Books Read in November

Favorite November reads.

Favorite November reads.

1. Go Tell it on the Mountain (audio book), by James Baldwin (****)
2. Each Peach Plum Pear, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg (*****)
3. Le Mort d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (DNF)
4. The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey, by Ernesto “Che” Guevera (***1/2)
5. Dying is My Business, by Nicolas Kaufmann (*****)
6. A Passage to India (audio book), by E.M. Forster (***1/2)
7. A Bend In The River, by V.S. Naipaul (***1/2)
8. Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell (****)
9. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation, by anonymous, translated by Simon Armitage (****)
10. Domestic Work: Poems, by Natasha Trethewey (****)

REVIEWS (behind the cut):

1. Go Tell it on the Mountain (audio book), by James Baldwin (****)
It’s hard to sum up Go Tell it on the Mountain, which is in part about 14 year old John Grimes and his rough home life, how he longs to escape the path his preacher father walked and find another kind of living that still escapes sin. It’s also about John’s the spiritual awakening one night while nearby his father, mother, and aunt each say their own prayers and remember their own lives.

Religion is a major theme of this book; it’s at the periphery of every scene and sometimes right out front. It brushes against the Christian faith, sits with it, lives in it, while at the same time showing some of the hypocrisy of those who preach it.

The novel unfolds somewhat like a poem, in that it doesn’t follow a straight linear thread. Rather it relies on image, tone, and symbolism as it moves from scene to scene. The language is lyrical and vivid, thick with emotion, and like a poem I had to sit with it for a moment and try to absorb what I could. It’s a book I’ll return to again, to read and see what else I might discover.

Highly recommended.

2. Each Peach Plum Pear, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg (*****)
My Review: This adorable picture book doesn’t quite tell a story, but introduces several popular nursery rhyme characters. One of the fun things about this is that it is a look/find book, which encourages kids to interact by having them find the characters hidden in the illustrations. An adorable book.

My Niece’s Review: At just over one years old, baby is a bit young to do the look/see aspect of the book. But if I pointed a character out to her, she would look at me, at the character, then at me again.

Of course, everything is “dog” right now. So reading the story went something like this:
“Look, baby, it’s Tom Thumb.”
“Dahg.”
“See, there’s Mother Hubbard.”
“Dahg.”
“Ooooh, a witch!”
“Dahg.”

3. Le Mort d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (DNF)
I know Le Mort d’Arthur is supposed to be a great classic and the definitive Arthur, but damn it, I’m 377 pages in and I can’t do it anymore. It is just too much of the same flipping story over and over and over and over again. And not just the same story (knight jousts with knight), but almost the same exact wording with each battle.

The only thing to have sparked my interest in about 200 pages was this line: “The King Arthur overtook her a false lady and sorceress, and with the same sword he smite off her head, and the Lady of the Lake took up her head and hung it up by the hair to her saddle-bow.” THAT is pretty damn awesome, but it’s also just one line out of all those 200 pages, and it made me long for a Lady of the Lake story, not more and more of these knights smacking each other around and talking about how knightly and courtly they are because they are big strong men who can politely knock another guy off a horse.

I am so wonderfully wroth at this book that I’m about to come at all of these damn knights like thunder and smote them down with their own damn lances. (PS. If I never see the words “wroth”, “smote”, or “came together like thunder” again, it will be too soon.) Seriously, don’t these guys have anything better to do than run around the forests or hang out a bridges and joust with each other? Isn’t there farming or something to be done? Anything? Please? I mean, I’ll read about the wheat in the fields at this point.

Did I also mention that it’s over 900 pages? Well, it is, and apparently this is the SHORT version. The other version is in like three volumes or something. Since it’s getting the point that I’m starting to hate Arthur and his knights, I need to just put in the towel and read something — anything — else for a while.

Right now, I’m really looking forward to rereading Simon Armitag’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, because I need something to remind me why I used to love Arthurian stories so much.

4. The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey, by Ernesto “Che” Guevera (***1/2)
As a young man, Che Guevara and friend Alberto Granado decided to travel by motor cycle from Buenos Aires, Argentina, up through Chile to the United States. They manage on the bike for a while, then on foot and hitching, all the while surviving on the good will of others for sustenance. They work a bit, visit several leprosy clinics, and witness quite a bit of poverty along the way.

