It’s Wednesday and what a great group of books I’ve been privledged to read this week. First, I’ll start where I left off last week with Coetzee’s Disgrace. I just the read the review I linked to last week and must recommend that you NOT read it until you read the novel first. It is an excellent review — and the comments are fascinating, by the way — but it discloses way too much plot in my opinion.
A recent comment by Care, on Monday’s 8 Best Books for Book Club Discussion, really has me thinking about how much plot to include in a review. As I responded on Monday, I actually refrain from reading the back of a book before I begin. I recommended this practice to my students for years, because I wanted them — and myself — to enter into a work fresh, without preconceptions or another’s ideas clouding my own.
Now, in the spirit of full-disclosure, and as my husband pointed out recently, I’m not really into plot in the first place. I enjoy Grisham and the occasional DaVinci Code, but my predilection is toward character development, setting, syntax, diction, etc. (I was an English teacher for 15 years, after all…). But I do debate just how much plot to include when I am running through my readings of the week. Here is what I believe to be sufficient for Disgrace:
J.M Coetzee’s “Disgrace” is about a lot of things, but at its heart it is an anatomy of racial hierarchy change in contemporary South Africa. A very quiet side note to this is its analysis of man’s disgraceful treatment of animals. “Disgrace” is a pitiless and errorless book about the condition of the human experience at the end of the twentieth century; while not altogether without hope, the book and its title is a condemnation of the basic state of modern humanity.
This is an excerpt from the review I linked to last week, and I believe it represents the novel beautifully without spoiling the suprises of the plot. I loved Disgrace, despite its darkness and cruelty, and do recommend it if you’re looking for a fast, well-written novel that makes you think about the complexities of humanity, culture, relationships, and the individual’s role in all of the above.
Next I thoroughly enjoyed The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which was also quite dark and focused on similar thematic topics addressed in Disgrace (it was wholly coincidental that I read the two together — my number happened to come up for Disgrace last week). This is another very fast read — hard to put down and taut with suspense (plus a lot of white space on the page speeds things along).
In one regard I have to compare it to The Color Purple, because both novels reward a long (albeit fast), arduous emotional journey with beautiful, heart-wrenching endings that each had me in tears — not the poetic “meandering down the cheek” tear, but darn near sobbing. The Road would’ve been an excellent work even without the last two pages, but I sure was glad McCarthy eventually relented and allowed a shaft of hope to shine through. (My kit on The Road is going through its final stages of editing and will be available by Friday, in case your book club is interested. And a movie version is slated for release this fall, by the way). If you have already read The Road, check out this review on Book Group Buzz or this one from My Own Little Reading Room…
Next I attempted a greatly anticipated novel that fell victim to the 50 page rule — The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano. I had heard so much about this work and had waited so long for it to arrive via the library — and really enjoyed the first few pages — but just couldn’t get past a scene on page 40-something (I already returned it, or I would look it up… If you’ve read this novel, and believe I should get past the scene involving a contest and a prostitute, let me know).
Ironically, as I was giving up on this novel, I found myself in a discussion on censorship on Chartroose’s Book Barrage blog. She had linked to a post about whether or not books should have ratings, like movies do. Well, I flippantly replied: “I can’t help but chuckle a bit at the idea — imagine trying to rate innuendo and subtlety! I, too, find this idea horrifying, but it sure would be funny to watch the moral arbiters try!” I was obviously forgetting that bloggers should ALWAYS assume their audience includes their subjects and quickly offended the writer of the post. In retrospect (and in my subsequent apology), I wish I had stated my opinion in a more thoughtful and articulate manner.
I believe we should feel free to simply stop reading something that upsets us past the point of enrichment. Obviously, judging by my choices the past week, I do not think we should avoid reading something because it is challenging, thought-provoking, or even upsetting to our beliefs, but I do think there are images we would prefer not to have embedded in our psyches. In The Road, the father tells his son many times, “Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever.” Which is why I put down Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke after the initial image of the monkey’s death and why I closed Bolano’s Detectives after the image of the prostitute’s humiliation. I realize that I am 38 and am able to place these images in perspective easier than an adolescent might, but that is also why I think parents should know what their kids are reading just as much as what they are viewing.