Monday, March 02, 2009

February Book Report

It's always comforting to make a little progress on one of your New Year's resolutions. You may recall that last month, in my book report, I confessed that I felt I needed to inject a little variety into my reading, that I'd gotten into a rut. I resolved to read some of the books that I've been meaning to read for a while but for whatever reason never gotten to. Including some Good Books and some Great Books.

February was a pretty good month for that. I started out with the very thick The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer. This is a kind of oddball choice for me, because I'm not excessively fond of war novels, and I've heard the criticism made over and over again that Mailer is a bit of a mysogynist. However, a couple of years ago, there used to be a show called "Great Books," that was essentially an hour-long documentary devoted to a classic book. It explained a bit about the plot, gave the author's background, set the book in historical context, told why it was considered so great, and so on. I happened to see the episode devoted to this book and it sounded interesting. A couple of years later, I finally got around to reading it.

If you're going to read a book that's considered An Important One, it's really gratifying to discover yourself caught up in it, truly appreciating why it's considered a masterpiece. TNATD takes place on a fictional island in the Pacific, during the second half of WWII. It follows a platoon of around a dozen American soldiers as they prepare to participate in the invasion and attempted conquest of this island. I was shocked at how fascinating I found the book, and how engaged I become in the stories of the individual men. Mailer writes in a very vivid and direct way. It is shocking to me that he was only around 24 or 25 when he wrote it. The descriptions of jungle warfare are so immediate and compelling that you first read through it quickly, to find out what happens, then go back and reread it, realizing how amazingly well-written certain passages are.

I liked that Mailer spent time getting inside the head of all the members of the platoon, giving a feel for the "melting pot" aspect of the military at this time and portraying the internal monologue of soldiers at every rank, from enlisted man through the general commanding them. It was a bit hard in the beginning keeping all the different men straight, but as you get more into the story, and learn more about their backgrounds, this became easier. In this book, Mailer does not mince words when it comes to portraying the politically incorrect attitudes among the military men during this time frame: yep, plenty of misogyny, along with racism, antisemitism, classism, and so on. I didn't feel that this was necessarily something Mailer was presenting because he approved of it, though; some of it was just part of the way things were at the time, and part of it was shown in order to convey how ridiculous it was.

So overall, two thumbs up for TNATD, tome that it is.

Next up: Middlesex: A Novel, by Jeffrey Eugenides. This was another book I'd heard many people rave about. I'd been given a copy as a Christmas gift a few years ago, but hadn't gotten to it yet. Middlesex has an unusual protagonist: the narrator is a hermaphrodite (get it? middle-sex) and part of the story concerns his experiences being raised as a girl, without he or his parents realizing that their child's genitalia are more complicated than that. Cal begins by insisting that his story can't be told except in the context of his family's story. So the story-within-a-story starts with Cal's grandparents, Greeks who are forced to flee when the Turks invade. His grandparents end up in Detroit, living with a cousin, and Eugenides follows their story down to the present day, when Cal is an adult living in Berlin.

Without giving away any plot details, I will just say that Middlesex struck me as really bizarre when I first started reading it, and I had to persist even though a plot development concerning Cal's grandparents kind of shkeeved me. But by the end of the book I was completely won over. The book was funny, well-written, full of interesting observations and nicely-turned phrases, and when I finished, I found myself feeling uplifted, even though a lot of tragic things happened to the characters in the book.

Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth, was recommended by Mr. Go-Knit-In-Your-Hat. Tom and I don't have identical tastes in reading; he is much more enamored of mid-twentieth-century stuff than I am. I find a lot of it just too gritty and depressing and misogynist and plain old not fun to read. Tom suggested this novella by Roth and I did enjoy it. It was a quick read -- less than 150 pages. The story is very 1950s-feeling: a young Jewish guy from Newark meets a young Jewish girl from Short Hills. Their summer love story is played out against major class issues, as well as the knowledge that when summer ends, Brenda will go back to college in Boston while Neil will continue at his job in Newark. Bittersweet, and if you liked The Graduate, you might enjoy this one.

Darling Jim: A Novel by Christian Moerk, was another one of those Amazon Vine selections that they sent to me for free in order to get a review of it. This book, set in Ireland, was a return to the escapist thriller/mystery genre that I was taking a break from. The title character is a storyteller with a magnetic, almost supernatural attractiveness that sucks women in as he begins to tell his stories at small-town pubs. Jim's path crosses with three sisters. After a one-night stand with Jim, the eldest sister starts to suspect that he is not only a storyteller, but a psychopath. The plot is kind of convoluted, and told through various characters' viewpoints: portions of the book consist of two of the sisters' diaries. Overall, this was an enjoyable read if you like gothic-type mysteries.

I will warn you that March may not be a book-heavy month. I subscribed to Netflix (I know, I'm the last person in the world to do so) and I've been catching up on movies and teevee shows. I've got some sample sweater knitting I'm working on, and it's been fun to watch Netflix (either by playing DVDs on my laptop or by watching their Instant streaming video) while working on my sweater.

While I'm talking about books, I would be remiss if I didn't send out a big happy birthday in honor of Dr. Seuss. Today would have been his 105th birthday -- and I very clearly remember having several Dr. Seuss books that I dearly loved as a kid: Green Eggs and Ham, and Dr. Seuss's ABC ("Ichabod is itchy") were two of my favorites.


Unknown said...

Great minds think alike. I just wrote about Seuss in my entry today. My favorite was McElligot's Pond, which nobody I know has ever read. It's a great book, though.

Middlesex struck me the same way as you. I ended up liking it a lot, although it was quite weird. Right now, I'm reading Manic by Terri Cheney--excellent book on the disorder--and The Epic of New York City by Edward Robb Ellis, a wonderful history of my birth city.

Carol said...

Whew! So glad you liked Middlesex. You never know when you recommend a book and it is a bit hard to take at times.

Unknown said...

I LOVED Middlesex...I particularly liked how the story was woven in with the family history.

It was one of my favorite books in a while.

I wasn't at all skeeved by the family thing...but I did keep reminding myself it was a fictional story.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the book reviews. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking. But I wanted to say that, no, you are not the very last person to join Netflix. I am. The last "video" store in our town finally closed a few months ago, so I guess I'll get around to joining one of these days.

Kris said...

I am also behind you in line for Netflix. I am of the bend that "if the library doesn't have it, I am not seeing it." No big loss, since I have a bad habit of taking out movies and not seeing it anyway. So I definitely shouldn't pay anyone for the privilege! I would be one of those annoying people who kept the DVDs for months.

Cynthia said...

Loved Middlesex!!!

Speaking of books--we just received your book at my library! I cataloged it today. It is lovely--I am third on the hold list, but I am sure I will be purchasing this one as well...

rogue1 said...

Bwha, ha, ha. Netflix has an awesome collection of sci-fi. Want to know what happens to your brain when you go through 4 seasons of Farscape in a month?

Just now finishing Torchwood.

Moving on to Battlestar Galactica.

Ranch de Russell has Netflix, but not cable.