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Why Mil Loves Lit

Obviously, as a Literature major I have a great deal of interest in -- well, Literature.   To explain why a bit more fully, click the above link to read a passage from Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing, Second Edition, Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs, editors.


In any case, the following are a few thoughts on books I've read...some recently, some not so.  And, if there are any thoughts you'd like to add regarding these works, or suggestions for others that might be included here, please feel free to e-mail me directly or post them on the Share The Insanity discussion board.


The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

     First, I can't help noting I find it an interesting commentary on American society that within a one year period The Da Vinci Code  and The Passion of the Christ should top the sales charts in books and films respectively...given the fact, of course, that these purport theological perspectives one might easily argue to be diametrically opposed.  
     Be that as it may, the discussion of the former I'm setting forth here is aimed at examining the book as a work of fiction rather than a theological treatise.  And, despite the intrusion of a couple maddeningly intelligence-insulting moments (for example, when the most obvious use of a set of numbers provided early in the work comes into play...and a cryptographer, of all people, doesn't immediately recognize such is the case), and downright glaring errors (referring to the present time as "tonight" at what has clearly been established to be at least 8 o'clock in the morning...oh, how modern fiction makes me long for the days of competent editing!), it nonetheless succeeds quite admirably in sustaining page turning suspense.
     That said, I can't help feeling the author comes off to the informed reader as, well, a bit "full of himself."  And, in keeping with his theological theme, the words that spring to mind in regard to what I perceive as evidence of this are found in the book of Proverbs:  "The first to present his case seems right 'til another comes forward to question him."  But then, I'm also reminded of some wholly secular wisdom taught me by a 70ish relative:  "The keys to being believed in telling a lie are to offer specifics ("I traveled 793 miles", not "I went about 800") and be sure to start it off in a known truth...because the listener will almost invariably believe the new information being shared based on their realization of the included known fact ("You remember my dad had a brother named John? Well, John had a friend Ted who was in the Marines..." from which point one can proceed with an utterly fictional series of events that supposedly took place during battles that may well have never occurred.)   
     To be more specific with regard to the case at hand, at a key moment in the narrative, the very colorful character, Sir Leigh Teabing, gleefully dispenses (with exacting detail) his wisdom on the human life of Christ, including what he perceives as the clearly given circumstance Jesus was married.  As "proof" the author has this character share his certainty that not only was it customary for all young Jewish men of the day to be married, but it would most definitely have been an oddity, arguably even a cause for him to be shunned, within that day and culture's society, to be otherwise.  During the course of this dissertation, moreover (an argument ostensibly aimed at shifting focus from an all male deity to heightened importance of the "divine feminine" instead), he further points out that (the indeed married) Peter was "a bit of a sexist".  And, frankly, based on certain assertions in his contributions to the New Testament, I must say on this I agree old Teabing's got a point.  However, an arguably much greater "offender" in suppressing women's rights was the Apostle Paul (although both Paul and Peter likewise have numerous positive attributes in my opinion, don't get me wrong)...who Sir Leigh conveniently neglects to mention.  Why?  Hmm...if you ask me, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Paul was (prior to his conversion, of course) an esteemed member of the Jewish hierarchy -- a "model" Jewish citizen, in fact...and yet one who remained (quite proudly, I might add) unmarried.  
     What's more, it seems the Harvard professor "hero" of the novel, like Sir Leigh, relegates "faith" and/or religious devotion to the realms of either the "poor, ignorant commonfolk", if you will or the severely (in this instance, "murderously") misguided.  Of course, what these arguments ignore is the fact it is ultimately proved these "superior" beings of higher education/greater enlightenment (the aforementioned hero and Sir Leigh) will go to the very same lengths in service of their devotion to "Her" (let's face it, the whole book's suspense builds upon riddle after riddle whose solutions will lead to the "Divine Feminine's Holy of Holies") as those they vilify go to throughout the book in terms of devotion to "Him".  
     Talk about an oddity.
     Of course it's undoubtedly an oddity as well that the majority of a book so strongly purporting female power features only one female character.  And, while she's indeed ascribed Madonna-like status on one level, she's also the one constantly being educated/informed by her male counterparts.  Based on this fact, it seems the meticulously researched Mr. Brown would do well to look into a certain ancient Greek named Hippolytus -- one who in a college paper I pointed out might more aptly have been named (like The Da Vinci Code's author himself), "Hippocritus".
     What's even more amusing is that so many seem to view the ideas set forth within this novel as, well, "novel" (although, one aspect in all of this I will give the writer credit for is noting that he isn't their "creator".)  What few reading this "intellectual revelation" probably realize, however, is something they might have discovered long since if they didn't reflexively discard a religious tract that's almost certainly landed in their hands or been stuffed in their front doors at some point prior to picking up this volume (one that an ever curious creature like myself actually took a few minutes to browse through once)...that the notion of Christ's status as an earthly king rather than Divine being is the doctrinal base of Jehovah's Witnesses...a group often associated with indeed fanatical "Christianity".
     In summation then, while I consider The Da Vinci Code a decent yarn, I don't find it nearly so effective a mystery as the ones in Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan series reviewed below.  (But then, it's quite likely those offer a more authentic ring having been penned by a real woman rather than what I see as a male-ego flaunting mock-feminist.) Be that as it may, I ultimately feel that Mr. Brown's composition could as easily have been titled Much Ado About Nothing.  Of course, if you're going to read a work known by that name, read the original.  Not only will it exercise your intellect more thoroughly than Dan Brown's book, it also provides "more matter with less art"...not to mention more, well... genuine "art" -- which is, of course, (to this particular female, anyway) what really "matters".  


