Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Johnny Got His Gun

June, 2011

Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo, published 1939, 243 pages

What can someone say about a book that is so well-crafted, so brilliantly conceived, so tangibly aware? I fear that this review will be nothing but treacly gushing. 

Very little happens in this book. So little, in fact, that I can barely write anything about the plot for risk of giving those few events away. I will say that the growing awareness of this man's situation is terrifying, even though, due to a Metallica video, I had known the basic premise before reading it. The man, a WWI soldier, narrates the story, and it is his own realization of his situation that is the most mind-numbing. His situation is impossible to conceive, and his eventual resolve under the circumstances is even harder to imagine. 

As he struggles and problem solves, he takes the reader on myriad memories, many of which could be snatched for beautiful short stories and vignettes. The memories are at once wistfully heart-felt and depressing in their irrevocability. These memories are interspersed with Trumbo's clear anti-war message, although this message never feels overdone or cliche. It is stirring, provocative, and condemning.

Trumbo's strength, other than perhaps the impossible feat of using almost no plot and little hot air to make such a compelling case against war, is his narrative style. It is difficult to find such beautifully written stream of consciousness and such delicately crafted spatterings of commentary among tender content. In short, his writing blew my mind.

I laughed out loud in wonder at his talent, and I cried the tears he wanted me to but not for the reasons that I thought I would. He was far more clever in his plan than I was in my predictions. This was the first book I have read in a long time that, as soon as I closed the book, I said aloud, "I can't wait to read this again."

The Red Tent

May, 2011
The Red Tent, Anita Diamant, published 1997, 321 pages

If I could buy a copy of this novel for all of my female students, I would. I would also likely buy copies for all of the women I know. Fantasy reigning, I would have copies in my car to throw out lovingly to all the women I saw on the street, at the market, or with their daughters at playgrounds. I would leave them on ladies' doorsteps.

To think that women can connect so soulfully through their common feminine experience and the earth to which they are inexplicably tied moves me beyond words. Living in a society where borrowing a tampon in a public restroom is an act of womanly bonding, I was taken aback by the loving yet pragmatic connection of the women in this story.

Anita Diamant, a Judaic studies scholar, takes the mention of Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob from the Old Testament, and develops her character, her life. She becomes not a note but a fully realized girl then woman, bearing witness to the wisdom of her mothers and the lessons with her lovers. For those who do not know the biblical stories, Jacob betrayed Esau, left Canaan, then eventually had 13 children, most with the two sisters he married, and the rest with their two slaves. The only girl of the 13 was Dinah. 

As a child, Dinah can only wonder what occurs in the red tent, where her mothers go once a month to menstruate. As she matures, she learns of the secrets, traditions, and rites of their common womanhood. Diamant lets Dinah narrate (even before she is born), giving me the sense that I was being let in on something sacred, something spiritual, and something that simply does not exist anymore.

Whether women long ago did any of these things, I do not know. Diamant makes it clear that women who were not from Canaan did not necessarily do these things. Even the Canaanite men were the only ones who were circumcised, according to the covenant between Jacob's father and grandfather. But to think that there was a time that women were like this to each other or that a new time could be inspired by these possibilities is enough to make me want to cover my city with copies of this book. How wonderful that would be.

The first part of the novel, set in Canaan, struck me the most; over time Dinah's narrative voice became cloying in its whispered longing. Not enough to turn me away, however, and I will lovingly revisit this book over the years to remind myself of the kind of earth-bound connection I could have with my daughters, my aunts, my mother, my grandmother, if only they would read this book and embark on a fantasy world with me.