Our Lady of the Forest— David Guterson
The finest reward a great novel
can give, after the pleasure of living inside its world, is its “afterimage,”
the resonance that arises in the days after reading it. Sometimes the
psychic echoes return as full-blown images from the author’s descriptions;
sometimes you find yourself pondering the ideas or moral issues woven
into the plot. In the ideal case, of course, it is both pictures and
that kind of mental “nourishment.”
I read Guterson’s Snow Falling
on Cedars a few years ago, and it was a beautiful piece of work,
but Our Lady of the Forest tops it in every way. More than
a week after reading it, I still carry scenes in my mind’s eye,
and find myself reviewing and analyzing the issues it explored. One
of the great strengths of fiction is its ability to “show, don’t
tell” — to portray deep and complex subjects by demonstration,
rather than exposition, and allow the readers to weigh the implications
and judge for themselves.
Our Lady of the Forest tells the story of a homeless, wraith-like,
teenage runaway, Ann Holms, who walks into the damp forests of Washington
state to collect mushrooms to sell. Among the dripping conifers and
spongy moss, Ann has a vision of the Virgin Mary, appearing in a ball
of light. The Mother of God speaks to Ann, telling her what the world
must do to stop her Son from destroying them, and commanding her to
build a church on that site.
Mary promises to appear to Ann in the same place four more times, and
Ann tells her friend at the campground, then visits the local priest.
The story spreads, and the pilgrims gather. No one but Ann can hear
or see the Mother of God during her apparitions, but people are galvanized
by their belief in the girl who becomes known as Our Ann. Hundreds,
then thousands, then tens of thousands of people arrive, some of them
simply choosing to believe, others taking advantage of that gullibility
to turn a profit, while some, like the local sheriff, just try to deal with the phenomenon.
The Roman poet Ovid wrote, “If the art is concealed, it succeeds.”
It is wonderful to finish a book and only then reflect how much thought,
how much research, how much work went into creating that smooth and
effortless reading experience.
Our Lady of the Forest is blessed with so much art —
in its very conception (dare I say, immaculate), its themes, its intricate
details of background and the richly human characters — people
who are not just described, but felt. Guterson takes the trouble
to get inside the complicated lives of out-of-work lumberjacks, aging
barmaids, and hard-working immigrants, just as deeply as the trailer-park
priest with a wavering vocation, or the young girl haunted by her past,
and by the intensity of her belief in what she sees and hears.
Of the last ten novels I’ve read, this is definitely number one
on the charts right now.
Critique of Religion and Philosophy — Walter Kaufmann
Coincidentally, I was reading this
at the same time as Our Lady of the Forest, alternating fiction
and non-fiction as I sometimes do, and in this case, there was definitely
some common ground. Again, Guterson sifted his themes through fiction,
while Kaufmann was a philosophy professor at Princeton for many years,
and his book is a scholarly investigation into the natures of faith
and philosophy, where they meet, and where they divide.
It was given to me by my friend Chris Stankee, from the Sabian company,
following a discussion we had over lunch one day about my struggles
in writing Roadshow, of determining how to treat the theme
of Middle America’s in-your-face Christianity. As I saw it, the
choice was respectful silence, or polite protest.
This book helped to steer me toward the latter notion, of making a polite
stand for the much-beleaguered faith in reason.
Critique of Religion and Philosophy is not an easy read, especially at the beginning, for it is essentially a textbook
of philosophical essays, However, working through it is a worthwhile
challenge, for the rewards are commensurate with the effort.
For me, the pace seemed to pick up as it went along, once Professor
Kaufmann had laid his groundwork to allow you to understand what follows.
I especially loved Part VII, “Satanic Interlude, Or How to Go
to Hell.” It includes “Dialogue between Satan and a Theologian,”
“Dialogue between Satan and a Christian,” and “Dialogue
between Satan and an Atheist,” all of which are clever, witty,
entertaining, and profound, but they do depend for their depth, their resonance, on the comprehension of all that is presented earlier.
In the preface, Professor Kaufmann specifically requests the reader
not to “browse,” in a charming passage, which exemplifies
his erudite, yet occasionally playful style. (Bear in mind it was written
in 1958, hence the male-default gendering.)
