October Reading Notes

A few books missing from the pile, like Trianon and Sun Slower, Sun Faster, but most of what I read this month was on the Kindle.

A few books missing from the pile, like Trianon and Sun Slower, Sun Faster, but most of what I read this month was on the Kindle.

1. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 by Eamon Duffy

A thorough cultural history of England at the time of the Reformation, focusing on the practice of religion, with extensive background about what Catholic religious practice looked like, especially for lay people, in the Middle Ages, before the Reformation. This is a dense, scholarly work. Duffy does not translate Middle English text into Modern English. He assumes his reader has a certain degree of familiarity with much of the specialist vocabulary he employs.

I’m moving through this very slowly. This is my second attempt. On my first go, years ago when I first acquired the book, I gave up. It’s not an easy read and I have to push myself a bit. So much detail and not as much focus on the big picture as I’d like. But it is fascinating and I really want to stick it out this time. So like a snail I’m creeping, devouring little bits at a time. Expect this to be on my currently reading list for the rest of the year and probably much of next year too.

2. Trianon: A Novel of Royal France by Elena Maria Vidal

A historical novel about Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and the rest of the royal family of France in the years leading up to the French Revolution and during the Revolution. Vidal overturns the traditional narrative about Marie Antoinette and presents her as a sympathetic, misunderstood figure, a woman devoted to her family and her faith, who seeks simplicity of dress and of lifestyle, and who with her husband is devoted to charity and political reform. Louis XVI is presented as a martyr for the faith.

The book is very moving and I’m really intrigued by Vidal’s revisionist narrative. The novel does has some weak points. The dialogue often feels forced and stilted, Vidal falls pray to the all too common tendency to use dialogue to fill in the audience about history and character details. I worry that perhaps in her zeal to correct historical misapprehensions about Louis and Marie Antoinette Vidal errs to the other extreme and makes them too idealistic. It sometimes feels a little like a hagiography. And yet they do come across as very sympathetic characters and do not feel cardboard. I was often swept away by the story, wanting to learn more about them. I was particularly moved by the chapter told from the point of view of the Irish priest who attends Louis the night before he dies and who accompanies him to the scaffold. I sobbed when I read the chapter about the final days of Marie Antoinette and especially when her children were taken from her. And the closing chapters about the princess Maria Theresa Charlotte were poignant and harrowing.
I enjoyed the story very much, but it did have it’s weaknesses. The dialog often felt flat and was often used for explication in a way that did not feel at all believable, people telling each other things that they would have no reason to rehearse since both parties would have accepted the information they are imparting as common knowledge. The only person who didn’t know it is the reader.

I also wondered if perhaps Vidal doesn’t err towards being too positive about King Louis XVI and his queen. While I don’t find it at all believable that they were the villains the revolutionaries painted them, I also wonder if they were the paragons of virtue and martyrs for the faith that Vidal’s narrative often suggests they are. She protests that she doesn’t mean to make them seem to be perfect, but maybe it’s just the shortness of the novel, they don’t have much room to develop. What was most moving to me were their deaths. But also their commitment to almsgiving and prayer and their attempts to rule justly and fairly and to do right by the peasants, even at the expense of the nobility and clergy.

I want to believe this portrait, but I don’t know enough about the history to know how accurate it is. And this is the limitation of a historical novel, of course. I really want to find some good nonfiction now. I’ve poked about a bit on Vidal’s blog an have been disappointed so far not to find more about her research and links to historical sources. Maybe there’s more there that I’m not seeing? I wish she were better at showing her work. She does have a series of podcasts that explore hte history and I’ve listened to one of them and it was very interesting and she seemed to be quoting from historical documents and various historians, but sadly there were no bibliographical notes for the listener to follow up with, so I’m no closer to being able to find good historical sources to read. Vidal’s work would be much stronger and more compelling if she were more forthcoming with her sources. I wish the novel had a good bibliography and historical notes. I hope she considers them for future editions. The fantasy novelist, Guy Gavriel Kay, has extensive pages of acknowledgements about sources for his fantasy books and a bibliography which points me toward places I can begin to learn more about the era he’s portraying, I’m disappointed that Vidal’s historical novelist fails to be as thorough.

3. Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls WIlder

In the past year I read all of the Laura books to my kids. It’s been years since I read them and I was surprised at how well they have held up. In fact, I think I appreciate them much more now than I ever did as a child. I think I came to Laura late and my heart had already been won by other heroines. I preferred fantasy to history and magic to the mundane details of life in former times. And yet my mental landscape of American westward expansion is built on the foundation of Laura’s prose.

