Book Notes February 2021

Book Notes February 2021

“At a Book” by Marie Bashkirtseff, 1882.

1. Thrawn Ascendency by Timothy Zahn

A spin-off Star Wars novel about Grand Admiral Thrawn who appears in the Star Wars Rebels television series. This is the first novel of a new prequel trilogy about Thrawn’s life in the Chiss Ascendency before he comes to the Empire. I really really liked Thrawn’s backstory. He is very likable — although even among the Chiss his talents are unusual. And it’s fascinating that he is just as politically inept among his own people as he is among humans. Thrawn reads as autistic, being good at reading people, but not really sure what to do with the emotional content of what he reads. He’s an excellent strategist and tactician. But while he is very good at understanding warfare he is terrible at understanding politics, which one would think is just another kind of warfare, and yet something about it eludes him. 

The Chiss are a fascinating people with an interesting culture and politics.  For most of the novel this could be a complete stand-alone, it only glancingly touches directly upon the Star Wars universe— we do see the events leading up to and those following Thrawn’s first contact with Anakin Skywalker. I also really liked the supporting characters, especially admiral Ar’alani Thrawn’s unlikely friend and sometime mentor and advocate, and the former skywalker Thalias. 

Thrawn is shown to be a good teacher and mentor and an officer who chooses to build up his subordinates and teach them rather than blaming them or tearing them down. I’m really looking forward to the rest of the series. The next book is due out later this spring.

2. The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

A science fiction novel that explores the multiverse theory, set in a post-apocalyptic world, in the aftermath of some kind of civil war, this is a novel about a woman who travels between the parallel universes as a sort of spy. Because you can only go to a universe where your double has died, the ideal traverser is one who comes from an unstable background. So Cara is an outsider who grew up in the semi-toxic waste outside of Wiley City — there are 372 worlds where she can go because she’s dead in those universes. 

The novel is partly about grit and trauma and surviving and what it means to be an outsider, crossing back and forth between two or more worlds. Near the beginning of the novel Cara is leaving the city for a visit to her family in the Rurals. She has to carefully choose clothing that will let her pass as not too much of an outsider. Throughout the novel she’s conscious of the way dress and language and appearance and cultural expectations are markers of class and origin and of belonging or othering. 

The novel also explores race and gender identities; but at heart it’s really more about personhood than about identity. People are shown as more than just a class or identity, they are full persons who are complex and who defy stereotyping. Cara is black and so are most of the people who live outside the city, where most of the city’s residents are white; but I didn’t realize that she’s black until more than halfway through the novel because most of the descriptions of people can be read in multiple ways— skin color often seems to be a class marker simple because the city people live inside buildings and under a dome, away from the harsh sun and harsh chemicals. And the story pushes past race essentialism and asks the reader to consider characters as individuals first and not as fixed types. 

Cara seems to have only two real romantic relationship interests in the various worlds: first, she’s a survivor of a violent and abusive relationship with the emperor Nik Nik and then she’s in unrequited love with Dell, the city woman who is her handler, and contact while she walks between worlds. In many of the worlds Cara has also been a sex worker and the way drugs and sex and violence intertwine with poverty and outsider status is one of the novel’s themes. The novel doesn’t have any graphic sex scenes, but it does have some violence which might be disturbing. Not super graphic, but perhaps more than some readers will want to deal with. 

Cara loves traversing, walking between worlds. It’s physically demanding, painful, and yet it’s also freedom, and magical. Even though she’s supposed to go in, do her job of information retrieval, and then get out, she manages to carve out time for her own explorations, her own discoveries and she learns about herself and the people around her in part by meeting and studying their doubles on the other parallel worlds. People are different from one world to the next in part based on whether they managed to escape from trauma. Cara’s mother is drug addicted and a failure in most worlds; but in at least one she is saved from her traumatic past and has a stable marriage and family. Cara dies from neglect and violence in most of her timelines. She’s often been in abusive relationships, frequently with the powerful emperor of Ash city. She is beaten and strangled and killed in some of her worlds. But the protagonist narrator is also resilient and strong, a survivor. And this version of her is also more compassionate and kind than the other versions we hear about. And she meets one version of Nik Nik who also manages to be kind, a better version of himself, because at one point in his childhood he had a choice to use a weapon against his brother or to refrain— and in at least this one version of reality he chooses to defy his father’s wishes and not to become a monster in his father’s image. I like that the book shows the power of choices and the possibility of escaping from trauma and violence. Although it is shown as unlikely and partly the result of luck of chance, it’s also not impossible, and is partly the result of choice and virtue and the story really shows the power of free will and the possibility of redemption. 

