16 January 2018

2017 Reading List, October - December

Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye. NY: Doubleday, 1989.

Atwood’s first novel after The Handmaid’s Tale is a soft, subtle book, like the feather pillow that ends a loved one’s pain by great sacrifice of the one who loves. It follows Elaine Risley, a Canadian painter, by alternating between a current retrospective of her work and her memories, beginning as a child during World War II. While slow to develop, there is a transcendent moment near the midpoint; by the end, its simple power becomes overwhelming.

Gregory Maguire, Son of a Witch. NY: Harper, 2005.

This sequel to the best-selling, Broadway musical inspiring Wicked, picks up the story of Liir several years later. It is both a typical coming-of-age story and an entertaining further exploration of Maguire’s alternative Oz.

Charles Bukowski, Post Office. NY: Ecco, 2002.

This major-label reissue of Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical novel from 1971 is revered as a comic masterpiece, giving meaning to the phase ‘going postal’ years before mass shooting by disgruntled employees gave rise to the expression. It clearly -- often crudely -- describes the mind-numbing work of a public employee and the heavy doses of alcohol, gambling, and sex required to alleviate these frustrations.

Douglas Coupland, Generation X. NY: St. Martin’s, 1991.

This is a very hopeful book about being lost. Widely hailed for summing up the generational discontent of the baby-boomer’s children, the first generation to know both the threat of nuclear war and that they would have less than their parents, one would expect a bleak, angry outlook, like Bret Easton Ellis or Chuck Pahniuk. Instead, we get a slightly dopey slice of life, a story about a single man of near thirty, living with friends, and the stories they tell each other to determine and define what their lives mean. Eventually, they realize -- as we all must -- that relationships are what really matter.

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age. NY: Bantam, 1995.

Snow Crash gave Stephenson a reputation in Cyberpunk, exploring the social challenges of new technology. Diamond Age, on the other hand, features a very old technology -- a book, The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, and the little girl who comes into a stolen copy of it. Now, the book (and the society) are full of nanotech, so the sci-fi elements are still obvious and strong. The story, though, is about how one child learns and grows, moving from an abusive poverty to the highest levels of power thru the insights of her book. Well paced and full of nicely-drawn characters, featuring tech as a tool instead of subject, Diamond Age is easy to read and very enjoyable.

John Gardner, On Moral Fiction. NY: Basic Books, 1978.

This account consists entirely of lightly-edited quotations from the text, in the order discovered by reading.

True art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. Art’s incomparable ability to instruct, to make alternatives intellectually and emotionally clear, to spotlight falsehood, insincerity, foolishness -- art’s incomparable ability, that is, to make us understand -- ought to be a force bringing people together, breaking down barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing. In every generation there are good artists and bad, and what chiefly distinguishes the one from the other is the true artist’s faithfulness to his business, his profound though not necessarily conventional morality as confirmed by his writing, his test of what he thinks. If we are unable to distinguish between true morality -- life-affirming, just, and compassionate behavior -- and statistics or, worse, trivial moral fashion, we begin to doubt morality itself. Great art celebrates life’s potential, offering a vision unmistakably and unsentimentally rooted in love. Whenever possible moral art holds up models of decent behavior; for example, characters whose basic goodness and struggle against confusion, error, and evil -- in themselves and in others -- give firm intellectual and emotional support to our own struggle. Moral fiction communicates meanings discovered by the process of the fiction’s creation. The artist who works at what he’s trying to say so clumsily that he cannot get it said, and the artist whose statement is so much like everybody else’s that nobody finds it worth listening to -- these are frauds, apprentices, or fools. The chief quality that distinguishes great art, everyone knows, is its sanity, the good sense and efficient energy with which it goes after what is really there and feels significant. The true artist’s purpose is to show what is healthy, in other words sane, in human seeing, thinking, and feeling, and to point out what is not. In good poetry and fiction the writer speaks, first, to clarify in his own mind what he thinks and feels and, second, to make that clear to somebody else, on the assumption that the reader has sometimes felt, or can now be encouraged to feel, the same. True art’s divine madness is shot through with love: love of the good, a love proved not by some airy and abstract high-mindedness but by active celebration of whatever good or trace of good can be found by a quick and compassionate eye in this always corrupt and corruptible but god-freighted world.

James Thurber, The 13 Clocks. NY: New York Review Books, 1950.

The Duke, whose flaw is being wicked, keeps his niece -- Princess Saralinda -- locked in his cold castle and sends any suitors to their death via impossible tasks. When Prince Zorn of Zornia comes, he is told to fetch a thousand jewels, even though he is dressed as a poor minstrel and his father’s kingdom is too far away to reach in the time allowed. Yet with the help of the Golux, he finds a way to bring this witty, wonderfully wordful fairy tale to its appointed happy ending.