Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Cover: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna ClarkeJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Susanna Clarke
2004, Britain

He wished he had stayed at Hurtfew Abbey, reading and doing magic for his own pleasure. None of it, he thought, was worth the loss of forty books. (Ch. 29)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been on my shelf, and my to-be-read list for quite some time. It sounded just my thing: a tale of two magicians, set in Regency England. A sort of Harry Potter-Jane Austen mash-up. It took me some time to get to it, however, as I find so often with books I own rather than books I’ve borrowed.

It is a deliciously slow read, not the brisk jaunt through magic and manners that one might expect of a genre novel. Rather, it unfolds its tale gradually, taking us from York and the Society of Magicians–more a social dinner group, than anything–to the bustle of London, the battlefields of the Iberian Peninsula, the remote English countryside, and beyond. As the story opens, neither title character is anywhere in sight, and one wonders at first if the first magician we encounter, John Segundus, will perhaps morph into one of the titular characters. He is rather our introduction to this magical world–someone who believes in magic, but doesn’t know how to yet do it himself. It is not long, however, before Mr. Norrell comes on the scene and so begins the long, winding build-up to the great climatic battle of magic and wits. All in good manners and taste, of course.

There is an interesting tension in the world that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell inhabits, between a reality that impresses upon the reader the idea that this is almost a pure historical fiction tale–the Regency era is rendered so fully–and the wonderous magical environment overlaid upon the history. King George III and the Duke of Wellington are characters, but so are the magical Raven King and the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. More fully rounding out the depth of the invented world are the delightful footnotes, complete with (fictional) citations to historical and magical books, telling tales of the (fictional) history of English magic and folklore.

I found Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a delightful and immersive, if slow, read (though how much of that is one me?), and I could see myself returning to its magical world again. After reading it, I watched the BBC miniseries adaptation, and was equally charmed, though I really see the TV series as a complement, rather than replacement for the novel.

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Completed: Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle

Cover: Many Waters by Madeleine L'EngleMany Waters
Madeleine L’Engle
(1986, US)

Dennys raised his face to the stars, and their light fell against his cheeks like dew. They chimed at him softly. Do not seek to comprehend. All shall be well. Wait. Patience. Wait. You do not always have to do something. Wait. Chapter 12

There were over two decades between the publication of A Wrinkle in Time and Many Waters, the fourth book in the loose “Time Quintet.” And in a way, it feels it. The magic that I felt with Wrinkle and its second sequel, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, seems to be gone.

The ties between Many Waters and the earlier books are by way of the Murry twins, Dennys and Sandy, who compared to the rest of the Murry family, are “normal” and more skeptical than their siblings: Meg and Charles Wallace may believe in unicorns, but they don’t. And yet it is these two who, whether through accident or divine intervention, find themselves in a pre-flood world, sharing a tent with (Biblical) Noah’s father, Lamech, and befriend Noah, his wife, his sons and their wives, and his daughter, Yalith. The Genesis story doesn’t give names to the women, nor does it tell us if Noah had daughters–or any other living family, for that matter–and so this becomes an interesting exploration of a familiar story: what is the story of the unnamed women? What would it have been like for Noah and his sons and their wives to know that others they loved and cared for would die in a devastating flood? What if Noah had a daughter?

It is a strange book, in a way. One part Bible story retelling, one part fantasy, one part sci-fi time-travel – I’m not sure what to make of it. There seems a disconnect between fleshing out the story of Noah and his family, pre-flood, while also introducing unicorns and manticore of later European story-telling and adding in time-traveling boys from centuries later.

Additionally, while the earlier novels seem to focus on the emotional growth of the main characters–learning to defeat darkness by overcoming their own flaws or learning to love and share love–here, it seems that the twins’ story is more about their sexual awakening rather than any emotional growth. Indeed, the sexuality seems so frank, that I would be inclined to classify this as YA, while still thinking of the earlier novels as mid-grade books. Though, to be fair, I first read this in elementary school and anything that might have been more “grown up” went straight over my head!

