Can We Tolerate Clean Reads?

I’ve been an active member of Goodreads for several years now. I find it helpful for tracking books and finding more books and talking books and meeting book reading book lovers. Recently as I indulged my love of book reviews (both there and on Amazon), I have begun to sense a trend which I hope gets swallowed up in some other better trend. Not a worse trend, oh dear heavens, we don’t need anymore of those! It’s as if these days some sort of Bulk Discount Bin of Worse Trends had been upended over the continental United States!

The scenario is this: a new book comes out, or people rediscover an older book. The author may be heavily involved promoting it. Readers are enjoying discussing it. Then someone asks, quite innocently, “Is the book clean?” The author herself, and several other people who suddenly revert to their Mr. Edward Hyde personas, jump all over the very idea. They make fun of the questioner’s ‘purity’, calling such questions sheer vanity, useless, censorship, outdated, outrageous, not worthy of a response, that entire family deserves horrible Medieval ends, and much, much worse.

What is the word for the overreaction of a system to an otherwise perfectly normal and harmless irritant? An allergy attack? Antihistamine overdrive? Anaphylactic shock? Aren’t we trying to cure that sort of thing?

Because the question, while vague, has its purposes. There are growing numbers of people who acknowledge that much of our mainstream culture is slithering happily into the sewers of the world, and they don’t want to go with it. They may want to shield children. They may have sensitive history that makes them want to avoid sexual assault scenes in their reading. They may want to read about real problem solving and hopeful perspectives rather than gratuitous violence and nihilism. And why not? If a history museum fan wants to read about history, why not? I could even argue, with a bad taste in my mouth, that if a reader of gore and mayhem wants that, they need to be able to make their choice. But I ask this: if the history fan starts talking history, that’s not nearly the issue of a gore fan wanting to talk gore. And believe me, they often do. It works into every conversation. Ever have someone who wouldn’t shut up about the ‘Saw’ movies while at a picnic? Yeah. So why interfere with someone who is looking for ‘clean reads’? What’s this about choice? What did you just say about tolerance? Ok then.

The term ‘clean reads’ is vague, yes. It means various levels of clean to various people. It might mean absolutely no reference to sexual scenes, or it may mean a fade-to-black kind of approach to sex scenes. It may allow for a few of the milder swear words, or it may not. It may want to avoid the everything-is-the-same-so-nothing-really-matters philosophy that infuses so much literature with a kind of pre-soviet psychological grooming that leads to State control of culture and thought. But is it so hard to just ask: “What do you mean by ‘clean’?”

Can we suspend rash judgement anymore? Can we ask for clarification? Can we discuss?

The defensive maneuvers of those who cry- or shriek- censorship reminds me of Shakespeare: “Methinks he doth protest too much”. Censorship? Where were the cries of censorship when the publishers demanded changes? Where were the cries of outdated when the book refers to older literature forms? Why this pretense at moral superiority while trying to skewer the morality of another? Hypocrite much?

Thankfully, when I see these attacks, I am also seeing more and more responses of other bystanders who step forward and defend the simple question. Most simply see clean choices as that- choices. We all must discriminate or we would be required by circumstances to read all books in the world. Really! Just think about it: you have no choice. You can not pick one book over another. You must read them ALL.

Or: you must read the ones we demand you read. You are especially not allowed to read those ones over there.

Both are pretty ridiculous. One has been attempted at various times throughout the history of the world. (Hint: it’s the second one)

Why does this mean anything to me? because I have my own set of standards (LIKE EVERY OTHER READER) and mine happen to lean towards ‘clean’. How I define it can shift as I change as a person, because no one is still reading the books they read in first grade, or college, and only those. We all change. Nevertheless, my tendency towards ‘clean’ has stayed roughly about the same. Why do I choose that? Here’s why:

