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You were created to run… no really

J read Born to Run earlier in the year when we started the blog project, and it has been one of the books on my list to read. Because J already summed up the book in his post, I am going to offer a more personal reflection it.

I used to be a runner– that is, in high school I was a cross-country runner and in track, a miler and two miler, but frankly I preferred cross-country. The mile always seemed too short, the two mile, boring (eight times around the track can get a bit mind-numbing.) Cross-country was the most fun, with the winding, hilly courses, and frankly the long road runs were my favorite– in the summer we would rise early and be running by five am, while the city was still sleepy, the Los Angeles air still cool, and when it was often my teammates and I loping along through the neighborhoods around the high school. Our coach would follow us in his old green car, affectionately nicknamed “the tank” for its square appearance and army green color, as we quietly moved through the streets.

There was a student at our rival high school who was one of the best runners in the state. He had been born in Kenya and was something of a local legend. B was a tall handsome kid with a wide smile and who was so fast, the rest of us could hardly believe it. His running partner  was a tall blond kid, white as could be, who was known as “B’s Ghost” or simply “the Ghost.” At league finals they would come in far before anyone else, bouncing along like two gazelles. B and the Ghost were a joy to watch, and I remember standing with a teammate watching them finish. B made it look so easy, without strain, like as if running three miles on a smoggy 100 degree day was the best thing in the world. My teammate whispered to me “You, know, they say he trains barefoot– it’s how he used to run in Kenya–isn’t that insane?”  Then, after B’s teammates had offered their congratulations, my teammate and I walked up and congratulated B on his race. He smiled and thanked us graciously, and I noticed he wasn’t out of breath- in fact he hardly seemed to have run at all.

After reading McDougall’s book, it all began to fall into place. Because B had run barefoot in Kenya, he was a fore-foot striker, not a heel striker (something I had noticed in watching him run) and because of that, his gait was more suited to keeping his body in good condition and injury free. And B, despite all the races he won, despite the fact that he was later recruited for a major Division I college track team, despite the competitiveness, he clearly loved  running. You could see it in his smile.

As much as I could enjoy running, it was often painful, and I stopped running because of a really painful knee injury. And that was the part about the book that I really identified with– McDougall’s search for the reason as to why so many runners end up injured– it all has to do with modern running shoes, which McDougall asserts are so cushioned, as to ruin your natural gait, and your body’s way of telling what is the right way to run. McDougall asserts that as a species that we evolved to run, to run long distances, and to do it well into our old age if properly conditioned.

This book was deeply personal for another reason– my father’s family is descended from the Tarahumara Indians, the great runners that McDougall profiles. In fact the reason why I ran in high school was because that is just what we did. My father, before me, was something of a cross-country star. He loved to run, could “run all day” in his youth. He gave it up once he had a family to support, but his endurance stood him well when he worked in construction as a young man so my mom could go to college. But the fact of it remained, is that in my family, we always ran. It’s just what we do. I was raised that one ran because it was fun, not necessarily because we were good at it. Interestingly, as a runner I was a rather mediocre cross-country runner. Always came in the top ten and placed well for team points, but never a star– but that on the long road runs that we would take as a team I invariably did better. The longer I ran, the better my endurance held out, and I now wonder if I would have been better suited to much longer races in my youth, like the ones that McDougall profiles in the book.

It is funny that how as I got older and went to college, I encountered the more western mentality that running was “work.” “No pain, no gain.” It was no longer fun, it was so that the women I went to school with could keep their svelte bodies. Again, McDougall points out that among the Tarahumara and African bushmen who still run incredible distances, that this is not the case. You run, because you were born to it. You run, because you are human.

There is so much I could say about this book, but I would end up going on forever. The book was deeply personal to me, as an ex-runner (the problem knee has kept me from running for years, and I now live in a part of the country where a barefoot run could mean cactus thorns in your feet and a nasty bite from a rattlesnake)  and because of my own heritage. The book is, as J describes, well-written, funny, and very well-paced. While I may never go on a long run again like I used to, it has motivated me to start trail walking again (something I did after I stopped running, but I stopped once I got into the grind of grad school and then a job) so that I can re-capture some of that clarity that one gets after humming along for 10 miles.

