Saturday, June 27, 2009

Book Six: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Let me just get this out of the way -- read this book. It is well written, is powerful, is moving, and is haunting. McCarthy has established himself as one of the major contemporary writers, even though I was not convinced. Consider me convinced! The Road deals with a father and son traveling "the road" after life as we know it on earth is wiped out. There are people alive, but not many and few of them are the "good guys." Food is scare, forcing people into a nomadic existence in which they must fight for survival. In other words, the aftermath of whatever destruction was wrought looks a lot like how humans used to live, but with a lot less sunshine (and lots of ashes -- this is one bleak setting).

As a father this book carries some extra weight, but I cannot see anyone reading it and not being impacted. The father has taught the son how to kill himself with the one bullet left should something happen to the father. He has also made a commitment to kill the son if the he (the father) will no longer survive. This is not given as a central element, but unfolds during the book creating additional tension. The son is young, and although no age is given (that I remember) I place him around nine or ten, which is conveniently the age of one of my sons. The relationship is touching and as realistic as one could imagine in that setting. The love between them is made clearer because of the alien setting -- sometimes the familiar looks new when seen from a different angle.

To say more about the plot will give more away than I wish, so I'll avoid that. But the themes in this book are multiple and soul searching. What makes life worth living, or in other words, what is the meaning of life? Father and son are each others world, so is there a world if one of them ceases to exist? What is "good" and "bad?" What is the point of the journey if the path is so horrible? What is the point of the journey if the end is not what you want? What is the relationship between parent-child, father-son? Is there a God? If so, explain evil? What is our responsibility to others? What constitutes love? Are there limits to love?

I could literally keep going on and any one of these would destroy most writers. McCarthy does trip on the cliche now and then, but he has so little dialogue that he allows the reader to insert their thoughts. It would also be easy to superimpose a great deal of symbolism here, but I avoid symbolic readings whenever possible -- I've never been much of a riddle fan. Whenever you get a father, a son, and something they call "the fire" inside, well, the Christian symbols are screaming at you. But if someone tries to read that out then by the end of the book they will be greatly confused.

McCarthy succeeds because he has combined a great story with great ideas. If you want to focus on the story, you'll love it. If you want to use it as a springboard for greater thought, you'll love it. If you read it for all the answers, forget it. McCarthy raises questions that will stick with you for a long time, which defy easy answers (and in many cases answers at all), and which everyone needs to consider.

Reading Challenges
Good books make life easy. This is a short read (287 pages of large font) and I was way ahead of schedule. I was worried that the end of the week would get too busy so I read more up front and ended up just having a bit to finish on Friday (as opposed to Sunday). I was anxious to get back to it so this turned out to be an easy week.

Next Up
I really don't know! I just started a Chinese novel called Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong and I really like it. However, is over 500 pages of small font and the writing is, well--dense is not the right word, full (?) so it takes time and deserves time. I'm not going to finish this in a week so I toyed with just blowing my weekly read, but I'm not ready to do that. I'll read this book in parts until I get to a point where I can read what is left in a week.

I have two back to back book sets to tackle. First, Pride and Prejudice (which can never be read too often) and then the Zombie version of Pride and Prejudice after that (my oldest son has a knack for strange and unusual). I also want to read Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles again because there is another book, Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong, about how Holmes blew the Baskerville case. I'm a huge Sherlock Holmes fan thanks to my oldest brother buying me the books at the Saugatuck bookstore "Call Me Ishamel" and leaving me to read while he spent a couple of hours looking at books. I read a lot of stories on Sunday afternoons in that bookstore. I may be able to read both of the Holmes releated books in one week, but I have yet to get the other book.

So...after perusing my bookshelf I've landed on The Known World byEdward P. Jones, which won the Pulitzer a few years ago. Actually not a whole lot easier than Wolf Totem, but I'm not afraid of a challenge. This will also break my fiction/non-fiction rotation which had unexpectedly crept in, and I'll get through that change without any counseling required.

Happy reading!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Book Five: Better by Atul Gawande

It can be a bit disconcerting to learn that surgeons in rural India are more skilled than surgeons in the United States. But such is the result when Indian doctors are forced to address a range of problems a U.S. doctor would send off to another specialist. Of course, this is not to say the U.S. surgeons are not intelligent -- the just have the "luxury" of not needing to expand their skills.

Gawande is a U.S. doctor with an Indian background who went back to his ancestral home for a couple months of work after finishing med school. Gawande is a bright guy -- you know someone is bright when they were a Rhoades scholar but do not mention that in their bio. That fact was crowded out by his MacArthur grant (commonly referred to as a "genius" grant). What is striking in this book is Gawande's humility about his own work. He is quick to share his failures and loathe to take credit for successes. This offers credibility to what is really a virtue based work.

"Better" focuses on what he says are "three core requirements for success in medicine--or in any endeavor that involves risk and responsibility" (8). These simple traits are diligence, doing right, and ingenuity. While he supports his argument with medical examples, it is clear that these traits or virtues apply to how we approach life.

