Reading Notes April 2018

1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

My second read of this novel, about a dystopian future when most people spend most of their lives living in a virtual reality, by choice. I loved it the first time, still love it. The creator of the virtual reality world has died and has left his fortune and control of the game to the first person who can complete his challenge, win three keys and unlock three gates. The story follows Wade, a misfit orphan whose entire life is the virtual game. He teams up with some other young gamers, who he only knows via their online pseudonyms and avatars. But in the end those translate into real-world friendships in a very satisfactory way. The novel is a tour de force tribute to 80s pop culture, a real nostalgia treat. A great novel to read all in one go, I was glad to have the chance to indulge in binge-reading. That doesn’t happen very often these days. But sometime even a mom needs a little holiday.

2. The Borrowed House by Hilda Van Stockum

Hilda Van Stockum considered this her best novel, and I concur. The Borrowed House is a beautifully crafted little novel about a German girl in the German-occupied Netherlands during World War II. Isabella and Sophia both loved it and talked about it glowingly. When I read it, I understood why. It’s a perfect follow-up to Van Stockum’s other juvenile WW2 novels, The Mitchells Five for Victory, about an American family in Washington DC whose father and uncle are both away at war and who welcome a little Dutch refugee into their circle of friends, and The Winged Watchman, about a Dutch family in the German-occupation.

3. Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

Even better on the second reading. It’s a fresh and original Beauty and the Beast story that remembers that the roots of the fairy tale are in the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche and that owes a huge debt to C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. But also to T. S. Eliot and the Scots story of Tam Lin. Unlike Lewis’ story, which fully realizes the relationship between the sisters but really doesn’t delve into that between husband and wife, this story examines what it means to marry your enemy. It’s reminiscent of my favorite subplot in Tigana, the love story between Dianora and Brandin: she has vowed to kill him in revenge for what he has done to her family, her country, and yet she falls in love with her enemy. But Nyx is more full of poison, anger, and envy than Dianora and doesn’t hold back in her attacks on her demonic husband, the Gentle Lord. And yet Nyx also bears a strong resemblance to the heroine of the Tam Lin ballads who sets off to rescue her love from the hands of the Faerie Queen, holding on to him through many terrible transformations, steadfast in her love.

It’s said that good writers imitate, great writer’s steal. And Hodge’s willingness to pillage material from such a wide range of influences is what makes Cruel Beauty so rich and strange and beautiful. It’s a beautiful reflection of the best and truest story of all about how love makes broken things whole, not by eliminating the brokenness but by entering into the pain and taking the brokenness into itself, allowing itself to be wounded and die for love.

4. The Rose Round by Meriol Trevor

This was one of Bella’s Christmas presents and she’s letting me read it. I’ve become a big fan of Meriol Trevor’s work and this juvenile novel did not disappoint, though I didn’t love it quite as much as Sun Slower Sun Faster.

Matt is an orphan living with an aunt but during his school holidays he goes to visit his sister, Caro, at the big house, Woodhall, where she is working as a cook. Matt isn’t particularly welcome there. The mistress of the house, a mysterious old Frenchwoman has forbidden him access to the house outside of the servants quarters, to the gardens, and above all to her granddaughter, Alix. But Matt and Caro gradually find themselves drawn into the life of the Ayre family.

All the main characters of the novel are Catholic, and the conflict isn’t about religion really, but about prejudice and bullying. Catholic themes are strong. A lovely story of friendship, family conflicts, and redemption.

5. Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge

Like Cruel Beauty, it’s a retelling of a couple of fairy tales, in this case Red Riding Hood and the more obscure fairy tale The Girl With No Hands. The setting is a sort of alternative world France, the court of Versailles; but, you know, with magic. I wrote a bit about my favorite scene here: Of course there’s a lot more great stuff going on in the novel, but my brain is still sifting and thinking. I might have more to say, but maybe it won’t settle out.

In Progress or Partial Reads

I’m realizing that many of my “in progress” books are ones I’m content to dip into without a plan to finish them. So they might be books I pick up, read a bit, put down, and then don’t come back to to finish. I might never finish them or I might not come back to them for years.

This month in particular I’ve found myself dipping into collections of essays. These aren’t the kinds of books I’m likely to read from cover to cover unless I’m in precisely the right mood and I don’t have a lot of other books around to claim my attention.

