Friday, February 27, 2009

So Brave, Young, and Handsome: Final Review

SPOILER ALERT: If you've not yet finished So Brave, Young, and Handsome, skip this review (unless you enjoy having books spoiled for you).

Those who read my last post about So Brave, Young and Handsome know I was starting to sour on Enger somewhat. In So Brave, Young, and Handsome, I was struggling to find a likable character to root for. I was craving the powerful prose about grace and redemption I enjoyed so much of in Peace Like a River.

And while I'm still not comfortable calling So Brave, Young, and Handsome a masterpiece, I will say this:

I'm pleasantly suprised with the second half of this book. Enger stepped up. The more I read, the more I started caring about Monte Beckett. Of course, his being kidnapped certainly earned him sympathy points, but it let me put those troubling questions about why Monte wouldn't go home to his loving wife and son out of my mind.

More significantly, the more I read of this book, the more I started caring about Glendon's quest for forgiveness and grace (which is also why I think it's too bad we had to leave Glendon's story behind for roughly a hundred pages while Monte gets pushed around by the increasing-decrepit Siringo).

Here are a few final thoughts:

Glendon's Quest for Redemption Saves This Book

Enger's obviously at his best when he explores redemption. For example, on page 271, we read:

Susannah said, "Glendon's different now, isn't he."

"He's quit that whiskey," I said.

"Not just that. There's grace in him. He's reached some settlement."

There's a simple purity in Glendon's making a cross-country journey to offer an apology for his sins against Blue. What's even more powerful, though, is that along the way, Glendon decides to do more than apologize -- he decides to pay penance for his sins. He becomes a servant to the wife he once betrayed. In a symbolic gesture of his repentance, he's baptized. Finally, he willingly walks away with Siringo and accepts a prison sentence without quarrel (beautiful because prison has been his greatest fear throughout the book).

This transformation is why I'm comfortable calling this book "good." To witness a character move from crime to penance to grace will be pleasurable no matter how many times I read it (in the hands of a decent storyteller anyway). And while I'm still annoyed that Enger took me away from Glendon for the middle chuck of the book, I'm glad he came back to it and did it justice in the end.

The American West = Grace:

Here's a question. Why is it that in American literature grace, reinvention, and redemption seem to be found again and again in the American west? By the end of this book, Monte Beckett has decided that his writing career is over and that he needs to choose a new life. He chooses to live this life in the west, sending for his wife and child rather than returning to them and scraping out a new life in the east.

And then, while Beckett's not even looking for it, the west heals him and gives him what he's lacked. Consider the end:

After a while, a long while, without writing a word, why, a sentence arrived from nowhere. Not a great sentence--actually sort of a ragged one, in need of paring. I searched around for a pencil and write it down, a sentence about a white-haired man rowing upstream through the parting mists of the Cannon River.

"What are you writing?" asked Susannah. She was painting something, I couldn't see what.

"Just a sentence."

"She lifted her head, a daub of orange below her lip. "Read it to me," she said.

Suddenly, Beckett's writing again -- almost accidentally. The west has restored and reinvented him. I'm not sure what to make of this, but even though the west was "conquered" long ago, I see again and again in contemporary American literature the west being presented as the "new" world, the place we can go to find peace and restoration.

So, while there's so much more I could say about So Brave, Young, and Handsome, that's all for this post. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

I hope you enjoyed your first WWADY featured book, and if you didn't read along with us, you can join us this month by reading along with Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth.

So Brave, Young, and Handsome WWADY Rating = 7.5/10

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Kindle Review - And a Birthday Wish

At WWADY, we're celebrating a special birthday today -- mine.

And as many of my readers already know (because I've been talking about it pretty much non-stop), I want a Kindle 2.

I want one. I want one. I want one.

I want one so badly, in fact, that not since Ralphie pined endlessly over his Red Rider BB-Gun has man engaged in so much shameless coveting.

Alas, my birthday wish is not to be. Even with the $100 prize I collected today by taking first place in an essay contest, I'm still coming up desperately short of cash.

So while I won't be playing with a brand new Kindle 2 today, I did get the pleasure of reading a playfully-written review of the Kindle 2 on MSNBC (which is, of course, no consolation at all).

Check out the review here. It's by Helen A.S. Popkin. It's funny. It's informative. It's titled, "I have a Kindle 2: Jealous much?" (Clearly, dear Ms. Popkin was thinking of me when she wrote her review. So, yes, Ms. Popkin, I am jealous. Much.)

