UPDATE 11/26: Welcome to readers finding this post through my Sunday Spotlight column.
The intro: I envision this occasional series as kind of a “virtual” club of people bound together not so much by common titles but simply a love of reading; I tell you what I’m reading, and you tell me, and we get a sense of satisfaction by knowing there are other people out there who love text in an image-based world. If you share your thoughts with me by next Tuesday morning, I might be able to work them into an upcoming Sunday Spotlight column.
I’m thankful for the Beehive Book Club, because with it I never would have been turned on to Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story,” which came highly recommended by several Beehive readers. Since I last checked in with this feature in July, I’ve been soaking up a fair share of fiction, including the first two bulky volumes of the “Game of Thrones” series and Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna,” and I was transfixed by Janet Reitman’s scathing “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion.” Perhaps my most ambitious recent literary foray was a Harriet Beecher Stowe double-header: first her classic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and then David S. Reynolds’ blistering history of the world-shattering novel, “Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America.”
“Super Sad True Love Story” is set in a not-too-distant world in which China rules the roost, hapless American citizens buy things in yuan, the U.S. is at war in Venezuela, a “Bipartisan Party” has swept away democracy, individuals are ranked in society according to their credit scores – and people want to live forever.
Our unlikely protagonist is Lenny Abramov, son of Russian immigrants and a man scraping by in a dour America. He works for a company that thinks it can prolong life for its wealthy clients, as long as they can afford it. Posted to Rome to try to drum up new clientele, Lenny – middle-aged and not entirely shapely – meets a young Korean-American, Eunice, and promptly falls in love.
You’d think that Eunice wouldn’t give Lenny a second glance, but love stories are often built on unlikely foundations. She has some major baggage (abusive father, manipulative mother), and while she wholeheartedly engages in the unbridled consumerism that marks the culture (she’s always shopping online), you get the sense there’s a longing there for something simpler and more heartfelt.
The two get together, and as we follow their love story – with excerpts from his diary and transcripts of her emails – we chart a relationship that is partly built on worldliness (for all his lack of top status in society, he still has a healthy credit score and can provide for her) and part on old-fashioned romance.
Shteyngart manages to blend his satirical bite with that sadly romantic core, and the result is a novel that aches with a sense of loss not only for a very screwed-up world but also for the fragility of life and relationships.
There’s also something delightfully cheeky about the author’s sense of foreboding for the culture. When he writes about “onionskin” jeans, for example, which are see-through, or about how a person is constantly ranked in terms of attractiveness (not to mention by credit score) when at a bar, say, it’s amazing how quickly the extreme becomes the ordinary. (First shock and then gradual acceptance. Which would probably be the reaction if an 18th Century person read a futuristic novel predicting Internet porn.)
My favorite quote from the novel: One character says, “I think that’s where we went wrong as a country. We were afraid to really fight each other, and so we devolved into this Bipartisan thing … When we lost touch with how much we really hate each other, we also lost the responsibility for our common future.” Ouch. Obama just grimaced.
Some of the other books I’ve recently read or listened to on CD:
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe. How many of us today have actually read this classic book – as opposed to simply know about it? How many of us think of it as a cobwebbed, anachronistic collection of stale stereotypes?
First off: What a read it is. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is as far from dusty and arcane as you can get. Stowe combines a riveting action-adventure storyline with a layman’s sort of armchair philosophy, and the memorable characters she creates stick with you. Parts of it are appalling, of course, as the book lays bare the human cost of slavery. (One of her goals as an ardent abolitionist was to personify the institution, and she never missed an opportunity to remind folks that slaves were mothers, fathers and children who ached just as much as “white folks” when they lost someone close to them.) Parts of it are fascinating history, as we’re taken back to a time in which a relatively small number of Southern slave owners convinced their poorer white brethren to defend – and die for – the right to own another person. Part of it is a timeless commentary on the human capacity for evil and the justifications that “good people” make for excusing our transgressions. Part is a devout religious tract. And part, as I mentioned, is just a good, old-fashioned romp.
