Monday, July 6, 2009

What I Read during My Summer Travel

As I put away my books from my summer travel, I pondered the similarities and differences. I read two historical novels and one novel of the future that might be. None of them had the kind of plot lines that "how to write a bestselling novel" books would tell us is necessary. All of them were somewhat liesurely paced and in many ways, they were more character studies than plot, which is fine with me.

On the plane north, I read James Kuntsler's World Made by Hand, a novel which explores what the world will look like after the oil age. If you've read his book The Long Emergency, you've got some idea of what he's envisioned. I found the last part of that book most interesting, the part that looks at life in the U.S., region by region, after we use up all the oil. In World Made by Hand, Kuntsler makes similar points by creating a fictional world (and in many ways, that world is more of a complete character than any of the human characters). In some ways, it's an appealing world, where people play instruments and appreciate their food more. In some ways, it's a more brutal world, where the strong have power over the week, and many people sign up for serfdom, in return for safety and food. The ending, with its bizarre dip into mysticism and the supernatural, after an unnecessarily brutal depiction of torture, might have bothered me more, but I was on a plane making its landing, and I was ready for the book to be finished.

On my sister's sailboat, I woke up early each day and read Exiles, by Ron Hansen. It was on my 2009 reading list, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It's a book about a shipwreck and the ways in which it inspired Gerard Manley Hopkins. I learned a lot about life in the late 19th century and remembered a lot about Hopkins. It was an interesting look at the creative process, but a more interesting look at what it means to be a person of religious commitment. The main characters, Hopkins and the five nuns who drown in the wreck of the Deutschland, are members of vowed religious communities, and Hansen explores their lives in detail, leaving little doubt as to the sacrifices required. It's an even-eyed look, a non-stereotyped depiction, a non-romanticized portrait. I enjoyed this book thoroughly.

I read Janna Levin's A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines because I heard her speak on an episode of NPR's Speaking of Faith. It was a wonderful program, and I could have listened to her talk for hours. Her novel is about Kurt Godel and Alan Turing and their fascinating minds and the twists and turns their lives took. I thought she might do more with the physicist's view of time, but she didn't.

With both historical novels, I knew where the end would head. But that knowledge didn't diminish my enjoyment. I wonder if writing about historical figures constrains the novelist or sets him/her free. I've always thought that I preferred to create characters that were completely fictional. And much as I enjoy Science Fiction, I've never been good at creating alternate worlds. I've only tried to write historic fiction once (a romance set during the Civil War), and I found myself so hampered by my inability to imagine the daily lives of characters (what would they wear? were chairs upholstered then? what did they eat?), that I gave up early.

In his end notes, Hansen says that he was writing this novel at the same time that Paul Mariani was writing a definitive biography of Hopkins, and he helped immensely. I'd love to know more about that process. He says they took a six day retreat to St. Bruno's, an important location for Hopkins. What a treat that must have been.

Now I'm reading Charlotte Bronte's Villette, which I haven't read before (but I have long loved Jane Eyre). I want to be ready for the discussion of the novel on The Valve (go here if you want the reading schedule). Returning to one of my early loves--19th Century British Lit--makes me happy. Feeling my brain perk up from its recent mush-like state makes me even happier.

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