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Posts tagged ‘critiques of good books’

Can an Inanimate Object Be the Primary Character in Mawer’s “the Glass Room?”

Those who have read Simon Mawer’s novel, the Glass Room, would likely say yes. To agree, we should first agree on what constitutes a character. Isn’t it the one “personage” who could not be removed from the cast’s lineup without destroying the story?  Other characters can come and go, some mourned tearfully by readers, some meeting their end with a heartfelt, if only mutely acknowledged, hooray.  But there is that one, the protagonist, upon whom everything hinges.

That one in Mawer’s 2009 bestseller is a huge room, a living area in a private home, enclosed in glass. Its inhabitants, even the couple who pay for its construction must eventually leave, but the room in the house on the hill, remains. [In fact, the house from which it is patterned, lives on as a museum in the Villa Tugendhat in Brno in the Czech Republic.] This main character does not judge what goes on in the room—and much does go on: sexual encounters, hetero sexual and lesbian; intense discussions of a bright future by rich Czechish, even on the eve of the Nazi occupation; scientific experiments by German Nazis attempting to define Jewish by physical characteristics; Russian troops with their horses taking a break from the fighting; children learning dance steps as therapy for the ravages of polio; a family growing; and the same family coming apart. Yet the house withstands even a bomb exploding in its garden.

The glass room, expansive, magnificent, transparent, and almost one with its natural surroundings, endures, while its succession of inhabitants who use the room to satisfy their desires and to protect themselves from the outer world, vanish. A few return, remembering times and relationships transfigured by living within glass walls.

Now, are you persuaded that the glass room was the primary character in the Glass Room? If you disagree on the grounds that a novel’s main character must be living, who would you choose to bear this title? Maybe you would write a version where the building is destroyed and the inhabitants’ lives remain intact. In that scenario, the room could not be a contender for the role of main character and our dilemma would be resolved.

Why I Chose These Books for my Sidebar Image

The photograph on the sidebar represents some of the books that have been significant for making changes in my life. They include (1) C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet; Perelanda; and that Hideous Strength) which sparked my life-long interest in science fiction; (2) C.J. Martindale’s Beyond the Shadowlands, which helped me understand heaven as a place where I would like my beloved to call home since he left this earth; (3) one of Taylor Caldwell’s novels (Captains and the Kings)–she has been a favorite for years because she embeds political & spiritual meaning in most of her great stories; (4) Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird because this book on writing is helping me learn to write from the heart; (5) Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley because of her wonderful explanation of why leaders need to embrace the chaos of diverse ideas to allow for the emergence of systemic improvement; and finally, The Bible, which doesn’t need explaining.

Have any of these same books and authors been significant in your life. Why?

Which of the Five (from my Facebook Page)is a Must Read?

It would be presumptuous of me to tell you that! I can only put them in the order of my favorites with a tiny summary from amazon.com to hopefully titillate your mental senses and demand you read them all. And before the summer sun lures you to the great outdoors and more energetic activities!

The Fountainhead by Any Rand has become an enduring piece of literature, more popular now than when published in 1943. On the surface, it is a story of one man, Howard Roark, and his struggles as an architect in the face of a successful rival, Peter Keating, and a newspaper columnist, Ellsworth Toohey. But the book addresses a number of universal themes: the strength of the individual, the tug between good and evil, the threat of fascism. The confrontation of those themes, along with the amazing stroke of Rand’s writing, combine to give this book its enduring influence.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic, frightening vision of the future, firemen don’t put out fires–they start them in order to burn books. Bradbury’s vividly painted society holds up the appearance of happiness as the highest goal–a place where trivial information is good, and knowledge and ideas are bad. Fire Captain Beatty explains it this way, “Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs…. Don’t give them slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”

In Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night, a scholarly, pious teenager is wracked with guilt at having survived the horror of the Holocaust and the genocidal campaign that consumed his family. His memories of the nightmare world of the death camps present him with an intolerable question: how can the God he once so fervently believed in have allowed these monstrous events to occur? There are no easy answers in this harrowing book, which probes life’s essential riddles with the lucid anguish only great literature achieves. It marks the crucial first step in Wiesel’s lifelong project to bear witness for those who died.

Dante’s Inferno: To be well read means that you have read the Divine Comedy (at least once). At once haunting, dark and yet grotesquely beautiful, Dante has written for us the definitive Catholic epic poem of hell, purgatory and heaven. Inferno is an allegory telling of the journey of Dante through what is largely the medieval concept of hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil. In the poem, Hell is depicted as nine circles of suffering located within the Earth. Allegorically, the Divine Comedy represents the journey of the soul towards God, with the Inferno describing the recognition and rejection of sin. (Last part from

Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre is full of drama: fires, storms, attempted murder, and a mad wife conveniently stashed away in the attic. On the surface a fairly conventional Gothic romance (poor orphan governess is hired by rich, brooding Byronic hero-type), Jane Eyre hardly seems the stuff from which revolutions are made. But the story is very much about the nature of human freedom and equality, and if Jane was seen as something of a renegade in nineteenth-century England, it is because her story is that of a woman who struggles for self-definition and determination in a society that too often denies her that right.

Lesson from Purple Hibiscus: Sharing our Knowledge and our Secrets

As I closed the first published book of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I thought about its appeal. Learning about her homeland, Nigeria, was a key to its charm: the customs, political turmoil, disparities in lifestyles of the rich and poor captured my attention. Then there was that which is not unique to Nigeria—the secrecy cloaking abusiveness within a family.

It is easier to write about what we know than that which we have never experienced—until we get to the secrets. When I wanted to discuss my protagonist’s experiences in the Vietnam War, I had to do considerable secondary research, scouring books by people with direct knowledge and photos of the landscape and war’s devastation. People I knew who fought there were unhelpful, closely guarding their secrets.  A scene in my novel (a true account) illustrates this:

The movie we watched that evening was a story of the horrors of World War II. We talked about how people could survive when torture and death were only a breath or step away, and a friendly face could mask a dreadful foe.
“That is the précis of every war. To survive you carry out your orders and walk away before the enemy starts to take on human form.” The look in Kirk’s eyes brought out the protective instinct innate in mothers, and I held him tight.
“Will you tell me some of your experiences during your tours of duty in Vietnam?”
He responded immediately and emphatically, “You wouldn’t want to know.”

But our tragedies and faults bind us to other humans so the stories, even the secrets need to be told. Adichie chose to let readers penetrate the mind of her protagonist to reveal the conflict within Kambili over being abused by a father she admired. Although my Kirk doesn’t tell his own story, he is guided to unpack his secrets, especially those whose existence he protects behind a wall of denial.

Do you have secrets that would make a good story? I do, too, but I am reversing my position and admitting it’s easier to write about what I don’t know (e.g., speculating about the future) or what does not implicate me as another broken person. I think I’ll let my characters do the nasty work of exposing secrets—after all, they’re not me…

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