My favorite run ever in high school was our annual fun run at the beach. At the end of the summer we would pile into vans and drive down to the Orange Country beaches. There, we shed our shoes and ran for about three miles in the sand, barefoot, galloping through the waves, chasing each other, laughing, and joking. We were not timed or really even pushed in any way. Early in the morning it was just us and the surfers bobbing out on the waves, and there was a special magic to it all. It was incredibly fun and it was how running is supposed to be.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

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Scheming Kings and Queens Part 2

So last week’s other book was A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin. This is book two of the seven book long  Song of Fire and Ice  series.

Since I am going to attempt to read the whole series, I have decided to not really go over many plot details in my blogging. I introduced the characters in my first post, and I feel like that is plenty. Anyway, it suffices to say, that the book follows the Seven Kingdom’s disintegration into civil war after the death of the King, the varied adventures, journeys and horrors of the Stark children, the menace at the Wall, and the quest of the Mother of Dragons to take back her throne. Along with all that there is lots of scheming, plenty of blood and war (warning: this book is bloodier than the first) and so much intrigue that you might need a flow-chart to follow it.

Martin’s books are immensely popular, and I think that is because they are so well-paced. Each chapter is told from the POV of an important character, so just as he leads you up to something exciting, he moves on to the next character or plot line so that can tantalize you further. At times I found this frustrating, but the end result of this technique is that I raced through the book, trying to see who lives, who died, and who conquered.

It is said that Martin based the book on the Wars of the Roses, and at the moment it seems like an everlasting struggle for power. I cannot seem to figure out who is the main of driving character in this story (although I have my hunches) and at times Martin sets you up and then it all ends in an elaborate trick. But the book was easy to read and I raced right through it so, I guess I will have to go on to book three. So far, the series is holding my interest, but check back with me when I get to book five or six.  We shall see, but there is a huge wait list for all the books at my city library, so it seems that I am not only person that has been sucked into this series…..

Ciao for now

Bookish C

All the Saints

Okay so I have been a slacker. I have been reading but not blogging, so I figured that I better catch up with the blogging….

So today’s book (really it was last week’s book) is My Life With the Saints by James Martin, S.J. This book was different from the other books that I have read so far. It was part lives of the saints, part spiritual autobiography and part spiritual advice, making it, well, an interesting read. Father Martin is a Jesuit priest who entered the priesthood in an unlikely (or perhaps a likely?) moment in his life. He was a young executive for General Electric, who came home one day, burned out, and wondering if all there was in life was the grind of corporate work. He sat down and turned on the TV an caught the last part of an autobiography of the Trappist monk, and great American Catholic writer, Thomas Merton, and everything changed.

Seriously. Everything changed. Like Merton, Martin was an unlikely priest. And this book tells the story of Martin’s encounters with Catholicism (in an non-linear fashion) and interweaves it with the lives of the saints, both those who are official saints (like Thomas Aquinas), unofficial saints, or those who may eventually become official saints (Merton, Dorothy Day) and those on their way to becoming saints (The Blessed Mother Theresa).

There are many things that are lovely about this book. One is that you don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy it. Father Martin, although a cradle Catholic, was fairly ignorant of the intricacies of his faith. He grew up Catholic, but not deeply entrenched in Catholic culture  (that is to say, he did not go to parochial school, his parents were not active in a parish, etc) so even by the time he decides to become a Jesuit, he is still unsure of  many aspects of Catholicism. In this way, he guides the reader carefully. He presumes little, his voice is non-judgmental, but he is in all ways, gently orthodox.  In that way, he is refreshing writer– it is sort of like having your own personal guide to the saints and Catholicism, one who is funny and insightful.

