I recently took a short working vacation, performing pastoral duties in Arlington, Virginia, and visiting a friend in Montclair, New Jersey. It was all very nice, but one of the best things were two books I "read" (i.e. I listened to the audiobooks) on my trip. They both ended up rolling high numbers.
The first one was the latest by Yann Martel, the author of The Life of Pi. Entitled The High Mountains of Portugal (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2016), it's really three stories in one book. Though the sections cover at least a century and are totally separate, they are closely connected in a marvelous way.
The first section made me think about the doctrine of original sin. We are effected by sin, and we feel ourselves the victim. But we also participate in the sin of the world, and in our innocence we, too, are perpetrators of pain.
Martel's fiction combines the mundane with the fantastic, and it's the middle section that does this best. What seems to be a boring New Year's Eve ends up being something altogether different. As I read this section, I knew it was unreal, but I couldn't avoid being touched by its depth and the way it gave added meaning to the first section.
The final section is a story unto itself, returning first to the middle section to retrieve some meaning, and, finally to the first section. This section was as much about community as it was anything else—how we're part of one even when we don't know it.
I felt Portugal was a novel about how death changes us, and how death helps us give meaning to life. In the end, there is both atonement and healing.
There is one aspect of the book that gave me pause before I read it. It involves an ape on a crucifix. I was sure I would find this blasphemous and I suspected it would force me to stop reading the book. This wasn't the case, however. I've no doubt that a fundamentalist Protestant or a conservative Roman Catholic would loudly condemn this plot feature. But I did not find it objectionable—in fact, the reference to it in the middle section was nothing short of beautiful.
Portugal compared very favorably to Pi. It rolled a ⚅.
The second book was a bit less cerebral and contained nothing of the fantastic. It was Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012). I don't know if I'd have bothered with it if it hadn't been for the narrator: Lin-Manuel Miranda. If he could get behind it, then obviously there must be something to it, I thought. And I was right.
Secrets is a coming of age romance, and the two main characters are Mexican American kids from El Paso who explore not only the meaning of love but, even more importantly, the concept of identity. This aspect is threefold: discovering what it means to be gay, to be Mexican American, and to be part of a family. The overall feel of the book is overwhelmingly positive, yet it's filled with serious stuff—even violence. The fact that the bad doesn't take control of the narrative is in and of itself a triumph of good writing.
And I wasn't disappointed by the narration. Miranda gave the text light and life. Since the book was about students, it was especially humorous when Miranda gave voice to Aristotle's complaint about how boring it was to learn about Alexander Hamilton in school.
Secrets rolled a ⚅, and I think that would've been the case had I just read it without Lin-Manuel Miranda. But I'm glad I listened to it. It was much better than TV.