Completed: Death Masks (#5 of Dresden Files)

Cover: Death Masks by Jim Butcher
Death Masks
Jim Butcher
2003, U.S.

I had hoped to have The Hound of the Baskervilles finished by now for the readalong (if you’re participating, share the link to your thoughts on the RAL post by the end of the week–I’ll be done by then, promise!), but lacking that, some quick notes on my latest completed read.

Death Masks is the 5th of the Dresden Files, a series that is part mystery, part urban fantasy–and thus perfect for R.I.P. I’ve been (very slowly) making my way through the series in order, and by this point I think it’s safe to say that they pretty much follow the same formula: Harry Dresden, Wizard and P.I., finds himself entangled in a mess usually partly of his own making and partly as a result of an investigation he has been hired to solve (and/or to consult on for the Chicago PD). The action is nonstop, there’s pretty much a guarantee that a)Harry won’t get enough sleep b)he will completely miss an obvious clue because of either his tiredness or (more likely) a pretty lady c) he will face down a creature more powerful than himself but d) you know he will win in the end because 1) the good guys always do, especially when they’re the narrators and 2) he’s not so good that he’s above cheating. So pretty standard stuff, and really not too much to think about past the first book or two (beyond maybe looking up the traditional stories about some of the creatures/legends Harry encounters). However, probably because of all the blogging/tweeting I’ve seen about diverse books and diverse characters this year, it finally dawned on me–the Dresden Files novels have a really diverse set of characters. I don’t spend much time with fantasy-type novels (Tolkien and children’s lit aside), but my understanding this a diverse cast of characters is not exactly common in the genre.

I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess

Week’s End Beginning Notes (19)

  • Looking over both my recent posts and my “books read” list, the last couple months have been pretty quiet. Partially, I can lay blame on a couple of pesky work deadlines in September…but it’s past the half-way point in October…so I think I just need to acknowledge that I just haven’t been reading enough.
  • Fortunately, this is the start of a week off work–randomly timed “staycation.” It won’t be all reading (I spent the morning on continuing ed, for instance…yay…), but surely I can finish off some of my in-progress reads? Poor Let’s Talk About Love has been picked up off-and-on since August (and I really like it, too). And the mysteries are easy reads, no excuse.
  • So, to hold myself accountable, what I want to finish reading by the end of the month (and post on by the end of November, at latest):
  • There’s also The Hound of the Baskervilles. I haven’t forgotten about it, but if I’m not careful, the end of the month will really creep up on me! Not good! Definitely on my to-do list this week–I don’t want to be a poor RAL host.
  • Despite not actually reading much lately, I’ve been thinking about what books I’d like to get to before the end of the year + what I want to try to work on next year. I still need to read something Russian for the Russian Literature challenge I signed up for at the end of last year. And really, I should get back to my Ohio project, which was swept aside in favor of R.I.P. reading (which I can’t ever resist). I’d like to read at least two more books by the end of the year. At this point, I’m not planning to “formally” continue the Ohio project next year, but I think it will continue to guide some of my reading selections. If nothing else, I’ve left some threads hanging that I would like to follow up on. (More Charles W. Chesnutt.) I’m also currently planning to host a third(!) edition of Children’s Classic Literature in January. Not sure if I’ll have a RAL title (nothing in particular has come to mind yet), but it’s still early. If nothing else, I’ll use January as an excuse to read more Moomin stories or something else similarly delightful.
  • Happy reading!

Completed: Raven Black (Shetland Island Series)

Cover: Raven Black by Ann CleevesRaven Black
Ann Cleeves
2006, UK

Twenty past one in the morning on New Year’s Day. Magnus knew the time because of the fat clock, his mother’s clock, which squatted on the shelf over the fire. In the corner the raven in the wicker cage muttered and croaked in its sleep. Magnus waited. The room was prepared for visitors, the fire banked with peat and on the table a bottle of whiskey and the ginger cake he’d bought in Safeway’s the last time he was in Lerwick. He could feel himself dozing but he didn’t want to go to bed in case someone should call at the house. If there was a light at the window someone might come, full of laughter and drams and stories. For eight years nobody had visited to wish him happy new year, but he still waited just in case.

