What I read during my summer vacation

Back from the beach.

Got in a lot of family time, mini-golf, running and eating. I also made my way through four books, which I chose for a variety of reasons. Three of the four dealt with World War II, although I didn’t plan it that way.

I started with a classic that I had never read — James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Not exactly beach reading, I know. I had just finished “The Brothers Karamazov” — brilliant but taxing — and I should probably have given myself a break before encountering Joyce. But so it goes.

“A Portrait,” of course, is soaked in religious themes and settings. It’s a coming-of-age story (Joyce’s story, I guess) in which Catholicism is a central character. The protagonist, Stephen, wrestles with his Catholic faith throughout.

The novel includes the most vivid and terrifying description of hell that I’ve encountered, as described by a priest who is speaking to a class of students. While I was reading it, I couldn’t help wondering about the effects that such warnings must have had on Catholic students when the threat of hell was a common theme.

Joyce also has Stephen wracked with guilt over certain moral transgressions involving the world’s oldest profession. Stephen’s visit to a confessional, where he is barely able to come clean to a priest, makes for one of the most dramatic scenes in the book.

Reading “A Portrait,” I quickly understood why it has held its place in the canon. Joyce puts you in Ireland during the early 1900s. His language is radiant in parts, although I’ll confess that there were sections I read twice and could barely follow.

Next up, I read “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink” by David Margolick. I’m a big boxing fan and have developed the odd tradition of reading a boxing book during my annual summer break. I chose this one because I’d never read a biography of Joe Louis.

It was a terrific book that surpassed my expectations in certain ways. I knew, of course, that the book would focus on the political context in which the two fights between Louis, the American heavyweight sensation, and Schmeling, a German, were fought. Margolick handled it beautifully, teasing out the tenuous but troubling relationship between Schmling and the Nazis.

I hadn’t been aware of the degree to which Schmeling allowed himself to be used as a propaganda tool by the Nazis. Clearly, Schmeling was not a believer in the Nazi cause. He had many Jewish friends in the U.S. and pre-Nazi Germany. But when the Nazis came to power, Schmeling was quite willing to cozy up, meeting regularly with Hitler and Goebbels. When Jews were thrown out of Germany’s boxing program, he denied it to the American press. Schmeling’s answer to every question: He wasn’t interested in politics.

The part of the book that surprised me — and it shouldn’t have — was the extreme, virulent, horrifying racism that was directed at Louis during the 1930s. American journalists referred to him in the most degrading terms imaginable and many whites, particularly in the South, refused to root for him, even against a German.

I had a sense of what racism was like at that point in time, but I assumed that Louis was treated differently because of who he was and what he represented. Boy, was I wrong. In fact, Margolick has the Nazis insisting that the U.S. secretly agreed with their racial policies. Just look at how Americans treated their own blacks, the Nazis said.

What a disgrace.

Next, it was between another classic, “Heart of Darkness,” and a more recent literary offering, Martin Amis’ “House of Meetings,” which was recommended to me. I chose Amis. Once I started reading it, I discovered that the story makes several references to Joseph Conrad and “Heart of Darkness.” Spooky.

Amis’ 2007 novel is narrated by a Russian WWII veteran who winds up in the Gulag after the war, accused of mysterious political crimes. Much of the story describes his miserable day-to-day existence and what his war and Gulag experiences do to him. He is, at times, an intelligent, gravely injured and sympathetic figure and, at times, a violent monster.

The themes play out in a strange love triangle involving the narrator, his brother and his brother’s wife. It works because Amis is a pretty darn gifted writer.

I planned to get to “Heart of Darkness” next, but I instead substituted a book that my wife had just finished. She was mesmerized by it, so I decided to dive in.

The book is called “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.” It was written by Laura Hillenbrand, the author of “Seabiscuit” (which I have not read).

“Unbroken,” I have since learned, is beloved by just about everyone who has read it. Count me among them.

It tells the almost-impossible-to-believe story of Louie Zamperini, a track star who joined the the Army Air Corps, becoming a bombardier, after Pearl Harbor. What Zamperini goes through — being lost at sea with two men after their bomber goes down and then being taken as a POW by the Japanese — is among the most amazing, mind-blowing stories you will ever read.