Each chapter starts off with the story of how Father Martin first encountered each saint. Sometimes it is in surprising ways, such as through a movie, then he outlines the life of the saint, and finally what that saint has to teach humanity. All the saints are different  (obviously) and one of the most moving chapters is Martin’s encounter with Merton (who is, I must confess, one of my favorite saints, despite the fact that he is not an official saint.) But each chapter works through the lesson, the saint’s life, their humanity and Martin’s life.

Now this may sound dry, but it is not. I found it to be a remarkably fast read, and at times very charming and funny. The saints were human, (that is of course, why they are saints) but often people get hung up on this ideas that they are so much greater than regular people. Yet Martin’s emphasis on their humanity and how they interweave with his story of becoming a Jesuit is striking, because it reminds us that we all can become saints. Of course, one would in some sense,  have to want to become one, and becoming a saint is decidedly difficult, but it is always possible.

I really enjoyed Martin’s voice, his light touch and easy style. This is a lovely book that  is full of wisdom from the saints and a particular Jesuit.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

An Unconventional Love Story: Part I

I’ve decided to triple dip with my next few posts.  Technically the three books I’ll be blogging form one story, Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Unset.  But seeing as how the story runs over 1,000 pages, and my March/April dry spell has me just barely on pace to meet the goal, I’ve decided to count each of the three books within Kristin Lavransdatter as one post, and I don’t feel too bad about this.  I would do the same thing with The Lord of the Rings, which, contrary to popular opinion, is not a trilogy – Tolkien intended it as one story in three books/six parts.  At any rate, enough hemming and hawing and rationalizing my blogging practices – it’s my blog (well, partly) and I can do with it what I want. 😛

I remember years ago, shortly after I graduated from college, seeing a reference to Kristin Lavransdatter.  The book sounded intriguing – a relatively unknown work by a Danish-born Norwegian convert to Catholicism plumbing the depths of questions about love, marriage, desire, and shame.  Though I was intrigued, as with so many other books, I filed it away and never got back to it.  But the prompting of my co-blogger, along with other factors, led me finally to pick it up (on Kindle, thank God – much lighter than the physical book 😉 ).  I just finished the first part, The Bridal Wreath, last night, and all I can say is: wow, thanks, C!  This is one of the most profound books I have read this year, perhaps in my life, and I’m only through the first part.

The story centers on the title character, Kristin Lavransdatter, the daughter of a medieval Norwegian farmer, Lavrans (medieval Norwegian last names were not especially creative, consisting of the father’s name followed by sohn [son] or datter [daughter]).  We meet Kristin at a young age, and the first part of the story follows her growth up to her wedding night.  The path toward this night is anything but simple, though.  In her early maidenhood, her father Lavrans finds a fitting match and arranges a betrothal.  Though she wants to follow her father’s will, it pains Kristin, as she has deep affection for her childhood friend Arne.  A series of mishaps leads Kristin to ask her father to delay the betrothal ceremony so that she can spend a year in a convent.  During this year Kristin meets and falls in love with a gentleman (and I use the term loosely) named Erlend.  Unbeknownst to Kristin when she first falls for him, Erlend has already sired two children in an adulterous relationship.  One can easily imagine how this goes over in medieval society.  Nevertheless, even once she has learned this information, Kristin remains firm in her desire for and love of Erlend, to the point of breaking off the betrothal her father had arranged despite the pain it causes him.  The first book ends on Kristin’s wedding night, which turns out to be anything but the storybook wedding she had longed for.

I’ve deliberately left some of the story’s details vague so as not to give away too many spoilers (though it’ll be hard to keep this up as I post on the next two parts of the story).  Suffice it to say that Unset’s novel is one of the most profound meditations on the nature of love, marriage, desire, shame, guilt, and family loyalty, among other themes, that I have ever read.  The time of arranged marriages in western civilization is long past – most people today, at least in the west, choose their spouses, and usually do so out of love.  Unset’s story explores how the nature of desire sometimes clashed with the practice of arranged marriages in medieval society.  In the process, she suggests that marrying for love in terms of affection is not necessarily the best recipe for success.  There is no doubt throughout the story that Kristin has deep affection for Erlend, even after his past catches up with him and impinges on both of them.  Several characters in the story wonder aloud whether the love Kristin and Erlend have for one another can overcome his track record.  Though I’ll have to wait to read the next two parts to see for certain, the early indications are not promising.  But Kristin Lavransdatter is not simply about Kristin and Erlend.  Unset also masterfully shows the effect of this relationship on Kristin’s other relationships.  Whereas Kristin enjoyed a deep and tender relationship with her father during her childhood years, her decision to break off the betrothal he had arranged, and particularly for an adulterer who has sired two children out of wedlock, puts an intense strain on her relationship with Lavrans.  Perhaps most intriguingly, this is not because of some antiquated commitment to arranged marriages.  At one point in the story, Lavrans tells his daughter that, had Arne asked for her hand, Lavrans would have approved.  Indeed, Lavrans himself wrestles with the circumstances of his own marriage to Kristin’s mother, as each of them had affections for someone else.  Nevertheless, they both followed through with their parents’ commitment, and managed to sustain a successful marriage.

On a purely thematic level, then, this is a powerful book (so far, though I doubt the rest of the tale will disappoint), and this is to say nothing of Unset’s prose, which goes down like a nice glass of Pinot Grigio.  I wish I could say more, but this post is already approaching my (arbitrary) limit, and so, until I read the next part, I will simply say: read The Bridal Wreath.  It will give you much food for thought on one of the most important questions we all face, and it just might challenge the way you think about love and marriage.

Twenty-seven down, (at least) twenty-five to go.

Ta,
J

Inklings Predecessor, Take Two

Having enjoyed The Princess and the Goblin, this past weekend I decided to pick up another MacDonald book, The Princess and Curdie.  This latter book serves as a sequel to the former, but unlike most sequels, it is at least as good as, if not better than, the original.  Whereas the first book focuses primarily on the eponymous princess, Irene, the second follows Curdie, the boy hero from the first story.

At the beginning of the story, about a year after the events in The Princess and the Goblin, Curdie is slowly drifting away from his former virtue.  One day he shoots an innocent white pigeon with his bow and arrow simply to test his skill.  Upon picking up the (nearly) dead bird in his hand, he is struck with remorse, and at once he runs to the king’s former residence to confess to the princess’s great-great-grandmother, to whom the bird belongs and who features even more prominently in this story than in the first.  Curdie’s act of repentance is the first step toward his rehabilitation, and Princess Irene the elder (she shares the name with her great-great-granddaughter) then sends him on a quest.  Curdie is not alone in his quest, but rather receives help from a strange and motley group of creatures, as well as Princess Irene the younger, with whom he is reunited.  As in most fairy tales, Curdie manages to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, but, without giving away the ending completely, it does not end in the typical fairy tale ending.  Rather, the book ends on a note in keeping with MacDonald’s vision of reality, virtue, and society.

The Princess and Curdie was one of my favorite books I’ve read this year for a number of reasons.  MacDonald’s depictions of natural settings are rich and evocative.  Take his description of mountains toward the beginning of the story:

“I will try to tell you what [mountains] are.  They are portions of the heart of the earth that have escaped from the dungeon below, and rushed up and out.  For the heart of the earth is a great wallowing mass, not of blood, as in the hearts of men and animals, but of glowing hot, melted metals and stones.  And as our hearts keep us alive, so that great lump of heat keeps the earth alive: it is a huge power of buried sunlight – that is what it is.”

No disenchanted universe, this.  Moreover, MacDonald has a keen insight into the human condition and the nature of virtue.  The story’s symbolism is religious, and more specifically Christian, through and through, though without being overly preachy or moralizing.  Take his description of kingship:

“He was a real king – that is, one who ruled for the good of his people and not to please himself, and he wanted the silver not to buy rich things for himself, but to help him to govern the country, and pay the ones that defended it from certain troublesome neighbours, and the judges whom he set to portion out righteousness among the people, that so they might learn it themselves, and come to do without judges at all.”

The story is also darker than the first.  Though Curdie’s act of violence toward the beginning of the story is condemned, MacDonald was by no means a pacifist.  This tale has more than its fair share of battles, sometimes told in gruesome detail.