- Though Stowe paints her white racist villains with a broad brush, there are some reoccurring themes. One is that many racist whites either overlook or refuse to consider that blacks have family feelings. The character of Marks says: “If we could get a breed of gals that didn’t care, now, for their young uns, tell ye, I think’t would be ’bout the greatest mod’rn improvement I knows on.” One of Stowe’s biggest successes in the novel is getting this concept across to a huge number of people. It might seem ludicrous in today’s society to think that people believed that a black mother didn’t have the same feelings for her child as a white one, say, but that was the situation. And Stowe was determined to change it.
- One of the big pro-slavery arguments was that blacks were better off economically than exploited white workers. The argument went this way: It’s better to be owned, because your owner has a vested interest in giving you a certain quality of life as a return on his investment. The pro-slavery faction often pointed to the wretched life of the poor under capitalism. Miss Ophelia – the prim New Englander who travels to the South to help her cousin, St. Clare – discusses this issue with him, and it’s like a proxy for similar discussions taking place throughout the country.
- The book is blatantly emotional, and what a good thing that is. This sentence brought tears: “Here is a fine bright girl, of ten years, whose mother was sold out yesterday, and who tonight cried herself to sleep when nobody was looking at her.”
- Over the years, the popular impression of the character of Tom has morphed into a vague stereotype, that of the gentle black slave unwilling to raise a hand against his master no matter how terrible his torment. But Tom is a far more complex character than that: He’s in many ways incredibly strong, but he channels this strength into his devotion to God. (The Christ-figure comparisons have been debated exhaustively.) Yes, he is respectful of whites, and his love for the angelic white girl, Eva, takes on almost worshipful proportions. But the perception of Tom as a pushover came mostly from the adaptations of the novel made throughout the years. Stowe’s Tom is resilient, resourceful, pious, loving and a superior human being, and though he endures egregious hardship – to think that his master promised to free him but died before he could make the arrangements – he suffers through with the dignity of a saint. Perhaps that was Stowe’s greatest accomplishment: She created a title character who seemed so much better than the life he was given. Once white Americans identified with him, slavery was doomed.
“Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America,” by David S. Reynolds. Most people don’t think of Harriet Beecher Stowe as one of the titan figures of American history. But Reynolds makes a significant case that Stowe’s wildly popular “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which galvanized (and divided) a nation in the years leading up to the Civil War, was a master piece of persuasion that had a major impact on shifting public opinion in the North against slavery. In effect, Reynolds writes, Stowe changed minds, and by doing so, she changed the course of history.
One way she accomplished this was to effectively use religion in her argument. She believed that blacks were “more naturally Christian than the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race,” and she saw in the purity of their belief a natural evolution in the journey of all Christians. Reynolds points out that such assumptions about black spirituality were racial stereotyping, but in the context of the time, they were progressive. It’s a major step going from the idea that blacks were vastly inferior in all mental capacities, including spirituality, to arguing that they were actually on a higher plane. (This came at a time when the antislavery scientist Louis Agassiz claimed that the “brain of the Negro is that of the imperfect brain of a seven months’ infant in the womb of the White.”) Stowe’s idea of religion was one of “vibrantly portrayed human experiences and shared emotions.”The ability of religion to shift with the times is a reminder of how malleable it can be, which might be nice in terms of flexibility but doesn’t say much for its ultimate veracity.
Along with imbuing the black race with a superior spirituality, Reynolds writes that it was the first novels that depiced the full range of emotions among enslaved blacks (location 1727). The more specifics you know about a person’s humanity, the harder it is to argue for inhumane treatment.
