Some random thoughts on my eclectic reading…

Often I’ve found since I started this blog that I could tie together recent books I had read with a common theme or idea, but recently my reading has been so eclectic as to defy any generalities or connections.   This does seem to parallel the disjointed nature of my month, where my usual yoga/reading/errands/projects routine has been upended by first a family visit and then a week with friends in the Hudson River Valley.  Therefore, I present to you some random thoughts on…

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson (Crown Publishing Group, 1998).  This was not something I picked up expecting to uncover any deep truths about myself.  I just thought that since the movie had recently come out and it was a book on my radar I hadn’t gotten around to reading yet, it would be worthwhile.  I knew from previous experience that I was in for an enjoyable time, and A Walk in the Woods more than lived up to what I’ve come to expect from one of my favorite authors.  Bryson has a style that makes me laugh while also challenging me to think carefully.  Some writers try too hard to be funny, and the result can be forced or mean-spirited.  Bryson deftly points out his own and others’ foibles with wit, intelligence, and a deep underlying compassion.

Subtitled Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods narrates the efforts of Bryson and his pal, “Katz” to hike from Georgia to Maine.  Many of his experiences paralleled some of my own, as did many of his observations about the particular idiosyncracies of our fellow Americans.  And after developments on my last road trip, I was especially relieved to learn that I wasn’t the only one to have had an altercation with those in authority whose sanctimonious enforcement of “the rules” belied common sense.  As I’ve said, I wasn’t necessarily looking for any deep insights into my own life.  But an interesting thing happened as I followed Bryson through the dense forests of the East:  I found a clarity in myself in terms of what I did and did not want to accomplish in my relatively recent foray into retirement.  I put the book down with a new respect for just savoring whatever the day may bring, as well as a new appreciation for my comfortable bed and well-stocked kitchen.

FTC disclaimer:  I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

My next book could not have been more different, and I was initially unsure if I should include it here because the very last thing I want to do is turn this blog into a discussion of religion (or politics).  But in the interests of pointing out excellent writing, I decided to go ahead with Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan (Random House, 2013).  This volume caught my attention when it was first published because in author appearances on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” I was impressed by the clearly thoughtful and erudite scholar from a Muslim background who had converted to Christianity, and because I am quite interested in the disconnect between early church history and modern Christianity.  Though I grew up a Methodist, I am not a churchgoer for a wide variety of reasons, one of them being an inability to reconcile what I perceive to be the core message of the religion with the behavior I observe among the vast majority of those professing to be Christians, especially in the political arena.

In graduate school, I took a course on the history of early Christianity, where the professor went to great pains to point out in the first class meeting that studying the history of Christianity was NOT the same as studying theology.  This book is solidly researched and grounded in primary sources and the historical record, with the result being that many of the bible stories I grew up learning are shown to be fabrications or embellishments.  I found especially interesting the chapters examining the animosity between Paul and the apostle James during the very early years of the religion.  I did not finish this book feeling a need to run out and find a church to attend.  The Jesus who emerges from these pages is not the one I grew up with, and is certainly not the one many modern Christians would recognize.  But as Aslan says in his conclusion:

… the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man – is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ.  He is, in short, someone worth believing in.

Finally, I just finished discussing with my book group Friday Night Lights:  A Town, A Team, and a Dream, by H.G. Bissinger (DaCapo Press, 1990).  I have never watched the television series inspired by this bestselling book, and wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to spend my time reading about probably one of my least favorite sports.  But the appeal of this particular volume lies in the way in which it examines what an obsession with high school football does to a small west Texas town with little else going for it.  I certainly found much to identify with.  As a high school teacher for over thirty years, I saw firsthand how sports can come to consume a school culture, chew up and spit out young athletes with little regard for their futures, and overshadow the ostensible purpose of an academic education.

I was unsure how relevant a book based on a 1988 football season would still be, but as it turns out many of the issues raised in it, such as education spending and priorities, school segregation, income inequality, and race relations, are still very much a part of our national dialog.  While some in my book group found the writing a bit sensationalistic, I enjoyed it immensely. I especially detected a deep note of fondness for the high school students that resonated with my own experience. I do have to say that I reached the conclusion that in many fundamental ways west Texas might as well be another country.  The culture is so different from anything I can identify with as to make it almost foreign…and not a place I have any particular interest in visiting.

So there you have my recent reading.  It’s now been over  a year since I retired, and I’m finding that the joy in having time to do – and read – whatever I wish has only deepened!