As with The Princess and the Goblin, this book made it abundantly clear why Chesteron, Lewis, Tolkien, et al. were so indebted to MacDonald.  Though each of their stories is set in a different world, their characters all inhabit the same moral universe.  Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chesterton had these stories in mind as he wrote the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” in his classic Orthodoxy.

I would recommend both stories for young readers, though one might hold off on Curdie until the age of 10 or 11 due to the violence.  Regardless, if you are a fan of Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton, then do yourself a favor and pick up at least one work by the man Lewis proclaimed his “master.”

Twenty-six down, (at least) twenty-six to go – half-way there!

Ta,
J

Puritan Popery

When I decided to join my co-blogger on this New Year’s resolution, one of the ideas I had was to re-read some of the books I read in high school but didn’t understand or didn’t appreciate because of crappy English teachers.  Last week I finally got around to this task and picked up Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter for the first time since junior year in high school.

I won’t bother to give a plot summary, as most people who took English in high school are familiar with the basic story of Hester Prynne and her tryst with the young Puritan minister in 17th century Boston.  While not the most uplifting book, it is a well-crafted tale that touches on far more themes than one can adequately address in a brief blog post, from shame and ostracism to the nature of temptation to vengeance to penitence to historical aspects of life in the colonies.  Though I wouldn’t pretend to have grasped these themes anywhere near completely, reading the book nearly twenty years after my first time I certainly appreciated it more.  (I’m sure it helps that this time I didn’t have to listen to my annoying high school English teacher prattle on about it.)

At any rate, while there is much that could be discussed, the thing that struck me most this time around was the odd fascination with and simultaneous revulsion toward Catholicism.  This ambiguous relationship is manifested in a number of ways, both great and small.  Hawthorne often refers to the Rev. Dimmesdale as a “priest”; as an act of penitence for his sins, Dimmesdale takes of the “papist” practice of the discipline; and of course, one of the overarching themes throughout the novel is the question of the effectiveness of penitence.  Can Arthur and Hester ever atone sufficiently for their sin?  Does one act of passion automatically consign one to the fires of hell?  Or can the shame that Hester bears outwardly and the inner weight of Dimmesdale’s guilt act as a kind of purgatorial fire to absolve them of their sin?  In the end, it seems that the latter is the case, though this purgation is not without its challenges and temptations.

It is a relatively little known fact that Hawthorne’s daughter Rose converted to Catholicism later in life, and after the death of her husband founded a community of Dominican Sisters who care for patients with terminal cancer.  It may be that the seeds of Rose’s conversion were, perhaps a bit ironically, planted by her father.

At any rate, I’m glad I decided to pick up The Scarlet Letter one more time, and I will most likely come back to it again some day.

Twenty-five down, (at least) twenty-seven to go.

Ta,
J

A Requiem for the Towers

My best friend recommended this book.  She said to me, “it is a book about 9/11 that’s not about 9/11.”  My response was “huh?” And she just said back to me, “read it, it is brilliant.” So I did, and she was (of course) right. The book is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, and it is a stunning, just stunning work that explores the lives of people in New York City, set in August 1974.

What happened in August 1974? Well that was when the tightrope walker Philippe Petite threw a cable across the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and practically danced across it, in a feat so daring that the whole city paused to take it in. Below Petite are the ordinary people of New York who observe or experience his walk in different ways all while their lives intersect together. In the foreground are the towers themselves– brash monuments to capitalism, innovation and the confidence of a city–no one knew at that moment that they would become a place of so much tragedy and heartache, instead they were new, shiny, and in many ways, hopeful.