Along with analyzing the content of Stowe’s novel and the power of her message, Reynolds spends a significant amount of time in his book documenting how “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” came to be a literary powerhouse – all out of the hands of Stowe. Many Americans in the decades to come knew the novel through its various theatrical adaptations. It became the most-watched play ever written by an American. By the time the last production is thought to have closed down, in 1931, the play’s 77-year run was “half as long as American history itself,” wrote Theatre Guild critic Elizabeth Corbett. And this wasn’t just a New York run: The country was saturated with “Tom” productions. In many small towns, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was the only play that likely ever came through. Most in the population knew the storyline by heart, and the shows became a ritual as beloved characters were reinterpreted. The spectacle on stage got ever more elaborate, and the gimmicks abounded – live animals! Double casts! Electric lighting! – until the show became a quasi-circus.
The biggest example of warped meaning in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is, of course, the epithet “Uncle Tom,” signifying a weak, submissive black man. When you read the actual book, the epithet doesn’t make any sense – Tom is respectful, but he’s a supremely strong man, and it’s his religion that can make him seem docile, not his character – but that didn’t matter. Alex Haley saw “deep irony” in the fact that even though “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had “helped to end the institution of slavery,” now, a century after its publication, “the very name of Mrs. Stowe’s hero is the worst insult the slaves’ descendants can hurl at one another out of their frustrations in seeking what all other Americans take for granted.”
“Game of Thrones: A Song of Fire and Ice,” by George R.R. Martin. Sometimes it pays to follow the crowd. I first read about the “Game of Thrones” series in The New Yorker, of all places, which remarked on just how excellent this fantasy series is. I have to agree. Against a medieval backdrop of “The Seven Kingdoms” – which everyone seems to attribute to England during the War of the Roses – and with dozens of scheming and notable characters, the book is one of those sprawling creations that positions the reader in an unfamiliar fantasy world and then connects with all too-familiar human emotions and ambitions.
The author is adept at weaving three major strands together: that of the Starks of the North, with whom our sympathies mostly lie; the Lannisters of the South, who are inherently villainous; and with a princess in the east, Daerys, who dreams of reclaiming her family’s throne. Yet this isn’t a one-sided affair. Even though we’re expected to loathe the Lannisters, the character of the Tyrion, a misshapen dwarf, is so compelling that it adds a layer of complexity and nuance to a reader’s allegiance (at least mine).
I’ll save the twists and gyrations of the plot for other reviewers who have scrupulously documented them, but I can say that two aspects of the series (yes, I’m already more than halfway through the second one) stand out. First, fantasy works best powered by human behavior, not magic. There are elements of the metaphysical in “Game of Thrones,” and so far they’ve been highly effective in small doses. Second, I am intrigued and a little scared by the idea of The Wall, the towering structure that protects the extreme northern edge of the Seven Kingdoms from ice and terror. It’s a testament to the author’s storytelling prowess that I actually felt a chill when the members of the Black Watch, whose job is to man and protect The Wall, venture beyond its borders for the first time.
“Wolf Hall,” by Hilary Mantel. If juicy historical fiction were a kind of lodging, consider this the five-star deluxe resort version. It’s a story told with a rich, literary flair and a darkly philosophical bent that resonates more than the often famous historical events it describes. The story of Henry VIII and his various beleaguered wives – in this case the unfortunate Anne Boelyn – has been told so many times, in so many biographies and historical novels, that you might think it’s all been said. But Mantel hunkers down and finds an intriguing secondary character to serve as focal point: the much maligned Thomas Cromwell, much disdained adviser to the king, whose ruthlessness led him to the ultimate comeuppance: his own falling out of favor and subsequent execution.
But Mantel avoids the latter part of her unlikely hero’s life. Instead, she follows his rise from humble origins and his unlikely vaulting to the top of the bloody English power structure. Cromwell’s big break was hooking up with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, adviser to the king and immensely powerful figure, who was destined to fall when Henry decided to break with the Catholic Church. After Cromwell had smoothly insinuated himself into Henry’s court, he would go on to supervise the breakup of the church’s holdings – many of which went straight to the king in one of the greatest forced transfers of wealth in history.
