Deliverance by James Dickey – a book review

DeliveranceDeliverance by James Dickey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an amazing book! It took me completely by surprise and, without belaboring the point, it can be read as an extended metaphor for the most difficult, life-changing challenges of our lives. (Yes, I’m talking about metastatic cancer.)

I’ve seen the movie, which was an adventure-thriller adaptation of James Dickey’s book. But James Dickey‘s book is not an adventure-thriller, not in that sense. It is much, much more.

James Dickey was not only a prose author; he was also a poet. In fact, he was perhaps better known as a poet, having been a Poet Laureate Consultant to the (US) Library of Congress, among other honors, and he finished his life as a professor of English at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, where he was also poet-in-residence.

The soul of a poet sings through the prose of Deliverance. The descriptions of the river, the trees, the people and the protagonist’s inner landscape are both closely observed and stunningly rendered. The sentences are simple, the vocabulary accessible, yet the writing soars and lifts the reader with it.

Four middle-class suburban guys who like to hang out together decide to go whitewater rafting in an all-but-inaccessible part of Georgia and terrible things happen. The environment–natural and human– is trying to kill them. They have to react, they have to save their own lives and escape. At what cost?

Four men enter, three men leave. All three survivors are badly injured and at least one is profoundly changed. He is Ed Gentry, vice-president of a small advertising agency. (Dickey worked in advertising early in his career.) The story starts slowly, gently, as befits a legend of the South. We meet the men, and especially get to know Ed: his work, his wife, his son, his personal history. We start to see how his life is ordered, how he thinks, how he experiences the world.

We experience this journey through Ed’s eyes and through his soul. We become intimate with his loves and his terrors. We share his wonder at his own mental and physical abilities. We become one with him as he faces the challenge of his life and its aftermath.

Forget about the movie. Read this book!

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A Painted House by John Grisham

A Painted HouseA Painted House by John Grisham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a legal thriller, which I think is a departure for Grisham. The novel, reportedly inspired by his own childhood, takes place in Arkansas in 1952. (Of note, Grisham (like me) was born in 1955.) The story is narrated by Luke Chandler, a seven-year-old boy, the son of tenant cotton farmers. He wonderfully evokes rural 1952: inter-church baseball games (Baptists against Methodists), church sermons, the traveling carnival – but most of all the social strata and relationships. I don’t remember how insightful I was at seven, but sometimes Luke’s comments seem more like those of a young teen. Maybe kids who get off school to pick the cotton mature faster, though.

The story revolves around the relationships, liaisons and quarrels among Luke’s family (tenant farmers), a family of sharecroppers whose teenage daughter is pregnant by Luke’s young uncle, and the itinerant “hands” who camp out on the farm for a few weeks during the picking season: a family of “hill people” from the Ozarks and a work gang of Mexicans brought in by truck. With the impunity of childhood, Luke moves freely among these groups and sees much.

I listened to a recording of A Painted House with narration by Peter Marinker. His reading was too breathy for my taste, but the story was so gripping that it didn’t matter.

My recommendation: Excellent. Definitely worth a read or listen.

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In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta A. Ahmed

In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi KingdomIn the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom by Qanta A. Ahmed

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The writing ranges from indifferent to awkward, but that is not the only reason I rate this books as merely “ok”. It had the potential to be so much more than it is.

Dr. Qanta A. Ahmed is capable of close observation–no critical care physician can lack this ability–and some of her descriptions are very closely observed, indeed. It is a shame that these are mostly limited to the physical appearance of the people she meets and of their clothing, homes and cars.

Yet we cannot call Ahmed shallow because the religious experience she underwent in the Kingdom was clearly deeply felt. I am disappointed that she did not spend more time exploring it and less time looking for well-worn metaphors to describe it.

The main problem with In the Land of Invisible Women, in my opinion, is that it never quite seems to decide what kind of book it is. Is it the description of the author’s religious itinerary? Then why leave that almost exclusively to the section on her Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca)? Is it the story of a Western-trained double-boarded physician who happens to be a woman practicing in the very different and restrictive conditions experienced by female physicians in the Kingdom? Then tell us more about that.

Is this a book about Saudi culture? Then spend less time on describing cars, jewelry and clothing and more time on behavior, attitudes, laws and social expectations. Is it a book about the history of Wahabi extremism in Saudia? Then write it as a history and don’t try to squeeze it in as background in artificial-sounding conversations.

The main problem I found with this book is its lack of focus. There is so much potential here for a riveting memoir or a fascinating analysis. Ahmed sold herself short by taking the easy way out.

This book will be particularly interesting to people with little or no knowledge of Islam, people who don’t know many Muslims. Think of it as a long, chatty letter from the friend of a friend and you won’t be as disappointed as I was.

Not a bad book, just not as good as it might have been.

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Pontius Pilate by Ann Wroe

Pontius PilatePontius Pilate by Ann Wroe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Saint Pontius Pilate? Ever since I learned that Pilate is venerated as a saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the figure of Pilate has intrigued me. On the one hand, bad man! Bad, bad man! On the other – wait a minute. Wasn’t he a key figure in the working out of our salvation? After all, he sent Jesus to the cross, where in one explosive moment zenith became nadir became zenith, where the suffering and exhausted “it is finished” became words of triumph.

So it was with great curiosity and excitement that I approached Ann Wroe’s Pontius Pilate. I was not disappointed.