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

     While browsing on I was drawn to the indeed "curious" title of this listing among their top picks in the "Literature and Fiction" category for 2003.  Upon discovering it was written entirely from the perspective of an autistic 15-year-old boy, I was intrigued even further by this unusual premise and the prospect of gaining insight into the very different workings of such an individual's mind.   And, while I can't say it became one of my all-time favorite books by any means, it nonetheless proved a quick read that undoubtedly provided a quite interesting change of pace.
     When the animal-loving (in fact, pet-rat-owning) Christopher happens upon the gruesome discovery of a neighbor's murdered dog during one of his frequent late night walks, he decides to investigate the crime and write a book about his findings.  Upon learning of his intentions, Christopher's father, however, inexplicably closes the case and confiscates the incomplete volume relating its progress.  Determined to continue the investigation secretly, Christopher enters the forbidden territory of his father's room in search of his book, and finds in addition a cache of letters addressed to none other than Christopher him not one, but now two, mysteries to solve.
     The ensuing events bring about major changes for the routine-oriented Christopher, challenging him to join his advanced intellectual powers with a bit of newfound courage to embark on a host of non-routine experiences. And, through these adventures, Christopher at last becomes convinced that, despite his differences from the "normal" folks around him,  he "was brave and [he] wrote a book and that means [he] can do anything."...a lesson many "normal" folks might likewise do well to learn.

Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning

     It may seem rather odd for a student of human nature, if you will (a term that arguably best describes all real artists, I believe), that I seldom -- to be honest, almost never, actually -- read nonfiction books directly discussing psychology, theology, etc.  In fact, the only exceptions that immediately come to mind are the accompanying text to an introductory psychology course I took in college and a (thankfully) shorter volume I once received as a Christmas gift.
     The fact of the matter is, I simply prefer the challenge of figuring people (real or fictional) out for myself...attempting to unravel their character traits, motivations -- what makes them "tick", if you will, by studying the little details of their words and actions and, in so doing, attempting to construct an accurate "big picture" of who they are.  And, because the goal of most fiction writers is to indeed capture and reveal these little clues in their stories, through what they share about their heroes, their villains, etc. -- and by virtue of the ways in which they do so invariably sharing a great deal about the characters that are the writers themselves -- I tend to find this manner of acquiring knowledge of human nature more interesting, and in many cases more truthful, than being lectured to based on the conclusions another has drawn from essentially the same activity.
     However, as the author of the book being reviewed here had been the topic of some very interesting discussion among several of my acquaintances, I decided to do a little checking on to learn a bit more about his work.  After reading several excerpts there, I decided he indeed seemed something of an exception to the nonfiction know-it-alls I'd previously encountered and I went to the library in search of one of his books...a search which led to the discovery of Ruthless Trust.  And, once I got my head into this volume later that evening, I found myself utterly unable to put it down.
     Far from merely reciting a lot of starchy inaccessible theory, Manning instead speaks in practical, relatable terms of very weighty spiritual concerns.  Moreover, as a recovering alcoholic who left the priesthood to marry, he also speaks from a vast and often difficult firsthand experience of coming to terms with the person of God, the person of Brennan Manning, and the gradual dawning of how to bridge the at times seemingly uncrossable "great gulf fixed between".  And, in so doing, he reveals many of the common misconceptions many of us as humans are wont to fall into that too often prevent us from achieving -- or, in fact, even attempting -- the same goal.
     Covering such diverse topics as the role of "artists, mystics, and clowns", "humble confidence" and "the geography of nowhere" (the last of these interpreted as now/here) as components in the ongoing human quest of knowing God, Manning offers far more than a finished map based on any illusion of superior theoretical knowledge on his own part.  Rather, he concludes the book by asking "Where am I in all this?", and immediately responding, "With you".  And, in so doing, he offers an invitation to join him on a challenging and rewarding journey toward "our homeland, where eye has not seen, neither has ear heard, nor has imagination conceived of the beauty that awaits us."


The Tess Monaghan Mysteries (series) by Laura Lippman

Last winter I read a book entitled In A Strange City by an author with whom I was then completely unfamiliar.  By the time I'd finished it, however, "her" city (Baltimore) and the characters to whom she'd introduced me had become a place and people I felt I knew quite well and with whom I would very much enjoy deepening my acquaintance.   Moreover, although a relatively light and enjoyable read, I appreciated Ms. Lippman's ability to keep the wheels turning, so to speak, in an effort to stay one step ahead of the sympathetic yet unsentimental, no-nonsense Tess in figuring out "whodunit".  And, to tell you the truth, I didn't.  But, boy did I have fun trying.  So much fun, in fact, that I had to visit my local library again to seek out another installment of the series (The Sugar House) just to see if once I knew how she thought, how she spun her tales, if perhaps they might become a bit more predictable, maybe even too similar in the aspects of character they revealed, etc. to ever again provide anything close to the joy I'd experienced at their discovery.
     But again, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Tess (uh...I mean, Ms. Lippman -- see what I mean about her heroine becoming real!) could still, well, surprise me...and engage me, puzzle me, win my admiration, and once more make me want to visit her world as soon as time permits...something I most highly encourage you to do as well.


   Seven Days To Petrograd Seven Days To Petrograd by Tom Hyman

     I picked this book up because it was written by an instructor of mine (Tom Hyman), but thatís got nothing whatsoever to do with why I couldnít put it down. Almost before I realized what was happening I found myself transported to World War I era Europe and personally involved with a myriad of characters defined by disparate cultural backgrounds and conflicting loyalties. And, in the process I began to somewhat uncomfortably question my own loyalties as the humanness and integrity of a certain German captain (who one might easily say was merely born on the wrong side of the world) made me wish for his success in almost equal measure to my wishes for the "heroís" safety.
     I wonít spoil the ending for you by telling you how this conflict is resolved, but I will tell you that along the way to its resolution lie countless unexpected twists and turns, and several heart-pounding, hair-graying moments. And somehow in the midst of all the adventure and excitement, Mr. Hyman manages to intertwine an amazingly tender and enduring romance that creates -- and resolves -- plenty of conflict all its own.  Despite a few late passages that proved a bit too graphic for my taste (if youíve read my review of Hannibal, you already know about my less than steely constitution in regard to such matters) I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Check it out and see if you donít as well.

by Kurt Vonnegut

     In the Winter 1999 issue of the Pearl Jam "Ten Club" newsletter, Eddie Vedder wrote a little wrap-up of significant moments he'd experienced that year, including the Seattle stop on Kurt Vonnegut's latest book tour.  In reference to this, he refers to Vonnegut as "one of the few classic American novelists...Books like Cat's Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Player Piano...They've  had as much influence as any record I've ever owned."  Naturally, with that kind of glowing review I became curious (not to mention ashamed at my pitiful ignorance as a Literature major!) and headed to my local library. Discovering Timequake to be his newest work, I checked it out and eagerly devoured it.  And by the time I'd reached the end, I completely understood Eddie's words, for Vonnegut displays an uncanny ability to entertain while tossing out enough knowledge to fill an encyclopedia -- all the while communicating in an easy conversational tone which is at once hilarious and moving.  Among my favorite of the experiential stories he weaves throughout the narrative is that of a writer friend who shared his name with a famous author.  Accustomed to being mistaken for that author, his automatic response to proclamations that someone had read his work was an assurance that they had confused him with someone else.  In the instance Vonnegut recalls, however, this response had greatly disappointed a lady who approached his friend about a story she had absolutely loved by someone of his name.  In her reply to his usual (and by this time somewhat annoyed) response, he learned that she had no idea regarding the work of his famous counterpart.  It was,  in fact, a story of his own which had been published in a magazine that had inspired her admiration.