I’m not sure I buy Mantel’s interpretation of Cromwell, whom she presents as reluctant pragmatist and patriotic Englishman, a man weighed down by the viciousness of the times and the need to provide for his family. She’s like an image consultant centuries after the fact, feeding us constant tidbits of her subject’s humanity but never delving quite so deeply into the sufferings of others at his hands. Still, the writing is vivid, and the larger-than-life characters — could anyone in today’s world ever get away with being quite so full of himself? – really glisten on the page.
“Gods Behaving Badly,” by Marie Phillips. The ancient gods of Olympus didn’t die – they can’t! – but have just sort of limped along these several thousand years in a state of weakened despair, ending up in a rundown house in London, of all places. (The inevitable upcoming movie version of the book has shifted their location to New York, I’ve read.)
It’s a great high-concept novel that positively sings as long as the author is exploring the delicious set-up. The gods are still their squabbling selves, from vain Apollo and nymphomaniacal Aphrodite to blustering Eros and solid Demeter, whose duties have shrunken considerably due to the cutbacks in hunting. Phillips peppers the text with fun little zingers: Eros is now a gung-ho Christian! Athena teaches college! Dionysus runs a sleazy bar! That all of them are stuck together, unable to really put their power to much use, gives the group an amiably beleaguered feeling, as if they’re an extended sitcom family stuck in a never-ending run.
But the writing is a lot weaker than the premise. Two “mortals” play prominent roles: one a mousy cleaning lady named Alice, the other an engineering geek named Neil who falls for her. Alice gets hired as the gods’ cleaner, and predictably wacky pratfalls occur as a result. (Apollo falls madly I love with her after being shot by an Eros arrow, and Neil gets very irate, indeed.) After the set-up, I kept waiting for a rip-roaring storyline to ensue, but Phillips gets bogged down in a limp plot involving the afterlife that threatens to collapse because of boredom and the lack of internal logic. Still, I’m looking forward to the film adaptation. This might be one of those rare cases when the movie turns out to be better than the book.
“Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion,” by Janet Reitman. Birthing a religion can be a messy business. I have no doubt that if it had been possible for the beginnings of Christianity to be documented in the same fashion as the industrious Reitman accomplishes with Scientology in this fascinating book, there would have been similar nitty-gritty insider revelations. With the origins of Christianity safely in the haze of 20 centuries past, we’re past much of the human pettiness. With Scientology, however, we’re there every step of the way, from the odd career trajectory of L. Ron Hubbard to the Stalinesque purges of his blunt successor, David Miscavige.
Some argue that Scientology is unique. It’s considered the only “major” religion that literally charges its parishioners to participate. (You could say that many religions get their believers to cough up money in more subtle ways, but with Scientology, if you don’t have the bucks, you either scrimp and borrow or go without.) It relies on a science fiction foundation that came from, appropriately enough, a science-fiction author. (The big secret provided to Scientologists who reach a lofty enough position in the church: Earth, ruled over by a galactic warlord named Xenu, served as a sort of refugee camp 75 million years ago for hapless citizens of the overpopulated galaxy, who were forced here and then killed with hydrogen bombs. The souls of these individuals, or thetans, float from body to body throughout eternity. Only with Scientology can a person break the cycle by purging the bad memories. Or something like that. I haven’t paid the $500,000 or so it takes to achieve true enlightenment.)
And yet: One person’s cult is another’s religion. Name the beliefs and standard practices of any of the world’s religions, and you can get quickly into mockery territory. When right-wing bloggers try to best themselves today by “proving” that Jesus Christ was a conservative, it’s pretty obvious that religious beliefs can be wide and extreme even within the same belief system.
What fascinates me most is how authoritarian and fundamentalist Scientology seemed to become, according to the author, especially with the transition after L. Ron Hubbard’s death. To think that a religion originally embraced by enlightenment-seeking hippies has become a rigid, militaristic bastion is, needless to say, a little amusing.