The book is incredibly stylized, and while the plot interweaves with surprising deftness, it is the writing that shines. Essentially it is almost a series of short stories, that tell of the lives of a variety of New Yorkers– a radical monk, a nurse, a hooker, an artist, a judge, a grieving Park Ave mother (whose son died in Vietnam), a foster parent, etc. Each chapter has a  voice that is distinct to the character (the most stunning is the rendering of the hooker– heartbreaking) and the characters move back and forth into each others lives, tragedies, and stories. Multiple themes abound, but the chief ones that stood out to me were grace and redemption. Grief and death shadow the characters, as does war (Vietnam.)  All of this goes on under the actions of the tightrope walker, who is the thread that holds the stories together– he stands for the miraculous, the golden moment, the astounding, while the rest of the city lurches along in its dirty, grinding life.

It is a stunning book because in many ways it reminds us that history is cyclical. With the destruction of the towers would eventually come more war, more grief and more people looking for their own personal grace as New Yorkers. Although these events are never directly indicated, they are alluded to, a constant foreshadowing, a constant play of darkness and light, birth and death, the building of new ideas, and destruction because of certain ideals.  The Towers in some way were birthed in a hopefulness, a brash defiance, and they came down in a two horrifying and unbelievable moments. But this book reminds you that the towers should not be defined just by their destruction, and that neither should New Yorkers.

This book was fantastic. It is one of the few books from this year that I will buy and re-read, and will no doubt grow richer with each re-reading.  Sections of it just left me stunned and the writing– the writing is enormously exquisite. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that this book won the National Book Award, and it richly deserved it.  I will say no more as the book was so rich I have been thinking about it for several days (always the sign of a good book.) All I will say is go out and read it. This is truly one of the finest and most artistic books that I have read in years.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Inklings Predecessor

Greetings!  This post comes to you from an undisclosed location in Western Europe (as will most of my future posts this year).  Once again, I have taken far too long between posts, but jetlag and getting settled in a new city will do that, even if I finished the book I’m blogging a week ago.

Years ago I heard that both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, two of my favorite writers, were strongly influenced by George MacDonald, a Scottish writer of the nineteenth century, and so for some time I’ve wanted to read one of his books.  A trans-Atlantic flight gave me plenty of time to dig into The Princess and the Goblin, a fairy tale that made a significant impression on another of my favorite authors, G.K. Chesterton.  Now that I’ve read it, I can see MacDonald’s imprint on each of these writers in different ways.

The story bears many of the literary features of a typical fairy tale: no distinct mention of a time or place in this world, stereotypical characters (a king, a princess, a miner, etc.).  The tale also extols many of the virtues that Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis prized: honesty, courage, keeping one’s word, faith in the seemingly impossible.  Moreover, MacDonald emphasizes the power of poetry.  The one thing that scares the goblins in the story away is rhyme, particularly spontaneous and silly rhyme.  It seems clear to me that this element of the story was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil.

Though not overly complicated, the story is a bit much to summarize in a blog post.  Suffice it to say that if you are a fan of Lewis or Tolkien, you should read this book.  According to Wikipedia, Chesterton said of the book that it “made a difference to my whole existence.”  Indeed, I suspect much of the argument in his classic Orthodoxy depended on such lines from MacDonald’s work as, “People must believe what they can, and those who believe more must not be hard upon those who believe less”; or, “Seeing is not believing – it is only seeing.”

If you’re a fan of Tolkien, Lewis, or Chesterton, or of fantasy literature/fairy tales in general, then I highly recommend The Princess and the Goblin.  I intend to move on to the sequel, The Princess and Curdie, before too long.

Twenty-four down, (at least) twenty-eight to go.

Ta,
J

Two cultures and a New World

One thing that has changed for me since I began this project is that I am more aware of what is being published. I often go through book reviews or recommended lists and see what looks interesting, and then put in a request with my local library  for the book. That is how I discovered Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks– it was recommended by Amazon, and given the subject matter I was intrigued, so once I had the book I sat down to read and could not stop until I finished. It took me two days to complete, only because I forced myself to pause in order to absorb the themes of the story.

Caleb’s Crossing is a fictionalized account of a young Wampanoag Indian who was given the Christian name Caleb, and became the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. Little is known of his actual history, but by using the historical circumstances of his time period, and rich research of Wampanoag and Puritan culture, Brooks manages to craft an enigmatic, yet powerful character in her narrative.