Che’s travel diary if this trips shows his young man’s point of view. It’s honest and frank and often quite funny. It also hints at the beginnings of his revolutionary spirit, which would eventually lead him to joining the revolution with Fidel Castro in Cuba and would eventually make him a worldwide symbol of that same revolutionary spirit.

5. Dying is My Business, by Nicolas Kaufmann (*****)
Discussed elsewhere.

6. A Passage to India (audio book), by E.M. Forster (***1/2)
In brief: When Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested travel to India, they hope to seek out the real India. Mrs. Moore makes friends with an Indian doctor Aziz. In an effort to show the two women hospitality, Aziz takes them on a journey to visit some local caves, which results in Miss Quested accusing Aziz of attacking her.

The fascinating thing about this novel is how Forster shows racism as systematic. The British come to India with the best of intentions, with the aim of treating everyone with respect and politeness, if not complete equality. But as they spend more time in the country, the pressures of white society slowly molds them into that racism in order to fit in with the “right kind” of people.

Forster presents the points of view of many people, including Aziz, the two women he befriends, and many others both white and Indian alike. He presents a each character as complex, with varying and contradicting thoughts and desires housed in entirely one body, and most everyone came off as sympathetic in one degree or another.

I think he did fairly well with the Indian characters and their culture, though I suspect that even as he was making them interesting and sympathetic, he also accidentally slipped in stereotypes and misunderstandings.

A Room with a View is one of my favorite books ever, but this one was more hit and miss. I did not love A Passage to India nearly as much, but it was enjoyable and interesting. I’d say it’s a toss up.

7. A Bend In The River, by V.S. Naipaul (***1/2)
When faced with potential calamity in his hometown on the East Coast of Africa, an Indian man uproots his existence and travels to a remote African village situated at the bend in the river. There he becomes a shop keeper and over the course of many years weathers the tides of poverty, prosperity, and political fluctuation that affect the town.

The story is the kind of life is lifelike tales in which a character sits at the center of events without having much impact on them. The main character is thoughtful and pondering. He contemplates the life he’s chosen, the shifting political poles, and his personal interactions with a kind of emotional distance.

I’d say this book was good, interesting, and worth a read, but it’s not one that drew any passion from me either for the language or the story.

8. Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell (****)
Discussed elsewhere.

9. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation, by anonymous, translated by Simon Armitage (****)
During holiday festivities in King Arthur’s court, a mysterious green knight appears with a challenge: any knight of Arthur’s court may strike the green knight a blow, and the green knight will return the strike in a year’s time. The only knight brave enough to face the challenge is young Gawain, who indeed strikes the green knight, chopping off his head. Unperturbed, the green knight picks up his head and tells Gawain to find him in a year’s time in order to receive the return blow.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written by an unknown fourteenth-century poet, is my favorite of the classic Arthurian tales (so far). The story is vivid and full of gorgeous contrasts, love and death and trust and renewal. The story unfolds with good pacing and entertaining adventures with true courtly manners, all without being redundant or dull (as some unnamed fourteenth-century Arthurian romances can be).

Armitage’s translation from the Middle English focuses on the alliterative and poetic structure of the original, rather than being a literal translation. The Middle English version appears on the left hand page with the Modern version on the right, so the reader can compare and see the differences. For the most part his version is surprisingly readable with beautiful phrases and imagery, though in some cases it strays into being a bit too modern (at one point Arthur is described as “keeping his cool”), which can be jarring. My second reading was just as enjoyable as the first, and I would love to add it to my library.

However, since Arimitage’s is only the only translation I’ve read, I’m very curious about trying a more literal translation. Apparently, even J.R.R. Tolkien did a translation, and I’d love to read that.

For audio book lovers, I highly recommend the audio version of Armitage’s translation, which is read by Bill Wallis. He does an amazing job highlighting the alliterative aspects of the text, while making it easy to follow. Once the Modern English translation is finished, Wallis then does an amazing reading of the original Middle English version of the book. It’s amazing to hear and I found myself understanding more than I thought I would. Fantastic.

10. Domestic Work: Poems, by Natasha Trethewey (****)
Trethewey’s collection of poems draws on history, bringing the the past to the present. Inspired by old photographs and bits of her family history, she writes lovely narrative poems that capture a moment, illustrating the twirl of a women’s skirt of a perfect nostalgic moment. Fantastic collection.


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