Reading Notes January 2021

Reading Notes January 2021

Lisbeth Reading by Carl Larsson

Books I’ve Finished

1. Mixed Magics by Diana Wynn Jones

A collection of short stories in the Chrestomanci series. 

 2. Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline

 A werewolf tale by a Canadian Native author. Empire of Wild explores the intersection of European werewolf lore and the traditional Métis story of the rogarou. The protagonist Joan has lost her husband, Victor, following a fight they had over selling the land Joan has inherited. She’s been searching for him for a year. When she finally finds him he is going by a different name and doesn’t recognize her. With the help of her nephew, Zeus, and an old wise auntie, Ajean, Joan sets out to find Victor and win him back from the rogarou. It reminded me at times of the story of Tam Linn, Janet needing to hold on to Tam in order to free him from the fairies. In this case, Joan needs to seduce Victor. 

I liked the story overall but there were more than a few moments when it was too explicit and graphic. It’s not that sexual liaisons and gross misuse of sexuality weren’t a huge thematic element in the story, I just prefer not to have quite so much detail about them. 

3. Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin

Laurus is a historical novel originally written in Russian and set in medieval Russia. The main character Arseny is raised to be a healer and physician by his grandfather. Then after his grandfather’s death, commits a grave sin, repents, and in time becomes a Holy Fool. He wanders about from place to place in search of redemption, healing people during times of plague, and pondering the end of the world and the nature of time and love and death. He has many names over the course of his life, but his name at his death is Laurus. At one point he goes on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but it is almost anticlimactic and does not bring him the peace he seeks. 

The novel feels at once thoroughly medieval and thoroughly modern, the character does not experience time in a linear way— and he meets up with an Italian man who sees into the future and is very concerned about determining when the world will end. The way the novel conceptualizes time is medieval, time is cyclical and as God is outside of time there is no reason why men should necessarily experience time in a linear fashion. And yet the way the narrative deals with time feels postmodern. At times there are glimpses of the future, we get a little snippet about an archaeologist in the present day who is excavating the convent where Arseny spends some years. 

The novel had a meditative feel and often reminded me of Dostoevsky. It takes faith seriously and matter of factly. I think I’d have to read it again to really understand what it’s saying about faith, though. 

4. Star Wars: A New Dawn  by John Jackson Miller

This is the first Star Wars novel I’ve ever read. I’m not usually a fan of novelizations of movies or extensions of a movie story beyond what’s in the movie. But Dom convinced me to watch Star Wars Rebels and the kids have also been watching it. The series is aimed at kids, but after a while the creators realized that there were many adults watching as well. In the third and fourth seasons especially the storylines become darker and more complex and the characters more developed.

The story of Rebels follows a small cell of the rebellion in the time before Star Wars A New Hope. It’s the story of a teen named Ezra Bridger whose parents have been arrested by the Empire and who is surviving by petty thievery on the streets of the mining and manufacturing world of Lothal. Ezra meets up with the crew of the ship, The Ghost, owned and piloted by Hera Syndulla and the half-trained Jedi Kanan Jarrus who escaped when the Clone troopers killed all the Jedi under Order 66 (At the end of Clone Wars). Kanan and Hera are joined by Hera’s wacky droid, Chopper, a Mandalorian named Sabine Wren who is a graffiti artist and explosives expert, an alien warrior named Zeb who is the last of his species. At first they are Robin Hood sorts, stealing from the Empire and helping the poor and oppressed, but Hera has plans for them to join the greater Rebellion. Kanan recognizes that Ezra is force-sensitive and takes him on as an apprentice.

I really like the dynamic that plays out in the show where Hera, who is an ace pilot and skilled fighter, also acts as a sort of mother figure to the crew, who interact with each other like a family. Kanan is the father-figure of the crew and over time it becomes clear there’s some kind of romantic attraction between him and Hera. Sabine and Ezra and Zeb and Chopper function as the kids of the family. 

A New Dawn is the backstory of how Hera and Kanan met. It takes place some years after Kanan went on the run but many years before the action of Rebels. Kanan is a reluctant rebel. When Hera meets him he is focused solely on survival and pleasure. And yet she sees that despite himself he keeps acting to protect the weak from the strong. He tries not to get involved, but he really can’t help himself when he sees someone being bullied. And yet he’s not wholly noble either, he acts from selfish self-interest much of the time. Kanan is initially intrigued because Hera has a nice voice, is beautiful and mysterious. She’s on an information-gathering mission (i.e. spying on the Empire). I enjoyed this adventure, liked how it filled in some of the backstory, and wished there were more novels about Hera and Kanan and the Ghost. 

 5. Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

I met Grand Admiral Thrawn in the Star Wars Rebels animated series. Dom recommended the novels to me and I was curious. I really really like this character and the novel would stand alone as a story even if one knew nothing of the Star Wars universe. Thrawn is of an alien species, the Chiss, who come from beyond the Galaxy. He is discovered by an Empire ship marooned on a deserted planet and is brought to  the Emperor who he convinces to allow him to join the Imperial Navy. Thrawn is assigned as his translator and aide a human cadet named Eli Vanto who is our primary point of view character. Eli is sympathetic and while he initially resents Thrawn, eventually he comes to admire him and to be grateful for his mentorship. 

