for three years. There is foreign aid, and eventually schools are even built. But then the government of Ethiopia is overthrown, and they are chased into Kenya. I do mean chased. There is a terrible scene where the locals are coming after them with guns, and they have to cross the river. Many of them cannot swim, and oh yeah, there are crocodiles.

Valentino stays in one camp for a year, before being moved to another camp. He lives there for ten years. When I think of refugee camps, I think of them being temporary. You know, like camp. The camp where he was, Kakuma, is still there. There are 130,000 people living there. People are born there, and they may live their whole lives there.

Eventually, as part of a sponsorship program, Valentino is sent to live in Atlanta. The book goes back and forth between his life in Atlanta, which sucks in the way that living in the bad part of Atlanta does, and his life in Africa. He is robbed in his apartment, tied up and left on the floor, watched over by a small boy, the son of one of the robbers. Once he is rescued by his roommate, he goes to the emergency room for his head wound and waits for fourteen hours for care. The book is him describing these current circumstances as they happen, and him imagining telling his story to the people he encounters, like the little boy and the ER receptionist. While I, the reader, know that my life has been much better and easier than the little boy and the hospital worker, they have no idea what Valentino has been through.

The title refers to a creation story that Valentino's father told. God created his people, the Dinka, and then he gave them a cow. In Monty Hall sort of deal, God said they could trade the cow for the What.

At this point in the story, someone goes "What is the What?" Nobody knows, that's the point.

The Dinka, being wise peoples, take the cow. The rest of the story is that God then gave the Arabs the What. Valentino goes through the book trying to figure out what the What is. Based on the slaughter of the Dinka, it seems to him that maybe the Arabs got the better deal. At one point, he speculates that the What was an AK-47. By the end, when he is leaving life as he knows it to go to the United States, he concludes that his people have suffered for their timidity, their hesitance to embrace the Unknown, the What.

The Damnation of Theron Ware
Harold Frederic
A couple weeks ago, I saw a poll about the best 200 American novels. This list had been decided by some well-read smartypants, and you could go through and check the ones you had read, then see which books were the most read. I was surprised to find Wieland on there, which if you'll remember, I pretty much hated (though I was slightly gratified to check it off and raise my obscure literature points). Another book on there was one I recognized from my to-read list, The Damnation of Theron Ware. Now that I've read it, it's officially the most obscure book on my list. Huzzah!

This isn't relevant, but I bought this because I saw it twice in one day, at two different stores. Sometimes thrift shopping just seems like fate. And you know what? I really liked it. The writing style was more straight-forward than Wieland, and frankly, there was a lot of stuff in there for me to relate to.

Theron is an up and coming Methodist minister who has been assigned to a small congregation. Though the Methodists split in the recent past, basically over the Civil War, this particular church still contains the more forward-thinking members mixed in with the old-school, hard pew type. In fact, the old-school type seem to be mainly in charge. This group is referred to as Primitive; I would call them "severe." In their first meeting with Theron, they ask him to make his wife take the flower off her bonnet, as it was too flashy. They don't allow any musical instruments in services, nor do they care to hear any newfangled words in the sermons. They are obsessed with the Book of Discipline, the Methodist rule book. Theron, young and intellectual, feels oppressed but aims to do the best he can until he can get another assignment.

He becomes friends with the local Catholics, a surprising enough turn of events for him. Previously, he'd never met any Irish Catholics, but all he'd ever heard about them was that they were immoral and idolatrous (worshiping the Pope instead of God). He finds that they are nice enough folks, and is moved by the beauty of a last rites ceremony he happens to witness. Theron's mind has been opened! Yay for broadened horizons!

Later, he's talking to his new friend, the priest, and the priest's friend, a scientist. He tells them about how he's working on a book about Abraham, and is just shocked, shocked!, when they tell him he is taking the source material, i.e. The Bible, too literally. Of course, Abraham wasn't a real dude, they tell him. Theron is ashamed at how little he knows in comparison to these well-read men.

I should mention here that I grew up a Methodist (thought not a Primitive), and that I was shocked, shocked! when I went to an Episcopal church and they started talking about how you can't always take the source material too literally. So I can relate to Theron here.

So Theron starts reading a bit more widely and is introduced to the idea of, well, atheism, basically. His mind is blown. And this is where his damnation happens, not because he loses his faith, but because he begins acting like a jerk. He suddenly feels himself very much above those in his congregation, including his own wife. He treats them with pure disdain, thinking that they are unable to hold his interest, being as he is on such a lofty intellectual plane.

I already knew about the concept of atheism, so my reading lead me to other conceptions of God. While Theron went to a No God stance, I went to a Bigger God one. But I can still relate to him, because I too have been a jerk because I thought I was too smart to ever learn anything from anyone else. The use of the word "interest" really jumped out at me, because that was the same one I used - I did not have any time for people I did not consider to be interesting. And I did not give them much time to prove themselves. What I learned and what Theron eventually learns is that people are not blithering idiots, and they can tell when you are sneering at them in your mind. Whether Theron goes on to learn the greater lesson that he and I are both tiny pea-brained specks compared to the world of human experience (not to mention the world outside it) is not revealed in this book.

There is a subplot with a husband and wife team who come through and raise money for the church by throwing a revival. They are, as they say, backstage, so they see all the messy workings of the church. But they are also believers in the spirit and the show. The author's sympathy seems to rest with them, sincere but pragmatic. The Catholic priest and his scientist friend are painted sort of harshly, and he thinks the Methodists are too rule-bound.

Anyway, good job, early American literature!

Freddy's Book
John Gardner
The first part of this book is about a travelling professor and lecturer who is invited to spend an evening with another professor who is kind of an oddball. The oddball has a reclusive son who is massively obese in addition to his social problems. This part was interesting, and the narrator was witty. He had a great line where he told his less-successful colleagues not to worry, as "in 1000 years, they'd all be suppressed events in a Chinese history books."

The second part was the book written by the reclusive son, which is a retelling of the Swedish War of Liberation. Things got weird fast. As far as I can tell with very minimal research, the historical stuff seems mostly on point, except for the fact that the Devil is a major character. That guy has his fingers in everything, always playing everyone off each other. However, our hero is the only one who is rightly terrified of the Devil and cannot by swayed by his advice and dealings. He just runs away from the Devil at the first chance he gets, which may seem cowardly, but seems to be a much better handling of the situation than the other folks, who think they can control Old Scratch. Eventually, he makes his way to the frozen mountains and kills the Devil. Guys, apparently the Devil is a real person-thing, but he was killed off a long time ago by a Swede, so it's all good now.

I loved Gardner's other book, Grendel, and the mix of the historical with the fantastical is very similar here, but this one just failed to grab me once it got to 16th century Sweden. Oh well.

Dust Tracks on a Road
Zora Neale Hurston
I look forward to reading Hurston's work, because she has such a distinct voice. And it's a Southern, story-telling voice, so it's all the more comforting and homelike for me. She's also incredibly intelligent and perceptive.

This was her autobiography, telling stories from her upbringing and somewhat transient adulthood, with a couple of essays about life in general. I found that I did not enjoy it as much as I have her other works. She certainly lived an interesting life, growing up in an all-black town, travelling with a stage company, and working as an anthropologist. She still had that distinctive voice. So I'm not sure what it was - maybe the lack of overall cohesiveness - that made me feel sort of meh about the whole thing.

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