  1. I’m so tired of the sex scenes. They feel like this: the author is getting off on their own writing, and making me a voyeur; the spread of pornography with its attendant addiction, abuse, and cultural decline means we should be preventing it, not spreading it like verbal plague; and after avearge sex scenes become inadequate for an author, their readers, or their publishers, just how far are we going to go into the mire for that next fleeting jaded arousal? Or is that just a repeat of the addiction argument?
  2. I’m tired of the gore. So much of it feels, well, canned. Like extra juicy spam. You open it, it slops out, and you say, “Oh, cool! Gimme more!” Like movies that have jettisoned story for CGI gimmicks, many books have lost story for the sake of look-at-my-anatomy-research. It falls in a camp very close to just plain look-at-my-anatomy.
  3. The despair and intensity have become comical. Intense story telling that grabs you with the first paragraph and then demands your attention is an insecure kind of verbal assault. Not only does it get far too manipulative, but it’s like the guy who grabs your shirt as you try to end a conversation and he gets so in your face that you feel his spit on your cheek. He’s like “You see?? You know what I mean? Anyone who thinks differently is an idiot!!” And you just want to go have a life with not-this-man in it. Or at least, let-him-keep-some-distance.
  4. I think we’ve lost something when we lose the setting and descriptive abilities of past generations of writers. Plot heavy is more an aesthetic taste, but it often comes entangled in gore and explicit scenes of all types because so many of our generation have grown up with TV…or less than TV…I’m looking at you, video games. What if I find your ability to describe a woman’s anatomy a misplaced description when I have vague ideas of your setting?

Admittedly, that last point is not so much a moral point but it is affected by the others. So while I avoid certain kinds of books, I know everyone else avoid other kinds. I know there are books I think everyone should read, but I’m not going to get their cooperation with social pressure that involves humiliation, threats, and grotesqueries of verbal outrage. That’s not how I operate, anyway.

When people yell “JUST READ THE %^&$ BOOK!!” I wonder if they would also scream at me to “Just eat the cowpie we pried up out of this farmyard tire rut!” Because not all reading is the same, not all books have the same value, and actually, yes, what I read really needs to be as clean as the food that goes into my body. It needs to be good and clean, as wholesome as possible, and something my mind can use to build good thinking skills, healthy mind sets, and a hopefully long life of happiness and appreciation of beauty.

That doesn’t mean we never use our writing skills to address dark issues within our human experience, no, of course not. We can write about anything and still retain our humanity. Otherwise we risk descending to the level of predators or pushers who demand government support for their attempts to groom others into their hideous world. No thanks.

Not all books are the same. I repeat that. We’re not talking binary data streams here, we are talking the thoughts that influence actions which shape the character that builds or destroys civilizations. Yeah, many of those thoughts come from books. Read a book and just try not to think about it. I dare ya!

Story telling

I have been missing in action from my own blog because while I enjoy it, I really must have a certain amount of energy to enjoy it. Life has a way of challenging a person, especially a mom, and between the holidays and the needs of teens (WHY do people think that teens are somehow ‘done’ by the age of 15? Like consumable baked goods??), I have been a very tired blogger. So here is my chance.

One of the things that gets my attention is book reviews. I loved reading them in the newspaper, when we used to get a newspaper. I love them on Goodreads. I love them elsewhere, like that other behemoth that recently bought Goodreads. Recently I’ve observed what I consider a total misunderstanding of the idea that a writer should ‘show, not tell’. We hear this from 5th grade on through adult life. It really is a good method of writing. But sometimes, telling a story has its own merits as just that: a spinning out of a yarn, a flowing monologue of memory, a passing of oral heritage from one person to another. Just telling the story can be a fine and blessed experience.

In the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” this is exactly what happens. An old woman relates stories from her youth to the woman who visits her. Meanwhile, the second woman goes on with her own life in between visits and what develops is what is called a story within a story. This is one of my favorite ways of story telling. This is seen in a children’s book I recently read: “An Elephant in the Garden” by Michael Morpurgo. It’s very similar in that an elderly woman in a care home tells a boy and his mother her amazing experiences as a teen during the bombing of Dresden in WWII. There are two stories going on, although the story of the ‘here and now’ is not as heavily developed as the story of her memories. I enjoyed the story and my daughter and I enjoy discussing it. Next time it comes up, I’ll have to tell her that some reviewers gave the book bad vibes over this element. Reviewers had no patience, it seems, for the most original form of narrative- that of simply telling a story. I found it rich, compassionate, lively, and timeless. Of course, many people saw this in the same way I did. But I wondered about this demand for rules I thought I was seeing. Sure, we’re supposed to ‘show, not tell’. But we also have to fill the need for the way each story speaks to us. Rules exist for many reasons, and one of those is so that we can break them!