   The Horse Whisperer 
by Nicholas Evans

     I read this book on the recommendation of a friend who went to see the film version and came to work the next day loudly lamenting the director's choice to drastically change the ending.    Naturally, my curiosity was aroused and I again headed to the library.  And having then recently read a couple of less-than-thrilling thrillers, I was intensely grateful for the refreshing change this work by Nicholas Evans offered.  Not only is the book written in such expressive prose that I must confess it brought me to tears at more than one point, but because Of Mice and Men is forever near the top of my favorites list in both its written and film versions (the 1992 Gary Sinise film most specifically),  I particularly appreciated the Steinbeck-like moral dilemma in which the hero finds himself and felt similarly torn by whether indeed the solution he chose represented his only real choice.   Of course, in later seeing the film of the same name, I quickly came to share my friend's indignation as the incredibly lame ending completely stripped the story of its deeply emotional core.  Occasionally, I have seen films which represented drastic improvements over the books on which they were based (Restoration by Rose Tremain comes instantly to mind), but, believe me, The Horse Whisperer isn't one of them.  Forget the movie -- if you haven't done so  already,  go read the book.

  Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

       Another of my favorite authors, in large part for reasons similar to those   mentioned above regarding Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow in this book clearly illustrates why in 1976 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  His breadth of knowledge and insights into human character are dead-on accurate even when applied to the most fantastical situations -- such as those experienced by his hero, Eugene Henderson, as he traverses the wilds of Africa and in the process begins to make sense of, even embrace, the wilderness that is his own identity.


The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

     Although this author has been criticized by "experts" for years because so many of his plot twists and resolutions depend upon highly implausible circumstances, it is at the same time arguable that therein lies his charm.  For, he reminds us that what our minds believe to be impossible may yet well take place, and in so doing directs us down a path of choices and risks that are worth taking no matter how unlikely may seem our chances of success in such endeavors.  In the process he also reminds us of the importance of discipline, patience, hope and compassion as he paints a large array of characters who prove to us love and innocence can be found living side by side with greed and evil.  What's more, he asserts it is our duty to embrace and preserve these most excellent qualities, even while maneuvering minefields of justice and mercy as we attempt to root out their baser counterparts.
     Indeed, The Count of Monte Cristo is a fantasy in many ways, with its tales of hidden treasure, a handsome and gallant heroic central figure, a bit of Romeo and Juliet inspired magic that turns out far more positively than it did for Shakespeare's "star-crossed lovers", and indeed justice for all.  Yet it also manages to convey very real truths that include all too haunting images of the suffering we are all capable of bringing upon our fellow man by selfish or careless actions, the good we are likewise able to bring about by awareness of our responsibility to merely give of what we have to those we befriend and love, and above all that "until the day comes when God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these words:  Wait and hope!"
     Needless to say, I'm not about to disagree with Dumas on that point. Still, I would advise any of you who haven't yet read this truly classic work to not wait any longer.  I doubt you'll ever find 500 pages pass more quickly or with greater enjoyment.  As you can probably tell, this book is a real favorite of mine...and, that said, it's "hoped", of course, that it might likewise become one of yours as well.  But then, given the enduring popularity that's resulted in various film versions of it and continued brisk sales nearly two centuries after its creation, chances are it already is.

Gone With the Wind 
by Margaret Mitchell

     Forget about flowery associations with some romantic bygone era or propaganda asserting a benign aspect of slavery.  My love for literature begins with this book because of what it teaches about love and maturity -- firstly, that true love is painful and second that anyone insistent upon remaining immature enough to believe getting his or her way at any and all cost will actually result in some form of happiness is inexpressibly deluded.  I believe Gone With the Wind to be a lesson in what constitutes genuine courage, the importance of facing reality and the need to show one's love to those worthy of it before it's too late.  Perhaps these lessons seem old-hat to someone coming to this book later in life, but when I first read it age 13 it seemed a treasure chest of wisdom and insight into human relationships.  And somehow in the intervening years, this memory has persisted and for me the book itself has somehow never lost its charm.


A few other noteworthy selections...


                                  All the Pretty Horses
              by   Cormac McCarthy



   Wuthering Heights
by   Emily Bronte



                                   Pride and Prejudice
                                     by  Jane Austen



And, of course the foundation stones of Literature (at least for me...)                               



     The Bible                           





               Shakespeare  (collected works)



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