Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Snake Pit, The Kin, and Shani Davis Wins (Go, U.S.A!)!

Two Great Books and the Tiara I'll Be Wearing Until I Get a Haircut

After an exhausting night at work, I slept, slept, and slept some more. My husband came home and found me sleeping.

"Have you been sleeping all day?" Amused.

Actually, I hadn't, though I was still in my sleeping sweatshirt and holey stretch pants and wearing a ridiculous tiara/headband to keep the hair out of my eyes. Earlier I read part of my Norwegian medieval saga, Sigrid Undset's The Snake Pit, and 100 pages of a superb science fiction novel, Peter Dickinson's The Kin. Both writers are extraordinary in their different ways: Undset won the Nobel Prize in 1929 and Dickinson's The Kin was a finalist for the Carnegie Prize.

I do know how to pick them.

Undset's beautiful, sad novel (Book 2 of The Master of Hestviken) is an exquisite interweaving of mood, action, and the rhythms of medieval daily life. No character has ever seemed more real to me than Ingunn, the unhappy, depressed woman who, having had a baby out of wedlock (the result of rape, though she knows and likes the man) while her childhood sweetheart is away at war, pays the price when she guiltily confesses to Olav and then deserts her baby to marry and follow Olav to Hestviken. Her first baby with Olav is stillborn, and a tactless priest gives a lecture on the price of shame, not knowing Ingunn's secret. Ingunn is weak, sickly, and unskilled at housewifely skills like making cheese (a relief after Kristin Lavransdatter's efficiency). Olav doesn't understand Ungunn; he is simple and hearty and sociable. But he also has a secret: he killed the man who philandered with Ungunn. He is not shriven by a priest, because he is not willing to pay the price. Both Olav and Ungunn are haunted by guilt, but Olav suffers less, being a man of action.

Unset perfectly understands Olav. She explains that he felt:

"A vague pang at the heart, like a faint throbbing beneath a healed wound--was he wasting his manly strength as he toiled in his loose woollen working-clothes, powerless to determine what he would gain in the end by his trouble? And a kind of revulsion against the memories of his intimate life with the sickly woman--it was as though he surrendered his powerful youth and unbroken health in order that she might absorb vigour from his store, and in his heart he did not believe it would be of any use. Like swimming with a drowning woman about one's neck--no choice but to save the other or go down with him, if one would deserve the name of man...."

Elsewhere in the novel Undset describes exactly what Ungunn feels.

I found The Kin, officially a children's or YA book, in the science fiction section of a used bookstore. Like many YA books which attract award judges, this is much better written than the average contemporary novel. Do they set the bar higher for children's books, or is it only that the good ones come to my attention?

Dickinson sets his elaborate story in prehistoric Africa, where early men roam the changing, frightening landscape of desert, mountains, and plains. A group of children are separated from their Kin after a massacre, and fend for themselves in their own nomadic society. The story of survival is told in the third person, focusing on Suth (the oldest boy), Noli (the oldest girl, who is a seer), and two other children. In vignettes between chapters, Dickinson creates a mythology of animal gods and the origin of humankind. This is beautifully written and absorbing.

AN OLYMPIC P.S. Shani Davis from south Chicago--the son of a single mom, the only African-American on the team, and did you ever read a better American story?--did a beautiful job speed-skating and won the Gold Medal for the men's 1,000-meter race.

Again, though I know this is obnoxious: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

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