(Completed): A Series of Posts in One

I’ve had a fairly good reading year to date. I haven’t quite managed to get everything read I wanted (especially in anticipated time frames), but I’ve read books I hadn’t planned on as well as some I really wanted to get through. Unfortunately, my blogging activity: not so great. That leaves me with books I don’t remember well enough to write full posts on. (Well, to be fair, I may not have had enough to say on one or two of these in the first place. After all, I’ve managed a full post on Quiet, and I read that one in May.) And a few weeks back (when I actually started writing this) I reached a point when I felt I couldn’t read any more until  So I decided to just clear the deck and write up some brief thoughts here, for my own records if nothing else.  Presented in order of completion:

The Memoirs of Sherlock HolmesThe Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1894, Scotland

Alas, I don’t recall much of my thoughts on this Sherlock Holmes collection. I do remember that I enjoyed it more than I did the similar The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but I think that is more likely due to reading mood than any real difference between the two collections. One thing I found: these stories are just the perfect length for reading at lunch at work. In fact, I probably read more of this book on lunch breaks than any other book this year!

There were two stories I did find memorable: the infamous “The Final Problem” (of course) and “The Yellow Face,” which I noted offered a view of the restrictive life of women in the Victorian era: the client comes to Holmes concerned over what his wife is up to because she wasn’t home when he returned. However, it surprised me in the end, for a completely different social reason. I can’t say why without giving away the end (which I am reluctant to do for a mystery). Suffice it to say, not quite what I expected from a story from the 19th century.

Up next in the series, The Hound of the Baskervilles, which will hopefully be read for this year’s edition of R.I.P.

This book qualifies as a Classics Club selection, as one of my 2013 TBR Challenge selections, and as part of my Mysteries & Detective Fiction project.

outsilentplanetOut of the Silent Planet
C. S. Lewis
1938, Britain

I find myself forced to admit that I find it rather easy to forget that I read Out of the Silent Planet this summer. And that I needed to post on it. So, yes, not really my favorite Lewis. For one thing, it was far more work than I had really expected–trying to picture the environment, keep up with the made-up words. I don’t know if that’s a failing of the book or the reader (I don’t often read books with extensive world-building). That said, I will likely finish out the trilogy at some point.

“Yes,” said Oyarsa, ” but one thing we left behind us on the harandra: fear. And with fear, murder and rebellion. The weakest of my people does not fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end. If you were subjects of Maleldil you would have peace.” (Ch. 20)

This is Lewis’s science fiction. Of course, it is also Lewis, so there is underpinning theology which shapes things, and which, I suspect, is what ultimately causes it to deviate from the expected. On the one hand, it is science fiction in the most expected sense, I think: space flight, alien planet, extraterrestrial beings. But what else we expect–that other is dangerous to man, that man is at the top of the totem pole–that is not necessarily so. Lewis really seems to flip some of the science fiction tropes around*–as well as act as a sort of commentary on British colonialism. (I think. It seems…) Although mention is made of “white man’s burden” and it is clear that villains Weston and Divine want to take the traditional colonizer’s/explorer’s route of raping and plundering a new world, main-character Ransom’s interactions with the “natives” are so radically different. While there may be some hint at the concept of “noble savage” in the inspiration of the three different groups of Malacandra, I think what Lewis really presents is an alternate Earth, one where the Fall (of man) hasn’t happened: Malacandra shows us what might have been. Thus, the hnau are friendly, open, welcoming. They are not innocent, i.e., they have knowledge that evil and darkness exists (something Ransom seems not to recognize at first, as he attempts to shield them from knowledge that there is evil on his home planet), but they are good. I think Lewis’s theology is more subtle here than in the Narnia novels, but it is still present. Indeed, this reminds me more of Tolkien’s Silmarillion than Narnia. (Also, I thought the last chapter, the one that could almost have been left off, the best part.)

*Legitimate question: would Lewis have been writing this before some of the standard SF tropes existed?
The-Raven-BoysThe Raven Boys
Maggie Stiefvater
2012, U.S.

I believe I mentioned earlier this summer that I’ve been experimenting with listening to audiobooks while driving home from work. I know many people love audiobooks for their commutes, but I seem to have a great difficulty with attention paying when listening to books. Which is odd given that my dad read to my brother and I for many years–if we made it through The Lord of the Rings why can’t I listen to a professionally produced audiobook without frequent rewindings as my attention constantly wanders to other things? I’ve found that “easier” books or rereads work a bit better, so I took advantage of a summer series of free YA offerings through audiobooksync.com. I’ve only listened to a couple so far, but it was Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys which really grabbed my attention–so much so that I stopped listening to the audiobook and picked up a paper copy at the library. You can throw your “but audiobooks are real books” at me all you like; I simply can’t listen well enough to stick with an audio version of something I’m enjoying so much. Of course, this means I was next hit with the unfortunate reality that The Raven Boys is the first of a (length unknown to me) series, and the second book didn’t come put until mid-September. Ah yes. I don’t mind waits, it’s remembering the earlier book(s) in the meantime that’s the problem.

