Summer Reading Notes 2019

Summer doldrums hit and I never got around to publishing my book notes for June or July. And now August is over too. So I’m just going to make one massive Summer Book Notes post and clear the slate for the fall.

I read a lot this summer, mostly in series.

Finished in June

In June I finished reading a bunch of books in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series and am now caught up and ready for the next installment in the series. I really love this series, especially the worldview. While it’s not exactly Catholic, there are many moments which resonated with me. The basic premise of her system of magic is that in order to access magical power every wizard must take an oath promising to fight for Life and against death and entropy. It’s sort of the wizards’ Prime Directive, but with real teeth because a wizard who violates the oath loses his or her powers.

In Life’s name and for Life’s sake, I assert that I will employ the Art which is its gift in Life’s service alone, rejecting all other usages. I will guard growth and ease pain. I will fight to preserve what grows and lives well in its own way; and I will change no object or creature unless its growth and life, or that of the system of which it is part, are threatened. To these ends, in the practice of my Art, I will put aside fear for courage, and death for life, when it is right to do so — till Universe’s end.

There is much to love: magic is a vocation, a calling, and a duty, it’s never about personal fulfillment but about service. The treatment of themes of good and evil is really beautiful. In her novels good is good and bad is bad and there is an emphasis on truth and beauty and goodness. The system of magic has a certain poetry to it as the very nature of magic is based on the Speech, an ability to manipulate the matter and energy o fhte universe by learning to speak the words that do what they say. All wizards work to fight against entropy and death and are on the side of light and truth. In the beginning this is a rather simplistic cosmic fight againt the Lone Power, the embodiment of entropy; but as the protagonists age, the stories develop more nuance. It’s not always so easy to discern what is good and what it evil— not that there isn’t a difference, there is always a difference— but that the battles are less on a cosmic scale and more on a human scale, where, as Solzhenitsyn says, the lines between good and evil run through every human heart.

Wizards at War

A dark force is attacking everywhere at once and Nita and Kit and their friends must act decisively in what seems to be a losing battle while their adult advisors forget that they ever were wizards. Kit’s non-magical but linguistically gifted sister Carmela has a fun, more prominent role. Another example of a story where Duane seems to be exploring some of the themes that C.S. Lewis introduces in Perelandra: the question of alien races having their own moment of choice between good and evil, the ability to stand or fall.

A Wizard of Mars

This one plays with a lot of the classic science fiction about Mars, ancient civilizations. Kit makes some rash decisions and has to deal with the fallout. This novel started to get into slightly more adult themes with romantic relationships and attraction, but still staying within what I’d feel comfortable with teens reading. It felt a bit much for younger readers, but since my kids were already invested in the series, I deemed it was not a deal breaker. Based on these elements here and in several other books in the series I’m not sure I’d have allowed my younger readers to embark on them knowing what I know now and knowing how they eat up books. At the same time, I think those elements that I found problematic will largely pass them by unnoticed.

Interim Errantry

A collection of a Halloween-themed short story, a Christmas-themed short story, and a novella, Lifeboats, in which the protagonists play a smaller role in the major wizarding rather than acting as pivotal players.

I liked all three stories very much. Lifeboats especially was a fun adventure story and had hilarious moments, including when the protagonists introduce some of their alien friends to the Star Wars movies. However, this story also had some of my biggest moments of discomfort. It introduces, albeit in a not very prominent way, a few more adult themes that I was a lot less comfortable with in juvenile fiction. One character mentions watching pornography (the descriptions aren’t graphic, some mention of a hot tub, but I’d rather the topic not come up at all in a book for young people) and there’s a lot more concern about dating and romantic involvement in a manner much more appropriate for older teens or young adults. Mind you the series bills itself as a YA series, but our library shelves the books in juvenile fiction, so there’s some fuzziness about the intended audience. Again, the kids had already read the book by the time I got around to it. So the lesson I learned about pre-reading is that just because the first few books in a series are fine doesn’t mean it won’t age. I don’t think they really paid much attention to the problematic elements and they loved the stuff about Star Wars and s’mores. But on the whole I rather wish they’d read the first couple of books and then stopped. And I’m kind of annoyed because none of the elements that felt inappropriate were at all integral to the story and could have been cut without any continuity or characterization issues at all. Sigh.

Games Wizards Play

The final book, so far, in the series. In this book Nita and Kit step back a bit from the limelight. There’s a wizarding competition, but in a nice twist they are not the competitors, instead they become the coaches and have to figure out how to help their proteges realize their visions. This book had some satisfying moments closing out a story arc that’s gone over several books.

Desires Dreams and Powers by Rosamund Hodge

A collection of short stories by one of my favorite writers. They range from the mythopoetic to the creepy- gothic to the fantastic and fabulous. There are a few stories set in the world of her novel Crimson Bound. Highly recommended, but not for those who don’t like their fantasy dark, I suppose I should say.

