Sunday, March 19, 2017

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve been working my way through the books in my house, the ones sleeping on shelves and teetering in stacks everywhere, in the usual random order. Rather than gearing up to write actual book reviews*, I’m more in the mood for talking about the books I’ve read lately, a very unscholarly, subjective business, rather like you and I are having drinks and dishing on the books we’ve read. So here now is some dishing.

A Game of Thrones
George R. R. Martin (1996)

I picked up this book during one of my Goodwill book sweeps, where I grab a bunch of wildly popular books for $2 each and pile them in a stack under my bedside table for snack-reading because sometimes, folks, snack-reading is called for. And one night I was in the mood; I wanted an entertaining page-turner that would immerse me in some other world. So I started this saga of the Starks and the Lannisters and the—oh, I forget, some other white-people-sounding names. It was a page turner, and it did immerse me in another world (a sort of medieval Britain, with magic), so it fit the bill fine. The story lines moved quickly and kept me interested. And as I finished it (well, you don’t really finish; it just propels you into the next book in the series), I pondered the best way to lay my hands on the sequel—Kindle, right now? Used bookstore tomorrow? I had an impulse to keep plowing through the books because I wanted to know what happened to these people—the blood-of-the-dragon lady, the brilliant but overlooked little man, the girl who’s good with a sword.
            But…here was the thing. I was tired of living in that world where pretty much no animal, except for some cool wolves, made it out alive. Animals die horribly in this book, all the time—cut down in battle, executed for maiming hapless humans, sacrificed in gruesome rituals that don’t seem to help anybody. It was like being immersed in a world where non-human life had no value (again, except for the wolves, who had the advantage of being royal pets). 
            And then there was the relentless violence against women. Martin and the HBO show’s producers have taken a lot of heat for that, and I find their excuses feeble—well, it was a different time, they say, and we wanted to portray the reality of it. I’m sorry—a fantasy book has some historical truth you have to portray? Since you’re making it up—it’s a fantasy—how about portraying a world where women aren’t constantly devalued, scorned as being too weak to rule, and referred to in terms of their body parts and weight? How about a book where masses of women aren’t institutionally raped during battles and conquests? Or where rape isn’t constantly tossed off with casual euphemisms like “he entered her” or “four of them took her”?
            I really had to ponder this after I finished the book. Truly, the story lines were so well crafted that I was tempted to pick up the next book and start reading. But I just…couldn’t. It’s like a video game that lets kids shoot people and blow up buildings. I despair of all the kids reading these books and internalizing messages like this. I have to stop and ask: As a culture, why do we do that to ourselves?

All the King’s Men
Robert Penn Warren (1946)

You know, that Robert Penn Warren, he could write. Holy smack. Exquisite, read-out-loud lines. Sentences that ran for entire paragraphs. Three Pulitzers, one for fiction (for this very book) and two for poetry. A writer’s writer. I mean, look at this, a little treatise on the obligations adult kids have when visiting their parents:

When you got born your father and mother lost something out of themselves, and they are going to bust a hame trying to get it back, and you are it. They know they can’t get it all back but they will get as big a chunk out of you as they can.

            Thoughtful, beautiful, surprising writing. But I’m embarrassed to say I only got about 50 pages into this and had to put it down. I could not take the bleakness of this world. The meanness. I was in a bad place emotionally for it, I guess. Corrupt governor Willie Stark and his hangers-on were just too brutal, too Jim Crow South, too right-now America. Even the narrator, who seems like a decent guy, is so jaded and jaundiced that I felt like I was sitting in a hot, fly-infested bar, listening to him drone on and on and trying to figure out how to diplomatically dump him. In one scene some people are even mean to a really old, arthritic dog. And the n word is used endlessly. Yes, it was the times and all—I get it. But I tried reading this right after A Game of Thrones and just couldn’t do the mean-white-men world again. Maybe I’ll try this American classic another time. I mean, the guy could write.

