One Book, Two Book

So, recently I had one of those interconnected things where I read an article that reminded me of one book I had loved and then it connected me to another book I had read.sweet season

Let’s start with the first book.  It was Sweet Season by Austin Murphy–and it was one of the best sports books I have ever read.  Murphy is the real deal.   He wrote for Sports Illustrated, which in the day was the best sportswriting (and among the best writing) available anywhere.

Murphy was spending his time interviewing prima donna athletes in strip clubs and feeling kind of icky about it.  So, he went and spent the year with his family in Collegeville, MN at St. John’s College.

St. John’s is a DIII school where your professor is probably a monk.  They were coached by John Gagliardi, a legend in college coaching.  Gagliardi had many odd tactics, including never cutting anyone from the team and never blocking or tackling during practice.

Murphy talks to the monks, talks to real student-athletes, follows their season and reflects on his life.  It’s like Season on the Brink except there’s no brink. It’s an excellent book that will make you feel good and teach you something about whatever you do in your life.

So, over Christmas, I was reading something online and I ran across this article by Austin Murphy.

I Used to Write for Sports Illustrated. Now I Deliver Packages for Amazon.

It is the same guy.  After my initial shock, I read the article.  The upshot is that SI downsized, he wasn’t making enough money freelancing.  So, went to Indeed and got a job delivering packages.

He relays how he is ashamed to go to a holiday party and tell people what he is doing.  I think most people can identify.  You think…I could lose my job, and work at Starbucks and have to serve people I formally worked with.  The disgrace!  The embarrassment!  I would be completely miserable.

That’s how we see it.  And yet, that’s not how it felt when it happened.

When I’m in a rhythm, and my system’s working, and I slide open the side door and the parcel I’m looking for practically jumps into my hand, and the delivery takes 35 seconds and I’m on to the next one, I enjoy this gig. I like that it’s challenging, mentally and physically. As with the athletic contests I covered for my old employer, there’s a resolution, every day. I get to the end of my route, or I don’t. I deliver all the packages, or I don’t.

Which connects the second book, Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert.  The point of stumblinghis book is exactly this.  When we have something good we want, we overestimate how good it will make us feel.  Life has a regression to the mean effect.  Other things come up.  You worry about new things.  Your real happiness in that future state–even when achieved–will never pay off the promise.

The same thing works in reverse for the downsides of life.  We think we would be miserable if we lost our job.  Had a severe injury and became disabled.  We think life would be unlivable.  But Gilbert former Speaker Jim Wright to show that not only are you not miserable but, in the case of Wright, you are happier.  We have a coping mechanism that levels out the decline.  Good things in life still exist and some bad things are gone.

Murphy’s story is exactly that example.

Anyway, that’s one of the great things about reading, when two ships dock in your head.

 

Review: Ella Minnow Pea

16201So a friend of ours gave Barb a copy of this book, Ella Minnow Pea, which we have both just gotten around to reading.

It’s a really good book.  Here’s the basic idea.  This group of people lives on an island devoted to the man who created the pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” something I used to type every day in TYPING class, when, you know, we took TYPING as a class.

That was the 9th grade.  Teacher was Mrs. Lemmerbrock.

Anyway, the whole island worships this guy and they have a sign up that has the phrase on it, except one day the “z” falls down and the island’s leaders decide to outlaw any use of the letter, which seems minor but is a big deal…it causes the entire library to close, for example.  The penalties are stiff–first, a public reprimand, second time a public flogging or stocking, and third time is permanent banishment.

It is a novel of letters, which makes it fun because you get to see the residents attempt to correspond, first without using a Z and then without other letters as the sign continues to fall apart.

It’s just a clever book.  It can be read on many different levels.  In looking around online, a lot of people have chosen to read it as a dystopian novel about authoritarian societies, which is fine, but this is no Handmaid’s Tale.

I preferred to read it another way:  as hilarious.  It is just very funny, especially as people are down to writing with 14 letters or something.  The characters are good as well and reveal themselves in how they respond to the ridiculous edicts of the leaders of the island.

It is also a writing feat of the first order.  First, of course, all of the letters conform to “the law” as it might stand at any given time.  This is a writing challenge that gets more difficult as it goes along.  Second, there is a plot where the people are trying to come up with shorter pangram than the original one, and he comes up with a bunch, which is also no small feat.

