Sunday, October 14, 2012

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS – Ernest Hemingway

OOPS! While cleaning out my computer files I found this review from March that I forgot to post. Dang-it I hate it when that happens. So belatedly here is my review of a classic Hemingway.

I believe the Jay county Public Library book discussion group may have had one of its best discussions ever! Four of us had read this Hemingway book before and two of us when we were teens. This group enjoys picking up a classic every so often and even though as a group this wasn't our favorite we were all actually quite happy to have read it or reread it.

Let me begin by saying that my morning walking partner Susie and I both read this as teens and we both loved it then. So we spent some mornings reminiscing and analyzing why this time around we didn't “love” it. To make a long discussion short, I would say that when we were teens and being naive we found the love story romantic and believable and perhaps the shocking violence was exciting. Also both of us no doubt had been exposed to Hemingway in our English class anthologies and could feel grown up reading a classic which we could understand and didn't take too long.

The whole book takes place over a four day period in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Robert Jordan, an American professor has joined the International Brigades in order to aide the republican guerrillas fight the nationalists. He has been sent to lead a band to dynamite a significant bridge outside of Segovia. With the guerrillas is a beautiful young woman whom they rescued from a derailed train. The band is loosely held together by Pablo and his wife Pilar.

Over the three days and nights there is unrest among the guerrilla band members and discord with a neighboring band. Theft and murder ensue, and yet there is time for Jordan to become romantically involved with the young woman Maria. Now, there is no description of love making, even though you know it is going on and no swearing because in his infinite wisdom Hemingway substituted every expletive with phrases like, “go defile yourself,” or “I will obscenity in the milk.” This to me was somewhat annoying. I found it humorous that no expletives were allowed in this book while we read many pages of decapitations, mutilations, rapes, and tortures. I wondered how many novels in the 1930s were written like this. Sad to say in all my library classes we did not cover that.

One benefit from rereading this book was that I was prodded to refresh my memory about the Spanish Civil War and Hemingway history. Also, once again as I read the last chapter I couldn't turn the pages fast enough to get to the end of the action.

SWAMPLANDIA – Karen Russell

I must confess a bit of trouble starting this one and I kept hoping it would move faster until achieving the halfway point when suddenly I had to finish it. Two different book clubs I attend have discussed this title recently forcing me to think about the writing, characters, and plot in more detail thus adding to my appreciation.

In the Everglades of Florida lives the unusual Bigtree family. They own and operate an amusement park featuring alligator wrestlers. To say the least the life of this family is not conventional. They are messy, eccentric, very unusual, and happy. When the featured wrestler and matriarch Hilola dies of cancer, the oldest sibling, Kiwi runs away, and Dad leaves his two girls, Ava who is thirteen and Osceloa who is 16, alone for a few weeks in an effort to acquire some funds to keep the park afloat. Troubles multiply, danger lurks in the swamp, Dad doesn't come home.

The heart of the book is about the sisters Ava and Osceola alone in Swamplandia but there are rich and meaty chapters about Kiwi. The seventeen year old has taken a job at a rival park, The World of Darkness, based on the Book of Revelation from the Bible and Dante's Inferno. He wants desperately to be able to make enough to send home finances and also to go to college. Kiwi is my favorite character. His home-schooled education has not prepared him to navigate a world he little understands. Thankfully he is very bright and also acquires friends who help him.

Back in Swamplandia Ava struggles to take care of the park and alligators. When a government abandoned dredge drifts close by Osceola concocts fantasies of a ghost lover and one day disappears into the swamp to be with him. Soon an unusual stranger called the Birdman appears and offers to help Ava find her lost sister in the under world. The two embark on a surreal and dark journey. The writer's style is particularly engaging in these chapters. One wonders while reading what is real and what is fantasy and if the Birdman is a good character or not. These chapters contain a bit of swamp history too about the Melaleuca project in Florida of the late 1800s, dredging of the Everglades, and the killing of the Seminole people.

It was enjoyable to live with this quirky family for a bit. Visiting the grandfather in his nursing home comprised of docked houseboats was surprising and shocking as well. I found myself well able to see their house, the gator wrestling arena, and to visualize the museum. It was disappointing to not have more of a story for the Red Seth though.

A creative piece, not at all what I expected but worth the read. I found it artful, fantastical, gothic, and often funny. The book began with a quote from Through the Looking Glass and I did feel like I was down the rabbit hole while immersed in Swamplandia.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

MADE FOR GOODNESS – Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu

Alas, I have been lax in reporting my reading. Actually months have gone by and the stack on my desk of books read to blog about is getting very tall. This was Zion Lutheran's First Tuesday class choice for the month of April. Also my friend Paula has read all or most of Desmond Tutu's works and named her youngest son in honor of him. Therefore I was looking forward to this book and I wasn't disappointed. Besides the fact that Pastor Mark can make any discussion fascinating, there was enough food for thought to make our group into an animated sharing session.

I won't go into the merits of this Nobel-winning holy man, you can look all of that up for yourself if you need to do so. I just want to talk about this book. The premise of this book is that humans are made in the image of God and therefore are full of goodness, love, and creativity. The important thing then is to see ourselves this way and to strive to be good servants, to care, have empathy, compassion, love our enemies, and work hard in this life to change things for the better.

Tutu interweaves vignettes from his life, many which are painful and ugly but also many that are beautiful and inspiring to make all his points. My favorite chapter might be #4 “Free to Choose.” Along with quoting Ghandi, “be the change we want to see,” and citing many times when making choices isn't easy Tutu assures the reader that Making good and right choices is often far from easy. God respects our right to choose and isn't going to send angels down on wings to make it clear but we are charged with doing the best we can and living with blessings and consequences of our choices.

Chapter 8 is really good too (well they are all good) “Why Does God Let Us Sin?” This chapter reminds me a bit of some of the work in Phillip Gulley's book If Grace is True. Like Gulley, Tutu reminds us that all humans are God's beloved children, not only Christians but all people. We need to face the fact that even our worst enemies may not burn in hell. God calls us to goodness but we may choose not to go. Conscience plays a big part and we should listen to these whispers from God. When he says, “Did you have to do/say that?” “Was that necessary?” “Couldn't you say a kind word here?” “Forgive.” “Give.”

In Chapter 9 Tutu talks about helping others heal by offering the “listening ear.” We don't have to have the answers or fix the problems, we just need to listen. There are plenty of other great lessons here but those are my favorites. This is a one afternoon read but one that I will want to turn to again and to pass along to a valued friend.

The Tutu's speak from experience with love, wisdom, and true goodness. I can only hope to be like them someday.