Percy Jackson and the Sûreté du Québec

A quick glance through my reading log — yes, I started keeping one again, albeit in a considerably simplified form — shows that my covidtide reading has taken a hard turn toward fiction. In more regular years, I usually read pretty close to 50:50 fiction/non-fiction. Over the past few months, it’s been closer to 80:20. There are good reasons for this, of course; well-written fiction offers an unparalleled retreat from These Uncertain Times ™. And if the general pandemic stuff wasn’t enough, we’re also still well in the midst of our un-planned renovations (oh ho ho ho ho, what could be more fun).

Even more than the general state of the world and the unfinished state of our house, however, I place the blame for my de-balanced reading squarely at the feet of two people: Rick Riordan and Louise Penny. I doubt they’ve ever met each other but they have one giant trait in common: I absolutely can’t put their books down.

Rick Riordan is the author of the Percy Jackson series. Beginning in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Riordan crafts an alternate earth where the Greek pantheon, relocated to the current heart of Western civilization in New York City, is still around — still meddling in human affairs, still pursuing their own eternal goals, and still bearing and begetting demigod children. These children, raised by their human parents, can go incognito until they reach puberty, when their powers manifest to the extent that monsters (also still around) can sense them. Refuge awaits them at Camp Half-Blood, a secluded New York summer camp watched over by the centaur Chiron — if they can make it there alive.

For those counting along at home, I’ve read fourteen Riordan books since July: all of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, all of the Heroes of Olympus series, and 4/5 of The Trials of Apollo. I just collected the fifth book in the latter series, The Tower of Nero, from the library yesterday and I can’t wait to dive in.

Also on my “can’t wait to dive in” list are the Inspector Gamache mystery novels by Louise Penny. I’ve gotten through fewer of them, in part because they are considerably longer, but also because they are perpetually checked out or on hold! The series follows Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of homicide at the Sûreté du Québec (the provincial police force), his team, and a strong cast of secondary characters mostly located in the Anglo village called Three Pines, just south of Montreal. The mysteries themselves are innovative and engrossing — I really do love a good fictional murder — but where Penny really shines is in her deft handling of red herrings, her insights into the human psyche, and her long character development arcs.

They are, without question, the best mysteries I have read in a long while, and Louise Penny has shot to the top ranks of my ‘favourite authors’ list. I just finished the sixth book, Bury Your Dead, and have the next two waiting in my to-read pile. I will note that each book builds on the last and highly recommend reading them in order; the first is Still Life.

Rick Riordan has two more (shorter) series… serieses… well, you know, that are waiting for me when I finish The Tower of Nero. There are still ten Gamache books I haven’t read. And after that? Well, after that I simply don’t know what I’ll do.

Everything loose is traveling

This is an enigmatic and compelling little book. I love it.

 

You may be familiar with the genre of “found poetry”, where a poet takes something like, say, a newspaper article and removes all the words she deems extraneous, leaving a poem behind. Aug 9 — Fog, I think, belongs to that tradition as well, only this time it’s not found poetry but found prose. Here is Kathryn Scanlan’s account of how it came to be, starting with the purchase of a stranger’s diary from a public estate auction:

The diary was a Christmas present to the author from her daughter and son-in-law. The author wrote her full name and address on the front page. She resided in a small Illinois town. She was eighty-six years old when she began recording in it. […]

At first I loved only the physicality of the diary — the author’s cramped hand, the awkward, artful way she filled the page. I liked its miserable condition. Its position was tenuous — yet here it was. I didn’t try to read it. I kept it in a drawer. I assumed it illegible.

But then I did read it — compulsively. I hunched over it, straining my neck. I read it front to back — perhaps a dozen times by now.

As I read, I typed out sentences that caught my attention. Then, for ten years, off and on, I played with the sentences I’d pulled. I edited, arranged, and rearranged them into the composition you find here. (vi-vii)

The result of all this editing, arranging, and rearranging is very beautiful and strange. There are recurring characters (Vern, D., Mildred, Maude) as well as others who make only single appearances; since the diarist was writing for herself we are left to make educated guesses about their relationships. I thought “Vern” was almost certainly the diarist’s husband, but then I found an entry referring to “D. & Vern’s anniversary”, so perhaps they are the daughter and son-in-law. But I don’t know. It’s a little off-balancing.

The writing is spare; the diarist uses many short forms (“nite”) and omits most of her “to be” verbs. The pages are spare, too; Scanlan has set the text for each day in a sea of white space:

“I painting. Clouding at noon.” Indeed.

This is a library copy but I think I may buy one of my own. It feels like the kind of book I’ll go back to, maybe precisely because it’s so… I’m not even sure how to describe it. Because it’s so the way it is. A few of my favourite pages:

The wind:

Terrible windy     everything loose is traveling. (33)

It come so nice:

A grand rain, it come so nice. Sun looks good. Fire feels good. D. & Vern out on their bicycles. (47)

The roads:

All kinds of roads. Dead end roads, roads under construction, cow paths & etc but had good time, a grand day. (51)

Decline of Vern:

Vern confused. Vern awful confused. Vern confused one of the girls with D. Vern bad nite. Vern bad. (95)

This is a quick read, only 110 pages and most of them white space. You can easily get through it in a sitting, or in bed before sleep. And when the wind blows, maybe you too will note that everything loose is traveling.

The Other Bennet Sister

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of my favourite books in all the world; I’m not sure how many times I’ve read it, but certainly more than ten. I’ve seen the BBC miniseries with Colin First and Jennifer Ehle five or six times, the Keira Kneightly movie version twice (I think), and even once watched the bizarro 1940 version starring Greer Garson and Sir Laurence Olivier. I’ve spent a lot of time in Austen’s created world, and one of the fun things about that is also experiencing how other people interact with the text in companion books and films, whether serious or parodies. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Longbourn, and Jane Austen Ruined my Life, and the miniseries Lost in Austen once sustained me through a long day of colonoscopy prep. I loved the Bollywood retelling Bride and Prejudice, which I chiefly remember for the song “No Life Without Wife“. Besides being eminently re-readable in its own right, Pride and Prejudice has proved itself a very fertile ground for other creators to till, which I think is something really special.