So I’m thrilled to be able to read the first drafts of Laura’s original manuscript, the never before published autobiography written for adults not children, which Laura then mined for the famous juvenile novels and which her daughter, Rose Lane, mined for her own historical novels for adults.

The introduction about the writing career of Laura and her daughter Rose, their sometimes stormy collaboration, is itself a fascinating read.

This is a book I’m picking up and putting down. Not a book to devour, but one to explore. Still in progress.

4. The Soul of Elizabeth Seton: A Spiritual Portrait by by Joseph I. Dirvin.

This book isn’t a biography, but rather an exploration of Elizabeth Seton’s spirituality. I’m glad I’m reading a short biography of her with the children because otherwise I might be a little lost with the names and the timeline of events. This doesn’t lay out events in chronological order at all but follows several themes and jumps back and forth in time as it explores the development of Seton’s spirituality in various areas. It’s a nice compliment to the children’s biography, which is rather sketchy about Seton’s rich spiritual life. I feel like I’m really getting to know St Elizabeth Ann Seton and to appreciate her. Still in progress.

5. Sun Slower, Sun Faster by Meriol Trevor

I really loved this juvenile novel about two children who travel back in time to various eras in English history and on the way learn about their ancestors’ Catholic faith. Cecilia (Cecil) and Richard (Rickie) and cousins who have never met before, thrown together at the country house of an elderly relative and being tutored by another relative, a cousin who is a disabled veteran of the Second World War. Each time they jump back further into history. The first jump is to Victorian England, the latest jump takes them to Roman Britain. Each time they meet other children who are their ancestors. 

In a nice twist on the time travel novel, they find that in every era they arrive properly dressed for the time period and able to understand and be understood by the people they meet. Their family members recognize them, call them by name, and treat them as cousins who have come for a visit. It makes for instant intimacy and allows them to get through a lot of adventures without any fumbling about over how to explain their anachronistic presence. But also, their delving into history is personal, familial. The Catholic faith they discover is a part of their genealogy. 

I loved the characters of Rickie and Cecil and cousin Dominic, even though after a while I felt like it was hard to keep straight the various family members they meet in different eras, those characters were often interesting individuals who I wanted to know better. 

I think my favorite jump was into Elizabethan England when they attend a secret Mass in the attic of their house, watch the priest hide from pursuivants, and then witness him discovered and arrested, and finally help him to escape from prison. 

By the end of the novel Cecil and Rickie, who have been raised without any religious instruction or practice at all, have learned to pray the rosary, have attended Mass multiple times both in the past and in the present, and it seems very likely they will both become faithful practicing Catholics. This book is a nice, gentle introduction to the history of the Catholic faith in England and invites the reader to seek out history books to learn more.

6. The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir.

The novel that everyone’s been talking about, especially since the movie came out. Dom read it a while back and so it was already on the Kindle. When I wanted another book to read, it came easily to hand. The novel began as a serial on the author’s blog which he then made available in Kindle format and then when the sales skyrocketed and it became a bestseller, he got a print contract. The book definitely shows the roughness of it’s origins at times. It doubtless would be a better novel with a good editor and some rewrites. The characterizations are not deep. Critics point out that there are a few flaws in the science, not many because the origin of the book was in the author trying to solve realistic problems in a realistic way. I ultimately found that the negative criticism missed the point. It sprang from the personal animus of the critics against elements of the story that didn’t appeal to them, but like almost reader reviews, they never try to address the question of why this novel was so wildly popular with so many other readers.

The story is compelling. While some people find the format predictable: problem, panic, solution is a tried and true formula for moving a reader through a narrative. It kept me reading late into the night. We like rooting for the scrappy underdog who has all the cards stacked against him. We like seeing him triumph even though again and again it seems like he must fail and die. We love seeing ingenious solutions to seeming insoluble problems. and we like feeling that the book is getting the details right. In fact, I think some of the negative reviews I saw on Amazon were negative precisely because the readers felt that the novel got key details wrong, very wrong. That was an unforgivable sin.

Also, there is something amazingly satisfying about the prodigious waste of time and effort and money and resources that goes into rescuing this one man. Ultimately it speaks to one of the deepest truths of human experience, one of the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith (though this is not at all a religious-minded book), but this truth is at the heart of The Martian: we know that a human person is worth it. It’s worth the risk of many other people dying if there’s a chance we might prevent his death. Even if he’s a far from perfect human being. It’s the principle of the thing. When the shepherd leaves the 99 happy fat sheep to go after the one straying fool, that’s a heroic thing. When he risks his own life on the chance, the chance that the one might not die. That’s the truest measure of heroic love. And that, I suspect, is another element that makes The Martian so compelling.

7. Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock

“In many ways Mary failed as a woman but triumphed as a queen. She ruled with the full measure of royal majesty and achieved much of what she set out to do. She won her rightful throne, married her Spanish prince, and restored the country to Roman Catholicism. The Spanish marriage was a match with the most powerful ruling house in Europe, and the highly favorable marriage treaty ultimately won the support of the English government. She had defeated rebels and preserved the Tudor monarchy. Her Catholicism was not simply conservative, but influenced by her humanist education and showed many signs of broad acceptance before she died. She was an intelligent, politically adept, and resolute monarch who proved to be very much her own woman. . . . By securing the throne following Edward’s attempts to bar both his sisters, she ensured that the crown continued along the legal line of Tudor succession. Mary laid down other important precedents that would benefit her sister. Upon her accession as the first queen regnant of England, she redefined royal ritual and law, thereby establishing that a female ruler, married or unmarried, would enjoy identical power and authority to male monarchs. Mary was the Tudor trailblazer, a political pioneer whose reign redefined the English monarchy.”

Glancing through reviews, the historians didn’t seem to like this one much. They complained that it didn’t offer much that was new to the topic. But I’m no expert on the Tudors and I did enjoy this popular history that reconsiders Mary in a more positive light, especially as a devout Catholic.

Reading this I was struck again at the terrible tragedy that was the Reformation. The way that faith and politics were so very entwined seems to have created the possibility of this total rupture whose aftershocks we are still living through today.

8. Truckers by Terry Pratchett

Cultures collide when a group of nomes is displaced from their woodland home and catches a ride on a truck that delivers them to a department store where they meet the store nomes who do not believe in the Outside. But the two groups must learn to work together quickly because the store is soon to be demolished. I really love the theme of literacy that develops as the nomes, who are mostly illiterate, must master a whole new set of knowledge in order to highjack a truck. Also, it turns out they were originally from another planet. And the navigation computer of their ship survived and wants to help them get back home.

Truckers is the first novel in the Bromeliad trilogy, a delightful series for young readers. It’s very witty and, like all vintage Pratchett, very thought provoking as well. Pratchett is interested in how people work, how societies and cultures work. How religion and technology and geography form culture. All sorts of interesting themes and wrapped in a very fun package.

9. Ronin Games (Wearing the Cape Book 5) by Marion Harmon

I’ve really enjoyed all the books in the Wearing the Cape series, a refreshing take on the superhero genre. In this book the heroine, Irish-Catholic, Chicago teenager, Hope Corrigan, invades Japan secretly on a private, deep-cover mission. And then becomes a Japanese pop icon. What I like best about Harmon’s series is the world building, the systematic consideration of how politics and society would respond to an event which causes massive amounts of superheroes to suddenly spring to life. This is our first close look at superhero life in Asia and it did not disappoint.

10. Equal Rites (Discworld Book 3) by Terry Pratchett

This Discworld book it the first of the witch stories. In it we first meet Granny Weatherwax, who is one of my favorite Pratchett characters. It’s been a long time since I read these early books and it was as fun a re-read as I expected it would be. My favorite scene was when Granny Weatherwax joins forces with Archchancellor Cutangle of the Unseen University to find the missing wizard’s staff and they find out that they’re from neighboring mountain villages. I don’t love this one as much as I do some of Pratchett’s later books, but it still holds up well.

11. Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer by Leah Libresco

I’ve only finished the first chapter so far, but I really love Leah Libresco’s approach. Really she had me when she writes about praying for literary characters. So, so much. I’ll write much more when I write up my book notes for November.

2 Responses to October Reading Notes

  1. Elena Maria Vidal November 28, 2015 at 1:27 pm #

    Dear Melanie, thank you for reading TRIANON and reviewing it so thoughtfully on your always insightful blog! I am really honored. Yes, you are right, there are no sources listed at the end of TRIANON. I decided to wait until I finished the sequel, MADAME ROYALE, to include the sources I used for both novels. Also, on my Tea at Trianon blog I try to have posts about the various books consulted in my research, as well as controversies about the King and Queen. But because the blog has been going on for nine years, it is rather hard to find things on it now. So I am working on a non-fiction book about Marie-Antoiinette which will include an extensive bibliography, footnotes, etc. It should be finished by January 2016. If you would like a review copy, just email me and I will send you one! emvidal@planetrussell.net

    • Melanie Bettinelli December 2, 2015 at 10:39 pm #

      Oh good. Madame Royale is on my wish list and I definitely look forward to your non-fiction book as well. You’ve definitely piqued my interest in this era and these personalities.

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