Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

I do like Cormac McCarthy, but can you imagine living with him? His vision of the world is unremittingly grim. His characters are are either sociopaths or simply motivated by greed or any number of unenviable human traits. I’ve read Outer Dark and The Road and recently watched and then dreamt about the film No Country for Old Men. I certainly enjoyed The Road – there’s nothing like a good post-apocalypse story – but after reading McCarthy you need an antidote to remind you that this is only way of looking at the world.

tolstoy.jpgI was recently reminded of one of these antidotes, a gentle read by Sonny Brewer called The Poet of Tolstoy Park. Henry, a 67 year-old, retired professor and widower is told that he has a terminal illness. Determined to make the most of his last days, he sells everything and moves to a Utopian town in Alabama. There he tends to his soul and is surprised at the many lessons he has left to learn.

The book falls into the nebulous genre of self-improvement fiction (for the character, not necessarily for you), or maybe, if you will, epiphany fic. And with any fiction in which the character comes to a greater understanding of himself and his place in the world, it can be very corny or incredibly good reading. I found Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist to be a bit on the maudlin side, though I enjoyed the story of a young shepherd who is dissatisfied with his life and leaves his home in search of a treasure. The story has a fable-like quality.

I found Philosophy Made Simple, by Robert Hellenga, to be a more satisfying and complexpms-galleys.jpg read. Rudy, an avocado dealer in Chicago, is adrift. His wife has passed away, his children have moved away and he’s at an age when he should be contemplating retirement. Instead, in a move that stuns his children, he sells everything and buys an avocado farm in Texas. His only road map is a book given to him by one of him by one of his daughters – Philosophy Made Simple. As he reads about the great minds of philosophy he tries to apply the lessons he learns to his new life, which now includes the care of a painting elephant named Norma Jean. Hellenga’s talent lies in his character development. He creates living and breathing characters and is able to show them in all their complexity and humanity.

sophie.jpgBut self-realization isn’t just reserved for the oldsters. Back in 1994 Jostein Gaarder wrote a book called Sophie’s World, in which a young girl receives a series of mysterious messages that lead her on a journey through the subject of philosophy. Kirkus criticized it for being an elaborate text book, but many were charmed by it.

And now I realize that I can mention two of my favorite reads in the category of ‘philosophy of the self’. illuminated.jpgEverything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is the story of a young man, strangely enough, also called Jonathan Safran Foer, who sets out to research his family story, starting with finding a Ukranian woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He is accompanied on this journey by the ego maniacal Alex, his blind Grandfather and his grandfather’s neurotic dog. There are elements of mythology and magic realism thrown into the tale of the protagonist’s ancestors, along with a lot of humor. I can also heartily recommend the movie.

And then there’s the brilliant Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Pi is the son of a zoo keeper and has an insatiable curiosity about animals and also about the philosophy underlying Hinduism, Christianity and Islam – all three of which he tries to practice simultaneously. The family sets out on a great adventure when Pi’s father decides to pack up and move to Canada from India, by boat of course, because the animals are coming with. A terriblepi.jpg storm results in the sinking of the ship and leaves Pi in a lifeboat accompanied by the only other survivors, the most formidable being Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. One of the most absurd and funny passages I have ever read has to do with Pi encouraging Richard Parker to save himself by swimming to the life boat; and then coming to the sudden realization of what it will mean to share a life boat with a tiger.

I can think of a few other antidotes to grim reads – Tom Robbins, Duncan’s The River Why, and The Uncommon Reader would all do nicely. I’ll remember to keep one handy the next time I’m compelled to read McCarthy.


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Based on the books I’ve read and liked, Librarything suggested that I might like The God of Animals. I’ve just finished and I have to say, I really loathed this book.

god.jpgIt is a well-written, compelling story of a girl growing up on a barely-making-it horse farm in a desert valley. She has no friends and spends all her time at home tied to the work of caring for horses. Her father has great ambitions to attract a better class of people to come to the ranch for show lessons; but when he can barely make ends meet he boards the horses of the well-to-do from the other side of the valley. Alice has unavoidably absorbed her father’s brutal view of the world. When mares are separated from their foals, when wealthy clients are taken advantage of, or beloved horses sold, it’s all “just business”. This grim view of the world, along with themes of abandonment — Alice’s lively sister Nona elopes with a rodeo rider, Alice’s mother leaves them all, even if she’s only retreated to her bedroom — leaves Alice with little choice but to create a more interesting world for herself. A classmate has been found dead in the local canal. In Alice’s fantasy, she and the girl were best friends, and she is now inconsolable, except when she receives attention from a teacher who seemed to have a special connection with the dead Polly. Alice and Mr. Delmar talk every night on the phone. He seems to be the only person in Alice’s world to recognize her as anything but a shallow middle-schooler, and her infatuation with him is the only thing she can cherish as her own.

I appreciated the fact that Kyle understands the depth of knowledge a young girl can have about the world around her. She refuses to play the “isn’t she so sweet” game that some authors indulge in when they portray adolescent girls, instead creating a complex character who is precocious and scheming, and sometimes unlikeable.

So why did I feel like throwing the book across the room if it was well-written and engaging? In Kyle’s created universe, people who appear good on the surface have dark secrets, brutality and self-interest override altruism, there is no such thing as innocence, men always cheat, we destroy what is beautiful and it’s all just human nature. People who finally seem to find some joy in life are punished and the one character who is an idealist, a wealthy girl who is taking lessons at the ranch, is portrayed as unbearably naive. In this world, the only redemption is in leaving; with the understanding that you can never leave behind the truth. And there is a lot of painful truth in this book, but it isn’t a version of the world I’m willing to embrace. I’m sure this book will find its die-hard fans, but I am not one of them.

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