Now, into this imaginative space comes Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister, which looks to answer the question of what about Mary Bennet? Austen does not give us much insight into Mary: she serves as a plain and prosaic foil for Jane’s sweet beauty, Lizzy’s wit, and Lydia and Kitty’s careless energy. Beyond that, she is nearly a non-entity. Her fate at the end of the novel is a mere sentence to the effect that her life became more tolerable once her beauty was no longer constantly compared to that of her sisters. But what can it have been like for her to grow up as the outsider between the tightknit twosomes of Jane and Lizzy, and Kitty and Lydia? What motivates her speeches and actions within the confines of the story, and what is her fate after it ends?

https://jackiekcooper.com/file/2020/03/otherbennetsister.jpg

Hadlow gives us a very moving and satisfactory account of all these things, in a way that is completely congruous with Austen’s novel, and even managing to enrich it, especially in the first section of the novel which covers the time period between Mary’s childhood and the events of Pride and Prejudice up to the engagement between Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins. The narrative fleshes out a number of minor P&P characters: Mary is chief among them, of course, but Hadlow also gives us sympathetic and plausible portraits of Charlotte Lucas, Mr. Collins, Mrs. Hill, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, and others. The conniving Caroline Bingley returns as a romantic adversary to Mary in the latter parts of the novel — which seems ridiculous when I just write it like that, but makes narratival sense, I promise.

The great strength of The Other Bennet Sister is Hadlow’s pitch-perfect ventriloquist act. Her narration blends seamlessly with the pieces of dialogue she lifts wholesale form Pride and Prejudice, and in respects of vocabulary and sentence structure, The Other Bennet Sister reads very much as if it was contemporary to P&P, and not following it some 200+ years later. She gives many little nods to Austen’s text without ever feeling like a parody of it, and I knew once I hit the first few paragraphs that I absolutely had to finish the whole thing:

It is a sad fact of life that if a young woman is unlucky enough to come into the world without expectations, she had better do all she can to ensure she is born beautiful. To be poor and handsome is misfortune enough; but to be penniless and plain is a hard fate indeed.

Four of the five Bennet sisters of Meryton in Hertfordshire had sensibly provided themselves with good luck enough to be accounted beauties in the limited circles in which they moved. Jane, the eldest, was the most striking, the charms of her face and figure enhanced by the unassuming modesty of her character. Elizabeth, the second sister, made up in wit and liveliness for any small deficiencies in her appearance; whilst Catherine and Lydia, the two youngest, exhibited all the freshness of youth, accompanied by a taste for laughter and flirtation, which recommended them greatly to young men of equally loud and undiscriminating inclinations. Only Mary, middle daughter, possessed neither beauty, wit, nor charm; but her sisters shone so brightly that they seemed to cancel out her failure and, indeed, eclipse her presence altogether, so that by the time they were grown, the Bennet family was regarded as one of the most pleasing in the neighbourhood.

It was common knowledge, however, that the Bennet girls’ prospects were to be envied a great deal less than their beauty. At first sight, the family appeared prosperous enough. They were the principal inhabitants of the village of Longbourn; and their house, solid and unremarkable as it was, made up in comfort what it lacked in pretension. There were servants to wait at table, a cook in the kitchen, and a man to tend the gardens; and though Mr. Bennet’s possessions were not extensive, they were quite enough to sustain his credit as a private gentleman. Few of the families with whom they were intimate were sufficiently rich or genteel to condescend to them with confidence, and the Bennets were regarded, in public at least, as eminently respectable ornaments to Hertfordshire society.

But in the country, no family’s business is ever truly its own, and everyone knew that the outward prosperity of the Bennets rested on very uncertain foundations. Their property was subject to an entail which restricted inheritance to male heirs; if no Bennet son was produced, the estate would pass eventually into the hands of Mr. Bennet’s cousin. At first, this had seemed of little significance. As baby after baby arrived at Longbourn with promising regularity, surely, it was only a matter of time before the much-anticipated Bennet boy put in his overdue appearance. But when the tally of girls reached five, and it was clear no more children could be expected, the entail cast a deepening shadow over the family’s happiness. On Mr. Bennet’s death, his widow and daughters would be left with nothing but five thousand pounds in the four per cents, and a humiliating dependence on the uncertain charity of a distant and unknown relative. Their friends were not without sympathy for the Bennets’ plight, but that did nothing to dampen their curiosity about what was to come, for what could be more compelling than to watch at first hand the probable wreck and dissolution of an entire family’s fortune? (9-10)

Mary’s journey throughout the novel is one of self-knowledge, as she seeks the happiness that Aristotle offers as most lasting. As a very young woman, she decides that feelings are unreliable and that it must be the life of the mind that sustains her; particularly in the latter half of the novel she grapples with the idea of opening up to feeling — helped along by the poetry of William Wordsworth, who of course was a living poet at the time — and seeks to find the correct balance between head and heart, propriety and boldness. The impetus for this journey initially comes from a surprising source; Mary bonds with Mr. Collins during a long visit to Longbourn, where he and Charlotte reside after the death of Mr. Bennet. Finding Mary altogether more sympathetic than his wife, Mr. Collins invites her into a course of academic study, where she encounters both some of the great thinkers and the pleasure of having her thoughts taken seriously for perhaps the first time in her life.

“Indeed. And how does Aristotle suggest such happiness is to be achieved?”