I have started reading Wendell Berry’s novel “Hannah Coulter“. I’ve read several of his non fiction essay books. This is my first try at his fiction. I peeked at some of the reviews online, and there it was again: a bit of a lecture that Berry needs to follow the mantra to ‘show, don’t tell’. What is this? Public school? Have our minds contracted this far?

The book is glorious. It is rich, gentle, and its tells its story. It feels as if I were sitting on an old lady’s porch watching the summer day drift by as she rolled word after word, sentence after sentence, off her tongue. It has been a beginning of what I hope will continue to be a wonderful reading experience.  A book like this shows that you really can tell.

Now back to baking Christmas cookies and trying a no-yeast bread stick recipe. Glorious Christmas wishes and more to all my readers!

Book review: Life is a Miracle

It’s been a while since I posted. I want to do creative writing, but haven’t had enough creative urge. I was tempted to add another older write of mine on here, and I will get to that eventually. But I took down a book from the shelf this morning and started reading through just for the parts I had underlined. This can be a real relief when a person wants to read but can’t focus at the moment. The book is Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle: an essay against modern superstition. Here’s the cover:

Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition

Here are some of the extensive underlinings I wandered through as I revisited this book:

“To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it.”

“To trust “progress” or our putative “genius” to solve all the problems that we cause is worse than bad science; it is bad religion.”

“For things cannot survive as categories but only as individual creatures living uniquely where they live.”

“The hard and binding requirement that freedom must answer, if it is to last, or if in any meaningful sense it is to exist, is that of responsibility.”

“One cannot, in honesty, propose to reconcile Heaven and Earth by denying the existence of Heaven.”

“We should abandon the idea that this world and our human life in it can be brought by science to some sort of mechanical perfection or predictability.”

“Resist classification.”

“An idea of health that does not generously and gracefully accommodate the fact of death is obviously incomplete.”

And those are the short ones. I have plenty of paragraphs marked all the way through as well. Berry is either a naturalist poet or a poetic naturalist. He uses reason without ignoring emotion and in fact embraces emotion as part of the overall compass we use to navigate through life. I rarely hear this kind of respect towards listeners or readers from environmentalists or scientific minds. Berry is organic. He has a well rounded completeness to him that I don’t observe in many people engaged in the large public discourses over humanity, Earth, the individual, and freedom and responsibility. Berry also does not try and define my life by his rules. This alone makes me want to cry just from relief.

In conclusion, this is a fantastic book, one long essay with many facets. This is the kind of stuff I think about and this is how I think about it, except Berry expresses it so much more clearly. His is a vital, prophetic voice in our nation, and I cannot emphasize enough that everyone should become familiar with his writing. Not only does he present urgent warnings as a naturalist (not as an environmentalist!) but his writing by its very style breaks with resounding thunder the frantic rationalizations of our media-soaked Molotov cocktail version of democratic discourse.
Anyway, some of the absolute best writing I have encountered in a very long time. His writing will prove timeless as well, because it discusses timeless themes: man, nature, woman, seeds, soil, seasons, thought, writing, imagination, freedom, responsibility, connection, and so much more.
Stunning writing. He always makes me cry, or lose my breath, or want to run down the street shouting quotes to the neighbors.
A short book, a big keeper.

Book review: Jane Eyre

I’m in the process of moving or rewriting some of my Goodreads reviews to a personal space. There have been rumblings in the GR world about censorship and so on, and after some lengthy examination of the posts regarding the situation, I don’t think the issue affects me all that much. But in today’s world there are those who want to politicize everything, and so I could see this eventually affecting me, somehow. So here is the next review, and I hope to fix the many little glitches on my website as soon as possible. In the meantime:
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My favorite little book and my favorite cup of tea

Jane Eyre has one of my favorite devices in it: layered story telling. You can read it as a spiritual narrative, or for the general character development. You can read it for the gothic mystery, or the so-called love triangle. You can read it for the moors! For the historical nature of the story. For the deeply personal questioning of self, life, and God.
I really like Jane herself. I don’t understand all the hows and whys of my liking Rochester. I suspect because he’s lucky enough to have been written before the modern and ‘post modern’ unmanning of the male character. Maybe because his spiritual journey was just as neat as Jane’s. They obviously belonged together, but they had to overcome the odds (most especially those of their own making). Finally, at the end, they embraced freely with a clear eyed view of their lives from that point onward.
I like the Brontes. I like that they like nature. I like a book I can read again. I like being part of all that. I like that I found this really cool purse sized hard bound edition with cool detailing to it that makes the reading a more sensory-complete experience.