Reitman goes into great detail about all the major parts of Scientology’s founding and development, including stories that cast a dark shadow on the church. (One of the chief ones is the death of Lisa McPherson, who cracked under the pressures of Scientology – hers is a long account of slow financial ruin exacerbated by tough pseudo-psychological battery in the form of Scientology mind treatments – and slowly wasted away in a pricey Scientology facility.) Others: the IRS scandal (the church, after relentless litigation, finally managed to get tax-deductible status, which means that the taxpayers indirectly help pay for all those Scientology auditing sessions) and the Tom Cruise crazy phase. Her sections on Miscavige are particularly fascinating as well, detailing his rise to power and his current grip on the church.
She does balance her account with tales of Scientologists for whom their religion has had a great positive impact. For me, I respect anyone who seeks a path to enlightenment as long as it doesn’t hurt others. (And if that’s how they want to spend their money, fine.) But I do feel for the children raised in the faith – many of whom have known nothing else. Like all children raised in any religion around the world, they’re indoctrinated with the beliefs of their parents. All I’d hope is that each of us get to make our own choices.
“The Lacuna,” by Barbara Kingsolver. I was both infuriated and fascinated by Kingsolver’s curious novel, which follows the central character of Harrison William Shepherd from a 12-year-old boy in Mexico to a middle-aged author in North Carolina.
Part of my annoyance, I realize, is because Kingsolver herself read the book-on-CD version, and she was mediocre. (To put it kindly.) Lacking both dramatic gravitas and the ability to persuasively render the accents called for in the book, Kingsolver’s anemic vocals dragged the story down.
The other part of my annoyance has to do with the passivity — and occasional cluelessness — of the central character. Consider this: Shepherd spends years in Mexico in the employ of two famous Communists: Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky. When the Communist witch hunts erupt years later back in the United Staes, and it’s clear that Shepherd will be dragged into the muck of the moment, he remains oblivious to what’s unfolding around him — even when the FBI starts questioning him. I don’t care how gentle his character is supposed to be, or how naive his attitude toward vicious people is, but “The Lacuna” takes us far past the believable point in terms of Shepherd’s golly-gee-how-could-you-suspect me ignorance. Otherwise he’s just a supremely dim guy. Come on, the witch-hunt thing isn’t exactly a surprise by this point. But Kingsolver is more interested in making a point rather than be true to her character. I actually yelled back at the recording several times, so irritated was I at Kingsolver’s sloppiness.
Part of the clunkiness comes from the book’s structure: We retrace Shepherd’s life through journal entries, personal correspondence and newspaper clippings. Trying to eke a novel out of a such a structure is naturally going to result in a somewhat stilted tone — at least in Kingsolver’s not always able hands.
Still, the book did grow on me. I was entranced by the depictions of Rivera, Trotsky and Frida Kahlo, who are all vivid characters. Reading “The Lacuna” made me want to visit the homes of Trotsky and Rivera and Kahlo when I visited Mexico City, and the background of the novel made those visits richer. And Kingsolver was pretty effective at rallying me against the stupidity of the McCarthy witch hunts — and also their universality. Give politicians — or people in general — a chance, and they’ll pick an enemy to taunt and scapegoat.
“The Grand Design,” by Stephen Hawking. If trying to comprehend one vast universe is enough of a mind blower, try contemplating billions. And then consider 10, or even 11 dimensions. For centuries, physicists have ached to produce a Grand Theory of Everything to explain the universe. Now, Hawking informs us, that’s probably impossible. Consider this: all those universes might not even follow the same natural laws.
I happened to read this book before watching the recent production of “Copenhagen” by The New Ensemble, and I’m glad I did. Hawking walks us physics neophytes through the basics: light as a particle, light as a wave, the mind-crunching postulations of quantum mechanics, with the idea that a particle has an infinite number of possible locations until it is observed.
Above my head? Yes. But accessible. A fascinating book that makes clear the universe (or universes) is even more friggin’ amazing than ever.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN: What are you reading? Tell me in a comment, as long or short as you want, below.