Since I started doing this blog, I always recap the books I read on my summer vacation — highlighting their religious or spiritual themes.
This year, unfortunately, my choices were light on godliness.
I started with a late choice that I happened to see on a library shelf: The Old Man and the Sea.
I’d never read it. Seemed like an appropriate way to start my beach vacation (with the sea and all).
I loved it. It was like a super-condensed version of Moby Dick. Man pursuing fish, while losing his head. Great Hemingway language. Simple, clear and direct.
The old man pursuing the fish, Santiago, has a couple of rough days out at sea. At several points, he prays and promises to God that he’ll say hundreds of Hail Marys and Our Fathers if he makes it home with his big fish.
He says that he is not a religious man. I got the sense that he would not say the Hail Marys no matter how his fishing trip turned out.
Next up I dug into a book I had been meaning to read for many years: Catch 22.
It was smart, sharp and funny. But I mostly hated it.
I realize this is a book with a huge, cult-like following. But I felt that after 50 pages or so, I had the joke. I got the drift. Then it was page after page of the same thing.
Catch-22 doesn’t really have a plot. It’s satire bordering on slapstick, a pulling back of the curtain on a theater of the absurd.
It’s about how a squad of Air Force bombers during WWII are at the mercy of bumbling, moronic officers who are part of a giant, unthinking bureaucracy. Every character is crazy — or might be crazy — and their interactions mostly serve to show how crazy everyone is.
The famous Catch-22 itself is a military rule, a contradiction in logic. It says that crazy men cannot fly, but if you ask not to fly, you’re not crazy. So you have to fly.
Several characters, including Yossarian, the main guy, do not believe in God. Even the chaplain begins to lose his faith.
But in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, no one really has faith in anything. And they’re probably smart not to.
Maybe it was over my head.
Next I read my only non-fiction title, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson. I love boxing books because boxers are generally quirky, surprising characters who have to overcome lots of demons.
Wil Haygood, a Washington Post writer, does a terrific job capturing Harlem between 1946 and 1960, when Sugar Ray, Miles Davis, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes and others created a new world of black art, style and sophistication.
Sugar Ray loved being the baddest man in the ring, but yearned to be more. I didn’t know that he left boxing for several years to try to make it as an entertainer.
Haygood does a fine job of painting brief portraits of Sugar Ray’s many colorful opponents, especially the Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta.
Robinson spent a lot of time in church at different points of his life, but I didn’t come away with the feeling that he was a man of deep faith. The church was a big part of African-American life, so he went to church.
He started boxing at a community center started by a Chicago church. He had his own pew at a church in Harlem, where they held up services until Sugar Ray arrived with his entourage. And he ended his life as a regular attendee at an LA church.
At point point, I believe, Sugar Ray started dropping in on churches (and even synagogues) on his own to sort out his life. But the “pound for pound” champ, always suspicious and defensive, mostly kept his faith to himself.
Next I read a novel by an LA writer named Richard Lange.
Last year, I picked up a book of his short stories called Dead Boys. It turned out to be one of my favorite books of recent years — a collection of stories about Californians, many on the economic and social fringes, trying to keep their lives together while maintaining a bit of their dignity.
His novel is called This Wicked World. It’s not as ambitious, it seems to me, as Lange’s short stories, but made for a great read. It’s basically a well-written crime/suspense novel, filled with California neighborhoods, freeways, and sunburned inhabitants.
Religion-wise? The main bad guy doesn’t believe in God.
Then I closed my vacation with two short-story collections: Half in Love by Maile Meloy, a Montana writer, and The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind by David Guterson, who got a lot of acclaim for his novel Snow Falling on Cedars.
Both collections were real good, especially Meloy’s. She writes tight, stark stories that have a real Western feel (although a few stories take place in London, Paris and Greece).
If either collection had significant religious themes, I don’t remember them.