Reading Notes February 2018

Woman Reading by Kuroda Seiki (via Wikimedia Commons)

Finished

1. Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

I wrote my review already. You can read it here. 
As a retelling of the myths of the Norse gods, it’s somewhat satisfactory; but what drew me in is that really at heart it’s not a book about gods but a book about reading. (Not surprisingly since writing about readers and writers is Byatt’s metier.) And not a book about reading in general; rather, it is the account of a particular reader and a particular book at a particular moment in history. And that relationship between reader, book, and historical moment, is rather magical.

2. Bright Smoke, Cold Fire by Rosamund Hodge

This was a re-read because when I started to read my review copy of the sequel, Endless Water, I couldn’t clearly remember what had happened at the end of Bright Smoke. And I’m so glad I did re-read it. Although the beginning felt a bit slow, I soon found myself noticing all kinds of details I’d overlooked the first time through and fell in love with the book all over again. Actually, I liked it much better the second time through.

While Romeo and Juliet provides some of the bones of the plot, this novel is not really a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Rather, it’s a wholly new work that is loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s story but in this post-apocalyptic novel the material has experienced a sea change and is now something rich and strange, new and fresh. And very dark.

The player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead says, “We’re more of the love, blood and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory. They’re all blood, you see.” These novels are all blood. And yet while the culture they portray is thoroughly pagan, the sensibility is deeply Catholic, rather like C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. The idea of blood sacrifice is where the novels begin and possibly where they end. Runajo and Juliet grapple with the horror of the human sacrifice that is all that keeps their city from succumbing to the Ruining, and the citizens from becoming “revenants,” living dead zombies who try to kill every living person.

My first thoughts about the book can be found here.

3. Endless Water, Starless Sky by Rosamund Hodge

The sequel to Bright Smoke Cold Fire. This duology (I hate that term, but there’s not a great word for a pair of books) is a sort of post-apocalyptic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. The world is broken, and has been for a hundred years since the “Ruining”. The city of Viayara is a small island in a sea of death and to leave the city’s walls is to be killed by either the white fog or the “revenants” the zombie living dead. The city’s walls, which alone keep the populace alive, can only be maintained by blood sacrifice. Some of the blood is willingly shed by the family of the Exalted, the Old Viayarans who believe themselves to be the descendants of the gods, and some by the Sisterhood of Thorn, who spin the spells which maintain the walls. But that blood is not enough. There must also be human sacrifice, “willing” victims who give their life so that others must live. And the walls are failing, the magic is fading, sacrifices are required more and more often. Runajo, one of the novel’s protagonists, knows that eventually the monstrous sacrifices will be almost continuous and then they will not be enough and everyone will die.

Against this backdrop plays out the story of the two feuding households, the star-crossed lovers who increasingly it seems will likely have to die to save the world.

In this second novel things go from bad to worse to horrifically worse. Murder, betrayal, necromancy, sacrilege, death. Halfway through I was almost almost tempted to give up because I could see no way this story wasn’t going to end in a bloodbath. I could see no possibility of redemption, reconciliation. No hope. And yet the structure of story made me want to hope and so I gave it time. And though I want to avoid spoilers, would it be saying too much to assert that it was totally worth it? I will assuredly write more about the book in a separate post which will not avoid spoilers.

In Process

1. The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig

A young Jewish girl and her family are deported from the Polish city of Vilna and sent to the steppe of Siberia. Simcha Fisher recommended it and I got it for the girls. Sophie and Bella devoured it and then I picked it up. It seemed like the right book for the moment.

2. Edmund Campion: A Life by Evelyn Waugh

I started this years ago, I think. A book I keep picking up and putting down. But this time I’ve got past the first section which is mostly background about Elizabeth and the Pope and the state of England and of Oxford. Finally got past that and made it to the continent and Campion joining the Jesuits and now back to England to begin his dangerous mission. I think this time I will finish the book.

3. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism by Abraham Joshua Heschel

This is a book to read in snippets. Philosophy to be digested slowly. I’ve probably only read a few pages this month.

4. He Leadeth Me by Walter Ciszek, SJ

I put this down and now am picking it up again, but it doesn’t feel like the right moment.

5. In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

The Kindle version was on sale and it does seem like the perfect novel for Lent. Several people mentioned it and the timing seemed right for this one.

6. 1776 by David McCullough

After our Washington’s birthday holiday spent at Washington’s Cambridge headquarters, my appetite for this book was whetted once again.

7. The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander

Another book that it will take me years to finish. I read a section here and there and then go off to ponder.

8. Elisabeth Leseur Selected Writings

What is it about diaries that I find so hard to read? I enjoyed the snippets shared by friends, but I’m finding this tough going. And yet I persevere. Some day I might find my stride. But I think on the whole I’d prefer a well-written and well-researched biography.

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  1. The Word at the Heart of the World: A Bright Smoke Cold Fire Notable Moment - The Wine-Dark Sea - March 22, 2018

    […] More about Bright Smoke, Cold Fire here. A few preliminary thoughts about Endless Water, Starless Sky here. […]

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