Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Two novels I’ve read in the past year stand head and shoulders above the rest.

The first is Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, published in 1967. The only surprise here, if you know my literary tastes, is that it took me nearly half a century to pick up and read this classic exploration of religious life. There are certain gaps in my literary experience, I readily admit — but this is no longer one of them.

(Another conspicuous gap is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). I know it is had for both good and evil, and was banned within my lifetime in a certain Washington school district for being part of a communist plot. All the same, a young writer I met at lunch a few weeks ago talked me into reading it sooner rather than later. I’m too old, among other things, to be drawn to it for its rebellion and teenage angst, but it has other charms. After reading just the first two pages, I’m inclined to appreciate — and to study — the first-person narrative voice. But I digress.)

The second highlight of this year’s novel-reading is Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, first released not five months ago. Cleave’s first three novels, which I haven’t read, were well received and have contemporary settings. This fourth offering is historical fiction, set in England and Malta during the early years of World War II — mostly before the United States joined the conflagration in December 1941.

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, Chris Cleave

This book is delightful but substantial reading. Though often light-hearted, at times it is grimly realistic and personal about the physical, emotional, and moral horrors of war. It has some thoughts on race and class, but (thankfully) isn’t heavy-handed about them. This virtue displeased the subset of reviewers who declare even a brilliant novel disappointing, if it does not bludgeon the reader with proper and comprehensive modern views of any social issues it happens to touch.

Reading in Transit: Jana Riess and Julie Schumacher

Authors Bookstore at MSP -- irresistible section

Context (or Chatter)

I spend more time writing than reading, these days — too little of both — and I read online more than I read printed books. But if you read this blog, you probably don’t need me to tell you there’s a charm in holding the book in your hands and turning actual pages instead of staring at a screen. Also, actual books have a far longer battery life.

I’m in Bloomington, Indiana, just now, traveling with a family member who has an audition today at Indiana University’s sprawling, beautiful campus (which must be simply gorgeous when it’s green). I spent lots of hours in and between airports yesterday. Much of that time I spent reading actual books, and it was delightful.

On a similar trip to Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, I found Authors Bookstore, a charming airport bookstore at Minneapolis-St. Paul, and bought a very promising, shortish novel which claims to a national bestseller. I’m not disputing that; its renown is sufficiently compatible with my never having heard of it before. I started reading it then and finished it yesterday.

Authors Bookstore at MSP
A little bibliophile Mecca at MSP

Then I finished a book I picked up almost on a whim in Salt Lake City a few months ago and starting reading on the warm, sunny commuter train (and platform) at the end of workdays. It was excellent too, and the fact that I read the second half of it only yesterday doesn’t disparage its charms at all. I do that with books, even very fine books.

And yes, I’d be pleased to tell you more. Thanks for asking.

Rereading Scout

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper LeeDecades ago, I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and immediately declared it one of my favorite books. Then, over the ensuing years, I mostly forgot it.

What I knew I remembered was a trial – thanks, I suppose, to the movie, in which Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch. The Oscar-winning film focuses more on the trial than the Pulitzer Prize-winning book does.

What I remembered without realizing it was the book’s compelling child’s-eye view of life and people and the world.

What I had forgotten, or perhaps could not see then as I do now – for reasons not belabored here – was the utter charm of the book. The human insight in the novel feeds mind, heart, and wit. The prose in which it is wrapped is artful and delicious.

Barber Baby Bubbles and a Bumblebee (and Me)


This week brought two noteworthy birthdays at 180fusion, where I work. For the company’s 5th birthday we had ice cream and cake. For Dr. Seuss’s 111th birthday — Monday — we took it on the road. About 20 of us went to Woodrow Wilson Elementary in South Salt Lake City and spent part of the afternoon going from classroom to classroom, reading Dr. Seuss books to the students there.

Before we were finished, we had visited more than 20 classrooms, from kindergarten to sixth grade, for half an hour each. I myself read to kindergarten students, first graders, and third graders, in groups ranging in size from 4 to 13 students.

The students at Woodrow Wilson presently come from 26 countries and speak 28 native languages. Most are refugees or recent immigrants from such places as Nepal and Somalia. A school official told us that some students who were in school this week were in a refugee camp in Africa just a week or two earlier.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower

A few years ago, not more than four, I decided it was time to enlarge my understanding of period of American history I had studied very little: the 17th century, give or take, from the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620 through the aftermath of King Philip’s War (1675-76).

I bought three recent books and began reading the first, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the National Book Award a few years ago. It’s a very readable book, and I immediately began to enjoy it. That it took me until I was on a recent flight to Seattle to finish it is no reflection on the book itself. It is simply a consequence of the fact that, though I read quite a bit, my reading time mental energy for history and in a situation where I can sit and mark up a book is quite limited. So I read dozens of other books — mostly fiction — while I was reading this one off and on.

Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower

Some of the roots of our national founding are in that period, I knew — including some of our early challenges with respect to religious freedom. I also expected the ambivalence of Pilgrims, and later Puritans, toward the indigenous peoples. I expected fear, heroism, bloodshed, confusion, brutality.

I suppose I expected insights into the challenges of diverse peoples attempting to coexist. But as I began to read, there were some interesting surprises on that theme. And there were sad accounts of what I had mostly forgotten, the beginning of the slave trade in New England, involving native slaves.

Is It Too Late to Think (or Read) About Christmas?

It’s December 27. Some people would call this the Third Day of Christmas. Some people think December 25 is the Twelfth Day of Christmas. For my Russian Orthodox friends, Christmas hasn’t even arrived yet. December 25 for them (in the Julian calendar) is January 7 by our modern (Gregorian) calendar . . . which is the day many Christians celebrate Epiphany, which isn’t altogether unrelated.

Are you confused yet? If so, welcome!

Welcome anyway, of course.

I asked my boss if we’d be getting Orthodox Christmas off work, as we did unorthodox Christmas. He thought I was kidding. It was one of those times when you wish people didn’t know you’re a Mormon. ‘Cuz I can still do a Russian accent.

Leonard, Pronto, Hooptedoodle

Elmore Leonard passed away last August. He’s been called the greatest crime writer of our time, but that’s not a genre I know. Soon after his death, I read a tribute to him in one book review or another. I decided that, if he was that good at his craft, I should read one of his novels. You may have heard of Get Shorty or Mr. Majestyk, but I settled on Pronto (itself a bestseller two decades ago) and ordered it from Amazon.

I haven’t had a lot of time to read books lately, which is why one of my New Year’s resolutions — yes, I made some this year — is to read in a book almost every day, in addition to my extensive reading on the Web. So I decided to finish Pronto next, having started it shortly after it arrived. I’ve been chipping away at it of an evening, ensconced in my unconscionably comfortable “reading chair.” Then the flu arrived this week, and I had time to finish the book.

You’ve already gathered that I didn’t find Pronto irresistible. However, I did enjoy it. For those who worry about such things, I note an abundance of language I wouldn’t use in Sunday school or even a barnyard, as well as some scenes I wouldn’t consent to watch portrayed as written in a movie. That said, I think I’ll keep the book for future reference; Leonard was a master at dialogue, and I’m also interested in his dialogue-centered character development.

What sealed the deal for me last fall, when I considered reading one of his books, was a New York Times piece Leonard wrote on writing. You never know whether the title or headline came from the author or the editor, but it was “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.”

He briefly offers ten rules for writers. I presume these are the same ten he presents at greater length in his short book, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which I just ordered for my own collection.

He writes:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your own voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the oldest cliches of writing, but there’s a reason for that, and Leonard’s instruction in the matter is welcome.

I enjoy lists of rules for writing, especially when they come from real writers instead of school teachers who aren’t real writers. George Orwell’s list in “Politics and the English Language” is a favorite. I’ve assigned the whole essay to my college writing students, when I’ve taught. It ends with this dictum: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.”

When I saw in Leonard’s article the same healthy sense of humility and the willingness to confess that rules are tools, not shackles, I was hooked. You don’t get that sense from your junior high or high school English teacher, unless she is extraordinary, and some college teachers aren’t that sensible, either. (David R. Williams, author of Sin Boldly!, which everyone who wants to write well should read, is my hero among those who are that sensible.)

I don’t want to squander all the suspense, so I won’t list all of Leonard’s rules. You can read them for yourself — and you should, because most of the delight is in his explanations, not the rules themselves. I mention only the following.

It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of Rule #10, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

He is sometimes absolute where I am less so: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” I wouldn’t say “never,” but I mostly agree.

I’ll leave it to you to discover why Leonard mentions one of his characters, who tells how she used to write historical romances which were “full of rape and adverbs.”

Finally, in case you’re wondering, I note that the word hooptedoodle appears in Leonard’s explanation of Rule #2, “Avoid prologues . . . especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.” He attributes the odd word to John Steinbeck, who didn’t always avoid prologues. My fine New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd Edition) doesn’t know the word hooptedoodle, but I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that.

What’s next on my reading list? I’ll have to decide soon. The flu hasn’t left yet, and (very strangely) I haven’t read Tom Clancy’s Command Authority, which I bought on the day it was released. It’s a leading candidate. But Heidi and I also have tickets to the musical version of Les Miserables a few weeks hence, and I’ve been meaning to read the entire, unabridged Victor Hugo novel before seeing the musical. I got about 100 pages into it last year and loved it.

If I didn’t have these two fine choices, I have another hundred or so books waiting to be read. A guy could have worse problems.

Review: David Lodge, Nice Work and Thinks…

[toggle title=”Author’s Note”]

Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site I’m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine, BookishThoughts.com.