Marilynne Robinson (2004)

After Thrones and King’s Men, I needed a major change of pace. And I can say—though I just started it and am only partway through—that Gilead is the perfect antidote to those bleak worlds. It starts slow, then kicks in with a great story about a man in the late 1800s going on a fool’s errand with his 12-year-old son, looking for a grave out in the wilds of drought-stricken Kansas. That story is so crazy and wonderful—what sane grown man would do that, with a kid in tow?—that it pulled me right into the book. And the structure of it, a series of stories from the past, interspersed with glimpses of the present, that a kind but pragmatic father is writing for his small son to read years into the future, makes me want to write the story of my own life this way, tale by tale and impression by impression. Absolutely brilliant storytelling.
Just look at that book block. Swoon.
            My copy is a first edition, hardback with elegant cream binding and headbands. And its layout—the block, as it’s called in the book biz—is so beautiful and readable, the font size versus leading so perfect, that I had to take a picture of it. It just lives and breathes in the hand. Bravo, designer Jonathan D. Lippincott and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Sometimes I read books on Kindle, but books like this make me happy they still exist in physical form.

Out of Range
C. J. Box (2005)

My friend Steve shares my love of Westerns and smart mystery novels; he got me addicted to the Longmire series**. Recently he loaned me this mystery, book 5 in a series about a game warden in present-day Twelve Sleep, Wyoming. Honestly, when I started this book I didn’t know what game wardens do (they enforce hunting laws), and it’s weird for animal-lover me to be reading a book about hunting. But it’s not about hunting, it’s about hunters—who, in a place like this where there is a lot of hunting, can be practically anybody. And in this story there’s endless intrigue among hunting guides, land developers, law enforcement, and politicians, all taking place in the magnificent and changing landscape of modern Wyoming. C. J. Box has a deft touch for characterization; in this book there’s an ongoing feud between a husband and wife that’s as real and painful as life itself, and even the smaller characters are developed with compassion and complexity. And it’s all anchored by a deeply moral hero who’s dead serious about his job but not always sure of himself. This is one of the best books I've read in a long time, and I’ll definitely pick up the others in the series.

And I realize, reading over this, that it’s all white authors. My next job: Remedy that.

* Have you ever written a scholarly book review? They’re hard.

** I like both the Longmire book series and the TV show. And they’re quite different. The books are tidily plotted and beautifully descriptive, but they tend to use the same tropes too often, like Longmire getting injured and being a big he-man galoot who will go to superhuman lengths to catch the bad guys. And in the books it seems like every middle-aged woman who crosses his path falls for him. On the TV show he’s more muted, moody, and real, and the female characters are more three-dimensional than in the books. This whole blog post has turned into a treatise on gender in literature, hasn’t it? I seem to have a bone to pick.


  1. Wow! This is a beautiful post,love to read this ,thanks for sharing

  2. I read your poem today Ms Miller, and liked it, The World Entire, and it reminded me of my daughter, the poet, Katie Schmid (MFA U of Wyoming at Laramie...2010, 2011? I don't remember) When still in high school, and I had read all Cormac McCarthy's books, she picked up, The Road. The most crushing, yet beautiful of his books, and she quoted him:
    “Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other's world entire.”
    ― Cormac McCarthy, The Road
    McCarthy is just a "cowboy writer", No Country For Old Men, etc. but goddamn he's so good. Tommy Lee Jones final scene in the No Country movie stays in my mind every day. I paraphrase from my memory, I saw my father, horseback, cross the mountain in the snow and the going was rough, and he passed by, didn't say a word, made it over and made camp, and he saved me a place next to the fire. Many folks liked that movie "except the ending". It was among the best endings to movies I have seen in my life. It's what happens when I die--either I get a good long nap, or someone's saved me a place around the campfire and we'll have us a laugh, we friends, and tell a few jokes.
    Take one of my daughter's classes at U of N in Lincoln, and nary an author will BE a white male, unless they're used to compare and contrast. Once she went to France over Christmas break as an undergrad to take a class The Influence of African Writing on French Literature (or something like that) She just wanted to spend "my favorite New Years' ever!" in Paris chased by the gendarmes from the Eiffel Tower when protesters from the suburbs started throwing molotov cocktails.
    I'm just proud of my daughter, is my entire comment theme. Thank you for reminding me of her so much this morning. I enjoyed your poem very much. My wife and I moved to NC from Los Angeles in 2014 and for me it was le petit mord. So I'm going to watch the video and cry now. Thanks again.
    Cormac is a f*cking genius! And The Road, my god. Speechless.