Diligence refers to focusing on details in order to avoid errors. In medicine, a lack of diligence on any one case could lead to death. Most of us do not see such a result from our errors, yet we also do not pay attention to how it impacts others. I'm as good as anyone at making a mistake due to a lack of diligence, but if I make it a habit then my reputation in whatever field I may be working will be impacted. We sometimes note that certain people are not "detail people," and what we are noting is that this person lacks diligence. (Although if anyone points out my lack of diligence when it comes to proofreading, I will not be amused).

"To do right" seems straightforward enough, but of course it is one of most challenging aspects of any life. Gawande says that since medicine is a human profession "it is therefore forever troubled by human failings, failings like avarice, arrogance, insecurity, misunderstanding" (8). Well, I cannot think of a non-human profession since the nature of a profession is that it is human. Therefore, all professions meet the same challenges. What Gawande interestingly explores is the systemic challenges which exist making the desire to do right so difficult. A simple example was when a doctor whose son's tumor was missed on a x-ray wanted to talk about options, he was shut out due to fear of litigation. In the end, the only way to explore the issue was through litigation, which could have been avoided if people felt comfortable talking. But the structure does not allow for that and the ability to do right is compromised.

Finally, Gawande turns his attention to ingenuity, which he quickly defines as "thinking anew." My favorite insight here is that ingenuity "is not a matter of superior intelligence but of character"(9). Becoming a better person is an ongoing activity and therefore only a person of character can sustain the need for ingenuity. Plus, ingenuity requires the ability to look at the familiar in a new way, and this has nothing to do with intelligence -- indeed, it has more to do with poetry (this would of course be my slant, not Gawande's).

Gawande spends the book building up these three traits with numerous medical examples. In fact, the one failing of the book is that we get the points faster than he thinks and he provides more examples than needed. While doctors will appreciate his focus on medicine, Gawande is clearly aware that these traits extend beyond his profession. Not surprisingly, he is hesitant to offer advice to people in areas he is not familiar with, but he does create a foundation those of us not in the medical field can apply to other areas.

Perhaps the strongest lesson comes from the highly skilled Indian doctors. When we allow ourselves to be compartmentalized we limit not only our existing skills, but our chance gaining insight from the unexpected.

Bottom line: a good read which can be used to reexamine how you approach much in life, especially from a professional standpoint. If you want to learn more visit
Gawande's Website.

Reading Challenges

This was an easy week because I finished this book way ahead of time. The last couple of nights have been unexpectedly busy due to the "flood of Holland" on Friday which had me going into work when I had just started working on this blog. Saturday offered the opportunity to test out my Guitar Hero skills on a couple of my daughter's friends, so I'm glad I had time to waste. Gawande's books is easy to read and you can get through it quickly. I even had time to work on my Vatican stamps this week!

Next Up?
As hinted last time, Cormac McCarthy's The Road is the book of the week. McCarthy has a strong reputation and although I loved "All the Pretty Horses," I lost interest in "The Crossing" and have been hesitate to return to him. But Rob (last name held for security reasons -- I think it may be witness protection) recommended it and my oldest son mentioned he gave me the book for my birthday a couple of years ago (oops!) so I found it and already started. It is an intriguing beginning.

Thanks for more official followers. If you are trying to comment and it does not let you please let me know since I'm still trying to figure this out. You should be able to without signing up.

Happy reading!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Book Four: My Antonia by Willa Cather

This was a return to another favorite novel which I have not read in many years. It has been too many as I'm ready to read the book again next week (but I will resist). Cather creates characters which symbolize their surroundings and she creates landscapes that are as central as her characters. This is not a writer with a need for experimentation -- she tells seemingly straightforward stories which can be peeled back in countless ways. While the book title focuses your attention on the young "Bohemian" Antonia, it is the narrator, Jim Burden, that carries the weight of the book. (Yes, I get the "Burden" and weight connection. Cather is great with names, my favorite being Wick Cutter, a character of more than questionable honor).

This was the last of three "pioneer" books Cather wrote and through it we learn about the challenges of making it out West, which in this case is Nebraska. Her description of the landscape as a living entity is better than some of her minor characters, which at times could use some more depth. But we get to know Burden very well and Antonia is a foil for all that he goes through. She is the landscape which he returns to and finds weathered but still surviving.

Cather also celebrates the ordinary, knowing that every ordinary life contains much which is extraordinary if we make the effort to see it. Burden talks about meeting up with Lena, one of his small town friends, when he is in the city studying at the university. He says:
"...the Danish laundry girls and the three Bohemian Marys. Lena had brought them all back to me. It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry."