Thrawn is a brilliant strategist and tactician. He learns about his enemies and can anticipate their tactics by studying their art work. No one else understands what he sees in the art and he’s often mocked for it. And yet it offers him brilliant insights which he exploits masterfully. Thrawn also studies the body language and minute facial expressions of those around him and is adept at reading and anticipating based on his awareness. His eyes also sense the infrared spectrum so he can see body heat, people flushing, etc. He rises quickly through the ranks of the Navy, even though he is absolutely terrible at political maneuvering. It’s never entirely clear what his motives are, though he says he’s loyal to the Empire, the Emperor suspects his loyalty is first to the Chiss. But Thrawn claims that he is there to fight a common enemy of both the Chiss and the Empire, even though he doesn’t explain who that enemy is. 

 6. Thrawn: Alliances  by Timothy Zahn

In the second Thrawn novel Thrawn is sent by the Emperor on a mission with Darth Vader. It turns out also that he had previously teamed up at the same location with Anakin Skywalker during the time of the Clone Wars, well before the events of the first novel. The novel cuts back and forth between Thrawn’s meeting with Anakin, on a mission to rescue Padme, and Thrawn’s mission with Vader. The parallels are fascinating and the storytelling is excellent. The novel probes the question of loyalty. To whom is Thrawn loyal and why? Will he recognize Anakin in Vader and if so what will be the result? Also, does spending time with Thrawn draw Vader back to remembering his previous life as Anakin? And does that begin to crack open the door to redemption that Luke will eventually pull all the way open? 

Meanwhile I love the way that Thrawn and Eli’s conflicted loyalties are mirrored by the story itself, which invites the reader to sympathize more with the Imperial characters than we do with the rebels when Thrawn and Eli encounter a rebel leader… who do we cheer for? 

7. Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn

Thrawn has sent his aide Eli off to serve with the Chiss. Eil is considered a traitor for deserting his people, though Thrawn claims he had the Emperor’s approval. While the rebels on Lothal are attempting to rescue the captured Hera Syndulla, Thrawn is sent to solve a problem with the supply lines that are bringing materials for top-secret the Death Star project, which Thrawn opposes, wanting the resources to go instead to his own Tie Defender project.  While chasing down his possible solution to the problem Thrawn encounters the Chiss ship with Eli on board. We finally learn the identity of the enemy that is threatening both the Chiss Ascendency and the Empire. Seriously the more I read about Thrawn the more I like him. It’s very weird t find myself cheering for a guy who is on the side of the evil Empire, fighting against the rebels I’ve come to love. This is epic storytelling and I’m wondering where on earth it’s going. 

8. Blood Feud by Rosemary Sutcliff

Read with the kids for school, and thoroughly enjoyed it. English orphan Jestyn is shown the door by his stepfather after his mother dies. He drifts across England and finds a job working as a cowherd. Then he is kidnapped by Viking pirates and sold as a slave in Dublin. The pirates who buy him only plan to keep him for the winter, but then he comes to the aid of one of them when he gets into a fight. Having fought shoulder to shoulder with Jestyn, Thormod cannot sell him off. Instead he frees him and invites him to join him and his crew. Jestyn returns home with Thormod — only to arrive there to find Thormod’s father murdered. Jestyn swears an oath as Thormod’s blood brother and joins him in his blood feud against the murderers. They follow the murderers to Kiev and from there to Constantinople, which the Vikings know as Miklagard.

 I really like the way the book explores the idea of blood feud, of taking up a quarrel that is not your own out of love for someone else. And how it queries whether a blood feud is really consonant with a Christian faith. Jestyn is torn between his love and loyalty for Thormod and his Christian faith (however weak) and ultimately his heart’s vocation as a healer. The story is told with Sutcliff’s usual style, heroic but never bloodthirsty, characters who are complex and sympathetic.

Currently Reading

Thrawn Ascendency: Chaos Rising  by Timothy Zahn

Thrawn’s backstory before he leaves the Chiss Ascendency for the Empire.

Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter

A commentary on the poetry in the Bible. Alter is a Biblical translator second but first a scholar of modern literature. He brings a love of poetry and the English language to his study of Hebrew poetry.

The Friendship of Christ by Robert Hugh Benson

“”I have called you friends,” Jesus says to us. This little book reveals how we can enter more deeply into a true friendship with him: in ourselves and in others; in the Church and the Eucharist; in Jesus’s words from the Cross; and in his Resurrection. This friendship is not a metaphor, or hopelessly one-sided, but a full and free exchange of selves.”

The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty

A memoir of Twitty’s explorations of African American and Southern history, culture and cuisine.

Love Like a Conflagration by Jane Greer 

A collection of poetry.

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  • What I read in January (or completed):

    His Majesty’s Dragon – Naomi Novik
    The Golden Transcendence – John C Wright
    Caritas in Veritate – Pope Benedict XVI
    Brighton Rock – Graham Greene
    If You Can Get It – Brendan Hodge

    Currently Reading:

    Kristin Lavransdatter – Sigrid Undset
    The Lost Pianos of Siberia – Sophy Roberts
    Inferno – Dante
    What’s Wrong With the World – Chesterton
    The Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene

  • Melanie,
    I’ve been following your book reads and, thanks to your recommendation, found the Dresden series. Thanks!

    Can I recommend the Zahn Empire Trilogy? Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command. I’m thrilled you’re finding the Thrawn books. They’re really good! The audiobooks of the same by Mark Thompson are well narrated and feel like a radio drama.