Finally, while I'm far too old to believe in such foolishness, as you read this review, please do me the favor of thinking these words:

"Birthday miracle . . . birthday miracle . . . birthday miracle."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

So Brave, Young, and Handsome: A Few Random Thoughts

I'm well overdue for a post about this month's featured book. I'm just over half-way through So Brave, Young, and Handsome, and to this point I have two nagging questions about it. Both stem from criticisms I have of the book, so forgive me if I sound overly-critical. At any rate, here's what's on my mind:

1. Why is Monte Beckett acting like such a moron?

Monte Beckett is traveling with a fugitive. He's also been helping this fugitive by lying to law enforcement officers and creating an alias. He's been given chance after chance to stop his flight from the law and go home to his loving wife and son. Yet, he keeps choosing to travel with Glendon, and by doing so he's diminishing his chances of ever seeing his family again. Monte loves his family (I think), so I can't figure out why he's doing this. He's being imprudent and somewhat moronic, and this is starting to make me dislike him.

Clearly, Monte's searching for something his family environment isn't giving him (adventure? independence? a story worth telling?), but he seems willing to sacrifice an awful lot to fill this lack.

I think he's giving up too much, and I don't really understand what he's looking for (and I don't think he knows what he's looking for either), so I'm finding it tough to let his idiocy slide.

2. Why isn't this book as good as Peace Like a River?

My apologies to those who haven't read it and won't be able to chime in here, but in my opinion, Peace Like a River is a much better book than So Brave, Young, and Handsome. In fact, I was so drawn into Peace Like a River that I plowed through it in two sittings. I've been muddling through So Brave, Young, and Handsome now for three weeks, and while it's good, I'm just not being drawn in like I was with Enger's first book.

In thinking about why, I've decided that Peace Like a River has two things going for it that So Brave, Young, and Handsome doesn't. The first is a compelling, "savior-figure" readers generally like. The father in Peace Like a River is noble and kind, but he's also rough around the edges. I love the opening scene in which the father punches a doctor cold and then raises one of his children from the dead. So Brave, Young, and Handsome has yet to give me a character who's instantly interesting and likable. Don't get me wrong. I like Monte Becket. I hope he makes it home to his loving wife, but if he doesn't, I probably won't be heartbroken. After all, he is being kind of a doofus (see point 1). I also like Glendon. I admire his putting his freedom on the line simply so he can make a face-to-face apology, but should he get shot just before the fulfillment of his quest, I'll also be okay. So, I've yet to find a character I can really get behind and root for (though Hood has promise).

The second thing Peace Like a River has that So Brave, Young, and Handsome lacks is Enger's beautiful commentary on God, religion, and miracles. The insights about spirituality in Peace Like a River were fun to read. I loved Enger's idea that a miracle was something that forced you to reinvent your view of reality. Miracles, he wrote, should be disturbing and shocking (like raising a dead man from his grave), not soft and fluffy (like rainbows and sunsets). In So Brave, Young, and Handsome, there's nothing yet that equals that kind of discussion.

I'd love to hear a few responses to these criticisms. I'd especially love someone to point out what I'm missing in So Brave, Young and Handsome and show me the brilliance there that I'm not yet seeing, but unless something changes soon, I'm anticipating a final review of this book that ends up being pretty lukewarm.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

March's Featured Book: Unaccustomed Earth

It's been a while since I've posted about February's featured book So Brave, Young, and Handsome, so my next post (coming hopefully Friday or Saturday) will be dedicated to that.

Today, however, I need to announce the featured book for March so you'll have time to track it down and read along with us.

March's featured book will be (. . . drum roll, please) Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (big cymbal crash).

If you're not familiar with Jhumpa Lahiri, here's some background. Unaccustomed Earth was published in 2008, and it's Lahiri's third book. Her first, a collection of short stories titled Interpreter of Maladies, came out in 1999. It explores in sensitive and soft prose cultural assimilation and the impact globalization has on the individual. (Lahiri is a bit of a world traveler -- she's of Bengali Indian descent, was born in London, and currently lives in Brooklyn.) Interpreter of Maladies won a Pulitzer -- not bad for a debut book.

Her second book, a novel published in 2003 called The Namesake, was recently made into a movie. I've neither read the book, nor seen the movie, so I'll refrain from commenting on it here (but I will add it to my Netflix Queue).

The New York Times review of Unaccustomed Earth has this to say: "The fact that America is still a place where the rest of the world comes to reinvent itself — accepting with excitement and anxiety the necessity of leaving behind the constrictions and comforts of distant customs — is the underlying theme of Jhumpa Lahiri's sensitive new collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth.” (See the complete review here).