The arrangement of this book with
its many sections with individual titles may suggest that it is meant
for browsing. It is not. Superficially, each section can be understood
by itself, but many, including the three dialogues, are likely to
be misunderstood out of context. If it were not for that, they could
and should have been developed separately.
Emphatically, this book is meant to be read in the order in which
it is presented. Those who merely wish to be diverted may disregard
this counsel. But serious readers and all who care to understand the
author’s views should heed it.
For the curious. The godly reader who disregards the sentence in italics
in the previous section may soon find his charity endangered. But
if he follows the path mapped out for him, he may well find himself
in basic sympathy with what he reads, although scarcely in complete
For those whom a prohibition tempts to sin, like Eve in Eden, there
is this provision. Though it were better if they did not peek —
if peek they must, let them steal a glimpse, not immediately but when
temptation has become too great, at the long Biblical quotation in
Section 79. And if that does not suffice them, let them read Section
25. “But,” as St. Paul says, “I speak this by permission,
and not of commandment.”
There are many passages from the
book I could happily quote, but I’ll stop here, with a hearty
recommendation, whatever your faith or creed, to do what the professor
says, and read this book.
Die of Heartbreak — Saul Bellow
My friend Brutus first introduced
me to Saul Bellow, with the wondrous Henderson the Rain King.
A couple of Bellow’s other novels, The Adventures of Augie
March, and Humboldt’s Gift, turned up in Ghost
Rider, when I was reading them during my travels.
There is no one like Saul Bellow — his novels are unbelievably
deep in characters and ideas, the characters moving quickly through
their worlds, and the ideas passing quickly from Saul Bellow’s
teeming mind to yours.
Personally, I dislike the plot summaries you find on the backs or inner
flaps of novels, mainly because they usually give too much away —
destroy the pleasure of discovery in the reading. These days
I carefully avoid reading them until after I read the book,
and the same with the advertising blurbs at the front, and especially
the kind of “introduction” you find in “classic”
editions. They all give too much away, and should come after the book, not before. (Definitely true for Martin Amis’s entertaining
introduction to More Die of Heartbreak.)
Anyway… suffice to say that Saul Bellow’s Nobel Prize was
richly deserved, and this novel sustains his usual uniquely high standard.
I am glad that Saul Bellow is one great writer who still has a few books
I haven’t read, and can look forward to — the kind of thing
that makes life worth going on for…
Long Way Down — Nick Hornby
In contrast, the four main characters
of this novel all have nothing to live for. In fact, they first
meet each other on the roof of a London apartment block, on New Year’s
Eve, each determined to end their torments by jumping off.
Nick Hornby is among the finest modern writers, in every sense
of that word, his characters always engaged with today’s world,
and today’s problems. I had enjoyed each of Hornby’s previous
novels, High Fidelity, About a Boy, and How
To Be Good, and his non-fiction books as well, Songbook (quoted a few times in Traveling Music, in which his Fever Pitch is also mentioned), but when I read a
review of this latest, I was a little doubtful (again, those darn plot
summaries giving too much away).
However, my concern that the story sounded dark, morbid, and possibly
depressing was unfounded. My quote from Ovid, “if the art is concealed,
it succeeds,” applies equally well to Nick Hornby. The reading
seems so effortless that only later do you reflect how much thought
he gives to designing his characters and their destinies.
The four main characters in A Long Way Down are each so different,
and yet such modern “types” — the disaffected, fragmented
teenage punk girl, the shallow, emotionally-crippled television personality
destroyed by a sex scandal, the spiritless middle-aged mother of a handicapped
son, and the failed American rock musician. Hornby’s skill draws
their stories together, and makes their relationship the main
character of the story, from their first encounter on the rooftop, humorous
and poignant, to their gradual forming of an unlikely bond.
Like all the novels I have celebrated in these reviews, A Long Way
Down changed my perception of the world, and introduced me to the
lives of other people — who, if imaginary, are no less real — and I think that very quality might be one distinction between
art and entertainment.
Art has the power to change you, or at least the way you see
the world, while entertainment has, at best, a transitory effect.
Certainly I am not immune to the charms of reading purely for diversion
or escape, but with an adventure or mystery book — or movie, TV
show, or sports event — you feel temporary, vicarious feelings,
and carry away little or nothing from the experience.
A Long Way Down is an enjoyable read, but it also made my world
just four stories larger.