Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pop Culture

Well, I had what one might describe as an all American evening. I ate a cheeseburger and watched Miss America. And winced and winced and winced and played sudoku because by the end I could hardly stand to watch. The host and hostess were the most crass, unpolished and awkward I have ever had the misfortune of watching.

Frankly, I'm kind of embarrassed to admit that I did watch. But there it is. Some of the girls I thought were sweet and some of the dresses I thought were divine and mostly I thought thank the good lord I don't have that sort of drive. And that's all I'm going to say about that.

I borrowed a mostly unfortunate set of books from the library lately. There is no science to what I choose; I am a firm believer in picking a book based on its cover. If it's not an author I know and the cover is suitably attractive for me to grab it, I will then read a few lines and decide.

This time around I got "Snow Island" by Katherine Towler. This was a no brainer for me; it's set on a rocky island off the coast off Maine during the beginning of WWII. The writing is beautiful, spare and intelligent. She captures so perfectly not only life as it was then, but the harshness and the grace of human nature, especially coming of age.

However it was highly depressing, as it lacked a happy ending. After I realized this (yes, I read the end of books before I've finished.) I put this book aside and moved on to...

"The House of Mirth," by Edith Wharton. Ha. And again, I say Ha. The title misleads; the description on the back misleads; this book is not mirthful. Though it does capture in fascinating and clear and merciless detail what it was like to be in high society New York City in the early 1900s.

It is a classic, I sometimes read these just to see what all the fuss is about. However, I doubt that I will be finishing this book. It was clear from the second page that the author had trapped her character in a box that will grow ever smaller and smaller, in order to illustrate a certain reality. I appreciate the skill required to do this, but I can't stand to watch. So I put it down and read...

"A Thousand Voices" by Lisa Wingate. This was the one light and easy going book I managed to borrow. It's charming, well constructed and illustrates what it means to belong. I finished it in about five hours straight.

Desperate, I then considered my narrowing choices and decided to return to "Snow Island." It was worth reading through to the end, though it was even more depressing than I had at first anticipated. Despite this, I still would read it again and possibly again, I think because it speaks so true.

The next night, I glumly reviewed my choices: "Mrs. Dalloway" or the book that the librarian had foisted on me when I asked her if she had any recommendations for a novel or an author that captured the spirit of the 1940s, as John Steinbeck had done for the 30s.

I didn't want her to feel bad, so I took it and thanked her and made a private note do my own research at home. The book was "Yellow Star" by Jennifer Roy. It is the true story of a young girl and her family, Polish Jews caught up in the Holocaust and how they survived six years in a ghetto in Lodz.

This book was unexpectedly beautiful, due not only to the emerging strength, will to live and good humor of her family, herself and her father in particular, but also because it's written in a simple prose. This had the amazing effect of actually capturing a child's voice and perspective. I was immediately swept up by the story and finished it in one sitting.

Though "Yellow Star" was ultimately a story of the triumph of human spirit over adversity, it was by far not an easy book to read. The next night, I looked with hope to my last selection, the one I had made completely on a whim; "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf.

From the moment I began reading I was caught up in a glittering tide of life. It was a joy to read. Her voice is powerful, beguiling and poetic. And the passages! This in particular:

"It rasped her, though, to have stirring about in her this brutal monster! to hear twigs cracking and feel hooves planted down in the depths of that leaf-encumbered forest, the soul; never to be content quite, or quite secure, for at any moment the brute would be stirring, this hatred, which, especially since her illness, had power to make her feel scraped, hurt in her spine..."

How did she know to capture it like that? I could go on all night coping pieces of it down but I won't. And she succeeds, Virginia Woolf does, she succeeds in actually capturing a woman's whole life in one day and the beauty of the bells ringing through the novel and changing quality of the sunlight and all the voices of the characters blending together and calling out. I will eventually own my own copy of this book.

I also finished, for the...oh lord...I have no idea. More than six times, I have read my battered, paperback copy of "Mrs. Mike" that still smells faintly musty. I do dearly love that simple story though, of the sixteen year old Irish red head that fell in love with a Monty and followed him into the Canadian wilderness. The book used to belong to my mother; she graciously let me take it with me when I left home.

I've also been watching documentaries lately (mostly because I ran out of the ninety nine cent rentals at the local Block Buster) and now wonder why we bother to make stuff up when real life is so much more interesting. I watched "Harlan Country, USA," about a coal miner's strike in Kentucky. I pretty much cried my entire way through it. I also watched "Gunner Palace" and "God's Country." Both are very good.

I spent three or four days straight watching the documentary "The War." This is a seven episode, six disc documentary on WWII. I spent those three or four days with tears streaming down my face.

I cried because I was proud to be an American, I cried because her Staff Sergeant would never come home, I cried because the German boy with his brains in the snow looked like my brother and couldn't be more than thirteen, I cried because in the North African front, in the first real battle the Americans got into, scores of men died because they hadn't learned to dig deep enough and the German tanks would roll over them and crush them to death.

I would get up from the couch in the dim twilight and wander around my own house, dazed. I would turn the TV on as a form of self defense. I will never think of that war in the same way again.

I have yet to finish "Mrs. Dalloway," mostly because I tried to pace myself and because after I'm finished, I will have no more books and will have to make another trek to the library.

Is anyone reading anything particularly good that they can recommend?


T said...

Dang girl. I wish I had the time to read. Mostly I'm reading blogs now. Which is ok since I enjoy non-fiction anyway...

I haven't seen that documentary but how excruciating to watch!?! Sheesh, are you trying to torture yourself?!

Get something that will make you laugh. Ya know? Ha ha!?


jlc said...

In response to your comment :


I also do it for myself. I seriously AM a normally happy person and don't lie on here. I do keep it real.

I like to use blogging as my creative outlet as much as you do. Though we have different styles in creativity I'm so glad we have found some common ground and truly appreciate each other's work. :)

For the 1 year anniversary, I was debating whether or not I wanted to retell the story and let everyone know what DID happen that day. But.... I kinda just want to forget about it.

What's the point about writing about the bad stuff and reliving it?? It doesn't change the fact that it happened.

Soooo I flipped the topic. And decided to make the 1 year anniversary to talk about coming up from behind all the ugliness. In my eyes, that will always hold more value.

I'll never want to read the bad stuff again, complaints, or venting. Complaints always seem petty later on. And venting is better to do in person.

But the good stuff? Is what I would read over and over again.

d.a.r. said...

I am completely enjoying the comedic irony of you eating a cheeseburger and watching Miss America. That just made my morning. So something I would do :)

Hope you are doing well!!

Lindsay said...

I wish I had something to add here. I haven't really had the time, nor put effort into making time to read in quite a while. But I will say that I need to go get a good book as soon as my class is over.