Women in Cather's novel are usually strong, and much has been made of this "feminist" mode of writing. Actually, it is a realist mode that many realists could not fathom since realists are by nature confined by their own limits of reality. It is no secret that women in the developing areas took on several roles that were ordinarily reserved for men. With a limited amount of people the settlers had to overcome sexism and racism in order to survive -- in some ways those "isms" can been seen as the "luxury" of those with options. Without options, people drop the stereotypes and seek help from each other. Cather understands this, perhaps because she spent her formative years in the Nebraska prairies.

Cather's Nebraska prairies also provide a setting as remote as most science fiction novels; she uses that remoteness to magnify the human condition and character. Some are found wanting, some succeed beyond expectations, and many just meet their goals. But all of them find their condition and character challenged, and it is in the response that we get the story.

Finally, (and I have more to say but this is a blog, not a book) Cather knows how to write. Her words are well chosen, evoke strong images, and are worth a slow read.

Reading Challenges

Okay, I could go on about this book for a long time. It was good that I so thoroughly wanted to read more because this was a tough week. I'm a serious hockey fan and Red Wings fan, so that got in the way (and I'm accepting condolences on the Red Wings loss). I had another evening meeting this week, a few evening phone calls for work, and, oh yes, my wife's birthday and our 24th wedding anniversary. Plus, the two youngest provide plenty of opportunity for distraction and even my college-age daughter had to challenge me to Guitar Hero! Nothing extraordinary, but life is just busy. But the forced reading is truly proving to be a pleasure. It is a chance to shift gears and focus on something else, let my mind be challenged in new ways, and to slow down. I've made it through a month and am looking forward to moving forward.

I'm definitely giving up other things. My stamp collection is being ignored, but since I collect for fun that is okay. It is one thing I can work on to relax, and right now the books are doing that for me. I'm spending less time reading other blogs, responding to emails, and generally being on the computer -- all good. I'm even watching few movies, which were not all that many to begin with. Now, I might get one in on an off-reading night (and I do recommend "Frost/Nixon" as a great movie to watch).

So I read on with no regrets.

Next Up?

After posting this I'm going to look over Atul Gawande's "Better," which has been recommended to me by different people. I'm getting into a non-fiction, fiction rotation which is not all bad, but not at all intentional. I got a recommendation from a trusted literary friend to read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." Rob is trying to keep a low profile on the internet so I said I would not use his name (oops!). I have a long list of books to read, but I love your suggestions.

I also have four "official" followers and several people have told me they are looking at this. So please, comment! Just say hi! Tell me to write more, write less, or learn to write. Just let me know you are out there (I feel like a late night radio DJ).

Happy reading!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Book Three: The Music Room, A Memoir

Three weeks and three books -- this is working!

I just finished The Music Room: A Memoir by Namita Devidayal, a book I recommend to all with any interest in music. Devidayal is trained as a classical singer in India but now works as a journalist. Her memoir takes us inside the culture surrounding classical music in India (not the same "classical music" usually thought of in Western culture) and focuses in particular on her teacher, Dhondutai.

The strength of the book lies in the first part where we not only learn about her reluctant training (born in 1968, Devidayal experienced the pull of modernity while also training), but a great deal about Indian classical music and the history of the music. She explains why such teaching cannot be done by books, and thus the lineage of teachers is important. If you are not familiar with the music be sure to search (where else) YouTube for some examples. We learn about ragas and the importance of what is not heard as well as what is heard. It also shows the sacrifices artists make in order to pursue their art.

The book gets lost a bit when it moves from memoir to history as she explores her teacher's guru, Kesarbai Kerkar. Music historians will be interested in the behind-the-scenes stories, but I was anxious to get back to Devidayal and how she continues to incorporate music into her life. But the book succeeds on several fronts: exposing people to the world of Indian classical music, showing the dedication required for mastering an art, revealing daily life for a range of Indian people, and teaching a bit of music theory and music history.

Reading Challenges

This was a tough week for me to read. I'm a serious Detroit Redwings fan and the Stanley Cup finals are going on, so I had to watch that. Plus, two nights of meetings for the local school district made other days longer. Did I mention it was nice outside? The days are getting longer, my nine-year-old is out of school and staying up longer, and my reading time is shortening. Is this complaining? No, just stating the challenges. But I've still managed to do it.

My focus has been to break all books into five nights of reading, but this week I read something every night just to keep up. I think if I pulled this off this week, I'm looking good for other weeks (I know, I just cursed myself).

Next up?

My Antonia by Willa Cather. Cather is one of my favorite writers (I have a lot of them) and I have read this before. I'm not trying to cheat by rereading novels, since anything I read more than ten years ago is pretty much gone from memory. Okay, anything since yesterday is pretty much gone, but that is not the point! I've been wanting to go back to this again since both my wife and I love it. And since this week is our 24th wedding anniversary, I'll read it in honor of her! How is that for love. Doubt it would count as a gift, but...

Complete side comment here, but I should note that my wife (then girlfriend) and I were introduced to Willa Cather in my freshman English class named O Pioneers after the Cather novel. Now I teach English 113 -- how about that for a complete circle.