“Well, it is hard to sum up his thoughts succinctly without losing the subtlety of their perceptions–”

“But if I press you to do so, Miss Bennet?”

“Then I should say he tells us it is only through self-knowledge that genuine happiness is to be had. Only when we know ourselves — when we have examined and understood our strengths and weaknesses, when we have been honest enough to admit what we really desire from life — only then do we have  any chance at all of attaining it.” (223)

It is this examination that eventually brings Mary to happiness (and, of course, to marriage; some conventions must be maintained!). This was truly a delightful read. And for those of you who may miss Austen’s sparkling introduction to Pride and Prejudice, don’t worry: Mrs. Bennet makes sure that we get it in the end.

“Even you, Mary, must surely see,” her mother continued, “that if Mr. Ryder has made no offer to this other lady — who appears to have a better grasp of her position than you — it must be because he likes you.”

“He may not wish to marry either of us, Mama. Have you thought of that?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Mary. A single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (477)

Reading Round-Up: June 2019

June was a good month for Canadiana this year, with a full 60% Canadian authorship-rate on my list. Not that I planned it that way — these things tend to happen on their own as I get onto reading jags — but it seems appropriate given that I’m writing this round-up post on Canada Day. (Happy Canada Day.) Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Further Chronicles of Avonlea (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  2. Against the Odds (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  3. A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams)
  4. Frost & Fire (Roger Zelazny)
  5. I Work at a Public Library (Gina Sheridan)
  6. Boy (Roald Dahl)
  7. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls (Anissa Gray)
  8. The Story Girl (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  9. The Blythes are Quoted (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  10. Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page (Stuart McLean)
  11. Time Now for the Vinyl Cafe Story Exchange (ed. Stuart McLean)
  12. Spirit of Place: Lucy Maud Montgomery and Prince Edward Island (Francis W. P. Bolga, Wayne Barrett, and Anne MacKay)
  13. The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks (Stuart Mclean)
  14. The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick)
  15. The Value of Simple: A Practical Guide to Taking the Complexity Out of Investing (John Robertson)

Lucy Maud Montgomery

… gets her own section this month, with four books by her and one about her. The latter was not, unfortunately, especially interesting. Spirit of Place is a photo book of PEI scenes interspersed with random quotations from LMM’s diaries or letters. I liked most of the pictures — Prince Edward Island certainly lives up to its picturesque reputation — but the quotations seemed chosen at random, the photos didn’t have any discernible order to them, and the whole project seemed rather haphazard. It’s too bad.

The Story Girl is the only novel among the pack, centering around a group of cousins and friends who live in a rural PEI enclave and have adventures etc. The “Story Girl” is really named Sara Stanley, and she has a reputation as a gifted storyteller with an unearthly and charming voice, powerful beyond what her youth would suggest. There is a lot of overblown description of the Story Girl, passages like these:

The Story Girl was barefooted and barearmed, having rolled the sleeves of her pink gingham up to her shoulders. Around her waist was twisted a girdle of the blood-red roses that bloomed in Aunt Olivia’s garden; on her sleek curls she wore a chaplet of them; and her hands were full of them. She paused under the outmost tree, in a golden-green gloom, and laughed at us over a big branch. Her wild, subtle, nameless charm clothed her as with a garment. We always remembered the picture she made there; and in later days when we read Tennyson’s poems at a college desk, we knew exactly how an oread, peering through the green leaves on some haunted knoll of many fountained Ida, must look. (Chapter 18)

The Story Girl leaned that brown head of hers against the fir trunk behind her, and looked up at the apple-green sky through the dark boughs above us. She wore, I remember, a dress of warm crimson, and she had wound around her head a string of waxberries, that looked like a fillet of pearls. Her cheeks were still flushed with the excitement of the evening. In the dim light she was beautiful, with a wild, mystic loveliness, a compelling charm that would not be denied. (Chapter 27)

But when the Story Girl wreathed her nut brown tresses with crimson leaves it seemed, as Peter said, that they grew on her–as if the gold and flame of her spirit had broken out in a coronal, as much a part of her as the pale halo seems a part of the Madonna it encircles. (Chapter 28)

Those were just chosen by paging through at random. There is a lot more of that kind of thing, all terribly saccharine. The Story Girl has a sequel, The Golden Road, but I’m not sure that I’ll bother reading it. I’ve had rather enough of Sara Stanley for a while.

When I checked Further Chronicles of Avonlea out, the librarian laughed at the melodramatic pose on its cover, quipping that it doesn’t really seem very Montgomery-ish. And probably that’s true if you’ve only read Anne of Green Gables, because LMM’s writing on the whole is much darker and more dramatic than her current reputation admits. Anne, after all, was not considered a children’s book when it was first published, and LMM chafed through her life against her growing reputation as someone who wrote for children, not adults. (For further reading see Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio.)

Further Chronicles of Avonlea, Against the Odds, an1d The Blythes are Quoted are short story collections, none of which shy away from the dramatic: their narratives deal with poverty, revenge, adultery, illegitimacy, and murder, along with gentler aspects. The Blythes are Quoted is especially interesting in this regard. It is a departure in form from many of her other works, consisting of short stories interspersed by a framing device of poetry by Anne and Walter Blythe, as well as the Blythe family’s spoken and unspoken ruminations on their contents. It is also the last book that Montgomery wrote, delivered to her publisher by an unknown person on the very day she died of suicide via barbiturate overdose. Is The Blythes are Quoted, if not exactly a suicide note, at least a kind of final statement? In some ways it reads as one, as her characters wrestle with the lead-up and aftermath of World War One, particularly (in the latter half of the book) as the dawn of the Second World War called into question all the sacrifices of the First. This was a preoccupation of LMM herself, as well as of her husband, the Rev. Ewen Macdonald, who became convinced late in life that he was predestined to hell for encouraging young men to sign up to fight in WWI. (Seriously: read the Rubio biography.) It’s a dark read, in many ways — but it’s dark in the ways that Montgomery has been all along, if we’ve had the eyes to see it.

