Books and Reviews at Greenberry House

Like most booksellers, reading is a large part of my life here at Greenberry House. I have a special old chair, so worn that it sags, where I love to curl up with a good book. Old favorites, exciting new writers, spiritual or challenging, fiction or fact; all pass through my hands and many are worthy of comment. I plan an occasional mention here of a recent book I've read, either to recommend or to warn!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Autobiography of God

The Autobiography of God by Julius Lester, St. Martin's Griffin, 2006

Sometimes a book written as fiction plunges bravely to the heart and depth of the hardest and most complicated philosophical and theological issues. This slender volume explores the themes of faith and evil through the story of a young woman rabbi who is struggling with loneliness and a crisis of faith. When she comes into possession of a special Torah, her life is changed radically, and she must face the truth, about herself and about God.

The quietly mystical search that Rebecca experiences in the first part of the book appealed to me, and I identified with her struggle with the difficult questions of life. I spent a lot of time looking up terms and exploring meanings as I read. I also made notes of some beautiful and thoughtful quotations to ponder further.

The later chapters were very different, almost shocking and certainly thought-provoking. Unexpected twists in the plot and stunning new characters are only part of the sudden change, which serves to underscore the meanings in the first part of the book and take the reader into strange new territory. The final chapter isn't a complete resolution, but it is satisfying and I won't soon forget this story.

Julius Lester has a blog called A Commonplace Book.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Fine Balance

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, Vintage International Books, 1997.

I have read a few books recently, all fiction, about India. The last was an entertaining and comic novel about a modern Indian girl's search for "a nice boy" to marry. Even though it was funny, there were some disturbing themes, in the lack of control the young woman felt regarding her life and future.

Mistry's book, also often funny but overshadowed by repeated tragedy, also brings out the theme of lack of control. The four main characters are born in different castes and in different parts of India and are all searching for better lives. They come together through strange circumstances and work together to make a future for themselves, but repeatedly their lives are shattered by events beyond their control. Government corruption is a major offender in this dark world and poverty batters the lives of all of the characters in the novel. The story is set in the mid-1970s, during the "State of Emergency".

What was appealing to me about this book was how four ordinary people somehow managed to rise above the tragedies of their individual lives and reach out to each other and to others around them, some even less fortunate than themselves. The main characters learned to respect each other despite appearances and differences, and the struggle to survive sometimes brought out the best as well as the worst in even the minor characters.

The plot is a beautifully woven tapestry of intertwined lives and loves. Occasionally the story is horrifying, then comically shattering before it soars. The truths in this novel run deep, revealing the changing attitudes toward individuality and personal worth in a culture in turmoil. The depth of the human spirit in a world made up of beggers, murderers, extortionists alongside ordinary people just trying to get by is a fascinating and rich portrait of a culture and time painted by a master.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones, By Alice Sebold, Little, Brown and Company, 2002.

A haunting, beautiful and often painful tale, The Lovely Bones is the story of the death, life and the mystery of both as Susie Salmon tells about what happened to her one terrible night in a corn field near her home. Her rape and murder begin a shattering journey for her family and friends that she watches from heaven. Unable to tear herself way from the bonds of love and need, Susie is helpless to influence events as grief isolates her family.

This is the second time I've read this book, and like the first time I couldn't put it down. The writer does a wonderful job of speaking for Susie, the victim of a crime that doesn't for a minute see herself as a victim. Told from a unique point of view, as Susie watches the unfolding lives of her family and friends from a gazebo in heaven, this is a unique coming-of-age tale. Filled with sadness and tragedy as the story is, hope and humor lift the story with a unique perception of what heaven might be like and with the comforting idea that those that the living have lost are just beyond our perception, behind the veil.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Savage Beauty

Savage Beauty, The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford, Random House, 2001.

I've been reading the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay lately, so I was pleased to find this book in one of the boxes that my aunt sent at the beginning of the winter. I knew very little about the poet and her life, so this biography, thirty years in the writing, makes me want to take a new look at the poems. Although I feel that there are some faults in Milford's biography, seeing the poetry against the background of a life, often troubled but always adventurous, added a new dimension to my understanding.

Millay spoke for a new generation of women, those of the Jazz Age that were stepping across boundaries and breaking into new territory. Millay smoked in public and made no secret of her many lovers, both male and female. Marriage vows, her own or another's, had little effect on her behavior. Her troubled life began in Maine, where her father abandoned the family early and her mother felt obliged to leave her three small daughters alone for long periods of time while working as a nurse. The relationship between the four women affected much of "Vincent's" life, with turmoil between herself and a difficult younger sister who felt overshadowed by Vincent's talent. Cora Buzzell Millay, Vincent's mother, seems to struggle with pride and jealousy in Milford's portrayal of her, and it sometimes seems that Vincent and her sisters go to great lengths to pacify Cora's demands, perhaps from fear of abandonment. There is a hint at one point that Vincent may have been molested by a man Cora was involved with.

What struck me most about Vincent Millay's life is that genius so often comes out of such a life. Talented people often seem to be driven toward a need for experience, and the depth of their work reveals an understanding of experience that so many of us lack. We need these people to speak for us, out of their pain, to say what we cannot find words to reveal.

Milford disappoints me occasionally throughout her work. She isn't a particularly organized writer; the book is unsettling in the manner that the material is presented, sometimes in an almost haphazard fashion. It is difficult to capture a life, of course, but the best biographers understand the "why" behind the "what happened" and these reasons elude Milford. Reading between the lines of the numerous excerpts of Millay's works, journals and letters is up to the reader, and Milford offers no interpretation or analysis. I felt sometimes that Milford was overwhelmed with the material, and perhaps intimidated by Millay's sister, Norma.

Savage Beauty has some flaws, but so did Edna St. Vincent Millay. The biography is well worth reading for the facts presented and the excerpts from Millay's journals and less accessible writing beyond her poetry. The biography has encouraged me to go back to the poems, with a better understanding of their author, and maybe this is accomplishment enough.

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