Painstakingly researched and brilliantly imagined, Pontius Pilate combines everything that is best in historiography and historical fiction. Wroe presents several Pilates, each portrait exquisitely drawn and consistent with the research… and each portrait amazingly different from the others.

I guess I’d classify this book as speculative history. It is history through a prism, rather than a microscope.

I reread Pontius Pilate every year at Lent. It has yet to disappoint me or seem old and tired.

Highly recommended to anyone looking for an intelligent, fluid read that will invite you into a world only superficially similar to our own.

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Bathing Elephants by Leela Devi Panikar

Bathing Elephants by Leela Devi Panikar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is Leela Devi Panikar’s second short story anthology. Her first, Floating Petals, was published by NanaDon in 2007. Leela says about that first collection:

You can sit by a river all day long just to watch what the current carries past. Depending on the day and where you live, it could be small boats with fisherman, young children on inner tubes, paper lanterns lit by candles, or bodies. And the only thing they will have in common is the river itself. The same is true of these stories. They range from a first day at school, to running away from home, to the breaking of feet, to the death of a husband still alive. And all they have in common is me, and what flowed through my mind on the days I wrote them. (From the back cover.)

In the same way, all the six stories in Bathing Elephants have in common is the close observation and evocative prose of their author. And that is enough. The stories are longer and broader than in the first collection, emotional and resonant, yet timeless in their recreation of human stories, human emotions. It isn’t enough to read them just once.

My recommendation: Excellent. Read them both.

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The Fault in Our Stars: a review

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a sharp, snarky, funny, intelligent, philosophical coming of age story with a bitter twist. The three teenagers at its center–one who has to go everywhere with her oxygen tank in tow, one whose leg was amputated, and one who lost an eye–all live with advanced cancer.

Yep. It’s a funny story about kids with cancer.

It’s also touching and inspirational, but not in that sappy made-for-television movie way. The kids use wry humor to deal with their deforming, crippling disease. I get it: that is how I deal with my own metastatic cancer.

There is love interest, there are plans and schemes, there is rebellion and disobedience, there are parents to rely on and outwit, there are doctors and nurses, there is the secret language of people living with cancer. (Trudging up the stairs to the support group with oxygen tank in tow because taking the elevator is too “last days”, or asking their peers if they “go to school” as a way of finding out how advanced their disease is because being taken out of school is a sign that you don’t have much longer to live, for example.)

Hazel, Isaac and Augustus are intelligent and creative, they love to read and to play video games. They indulge the adults who don’t know how to help them (or themselves) feel better. They have wishes and dreams, and they are also realistic about what can be achieved.

I loved The Fault in Our Stars, a life-affirming book. I have advanced cancer and I have been a teenager, but never both at the same time. If I had had the misfortune to be a teenager with advanced cancer, I think I would have been a lot like Hazel. I hope I would have.

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Shūsaku Endō’s Silence: a book review

SilenceSilence by Shūsaku Endō

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Luminous. Numinous.

Set in a distant time and place, Silence reached into my bosom and held my heart, sometimes with a caress, sometimes with a cruel and brutal grip.

This account of Jesuit missionaries in Japan at a time when Christians were persecuted is a narrative of events, but even more it is a story of people: of heroism and cowardice, of commitment to a truth greater than oneself and of callow self-interest.

Not for the faint of heart, but definitely recommended as a serious work of philosophical fiction.

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The Road – latest addition to my Books in Brief page

I recently finished listening to The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for this book in 2007. The audio book was published in 2006 by Recorded Books, and in 2009 a film was made, starring Viggo Mortensen as “the man” and Kodi Smit-McPhee as “the boy”.

Where do I begin?

A compelling story that drew me in from the beginning. I never did figure out what happened to leave the earth scorched and devastated and turn the USA into a barren wilderness where people live alone or in tiny groups, many preying on one another to survive. It didn’t matter. A few dream sequences notwithstanding, the book is an extended present moment. It drew me into what is, not what was or will be.

This is not an easy book, not a “good” book; it is not at all pleasant to read. I think it is a great book, a book destined to become a classic. The prose echos the rhythm of the walking, walking, walking, punctuated by moments of extreme emotion: terror, tenderness, rage, delight. The descriptions are concrete and the dialogue terse, reflecting the cold, spare post-apocalyptic landscape through which the man and the boy are walking.

What is the story about? On one level it’s about survival, the kind of survival that means looking for food and shelter and safety from predators. It’s about a powerful relationship between father and son, built on love expressed in deeds. It’s about good guys and bad guys and carrying the fire. And, banal as it may sound, it’s about undying hope.

The Road is an incredible book, beyond my abilities to describe. Read it.


My thoughts about other books I’ve been reading or listening to are on my Books in Brief page. 

“With age comes wisdom”

I received this book for my birthday and just started reading. It looks like it will be lively, interesting, informative and provocative.

From my initial skimming, it looks like Goldberg defines wisdom as the intuitive and effective application of pattern recognition to decision making and he argues that this is an ability that develops later in life. (Which only makes sense. It takes time and multiple exposures to be able to recognize patterns.)

Neuropsychology is one of those fields that have really taken off in recent years but barely existed when I was in university. I’m looking forward to learning more about this approach to the human experience.

For the interested, a few links that I’ve been exploring preparatory to reading the book:

Elkhonon Goldberg (Wikipedia article)

Goldberg’s home page

Goldberg’s CV (from his home page)

Are you familiar with this book or the author? What do you think about it?