Everyone else:

End of essay. Here are the other books I tackled in June, in no particular order:

Zelazny’s Frost & Fire is a collection of sci-fi short stories that I enjoyed very much. I have read other Zelazny before — most notably his sprawling ten-volume Chronicles of Amber series — but not, I think, any short stories. These were clever and strange and very entertaining. Man, I should totally reread the Amber books.

If I Work in a Public Library sounds like the title of a blog, that’s because it is. This is a short, amusing blog-to-book publication that takes about six minutes to read.

We were at the library last week at The Invention of Huge Cabret grabbed my attention — I remember my roommate telling me about how obsessed all of her young piano students were with the movie version when it came out in 2011. It’s a very thick book, but most of it is pictures. I think I would have liked the movie better.

A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those cultural touchstones that you probably know some lines from (STELLLLLLLLLLAAAAAAAA) without necessarily knowing that this is where they’re from. Well, now I’ve read it, and now I know. I’m pretty sure I own at least one or two other plays by Tennessee Williams — definitely A Doll’s House, anyway — and perhaps I will read them soon.

The Value of Simple is a guide for Canadian investors, looking at how to set up index-fund investing (and why you would want to, of course). There is a big friendly “don’t panic” at the beginning, à la Douglas Adams, and the entire thing was easy to read and to understand. And look, now we know some stocks. Wheeeeeeee. (NB: Robertson maintains an errata page where he posts updated information as some options have changed since the book’s publication.)

Over the past few years I have enjoyed diving into memoir as a genre, and Roald Dahl’s account of his boyhood did not disappoint. In many respects his childhood was not an easy one; it was interesting, however, to see the genesis of many of the repeated themes that come out in his novels.

And last, but certainly not least, we come to the late, great Stuart McLean. Last month I read a Vinyl Cafe story collection, which gave me a hankering for more. Each of these is a little different: Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page is a collection of Dave and Morley stories, Time Now for the Vinyl Cafe Story Exchange is an anthology of short (true) stories sent in to the Vinyl Cafe radio show by listeners, and The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks is a collection of thematically-grouped personal essays. All of these were wonderful, and I was happy to round out my mental McLean catalogue.

Post-publication edit: I forgot about The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray, which first caught my eye in the library simply because it has a beautiful cover. It’s a tightly-woven family drama that reminds me somewhat of Anne Tyler’s novels — except instead of everyone being white Marylanders they are black Michiganites. Michigonians. Michiganis. They live in Michigan. Lots of reckoning with the past and future, emotional revelations, and etc. It was very good, in a fraught sort of way.

Love, Julia

Recently I watched the 2009 movie Julie & Julia, which tells the parallel stories of Julia Child’s road to publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blogger Julie Powell’s 2002 attempt to cook every recipe therein over the space of one calendar year. It was entertaining on the whole. I didn’t find the Powell storyline especially compelling (woman writes novelty blog, gets popular, imperils marriage, gets book deal; nothing we haven’t seen play out a million times in real life since the early aughts) but I really enjoyed the Julia Child segments. She was a fascinating woman — and I have to say that Meryl Streep nailed her voice — and so I grabbed myself a copy of As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, & the Making of a Masterpiece, selected and edited by Joan Reardon. Yes, this book has two subtitles. I know.

Anyway — As Always, Julia covers nine years of a friendship that started in an unusual way: Child wrote a fan letter to Bernard DeVoto, Avis’s husband, agreeing with his piece in Harper’s Magazine decrying stainless steel kitchen knives. Avis, acting as her husband’s secretary, wrote back; Julia Child wrote back to her, and a remarkable friendship and working partnership was born. Julia and Avis were frequent correspondents during the nine years it took to bring Mastering the Art of French Cooking to publication, as Julia followed her husband Paul’s career to France (Paris and then Marseilles), Germany, and Norway.

It was an engrossing read. Besides all of the incidental culinary details — I snapped a few pictures of a letter detailing how to properly pan-fry a fish without all the breading falling off — the letters provide a snapshot of American social and political life in the 1950s and early 60s from a perspective I haven’t frequently encountered before. The Childs and the DeVotos were all heavily interested in politics and involved in what you might call high-level American cultural life. Many of their letters detailed their hopes and aspirations for the 1952 and ’56 presidential elections (Stevenson vs. Ike), and their worries about Sen. McCarthy and the direction in which he seemed to be shaping the nation. (Paul Child was interrogated about “un-American activities” in 1955.) It was, however, a little disheartening to read correspondence that decried hyper-partisanship in one letter, yet referred to Republicans as “beasts” and used phrases like “I can hardly see them as human” in the next. Plus ça change…

Mastering the Art of French Cooking was such a success that it surprised me to see the travails that it took to get it published. As a cookbook, it was something entirely new: there had been French cookbooks published in the United States before, but none aimed at the ordinary cook (the servantless American housewife!) or at those who were starting from a position of little to no culinary training. Writing and testing and retesting all of the recipes took years, as did the fight to get it placed with a publisher. Houghton Mifflin had originally contracted for the book, but turned it down as it neared the final stages — but since it sold like hotcakes and has never been out of print I can only imagine that they have been kicking themselves ever since! In the end, Avis DeVoto was able to get the cookbook placed with Knopf, and her championing of the book was instrumental; it’s doubtful whether it would have been published at all without her partnership. (In retrospect, it is disappointing how much her role is minimized in Julie & Julia.)

After reading so much about the herculean work to write and publish Mastering, I got a copy out of the library to look through. I haven’t gone deep into it, but it’s very well laid out and has already significantly upped my cooked carrots game (unsurprisingly, the secret is butter). Julie & Julia wasn’t a great movie, but I’m glad that it put me onto these reading trails. So here’s to Julia Child — and more butter!

