Monday, January 7, 2013

Apocalyptic Christmas Reading

For long-time readers of this blog, you will not be surprised to find that my Christmas reading was apocalyptic in tone--and yet, the books were oddly hopeful.

Even the nonfiction book that I read, David Browne's Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970, had a somewhat apocalyptic tone.  I enjoyed revisiting the music discussed, and I'm intrigued by the practice of taking a single year and seeing what it shows us.  But it was rather sad to read about these great musical talents having such problems getting along.  However, the last chapter of the book did remind us of how many of those talents have continued to produce great work, even if they never did completely reconcile with former partners.

I read The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, which has a fairly standard premise:  there's been a terrible disease and much of humanity has died.  How do the survivors carry on, once the need for food and shelter have been met?  How to find meaning in such a world?  And how to deal with memories of what's been lost.  In those lyrical ruminations, I found myself thinking of lessons I could learn from the narrator's experiences. 

The narrator lies in a hammock, which makes him think of a fish in a net: 

"That is what we are, what we do:  nose a net, push push, a net that never exists.  The knots in the mesh as strong as our own believing.  Our own fears.

Ha.  Admit it:  you don't have the slightest idea what you are doing, you never ever did.  With all the nets in the world, real or unreal.  You swam around in a flashing confused school following the tail of the fish in front.  Pretty much.  Nibbling at whatever passed, in whatever current you swam into" (The Dog Stars, page 218).

I also read Justin Cronin's The Twelve, a follow-up to The Passage, a book I enjoyed immensely.  I also enjoyed The Twelve, and it does work as a stand-alone book.  I remember very little about The Passage, yet I had no trouble diving into The Twelve.  It's the kind of book that wakes you up in the morning because you want to find out what happens next.

But the book that has quietly gotten under my skin is Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, a novel about Dellarobia, a woman who had such intellectual potential before she got pregnant and married her high school boyfriend.

But it's about so much more than that:  climate change, habitat loss, clash of values.  Kingsolver does a great job of depicting those who are too poor even to shop at Wal-Mart, showing the desperation of their lives without sentimentalizing them or showing contempt.  In one scene, Dellarobia tries to explain why people of her community, and the country beyond who are like her community, have such trouble rallying around climate change issues:  "Team camo, we get the right to bear arms and John Deer and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. The other side wears I don't know what, something expensive. They get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants. Students e-mailing to tell you they deserve their A's." (Page 321).

Kingsolver also does a great job of showing that habitat loss will affect us all.  I found the scene where Dellarobia and her friend shop in a thrift store to be the most powerful in the book.  Kingsolver devotes many pages to this scene, but it's worth it.
"Dellarobia felt bleary again, looking at this unused luggage:  the golden anniversary cruise that  detoured into the ICU, the honeymoon called off for financial reasons.  Every object in this place gave off the howl of someone's canceled hopes" (page 305)
On seeing exercise equipment:  "This place was a museum of people's second thoughts" (page 295)

But other scenes stay with me too, especially the ones where the newscaster appears.  And I've found myself thinking about the ending, which fits so perfectly, many times in the week since I finished it.

I must be honest, as I was reading it, I thought, this will never be my favorite Kingsolver book.  It's not the kind of book that wakes me up in the middle of the night and demands that I return to it.  But it's the most important work of the ones that I read over Christmas.

It's the kind of work that makes me think of my own writing.  What's important?  What's lasting?  If I could only write one more thing before I died, what would demand my attention?

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