[/toggle]

Nice Work (trade paperback): 288 pages. Penguin, 1990. ISBN: 0140133968.
Thinks (trade paperback): 352 pages. Penguin, 2002. ISBN: 0142000868.

Some years ago, I read a book of literary criticism by David Lodge. In a discipline where so much writing is deliberately murky, hopelessly trivial, or stridently ideological – or some unfortunate combination of the three – his prose was a refreshing, encouraging exception. His thoughts, like the sentences and paragraphs he created to express them, struck me as being carefully, artfully, precisely crafted. This is not to say that Lodge’s prose is sterile and mechanical; on the contrary, it manages, while never calling attention to itself, to be quite lively and fresh, and infused with a gentle, natural humor. One does not roll on the floor laughing, reading Lodge, but one tends to smile a lot, and sometimes chuckle aloud.

I was sufficiently impressed that I made a mental note to read some of David Lodge’s fiction someday. I have recently read two novels, Nice Work (1988) and Thinks (2001). They have several things in common. First, in both cases, the literary craftsmanship (perhaps I should say artistry, but it’s not just art) is superb, and the chapters are brightened by the same gentle humor I remember from his nonfiction. Second, both novels feature the collision of two worlds, which is to say that relationships develop between people with very little in common, who have to struggle mightily to understand each other.

In Nice Work a British government program designed to foster mutual understanding between the academy and the outside world ends up doing (strangely enough) exactly what it intends. Robyn Penrose, a temporary lecturer in English literature at the university, is assigned to “shadow” Vic Wilcox, who runs a factory. Robyn’s temporary status makes her at once vulnerable to receiving such an undesirable assignment and consumed by the quest for a tenured position somewhere – “nice work if you can get it,” as they say, and hence the title. Her fashionable leftist world view leaves her completely unprepared for the everyday realities of Vic’s occupation. The clash of ideologies and lifestyles is deftly drawn and delightful to read.

The cautious reader should note that there is some fairly candid description of sexual matters here and there in the novel, as the “mutual understanding” goes a bit farther than the government intended.

The two main characters in Thinks . . . are both in the academic world, at the fictional Gloucester University, but the gulf between them is vast. Helen Reed is a novelist, temporarily on the faculty to teach a course on creative writing. Ralph Messenger is the director of a research institution that is devoted to studying the phenomenon of consciousness and developing artificial intelligence. Each is introduced to the other’s world and finds it a strange.

This novel is something of a thought experiment on the nature of consciousness; the reader notices this long before encountering confirmation in the two pages of acknowledgments that follow the novel. To what extent is consciousness an objective phenomenon, reproducible from human to human, or perhaps even artificially? (One scientist in Messenger’s institute is trying to program a computer to simulate mother-love.) Can the mystery that is consciousness ever be solved? Reed argues, as I think Lodge also means to argue, that fiction is our best data on consciousness. Even though it is invented, as Messenger points out, and therefore of little scientific value, it probes its characters’ consciousness far deeper than we are presently able to probe an actual person’s consciousness.

Three voices narrate the bulk of the novel. One is Messenger’s; his chapters purport to be transcripts of his very private attempts to record his conscious thoughts as they occur, with as little ordering or censorship as possible. (Again, the cautious reader is warned that the man spends a fair amount of time thinking about sex.) Of course, as he notes early on, the very effort to express and record his thoughts implies some ordering and censorship, making his transcripts of little scientific use; but they serve their literary purpose. Reed’s narrative voice is in the form of journal entries, which are more carefully crafted and less spontaneous than Messenger’s ramblings. The third major narrative voice is a third person narrator.

Lodge’s exploration of consciousness relies on the technique of juxtaposing the three narrators’ views of the same events and ideas. This is far more artfully executed than the familiar television plot, where several characters recall and relate the same events in vastly different ways, often for comedic effect. Reed sets forth an idea in her journal, in the process of recording her discussion of the idea with Messenger, and Messenger examines it in his record, too. Ideas Reed encounters in conversation with Messenger even find their way into writing assignments for her students; some of the students’ writing fills two or three chapters of the novel, including a memorable sequence about an imaginary experiment to explore a person’s consciousness of color.

From time to time, events combine to teach one character or another quite forcibly that he or she has little or no idea what another person is thinking. This is hardly original with Lodge; such surprises play a major role in many novels. But in this case, these twists and turns in the plot are more than just devices; they are a commentary on the subjective, very personal nature of consciousness, and the role and importance of literature in exploring the nature of consciousness.

The philosophical implications are, in any case, quite profound. To the problem of consciousness are connected many larger issues: the existence of the self (or the soul), the immortality of the soul, the nature of personality and of conscience, the interrelationship of mind and body, the role of fiction, and so forth. For all that, Thinks . . . is admirably light on its feet. It may challenge the thoughtful reader, but it will also entertain. Lodge makes the scientific and philosophical issues involved about as accessible as they could possibly be, and thus manages, I think, to say something useful on the subject of consciousness.