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 Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle

Cover: The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle The Arm of the Starfish
Madeleine L’Engle
US, 1965

In terms of the order of events in L’Engle’s wider story universe, The Arm of the Starfish is not the next book after A Wrinkle in Time. That would be A Wind in the Door (1973). But in terms of publication, The Arm of the Starfish was the second, and on a whim I decided that I would read all of the books, not just in the Time Quintet but in the Poly O’Keefe stories as well, in the order of publication. (This does have the negative consequence of delaying my return to my TBR list by a bit, but only a bit. I’ll be back in TBR-land shortly!)

Despite only three years between publication, The Arm of the Starfish seems a world away from A Wrinkle in Time. Not only is this because the two returning characters–Meg O’Keefe (née Murray) and Calvin O’Keefe are now married adults with seven children, but because unlike A Wrinkle in Time, The Arm of the Starfish seems much more grounded in the world we the readers know–there are no fantastic beings, no otherworldly travels, no giant evil IT to defeat. Indeed, the evil in this book is only too human–but surely as destructive and enticing for all that. The only element that really sets this novel in the realm of science-fiction is the depiction of Dr. O’Keefe’s science experiments involving starfish regeneration.

Our protagonist in The Arm of the Starfish is Adam Eddington, a young, but clearly intelligent and destined-to-be successful, man who is spending his last summer before college working for Dr. O’Keefe in his Portuguese island-based lab. However, things start to go awry before Adam even lands in Portugal, from the fog-delay at the airport to his mysterious encounter with the young beauty, Kali, to the airplane’s diversion to Madrid and Adam’s first encounters with Canon Tallis and Poly O’Keefe (the oldest of the O’Keefe children). Entrusted with seeing Poly safely to Lisbon and her father’s arms, Adam finds himself trapped in a larger conspiracy when Poly disappears from the plane and no one on board seems inclined to believe Adam’s story of her very existence.

While the Time Quintet books are more firmly in the realm of science-fiction, exploring cosmic concepts and universe-wide battles of good and evil, The Arm of the Starfish sits closer to the thriller genre, always steering towards a final, dangerous, confrontation. Its themes are of the darkness that lust for power or money or prestige can drive one to and of the small battles of individuals, both within themselves and against others.

Although a very different reading experience, diverging as it does in both style and story from its predecessor, The Arm of the Starfish, like Wrinkle, centers around a young protagonist with faults and self-doubt, whose failings sometimes may frustrate the reader, but who learns from his mistakes and grows over the course of the novel. In turn, the reader learns from Adam, and from his struggles.

My one piece of discomfort with The Arm of the Starfish was its portrayal of a native village on the fictional island of Gaea. L’Engle’s native characters feel as if they venture a little too close to stereotype (along the lines of “noble native”) for comfort, although they are only ever seen in a positive light. Also—and I admit here, I don’t know anything about actual Portuguese islands—the village, and its inhabitants, seemed more like something I would expect to read of in the South Pacific or Latin America than off the coast of Portugal. Stereotype or not, it threw me off mentally, every time it was described. In contrast, L’Engle’s depictions of Lisbon felt (and again, I can’t speak to personal experience) as if they were written by someone who has seen Lisbon in person.

All-in-all, a fast-paced enjoyable book, though perhaps not as enchanting as the better-known A Wrinkle in Time.

 

Completed: A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time
Madeleine L’Engle
(US, 1962)

Her mother carefully turned over four slices of French toast, then said in a steady voice, “No, Meg. Don’t hope it was a dream. I don’t understand it any more than you do, but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be.” (Ch 2)

I admit I approached A Wrinkle in Time with some trepidation. Although I had fond memories, it had been so long since I last read it, that I was afraid the magic might be gone.

I needn’t have been afraid. Not only did A Wrinkle in Time maintain the sense of magic I remembered from so long ago, I found much more insight in it than I would have as a child. L’Engle does not condescend to her reader, and so she creates a story that is not merely enchanting, but that imparts seamless lessons for living that extend to any reader.

“But nobody’s ever happy, either,” Meg said earnestly. “Maybe if you aren’t unhappy sometimes you don’t know how to be happy.” (Ch 8)

A Wrinkle in Time is the story of three children—Meg and Charles Wallace Murry and Calvin O’Keefe—who are tasked with the rescue of Mr. Murry, who went astray in space in a lab experiment gone wrong. It is a story of fighting against darkness—inner, outer, spiritual, here given form as “the Black Thing.” And it is a story of family and friendship and individuality and finding one’s place and learning one’s strengths. It introduces us to the fifth dimension, a tesseract, a “wrinkle” in time. And so Wrinkle is a science-fiction story. It is that rare science-fiction story—to my familiarity, at least—where a girl is a hero. And L’Engle makes Meg a marvelous, well-rounded hero. She is allowed not only her strengths, but her faults as well, indeed is told to use her faults. She is allowed to be both strong and weak, smart but a struggling student, determined and impatient and stubborn and angry and full of love.

Nor is Meg a “token” female character; Mrs. Murry is allowed not to merely be a mother, but a highly-educated working scientist, and the children are guided by the delightful—and wise—trio of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. Nor do these wonderful women come at the expense of males: Charles Wallace and Calvin are essential to the story as well, their strengths and weaknesses playing off Meg’s and providing two more examples of intelligence and individuality and two more problem solving approaches as well; and, like his wife, the scientist Mr. Murry reminds us that even as adults we still struggle with the challenges life may throw at us and with how best to protect those we love.

Refreshingly, A Wrinkle in Time seems at times to be a celebration of the intellectual, while also providing a caution against the pure intellect and a reminder to guard oneself against smugness and superiority. In the end there is a strength greater even than book smarts or wisdom or determination, but this is a lesson Meg (and the reader) must learn for herself.

