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A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
Hard to describe, but I would call this a post-apocalyptic retelling of Western history. After a nuclear holocaust in the 20th century, the survivors include a hardy group of American monks. They preserve the few spared fragments of learning in much the same way that European religious orders protected ancient manuscripts through the medieval era.
Once the nuclear fallout subsides, humanity progresses through recognizable historical stages-- from a rampaging Dark Ages to a politically conniving Enlightenment to a futuristic space age. It's fascinating to see these familiar elements of history recast in new places and with new names, and to wonder if the march of human events really is so inevitable.
They shook hands gingerly, but Dom Paulo knew that it was no token of any truce but only of mutual respect between foes. Perhaps it would never be more.
But why must it all be acted again? The answer was near at hand; there was still the serpent whispering: For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods. The old father of lies was very clever at telling half-truths: How shall you "know" good and evil, until you shall have sampled a little? Taste and be as Gods.
But neither infinite power nor infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men. For that there would have to be infinite love as well.2)
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
A brilliant Harvard psychology professor is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. The most unique aspect of this book is the narrative style. While it is told in third-person, we still view things from Alice's perspective, because Genova does not furnish us with any details that Alice herself wouldn't know. For example, as Alice loses her memory, the other characters are referred to with increasingly vague names: we go from reading about "Lydia" to "her youngest daughter" to simply "the actress." If Alice misses something, we do too, and just like her, we have to figure it out later. I thought this was very well done.
At first I did not like Alice. She seemed to personify everything I hate about modern feminism: looking down on young mothers, finding all her worth in her career, believing that she must be self-sufficient at all costs, clinging to a very narrow definition of success. So I thought that I would struggle to sympathize with her as the book went on. However, I got over my initial dislike and enjoyed the story. I was also pleasantly surprised at how her disease shifts her perspective. Alice realizes that in a time of crisis, all she cares about is her family, about their love and loyalty, not accolades from an academic association. (Sadly, her husband-- equally career-driven-- does not seem to share her new perspective and continues to prioritize his work.)
I fear mental disease more than physical, because I worry about losing control and somehow losing my own identity. If my self-awareness and memory melt away, what do I have left? Have I disappeared too? Is my life worth anything anymore? So I liked what Alice had to say:
My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. Some tomorrow soon, I'll forget that I stood before you and gave this speech. But just because I'll forget it some tomorrow doesn't mean that I didn't live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn't mean that today didn't matter.3)
In the Province of Saints by Thomas O'Malley
I am glad I read this one. (I brought it home from the library and said "I picked this off the shelf because it looked good." Jared peered at the cover and said "No, you picked it because it looked Celtic." Fair point, my love.)
It's got some salty language and it is neither uplifting nor inspirational, but then I don't usually go for inspirational. It's real, and its darkness is the kind worth reading about: presented well, even quite beautifully. Sometimes you need to read about the hardness of life. I think it's best to read about it in a way that makes your life better-- because it makes you reflect on sober truths or gives you a better eye for hope-- not in a way that makes you throw the book across the room and say "well fine, why don't we all kill ourselves then." (This novel is an example of the former way. For an example of the latter way, see #5.)
Summary: this story follows a young Irish boy through adolescence as he deals with a severely ill mother, an absent father, and the various political/social pressures of poor village life in 1970s-80s Ireland. It has strong themes of betrayal and loyalty, especially concerning the conflicting loyalties we may find ourselves sorting through: demands from our family, from our beliefs, from from our history. The protagonist must choose at several points to whom (or to what cause) he will be faithful. He also has the opportunity to compare himself to the older men in his life, many of whom fail to fulfill responsibilities to their families or communities. I thought the ending was very strong, not at all happy-go-lucky, but full of gritty resolve. And I like grit.
I stopped at a grotto to the Virgin that lay nestled in the side of a hill, and I said a prayer for my mother and my father although I knew it would do no good. My words frosted the air. The Goddess's weather-beaten face, worn smooth and soft, shone beatific in the moon glow. Hers was an altar of rowan branches, wildflowers and moss heather, lichen, and pools of bog water, the type of old-contry shrine that once dotted the lanes and hillsides.4)
Wrapped in thorns yet serene and calm, the Goddess assured me that everything would be all right, if only I believed. But the thing was, though I wanted to believe, I didn't.
Ellis Island and Other Stories by Mark Helprin
Clearly I have no problem repeating authors. If I enjoy one of his books, why stop there? This one is different because it's a slim collection of short stories, not an enormous novel. Overall, I prefer the novels, because his characters are so great that I want them to go on almost-forever. (Actually, I like novels more than short stories, period. It's so nice to slip into a story and sustain that narrative for a week, two weeks, rather than be done with it in thirty minutes.) It might be especially good for a car trip, when-- if you are like me-- there are snacks and rest stops and whiny toddlers to interrupt your reading flow.
And now for something completely different, I will mention The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan. This one is horrible, so it does not technically belong on a "five favorites" list. Yet here it is! Simply so I can tell you how horrible it is. It is meandering and depressing and full of terrible sex, as one might expect from a novel about Chinese prostitutes. I read half of it and should have stopped much sooner. Please don't bother.