Outside it was completely silent. There was no sound of wind. In Shetland when there was no wind it was shocking. People strained their ears and wondered what was missing. Earlier in the day there has been a dusting of snow, then with dusk this was covered by a sheet of frost, every crystal flashing and hard as diamond in the last of the light, and even when it got dark, in the beam from the lighthouse. The cold was another reason for Magnus staying where he was. In the bedroom the ice would be thick on the inside of the window and the sheets would feel chill and damp.  (Opening)

I believe I first heard of Ann Cleeves’s Shetland mysteries by way of knitting. While that may sound a bit odd, there is a distinct style of lace knitting that originates in the Shetland Islands (and Fair Isle, known for its knitted color-work is between Shetland and the Scottish mainland). One Shetland topic–lace–led to another–mysteries–but it was finally an NPR interview with author Ann Cleeves this summer that prompted me to pick up the first in her Shetland series.

I guess it’s been a while since I’ve read any contemporary mysteries (mysteries, not thrillers). A few years at least. I say (write) this because I was about halfway through Raven Black when my oh-so-intellectual thought process became “Oh! Duh! Mysteries have conventions!” Right. In this instance, the convention of a rather small cast of characters that form the entire list of suspects. Of course, for a novel set in a small town in  remote Shetland, a small cast of characters is perhaps also realistic.

Actually, it was a certain sense of realism that I think kept me in part from remembering the mystery conventions. This is a mystery that seems plausible–the victim, the community, their motivations. Even the activities of the police seem grounded in reality–the early mornings, late nights, little to go on, waiting, waiting, questioning, listening. No grand revelations. (That said, the end did feel a bit rushed, but I so often feel that way, that I wonder if it’s me speeding up.) It is the story of a murdered girl, Catherine Ross, 16, an outsider, yet at first there seems no reason anyone should wish her dead. Which is why suspicion immediately–and naturally–falls on the lonely old man who was questioned, but never charged in the disappearance of a little girl some years previous.

The story is told from the points of view of four characters: Magnus Tait, the man suspected; Jimmy Perez, the local detective; Fran Hunter, who discovered the body; and Sally Henry, the victim’s neighbor and friend. While I didn’t notice that their voices (with the exception of Magnus) were distinct, their perspectives–what they know, what they are thinking, who they meet and talk to, their motivations–are decidedly so. It was a method of storytelling I really liked (at least here)–the different perspectives, the way it moved the narrative forward. I don’t think I would necessarily call it a “fast-paced” novel, yet I found it difficult to put down.

Of course, I think I must also be a terrible mystery reader. I never work out “who done it.” Sigh.

I’ve never been to Shetland (or Scotland, or any of the U.K.), so I don’t really know how accurate Cleeve’s portrait of the islands is, but it felt real: The descriptions of the landscape, of the town, the sprinkling in of local words (such as “peerie”), the insights on a small town. Cleeves is not from Shetland, but has been there many times, and in her NPR interview, she takes the reporter to meet some Shetland friends who review her novels for accuracy before they are published. There is a remote feel that I would expect from settlements so far from the bustling cities and easy access to–everything. (It is amazing to me to know, actually, that during the Victorian era, English women would purchase fine–ultra-fine, actually–knit lace shawls from Shetland and send them back to be washed and blocked as needed–in an era when the islands were even more remote!) It is a setting I will be happy to return to with her later books.

Raven Black is my first R.I.P. read this autumn.

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The Hound of the Baskervilles Readalong Begins!

The Hounder of the Baskervilles 1st Edition Cover

It’s finally here, October 1, and The Hound of the Baskervilles readalong can begin! (Confession: my brain’s been convinced it’s October for a couple weeks. This will be a deliciously long month.) Whether you’ve never read Baskervilles before or are returning to a much-loved tale, I hope it is a pleasurable visit. I aim for low-stress reading experiences, so there’s no set schedule or questions to answer, just an opportunity for all who wish to read along together and discuss at the end of the month. (Though, if you’re really ambitious, I think there might be enough textual evidence to read most of the story on the days of the month it takes place.) During the final week of October, return here to share links to your posts, and join in the discussion. I will let this post serve as the links post for the month, and will link it in my sidebar. And it’s not too late–even if you didn’t express interest in my earlier post, feel free to join in at any time this month. This should be fun!

Happy reading!

