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.

Lots of pages, not much faith

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.

So there.

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.