So, if you like language and laughter, I’d recommend the book.  It’s 100% farce and pure hilarity.

BJ’s year in review…

OK, so a reading year in review, following up on Barb’s review.  I actually wasn’t too keen on this topic, but then when I looked back at the books I read, I discovered little nuggets of unexpected pleasure when thinking back on the books of 2018.  Let me recount them.

karamFirst, our big-impossible-reading-project was Brothers Karamazov.  It was the best of the 3 books we have done so far.  It is a compelling book that can be read on so many different levels but still works as a straight story.  Its characters and story are still relevant today.  I honestly think anyone could read this book.

We didn’t blog about going to see Hamilton in November, but that certainly falls onto the literary scale.  Especially since I was one of those nerds that read the Chernow biography about the time that Lin-Manuel Miranda did.  The show was great.  Hard to believe you can exceed expectations that are as high as the ones we took in the door. It was a lifetime memory.  It also links into this year’s reading because grantone of the books I got for Christmas last year was the Chernow biography of US Grant, which was, of course, very good.  Grant is a great character because he is so multi-faceted.  Also, it shed excellent perspective on the Grant Presidency, which usually is labeled as “corrupt” and then skipped over.  Lastly, the book also doubles as an education of the times he lived in.horse

I read two award-winning books.  The first was A Horse Walks Into a Bar, which won the Man Booker.  Books that win that award can be dicey–I’m sure they have high literary quality but they are often allergic to readability.  This book was really good.  It was presented in anless original way and gradually revealed the pain that often is behind humor.  I also read Less, which won the Pulitzer Prize.  It was deserving as well.  A great story and a great character about life in the twilight.

I also read a couple books that probably don’t go down as literary but were fantastic red sparrowreading experiences.  Red Sparrow is a smart spy thriller, along the lines of The Americans.  The challenge is to not make the characters be cliches–you don’t need “The Russian Guy.”  Also, Putin is a character.  The other CAA bookone was Powerhouse by James Andrew Miller.  I’m a big fan of Miller’s oral histories and also a closet Hollywood-people-behaving-badly junkie, and this history of CAA was difficult to put down.

When I look back on the books I read, I see a couple of my rankings that don’t seem to stand the test of time.  One is Ohio, which I gave 5 stars but maybe was a 4 in retrospect.  Or maybe I’m influenced by later ratings from other readers.  And then there was Who is Rich, which I gave 3 stars but remember more fondly now.

I did do a reading challenge.  With the Brothers Karamazov, I tamped down the goal to 12 but I actually read 18.  Goal for this year is 20, plus Ulysses, #4 in the series.

99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret

9780374906047Finished my first non-Brothers Karamazov book.  It was the highly acclaimed Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.  Like a lot of people, I was intrigued by this book from watching the crown, where Margaret sort of steals the show.

Side note:  many of the people in this book would have felt comfortable around Pyotr Karamazov and the Windsors might rival the Karamazovs in dysfunction.

It’s gotten a ton of positive recognition.  It made the NY Times 100 notable book list, NPR, and several others.

I enjoyed it fine.  I ended up giving it 3-stars…but I enjoyed it.  One thing I recognized from reading the book is that while those of us here in the US we’ve come to bemoan the rise of our TMZ-infused celebrity culture, that kind of thing has been going on a long time in Britain, with the Royals occupying the stage.

So, there’s a bunch of different references to British tittering scandal culture that kind of went over my head, which probably impacted the enjoyment of the book.  Beyond that, I just wasn’t raised with the “you’d never do that in front of a royal” stuff that you might if you were raised in Britain.

For example, after meeting a bunch of Americans, the Queen was asked how it went.  She said, drolly, “I’ve shaken a lot of hands.”  Apparently, you’re not supposed to touch her.

It was a very good book for titillating detail of how a woman–who was not raised to be in the line to the throne–made her way through life as a second fiddle.  It’s classic younger sibling birth order stuff put into a blender.  In many ways, she was a train wreck…heavy drinking and smoking and reckless behavior and callous treatment of people…it was a pretty bumpy ride.