Completed: The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien
1954-56, England

At first the beauty of the melodies and the interwoven words in the Elven-tongue, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell, as soon as he began to attend to them. Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world. Then the entertainment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him, too multitudinous for its pattern to be comprehended; it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched and drowned him. Swiftly he sank under its shining weight into a deep realm of sleep. (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 1)

It has been a long time–relatively speaking–since I last read The Lord of the Rings. Although I’ve read it some five or six times now, most of those were spaced closely together, and I last picked up the books in 2002. (Which I remember distinctly, because it was between the first and second of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, and the second came out just before I went to Italy in 2003.) In some ways, reading it again, I feel like a worse reader than I was all those years past, as it took me so much longer and at times seemed to drag on so much more. But I’ve read more–that is, other books–in the meantime, and I got so much more out of this reading than those past.

One important difference–I finally read The Silmarillion a couple years ago. One of many of Tolkien’s works published posthumously, it contains much of the background of Tolkien’s imaginary world. Reading The Lord of the Rings after it, I realized how much of this background, this invented history is referenced in The Lord of the Rings–references that I would never have caught, nor even realized that I was missing. The depth and breadth of Tolkien’s creation continually astonishes me.

I’ve also read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories,” developed from a 1939 lecture, in which he lays out a defense for what he calls “fairy-stories” or what we might now term fantasy. It is interesting in light of the debate, not only over the literary merits of “genre” writing, but also the debate over whether to consider The Lord of the Rings as for “children” or “adults.”* From what I see online, it seems the debate often goes, “well, there’s a clear-cut battle between good and evil, so they must be for children.” But this is in contrast with Tolkien’s own views. First, that “fairy-stories” should not be relegated to children merely because they are imaginary. And more importantly, because of Tolkien’s concept of “eucatastrophe,” the sudden unexpected turn to the joy of the happy ending, which he would never dismiss as for children only: his ultimate example is that of the Resurrection, and as a faithful Catholic, Tolkien would never call the Easter story one for children only. His definitions of “good” and “evil” are clearly informed by his religious faith rather than that of a secular worldview.

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.’ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2)

In fact, on this fifth/sixth(?) reread, I am completely convinced that Tolkien’s writing cannot be fully understood/appreciated without acknowledging his faith. Although there are not allegorical allusions (Tolkien disliked allegory), the worldview is strikingly Christian, as seen in the repetitions of the ideas of faith, mercy, redemption, and hope throughout the novel. In the confrontation between Frodo and Boromir at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, I was struck that while Frodo maintained faith despite recent events, Boromir had lost his–or at least lost hope. In contrast, at about halfway through The Return of the King, Frodo has lost all hope–but remains steadfastly faithful to the mission, even without hope. Samwise, steadfastly faithful to Frodo, provides all the hope they need.

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. (The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter 2)

One thing I can’t quite seem to put my finger on: how is Tolkien’s work generally considered, critically? Browsing blogs, there seem to be mostly posts of either the “I LOVE this so much, it’s my favorite thing ever!” or “I just.couldn’t.get.through.it” types. There are websites by Tolkien scholars, often dedicated to minutiae; I would assume that most of them started from a “love it” place. And where I see those that dismiss it as “mere children’s stories” not worthy of study, it seems they do so for the good/evil reason. At times I found the language stilted (specifically dialogue), but it seemed a deliberate choice, to make his heroes sound as the heroes of epics past. Perhaps, even sixty years on, we still need more passage of time for illumination.

I feel like this year, almost all of my reading has made me want to wander down another path I hadn’t planned (I’ve resisted, mostly), and The Lord of the Rings is no exception. I’ve never really read any of Tolkien’s sources or inspirations, just a little of Malory. Tolkien’s faux-historical narrative (both in plot and style) encourages me to visit some of his predecessors. The ancient sagas call to me. And there are still works of Tolkien’s I’d like to explore: his retelling of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Children of Hurin. Stories of ages long gone, or of ages that only ever were in imagination, but grand tales to tempt the imagination.

‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually–their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on–and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same–like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! (The Two Towers, Book 4, Chapter 8)

 

*My opinion? Why on earth need there be a distinction between books for children and books for adults, so long as they are good enough for children? But, that said, the style and language might be a bit tricky for some young readers–Tolkien liked antique words that I often must look up, and his narrative at times harkens to epics past.

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