3.30.2009

Four Books and a Movie

I've gotten a reasonable start on my Spring Reading Thing goal, although I've made some minor adjustments already. (See my sidebar for my whole list and a link to the other participants.) This is my first post on the progress and what I've read so far, but it's actually about two books that I kinda read and two books that I actually read to kick off my SRT.

First, I decided to finish one book I'd already started: Eighty Years and More, the autobiography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Over the last few weeks, I've read about two-thirds of it, interspersed with other stuff. I picked it up to finish it for the SRT and just could. not. get. into. it.

I think I enjoyed the first half better because it was more about her childhood and education, her early married life and motherhood. She had eight children, something I didn't know before. And she had some very wise and intelligent things to say about mothering, which I thoroughly enjoyed and related to.

But the second half of the book became more a travel log of her lecture circuits and while some of it provides an interesting perspective, I kept wondering who was taking care of her kids while she was traveling nine months out of the year. I mean, she just suddenly jumped to her work with Susan B. Anthony in pursuing women's rights and not much more was said of her family life, which I guess I was more interested in, and which she says she will primarily discuss at the onset.

Maybe I will return to Elizabeth Cady Stanton at some point, but for now, I'm crossing it off my list because my brain wasn't taking it in. I did, however, glean a lot from her autobiography about the origins of the women's rights movement and have been thinking a lot about today's prevailing attitudes about women's roles.

A lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same since Stanton's time. Interestingly enough, I think it's women who oppress other women now, just with their attitudes and assumptions, and many of those attitudes were already evident in Stanton's outlook. So perhaps I will have more to say about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as soon as I formulate my ideas more clearly. It was an informative read, and made me appreciate even more the efforts of American women to win the right to vote, but the account just got a little too dry for me to continue for now...

I ordered some new titles from Amazon (it will take a couple weeks for them to arrive), and in the meantime planned to read The Shadow of the Wind, a book my husband borrowed from the Community Liaison Office at the embassy and recommended to me. But while putting Eighty Years back on the shelf and pulling out The Shadow, I caught a glimpse of The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. Not on my list, but suddenly appealing, so I squoze it in.

You can never go wrong with Lewis' allegories and this is perhaps one of his best for me. Especially in the last chapter or so, I was really touched by the difference between pity the emotion and pity the action. Pity the passion is what robs us of complete joy because we feel sorry for people who seem less fortunate than us and we can't do anything about it. But pity the action is the force that will heal and restore those people, it's the thing that will do something for them, as long as they allow it.

I loved that in C.S. Lewis' heaven, there is no room for pity the emotion, which means that those people who try to make us feel guilty for being happy will no longer have power over us, so we will experience unalloyed joy. And the reason we won't have guilt over our personal happiness is that pity the action will be in effect. So not only will we not be unhappy ourselves, but we have every assurance that every unhappiness of others will be addressed and healed, and it needn't be left to our own poor powers to do it.

I also really enjoyed the comparisons of attitudes in many of the characters encountered in The Great Divorce. Once again, C.S. Lewis made me aware that the traditional gross sins may not be the things that keep us from exaltation. Often we are our own worst pitfall. Always something to think about.

Thirdly, I am checking off Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone as "read." OK, I didn't exaclty read every single word, but I did read a whole lot of it aloud to the boys, including the final two chapters the other night when they would not let me stop. Good stuff. We're a little behind the Harry Potter frenzy on our house anyway, so I want to get moving on to the second book!

Finally, I read The Shadow of the Wind. It is actually one of the longer books on my list and I was counting on it taking a couple weeks from start to finish, but I could not put it down!

It's quite a bit darker and somewhat more risque than I usually enjoy, but wow, it's great writing and a propelling plot, and I really loved it. I was worried all along that I was so into it that it would probably have a disappointing ending, but in the end, it was completely satisfying.

Some of the things I liked:

* One of the heroes of the story was not necessarily a likeable figure - in fact for most of the book, he is lurking and frightening.

