Review of Jayber Crow

Image result for jayber crow wendell berryWhat was it about?

Jayber Crow, the barber of Port William, Kentucky, tells the story of his life. Orphaned twice as a child, Jayber spent most of his childhood in a strict Christian orphanage called The Good Shepherd outside of his birth town. Jayber started seminary because he thought he was called to be a minister, but he soon realized that he didn’t entirely believe what the elders taught him about the Bible. After quitting seminary, Jayber returned to Port William and was given a barbershop to live in and run. Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry is the story of a melancholy barber living in small-town America during most of the 20th century. This is a novel about an obscure man living in an obscure town.

What did I think of it?

I lived in Kentucky for six years. I grew up in a suburban family in the North. In Kentucky, people don’t say that they come from X city. They say instead that they come from X county. When you live in Kentucky, you encounter a demographic in America that is often overlooked by the Media. Besides horses and bourbon, the state is known for its coal mining, corrupt politicians, and poverty. Kentucky was quite different from where I grew up. Now that I don’t live in Kentucky anymore, I am constantly on the lookout for books that remind me of that state.

Wendell Berry is to Kentucky what Harper Lee is to Alabama. His works celebrate the culture of Kentucky and describe the occupations of its citizens. They speak to the joys and concerns of some of the least acknowledged people in our nation. As a result, Kentuckians love Wendell Berry. Kentucky bookstores proudly display his books, and some have shelves dedicated entirely to Wendell Berry. He is a novelist, an essayist, a short story writer, a poet, and an environmentalist. Despite having written over 40 books, Berry is little known outside of his home state. The typical Barnes & Noble might carry one or two books by Berry.

While reading Jayber Crow, I felt like I was back in Kentucky. The title character and narrator is a child during WWI, a young man during WWII, and an ageing man during the Korean and Vietnam wars. The fictional town of Port William witnesses the rise of global capitalism and the replacement of small farms by large agro-businesses. Jayber Crow learns much about life from the people he meets and the jobs he performs. He desires what he can’t have, but he is often surprised by unexpected blessings. While Wendell Berry’s novel can sometimes be too sentimental with its lyrical, philosophy-rich prose, I felt profoundly for the narrator. I was frequently moved by his reflections. If you enjoy the writings of Willa Cather and (especially) Marilynne Robinson, I highly recommend Jayber Crow. Wendell Berry is an author who deserves wider recognition.

Favorite Quotes

“The mercy of the world is time. Time does not stop for love, but it does not stop for death and grief, either.”

“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.”

“It is not a terrible thing to love the world, knowing that the world is always passing and irrecoverable, to be known only in loss. To love anything good, at any cost, is a bargain.”

Review of Lord Jim

Image result for lord jim coversWhat was it about?

As first mate, Lord Jim abandons a sinking ship with 800 passengers on board. After being publicly disgraced for his cowardice, he meets Marlow who offers Jim a fresh start working for a friend. But Jim’s wounded ego is not easily healed. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad is one man’s quest to make peace with his past. The novel explores cowardice and guilt as well as the motivations behind British imperialism.

What did I think of it?

Joseph Conrad doesn’t have a rosy reputation today. His most famous novel Heart of Darkness has been condemned by authors like Chinua Achebe for its racism and imperialism. Despite his reputation, I decided to read Lord Jim because it is one of the few works of fiction in the English language that explores the psychological effect of guilt. The premise intrigued me.

Conrad writes some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. Rich imagery and psychologically-complex characters fill the pages of this novel. Jim’s story is told from the perspective of all the men and women Marlow met on his travels. Because the narrator is not omniscient, the reader can never know for sure what Jim felt and thought. Lord Jim is cited as one of the first psychological novels in the English language.

