Thursday, September 13, 2012

Oy! Books!

My one goal this year with my blog was to use it as a repository for not only a listing of the books I've read in 2012, but also my impressions thereof.  And I have, of course, fallen short.  So, I've read plenty of good books that I have not yet noted, but shall try to remember to note today -- with the briefest of accompanying descriptions:

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: This ultimately gut-wrenching novel is told in the voice of a mother whose son, Kevin, committed a school massacre.  The form is in a series of letters to her estranged husband who had always been their disturbed son's greatest champion.  The mother had never really wanted to be a mother, nor had she really bonded with her boy in the years leading up to the killing.  It is an interesting study of nature vs. nurture, as the mother struggles throughout to come to terms with her offspring's descent into evil -- was he born that way?  was it her fault?  Personally, I think when you give a kid a name like "Kevin," you're just asking for trouble down the road.  Ms. Shriver is a writer I always enjoy at a certain level, mainly because she takes her time to really establish characters, and she is unafraid to be politically incorrect in pursuit of literary truth.  Oh, but that unflinching voice can get dark, though.  She is also one of those writers with whom I would love to have a cuppa someday, as in her interviews, she always comes across as a hoot and a half.

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander: I finished Hope right before going off on a Women's Retreat with ladies from my church.  Everything about Christianity is born from our great hope; so, being thrust from my reading cocoon into a time and place set aside for worship and prayer about hope helped focus my reflections upon the novel I had just read.  It is a secular Jewish novel, through and through.  This means that it is alternately uproariously and outrageously funny and hair-pullingly frustrating.  Which, I am certain, is just what Mr. Auslander intended.   

Shakespeare's English Kings by Peter Saccio:  Prof. Saccio is one of those (occasionally) bearded academics on whom I have a bit of a crush. If you have never seen his Teaching Company lectures on the Bard, I encourage you to seek them out.  His ebullience for the shaker of spears and stirrer of souls comes through in this history book; however, it really is what it purports to be: a chronicle for the historically confused of the English Kings about whom Shakespeare wrote magnificent plays.  I had been hoping for more Bill and less Henrys and Richards, but that was my own foolishness.  Still, a good and engaging read that helps indeed to place those unwieldy monarchs in order for the bewildered American.

Inventing English by Seth Lerer: Another Teaching Company crush!  What woman could resist a man who speaks Old English with ease and enthusiasm?  A stronger willed woman than I!  This book is the next step up for those who have read Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue, and are looking for a still accessible, but more scholarly, review of the English language's roots and growth and metamorphoses.  Prof. Lerer is a philologist par excellence, who definitely puts the emphasis on the philo.  A very nice read -- though it's still hard to wrap my mind and tongue around the Great Vowel Shift.

The Power of Art by Simon Schama: This sort of book is irresistible to me.  I am definitely one of those philistines who knows so little about visual art, but remains fascinated and appreciative and always in search of more information.  So, I seek out books that are written, not by dry academics, but by enthusiasts -- whether professional or amateur.  Simon Schama's book fits the bill.  He takes several different important and revolutionary artists and gives thoroughly delightful biographical sketches and career histories for each.  It seems to me the pitch-perfect mixture of the personal (and how can you discuss a form of art so visceral as painting or sculpture without bringing in the personal?) and the professional.  Especially touching to me was the chapter on Van Gogh.  He has never been one of my favorite artists (hey!  where was Manet, Mr. Schama?); but, I certainly learned to appreciate his work a little more after learning more about him.

The Abolition of Britain by Peter Hitchens and The Fortunes of Permanence by Roger Kimball: I guess I'll always classify these two books together in my mind, because I read them simultaneously.  There is a certain sense of masochistic pleasure that conservative curmudgeons like me take in books of this sort.  They confirm what we know to be true: that everything is going to hell.  And there is more than a bit of catharsis in reading about that perdition-directed descent from such erudite and witty sources as Mr. Hitchens and Mr. Kimball.  Add to that the facts that Mr. Kimball is one sexy, sexy beast of a man and Mr. Hitchens is British, and you've got a perfect concoction of awesome to delight and depress.  I found this interesting: a quote used in both books from George Santayana, writing of England in the early 20th century: "Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master.  It will be a black day for the human race when scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics manage to supplant him."  Michael Medved may say and prove that "America is the Greatest Nation on God's Green Earth," but I'll confess here and now that t'would have been far better to lose America than to have lost Britain. 

 Hmmm . . . I am sure I am missing some books.  Oh yes! I did read Robert O'Brien's The Silver Crown before assigning it to Sadie as her first book report book of Fourth Grade.  Not a very good book, I'm afraid.  The plot is sloppy, the characters are under-developed, the pacing is off-putting, the ending is unsatisfying.  I still made Sadie read it, because she needs to understand bad books, as well as good ones.  She, of course, missed all of its faults -- but that's what teachers are for! 

Now I'm reading through Simon Schama's History of Britain trilogy -- based upon his mini-series of the same name.  And I have a new book from the library: a one-volume (!) history of the Roman Empire -- Rome: An Empire's Story by Greg Woolf.  Should clip along at a good pace.  Re-checked out some Ibsen and Moliere collections -- to see if I could coax myself off of old favorites and try some different ones of their plays.  And I also borrowed Robert Fitzgerald's translation of The Iliad.  Did I get a good one?  Not sure.  There are so many translations -- every single one seems to have its detractors and fans.  I've read good things about Fagles and Lattimore; and, in September's New Criterion, John Talbot writes glowingly of Anthony Verity's brand new translation.  Of course, they did not have that one in the library yesterday.  Maybe, if I'm left unsatisfied by Fitzgerald, I'll seek out the Verity translation in a bit.  Any thoughts, blog passers-by?   

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