Lahiri is brilliant, and even a few non-readers I've known discovered Interpreter of Maladies and devoured it ravenously.

We'll begin our discussion of Unaccustomed Earth the first week in March, so get your book today.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

AWP Report: Why Writers Matter

I just returned from Chicago where I attended The Association of Writers & Writing Programs' annual conference (which is why I haven't posted in a week). According to their website, AWP aims to "foster literary talent and achievement, to advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and to serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing."

Obviously, these are my kind of people.

But the conference didn't initially make me feel what I thought it would with its keynote address by Art Speigelman, a Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novelist; its featured reading by Charles Baxter, a brilliant short story writer; its panel with Ben Percy, a recent winner of the Pushcart Prize; and about a thousand other cool people.

Despite the masses of great artists at this conference, I was initially depressed by what was going on at the Chicago Hilton last week. At this conference, there were thousands of desperate fame-craving writers -- people who were there not to celebrate great writing, but to "be discovered."

There were masses of scraggly, unkempt poets. (In fact, I was told twice, "You must write fiction. You're too clean cut to be a poet.) There were hoards of turtelnecked short-story writers and mountains of mid-life-crisis-induced aspiring novelists. There was, to be honest, a component of this conference that was tragically sad. It reminded me of a poem by Charles Bukowski titled "poetry readings." It begins:

poetry readings have to be some of the saddest
things ever,
the gathering of the clansmen and clanladies,
week after week, month after month, year
after year,
getting old together,
reading on to tiny gatherings,
still hoping their genius will be

Even worse, part of this conference (albeit a small part) was about wealth and elevating the individual (a few panels even had titles like "From Publication to Promotion: Capturing the Attention of the Media" and "How to Make Money Writing Right Now.")

All of this made me question why we even need contemporary writers (and you'd have a hard time finding a bigger fan of contemporary writing than me). If today's writers are just as wealth-obsessed and egocentric and impure as everyone else, do they really have anything more to offer us than Lindsey Lohan? Is their literature merely an elaborate ruse in which they feign sincerity, dupe the masses, and stuff their pockets?

So with the question, "Why do we need writers?" blazing in my ears, I settled into a reading of six writers (Charles Baxter, Barrie Jean Borich, C.J. Hribel, Scott Russell Sanders, Sun Yung Shin, and Wang Ping), and let me tell you -- I got my answer to this question. We need writers. We need them desperately.

Here's why:

1) We Need Writers Because Great Writers Understand Grace.

Despite the miles of greasy hair, the racks of homeless-style clothing, and the ragged appearances of so many conference attendees, not one successful writer I saw in Chicago -- not one -- looked inelegant or shoddy. Each one, male or female, moved with a grace and poise that seemed to come from an earlier era. But these graceful appearances were merely an extension of their work. Whether they were writing about the sublime (birth, grief, the nobility of Chinese peasantry, isolation) or the ridiculous (a man who shoots a gun at a nuclear reactor as a form of protest, giant pumpkins that get swept up in a tornado and become vegetative wrecking balls, a couple who get wedding pictures taken at Sears), each writer achieved a simple grace in expression. They used language expertly. They built word upon word to create raw emotion, and they did it with elegance and beauty. We need writers because grace in expression is sorely lacking in contemporary society, and great writers implicitly argue for it's return.

2) We Need Writers Because Great Writers Give Grace.

Here's an example. For years I've been a fan of Charles Baxter, and I hoped somehow I could get him to sign my copy of his book Harmony of the World, but I didn't know how to approach him. I hated the idea of thrusting a book and pen roughly in his face, and when he walked into the lecture hall where I was waiting to hear him read, a mass of fans descended upon him, and I decided it would be impossible for me to get my book signed. I do have a little dignity (very little), and it demanded that I refrain from acting like a groupie.

So I took an aisle seat towards the back, set Harmony of the World onto my lap, and waited for the reading.

A moment later, I felt a hand on my shoulder.

"You have that old, old book of mine," a voice said. Obviously, it was Charles Baxter, who must have noticed my eagerness to meet him as well as my withdrawal from the crowd. And then, he made the perfect gesture. He half held out his hand, letting me know he'd sign my book if I liked but that he also wasn't presuming anything. We spoke for a moment, he signed my book, and he moved onto the stage for his reading.

So what does this have to do with grace?

Great writers, I think, give us things we simply can't get on our own.

Isn't that grace?

Baxter gave me his signature, and while that's an obviously small, silly thing, Baxter knew what I wanted and knew that certain things prevented me from getting it. So, he gave it to me.