The story is actually told from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Puritan minister who settled on the island that would become  known as Martha’s Vineyard in order to preach the gospel to the “savages” that inhabited it. Bethia is an entirely fictional character (as the author relates in her afterword), yet her circumstances were modeled on fact– Martha’s Vineyard was indeed  settled by missionaries intent on converting the local native peoples. Bethia is an unusual girl for her time in place (in this regard, she strikes me as a more modern construct, although the Puritans had plenty of “meddlesome women” in their midst– Anne Hutchinson, I am talking about you my friend.) Her father indulged her and she learned to read and write, and also obtained some knowledge of the classical languages, and also learned the local native tongues.  She runs a bit wild on the island and befriends a local Wampanoag boy, who she christians “Caleb.”   As children often do, they share their worlds with each other– she teaches him english and basic Calvinist theology and he teaches her the mysteries of the island– its animals, plants and natural rhythms. In some sense, they both undertake a “crossing” that will forever change their lives: Bethia never views her world through a purely Puritan lens again, and Caleb is forever changed by his encounters with the minister’s daughter.

The story  is told in a non-linear fashion through Bethia’s spiritual diary– a common practice in Puritan New England, and in the early years, she worries about God’s judgement on her for dabbling with “evil” (that is, native cultures and understandings.) Huge woes befall her family, indeed much of the book is a catalog of intense sadness, but again, this is true to the era– people died easily and often in early New England, and Brooks does a great job capturing how grief shaped the early settlers’ worldview.

Caleb eventually leaves his people and comes to be tutored by Bethia’s father to prepare for entrance to Harvard. His education continues in Cambridge at a preparatory school, and Bethia follows him as an indentured servant to pay for her brother’s (who is not too bright) preparation. The characters then progress onwards to Harvard, and their fates.

I will tell no more of the plot, but instead will address some of the themes of the book. The most obvious is “crossing” or cultural exchange. The Wampanoag, or “People of the First Light” lost much in this exchange, yet this story is not just a story of that grief, but it also shows that some Native people chose to engage European culture, in the hopes of understanding it or protecting their people. This is an age-old theme in Native studies– scholars know that Native peoples had autonomy and often used it in order to try to deal with the onslaught of a different peoples and cultures. Yet it would be imprudent to not think that European culture had been unchanged by its interactions with Native peoples, and Bethia’s character  shows this particular impact. Both she and Caleb were outsiders in their own societies (Caleb as an educated Native, Bethia as an educated woman who wished for more than to “be silent”) and for that reason they understood each other as almost no one else could.

Other themes also color the book: religion being one, and the power of an education being the other. But an education is often more than just books, as Bethia wisely notes in her narration. Caleb faces the prejudice of the other young men at Harvard because he is a “savage” and has to completely “cross-over” into a culture that is not his own, and that never will be his own, no matter how well he fits in. Bethia is defined by her longing for an education, a longing for knowledge, and a longing for her own rightful place in a world that is defined by men.

The book is beautifully written– evocative and Brooks’s language is striking and lyrical. You can smell the salty air of Martha’s Vineyard just as well as the putrid, close stench of Cambridge. Her characters are carefully crafted and they grow as the book unfolds. Some might say that the story does not focus on Caleb as much as Bethia, and some may ask why the story  of Caleb needs to be recounted through Bethia. I think that Brooks did this to reflect a particularity of the early American era: Native peoples were always seen through the prism of European culture; never through Native cultures themselves because Europeans had no capacity for understanding Native cultures through a wholly Native worldview.  So in many ways, Bethia  stands in as a more sympathetic early American narrator, but one heavily influenced by European, Calvinistic, culture.

