Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Miracle of Catfish

By Larry Brown

First a word about the author & this book. The book was published posthumously, as Larry Brown died before the book was finished. It was decided to publish the book anyway, with the author's brief notes about the ending chapters.
I was not familiar with this author's works so didn't know what to expect from it. I must say I really enjoyed reading this book to as far as it went, which was not to any kind of conclusion. The characters are interesting and varied and engaging. A mystery is hinted at concerning one of the main characters, an old farmer named Cortez Sharp. As the novel moves along, you discover that Cortez is a man of mixed motives, often times cruel and cold and rather repellent. Yet, somehow, one cares about him and about the new pond he had just had stocked with thousands of baby catfish. And about the other persons in the story, Jimmy, a little boy, and his sad, angry family that live in a trailer near the old farmer's place, and the old man's daughter, a plus size model who lives with her boyfriend, an artist who has Tourettes.
One thing I didn't like about the story was the author's love for lists. He just loves making long lists which are a pain to read. One of the worse was his description of all the stuff for sale at a big flea market: "...guns, chickens, chicken cages, chicken grit, pottery, tractors, toys, ponies, mules, donkeys, burros, horses, dogs, quilts, homemade jellies and jams and preserves, ribbon cane syrup, tomato relish to put on your peas, cookware of all types, including rusty castiron skillets and dutch ovens, candles, musical instruments, ironwork, new tools, old tools, trailers, antiques of every kind, furniture, knick-knacks, rabbits, rabbit cages, rabbit feed, rabbit feeders, rabbit waterers, frozen pen-raised quail, fishing equipment, tillers, lawn mowers, chain saws, stump grinders, portable sheds, portable water pumps..." And the list goes on and on. Too much for me!
Anyway, although I enjoyed the story, the fact that it is unfinished was off-putting. If you are a huge fan of Larry Brown, you probably won't be bothered by this. If not, you might want to give this one a skip.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Old Man and the Sea

By Ernest Hemingway

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953.

Santiago is having a string of bad luck. In all his many years, only once has he gone this long without catching a fish, 84 days. So he decides to take his boat out farther than most fishermen go and try to catch a really big fish. If he is successful, he will make enough money to live off of all winter.
So off he goes to catch his big fish and he does hook a big one. This is one monster marlin, maybe 18 feet long, longer than Santiago's little fishing boat. He fights to keep the marlin on the line, keep the fish from breaking the line and getting away. It is a battle that goes on for several days and nights, with the fish towing the fisherman further and further out to sea. Santiago suffers terribly in the battle, but he is determined he will have that beautiful fish. Finally he manages to harpoon the marlin and he ties the huge fish to the side of his boat because it is just too huge and too heavy for him to haul it in. He hoists his sail and heads back home, tired and worn out. But then the sharks show up...
I didn't want to read this story. I was afraid it would be too butch for me. I don't like fish and I don't like fishing and I especially don't like stories about fishing. In fact, I checked the book out and it sat around and I finally had to take it back without reading it. So I checked it out again and decided I would just sit down and plunge in. To my surprise, I read the book in one sitting. It really is an engrossing and surprising read, although a bit of a morality tale, which I don't generally care for. If this is Hemingway, then maybe I will try reading more of his works. Maybe.

Catch-22

By Joseph Heller

Bombardier Yossarian has a problem...people are trying to kill him! He is determined that they will not succeed. Who is trying to kill him? The Germans and the US Army.
Yossarian is a bombardier flying out of a small island off the coast of Italy during World War II. He has flown the maximum allowable number of combat missions several times and should have been sent home months ago. But every time he gets close to reaching the maximum number, his superiors increase the number. They want to earn brownie points with the big brass, even if it means sacrificing their troops. But Yossarian knows he can't continue to cheat death and so he flatly refuses to fly any more missions. He is determined to get out of the war alive.

This is a kind of hard novel to read. The story jumps around a lot, from the past to the present and sometimes it is rather hard to follow. Also, it is filled with a kind of double talk, where just accusing someone of doing something wrong is as good as a conviction. A sample of the sort of double talk the novel is filled with:

"I'm sorry, sir. But I don't know how to answer it. I never said you couldn't punish me."
"Now you're telling us when you did say it. I'm asking you to tell us when you didn't say it."
Clevinger took a deep breath. "I always didn't say you couldn't punish me."

This kind of nonsense is the basis of most of the humor found in the novel, if you can call it humor. Mostly, I would say the perspective of the book is like this, to quote from the book:

'Nothing warped seemed bizarre any more in his strange, distorted surroundings. The tops of the sheer buildings slanted in a weird, surrealistic perspective, and the street seemed tilted.'

Which pretty much describes the book: warped, bizarre, strange, distorted, weird and surrealistic.
Did I like this story? Yes and no. As much as it is hard to follow and as much as the twisted perspective is rather irritating and oft times frankly unbelievable, still, somehow, this book tells the truth about us. And it is unforgettable.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Border Passage

By Leila Ahmed

This is a memoir of Muslim woman, Leila Ahmed, about growing up in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s. I really enjoyed reading about Leila's early life in Egypt and I was frankly astonished at the commonalities we shared as girls of a similar era, even though we lived in two far distant cultures, she in Egypt and I in the USA. She grew up reading and speaking and being educated in English, attending school run by the British until the troubles that forced the British out of Egypt. We played similar games, enjoyed similar friendships, family outings, sports: she did things that I had never pictured an Islamic female doing.
But still, she acknowledges that her culture is one that is hostile to and dangerous to women and that life as an Islamic woman is one of restrictions and limitations for most women. She escaped these restrictions by moving first to Britain then ultimately to America.
I was struck by how angry she is at the racism she faced upon coming to Britain. She mentions how she was spit on when riding on a bus by a fellow passenger when he realized she was not Israeli but was Egyptian. Her resentment of being classified as "colored" and therefore less human than whites appears throughout the book. But this is completely understandable.
She goes into some detail on the transition of Egypt from being Egyptian (as she was raised to think of herself) to being Arab and part of the whole Middle Eastern situation and not really African anymore. She also, towards the end of the book, traces Egypt's transformation from support of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine to being totally against the new country of Israel. This part was particularly surprising for me for I didn't know of Egypt's early support for the Jews. She also discusses how this change from pro to anti-Jew has changed Egypt's formerly tolerant pluralistic & multicultural society to an Islamic-only society where non-Islamics are openly hated and persecuted. It is a story well worth reading.