My annual bout of pneumonia and the Christmas holidays have provided considerable time for my favorite activity—reading. I've plowed through several books, all of which I can recommend.
Lovely Bones. Many thanks to those who recommended this book in spite of its upsetting subject (the murder of a young girl, told from her point of view). As many predicted, once past the initial descriptions of the crime, the story is told in a readable way, even for the mother of a young girl. And although the premise of this story—the girl narrating events on earth and in the afterlife from her position in heaven—is completely contrary to my atheist viewpoint, I appreciated the poignant and engaging account of how a family pieces itself back together in the wake of such a tragedy. Perhaps what I liked best was the message that healing was not in vengeance but in the ability to move on and continue to love. But as the mother of an only child, it was impossible for me to ignore that the parent who was able to do these things most successfully found the ability to do so in his love for his remaining children. I only have one, so what would I do? Go out and adopt more—immediately?? If I had to bury my only, I think I'd just as soon curl up in the earth and rest with her, and if (as in the book) she were lost forever, so would be I. Perhaps there's more to the "Heir and a spare" than one thinks.
An Unfinished Season. I moved on to this, an account of a young man's coming of age in a world largely not of his own making. The protagonist is a nineteen-year-old from a privileged family attempting to find his way as he bridges the high society of Chicago's north shore (a insightful foreign outsider refers to the debutante parties around which his nigh time life revolves as "children's parties") and the downtown office of a city newspaper, where his family connections have landed him a summer job. Although a very different book from Lovely Bones, I again appreciated the insights to adult relationships of those younger. With less bias and baggage, their views of these complex and muddled relationships are often refreshingly clear if not very sad.
Everyman. I've listened to interviews of Philip Roth on NPR and have long meant to read something by him. Everyman seemed like a good introduction. It was a good pick up from the Ward Just book on the introspection of the aging process. In Just's novel, the son observes the changes in his father as the father ages and inadequacies are admitted and compromises are acknowledged. Everyman gives a front-row seat to a man coming to terms with his many failings but also the reality of those around him and their sometimes unfair assessment of his character (what are you in the end—the sum of your intentions or you effect on others?). The main character observes that "old age isn't a batle, old age is a massacre," and portrays a completely understandable picture of someone embracing and coming to terms with their end.
Water for Elephants. I'm often suspicious of books that have had this much commercial success (in my view, some of the most appalling crap ends up on the best seller lists), but I picked up this one anyway. I started in on it this afternoon in the car (I can read on completely straight roads if I don't look up) and was alarmed to hear my mother-in-law exclaim from the back seat "Oh, I've read that! I thought it was just delightful!" "Delightful," I must explain, is my mother-in-law's equivalent for "totally rocks." For her, nothing gets any better than "delightful." And books she has thought totally delightful have included such things as the intrigues of Episcopalian ministers in various countryside communities. But I have to say, she is on the money on this one. The story is told by an irascible nursing home resident reminiscing about his youth as part of a traveling depression-era circus following the death of his parents and his consequent departure from an Ivy League veterinary college. I was hard-pressed to describe to my daughter the phenomenon of the freak show, which figures significantly into any circus story of this era, but I guess it's evidence that we've evolved a little if we no longer find gaping at human misfortune acceptable entertainment, right? It reminded me of the conversation Sophie and I had on our Alaskan cruise last summer about the original policy of women and children first into the life boats. She asked "What about Daddy? Didn't they think that Daddy was important too??" I explained "Yes, they thought Daddy was important, but they thought that Daddy would be better able to survive without a lifeboat than Mommy." "Why??" I explained that they were obviously confused about the difference between men and women back then—both their worth and their ability. In light of how much we're clearly confused about these days, it's a relief to see we've made a little progress, isn't it?