What I’ve Been Reading — June 2007

The Bluest EyeHeart of DarknessSlaughterhouse Five

Books Acquired:
Lots of Baby Books – Various Authors

Books Read:
The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

Man, I really wish I had an angle this month.

I don’t. I didn’t pick books that joined together seamlessly, like literary Legos. They didn’t fit together or lead to one another or paint a wide-sweeping theme that wows and amazes each of you in its grandiose-ness. Nope. I just read some books.

The only thing they really had in common was that they were, indeed books. I didn’t even really read that many – I mean, I spent the first week and a half finishing books I talked about last month. I do that sometimes. I prematurely celebrate so I can make it to the web on deadline.

The difference that last month is that I actually acknowledged that the books weren’t finished. That was my concession to you. I am honorable and just.

I really have been looking to carve a dent in my Essentials list, especially since a baby is on his/her way in a few weeks. Once he/she comes, my moratorium on short stories will be raised and I will be set free, able to wallow through stacks of short prose that will be easily digested in between naps and during midnight feedings.

Yeah right. I’m still dreaming. Let me be.

Our first baby shower brought a shower of books, actually. Each gift seemed to contain a children’s book or two, enough that we found ourselves with a healthy stack of books to add to our baby’s future room. We found later that this was by design – part of the theme of the shower was for everyone to bring their favorite children’s book to give to our forthcoming child. My mother, who couldn’t be there, even sent along a few. It was touching and very appropriate.

With that being said, I’m no longer mentioning the children’s books we acquire in this column. I can’t, really – we’re going to be filling closets with them in the upcoming years, and they really cease to belong to us as soon as they’re awarded to Baby Vilhauer. I’d lie if I said I wasn’t excited to read them myself, and thankfully I’ll get a chance to. Babies don’t learn to read until, like, two years old, right?

What? Older?

The books I read went as far to the opposite direction of “children’s book material” as possible – rape, jungle dangers and napalm bombing, to be specific. So either children have their precious minds shielded from the horrible realities of life, or they read all of the good stuff as kids and are forced to delve deeper into the more horrible depths of literature as they get older.

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was the first of these horrible depths. The book was recommended to me by Kerrie, who thought I wouldn’t quite get Morrison’s Beloved without reading one of her easier books first. This comment was repeated twice more by unrelated parties. I thought hard about taking Beloved on out of spite, thinking “I can read this! I’m a lerr-NED reader, and I don’t need no warm ups!” Instead, I conceded. Oh well.

It’s been a long time since I’ve delved into a novel written by an African American woman. Sorry – I should rephrase that. I don’t remember EVER delving into a novel written by an African American woman. The great thing is that I never once stopped and thought about the race and gender of the author. At times, it comes out – after all, a novel is only a natural extension of the author’s mind – but it’s only used to strengthen the story.

Morrison’s main character – Peola – is a girl that we really don’t see much. The story is told from the people around her – her friends, her family and a narrator. In the book, Peola is raped at a very young age. She carries a child – her father’s – and things go to hell.

But it’s the lead-up to this act that occupies the first 90% of the book. You don’t see a lot of Peola’s life. You instead see the people that shape her life. It’s a very sad story, but because of the way it’s written I’ll admit that, at times, I didn’t feel for Peola like I should have. I thought I was missing something. I liked it a lot, but I felt disconnected from Peola, like she wasn’t a real character to me, and anything that happened to her was bound to be pushed to the side.

And here’s the amazing thing. In the afterword, Toni Morrison admits as much. She feels that the book is flawed. What guts! A Nobel Prize winning author, admitting that her first book – a beloved (no pun intended) novel that chronicles a girl’s desire to be different; to have the bluest eyes and be normal – is written incorrectly. In the afterword, she describes what the book was supposed to be and considers what things should have been like. Then, finally, she snaps back into proud authorial mode and concludes that The Bluest Eye, like Peola, was written off until the re-issue.

From there I shifted gears completely, reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. This is a high-school English teacher’s dream. It’s filled with symbolism that is only available to those that study hardest. It’s a difficult book – one that I would have hated growing up and didn’t quite flip head-over-heels for now that I am a mature reader. It takes a while to capture the vernacular and pacing. By that time, I was already a third of the way through.

Like the copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis I read last summer, the actual Heart of Darkness story takes up only a quarter of the full print copy. The rest is stacked with essays and critiques and original manuscript notes and a bevy of other instantly forgettable things. I’ve given in on reading forwards and afterwards (I used to skip them, but I know better now) but I’m not going to take a 77 page story and spread it out over 300 pages just to read the same overly-philosophical drivel repeated over and over.

I liked the story. A sailor travels to what could be the Congo and discovers a legendary ivory trader. What makes the man legendary has nothing to do with what he truly is. Like any legend, his good parts are made godly, while his bad parts are likened to scourge. And this legend becomes a huge part of the sailor’s life, simply because he gets sucked into the idea – and the promise – of finding someone extraordinary.

The legend – Kurtz – appears only near the end. He’s important throughout, though, serving as one of the main characters in name only. He looms over everyone. In the end, of course, he’s only human. As far as the symbolism goes, I didn’t catch much of it. I was not reading as deeply as I could have. I liked the story, but I couldn’t dig the hidden meanings. I, too, am only human.

Our Book Club brought Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five to the forefront again, and I figured that even though I had already read the book, I should take the hint and participate in some late Vonnegut Tribute Reading.

Slaughterhouse Five is a good book to read if you’re curious what made Vonnegut so popular – and different. He writes like no one else ever has. He has a style that is so distinctive that, within minutes, you can pick out his words from a pile of filled pages.

This book also serves as a semi-biographical account of the bombing of Dresden – a horrible napalm-jelly destruction that leveled one of Germany’s most beautiful (and, consequentially, least-Nazi) cities.

I sped though it pretty fast. It’s a time-traveling, war-philosophizing, science-fiction-based romp through every dimension and nearly every moment of the main character’s life. He comes unstuck in time and finds himself swinging wildly through every moment he has ever witnessed and every moment in the future. And while he’s at it, Vonnegut manages to make war sound ridiculous – as childish and unproductive as it truly is. It’s Catch-22 (or what I read of it) with aliens.

So that was my month. Next month is like a race for the gold. I have a short stack of books I’d like to read this year, not next, so I’m fighting to make time to get them finished. Don’t expect a theme next month either, really. Unless you’ve found a theme out of this mess.

If you have – if you can somehow connect alien abductions during napalm bombing, little girls who live the hardest life possible, and sailors in the Congo – let me know. Maybe everything was cosmically connected after all.

This was lovingly handwritten on July 1st, 2007