Reading Round-Up: January 2019

Twenty full days into the next month is probably the latest I’ve ever left a round-up post. Here at Chez Pennylegion we’re mired in moving logistics at the moment, which seem to be taking most of my mental energy; I had been delaying this post because I really wanted to write about one book on its own, Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. I’ve started that post three or four times now — I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. It’s time to set it aside; for the moment, suffice to say that you should consider giving it a read. As to the rest, here’s January’s list:

  1. The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  2. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoners Dilemma (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  3. Tending the Heart of Virtue (Vigen Guroian)
  4. The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion (Fannie Flagg)
  5. An Acceptable Time (Madeleine L’Engle)
  6. A War of Loves (David Bennett)
  7. Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)
  8. The Lost Tools of Learning (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  9. Over Sea, Under Stone (Susan Cooper)
  10. The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper)
  11. Greenwitch (Susan Cooper)
  12. The Grey King (Susan Cooper)
  13. Silver on the Tree (Susan Cooper)
  14. Annabel Scheme (Robin Sloan)
  15. Technopoly (Neil Postman)
  16. The Little Mermaid and Other Fairy Tales (Hans Christian Andersen)

This was one of those heavy-on-the-fiction months, and included reading/completing two series… serieses… groups of related books. The Mysterious Benedict Society and [Ditto] and the Prisoners Dilemma capped off my re-read of Trenton Lee Stewart’s delightful middle-grade puzzle books (completely out of order, mind you). And I (re)read through Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence while barely pausing to breathe between each installment. It’s an interesting series, with that very British mix of Christian and Pagan symbols and forces — plus some ethical dilemmas worth pondering. At the end of the last book, a secondary character finds that his wife has been in league with the Dark — that his entire marriage has been built around a lie. She is destroyed; he has the choice put before him to either remember all that has truly happened (including the great grief of her betrayal) or to remember only that she has died (but no details of her misalliance with the Dark or the truth of their union). The choice, in a way, is between grief and grief: but is it better to grieve the truth or the lie?

I picked up Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion after enjoying Friend Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe in December. It’s a fun read, moving between present-day Alabama, where middle-aged Sookie Earle finds out something shocking about her past, and WW2-era Wisconsin, where a group of Polish-American sisters run their family’s filling station before enlisting and flying with the WASP. The family-drama side of the narrative is heartfelt, and I learned a lot about an area of the war effort I had never heard much about.

An Acceptable Time is one of those Madeleine L’Engle novels I’ve had kicking around my shelves approximately forever but hadn’t actually read. I liked it; much food for thought as always and a fun time travel element. I think this is one of the middle books of a series, though, and it probably would have been a better read if it had been slotted into its proper place.

Little Fires Everywhere was probably the best of the fiction I read last month; indeed, I still think about it from time to time. Ng’s story is set in a Cleveland suburb in the late 1990s — my uncle’s garage makes an appearance, which was a bit surreal — and the plot circles around motherhood in all of its many complicated forms. I think she hits it all: miscarriage and infant loss, adoption (from bio-and adoptive-parent perspectives), surrogacy, abortion, wanted and unwanted motherhood, good relationships between mothers and children, bad relationships between mothers and children… you name it, Ng invites us to ponder it. The greatest strength of this novel is that she manages to make all of her characters sympathetic; our expectations about their motivations are constantly getting overturned, which makes the book’s moral/ethical explorations all the more poignant. I’ll be reading this one again.

If I hadn’t read Little Fires Everywhere, I probably would have pegged Annabel Scheme as the best in January — it’s a strange, compelling little novella from the wonderfully weird brain of Robin Sloan (author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough). And you can download it for free in several formats here!

Last but not least on the fiction side of things, I read the collected fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen — in an absolutely gorgeous edition put forth by MinaLima, the design firm behind the Harry Potter movie aesthetics. I hadn’t read most of the stories for decades, probably. Since the MinaLima edition is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, it’s gone onto my to-buy list, along with the other books in the series (The Jungle Book, The Beauty and the Beast, The Secret Garden, and Peter Pan).

Phew! On to the non-fiction!

Tending the Heart of Virtue was briefly treated in this post.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Lost Tools of Learning is really just a long essay I happen to own in book form. You can read it for free here (go on, it’ll just take a few minutes). This is one of the resources that is helping to shape my thinking as we consider school options for Anselm and Perpetua.

A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus recounts David Bennett’s surprising conversion to Christ; one of its major strengths is how gracious and even-handed Bennett is towards those on all sides of this particular culture war. Everyone we meet in A War of Loves is a human being — something all to easy to forget.

Finally: Technopoly. I have a blog post in my drafts folder that’s just long excerpts of Technopoly that I just want everybody to read — and I hope they’ll see the light of day. In the mean time, the Cliff’s Notes version: Neil Postman published Technopoly in 1992, looking at the intersection of culture and technology. He uses a historical approach in discussion how technological innovation changes culture (the printing press being the obvious example) and then traces the roots of what he sees as a particularly American obsession with technological progress as a marker of human progress. Postman was writing at what we might think of as the dawn of the computer age; his remarks are eerily prescient and, although social media, “smart” technologies, and the like did not exist at the time of his writing, it’s pretty easy to extrapolate his points. America, Postman argues, is a “techonopoly” (as opposed to a “tool-using culture” or a “technocracy”); that is, a culture which sees technological innovation as its highest cultural good and in which technological innovation is chiefly seen as only ever good. Postman invites us to interrogate those claims. He is no Luddite; Postman doesn’t see technological advances as bad things per se — but argues that every major technological change is a mixed blessing, creating cultural winners and cultural losers.

