Read any good books lately?
Well, yes, as a matter of fact!
One of the good things about finishing up my graduate work is that I now have more time to read books about topics other than theology (although I’m keeping my hand in here and there).
A few months back, I went on a bit of a Ron Hansen tear, reading—more or less in a row—The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Mariette in Ecstasy, and Exiles, Hansen’s novel about the shipwreck that promoted Gerald Manley Hopkins to write “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” I was prompted to read more of Hansen’s work because I had read and enjoyed Atticus several years ago. Hansen’s protagonists—Jesse James, Mariette, Hopkins, Atticus Cody—always have a certain mystery about them. It’s difficult to get inside their heads and you seem to pick up more from the reactions they provoke in others. Hansen’s fondness for writing about historical characters sometimes sets limits on where he can take them. But that’s a discussion for another time.
I’ve had another nice run of fiction more recently. It began when I decided to pick up Albert Camus’ The Stranger, which I hadn’t read since I was a junior in high school. It was a different translation, a new one by Matthew Ward that favors short, declarative sentences in the model of Hemingway. The translation “worked” in the sense of helping to convey Meursault’s disconnection from the world around him. In the end, though, I was left with the same feeling I had in high school, which is that the character of Meursault just doesn’t speak to me. He reflects Camus’ atheism and conviction of the ultimately absurdity of existence, but not Camus’ moral stance, which seems to me equally important. I think that the character of Dr. Bernard Riuex in The Plague gives us a better sense of Camus’ personal convictions.
After finishing up The Stranger, my wife recommended what turned out to be a delightful murder mystery by Matthew Pearl entitled The Dante Club. The novel is set in 19th century Boston. The premise is that a small group of America’s finest literary minds—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., James Russell Lowell, and publisher J.T Fields—who call themselves the “Dante Club” are preparing the first American translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. At the same time, Boston experiences a series of bizarre murders. The members of the Dante Club recognize that the murderer is staging scenes from Dante’s Inferno. They must leave their sheltered literary existence and join forces to find a killer.
The book is a slow start, but it is absolutely worth it. I haven’t enjoyed a mystery this much since Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which also appeals to lovers of books. Pearl is a gifted writer and he brings to life a mid-19th century Boston with unhealed wounds from the recently concluded Civil War. To say any more would be to risk spoiling the mystery.
Finally, I recently completed a book I had been wanting to read for some time, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. Stegner is considered a “western” writer, perhaps the greatest western writer we have. At one point, the San Francisco Chronicle put out a list of the greatest fiction and non-fiction works about the West and Stegner topped both lists. Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1971 and is generally considered his greatest work.
The book tells the story of Lyman Ward, a retired professor of history who returns to live in his grandparents’ house in Grass Valley, California. Confined to a wheelchair because of a crippling bone disease that has cost him a leg, Ward is sorting through his grandmother’s letters as part of his effort to write a book about her life. An eastern woman with literary and artistic talent, Susan Ward nevertheless choses to marry a man—a mining engineer—committed to the settling of the West and follows him on a number of ventures, most of which turn out to be failures. As Ward discovers more of his grandmother’s history, he is forced to reflect on its meaning for his own life.
The book succeeds on many levels. One of the aspects of the book that interests me most is Stegner’s approach to history. Written in the late 1960s when the “counterculture” of that era was still in full bloom, the book reflects Stegner’s frustration with the rising generation’s refusal to see any value in history or tradition. At the same time, Stegner refuses to idealize the history of the West and there is little romance in the hard lives his grandparents led. Although Stegner’s characters do not display deep religious sympathies, I find something deeply Catholic in this struggle to find a truthful past that is nevertheless a “usable past.”
So how about the rest of you? Read any good books lately?