The Raven Boys qualifies, I think, as a contemporary fantasy. Maybe. I’m vague on definitions. It’s set in the U.S. south, Virginia specifically, in the present day. The main characters are all high-school students, most of whom attend an elite private school, and all of whom are on a quest for a mythical ley-line, with a few added psychics thrown in for good measure. There is much mention of a Welsh king, Glendower. I am rather reminded of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, which is perhaps the best comparison I know for the type of fantasy this is. (I am rather under-read in fantasy and definite terminology is beyond me.) Oddly though, while reading I was actually more reminded of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Both are set in the south, with…unusual…high school students as the main characters, both have important scenes in the woods. And both give the name “Blue” to the main female character. (Is that a southern name then? Or just a “quirky” girl’s name name?) There’s perhaps not really any reason to compare the two, but I couldn’t help making the connection. It did make me think that perhaps I ought read more U.S. southern lit, as I seem to be fond of it… Also, perhaps mythologies and legends from the British Isles.

I actually don’t have much else to say beyond that I really enjoyed it–I think for both the characters and the atmosphere–I kept listening to Loreena McKennitt’s Celtic influenced music while reading, which seemed completely appropriate. (What? Doesn’t everybody match their playlist to their reading?)

In terms of atmosphere, this seems appropriate for seasonal R.I.P. reading, but as I read it this summer, I’m not including it on my list. Also, if audiobooks are your sort of thing, I thought it very well narrated.

Phew. All caught up. Now I can return to reading guilt-free. Let’s just not let this happen again, shall we?

In which I recall books recently read

I’ve been so focused on my reading about reading (and about books) recently, that I’d nearly forgotten that I’ve actually read fiction recently. Or rather, not that recently, as I haven’t read any in nearly three weeks (although I intend to rectify that problem shortly).

In addition to being the year of my return to books in general, this also appears to be the year of my return to books past in particular. In some ways I feel guilty rereading old favorites—there are simply so many good books I’ve yet to read, why should I return to those I know well? There is, however, a great comfort in the familiarity of old books—a sense of returning home or returning to a simpler time and place. I also take encouragement in this suggestion from Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits (Jack Murnighan): “Don’t have literary one-night stands. Go back again and again; the really good ones get better and better.” Of course, I am ready to acknowledge that Murnighan likely had in mind a higher class of literature than the favorites I have most recently re-read, but in some ways the truth still holds. Except for the most simple and shallow of books, there seems always something more to find.

I find this especially true in The Chronicles of Narnia, which I am slowly revisiting. Other than the first, most famous book, I believe I have only read any of the books once previously, most likely when I was still in elementary school (I can’t recall with certainty). Although the parallels between The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the Gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus were obvious to me at the time (as well as those of the creation story in The Magician’s Nephew with Genesis), I did not really recognize any of the other Christian themes or allusions made within the series. After all, I was mostly reading them because they were fun and I had an insatiable thirst for books. Reading them now, though, most recently having finished The Silver Chair, I can see a greater depth, the more subtle messages that are easy to gloss over as a child. For example, the adversary in The Silver Chair, who holds Prince Rilian captive and seeks to prevent Jill and Eustice from his rescue, is seen in two forms—that of a “most beautiful lady” and that of a vile green serpent. The ideas of duplicity and that evil may be disguised in beauty are not so complicated as to confuse a young reader, but point to a deeper meaning than simple surface reading suggests. The serpent imagery is also suggestive of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden—as that serpent brought her death, so this serpent kills Rilian’s mother. These readings are not necessary to the enjoyment of the story, but do add another level of enjoyment to be discovered on a subsequent read.

The other reread I finished recently, L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle is not so deep. It is a simple story of a young woman’s yearning for freedom and love, and how she eventually finds both. As I was also beginning to read Reading Like a Writer at the same time, in which Francine Prose advocates “close reading,” I found myself attempting to slow down and really absorb the words of the story, instead of the hurried pace I more typically take. I found this to enhance both my enjoyment and appreciation of the story. Montgomery includes many poetical passages describing the woods surrounding the town of the story’s setting. By slowing down and looking at these passages closely, I was able to appreciate the beauty and whimsy of the descriptions. It also drew me to contemplate the hurried nature of contemporary life and the separation of so many of us from nature. We close ourselves off from nature, perhaps seeing it only through a television screen. Our ancestors, in contrast, were often intimately familiar with the world outside their doors, lacking the many distractions we have and the “modern conveniences” which allow us to ignore the natural world almost completely. After finishing this book, I am inspired to find and read a work (perhaps a series of essays?) on nature. My mom, an avid gardener, has several such books I could choose from, I am sure.