Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"...No Time for That, Gussman:" Book Report 2016, Fiction


Lt. Col. Scott Perry, Blackhawk Pilot, Battalion Commander, in Iraq, 2009

In December of 2009 Scott Perry, my battalion commander, burst into my office in his headquarters.  He was sending me on a mission the next day. When he finished the instructions he gave me, he looked down and saw a copy of "Aeneid" on my desk. We had a brief exchange that shows why fiction dropped from its high place in the world to its niche place in the busy, media-saturated world of the 21st Century.

"I've got no time for that Gussman," Perry said. "I've got so much to read, I just don't read fiction."

I knew that night the officers were having a movie night. So I asked him, "Which documentary are you watching tonight?"

"Documentary?" he said. "What are you talking about. We're watching Godfather, Part 2."

"You mean you watch fiction, you just don't read it."

"Shut up Gussman. Be on the ramp tomorrow at Zero Seven."

Most people stop reading fiction with the last book they were assigned in school, whether that was high school or college.  Fifty or more years ago, fiction writing provided entertainment for many people, but it movies, TV and digital games are eating away at the place of fiction in the world of entertainment.

But not on my booklist.  The category I will comment on for this post includes 15 of the 50 books I read last year. Although, 14 of the 15 books I listed in the "War" category are fiction and 3 of the 6 "Faith" books are fiction.  So really, 32 of 50 books, or 2 out of 3, are fiction.

Just to stay with the numbers, 10 of the 15 in this category were written in Russian or by a Russian-born author in English, so I have lately been more than a little obsessed with Russia and Russian literature.

My favorite story on this list "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Leo Tolstoy should have been on the Faith list, at least for its effect on me.

This wrenching story begins with the announcement "Ivan Ilych is dead" then moves back to the time just before Ilych becomes fatally ill. As fiction the story is wonderfully told. As faith literature, it says a life devoted to material gain is pathetic. But many stories say that. The real beauty is in the character of Ivan Ilych's servant Gerasim. The good man Gerasim cares for his master while Ivan's wife and daughter go on with their lives and Ivan's friends go on with theirs.  Then there is the final agony Ivan suffers going from this life to the next.  From the first time I read this, I felt I could understand how suffering could be used for good and why we humans are never allowed to see beyond this life.

Another view of the spiritual life was Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.  This fast moving story follows the main character from the day he defied his father, denied his fortune and struck out on his own, through many adventures, poverty, riches, deep love, self loathing and finally throwing off materialism.  I could have put this book in the Faith category also, but it was more of an adventure that happened to be concerned with the spiritual, than a spiritual journey that was an adventure--as was Narcissus and Goldmund.

Early in the year I read Lolita. I had never read a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, only essays.  The story is obsession from beginning to end, played out in kidnapping, murder and a wretched end for the protagonist.  It is beautifully written and in its own way as creepy as a horror novel.

Hamlet is my Shakespeare for 2016.  I can't remember how many times I have read, seen and listened to this play.  Ophelia's death hurts every time; the slaughter at the end never bothers me the same way.  But my favorite scene is the speech to the skull, "...alas poor Yurick...."

Turning to Russia, is the beautiful novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, which is where I will begin next post.

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