Monday, April 30, 2012

Move Over, Mountain by John Ehle

Photo by Anna Reavis

“It was spring now.  To Jordan, the best season.  Out on the old farm the new tenant family opened up long cuts in the body of the earth and dropped in seed, letting each find its place, then turned in new dirt—leaving the fields looking as if they had been swept by a big cleaning woman.  The mid-South rains came down in the afternoons and once or twice through the night.  The moist seed split.  Sprouts shouldered their way up through the crust of ground and got their leaves to the sunlight.”

Seven Word Synopsis:  Black man triumphs in the Fifties South.

As I read Move Over, Mountain by John Ehle, I tried to figure out what was bothering me about the book and why it didn’t seem to engage me or to speak to me.  The characters, place, setting, and plot had the capacity to be great, but the book rarely seemed to delve beyond the surface of what was happening.  I tried to decide if it would be possible to put into words what differentiates a great novel from a good one.  The subject feels like one that may take years to elucidate, but I was able to conclude that novels that are just good, but not great, while entertaining and diverting and not unworthy, seem to lack metaphor, figurative language, poetry, and deep universal truths.  Had there been more passages like the one above, this would have been a better book.   I’m no book snob, but reading some books is like eating at a five star restaurant, while reading others is like getting McDonald’s take out.  I won’t say Move Over, Mountain is McDonald’s.  I liked it. It was more Cook Out than Mickey D’s.  It just felt hollow, and I suspect I will eventually forget having read it.

Assessment:  Entertaining but quickly devoured like homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

“Because words are just air…when the wind blows on the water, you see ripples and waves, but the real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard.”
Today, especially, I reflect on the value of silence. When I am weary, nothing is as valued as quietness. All noise, even the slightest, seems to rasp across worn nerves like nails on slate. Insomnia has given me the gift of more reading time, at least. In The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh, the narrative and characters, while well-written and engaging, are secondary to the themes of silence and silent connections between people; of anger, resentment, and misunderstanding that builds between people; of revolution versus evolution; and of nature versus humanity.

Two of the main characters, Piya and Fokir, superficially have nothing in common. One is an American scientist, the other an illiterate Indian fisherman. They don’t even speak the same language. But superficial lack of commonalities and lack of words quickly become less important between them than is their shared love and knowledge of the river and its animals. I did find the relationship, if you can call it that, a bit na├»ve and unrealistic. A relationship where you can’t even speak to or understand the other person? Too good to be true and would certainly not endure in normal circumstances. Piya even refers to the “relief to be spared the responsibilities that came with a knowledge of the details of another life.” I do, however, agree with Piya’s assertion that “speech was only a bag of tricks that fooled you into believing that you could see through the eyes of another being.” And I have a deep affinity and understanding of her desire to “be in this boat, in this small island of silence, afloat on the muteness of the river.”

There are two married couples who play important roles in the narrative. In both cases, the couples seem full of misunderstanding and miscommunication, which not surprisingly leads to anger and resentment. Who knew marriage could be like that? I find it sad and wasteful that people who love each other are often the ones least likely to see the beauty in the other person.

On a more general level, the book speaks to how different people have different methods for changing the world: some on small, incremental levels and some through grand, drastic means, as well as dealing with the theme of the difficulty of preserving the natural world in the face of human overpopulation. I have no idea how I came to own this book, but I certainly recommend it and plan to read Ghosh’s other books.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Redemption and A Reliable Wife: What a Bargain

"...and he found that the living were more beautiful than the dead, that in the end, something must be saved, even if that meant it also had to be endured."

Yesterday was Easter.  I am not a church-goer.  But as I rode through the woods on my bike, I thought some about Easter and its message.  One of the things that appeals to me the most about Christianity is its grounding in the concept of redemption.  No one is too far gone.  No one too broken, too damaged, to be reached.  Hope for all.  I like that.  I don't know that I believe it, but I like it.  I have an affinity for all stories redemptive, and I think that is why I ended up liking A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick.

I had a bit of bipolar relationship with the book as I read it.  At the beginning, I loved it and thought I was going to end up highlighting the entire book.  Then it delved into the salacious, which I find somewhat distasteful and unnecessary.  And it usually annoys me when I see the plot points way before they develop, but the book made enough important thematic points to override that annoyance.   What clinched my liking of A Reliable Wife was the author's decision to allow his characters, broken, battered, abused, and even somewhat repugnant though they were, to end in a state of grace:   a normal, functional, mundane, redeemed life of hope and promise.  I wish that for us all.

Less Sure About Less

" And at fifty, Less muses drowsily, you're as likeable as you're going to get." I experienced a strange transitio...