And isn't a great book similar? Don't great books give us things we want but can't get on our own? Things like hope, strength, power, virtue, and peace?

So, to sum up:

The best writers, I've decided, understand grace -- both how to act with it and how to give it. The worst writers, who are all too often unkempt and scraggly, who spout profanity as if it's truly original, and who crave their names on book jackets more than they crave good stories, never will.

Monday, February 9, 2009

I Want One -- I WANT One -- I W-A-N-T One

There's a lot going on at WWADY this week.

We're deep into So Brave, Young, and Handsome (and not to sound like a nag, but it's not too late to get your copy and read along).

I'll also be traveling to Chicago on Wednesday to attend one of the largest conferences for not dead writers (it's called AWP, which stands for The Association of Writers and Writing Programs -- though I guess the acronym should technically be AWWP or TAWWP or TAOWAWP). I'll report on the conference when I get back, but plan on an amazing report as featured speakers include Pulitzer Prize winner Art Speigelman, short-story master Charles Baxter, and about 900 other mind-boggingly-brilliant authors. For proof, check out the list of presenters here.

The news of the day, however, is that Amazon's released a new version of the Kindle. I've been scraping pennies together for months to save the $359 it takes to buy one, and this new version just might motivate me to scape together nickles and dimes as well. Check out the video below, and drool along with me.

Friday, February 6, 2009

So Brave, Young, and Handsome: First Impressions

By now, I hope you've found time to read at least a few pages of So Brave, Young, and Handsome. I'm about 50 pages into it, but before we delve into discussions about the major themes, conflicts, and controversies, let's start by simply sharing a few of the passages or ideas we like and dislike. Here are mine:

Favorite Passage So Far: "Love is a strange fact--it hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things. It makes no sense at all" (page 32).

Why I Like It: It's one of those beautiful moments where a writer takes words you've heard a thousand times and gives them new meaning. The additions of the words "a strange fact" and "it makes no sense at all" repackage the scriptural truth into a contemporary reality. I've seen love that endures all things, that lasts through mid-life crises and financial hardships and long separations and selfishness and all manner of human failings, and Enger's right. Love makes no sense, and lovers themselves make even less sense than that. That's why love's so beautiful, and that's why Susannah Becket is already my favorite character -- because she sees what her husband needs and is willing to endure loneliness just to make sure he gets it. I fear, though, that we won't see much more of her in the coming pages.

What's Bugging Me So Far: Redstart.

Why He's Bugging Me: The children Enger wrote about in Peace Like a River were near geniuses. They composed sweeping, epic poetry in their spare time, and they all saw the world with a crystal clarity and moral acuteness most people never achieve. Redstart appears to be cut from the same cloth, and while I respect children, I'm starting to wonder if Enger has ever met a real child.

Now it's your turn. Use the commets below to share your initial thoughts.

Monday, February 2, 2009

WWADY Featured Books - So Brave, Young, and Handsome

It's February, which means it's time to start reading WWADY's first featured book, So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger. We'll be posting about this book all through the month of February, sharing favorite quotes, occasional insights, and general observations. We hope you'll feel comfortable chiming in.

Also, if you haven't secured a copy yet, it's not too late. You can still get your book and join in the discussion.

And now, a bit about this book.

Those who have read Peace Like a River will know what we can expect from Enger this month -- playful stock characters who push the limits of cliche; gritty, western prose that's tough to stop reading; and a witty narrator who's human, likable, and interestingly flawed. Publishers Weekly writes of the book:

"An inviting voice guides readers through this expansive saga of redemption in the early 20th-century West and gives a teeming vitality to a period often represented with stock phrases and stock characters. Novelist Monte Becket isn't a terribly distinguished figure; his first and only published work hit five years before the story's start and he is about to reclaim his job at a smalltown Minnesota post office when he meets Glendon Hale, a former outlaw who is traveling to Mexico to find his estranged wife. He persuades Becket to join him, and the two set off on a long journey peopled with sharply carved characters (among them a Pinkerton thug tracking down Glendon) and splendid surprises. As Monte's narration continues, the tale veers away from Monte's artistic struggle and becomes an adventure story. The progress has its listless moments, but Enger crafts scenes so rich you can smell the spilled whiskey and feel the grit."

It sounds like we're in for a good ride.

Finally, for those who struggle to finish books once they start, consider this. So Brave, Young, and Handsome is 285 pages. There are 28 days in February, so if you read just 10 pages a day, you'll finish right on time.