The search for families both real and literary…

I like to look for the connections between things.  That might explain why I’m so conflict-averse, why my politics tend toward the liberal, and why I’ve never been able to be a “fundamentalist” anything.  If you see connections, you also see how we’re all connected, which in turn makes it harder to see the world in black and white.  Family, of course, is probably the ultimate, and most pervasive, connection.  It also is a central theme in the two books I recently read, one fiction and one non-fiction.

I don’t know how my husband does it, but year after year, birthday after Christmas after Mother’s Day after anniversary, for thirty-three years, he has consistently picked out books for me that are engaging, challenging, thoughtful, and exactly what I didn’t necessarily even know I wanted to read.  He did it again this year when he gave me for our anniversary the novel, Mosquitoland, by David Arnold (Viking, 2015).  He chose it because of its central theme, that of a road trip from Mississippi to Cleveland undertaken by sixteen year old protagonist, Mim, in an effort to reach her ill mother.  Since I was also on a road trip (see my August 19 post) with my high school BFF, he thought I would enjoy the correlation.

As it turns out, the book and my trip had virtually nothing in common, except perhaps for the occasional search for a meal or motel in a strange town.  That said, I loved this quirky novel and its characters.  Arnold successfully explores the ways in which families splinter and reform, the friendships that can also serve as a sort of surrogate family, and the dynamics of mental illness in these processes.  I’ve often thought that if I had a writing talent that tended toward fiction, the last issue in particular would be one that I would tackle.  But since I don’t, I look for thoughtful, compassionate, and truthful representations in my reading.  If I Fall, If I Die, by Michael Christie (see April 2015) did a good job of exploring the effects of a parent’s illness on their child.  Mosquitoland looks at how a child’s potential diagnosis influences parental dynamics.  All the characters here have flaws, but they’re all just trying to do their best with the information they have, and this is probably the trait I most like and appreciate about the book.  The writing is funny and engaging, and if some of the situations are slightly unbelievable, oh well, it’s fiction!  This will probably end up being considered a Young Adult book, there is a definite “coming of age” feel to it, but that shouldn’t stop anyone looking for a fun, intelligent read to give it a try.

After finishing Mosquitoland, I started in on a book my sister had passed on to me, The Forgetting River, by New York Times reporter, Doreen Carvajal (Penguin Group, 2012).  Subtitled A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition, this tome narrates the author’s search for her family’s roots in the Spanish “Conversos” who left Spain for Latin American after 1492.  “Converso” refers to Jews who, either voluntarily or under extreme duress, converted to Christianity.  The Inquisition was primarily formed in Spain because of the belief, one that endured for centuries, that these “New Christians” hadn’t really converted, and were in fact secretly practicing Judaism. The Inquisition followed these suspicions to the New World, where trials and subsequent executions in Mexico involved a Carvajal family that may, or may not, have been ancestors of the author.

I won’t reveal what Carvajal ultimately uncovers in her search for her family’s lost or hidden identity, since the book reads a bit like a mystery in that regard.  I do wonder if a reader not as immersed in Spanish medieval and early modern history as I am would be able to follow her somewhat disjointed journey and observations.  She is at her best when she lets the trained and obviously successful journalist side of her take command of the writing.  Her attempts at literary prose, in contrast, feel somewhat forced, contrived, perhaps even a touch histrionic.

There is much that I enjoyed remembering and “re-experiencing” in this volume (minus the Inquisition parts, of course), and I also learned a bit.  For example, while I knew that saetas, the spontaneous songs that burst out along the path of processions during Easter Holy Week observances, were unique to Andalucia, in southern Spain, Carvajal’s speculation that they have their origins in the Jewish Kol Nidre prayers, and were a way for secret Jews to express their anguish at their inability to practice their religion, was a revelation to me.  I also enjoyed her interpretations of various church retablos (altar paintings), and her assertion that many contained veiled symbolic condemnations of the Christian authorities who insisted on persecuting Jews even after they had converted to Catholicism.

My sister loves doing genealogical research, and speculates based on a few names she has found in our family tree that we have our own Jewish forbears. I think that’s possible, since I know from studying history that there tends to be more interconnection than we could possibly imagine.  While I don’t share her patience for sifting through census reports, or birth, death, and marriage certificates, I understand and admire that need we all have at some level to connect with our families, both current and past.