A Grand Mystery

One of my favorite things is books. They don’t fluctuate in price- by- gallon and hold you by the throat with their petroleum extortions. I don’t get car sick in a book like I do in a car. And I don’t have to pack a million things, just in case. I do enjoy the sound of rain drumming on the car, or at the windows of my room. The difference is, when I stop a book, I don’t have to get out into the rain to go do what I have to do. The majority of my books are free, and they can sit and wait for a long time before I get back to using them again. They might get dusty, but they won’t lose their air.

So traveling by book is a pleasant thing. One of my favorite places to go is the Middle Ages, albeit a sometimes romanticized version of the period. It’s hard to judge accuracy when I read histories of the Middle Ages, because so many authors have their perceptions that they want to force upon others without acknowledging any possible alternative viewpoint. But in fiction, I have found a place that is so wonderful that I decided one of my first posts here would be about it. Ellis Peters (see here) is a woman who wrote mysteries, among many other things which I have yet to even explore. In my situation, her Brother Cadfael series (see here) has been a delightful exploration of the time period (the 12th century), England (Shropshire), and the life of this murder mystery solving monk who has a complex life and a simple love of humanity.

The narrative is a winding path that follows the development of the facts in each case while also exploring nature, humanity, and a subplot of romance. Peters spends as much time exploring the joy of riding horseback through the wintry English countryside as she does providing clues to solving a murder. She is careful in her characters’ discussions of the pressing mystery to be accurate and yet not lose the average reader. As an average reader, I appreciate that consideration. Some times, with Agatha Christie, I found myself wondering what hat she pulled THAT suspect out of! And honestly, I avoid the most modern writing of murders and mayhem because they tend to dwell on (as in: apparently delight in) the sensory overload of detailed description of suffering. No thank you. Ellis writes in a humane way and her characters reflect that depth of humanity. The effect is joyful to behold.

Given, this is not a series you want to read through in huge rude gulps. Not only will you miss the meandering descriptions, but you will become well aware that this is a series of twenty books with very similar plot formulas. There is a murder; there are a boy and girl who need help coming together; there is someone, usually an official or noble personage, who obstructs; and Cadfael eventually pries the threads apart and discovers the truth. That’s about all of it. And yet, it isn’t.

One of the joys of the series is the development of the characters. First, let me back up a moment and say that while the series can be read out of order, I recommend going in order. There are story arcs that add an entire level of appreciation to the rest of the story. The books then become greater than the sum of their parts. So, the development of the characters and their relationships are some of the best parts. Cadfael’s decision to join the order, his reversal of his perception of Hugh Berringer, their continuing relationship, the obstructive tendencies of certain other regular characters, all take a certain growing familiarity with the series. Actually, the obstructive characters are pretty much recognizable for what they are. But sometimes they do something right, as well, which adds to the depth of the characters on the whole.

There are some books of the series that have some pretty adult issues that come up. I would say that a parent might want to read ahead and make the decision which books a child will read. I have done that, and it resulted in my child reading about half of the books. The rest will await until she is older. No worries, no rush. Peters deals with these issues in a compassionate way: compassionate for the characters involved, and considerate of her readers.

The series is a bit formulaic, but classy all the same. The stories are good. The escapism works for me. Here is a list of the books in order: (here).

I will add that the list places as last the book of three short stories which actually begin the chronological narrative of Cadfael, so I recommend that first.

And just as a car trip must come to an end, and we must return to what feels like the humdrum of our regular routine, the same sometimes happens when we read a book. That is one of the risks of traveling. In my experience it seems as if the farther you go, the stranger it feels when you find yourself home again.