Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Week in Reading

My spouse has had a dreadful cold all week--he's been spending lots of time sleeping.  The upside to this situation is that I have had time to read.  Here, in no particular order, are my adventures in reading this week:

Absolutely on Music:  Conversations by Haruki Murakami with Seiji Ozawa

I read the first 60 pages, and then I thought, this book really needs to come with a soundtrack.  At first, it's mildly interesting to read these conversations about classical recordings, but then it gets a bit boring.

I did scan the rest, and other interviews were similar.  But I did learn some information.  What stands out in my mind is this vision of a conductor getting up at 4 in the morning and spending time meditating on the musical score, meditating in silence.  I never thought about the conductor's role as much as I have with this book.  Ozawa (the conductor) gets up at 4 a.m. as does Murakami (to write).  I see writing as a solitary experience, but I didn't realize the conductor's experience had similar dynamics.

Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

Would I have read this book if it hadn't been so much a part of the political campaign?  Likely--I do come from east Tennessee hillbilly stock myself.   But the conversations that swirled around this book during the political campaign did lead me to expect a different book.  It's not really a work of sociology.  No, it's a memoir.

As memoirs go, it's mildly interesting.  There are memoirs that explore the issue of white poverty much more lyrically, with more beautiful language--the Rick Bragg book All Over but the Shouting is my all-time favorite in this genre.  I would say the same thing if I was talking about dysfunctional family depictions.  Dorothy Allison's work is much more brutal--tough to read, but I couldn't put it down.  I didn't have a similar compulsion to return to Hillbilly Elegy.

It's interesting to think of these 2 issues in generational terms.  Bragg's work, and Allison's too, are about an older generation of white folks.  The drug of choice, and destroyer of families, in their work is alcohol.  In Vance's view, it's pain pills.

Hillbilly Elegy does a good job of describing the crisis in which so many communities find themselves.  It doesn't give any sense of what can be done about any of this--in fact, I came away with a bleakness about the prospect of lifting people out of poverty.

It is a memoir, after all.  Memoirs aren't required to create policy recommendations.  But it left me wishing for more.

My all time favorite book of the week (and perhaps of the year):

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

What an amazing book!  I don't know if anyone is making a list of novels about aging that must be read--if so, add this one to the list.

But it's not just about aging.  That sounds dreary--but it's funny, even as it is a brutal discussion.  She's great at showing how the passions/rages of our younger years simply melt away as we age.  Even though I'm only 51 (twenty years younger than many of the characters in this book), that part felt real to me.

The book also discusses all the floods that threaten to swamp us:  aging, global warming with sea level rise, immigration, the wars that cause immigration--but above all, aging.  But again, it's warm and funny, even as it explores bleak subjects.

My English major heart also loved this book because I felt rewarded for my knowledge of literature.  Samuel Beckett's Happy Days lingers over the whole plot (two characters are going to see a revival), and there is an absurdist element to this book.  Like Beckett, the absurdist bits are often apocalyptic--but it's funnier than Beckett.  There are all sorts of allusions to all sorts of literature and history.  But the biggest delight for me was the fact that one character is reading the work of Esther Breuer--a character we first met in one of my favorite Margaret Drabble novels, The Radiant Way.

Much as The Radiant Way captures a time period, Thatcher's Britain, so does The Dark Flood Rises for ours.  What an amazing book.

During the next few weeks, I'll have to spend my free time grading for my online class--so I'm grateful to have had this week of reading.

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