Catching up on some of the books I’ve meant to blog in recent months and haven’t.
My most recent read is an advance reader copy I got via Amazon’s Vine Program: The Elephant Keeper by Christopher Nicholson. Set in 18th century England, a story about a groom who chances to become the keeper for a pair of elephants when his master buys them on a whim. I didn’t know what to expect when I chose it from the list. Just that it was about the only novel whose blurb wasn’t filled with empty superlatives, but was instead a simple plot summary. And that’s how it is, one of those books that’s hard to categorize, that doesn’t invoke superlatives because it’s simply too grounded. It’s not high drama or fancy literary styling. Just a good story, a simple tale really about a simple man who has one passion in his life: elephants. And not elephants in general but the specific elephants he tends. It doesn’t sound exciting and yet I found it hard to put down. I didn’t know where the story was going and I did so very much care to find out.
I did find the end a little… odd. The only part of the novel that really felt self-conscious and that maybe tried just a bit too hard. Despite that, it was well worth the read. And perhaps even that will grow on me. It seems I’ve been having that problem more and more recently. I just don’t like the way books end. Perhaps the problem isn’t the books so much as me. Am I reading too fast and too carelessly so that the endings jump out at me before I’m ready? I feel like I’m not connecting with much of what I read these days, which is perhaps why I’ve not been writing about books so much.
Then there was Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen. I liked Hansen’s Exiles and Atticus and had read good things about this one. (I tried to read The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and got bored and stopped reading halfway through, something I almost never do.) Still making up my mind about Mariette, but at least it was gripping enough to pull me all the way through. Certainly it was an interesting read.
What happens to a religious community when a postulant experiences visions and stigmata? The novel never takes sides as to whether her experience is genuine or faked. An argument could be made for either position. What was interesting to me was that the answer almost didn’t matter, her presence alone was a disruption and almost tears the community apart. Which might seem to be an argument that they weren’t real except I believe that many saints who experienced similar mystical experiences were very disruptive to their communities.
Anyway, while the novel was interesting, I felt as with all of Hansen’s other works that there is an emotional distance between me and the characters that I can never quite bridge. Still it treats religions seriously and raises interesting questions. I wanted to see more development of Mariette’s relationship with her older sister, who is Mother Superior when she enters the convent, what we have is tantalizing: the sister is distant but intentionally so and apologizes for that distance. If Mariette is faking—and I tend to lean in that direction—I think her need for love and attention is at the root of it.
What is most beautiful about the novel, though, is that it leaves room for genuine religious devotion. Even if Mariette is perpetuating a hoax, it does not negate her love for Christ or cast doubt on the value of piety and the religious life.
When she and the postulant are alone, Mother Saint-Raphael shifts a chintz pillow and pats a sofa cushion beside her. She stares impassively at Mariette as she sits. She says, “That was simply political, what I said—that you disappoint me. I personally believe that what you say happened did indeed happen. We could never prove it, of course. Skeptics will always prevail. God gives us just enough to seek Him, and never fully enough to find him. To do more would inhibit our freedom, and our freedom is very dear to God.”
Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden. Another of Godden’s India novels. Again the clash of cultures between the expatriate British and native Indians. Follows a broken family, the Pools, reunited when mother and daughters flee Europe during the war and return to the estranged father in India. Eleven year old Emily Pool is misunderstood by her mother and caught between her warring parents. Her father, who hasn’t seen her in years since her mother took both girls away, does seem to understand and gifts her with a small dog who becomes a point of contention with the mother. On the Indian side is a young veterinarian, Narayan, newly married and dissatisfied with his life and fascinated by Anil, a young student of the Brahmin caste. The crisis of the novel comes when her mother insists that the dog is rabid and has him put down while Emily is out visiting with the neighboring Nikolides family. Narayan is not convinced that the dog is rabid and would prefer to wait and observe it; but pressure the British Mrs.Pool overcomes his professional judgment. His guilt over the dog’s death is compounded when his friend Anil dies of rabies, followed by a student revolt because the student’s think his death was somehow the result of his political activity.
Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield.
(I read this back in May and never posted about it.) A historical novel, retelling the story of the Battle of Thermopylae from the point of view of a Greek soldier, the lone survivor of the battle, gravely injured and captured by the Persians. He spins out his tale for Xerxes as the Persians press their campaign to conquer all of Greece.
A few random thoughts in no specific order: I was initially put off by the crude language, though it was not inappropriate given the characters. In fact the conceit of the novel is that it’s being transcribed by Xerxes’ court historian and he has made a conscious decision to replicate the soldier’s language in his translation to preserve the character of the tale. Still, I’d be reluctant to give this book to a younger reader because of the language and some of the violence.
A major theme in the novel is the role of women in Spartan culture. The strength of the Spartan women is the real strength of the Spartan army. Leonides chooses the 300 not because of their own valor but because of the character of their wives and mothers to bear up bravely and to continue to support the war effort when they are gone.
For a novel dealing with a pagan culture, this one had surprisingly Christian themes, a strong prefigurement of a Christian ethos. One of the Spartans is a sort of philosopher, preoccupied with probing the nature of fear. The question that haunts him is what is the opposite of fear? In the end at the eve of the final battle he decides that the opposite of fear is love. How the story reveals that insight to him is beautiful and made it worth wading through all the blood and gore. And there is quite a bit of blood, gore and violence to wade through.
I also have a bit of fascination with weaponry and battle techniques. I appreciate a story that helps me to understand tactics and strategies. in that this novel didn’t disappoint. It also helped me piece together a gap in my knowledge of ancient history. I have to confess I blanked out in the part of my history classes where we covered the battle of Thermopylae (if indeed I was ever realy taught about it) and so I only had the vaguest idea of what it was about. I like having a much firmer grasp of that slice of history.
Dear James by John Hassler. Having cut off her correspondence with her Irish pen-pal after she learned he was a priest, still Agatha can’t let go of her attachment to him and writes letters she destroys and never sends. She resists when he wants to renew the correspondence; but is pleased when circumstances later bring them together in Rome. On the home front James’s letters to Agatha are found and her reputation in Staggerford is ruined when the townsfolk learn of things she’s said about them to James. My favorite so far of Hassler’s Staggerford novels. I found Agatha McGee much more sympathetic here—perhaps because she’s so much more vulnerable?—and the plot more engaging. I haven’t yet read A Green Journey, this novel’s predecessor and am looking forward to it as I suspect I’ll like it too.