I liked that the resolution of the novel has Cara choosing a path of less destruction, targeted violence that leaves her enemies with choices and a chance for redemption. I liked that the novel imagines other possible endings than open war and mass destruction and that healing and reconciliation are held out as possibilities. I loved that Cara learns to communicate and to share her inner life with others, to make connections, to reimagine her life, and to allow herself to make choices. I liked that she is not a prisoner of an imagined fate or destiny or of the past. It’s a novel where no one is trapped in a single, tragic arc, where there is room for healing and hope and of people crossing into new worlds, reinventing themselves into something new, better despite the horror and violence of the past, despite past mistakes and trauma and tragedy.

3. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

A historical novel novel about Benedictine nuns in the north of England during the middle ages. Published in 1948 and seemingly based on the author’s research in archives of the Benedictine monastery 

Chronicles the lives of the women in the monastery of Oby. Like a medieval chronicle there isn’t a protagonist, just a succession of characters, prioresses, nuns, bishops, bailiffs, priests, etc. There’s an almost dreamy quality to it at times, but the narrative really highlights the humanity of the people.

Immersive narrative full of the details of daily life, the personalities of the nuns, the hardships, the political wranglings of the monastery, the visitations of the bishop. The Black Death features prominently. The Peasant’s Revolt sweeps through. The novel ends abruptly, almost cut off. 

In the Black Death the nuns are abandoned by their priest who is appalled to learn that in the absence of priests people have started making their confessions to each other and absolving each other. He decides he has to go to stop the heresy. When the nuns protest that they will die without benefit of absolution, he says he’s more concerned with the purity of the church than individual souls. Then a man comes to Oby who is not really a priest, but has been educated in a monastery. He impersonates a priest for the next several decades.

There is a lot about economics. Household economics, making ends meet, the monastery being perpetually insolvent. Prioresses accepting novices based on their doweries and family connections and potential for bringing in more money. This is partly because the monastery has no security, the nuns always feel like they’re scrambling to stay alfloat.

It’s hard to tell if there are any genuine vocations at all. The novel is much less concerned with faith than I’m entirely comfortable. It’s a very different sensibility than Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede. And yet… I can’t help but ponder that as flawed at they are, God’s work is still going on among the nuns and they still play an important role. That even at their most corrupt when they are a scandal to the neighborhood, they still represent the intersection of the spiritual world with the mundane, the presence of God in the midst of the community. And that was lost when the monasteries were closed.

Even though it might not have been the book I wanted, I am glad I read it. I think a presentation of monastic life that shows the flawed human beings who keep it afloat in their very flawed ways is worth contemplating. This novel will sit with me for some time to come.

4. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I have never read this classic and people keep mentioning it, so I decided it was time to get around to it. To be honest, the title put me off. The impression I had of this novel, based on the title and the very few snippets I had heard was that it was about a bishop who was dying and maybe some flashbacks to more interesting stuff from when he was younger. And something something American southwest. In my head it was maybe rich in meaning, but it would be slow paced, the kind of book that might be worthy but would be a bit of a slog. Needless to say… this was not that book.

Will Cather’s style is engaging from page one. It did not take me time to be hooked. The novel opens with a group of cardinals having dinner in Rome. And an Irish-American bishop who wants his candidate selected for the first bishop of Santa Fe. The diocesan lines are being redrawn after the US has annexed Arizona and New Mexico. The Irish bishop gets his way and his choice, a French-born priest who has been working in the Great Lakes region of Ohio.

