Saturday, June 16, 2007

The May Reading List

Prime Green, Robert Stone
Seize the Day, Saul Bellow
Happiness: A History, Darrin M. McMahon
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

May was a good month for reading, although it was often interrupted by the pursuit of a new job. A couple of cross-country trips provided some quiet reading time, but also disrupted my routine of morning and evening reading on the Pettaquamscott Cove. Two truly excellent reads have already been covered in raves this month (here and here), so I won't go much into either of them beyond a passing mention.

Robert Stone's memoir Prime Green is an extremely well-observed and well-written account of the writer's life as it wound its way through some the more portentous moments of the latter half of the 20th century. Letting Stone lead you through the Beat Generation, Ken Kesey's Furthur journeys, Vietnam, ex-pat life, and onwards is a read well spent.

Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead is a gratifying read, as well, although a bit more challenging than Prime Green in its tackling of metaphysical themes of Christian goodness and guilt. The novel itself progresses smoothly, through the narration of a fictional preacher John Ames, in the form of a letter to his young son. The spiritual debates driven home through the plot and characters, and more over, the Reverend's commentary on his interactions with the characters certainly gives pause for thought. All this set against the back drop of a chancing racial landscape in America, from the abolitionist passions and violence of the Bleeding Kansas movement through to the more subtly expressed anti-miscegenation feelings that persist through to modern times. A compelling read.

The physical artifact of the Penguin Classics edition Saul Bellow's Seize the Day is in some way, the perfect novel. The sleek, black and orange production framing a photo of a gray blazer laid out (dropped?) on the lush green meadows of Central Park, with an out of focus Manhattan skyline in the distance sums up the novel well - a small, distinct but not entirely in-focus picture of a failed life in New York.

Why Bellow writes failure so well, specifically, that deeply personal but monumental failure of sons failing fathers, second generations failing their immigrant promise, of men failing the glamour of New York, and of course, failing their wives as husbands, and most of all, of tragic figures failing all of the ideas of success bound up in their own head, I don't quite know. But he trains his sights on the subject often enough. Seize the Day has the benefit of being brief, so Bellow's powerful, occasionally shimmering prose can carry you quickly through the emotional decay of his protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm. Tommy is the flip-side of the coin on whose head shines the visage of Jay Gatsby - an attempt at self-made that fell-down, flopped, and then failed, all under the unsympathetic and unflinching gaze of his father, his wife, and the city that anonymizes him. While a document of struggle, Seize the Day is by no means a painful read, and through some quite splendid prose homages to New York, can be quite enjoyable. And as it is quite slim, it makes the perfect subway or airplane read if you are up for some slightly heavier fare.

Happiness: A History is like a central assigned reading in a really great philosophy class. Florida State University professor Darrin M. McMahon provides a 450-page tour of the history of Western philosophy, tracing the development of perspectives, traditions, and ideas, from the Greeks and Romans, into the Dark Ages, out through the Reformation, the Rennaisance, and the Enlightement, moving finally to more modern philosophers like Nietzsche, Weber, Marx, and others who strove to navigate the complicated terrain between God, science, knowledge, and history -- all told through the lens of that most fundamental question: What does it mean to be happy?

It would do no service for me to summarize any of McMahon's excellent reviews and analyses of various epochs in philosophical history, but let me strongly recommend reading the sections on the Ancient Greeks (particularly the Stoics and the Epicureans, as compared to the Platonic-Aristocratic tradition), and of the modern work of Smith-Locke-Rousseau-Mills which provides so much of the foundation of our political and cultural traditions. If you want a book that feels like an enjoyable Philosophy 101 class, then Happiness: A History is highly recommended.

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