Last week I suggested that giving another chance to a book you originally disliked can be a good idea. As my own action, I proposed a deal to a friend, Chicago lawyer Ava George Stewart. The terms were that I’d read J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” a book I started a few years ago on another friend’s recommendation but disliked so much I returned it to the library without finishing it, in return for her reading a book I thoroughly enjoyed, Vikram Seth’s “The Golden Gate,” a novel written all in sonnets. She’d owned up to being not much for poetry, and we agreed.
I’ve now finished “Disgrace.” It’s remarkably well written, but I feel toward it as I would exercise: it’s good for you and helps you stretch and improve yourself, but it’s not exactly fun.
I asked Ava what made the book outstanding for her; she tweeted back “it was a disturbing & yet poignant view of the gray in humanity. There was no black or white, just gray. It hurt.” Her assessment hits the mark: a book with well-rounded, imperfect characters is far more interesting, and engages the mind much more, than one in which there are clear heroes and villains.
Though I didn’t care much more for the chief protagonist than I did the first time around, and though I certainly didn’t enjoy the violence depicted against both people and animals, I’m glad I’ve now finished the book. I can now discuss the book intelligently with others who have read it and understand why Ava, another friend, and literary critics universally praise it. And, as I noted last week, lawyer readers can’t help but think about the legal issues inherent in the story, including sexual harassment and racial discrimination.
Coetzee crafts his story in perfect, terse prose, making every word count. The subplots interlock and support the main plot, and there’s not a word of superfluous dialogue or description. Through his characters, Coetzee expresses profound thoughts about humans’ attitudes toward the animals we keep as pets or livestock and ultimately kill. Though the main character, a university professor, begins the book as a selfish predator who admits that his heart is with writing books about dead people and has no true interest in other living beings, he undergoes a redemptive transformation, largely through helping euthanize unwanted animals at a pound, which makes a fascinating story. I got most of what I’d hoped out of this endeavor: “Disgrace” made me think, and I now appreciate its substantial merit.
I’m disappointed, though that my friend isn’t as keen on “The Golden Gate.” Admittedly, it’s a generally lighthearted story, not weighty literary matter to be taught in university classes, and more than one critic has perceived its sonnet format as overly cute. But I enjoyed it so much that I’ve recommended it to many people, and when I really like a book, I really want others to enjoy it as much as I do. Every reader comes to a story with a unique background and perspective, though, and it’s inevitable that different people will have different levels of appreciation for any given book.
Speaking of animals, I have a favor to ask all readers: Please visit The Animal Rescue Site and vote for Friends Of Strays, a small animal shelter in Princeton, IL, as your favorite shelter. It only takes a few clicks and typing in the name of an animal from a photo (to verify that you’re a real person and not a voting bot). Costs nothing, you don’t have to register, and you won’t get a virus. You can vote once a day, and you certainly don’t have to live in Illinois, or even the US, to vote for Friends of Strays (in Princeton, IL, remember).
I’ve been signed up to receive daily e-mail reminders to click to give and have voted religiously for Friends Of Strays in several contests for the last couple of years. I don’t know how many other people have also been clicking, but tiny FOS has come very close to winning, making it into the top 10 Illinois shelters several times now. If just a few people who read this blog will commit to clicking for Friends Of Strays in Princeton, IL every day, I’ll bet this tiny and very deserving shelter could win a cash prize that it would put to excellent use. Tell your friends to vote, too! No interest or affiliation with FOS on my part, BTW; Princeton’s my hometown, and I think FOS is a great organization. As of the publication of this post, it’s #9 out of 10 Illinois shelters, and the contest has been going on for a couple of weeks. Please vote!