There is a lot more that I would say about Technopoly if I could drag my grey matter into line to do so right now. But instead, let me close with Postman’s recipe for how to become “a loving resistance fighter” against the forces of cultural technopoly:

… if there is an awareness of and resistance to the dangers of Technopoly, there is reason to hope that the United States may yet survive its Ozymandias-like hubris and technological promiscuity. Which brings me to the “resistance fighter” part of my principle. Those who resist the American Technopoly are people

who pay no attention to a poll unless they know what questions were asked, and why;

who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations;

who have freed themselves from the belief in the magical powers of numbers, do not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as a synonym for truth;

who refuse to allow psychology or any “social science” to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense;

who are, at least, suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding;

who do not regard the aged as irrelevant;

who take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor, and who, when they “reach out and touch someone,” expect that person to be in the same room;

who take the great narratives of religion seriously and who do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth;

who know the difference between the sacred and the profane, and who do not wink at tradition for modernity’s sake;

who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement.

A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology — from an IQ test to an automobile to a television set to a computer — is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore requires scrutiny, criticism, and control. In short, a technological resistance fighter maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural. — Neil Postman, Technopoly, 183-5

Indeed. Tune in this time next month when I tell you about the two whole books it looks like I’m going to get through in February.

Reading Round-Up: 2018 Books

It’s the start of a new year and my blog reader is filling up with people’s lists of what they read in 2018 — sometimes everything they read, sometimes just the highlights. I like to recap my reading every month, but just like I did for 2017, I’ve compiled a master list of every book I finished last year.

Here are my stats:

  • Total books read: 132
  • Monthly average: 11
  • Fiction: 71.5 (53%)
  • Non-fiction: 60.5 (46%)
  • New reads: 111 (84%)
  • Re-reads: 21 (15%)

The “.5” in both fiction and non-fiction — I know that looks weird — is because of C. S. Lewis’s Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories which, as the title implies, is half essays and half short stories. As far as the rest of my stats go, I note that I pounded my previous record for non-fiction (29%) with a balance approaching 50/50 on the F/NF split. I wasn’t shooting for this, really: the big difference this year, I think, was discovering how much I love reading memoirs. People are endlessly fascinating, and so between memoir and poetry, I got in a lot more non-fiction than I usually do. This year also had an unusually high proportion of new reads vs. re-reads. Again, this wasn’t deliberate — just the way things shook out. I’m certainly getting my money’s worth out of our library system!

There were a few themes that emerged in my reading this year. I continued my personal, informal “Race in America: Seriously, What the Heck?” study series with new-to-me authors like Gail Lukasik, Julie Lythcott-Haims, D. Watkins, and others. As previously mentioned, I read a lot of memoir this year: Tara Westover’s Educated, Lynn K. Wilder’s Unveiled Grace, and Jennifer Fulweiler’s One Beautiful Dream stood out to me as particularly fine examples, along with both of Sara Hagerty’s books.

I read a number of books on technology and social media — Manoush Zomorodi’s Bored and Brilliant, Antonio García Martínez’s Chaos Monkeys, Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock, and Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now — which collectively led me to delete my Facebook account once and for all. You can read about that here (scroll to the bottom to read it in chronological order). It’s been about half a year since I made that change; no regrets so far.

Other highlights include reading through Winston Graham’s Poldark series (a mere twelve books!), Naomi Novik’s new fairy-tale novels, reading the Divine Comedy in its entirely for the first time, and Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. All in all it was a very pleasant reading year for me; I think I learned a lot along the way (some lessons; bees are great but I don’t want to keep bees; it’s ok to purge your children’s toys with impunity; Fredrik Backman is even better than I remembered).

Click through if you want to see the whole list; the asterisks denote new reads and the months link to their respective round-up posts if you would like further thoughts on any of the lists.

Continue reading

Reading Round-Up: December 2018

Happy New Year! We celebrated by going to bed at 10 pm as per usual, and changing the calendar in the morning. Whee. Here’s what I read last month:

  1. That Hideous Strength (C. S. Lewis)
  2. A Season of Little Sacraments: Christmas Commotion, Advent Grace (Susan H. Swetnam)
  3. The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante (Charles Williams)
  4. The Man Born to be King (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  5. The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place (Alan Bradley)
  6. Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon (Kelley and Tom French)
  7. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (tr. Simon Armitage)
  8. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Fannie Flagg)

A few of these I’ve already touched on in prior posts: Season of Little Sacraments and The Man Born to be King here, and The Figure of Beatrice here. I hadn’t finished either of the Sayers or the Williams when I wrote their respective posts — suffice it to say that they each continued excellent to the end, and are well worth your time (particularly the Sayers play cycle).

That Hideous Strength is the final book in C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, the first two installments of which I read in November. It’s funny… the first time I read this trilogy, about 10-15 years ago, I thought that This Hideous Strength was the weakest of the three. I am convinced, now, that it’s the strongest. It’s true that it doesn’t have as many fantastical elements as Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra — taking place, as it does, entirely on earth — but I found on this read-through that the stakes and the drama are much higher than in the first two books, and that Lewis speaks very presciently to many aspects of our life today.

I’ve been reading Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce series since it came out — The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place is the ninth of them, and I am sad to say that it will probably be the last… for me. What can I say? Some of Flavia’s charm has worn off. The internal chronology of the series is stretched beyond belief; this book had a subplot about a blackmail situation that was just dropped instead of resolved; the final straw, for me, was when Flavia bent a crochet hook into an L-shape to pick a lock. Dude. Crochet hooks are 1) too big for that, and 2) made of steel. Probably Bradley was thinking of tatting hooks, which are teeny-weeny because they’re used to make lace… but the mistake certainly killed what was left of my suspended disbelief. Sorry, Flavia. Sorry, Alan. It was a good ride while it lasted.

Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon is the story of Juniper French, a micro-preemie born at 23 weeks 6 days gestation. Her parents are both investigative journalists, and they tell the story together, alternating chapters. If you want the Cliffs notes, I linked to the three-part series that was the genesis of the book in my last edition of Weekend Reading. Kelley Benham French won a Pulitzer for that series, so if you enjoyed it, be sure to pick up the book and get the expanded story as well.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a delightful surprise to me this month. It’s a long poem — about 2300 lines and change — and one of the earliest examples of English epic poetry after Beowulf, most likely written sometime around the year 1400. This edition is a new verse translation by Simon Armitage, and it’s fantastic. He sticks to the alliterative scheme of the original, and the whole thing just rollicks along. It’s also an interlinear text, with the Middle English on the left-hand pages and the translation on the right-, so you can go back and forth between them looking at some of his specific translations choices. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing. Which I am.

And my last book of the year: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which I finished last night with a few hours to spare. I’d already seen the movie, but enough years ago that I had only a few particular images/scenes left in my mind. This one was great fun, and surprisingly poignant. There was a lot of time-jumping between chapters; I remember that the movie did a certain amount of that as well; I will have to watch it again to properly compare, though.

And that’s it! Stay tuned for my big post about everything I read this year — I hope to have it up sometime in the next few days. Happy new year and happy new reading!

Reading Round-Up: November 2018

November was a pretty good reading month for me — not as many books as I’ve hit on other occasions, but all high-caliber.

  1. The Best American Poetry 2018 (ed. Dana Gioia)
  2. Rules of Civility (Amor Towles)
  3. Southern Discomfort (Tena Clark)
  4. The Best American Poetry 2017 (ed. Natasha Tretheway)
  5. Possession (A. S. Byatt)
  6. The Reckoning (John Grisham)
  7. Stress Family Robinson (Adrian Plass)
  8. Out of the Silent Planet (C. S. Lewis)
  9. Perelandra (C. S. Lewis)

This is the time of year when my reading list starts getting a little repetitive; I have a few books that I read yearly, and generally in the colder months. In November I read A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which remains a top favourite and in which I am always finding new things at which to marvel. I wrote about it at a bit more length last year. This year, I found myself focusing most on the poetry that serves as epigraph for nearly every chapter; all of it is pertinent and it was interesting to go back and read after finishing each chapter, to better see the themes highlighted by each poem or snippet of poetry.

And speaking of poetry, I read two collections this past month, namely the two latest editions of The Best American Poetry. It was enjoyably different to read a few anthologies, as most of the poetry I’ve read in this past year has been collections by single authors. These two books had a tremendous amount of breadth in terms of style and subject, all the more so because they are picked and organized on a very simple principle: new poetry that best catches the eye of each edition’s guest editor. I slightly preferred, overall, 2018 to 2017 as a collection, but in each I found many wonderful things.

The only other non-fiction I read in November was Tena Clark’s memoir, Southern Discomfort, her account of growing up gay in the American South in the 1960s. Oh, and growing up white while being raised by the black women who worked for her family. And dealing with an alcoholic mother, and a bully of a father who essentially owned their town, and her own burning desires to a) play the drums and b) escape. (There’s a lot going on in this book.) It’s a heart-wrenching, tender, and engrossing read with a few major surprises along the way. Great stuff.

I put Rules of Civility — Amor Towles’s debut novel — on my library list after devouring his magnificent A Gentleman in Moscow (review). Rules of Civility is set in the glitzy inter-war period in New York City, following Katey Kontent, her roommate Eve, and roguish banker Tinker Grey in a novel about social climbing, aspirations and assumptions, truth and transformation.

My last post reviewed Grisham’s The Reckoning (major spoilers). And since that was such a downer, I turned to one of my pick-me-up standbys, Adrian Plass. Stress Family Robinson is a portrait of the chaotic and charming Robinson family (Mike and Kathy, teenage sons Jack and Mark, and six-year-old Felicity) as seen through the eyes of their dear friend Elizabeth ‘Dip’ Reynolds. As always, Plass is laugh-out-loud funny, with a generous dose of wisdom thrown in. I note that there’s a sequel, which I will have to look up one of these days.

Lastly, I started reading C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, finishing Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra in November (I just finished That Hideous Strength but that will have to wait for December’s round-up post). Technically this is a re-read for me — I read the whole trilogy perhaps ten years ago, and Perelandra for a class in grad school — but it had been so long since I encountered Out of the Silent Planet it was like reading it for the first time. I found myself completely entranced by Lewis’s cosmology. While it’s not exactly medieval it carries the same sort of flavour — it felt a bit like reading Dante — only with spaceships and things thrown in, of course! These are really fine examples of classic science fiction, in the imaginative mode that perhaps was more possible before we actually got to the moon. This series may have to find its own spot on my annual read list.

Story and structure

Note: this post is going to thoroughly spoil John Grisham’s latest novel, The Reckoning. If you intend to read the book, stop reading now!

Like millions of other people, I am a John Grisham fan. When I saw that his newest novel, The Reckoning, was coming out, I put it on my library holds list — and was number 437 in line. Fortunately for me, the county library system bought 250 copies of the book, so my wait was relatively short. It’s a compelling story and it kept me turning pages, and as I read I noticed that the structure of the novel was integral to its appeal. Grisham doesn’t tell the story straight through. There are multiple time-jumps within the novel that work both to keep us guessing about the plot, and to majorly serve the cause of his character development.