Hillenbrand tells the tale simply, but with incredible detail after seven years of reporting. When you’re done, you’ll feel like you know Zamperini — as well as several of the Japanese soldiers who brutalized him.

I understand that Universal has optioned the film rights to the story. Zamperini is a dream role for an actor. But I would think that “Unbroken” will be a difficult movie to make without making the WWII-era Japanese look like monsters. I can only imagine the media coverage that the movie will get in Japan.

For most of his life, Zamperini was not a religious man. But as he is trying to put his life back together in the post-war years, he is deeply influenced by a preacher holding revivals in California. His name was Billy Graham.

What I read on my summer vacation

I’m back from vacation.

Lots of beach time. Good weather. Lots of reading. Thankful all around.

I’ve gotten quite a few emails about reports of big cuts coming here at LoHud/The Journal News. I don’t know much, but more information is to come within days.

Last summer, I wrote a bit about the books I read on vacation — and their religious content — and got a nice response.

So I’ll do it again.

This year, I started with Ian McEwan’s last novel, On Chesil Beach. Not much religious content. McEwan is a pretty outspoken non-believer. But he’s one heck of a writer. The story, about the Worst Wedding Night Ever, includes a few passing references to religion as a family heirloom that one is happy to lose.

Then I moved on to Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye from back in 1953. I’m not a mystery fan, but I’ve read so many references to Chandler over the years that I wanted to give him a shot. The man also had a way with words, even if I could barely keep up with the plot. I loved his description of gritty California from back at a time when no one understood why the Dodgers would move there. No religious highlights to speak of.

Third, I read a biography of the late, great bluesman Howlin’ Wolf. I love the blues and have long been mesmerized by the Wolf’s impossibly gravely voice and his almost manic singing style. The book — Moanin’ at Midnight, by Mark Hoffman and James Segrest — tells the story of how young Chester Burnett grew up illiterate and abandoned before finding his way as a musician. He was rejected by his mother, who refused to reconcile with her son because he sang “the devil’s music.”

Unlike many blues singers, the Wolf did not have much of a Gospel background. He didn’t have much use for church, in fact. By most accounts, though, he was a better man than many of his contemporaries who did start off singing in church. He was haunted, though, by his estrangement from his mother.

One interesting passage: When the Wolf died in 1976, his son claimed to have heard his father calling him: “He just called me from the grave to bring him some water. And from the Bible speaking, that’s hell-bound.”

Then I went back to fiction — and church — with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which won the 2005 Pulitzer for fiction. The story is written in the form of a letter from a dying minister to his young son. In his letter, the Rev. John Ames covers it all: family and faith, sin and forgiveness, life and death. You come away feeling that you know Ames better than some real folks you’ve known all your life. He is honest in a way that you can be when you’re writing a letter that will not be read until long after you’re outta here.

Ames writes about so many components of a pastor’s life and includes so many meditations on the meaning of day-to-day living that it’s hard to pick a section or two to highlight. How about this:

*****

“The moon looks wonderful in the warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does. Ralph Waldo Emerson is excellent on this point.

It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love. I’ll try to remember to use this. I believe I see a place for it in my thoughts on Hagar and Ishmael. Their time in the wilderness seems like a specific moment of divine Providence within the whole providential regime of Creation.”

*****

Then I needed a break. So I read a sports book, A Few Seconds of Panic, about a 43-year-old sportswriter “trying out” to be a kicker for the Denver Broncos. A fun read from Stephan Fatsis. Not much religion, but some. It turns out that Denver’s real kicker, Jason Elam (now an Atlanta Falcon), is a devout Christian who spends his off-seasons studying theology. His goal was to be prepared to bring the Good News to followers of all the major, non-Christian religions.

On my last day at the beach, I read the first 80 pages or so of Mark Twain’s travelogue Following the Equator. Quirky and interesting, like so much of Twain’s stuff. But the book belonged to someone else, so I’m not likely to finish it any time soon. Maybe on another vacation….