I was a bit disappointed in this novel compared to the earlier books–I was hoping for more of the magical world I found in A Wrinkle in Time. I still have one book left in the series, but knowing that it was written after this last one, I admit, I’m approaching it with a bit of trepidation – will it be a return to form, or will the magic be gone?

Completed: A Swiftly Tilting Planet

A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Madeleine L’Engle
1978, US

They moved through the time-spinning reaches of a far galaxy, and he realized that the galaxy itself was part of a mighty orchestra, and each star and planet within the galaxy added its own instrument to the music of the spheres. As long as the ancient harmonies were sung, the universe would not entirely lose its joy. (Chapter Four)

Unfortunately, it’s been many months since I reread A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and I simply don’t remember it as well as I would wish–not merely to write about, but because, going back through passages I marked, it is a beautiful book.

A beautiful book for a dark time, a book of hope and joy, A Swiftly Tilting Planet was published in 1978, and so written in a time, in the US at least, of great cultural upheaval, political turmoil, economic fears and environmental concerns. And it reflects these concerns. Opening as the Murray family is preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner, the catalyst for the plot is a phone call from the US President to Mr. Murry: the leader of a small (fictional) South American country, “Mad Dog Branzillo” is threatening nuclear war. What follows is an interesting mix of Celtic and American myth and L’Engle fantasy as fifteen-year-old Charles Wallace and the unicorn Gaudior travel back in time, seeking out the “Might-Have-Been” that they can change and so avert disaster. Meg, married to Calvin by now and expecting their first child, joins in remotely, “kything” (a sort of mind-reading) with Charles Wallace so that she knows what is going on, and providing a connection for the reader between his story and the present day. All the while, the enemy, the true Enemy, is not Branzillo, but the Echthroi, who seek to destroy the world’s harmony and will attempt anything–including killing Charles Wallace–to have their way.

“Has the world lost its joy? Is that why we’re in such a mess?” (Meg, Chapter Three)

It struck me last summer when reading the novel, and again today rereading the passages I’d marked, how timely the story felt, how applicable to the world now. And while perhaps that is an indictment on the world we humans have created, and our failures to create an environment in which we interact with love and joy and peace, it is also a reflection of the timelessness of L’Engle’s work and her ability to illuminate the types of concerns that have been present throughout human history. It is the beauty of the novel that it doesn’t create a limited world in which the evil element is defeated and all is well, but that it acknowledges a continual battle while giving hope for victories ever to come.

Her father said, “You know, my dears, the world has been abnormal for so long that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in a peaceful and reasonable climate. If there is to be any peace or reason, we have to create it in our own hearts and homes.” (Chapter One)

At Tara in this fateful hour,
I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the wind with its swiftness along its path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the Earth with its starkness
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness
(Chapter one and throughout)

And So It’s a New Year

Image of pathway lined with brick pillars and lattice overhead

Happy New Year! In some ways it really sneaked up on me this year – where has the time gone this past week?!

I always find it a good time to look back before I look ahead, and this year is no different.

My goals for the year were few:

Non-reading Goals, 2018

This year is one I want to make more about being deliberate: with how I spend my time, in what I acquire (or get rid of), in what I create, in what I read.

Ouch. I didn’t do this as well as I would like – except in one area: I made a conscious decision in the spring to really emphasize my reading, and it definitely paid off.

And it is a year when I want to focus on finishing: all those many projects and lists I feel are constantly hanging over my head.

Mixed. I finished some projects (mostly knitting!), but there are still many on the TBR list. I’ve decided, for now, to just consolidate lists and get to them as I can, without making it a dreaded obligation.

Reading Goals, 2018

The 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

I read and posted about (5) books for the challenge [A Wrinkle in Time , A Wind in the Door, Lady Susan, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, The Warden]. One title was abandoned and permanently removed from my shelves. I also finished (3) additional books that I haven’t yet written anything for [A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Woman in White]. Considering that I wandered away from focusing on this challenge about halfway through the year, I’m actually pretty happy with what I accomplished.

Back to the Classics Challenge

In addition to the (6) books I read and posted about [The Warden, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, Lady Susan, A Wrinkle in Time, Crooked House, Cold Comfort Farm], I read another two qualifying titles that I haven’t (yet) written about [The Woman in White, Tess of the D’Urbervilles]. Which is actually better than I’d hoped for at the start of the year.

Read great books. Not just books I love or enjoy or comfort reads, but GREAT BOOKS.

I read books I enjoyed, books I love(d), books that made me work for it (and that may perhaps be great books – but they beat me up too much to appreciate at the time) – but no one book really stands out to me as a GREAT BOOK. I feel like perhaps Tess of the D’Urbervilles or The Warden or perhaps Cold Comfort Farm belongs here…but none of them is really sticking with me the way I was hoping for.

Overall, I DID read more in 2018 than I’ve read in a long time–31 started and finished in the calendar year, matching my best year since I started blogging. Not one of these was a translation, however. (This should be remedied in 2019, however – see my TBR Challenge list!)

  • 21 by women (or roughly 2/3) – this was chance, not planned!
  • 8 rereads
  • 8 non-fiction books – this was the big surprise of 2018. I hadn’t expected to read more than one or two non-fiction books, especially since they tend to take me longer than fiction, but instead they made up a good chunk of my reading time

My favorite reads for the year, in order I read them (* = reread):

  • A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle (1962, US)*
  • Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie (1934, England)*
  • Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons (1932, England)
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling (1999, Britain)*
  • Understanding Exposure: How to Shoot Great Photographs With Any Camera – Bryan Peterson (4th Ed., 2016, US)
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling (2000, Britain)*
  • Off the Clock – Laura Vanderkam (2018, US)
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke (2004, Britain)
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith [J.K. Rowling](2013, Britain)
  • Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson (1886, Scotland)
  • Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan (2013, US)
  • The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins (1859, England)

2019

So now I turn my eyes to the new year. New plans. My goals, again, are slight:

  • 2019 TBR Challenge
  • 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge
  • Building on my successful reading year, I’m hoping for 36 books in 2019, or an average of 3 a month. If I stay away from non-fiction, this might be doable! And hopefully, one of those, at least, will be a GREAT BOOK!

Non-reading:

  • Finish the (4) knitting projects I currently have started + (1) yet-to-be determined project
  • Continue taking ceramics classes, aiming for greater consistency
  • And to echo 2018, being more deliberate in my use of time

All very doable, I think.

Happy Reading!

 

Christmas Reads 2018

With the New Year fast approaching, Christmas season is nearly past as well. I didn’t expect this year that I would complete any seasonal reading (too many in-progress  books already), but then my mom told me about a P.D. James short story collection, and I found that some Christmas-set reading was only my to-do list. One thing leads to another, and soon an Agatha Christie was on hold at the library as well

I’m not sure that one should really call any of James’s or Christie’s stories “seasonal” – peace, love, goodwill to all men with a side of murder just doesn’t seem very Christmas-spirit. But on the other hand, both Christie and James knew that the holidays can bring with them stress and strife, as the obligations of the season often bring together estranged family members who otherwise might conveniently forget each other’s existence. Perhaps one might say the Christmas season is actually ripe for murder?

Cover: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories
P.D. James
2016, England (collection of previously published stories)

“The Mistletoe Murder”

Set during World War II, a young war widow is invited to her grandmother’s estate for the Christmas Holidays, along with a couple other  relations. But the seemingly peaceful gathering is shattered when a distant cousin is found bludgeoned to death and our young heroine feels the need to solve his murder. This felt to me rather of the Golden Age of detective fiction, though perhaps more graphic or at least more serious. In fact, it made me nostalgic for Christie (thus my second seasonal read). I was not surprised by the “who” though I was so caught up in the narrative that I’d forgotten my suspicions until all was revealed. It was my favorite of the short collection.

“A Very Commonplace Murder”

A first person narrative, told by the witness to a crime, who at each phase of the investigation confirms to himself his reasons why he shouldn’t come forward…yet. The title is both apt–and not quite. I found this little tale tawdry and out of step with the others.

“The Boxdale Inheritance”

The first Adam Dalgliesh story I’ve read. (Really, I should read some full-length PD James!) Interestingly, the actual mystery is from the past, over 60 years, as Dalgliesh is asked by a friend to investigate his uncle’s murder; Dalgliesh’s friend doesn’t fell comfortable accepting an inheritance form  his late aunt if she were really the guilty party.  Although a short story, it plays with both murder and ethical concepts.

“The Twelve Clues of Christmas”

Much like the first story, this tale seemed also to have something of Christie about it – which Dalgliesh himself notes: a country house full of family only arrived for the holidays, an unexpected death, and so many clues. Twelve, to be exact. While the mystery is no match for Dalgliesh, the story and setting bring a comfortable whiff of Golden Age detective nostalgia with them (and perhaps the question – do the British really have so many family homes in which to set murders?!).

Overall, I found the stories an enjoyable afternoon diversion, but left me wanting more…

Cover: Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie
Hercule Poirot’s Chrismtas
Agatha Christie
1938, England

My immediate solution to the need for more Christmas-timed murder and mayhem was to turn to the queen of the Golden Age. A quick search turned up Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (also known as Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder). It is yet another tale of long estranged family gathering at home for Christmas, summoned by the patriarch, Simeon Lee, ostensibly to reconcile for one last family Christmas. However, Simeon is an unrepentant scoundrel, more interested in setting his sons and daughters-in-law at each other’s throats than in familial bonding. Throw in a Spanish granddaughter, a son of Simeon’s former partner from his South African diamond mining days, and a sneaky valet and it is a combustible mix, with nothing good bound to happen. Fortunately, Hercule Poirot happens to be staying nearby for the holidays, so justice is bound to be served.

The mystery is solid, and the clues and personalities laid carefully, so that while I often saw the significance of Poirot’s line of investigation, I didn’t actually work out the “who” in advance of the big reveal. Which is how I prefer my mysteries: tantalizingly close to figuring it out, but not so close that the ending is a let down. On the whole, a mostly satisfying read. On the other hand, I find myself agreeing a bit with Simeon’s granddaughter Pilar: it wasn’t quite an English Christmas. Perhaps “Hercule Poirot’s Boxing Day” would have been better?

Completed: A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle

When I was poking around my drafts the other day, I realized that I has never hit “publish” on this post from back in June. Better late than never, I suppose!

Cover: A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'EngleA Wind in the Door
Madeleine L’Engle
(1973, US)

“My children,” Blajeny said gravely, “my school building is the entire cosmos. Before your time with me is over, I may have to take you great distances, and to very strange places.” (68)

Unlike its immediate predecessor The Arm of the Starfish, A Wind in the Door is of a kind with the style and tone of A Wrinkle in Time. Here, we return to the world of Meg and Charles Wallace Murray and Calvin O’Keefe, to cosmic battles and fantastic beings, to playing with time and space—and, now size. For while in A Wrinkle in Time the three children traveled the cosmos in search of Mr. Murray and to defeat the IT, in A Wind in the Door, it is Meg and Calvin who must travel into Charles Wallace–or more precisely, into his mitochondria. As the book opens, Meg is just starting to realize that not only is her little brother being bullied at school, he is deathly ill, a mitochondrial illness. The only hope is for Meg and Calvin, the cherubim Proginoskes, and, quite unexpectedly, Meg’s past nemesis, principal Mr. Jenkins, to journey into Charles Wallace in a desperate attempt to save his farandolae from being “x-ed” or “unnamed.” (While mitochondria are real, farandolae are an invention of L’Engle’s.)

“It isn’t just in distant galaxies that strange, unreasonable things are happening. Unreason has crept up on us so insidiously that we’ve hardly been aware of it. But think of the the things going on in our own country which you wouldn’t have believed possible only a few years ago.” (96)

“I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming—making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate. That’s why we still need Namers, because there are places throughout the universe like your planet Earth. When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.” (111-12)

As with Wrinkle it is a cosmic battle, but one that plays out on a microscopic scale. Good vs. evil. This illness is not of germs or viruses, but the deliberate creation of evil beings, the Echtroi, the unnamers. Naming, being named, given the full sense of self and not falling prey to the nothingness of being unnamed–this is the theme of A Wind in the Door. It is a theme I have seen elsewhere in L’Engle’s work, most notably (that I recall) in her nonfiction meditation on creativity, Walking on Water. And so it must be important to her. But it is not necessarily easy to fully understand. Indeed, A Wind in the Door is quite a conceptual novel. Farandole is to mitochondria as human is to galaxy. Kything and communing vs communicating. And so many scenes where no one actually sees or talks (kything only). Truly, this novel seems that it would be unfilmable!