* The villain in the book is really, really horrible.

* The elements of suspense and comic relief and poignancy were near-perfectly developed and balanced. When David was reading it one night, he set the book down for a second and said, "Whew. I just read a part that gave me a chill down my spine." Then not too long after, he was laughing out loud.

* All the characters were human and deep and relatable on some level.

* The setting and historical backdrop was one with which I am almost completely unfamiliar, and now I really want to find out more about the Spanish Civil War and go to Barcelona sometime.

* Mostly, it was the writing. And this is a translation, which impressed me even more. Sometimes authors try a little too hard to be poetic and gothic and artistic in their prose and it just comes out a little over the top or sometimes even trite or rehearsed-sounding. Then if it's a translation, almost always something seems lost. But this book has some wonderful descriptions, and they flow so beautifully with the whole flavor and plot of the book. These are two small ones that I especially liked:

About the main character's first encounter with the villain: "Something reminded me of one of those figures from old-fashioned playing cards or the sort used by fortune tellers, a print straight from the pages of an incunabulum: his presence was both funereal and incandescent, like a curse dressed in Sunday best."

And on a funny visit to a brothel (for not exactly what you'd think) toward the end of the novel: "A lineup of ladies with their virtue for rent and a lot of mileage on the clock greeted us with smiles that would only have excited a student of dentistry."

If you like books about books and a bit of terror and suspense with a lot about family-relationships, coming of age, human nature, revenge, love, and resilience, The Shadow of the Wind is a read you don't want to miss.

And now for the movie: Friday night I went to the Mohyla English Language Institute here in Kiev as a guest host for their weekly movie night. The embassy participates in an outreach program with the American Library on their campus and is always looking for hosts for the movies, so I volunteered.

I was in charge of introducing the movie and then conducting a discussion afterwards. Everything is in English, and it was fun to watch an American film - we watched The Truman Show. A very interesting film to watch in a former Soviet country, actually.

I really enjoyed our conversation about media influence, freedom, protection as a form of love, and what is real or authentic. Not only one of my favorite movies ever, but also a stimulating conversation with young adults that I really enjoyed.

Afterward, one of the girls who was there caught up to me on the way to the Metro stop and she was just bubbling over with excitement - she hardly let me get a word in edgewise: "I just discovered this American library in September and I started reading things and it's just like whole new worlds are opened up to me. I just read To Kill a Mockingbird - I thought that since they told me it was an American classic that it would be boring or I wouldn't understand, but it's so wonderful! I love that book! And tonight! I've watched Truman Show before - but it was in Russian, and I liked it - but tonight I thought of so many different questions and ideas. It was great!"

I loved her enthusiasm and it made me happy - literature and art really does reach across and there are so many rich human experiences that we can share.

Have you read or watched anything wonderful lately?

2 comments:

MommyJ said...

I just watched Stranger Than Fiction, with Will Ferrell. It was much better than I expected. Very thought provoking, and a great movie for people who consider themselves writers.

I haven't been reading quite as much lately, because I've been doing more writing... but a few that I've read and loved recently: My Sisters Keeper, by Jodi Picoult. Holy thought provoking. Then, The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak - a little difficult to get in to because of the interesting writing style, but once I did, I couldn't put it down. Also currently reading East of Eden, by John Steinbeck which is perhaps one of the most beautifully written books ever.

Thanks for mentioning The Shadow of the Wind... always looking for another book to add to my list!

Anne said...

Shadow of the Wind does sound good! Have you heard of bookmooch.com? It is a free book swapping site, where you just pay shipping to send stuff that people request from you, and when you send stuff you earn points to request your own stuff. I have mooched a few times now, and it is great! A good way to keep the bookshelves fresh and to keep good books read rather than dusty! (PS - I really am going to send those books - I will send them with Aaron next time he goes to the embassy. Assuming baby doesn't bother to show up, that should be tomorrow.)