Friday, August 14, 2009

From Airline #166, Seat 20 F

Aside from working out how many extra pairs of underwear you need, the hardest part of traveling - or perhaps the most enjoyable challenge - is what book (or books) to bring on the plane. Should they be fluffy beach reads? A pot-boiler? Something you were embarrassed to read in front of your flatmate? Or perhaps something you had always meant to read and now were forcing yourself to read in a small enclosed space surrounded by strangers, sustained only by diet Coke (spilled on shirt) and pretzels (nutritive content = 0)?

After making the trusty pro/con list, I brought with me a short story collection I'd meant to read for a while, Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find, and a book highly recommended by several co-workers, Helen De Witt's Last Samurai.

I read the O'Connor second, discovering why her reputation for an odd combination of grace and the grotesque is deserved. O'Connor's South is peopled with those who are backwards, squinting, freckled, sullen, sweaty and missing limbs. Her characters are bigots, racists, idiots, liars and frauds, and yet, for all their homeliness and pettishness, often strive for salvation. In the short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" a ridiculous old woman exhorts the Misfit, a serial killer, to strive for goodness while she is being held at (his) gunpoint. In another, a young Bible salesman surprisingly erodes the defenses of an educated female atheist with a prosthetic leg. An anxious woman's beloved property and sense of safety is invaded by three uncontrollable boys. These short stories are slices of life that I pray I will never have to live. Despite the apparent ugliness of life in the South that O'Connor depicts, the recurrence of celestial imagery, the moon and the sun and the planets, drew me. The sun sets like a blood red elevated Host; there are planets shimmering in the radiant tail feathers of a peacock. These images are mirages in a barren landscape. Today, I sold a book of O'Connor's spiritual writings to a man and confessed my recent and belated introduction to her fiction. "You'll have to read more," he said firmly and I sheepishly said that I would. So now I must.

The Last Samurai (note: not at all the same as the movie starring Tom Cruise) was devoured, shooting onto my list of favorite books. Sybilla is highly intellectually gifted single mother living in London on a valuable work permit. Her son Ludo is a genius and a prodigy: he reads Homer in the original Greek at the age of four, teaches himself Latin and Japanese and algebra, at six reads books on aerodynamics, etc. With no father figure for Ludo, Sybilla resorts to a "masterpiece of modern cinema", Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which she and Ludo watch continuously. The movie forms a constant form of reference for the novel with film dialogue, and directorial notes.

It is a dazzling virtuosic experiment with linguistics, the humanities and the sciences, written with courage and determination. The dialogue is emphatic and real, the stories the author tells full of bravado and slyness. I learned to read Greek while reading this novel! In my journal shortly after finishing the novel I could not help but gush: "De Witt deserves the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Nobel for this gift to humankind!" (Which may be too strong, but...only barely.)I cannot praise it highly enough; it is a book which prizes the intellect but is propelled by a pathos that lays beneath the surface and speaks for itself. The Last Samurai is a rare book which does not have to sacrifice sharp intelligence for the sake of being an engaging read. Read it. Read it. (Jedi-Mind-Trick.) Read it.

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The church I attend, St. Paul's Episcopal, follows the Lectionary, a set schedule of scripture readings for a given day or service usually containing a psalm, a reading from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Gospel. In this way, the entire Bible is read during a four year cycle. This is common Christian liturgical practice inherited from Judaism, though I was only introduced to it in college. This participation in a cycle enables one church to be in community with all other churches following the Lectionary; it also ensures that we don't just read publicly the parts of the Bible we feel comfortable with and enjoy listening to, but also the parts we prefer not to hear (ie. "dash their infants against the rocks") and the parts we'd rather others not connect to us as a group. This also provides the person preaching with the creative challenge of teasing out a theme or a story or a thought which threads through the reading, presenting a holistic sermon to the community. I cannot rid myself of applying this method to the books I'm reading; the lectionary of imaginative literature. How do these disparate stories rub up against each other? What friction do the narratives create? Avoiding moralizing, what do O'Connor's short stories and De Witt's novel have to say to each other? I don't have answers, but the questions ruminate and linger.

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