Monday, July 21, 2008

Hamlet's Dresser by Bob Smith

A friend of mine loaned me this book and it's taken over a year for me to get around to reading it, but the wait was well worth it and I'm so glad I got around to reading it. Hamlet's dresser is a haunting memoir of a very difficult childhood for a boy whose younger sister is severly mentally handicapped and whose parents fold under the pressure. Bob ends up doing most of the care of his sister Carolyn and so never has much of a childhood. When he's a pre-teen, the local librarian introduces him to Shakespeare, an experience which he describes as life-changing.
The structure of the book is fantastic. Bob tells it as a fifty-something adult who survived this difficult childhood and has gone on to share Shakespeare with the elderly in homes and community centers across New York City. He weaves stories of his painful childhood with stories of the old people who surround him and stories of how his love for Shakespeare developed. In addition, there are references to Shakespeare's plays, characters, and ideas on every page, including lovely quotes from both the popular and the more obscure plays.

Here are a few excerpts:

In the sixty-plus class at the Ninety-second Street "Y," Rose is ninety-nine. Her sister died last year and Rose feels guilty. Her sister was only ninety-six. "I'll be one hundred on July 1. It should have been me. I'm the oldest."
"How are you today, Rose?"
"I'm just marvelous." She means that she's not supposed to be anything else. "I'm almost one hundred and everyone says how good I look," and she does. Rose resents her caregiver. So many of the old people do. "It's my freedom," she says. "I can't move without being observed and it drives me mad. I miss even the semblance of independence. I know I'm old, but I still want not to have to answer to anyone. You think that's stupid, Bob?" She crooks a beautifully manicured index finger toward me. "Come a little closer, I want to tell you something."
I kneel to get right in front of her mouth. Her lips are close enough to tickle my ear. "I'm leaking," she whispers. "I can't stop peeing. I look fine." She draws the word into a long painful sound.
"I am fine, but everything I've got is a century old. The plumbing is leaking, drip, drip, drip. Oh Bob, it's such a bore." She smiles. "But whatta ya gonna do? It's wonderful to be here. What's a little drip when there's Shakespeare? When you read some important line and look over at me, it's worth it. In a lifetime, what's a little pee?"

Poetry became a beautiful place to hide from my life and from my parents, a place I knew they'd never follow me.

I loved this book. I loved the Shakespeare and its connection to the real lives of both the author and the old people he reads to and I loved the way it made me feel.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates

I've never been a huge JC Oates fan and I'm not really sure why. I think it's because she writes short stories a lot and I'm not a big fan of that genre; however, when I look at the list of her novels, there are definitely books listed that I loved when I read and would read again.
That said, this is definitely my favorite Oates book. The main character is extremely well-developed, the book deals eloquently, and what I think must be very realistically, with immigrant families and their children, and overall the book brings to life in a very thorough way the America of World War II era from the point of view of a Jewish girl, who is so ashamed of her Jewishness that she spends her life hiding it.
My only complaint about the book is that I didn't like the epilogue. I felt like it was too long and really would have preferred the book to end without it. It was almost as if Oates originally had the idea for what happens in the epilogue and when she never reached it in the novel, she decided to tack it on at the end. You'll see if you read the book. I'd certainly love to hear anyone's thoughts on the ending. Some of the ideas that came out were very raw and truthful, but I just didn't like the manner in which they were delivered.
Overall, a great summer read, and a book that I continue to think about- certainly one of my criteria for quality books.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This is an incredibly lovely book; the prose is absolutely delightful. It's the story of a small town Iowa preacher and is incredibly revealing about the relationships between fathers and sons. The narrator is nearing the end of his life and decides to write a series of stories to his 7-year old son. Essentially the stories center around his grandfather, his father, and his best friend of over 70 years. Of course, it's much more than that- the narrator is a preacher with some insightful outlooks on the human experience and beyond- as well as the fact that once into the first 100 pages or so, a conflict beyond the father/son issues develops.
I am sort of at a loss of words on this one. I'm not sure it is the right book for young people- too much introspection about death and beyond- not that they can't handle it, but it might be beyond them. I found myself thinking more of recommending it to people my age or older. My father-in-law, who grew up in Iowa, came to mind a lot.
Rather than use my own words, I'd like to share a few of Robinson's:

And there was baseball. I listened to thousands of baseball games, I suppose. Sometimes I could just make out half a play, and then static, and then a crowd roarings, a flat little sound, almost static itself, like that empty sound in a seashell. It felt good to me to imagine it, like working out some intricate riddle in my mind, planetary motion. If the ball is drifting toward left field and there are runners on first and third, then - moving the runners and the catcher and the shortstop in my mind. I loved to do that, I can't explain why.
And I would think back on conversations I had had in a similar way, really. A great part of my work has been listening to people, in that particular intense privacy of confession, or at least unburdening, and it has been very interesting to me. Not that I thought of these conversations as if they were a contenest, I don't mean that. But as you might look at a game more abstractly - where is the strength, what is the strategy? As if you had no interest in it except in seeing how well the two sides bring each other along, how much they can require of each other, how the life that is the real subject of it all is manifest in it. By "life" I mean something like "energy" (as the scientists use the word) or "vitality," and also something very different. When people come to speak to me , whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the "I" whose predicate can be "love" or "fear" or "want" and whose object can be "someone" or "nothing" and it won't really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around "I" like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. But quick and avid, and resourceful. To see this aspect of life is a privilege of the ministry which is seldom mentioned.

These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you're making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.

I have always liked the phrase "nursing a grudge," because many people are tender of their resentments, as of the thing nearest their hearts.

That is how life goes-we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord's. I need to bear this in mind.

When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?

I am sure I would have labored in my vocation more effectively if i had simply accepted covetise in myself as something inevitable, as Paul seems to do, as the thorn in my side, so to speak. "Rejoice with those who rejoice." I have found that difficult too often. I was much better at weeping with those who weep. I don't mean that as a joke, but it is kind of funny when I think about it.

I don't know exactly what covetise is, but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else's virtue or happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it.

Truly, Gilead is a beautiful read. It starts and stops like an old man's thoughts, and yet is incredibly difficult to put down. I got caught up in his life and in his stories, and I think you might too.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres

I picked up this book last summer and it's been in a "to read" pile ever since. I am the kind of reader who is generally reading four or five books at once, and for some reason this past school year, I mostly read non-fiction in my free time, so many of the books in the pile were ignored.
Anyway I was intrigued at first by the title, because I've been reading so many things about religion. I thought it might be an insightful or even funny look at the religious states in America; however, it actually turned out to be pretty brutal and exacting.
Jesus Land is a memoir about a Christian family that adopts two young black boys in a sort-of attempt to prove they are good Christians. The story centers around Julia and her brother David, who was adopted when he was three. They grow up as brother and sister, as well as best friends, but they have to work incredibly hard at it because of the inherent racism in their lives.
The writer tells the gritty truth. She admits to her own color awareness- to racing off the school bus so she and David don't have to walk into the school building together. To being jealous as a young child when David got all the attention because he looked like a "little Bill Cosby." Her stories of their growing up together- in the shadow of the church- are shocking. I kept having to remind myself that it is a true story. There were many times as I read that I had to stop and admire her strength as a writer and a person. The truths she tells are painful ones.
There are soft, bittersweet things she shares, like David's dream that their family will someday transform into a Brady Bunch family, and then the much harsher memories of the beatings her brothers received at her father's hands.
Eventually the two, David and Julia, are sent to a Christian reform school as a part of New Horizons ministries, and the story of what happens to them there is close to unbearable. It was a difficult book to read, but I also couldn't put it down. I read it in one day and it is still resonating with me- part of the measure of a good book. I highly recommend it.
As an addendum- the author has a website where you can see some of her brother's journal pages- there is one where he describes a metal class where his classmates tattooed him and chanted, "KKK." Also- Escuela Caribe, where the two attended Christian reform school, still exists and has a web site. Mind boggling!