I thoroughly enjoyed returning to the world of L’Engle’s words and I am even more excited for my 2018 L’Engle reading project than I was even a month ago.

“Do you think things always have an explanation?”
“Yes. I believe that they do. But I think that with our human limitations we’re not always able to understand the explanations. But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean that the explanation doesn’t exist.” (Ch 3)

For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. “No!” she cried triumphantly. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!” (Ch 9)

Read for 2018 TBR Pile Challenge and as a children’s classic for Back to the Classics.

Playing Catch-up – A Trio of Mini-Thoughts

I spent a good chunk of last weekend catching up on the writing about the books I’ve read the last few months. Hopefully I will get all the posts up this month (I don’t have them in WordPress format yet, just a Word document), but thought I’d start with some quick notes on books I either don’t remember well enough to write more about or didn’t have much to say about.

Cover: Eragon by Christorpher PaoliniEragon
Christopher Paolini
U.S., 2003

I read this, starting in 2015, on a sort of impulse. I’d thought of picking it up for a while, as dragon stories interest me. Alas, I’m not sure I enjoyed it enough to read the series. Early on, the entire story felt very familiar – it wasn’t until I was rewatching the original Star Wars movies before I saw The Force Awakens that I realized that there are many plot similarities with A New Hope. So not only was it very familiar, but very predictable. I have a guess for how the series ends… A series I would have enjoyed more in middle school than as an adult.

Cover: White Nights by Ann CleevesWhite Nights
Ann Cleeves
U.K., 2008

The second in the Shetland Series by Ann Cleeves, I read the first back in October of 2014. Eventually I will read the entire series, for I love the world that Cleeves creates. As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the conventions of mysteries–a small cast of characters from which the murderer must come–works so well in the small Shetland villages that populate her novels; there really is only a limited number of people from whom to pick. (Assuming, of course, no outsiders sneaked in and out–which is always possible when the victim is from out-of-town.) If only big city sleuthing were so easy! I love too the way she moves her narrative between the different characters, allowing us into multiple thoughts and motivations and to know more than just the detective well. We the reader know more than any one character, but still not enough to solve the mystery just yet. At the end I was a bit torn–on the one hand, the solution seemed rather abrupt, but on the other, looking back there were still so many clues paving the way. I just wasn’t as clever as Jimmy Perez, the local detective on the case, who managed to piece all these little clues together.

 

Cover: The Martian by Andy WeirThe Martian
Andy Weir
2011 & 2014, US

On page 36 I gasped. 64% hydrogen?! And then I remembered. This is fiction.

Such was the power of the opening chapters of Andy Weir’s The Martian. I found these early chapters, told in the form of a daily log kept by stranded astronaut, Mark Watney, so realistic*, and so engaging–math, science and all–that it was at times somewhat of a stretch to remember that this has all been made up. And unlike other thrillers where the twists and turns seem just a plot device to ramp up the tension, here each obstacle to Watney’s survival, on such a remote and unforgiving place as an empty Mars, seemed a natural outgrowth from the harsh conditions. In a way, this isn’t a science-fiction story; it is a pioneer story, a lone traveler in a foreign landscape seemingly conspiring to kill him.

I can see it now: me holding a map, scratching my head, trying to figure out how I ended up on Venus.

I was initially disappointed by a sudden switch in the narrative device, but quickly realized it only served to ratchet up the tension even more. And yet, despite all of the tension and suspense–was it even remotely possible for Watney to make it?–the humor. So much humor! It is not often that I literally laugh out loud while reading, but this novel, despite the dire picture it painted provided ample opportunity. Watney was truly the right character to strand on Mars.

Humor, science, math, suspense: quite possibly my favorite read from 2015.

*I assume. I don’t know enough of the science to say, but it seems sound.

Completed: drive, Act I

drive: the scifi comic
Dave Kellet
US, ongoing

Take one part futuristic sci-fi, add a dose of second Spanish Empire, a strong part humor, monochrome blue palatte, alien creatures ranging from intimidating oaf to cuddly scholar (and everything in between) and don’t forget family and work dynamics, and you just might have the makings of one of my current favorite web comics. Oh, and let’s not forget the documents: memos, letters, articles from the Enciclopedia xenobiología. I might not typically comment on a web comic here, but I recently reread the entirety of what the creator, Dave Kellet, terms “Act I,” so it seemed as good a time as any to proclaim my love for this serial comic. (And for that matter, there are some rumors, that funding permitting, Act I may be self-published as a standalone book. Kellet also previously published the first half or so of Act I in paperback form, which I used for the first part of my reread.)

I came to drive: the scifi comic via Kellet’s other web comic, Sheldon, a wide-varying comic with a group of recurring characters including the eponymous Sheldon, but which also ventures away from the regulars to showcase everything from Shakespeare’s literary agent to Gandalf Airlines. My brother had introduced me to Sheldon, knowing I would likely appreciate the geeky humor and wide varying references (Shakespeare, design, Star Trek, etc.). My brother couldn’t have known at the time that Kellet was about to start a project I would love even more.

Set centuries in the future, when the Second Spanish Empire rules not just the Earth, but much of the known Galaxy, Drive is adventure-humor-scifi. Our main characters are the crew of a small space ship, The Machito, who, early in the story find themselves with a very unique new pilot who can’t remember who he is or where he came from. But his talents are so great, that soon the emperor coerces the crew into searching out other members of their pilot’s species. And so the adventures begin…

New posts come out roughly once a week (though twice is soon hoped for), and guest artists have begun adding their own spin-off chapters to the story. Where it will all go, who knows? But I’m more than willing to trail along.

drive - prologue
drive - sample page