Monday, January 5, 2009

Back from Break

I've just returned from Cancun (it was lovely, thank you). Sorry to leave you contentless for a week, faithful readers, but even bloggers need a break sometimes.

There's so much to catch up on -- Al Franken about to become the certified winner of the Minnesota Senate election, Rod Blagojevich appointing a Senator for Illinois, the withdrawal of an Obama cabinet pick -- but just being back from vacation, today I get to write about books. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

David Lodge, author of humorous novels, mostly about professors (something I always enjoy), has the characters in one of his books play a game called "humiliation," in which the players each name a classic work of literature that they haven't read, and the winner is the one whose admission is the most humiliating. Well, I've missed a good chance to win, because until I went on vacation last week, I had never read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Boy, that was great. It's not one of those once-great classics that now seems turgid and boring. And it doesn't even take a long time to get going. The oustanding writing leaps out at you practically from the first page.

It's true that the main action of the story might be different if the book were written today. Somehow I don't think current writers would hold up Atticus Finch as the great hero because he was a white man who worked to achieve justice for a black man. Today Finch would be black himself, and the story would be about black self-empowerment rather than about the one, great white man who worked for racial justice.

But the book is still fabulous for its portrait of rural Southern life, in a community where everyone knows everyone else, where each family stands for something particular, and where your worth is measured by how long your family has lived on the same plot of land. It's a fascinating cultural tapestry.

My other read last week, coincidentally, also deals with a great white man helping another community, and also presenting fascinating insights into a different culture, only this was Three Cups of Tea, the true tale of Greg Mortenson, who got lost on his way down from K2 in Pakistan, was saved when he wandered into a rural village, and ended up dedicating his life to building schools for rural Pakistani villages that don't have any. Not as well written as To Kill a Mockingbird (well, that's a pretty tough standard), but definitely worth reading. If you've ever wondered what difference one person (you, for example) could make by really dedicating your life to a cause, this book will show you. Also fascinating for its story of how Mortenson succeeded in achieving his goals by adapting his work to the local culture. If the U.S. government, say, tasked itself with building schools in rural Pakistan, I think it would almost surely fail, because it would try to do everything the all-American way and wouldn't be sensitive to cultural differences. Mortenson makes some important changes from Pakistani traditions -- most notably, his schools are for all children, including girls, and they also are a sharp contrast to religious madrassas -- but he works through local people and local culture and provides schools that can be culturally accepted by Pakistanis.

So two great books for you, faithful readers. Back to regular business tomorrow.

No comments: