I am slow, slow, slow in updating. It’s June already and I haven’t even logged my reading for the first three months of the year. Life is busy and other writing has taken precedence over updating here, alas. I started off the year with such resolve. Anyway, here is the beginning of my list and hopefully the rest will follow in a more timely manner.
1. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
This was a re-read, I think my third or fourth time. This time I listened to the audiobook, which was excellent.
The Goblin Emperor is the story of a teenaged boy, Maia, the youngest son of the elven Emperor, who has been shunned by his father because he’s half-goblin and the son of an unwanted wife, married to the emperor in a purely political alliance while he was still grieving the loss of the wife he actually loved. Maia has been exiled from the court his whole life and only met his father once, at his mother’s extremely formal state funeral. He’s been emotionally and physically abused by the relative who has been appointed to be his overseer after his mother’s death — becasue that relative is a political exile and takes his frustrations out on this unloved child.
As the book opens the emperor and his three older sons have all died in a calamitous accident and this unlikely youngest son suddenly finds himself taking the throne, completely and utterly unprepared for the task of ruling. He’s never been to court and has no idea who anyone is or how the government works. No one ever thought he was in the line of succession. And he is totally overwhelmed by this very sophisticated, Byzantine court, so many political intrigues, plots, including assassination plots, arranged marriages, not to mention his goblin relations; but his simplicity and goodness lead him to make right choices and steer a path through the complexities of the court. In the end he is a bridge-builder. He sees the servants, and all those whom the court has disregarded as people, he is kind, just, merciful, and he even learns to show mercy to himself.
It’s a quiet book in many ways. There’s not a lot of action. But oh the characters are so delightful– in terms of character development a lot happens, much of it subtle and interior. In some ways it’s a very restful book. Maia, the boy-emperor, is such a good person that I enjoy spending time with him and exploring his world and watching him make connections and find friends, find love.
A favorite moment from the novel: He had been taught as a child by his mother to pray, a very simple form of meditation. But she died when he was still young. When he gets to court and becomes emperor he finds himself saddled with bodyguards who are with him day and night, even in his bedroom while he sleeps. And he finds himself unable to meditate with an audience and so is cut off from his spiritual life. The book doesn’t delve very deeply into religion, but there is something about his desire to pray and inability to pray that really resonates. And then one day a chief cleric confronts him about his prayer life and gives him permission of a sort to set up his own chapel in the place where his mother used to go to pray when she was empress and lived at court. It’s lovely how he is able to recover something that he lost in childhood that’s connected both to his faith and spiritual life and also to his lost mother.
2. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Set in Nigeria, the story of a young girl, I guess maybe it’s a kind of coming of age story? It’s about abuse but also about hope and love and healing. It’s about both the dynamics of an abusive family, with a corrupt father who everyone things is upright and religious; but also this is paralleled by the story of a nation with an utterly corrupt government.
The first third of the novel feels so incredibly oppressive that I almost gave up reading it. Kambili and her brother Jaja and their mother are all being abused by her overbearing fanatical father, who is perceived by everyone else as a generous, upstanding religious man. But the novel takes a turn when Kambili and Jaja go to visit their Aunty Ifeoma in Nsukka. As they enter the university where their aunt teaches, they spy a statue of “a black lion standing on its hind legs, tail curved upward, chest puffed out.” The words inscribed on the pedestal: “To restore the dignity of man.”
It is a slow process, but in Nsukka slowly Kambili and Jaja come to life. Jaja is restored by digging in the soil of Aunty Ifeoma’s garden and Kambili slowly finds her voice through the attention of the priest, Father Amadi, whose name means “free man”.
Kambili’s father is both physically and emotionally abusive. He controls every aspect of his children’s lives, creating a schedule that dictates how they will spend every hour of the day, even when they are on holiday. He is also spiritually abusive, claiming that his physical abuse is for their own good to keep them from sinning. He is a lay leader in his Catholic church community. Fortunately, his twisted version of religion is not the only one shown in the novel. Aunty Ifeoma’s faith is beautiful and pure and is never used to justify cruelty. Unlike her brother Eugene, she shows true love and filial piety towards their still-pagan father. She prays in her native Igbo language, punctuating the family rosary with Igbo hymns after each decade, a practice that at first scandalizes Kambili, because her father does not believe Igbo a proper language for prayer.
Father Amadi also offers a positive image of Catholicism. I kept bracing myself for him to become abusive towards Kambili, but he never oversteps the bounds of proper behavior. He loves her, but his love is pure and he never takes advantage of her even though it is clear that she has a crush on him.
However, that said, it is clear that there are still problems in the Nigerian church: it is still clinging to many trappings of colonialism. This becomes clear when Kambili’s cousin, Amaka, is told that she must take an English saint name at her confirmation. She pushes back asking why she cannot take an Igbo name: “What the church is saying is that only an English name will make your confirmation valid. ‘Chiamaka’ says God is beautiful. ‘Chima’ says God knows best, ‘Chiebuka’ says God is the greatest. Don’t they all glorify God as much as ‘Paul’ and ‘Peter’ and ‘Simon’?” I heartily agree with her– and, in fact, this is actually what the Church does teach, so the priests who are insisting on her taking an English name are flat-out wrong. But then again even in the US one often finds both lay leaders and priests imposing stupid, made-up rules about confirmation names. (Like my husband being told he had to take his baptismal name as his confirmation name. Like people told they cannot take a name that is of a saint of the opposite sex.)
The novel’s ending was at the same time both satisfying and tragically sad. Sometimes it seems that when rich and powerful men abuse their power there is no way for their victims to receive justice. When vigilante justice is the only way for the oppressed to win freedom from the oppressor, you know that a society is sick. Aunty Ifeoma and her family are leaving Nigeria because she has unjustly lost her place at the university. It is clear that government corruption is a never-ending problem. But Adichie does not leave us without some resolution for Kambili and her mother and brother, and perhaps their small move towards freedom symbolizes a hope that eventually the seeds of freedom will grow and dignity will be restored to man, as the university motto so hopefully promises.
3. Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel
In 2014 Emily St. John Mandel published Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel about people who survived a pandemic. Her latest work, Sea of Tranquility is a time-travel novel, not a pandemic novel. And yet… it was clearly a novel written during lockdown and so the novel is haunted by pandemics, including the covid-19 pandemic. And in one of my favorite twists, one of the characters in Sea of Tranquility is a novelist who wrote a best-selling novel about a pandemic, who is interviewed during the middle of a pandemic bout what it’s like to have written a pandemic novel…. it’s a self insert that worked quite well in this convoluted time travel novel, a very meta moment, of which I heartily approved.
As time travel novels go, I liked this one quite a bit. At first it feels like a loose collection of narratives, each new section is set in a new time and place with a new point of view character. And it’s not clear what they all have in common. But the common thread that links them together (hint: it’s not a pandemic!) eventually reveals itself, and it’s not a gimmick at all. Time travel novels can feel gimmicky with all the ins and outs and wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, but this one has heart. No one is trying to save the world. No cataclysm is going to happen because someone interfered with the flow of the time stream. Rather, it’s a meditation about what makes a life worth living.
4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
To be honest, I didn’t love this story. Everyone is so mean and abusive to Christopher, the autistic narrator/protagonist, especially his parents. And the end is terribly depressing. There is no hope that his relationships with his parents will get better, that they’ll ever be better at understanding him, that anyone will really try to understand him. Well, there is Siobhan the aid at school, who is very nice, but who doesn’t seem to have much power to advocate for him or to help make anything better. She’s sympathetic, but kind of disappears. It was a rather grim story from beginning to end, though I think it’s supposed to be funny.
5. The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri Mystery #1) by Tarquin Hall
A fun mystery novel set in India. Vish Puri is a middle-aged detective. He loves to eat and his wife and doctor both want him to eat less– there’s a lot of food in this book and I really loved reading about all the yummies. I appreciated his relationships with his wife, his mother, and his grown children. His mother especially pitches in; even though her help is quite unwanted by her son, she helps to crack the case. Though this is the first novel in the series, Vish has been a detective for a long time and the story refers to previous stories several times– I found this a bit confusing.
7. Persuasion by Jane Austen re-read along with listening to the Close Reads podcast
Still my favorite Jane Austen novel. What can I say?– Anne Eliot is the best.
It was lovely to revisit this beloved book. I listened to the audiobook this time, narrated by Alison Larkin. Though I also did pick up my paper copy to read a few passages more closely.
The Close Reads commentary was good and definitely added another dimension to my reading and helped me to go a bit deeper.