The book’s real accomplishment is taking someone who was always defined by those things, and giving you a little understanding of the loneliness of that particular life.  I know, they are first world problems and people have had to deal with a lot worse, but if you’re going to take the time to decide she was a mean bitch you can at least try to see how anybody else might have ended up that way in the same situation.  You should see some truly kind things she did.  And if you’re going to live vicariously through the royal family, you should do it through a real lens and not a Disney cartoon.

Last interesting point.  In Britain, the book was titled “Ma’am Darling:  Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.”  Isn’t that interesting?  I suspect that people here wouldn’t really grasp what that was referring to, but I always think it is interesting when the titles of books are different for relatively narrow slices of readership.

It was good for me.

russian-drinking-bogatyrs_0So, book challenge #3 has been completed.  The Brothers Karamazov has joined War and Peace and Infinite Jest on the list of conquered unreadable books.  There will be another post answering the seminal question of whether everything you need to know is contained within its pages, as asserted by Kurt Vonnegut.

For now, a few thoughts.

This is the best of the books we have read in this series.  I say this for a couple of reasons.  The most important is that the book is funny.  At times, it is laugh-out-loud funny.  Mostly you hear how dark and depressing Doestovsky is, but his humor is underrated.  That includes broad humor, physical humor, ironic humor, the whole gamut.  He has an eye for the ridiculous.

It is also a book that is relevant to our times.  You can feel perfectly comfortable in its pages with very little transliteration.  Much of the action comes out of Jerry Springer or Maury Povich, the trial at the end is right out of the Seinfeld finale.  The addiction to sensual pleasures and the prevalence of false piety and pseudo-intellectualism come right out of our newspapers.

Lastly, the book can be read on many different levels.  At one level, it is a crime procedural.  It can be also read as farce, tragedy, as a spiritual primer, as a psychological textbook or social commentary.  You can slice this book however you like.

But, one thing can’t be lost.  War and Peace was about history–the role that people played in creating history…and then it was about free will.  The Brothers Karamazov is about psychology.   Why do people do what they do?  How do they become so fucked up?  What is the relationship between everyday human life and true, pure spirituality?

The story is also strong and easier to follow than War and Peace.  The characters are easier to follow, once you break the code of all the Russian nicknames.  The serialized format actually helps a reader by providing shorter sections and occasional summaries, which provide the same conveniences to a modern reader that I suspect they did to a Russian reader in the 1880s.

It’s way better than Infinite Jest.  We’re not even going there.  The books do not belong in the same paragraph.

I honestly would recommend this book to someone looking for a challenging read.  Barb and I have discussed that we might read it again because we suspect it is the kind of book that would reveal many clues and nuance on a second reading when you have a better idea what to expect.

This is a work of true brilliance.  Its understanding of the human condition is unfailing.  Dostoevsky saw the world as it was and, it turns out, still is…and probably always will be.  Because of that–and because it is a pleasure to read–this is a book for any book lover.

 

Chapter 12: The Verdict

trialThe guts of the book are done.  The long saga of the Karamazov brothers has reached its conclusion.

This is a very difficult section to summarize because it is chock-full of stuff.  No matter how you want to read this book–as a procedural, as a tragedy. as social criticism or as a psychological study–the trial section of this book has plenty to keep you talking.

For me, here’s what it made me think about.

First, we know Dmitry didn’t do it.  Much of this book has been about the failures of society, of the structures that humans build to manage their lives.  It’s about the trap of worldly, sensual pleasures and the need for goodness and spirituality.

This can be seen in the Grand Inquisitor’s speech about the Church no longer needing Christ, as well as the reaction to the Starets rotting corpse, the lunatic ascetic that lives in the monastery, etc.  There is pure truth, but society’s institutions perpetuate themselves and not anything true.

The trial is a very good example.  The entire trial goes on, with long eloquent speeches by the lawyers, before a gawking audience, and a procession of loony witnesses.  It takes all of a day into the middle of the night, with evidence and a jury of peasants and drama…all of it to decide whether Dmitry killed his father.  Which we know he did not.  The day is about whether it can be proven that he did it or not….not whether he did it or not, which is unknowable except in Dmitry’s heart.

But who believes the accused?

For a pop culture reference, it is very reminiscent of the Seinfeld trial.  Every rogue element of the story finds his or her way to the stand and 950 pages of drama plays out.

So I know a lot of prosecutors, and they often say that the people they convict are usually guilty of many other crimes that they were never charged with.  The current charges notwithstanding, they are sort of in a criminal class.