Jim’s character resonated with me. He has difficulty taking responsibility for his cowardice. He doesn’t want to be seen as a coward, so he invents a story to explain why he jumped. Jim desires Marlow’s affirmation, whatever the cost. Most novels look at guilt from the perspective of the victim, but this novel looks at the effect of guilt on the guilty. How do the guilty deal with their past? How should they cope? The second part of the book follows Jim’s adventures on a Malaysian island. The White Man’s Burden theme is balanced by a not entirely positive portrayal of British imperialism. Lord Jim may not bear well under post-colonial scrutiny, but it is a brilliant study of personal guilt. Conrad intended for Jim to represent all of humanity. In that regard, Lord Jim is a good companion to Moby-Dick.

Favorite Quote

“We wander in our thousands over the face of the earth, the illustrious and the obscure, earning beyond the seas our fame, our money, or only a crust of bread; but it seems to me that for each of us going home must be like going to render an account. We return to face our superiors, our kindred, our friends- those whom we obey, and those whom we love, but even they who have neither, the most free, lonely, irresponsible and bereft of ties,- even those for whom home holds no dear face, no familiar voice, even they have to meet the spirit that dwells within the land, under its sky, in its air, in its valleys, and on its rises, in its fields, in its waters and its trees- a mute friend, judge, and inspirer. Say what you like, to get its joy, to breathe its peace, to face its truth, one must return with a clear consciousness.”

Review of Lincoln in the Bardo

What was it about? 

Image result for lincoln in the bardoWillie Lincoln, the 10 year old son of President Abraham Lincoln, has died. But while in the Bardo (a limbo-like state), Willie’s soul attempts to make contact with the boy’s living father. Two ghosts named Roger Bevins III (a closeted gay man who committed suicide) and Hans Vollman (a newlywed who died while lusting after his wife) narrate most of the story. They think they are only sick, so they refer to the coffin as a sick box. Bevins and Vollman have made it their mission to reconcile Willie with his father. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is experimental fiction that explores love, death, guilt, and war through the eyes of eccentric ghosts. Passages from the writings of Lincoln’s contemporaries are combined with the observations of outrageous-looking ghosts to illustrate one of the most intimate and tragic events in President Lincoln’s personal life.

What did I think of it?

If you have been following my blog for any length of time you know that I am a sucker for experimental fiction that explores large existential questions. After all the hype surrounding this novel, I expected Lincoln in the Bardo to become one of my favorite books of 2017. Unfortunately, it did not live up to my expectations. An experimental narrative structure can help or hurt a story. It is usually employed to explore more abstract aspects of life. When evaluating experimental fiction, I consider how the style relates to the questions or themes the novel is addressing. Lincoln in the Bardo is about one of the darkest moments in President Lincoln’s life: the death of his son Willie. The chapters that deal with Lincoln’s grief were some of my favorite chapters. I enjoyed reading Lincoln’s most intimate thoughts. The passages from contemporary writers were also quite powerful because they placed the boy’s death in the larger context of the ongoing civil war. Seen from the perspective of the civil war, Willie’s death allowed President Lincoln to experience what thousands of parents around the country were already experiencing. Unfortunately, the Bardo itself felt like a distraction from the overall story. The ghosts reminded me of the monsters in Nightmare Before Christmas. As someone who has had personal experience with the death of a child, I expected the novel to cause me to revisit certain thoughts and events. The outrageous and at times vulgar behavior of the ghosts prevented me from feeling for Lincoln’s loss. Just when the ghosts began to discuss larger existential questions, the dialogue would be interrupted by an event that had nothing whatever to do with President Lincoln or Willie. If the Bardo was supposed to serve as comic relief, it was definitely overdone. Overall, I felt that Lincoln in the Bardo was all style and little substance.

Maybe it’s not entirely the book’s fault. I picked up the novel for very personal reasons. I may not have been the intended audience. I’m interested in knowing how other readers who know something about Lincoln’s grief felt about Lincoln in the Bardo. In general, I want to know what readers thought of the ghosts. What role do you think they played in the novel? Did you enjoy the narrative style?

Favorite Quote

“What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.”