In progress

The Art of Biblical Translation by Robert Alter
A great book, but I was too distracted to read it. The only time I made headway was when I was in the ER with Lucy. Then I read a couple chapters. I didn’t finish it, because it had to go back to the library.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Re-reading with an online book club. I listened to the first few chapters narrated by Jeremy Irons and then decided that while I loved the cadences and the impressionistic feel of hearing the book read, especially in such a lovely voice, I really would pay attention to the sorts of details I wanted to have at my fingertips for discussion much more effectively if I was looking at a print version. I did discover that there were two different text variants as Waugh went back and revised the novel, restoring parts he’d cut from the original draft among other things.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (podcast)

Finished in July

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

I suppose you could classify this is a cyber-techno thriller with a heart? There’s a virus that’s infected the largest multiplayer online game in the world and while it should be small potatoes, a small effect can have enormous consequences. The action is edge of your seat as the protagonists circumnavigate the globe, meeting people, making enemies, and exploring the intersection between virtual reality and reality. Like all of Stephenson’s novels it’s a novel of ideas and the ideas it explores are fascinating, but I think here he gets the balance just right between ideas and people.

The action-laden plot is compelling and the characters might be my favorite Stephenson characters so far.
I especially loved the various women: Zula, Yuxia, and Olivia. There’s a battle between two novelists which is delightful.

I also think this one even has the best Stephenson ending. He usually sort of just ends things without an actual conclusion.

There is adult content: some fairly graphic violence and adult relationships.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Read with a group on Facebook. I think this was my third time through the novel. It feels different, richer, every time I read. I see more layers, more nuance. This time I really reveled in the beauty of the language and imagery— I listened to part of the novel on audio book and that was lovely. The group had such interesting discussions that helped me dig more deeply. Also, I listened to some podcast discussions about the novel– a few episodes of Circe Institute’s Close Reads podcast, whose panelists are Christian but not Catholic, and one from a Catholic podcaster– those were illuminating as well. I’m not sure what my take away is, if I need to have one, but I enjoyed the experience. The pleasure of the journey of reading a good book is its own reward.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I picked this up at the suggestion of a couple of friends. I really didn’t know what to expect in this novel and it was interesting to wrestle with genre and narrative voice. Set in Medieval Britain, but the narrator is strongly modern and keeps reminding the reader of the strangeness and unknowability of the medieval world. I took it with me on our camping trip. I kept wanting to put it down after we got home, but eventually picked it back up again.

Chrestomanci Chronicles by Diana Wynne Jones

I haven’t read the whole series, and I’ll probably come back to them at some point. I think I’ve decided that Wynne Jones is light fare without much meat to chew on in terms of questions about characters, plot, ideas, or morality. Much less meaty than Diane Duane’s, Young Wizards, a comparison I probably wouldn’t be tempted to make if I hadn’t read the series back to back because they have little in common but the fact that the protagonists are wizards.

The Lives of Christopher Chant— my favorite of the series by a long shot. Evidently the prequel/backstory about how young Christopher Chant discovered he has 9 lives and is therefore a great magician and in fact the only one who can be the Chrestomanci, the magician who holds the worlds together.

Charmed Life — Takes place sometime later. Christopher is an adult and married with kids. The protagonist is a boy who goes by the nickname Cat. He also has nine lives and doesn’t know it.

Magicians of Caprona Takes place in Italy. Two feuding magical families and a plot that bears more than a passing resemblance to Romeo and Juliet. But with less blood and more Punch and Judy.

Conrad’s Fate — Conrad’s wizard uncle convinces him that he is cursed and must forgo continuing his education in order to make up for something he failed to do in a past life. Of course the uncle has nefarious reasons for this. Christopher Chant as a young man shows up to help sort things out.

Finished in August

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

this novel defied my expectations at every turn. In many ways it’s an extremely post-modern novel, though it’s set in medieval Britain and often indulges in fantastic elements— ogres, dragons, Arthurian legend. But what charmed me was not the setting nor the quest story but the relationship between the protagonists. Where else have I encountered a quest story where the protagonists are an elderly married couple? I loved the exploration of their relationship, of how memory is and is not crucial in a relationship, how bonds can survive even when memory is unreliable and tricky, and of the role of memory in reconciliation and forgiveness.

Side Jobs by Jim Butcher —

I learned that these Dresden Files short stories existed and went out and bought them for my Kindle immediately. Perfect Dresden magic.

The Crystal Snowstorm by Meriol Trevor

First in a four book series set in a fictional land of Letzenstein in the years after the Napoleonic Wars when Europe was being shaken by revolutions. The protagonist is a 13 year old orphan being raised in England who is the granddaughter of the Grand Duke though she’s never been out of England. She’s summoned by her grandfather to make an appearance at court. When she arrives she’s a fish out of water. She meets a bunch of new relatives and finds that tensions are high. There is a crisis of succession brewing as her autocratic grandfather has exiled his nominal heir. And he seems to want to make her his heir. She’s caught up in the drama while still trying to keep her distance. I really loved this book and look forward to reading more in the series.

Fall: or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson, sequel to Reamde, and with ties to the continuing story that began in Cryptonomicon and continued in the prequel, The Baroque Cycle. I liked Reamde better, but Fall was certainly an interesting novel. I want to say so much, but hardly know how to say anything at all that won’t be a spoiler.

In progress

Cupid and Psyche by Emily C.A. Snyder

A play in verse by a friend of a friend.

The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser

Pretty self explanatory. One of the best poetry manuals I’ve found, for my particular needs at this time.

With God in America
by Fr Walter Ciszek

Loss and Gain by John Henry Newman

What are you reading? Have you read any of these books? Want to chat about books?

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