Then the action begins with the new bishop, Father Latour, lost in the desert, thirsty and tired. He stops to pray at a tree shaped like a cross and then stumbles upon water and an isolated farm where the people are thrilled to have a priest hear confession, say mass, perform weddings and confirmations and baptisms….

The landscape of New Mexico is a major character in the novel. The bishop’s new flock, he local Mexicans and Indians and Americans, and all their conflicts are occasions for all sorts of adventures for Father Latour and his companion Father Vaillant. I love these two French priests, good friends who met in seminary, who couldn’t be and different and yet who are wonderful complements to each other. I loved the many people they meet on the way.

Above all, I love how very deep their faith is. If The Corner that Held Them is a novel about a pragmatic sort of religious life where faith is shallow, Death Comes for the Archbishop is a lovely contrast. It’s not that there isn’t a shallow faith among the people they have been sent to minister to, because so much of their faith life is a sort of habitual and cultural artifact. And yet, there is a sense of something more and deeper, a living spirit breathing through the landscape that The Corner That held Them occasionally notes mainly in its absence.

It’s tempting to argue that to Cather faith is real and important while to Warner faith is a distant rumor. And yet that seems too easy and I think it sells Warner short. Warner isn’t interested in exploring the spiritual realm exactly, only the material lives of those called to the religious life. And yet, faith is not completely absent either. There is something there… in the horror the novel evokes at the fact that there is no priest, no real sacramental life, an emptiness that the nuns themselves aren’t aware of. And that very emptiness speaks volumes as do the bleak places that Cather describes: the priests more interested in sex, money, power, comfort, the people who haven’t let go of their native faith… the novels are, in a way, two sides of the same coin.

It’s funny how faith is so tenuous in the swamp of Oby and how the dry desert wind of Santa Fe felt refreshing to my soul as Lent began. A very good way to begin Lent, journeying into the desert.

Currently Reading

Oh so many things. I’ve been trying to work at making progress in some of the books I’ve been dragging my way though– not very successfully.

With the kids I’ve been reading Narnia. We finished the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and are now deep into Prince Caspian. Lucy doesn’t remember listening the the audiobooks years ago, so she’s discovering Narnia for the first time. At the end of every chapter she protests that it’s a terrible place to stop– I don’t know if she’s protesting Lewis’s pacing or my refusal to read more than a chapter a day. But we have other books to get through.

Memoirs of Saint Peter by Michael Pakaluk a new translation of (and commentary on) the Gospel of Mark.

This is a delightful translation. It captures the feel of St Peter talking, it’s fun to read aloud. And the notes are excellent.

The Hidden Crown Life of James II of England and VII of Scotland by Meriol Trevor 

I want to know more about James, but I’m feeling impatient. I think Trevor anticipates that her audience knows this era of English history much better than I do, so she fails to provide the context and detail I want. I’m only in the first chapter, though. Maybe it picks up when we get to James as an adult.

God in Search of Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel

This is one of my favorite books. I love to dip in and read a chapter at a time and ponder.

Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter

Ok, I’m not actually making progress here, but I want to be. I need to pull it out again, but my brain does not want to focus.

Friendship of Christ by Robert Hugh Benson

Reading with a Facebook group, you can check out posts by Mrs Darwin and Bearing who are guiding our merry band. (Mrs Darwin has edited and published a new edition, available both in Kindle and paper form. I highly recommend.) This is a very good Lenten read. Highly recommended. The chapters are short and easy, but there’s so much to think about. I’ve fallen behind, but plan to catch up this weekend. I hope.

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1 comment
  • I enjoy reading your book reviews.

    Willa Cather is my favorite author, and Death Comes for the Archbishop is probably my favorite book of all time. I have read many of her novels and short stories and studied her life. It is fascinating to me what an amazing education she had while living in rural Nebraska.

    She is an exquisite author, especially when it comes to place. My only caveat to this is her Song of the Lark actually was a horrible slog–avoid. 🙂 Besides that fluke though, I think my other favorites of hers are My Antonia and Not Under Forty.