But there is great wisdom here. It is not enough that we talk at or even merely to each other; we must commune together. It is not enough to know someone on the surface, we must know them well enough to name them and we ourselves must be open to being named. And just as love played a central role in A Wrinkle in Time, none of this is possible, neither Naming nor defeating Evil, without Love, either in L’Engle’s fictional world, or in ours.

“Yes. The Echthroi are those who hate, those who would keep you from being Named, who would un-Name you. It is the nature of love to create. It is the nature of hate to destroy.” (149)

Read as part of the 2018 TBR Challenge and my Classics of Children’s Literature project list.

Completed: The Warden

Cover: The Warden by Anthony TrollopeThe Warden
Anthony Trollope
1855, England

So, The Warden is my first Anthony Trollope. It won’t be my last Trollope, I hasten to add (if nothing else, Barchester Towers is sitting on my shelves, waiting patiently), though there were times when The Warden itself, slim as it is, felt a bit of a slog to get through. (Though other chapters just flew by.) It has certainly been one of several books recently instructing me in how to read – that necessity of letting the novel lead the dance, not the reader.

The party went off as such parties do: there were fat old ladies in fine silk dresses, and slim young ladies in gauzy muslin frocks; old gentlemen stood up with their backs to the empty fireplace, looking by no means so comfortable as they would have done in their own armchairs at home; and young gentlemen, rather stiff about the neck, clustered near the door, not as yet sufficiently in courage to attach the muslin frocks, who awaited the battle, drawn up in a semicircular array. The warden endeavoured to induce a charge, but failed signally, not having the tact of a general: his daughter did what she could to comfort the forces under her command, who took in refreshing rations of cake a tea, and patiently looked for the coming engagement: but she herself, Eleanor, had no spirit for the work; the only enemy whose lance she cared to encounter was not there, and she and others were somewhat dull. (Chapter 6, “The Warden’s Tea Party”)

The plot of The Warden is simple enough: Dr. John Bold, suitor to the daughter of Warden Rev. Septimus Harding, questions publicly the legality of the current division of the revenues of the estate of John Hiram, whose will, many years since, set up an almshouse for up to twelve poor elderly men of Barchester and also funding for the position of Warden to oversee the almshouse. The question at hand–does the warden have the right to a full 800 pounds a year currently received while the men only have one shilling and fourpence a day, plus lodging? This is the question that instigates the action, and how the various involved parties react is the substance of the novel.

And there are a number of parties involved. In addition to John Bold and Septimus Harding, there are his daughter Eleanor; his friend, the elderly Bishop Grantly; his elder daughter Susan and her husband, the imperious Archdeacon Grantly. The current bedesmen, recipients of the charity, are of course deeply concerned in the matter, with some, visions of riches dancing in their heads, dreaming of the success of Bold’s inquiry, while others, acknowledging the friendship and generosity of Harding, support him to the end. While the stakes most directly concern the bedesmen and Rev. Harding, Archdeacon Grantly can see only how such inquiries might damage the Church, in direct contrast to Rev. Harding’s concern with being in the right, a concern the Archdeacon cannot seem to grasp.

The Warden thus becomes an interesting character study and an investigation of human nature. The motivations and perspectives of those involved are examined and explained; there is no guesswork as to why anyone acts or doesn’t act in a certain manner. And given the feelings of these parties, the conclusion comes as no surprise–it seems that the resolution to the problem at hand could be none other than what is presented, for any person involved could not behave in any other manner.

Although this novel proved a bit of work on my part, it was a rewarding sort of work, and I look forward to further Trollope. Though, perhaps after a dose of something less concerned with 19th century church politics!

I read The Warden for both Back to the Classics 2018 and the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.