Sunday, June 08, 2008

Summer reading

Having gone through a pretty long spell of reading rather lugubriously, I've been on a good run of books. I finished Out of Africa and liked it, but the longer I read the more uncomfortable it became for me. Although Dinesen seemed to have glimmerings that what had happened to the natives was unfair, regrettable even, there is still that annoying sense of Western entitlement to African land -- their right to "make something of it," to school and convert the natives, push them aside to reservations, and pronounce their cultural rituals as barbaric and unhealthy. It was also unsettling to read her blithe accounts of killing lions, iguanas, and whatever other animals came to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sort of combining both of my discomfort zones, the local Masai were required to come and ask her (memsahib) to kill the lions raiding their cattle. I guess it would be necessary to place oneself back in the mindset of that time to understand how such incredible sensitivity could exist alongside the arrogance and imperiousness of the Colonial settler.

Next in my stack from the library (I'm so old-fashioned; I get BOOKS -- from the LIBRARY!) was Richard Fortey's Life: the first four billion years. I loved Earth, which was a history of our understanding of geology and plate tectonics. If you want a quick spin through the basics of evolutionary biology via the fossil record and other scientific developments, this is a pretty entertaining way of doing it.

Some of the Amazon reviewers (FWIW) pooh-poohed his style, his lingering over personal anecdotes, and his frequent quotations from poetry, but those are of course, the main points in his favor as far as I'm concerned. If I were a graduate student in paleontology, I wouldn't be using it for a textbook. Why do all these people who obviously already know it all, think he's writing for them? There are times when I think that many people use the Internet only to demonstrate their vast superiority over the rest of us underdeveloped plankton. Well, this multicelled organism quite liked it, especially his explanation and analysis of the "boloid collision" or K-T event, that wiped out the dinosaurs, and all of the controversy over the several theories offered for their extinction.

The book that I just finished was The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan, one of my favorite writers. Wow -- it's the first actual page-turner that I've read in awhile. It's wonderfully creepy and sad and moving. Three teenage "ghosts" of a Halloween car crash have been called back a year later to follow the variously guilt-ridden, obsessed, and devastated survivors of that night. The ghosts are invisible and powerless, mostly grim bystanders to the inevitable drama that is playing out on the anniversary of their deaths. It was very powerful and not without its moments of black humor. It also perfectly captures teenagers' stubborn belief in their invincibility.

I was going to go straight into Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, but after reading just the beginning of it, I think I'll pick something else. It wasn't that it was bad in any way, but I could just tell that it wasn't my cup of tea -- style, concerns, characters -- none of it seemed promising. I have the new translation of War and Peace now, but I think I'll save it for the fall. On the other hand, a frozen Russian landscape might be a great escape as the temperatures look to remain completely unbearable for the rest of the summer!

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