In the American imagination, Harvard has a sort of mythological status as a great center of learning and innovation, even now.  The history that emanates from there is palpable: I remember standing in the Emerson chapel of the Divinity school as a master’s student, imagining Emerson giving his great “Divinity School Address” where he chastised the young ministers who sat before him. Staring out the window, I tried to imagined the fields and the verdant, transcendental vision that he outlined in the beginning of the sermon, but it is hard to do when the chapel now overlooks a nuclear cyclotron and is so near the hum of the science buildings (that will break the spell for you.) All the same, it is still the same chapel that Emerson preached in, tiny, wood-paneled and dark, and you can feel the history there. The book transported me to Harvard and Cambridge’s early days, and in some ways, it felt oddly familiar in only the way a place can when you imagine it centuries before you stepped foot there.

Brooks’s book is a wonderful glimpse into the cultural battles that faced the early settlers and into the world of the “crossings” that those who stand with a foot in two different cultures face. It is beautifully written and evocative, and will leave you thinking about its characters for a long time afterwards. I highly recommend it.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Scheming Kings and Evil Queens

Do you like tightly written books, with a labyrinth of a plot and the size of a doorstop? If so A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin might just be for you.

It is doubtless that you have heard of the book– it has been out for a long time now, and recently was made into a HBO series. I could see why, with all the scheming, conniving, and twisty plots it would work well as a tv drama (not: I have not seen the series. I would be interested but as my cable tv requires $16 a month for a HBO subscription, I just don’t care that much.)

There is too much to describe in terms of plot– you have a fictional fantasy world, where the summers last years and the winters can last decades.  It is seemingly like feudal england, with many petty lords and kings brawling it out, and where deception reigns supreme. There is a great Wall to the north that holds back an invisible menace with only a rag-tag guard called the Black Watch to protect the people. Okay so the principle characters: The House of Stark– Robert Stark, his wife  Catelyn, and their children (who are central to the main plot) Robb, Sansa, Arya, Brandon, Rickon and the bastard Jon Snow. The king that holds the fractious kingdom together is Robert Barathon, who is married to the scheming and quite possibly downright evil, Queen Cersei, who is from House Lannister. Cersei, as it turns out, along with her brothers, and the whole lot of Lannisters, is rather power hungry. Meanwhile you have the descendants of the deposed old ruling line Targaryen, with Viserys ( the brother) and Daenerys (the sister) left– they live a life of constant exile, on the run.

Okay, so the book starts with the King, asking his best friend Stark to serve as his Hand (think like an appointed Prime Minister, but not– perhaps Cromwell to Henry the VIIIth would be a more apt comparison). Stark fears that it is a trap but he leaves his homeland in the north with his daughters in tow right after tragedy befalls his son Brandon– a tragedy that is suspect at best. Meanwhile he sends his bastard son up to the Wall to serve on the Watch (Black Watch men live out their lives celibate and without families once they “take the black”). Once  he gets to the city all hell breaks loose, and the characters all have to fend for themselves in their own ways. In the meanwhile, Viserys sells his sister to a horseman warlord (think like a fantasy Ghengis Khan) in order to gain the troops needed to regain his crown, but the one who ends up really taking up their birthright is Daenerys, who despite many horrors, comes into her own.

Okay, so that’s it on plot. What I liked about the book: the female characters are as well developed and varied as the men. Some are scheming, some are brave, some are pragmatic, and some are just dumb. This goes for the men too. Most of the characters are multi-faceted and conflicted, there are only a few black/white ones. The plot is quickly paced, it is thick with intrigue and it keeps this enormous book humming right along.

There is violence– quite  a bit of it, but hardly unexpected in a book set in a sort of parallel medieval universe. Some people say that this is one of the Great Fantasy Epics of All Time. Ehhh not so sure of that, but it is well done and much better than a lot of the bad fantasy out there  (there’s a lot), but I would still say the Lord of the Rings, Dune and the Earthsea cycle are the greatest fantasy epics. (I am the biggest Ursula Le Guin fangirl, I know.)

But the book is seriously entertaining. I read this right after I had finished the semester, was done with grading and wanted nothing more than to melt into a puddle on my couch with the dog at my feet, eating strawberries by the pint and reading. This book was good for that, and I am planning to read the next ones in the series (just waiting for them from the library.) So if you need something to keep you entertained and that is well-written, then this is your fantasy novel.  Enjoy.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C