Thursday, February 21, 2008

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo

This is the second book in a row that I read because of its cover. Falling Man, by Don DeLillo has an exquisitely designed jacket. The front of the book is a view of clouds from above, with a blue but nonetheless ominous horizon in the distance. Between the two words of the title, two thin vertical lines reach from the clouds up to near the top of the book. Extended above the lines, the words "A Novel" are printed vertically, in white. The words read top to bottom, so they appear to be falling from the sky towards the cloud floor. All this is interesting, but the clincher is not visible until you turn the book over. On the back, the cloudscape continues but in the midst of it, the tops of the twin towers are emerging. No other buildings are visible, just clouds all around, to the horizon. It's a great picture and very evocative. All kinds of emotional states can come out of it: tranquility, suspense, wonder, dread.

The book itself is less perfect than its cover, inevitably. It represents, presumably, an attempt to summarize or sample the effects of the September 11 terrorist attacks on selected individuals in New York City. It's very jumpy and sketchy, so I didn't have much emotional connection with any of the characters. The best character isn't given any emotional life at all: the performance artist known as "The Falling Man" who throws himself off of buildings and hangs from cables, in the attitude of the man in the famous 9/11 photograph, falling headfirst, wearing a suit, representing all our worst fears, free fall, total loss of control, the terror of impending violent death. The artist takes control of the uncontrollable, defines the indefinable. But he dies, in the end, of heart failure, unrelated to his vocation. He wasn't in control, after all. Nobody is. I don't need a novel to tell me that.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

Last week I found myself at the bookstore, in spite of my resolution to read more library books in 2008. I was just killing time while waiting for someone, not planning to buy anything. But then I saw this book. The cover is very beautiful, a metalic gold and lapiz lazuli butterfly wing on a black background. The title is catchy--it's the phrase that the Qur'an uses to refer to people who are neither Muslims nor apostates; i.e., practicing Jews and faithful Christians. The subject matter includes many of my favorite topics: books, history, the interactions among different cultures. The author just won the Pulitzer Prize for her previous book.

All right, all right, I surrender. But I grabbed the book, took it to the checkout, bought it and fled the store, before I could come across any other irresistible finds.

Without going into a lot of detail, I will just say that the book lived up to expectations. The best thing I can say about it is that it went a long way towards healing the wounds inflicted on my soul by my reading of The Da Vinci Code. It's a kind of antidote for that terrible book--rational where Da Vinci is hysterical, historical where Da Vinci is fanciful, factual where DaVinci is, frankly, full of baloney.

People of the Book has some of the same tone and techniques as Dan Brown's opus, I have to admit: mystery and speculation, sex and violence, feminism and glimpses of cultures sure to seem barbaric to modern readers. But it's all pretty tastefully executed, exquisitely researched and detailed.

. . .

I read to the end, as is my custom. The Afterword supplies all the actual facts that the imaginative novel was based on or inspired by. I had to read the dust jacket to find out that Geraldine Brooks is married to Tony Horwitz, who is the author of one of my most-often recommended books, Blue Latitudes. That's just literary trivia, I guess, no real significance but fun to know.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The library had a whole display of books by and about Dr. King in honor of his holiday last week. I picked up one called A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. I've read some biographies before but never sat down to read extensively King's message in his own words. There's no more powerful way to experience his life, other than to see and hear him delivering the message in person or on film. Having 700 pages of his writings, though, it's more dense, you can see the repetition of the key themes, and the way he phrased the same idea differently over time.

Here's just a sample of how Dr. King thought:

". . . there is within human nature an amazing potential for goodness. There is within human nature somethin that can respond to goodness. I know somebody's liable to say that this is an unrealistic movement if it goes on believing that all people are good. Well, I didn't say that. I think the students are realistic enough to believe that there is a strange dichotomy of disturbing dualism within human nature. Many of the great philosophers and thinkers through the ages have seen this. It caused Ovid the Latin poet to say, "I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do." It caused even Saint Augustine to say, "Lord, make me pure, but not yet." So that that is in human nature. Plato, centuries ago said that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions, so that within our own individual lives we see this conflict and certainly when we come to the collective life of man, we see a strange badness. But in spite of this there is something in human nature that can respond to goodness. So that man is neither innately good nor is he innately bad; he has potentialities for both. . . .

"And so the nonviolent resister never lets this idea go, that there is something within human nature that can respond to goodness."

Those are your reasonable words for today.