Friday, September 23, 2011

summer (fiction) reading list

Well, I'm not the President, but I did spend a good portion of my summer relaxing with some fairly decent novels. I'm glad Obama spends some of his time reading fiction, by the way! I sometimes get into a mode where I don't allow myself to read fiction because I want to be more efficient with my time--not waste it. But I don't think relaxing is wasting time, always. And I think fiction helps us think about things we wouldn't think of otherwise. All of these books were given to me, so I didn't really choose them besides just picking a book off my shelf. I'll write a short summary of each of them, and then some thoughts at the end about how they interact with each other in my brain and what it means to me. So, without further ado, my summer (fiction) reading list, in order of when I read them:

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving (1989)
This book was made into a movie, but the movie is really nothing like the book. The book is, of course, much better. It's told by a man looking back on his growing-up years in New England in the 1960s and '70s, and focuses on his friendship with Owen Meany as a way to tell about his own coming of age and coming toward faith. This book is loooong and it took me a while to really get into it, but once I did, I really enjoyed it. The story just builds and builds, and the character development is excellent. Much of the story deals with faith an ddoubt, certainty, the supernatural, truth and questioning the truth, as well as the true nature of friendship, love and loss. I can't tell you much about the story because it would ruin it for you...

Wide Open, by Nicola Barker (1998)
Set in the UK, this novel follows several strange characters as their lives intertwine and are pried "wide open" in ways that mostly show their messy, unlovable, unappealing interiors. There may be some pearls in there somewhere, but the reader is hard-pressed to find them. I didn't really like any of the characters, and yet I felt compelled to keep reading. It was strange. I could hardly put the book down.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (2008)
This Pulitzer-prize winning novel is set in New England and follows a cast of characters in a small town. Each chapter is almost a short story in itself, although they weave together to create a broader story. I found the style of writing creative because for the first several chapters, you wouldn't know Olive Kitteridge is very important to the story, except that you pay attention when her name is mentioned since it's the title of the book. The story is really one of dealing with the transition into old age, wondering about the choices that have led you to where you are, trying to learn to love yourself and love others where you are now regardless of past choices. It was a good read.

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave (2009)
This was probably my favorite book of all these, perhaps excepting Owen Meany. It tells a story from two perspectives: one, a refugee girl from Nigeria; and another, a successful working mom from England. This book was difficult in its subject matter, but at the same time edifying. I like books with a purpose, I guess. I think most of the other books (besides Owen Meany) have really sad, negative characters looking for meaning and not really finding any--or finding meaning in small, personal matters that seem to me fairly self-absorbed. In this book, the English woman is brought face-to-face with the pettiness of the things in her life to which she's given meaning. She remembers her idealism, and although she can't change the world completely, she can make choices that aren't just edifying for herself.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, by Ann Tyler (1996)
This book again wove together chapters from the voices of several characters to make a complete story. In this book, each character is a member of a family--not a particularly happy family, but one that recognizes family is all they have, so they stick together to a large degree. When the children are grown, one son attempts to bring the family together around his passion: amazing, home-style food at his restaurant--but the family can't ever seem to get along long enough to sit through an entire meal. I enjoyed reading the story, but it was fairly sad (as, perhaps, the title suggests).

Looking back on my summer reading, I'm struck by how many of the stories feature really sad people--many of them probably clinically depressed. They struggle for meaning at various stages in their lives. It seems like modern literature is really grappling with the topic of meaninglessness. I don't know, I suppose that's true of all literature--but it seems like literature from previous centuries and decades usually had some sort of light at the end of the tunnel. You don't have to look far to see that "happily ever after" stories just aren't true, so maybe this is a good thing: our stories are more realistic, and we don't have to wonder, "Why didn't MY life turn out like a fairy tale?" At the same time, many of the characters in these stories are so disillusioned one wonders why they even go on. Is it enough to live for oneself, to live for a tenuous love between oneself and one's family? Most of these books don't even have a hint of suggestion that there's something bigger out there to believe in and to live for.

I guess that's why Little Bee and A Prayer for Owen Meany were my favorites of this bunch. The others seemed so ethnocentric, so focused on the meaninglessness of Western culture and living life for oneself, but without a vision of any alternative. Little Bee and A Prayer for Owen Meany both exhibited a profound knowledge of meaninglessness and of the individual's inability to change the world, but they were more hopeful: perhaps one can't change the world, but one can live in a way that is hope-filled, that refuses to live in a depressive bubble of materialism and nihilism, that stubbornly and joyfully faces into the world's evils and says, "I will not cooperate." The characters realize they have a part to play and at least a tiny influence, and they choose to use it for others. That's what I hope my life focuses on as well.

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