Dmitry is much the same way.  He’s not convicted by the actual commission of the crime, but he is convicted by the way he lived his life–the anger and the threats and the drinking and stealing.  When all that is added up, he lived a life where he very well could have killed his father, regardless of whether he did or not.

Imagine, for example, the reaction if Aloysha was accused of the same crime.

In other words, when you get hammered and write a letter describing how you’re going to kill your Father and then he’s found dead, you’re going to be in trouble.  Fortunately, few of us will ever write that, much speak it out loud or even think it.

Furthermore, we know that Dmitry had an awakening, realized the toxic presence of the fallout from his actions.  The problem is that it came too late for him to be saved from being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, but could have, which is enough for this flawed system, which had to answer for the corpse.

So, if someone asks you what the verdict is of the trial, you’d be within your rights to say “it’s more complicated than that.”  He wasn’t innocent, but was he guilty?

Book XI: The Devil Speaks

christ-tempted-by-satanThe drama is racing forward now.  We had all sort of assumed that Dmitri had killed his Father–as he had often promised to do and might well have done…or might have done had someone else not gotten to it first.  The trial awaits.

Ivan is back in town, and some sort of fever has robbed him of his vaunted reason.  He talks to Smerdyakov who confesses that he did it, but implicates Ivan with moral guilt by telling him that he (Ivan) knowingly let the murder go ahead.  There’s a lot of discussion of fake seizures, real seizures and then a chance to wonder who’s the fool in the conversation.

Then, after a big scene we’ll talk about in a minute, Aloysha shows up to inform us that Smerdyakov has hung himself.  Ivan’s fever rages; he had been counting on Smerdyakov confessing to save his brother and now he’s left with a story that only he heard and he doesn’t think anyone will believe.  He has some kind of non-Karamzov urge to help his brother that he must have inherited from his mother…he also offered to help Dmitry escape to the United States…but now that’s presumably all gone.

Or, not.  The trial awaits in the final book of the novel.

The interesting part from a philosophical standpoint is Ivan’s conversation with the devil, which occurs inside a feverish nightmare.  For my money, this is as good as the Grand Inquisitor scene–which also came out of Ivan’s head.

First, the portrayal of the devil is fascinating.  The devil does not show up with horns and a red suit or in a flash of fire.  He’s a guy.  He feels underappreciated, he’s a bit snarky and a bit whiny.  He’s just a guy.

Which, of course, is the whole point.  In fact, he says “…suffering is the very stuff of life. Without suffering, what pleasure would there be in life?”  You cannot have good without evil or virtue without sin.  The battle between good and evil drives life forward and both reside within us.  It can manifest itself as it does with Aloysha or with Dmitry, but good is there and evil is there.  And, you don’t have to think of evil as something extraordinary or monstrous.  It’s pedestrian and every day.

You can decide if that’s dark or not.

Then, the devil makes a point that I think shows the incredible prescience of Doestevsky.

People will unite in order to derive from life all that it has to give, but they will seek purely earthly happiness and joy. Man will extol himself spiritually in godlike, titanic pride, and the man-god will be born.

Who among us can argue–despite the apparent rise in religiosity in the West–that the man-god is here, that most people view themselves as the center of the universe and arrange the rest of the pieces to rationalize that view?  We have a local church that has a billboard that says “You matter.”  (In contrast, my son works at a camp that teaches the kids that “I am third.”)

Then, this.  See David Foster Wallace.

Triumphing repeatedly and totally over nature by his will and his science, man will in consequence experience a pleasure so exalted that it will replace for him all his former expectation of heavenly bliss

Remember then, this is the devil speaking as he outlines his vision of his world

Every man will discover that he is mortal and that there is no resurrection, and he will accept death proudly and calmly like a god. Out of pride he will desist from protest, accept the transience of life and love his fellow man, expecting nothing in return. Love will satisfy only a moment of life, but the mere consciousness of its brevity will fuel its flames as strongly as it was once dissipated in the hope of an eternal love beyond the grave…”, and so on and so forth, and more of the same stuff. Charming!’

Which is charming except, of course, we’ve seen enough of the Karamazov brothers to understand that it isn’t very likely it will turn out like that, and if you doubt it, somebody out there killed his father.

On we go.  One more section and an epilogue.