If you were to put the story of The Reckoning in strict chronological order, it would look something like this:

  1. It is 1925. Pete Banning, a West Point graduate, meets Liza, a debutante. They hit it off and elope after Liza falls pregnant. The Bannings get stationed in Germany which allows them to hide the date of their son Joel’s birth. Joel is soon followed by a daughter, Stella. Liza suffers several miscarriages and then a long infertility, leading her to assume that she is barren.
  2. It’s the 1930s. Pete inherits the family cotton farm and moves his family there. He remains in the Army reserve and is called up to fight in the Pacific in 1939.
  3. 1942: Pete is part of the Bataan Death March after U. S. forces surrender in the Philippines. He is reported missing, presumed dead to the Banning family (Liza and the children, and Pete’s sister, Florry). However, he survives. Pete spends some time as a POW and then escapes to fight the Japanese as a guerilla until the end of the war.
  4. Meanwhile, Liza has begun an affair with Jupe, a black farmhand who works on the Banning farm. She becomes pregnant by him, and gets an abortion in Memphis with the help of the Methodist pastor, Dexter Bell.
  5. 1945: Pete is rescued in the Philippines. After his return home, he becomes suspicious of Liza because she refuses sexual relations with him, citing a lingering infection after a miscarriage she had just after he shipped out. Pete knows that she wasn’t pregnant by him at that time because an injured back (on his side) prevented relations for a month or two before he left. He confronts her; she panics and names Dexter Bell as the father, in part to save Jupe from the lynching that would follow if their history was known.
  6. Pete commits Liza to the state mental institution. He shoots Dexter Bell, is tried, found guilty, and executed by the state. The night before his execution, he tells Florry he shot Dexter Bell because of Liza’s infidelity. Florry keeps mum.
  7. The Banning family is met by a wrongful death suit on behalf of Dexter Bell’s family.
  8. Liza escapes from the state mental hospital, confesses to Florry that Jupe was the father of her child, and commits suicide on Pete’s grave. Florry keeps mum.
  9. After various legal machinations, Joel and Stella lose the family farm.
  10. Florry has moved to New Orleans. Joel and Stella visit her on her deathbed, where she confesses the truth about Pete and Liza.
  11. Everything is tragic. The end.

Told straight, it’s a pretty depressing read and in some ways not especially interesting. (I will grant that it’s depressing either way.) But Grisham doesn’t tell it straight: the book begins with Item 6 above, the shooting of Dexter Bell. We know that Pete kills him but we don’t know why — in fact, nobody knows why, as Pete’s only (frequently repeated) comment is that he has nothing to say. Right before he’s shot, Dexter asks Pete if it’s “about Liza”. The question that keeps us reading is not what happened, but why.

From Item 6, we then pass to Item 7: Joel and Stella trying to deal with their father’s death and the threatened loss of their land. We still don’t know why Pete shot Dexter. Immediately after this, the story jumps back in time to Items 1-3 and we learn about Pete and Liza’s courtship, and his service in the war. Then we jump forwards in time again to Liza’s escape from the mental hospital and her suicide (8),  the loss of the family farm (9), and Florry’s deathbed confession (10, leading to 4 and 5). Then the book ends (11).

So instead of ordering the plot as 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11, Grisham gives it us as 6-7-1-2-3-8-9-10-4-5-11. It’s a masterful piece of story-craft that heightens the tragedy of the whole thing, especially since Grisham keeps violating our expectations about which characters are the ones we should be rooting for. At the beginning, we watch Pete shoot Dexter, but we don’t know him or necessarily like him. It’s only after his execution that Grisham shows us who Pete Banning is: his strengths and weaknesses, his grueling war experience, his loyalty to Liza and his brothers in arms, his incredible instinct to survive. Pete becomes a highly sympathetic character, all the more so because we know his end.

As a counter-example, we have Jackie Bell, Dexter’s young widow. We have immediate sympathy for Jackie: her husband was murdered at his desk, her children are suddenly fatherless. But our sympathies dry up as Jackie takes up with a greasy lawyer, sues the Banning estate, and wins the Banning farm and generational homestead. Should she get those things? Maybe so — maybe that is exactly a just recompense for the loss of her husband — but we don’t think so anymore, because Grisham has already taught us to like Pete, even though he has done her immeasurable wrong.

Then, of course, at the end we find out that Pete killed the wrong man; Dexter may have been guilty of helping Liza to facilitate a secrte abortion, but he certainly never slept with her. Liza commits suicide not because of her guilt over the affair with Jupe — remember, she was convinced that Pete had been killed in the Philippines — but because her naming Dexter as the father led to the death of an innocent man. Grisham is constantly overturning our understanding of the story and its characters as the plot gets fleshed out bit-by-bit.

As to the Jupe-vs-Dexter dilemma, I only noticed after I got to the end that Grisham had been hinting as to the real story all along the way. Various things make it obvious that Pete’s motive has to do with Liza and almost certainly has to do with her (real/perceived) sexual misconduct. We are prepared to accept that it was Dexter — it looks in many ways as if it was Dexter — but in a way it also looks too obvious. In retrospect, we can see the ways that Grisham tells us throughout the novel that Jupe, and not Dexter, was the real third party in the Banning marriage:

  1. Before Pete’s trial, a grand jury is convened to determine whether charges should be brought in several criminal cases, including Pete’s. There is a brief discussion of a case where a white man was caught in flagrante delicto with a black woman. A short interlude details Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws, noting that the law was much less concerned with the pairing of white men and black women than it was with white women and black men.
  2. Jupe serves as the farm’s driver as often drives for Florry, who doesn’t have a license. It is later mentioned in passing that Liza “hated to drive” as much or even more than Florry.
  3. Jupe disappears from the farm, sent north to Chicago by his grandparents. (We find out that he and Liza were spotted parked on one of their drives.)

On their own, none of these details add up to much — but when you put them together, they add up. Hearing that Liza was pregnant by Jupe surprises us, but only briefly, until the pattern rearranges itself in our minds and becomes obvious. The Reckoning is a tremendously good piece of storytelling, and I appreciate it all the more for having picked it apart a little.