Since my last book report, I have indulged my love of stories.
First I read The Man in the Glass Booth by Robert Shaw. Although a play is a story, or tells a story, reading a play is not like reading a novel or a short story. I personally like reading plays, but they do require a slightly different mind set, as they are really meant to be visualized rather than read. This particular play was difficult to read, it was probably a difficult play to watch as well, as there is much that is intentionally ambiguous. In some ways it reminds me of a play I wrote about last fall, Eve Ensler's Necessary Targets, not really because the story is similar, or the writing, but because both force the audience to address basic assumptions and perceived truths about themselves and society. But I think it would be even more difficult for a modern audience. There are significant references to art and music, references that I believe would have been familiar to the audience of the 1960s, but which are not so familiar today. This is partly because many years have passed, but it also because of a cultural shift that has occurred in the intervening decades. I think this play, like another book I read earlier in the year, The Dissapearance, assumes a higher level of cultural literacy. It is a product of a type of high-toned popular culture, often called middlebrow, as it was basically a middle-class culture, but one that still believed that culture built character, and a respectable person should strive to understand the best writing and art as part of becoming a better person. That culture still existed in the 1960s in large enough quantities that magazines and plays would be marketed to it, but doesn't really exist in any significant way today.
Still, if you are up for it and can find a copy, I recommend reading the play as I am not sure it is performed much anymore. It will challenge your beliefs and understanding of human nature, and intentionally so. The play is about Arthur Goldman, a wealthy Jewish industrialist, a holocaust survivor, who is arrested and tried for being a Nazi war criminal. Goldman is outrageously irreverent in both his personas with the effect that one questions who he really is. It is in this, Goldman's shocking tendency to play against type, to throw his accusers beliefs and assumptions back in their faces, that we find the true and unsettling strength of this play. Goldman is aggravating, confounding, and both appalling and all too familiarly human. The play turns the reader's understanding of victimhood, responsibility, retribution, survivor guilt, and the complexities of good an evil in the human experience completely upside down, and leaves us with no easy answers, in the end causing us to question not only his guilt or innocence but our own. I read the play nearly two months ago, and it still slinks through my mind. It may continue to do so for some time. The play was made into a movie. I think I will look it up sometime.
Next, I thought some rather light reading along the lines of a murder mystery would be entertaining for a flight, so I picked up Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry. It is taughtly written and rather compelling although I couldn't say that it was actually very light as I found much about the story that was disturbing and the main character to be completely aggravating. Yet I couldn't put the book down. The story is told from the perspective of Nora, the sister of the victim, who finds the body, and it perfectly captures her jittery, haphazard, at times maddeningly obtuse and otherwise emotionally flat affect. Although I am not particularly knowledgeable of the mystery genre, I found it be a good psychological suspense story that told the story in a new and somewhat unexpected way. The conclusion seemed a bit of an afterthought in some ways, as indeed I believe it was meant to be. Although the story begins as a search to find a killer, and the killer is indeed found, that is not, in the end the real focus of the suspense in this story.
I also read Elena Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment, a book that probably deserves its own post. But it is also a book that I can't really write about. Nothing I put in words is as powerful as the book itself and it is not a book I would recommend to the casual reader. It is the first book of Ferrante's I have read, and I understand that it is different from her Neapolitan novels, which I am now looking forward to reading. I love this novel, but it is raw, and gut-wrenchingly intimate and painful. Basically it is the story of a woman's descent into despair and loss of identity following the dissolution of her marriage. I have no experience of divorce; it is something I hope to never experience. And, like the grief from a death, I am sure there are similarities and differences in everyone's experience. But I am familiar with grief, at least from the perspective of losing a spouse to death, and although death also feels like a betrayal, I can believe that divorce is a betrayal of a completely different nature. Ferrante's prose is so beautifully rendered, so personal, that I felt drawn into Olga's misery, as if her despair was my despair, as if all the ugliness of dissolution was palpably present. Since I read the novel, I've read some reviews that find the story overwrought and implausible. I do not. Ferrante touches on something, some aspect of grief and loss, of losing oneself and finding oneself again, only changed, that we all must experience at some point, something I can definitely understand, and makes it real.
I'll end with two books that I feel are best read slowly, perhaps as part of a daily practice of meditation.
Plain Living: A quaker Path to Simplicity was picked up for a Sunday School class, a class that I missed most of due to other obligations, but I am happy to have found the book. The book actually does not have a narrative structure, instead consisting of a series of quotes from various writers that have been grouped according to themes by the author. Read consecutively, I believe the author is a bit heavy-handed, but that observation does the book a disservice. I don't believe it is meant to be read from cover to cover, and if one is so inclined, there is much wisdom to ponder here. I would say the book is more theist than specifically Christian. Although many, if not most, Quakers do consider themselves part of the Christian tradition, this book is not limited to that mind-set but rather on the relationship of the individual to the divine, and the search for simplicity as a pathway to finding clarity of purpose and meaning in life.
Listening is an Act of Love by David Isay was given to me as a birthday present. It is a compilation of stories edited from interviews that have occurred as part of the Story Corps project. Like the previous book, the editor has grouped the stories by theme. Also like the previous book, I find they are best read one or two at a time. By reading a story a day, I fond the stories powerful reminders of the importance of everyone's life and story, each revealing in their own way something of the human condition that I could relate to and be inspired by. They do not stand up to further scrutiny however. Read straight through one gets the sense of something missing and yearns to hear more of the interviews.