1. Death of a Hornet by Robert Finch

This one caught my eye at the library, a collection of essays, mostly nature writing, by a
Cape Cod writer. I only read maybe the first third of them. I will almost certainly check it out again. I wish there weren’t time limits on library books because I really don’t want to read more than about one every day or two. But the writing is beautiful and I appreciated Finch’s insights. (Link to a bit I wrote about one of his essays, here: Poetry, Prayer, and Birdsong

2. Finders Keepers by Seamus Heaney

Another collection of essays, mostly about reading and writing. Again, something to dip into, read an essay, or even part of one, and then move on. I’m sure I’ll be coming back to it. (I wrote a little about my recent Heaney rabbit trail here: Digging Heaney)

3. Stages on the Road by Sigrid Undset

A collection of longish essays, originally published in Swedish periodicals, mostly about Catholic saints. I really like the way Undset frames each of the lives, helping readers to understand the historical and cultural context of the saints lives. I especially liked the life of St Margaret Clitherow. (A little excerpt from her essay on Bl. Raymond Lull: Sigrid Undset on Misunderstanding the Middle Ages)

4. A Noel Perrin Sampler by Noel Perrin

I’ve enjoyed Noel Perrin’s writing in the past, I bought this anthology at this time because of one particular essay, originally published in the New Yorker and now behind a paywall. I suppose I could have subscribed to the New Yorker, but on the whole I’d rather spend the money on a book. The essay is about Perrin’s argument with a professor at Oxford University about the sound the nightingale makes in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I found the essay while on a little rabbit trail after a discussion with my friend Cristina on the sounds birds make in the comments on my blog post about one of Robert Finch’s essays from Death of a Hornet. I was enchanted by the idea of Perrin going on a similar literary expedition to find poetic precedents for Eliot’s “jug jug”, though he didn’t have the help of Google. (See the nightingale conversation in the comments to this post.)

I did enjoy the essay, very much, and now I have a whole book of Perrin essays to also enjoy. I liked the one about visiting English relatives who assume all Americans can ski and invite him along on a ski holiday in Switzerland.

5. Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet

Over the years I’ve enjoyed many of Overstreet’s film reviews and essays. This collection includes many pieces written previously. I have especially liked his Christian perspective and his ability to find goodness, truth, and beauty in the most unlikely places. Overstreet has a keen eye for detail and a great appreciation for the art of filmmaking but never comes across as pretentious or stuffy. In this book Overstreet lays out principles of how to watch a film, and some of the how and why Christians should appreciate and enjoy secular films made by non-Christians.

6. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

For years I’ve been meaning to read this classic, but haven’t got round to it. I saw it on the shelf at the library and checked it out. So far I’ve only read the first chapter. I really thoroughly enjoyed it. But I’m not sure I’m in the mood to read the whole thing right now. So it may go back to the library when it’s due and I’ll check it out again another time. (I excerpted some of my favorite passages here: Everywhere I Look I See Fire)

7. All Through the Night: Night Poems and Lullabies edited by Marie Heaney

A beautiful anthology of poetry by Marie Heaney, the widow of Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I saw it mentioned in an interview with her that I found while looking for something or other about Seamus Heaney.

I plan to write a full review elsewhere, but here I’ll just say that it’s one of the best poetry anthologies I own. The single review on Amazon complains that it’s not a collection of bedtime poetry for children. I heartily concur with that assessment. This isn’t a children’s book, though I certainly have shared many of the poems in it with my children. (Sophie and I had a lovely poetry binge together as she curled up next to me and I read poem after poem to her. Both of us were quite delighted.) It’s an anthology for adults. Many of the classic lullabies have grim undertones and this anthology highlights the many moods of night poetry. Night is a dark time, a scary time, a time for dreams and ghosts and fears as well as for stargazing and love making. The poems, both old and new, classics and obscure, play many variations on those themes.

8. Cold Days by Jim Butcher

Finishing up my Dresden Files binge which I began in December, interrupted by Lent and then a bunch of other books after that. So far so good, so very good. I missed Harry and am sad that I’m almost caught up and that after the next book I’ll have to join the throngs of people waiting for the next book to be published.

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