Tag Archive: fiction

Jane Austen Would Mind

I need to get better about blogging. In some ways the blogging has almost become an obligatory book report. I have been reading but not blogging about what I am reading because I have been busy reading.

Okay today’s post is about two books- both Jane Austen spinoffs.  My friend the Awesome S had warned me to stay away from the spinoffs, because most are badly written– with the exception of Pamela Aidan’s series of Pride and Prejudice from Darcy’s point of view (which she says is the best of the bunch, and now having read a few other spin-offs, I concur), but I just couldn’t resist. So one weekend when I was trying to avoid grading papers I read two of the spin-offs and came away feeling, well, unsatisfied. S had warned me. I should have known better.

I started with Maria Hamilton’s Mr Darcy and the Secret of Becoming a Gentleman mainly because it was highly reviewed by other readers on Amazon. The book has an interesting set-up— what would happen if Darcy had pursued Elizabeth Bennet back to her home right after she initially refused him? What sort of chaos would erupt within the Bennett family, and what sort of misunderstandings would follow? At first I enjoyed the book- I felt like the author had captured the mood and spirit of Austen’s world and had managed to put an original spin on it– but then the last third of the book. Oh man. It devolved into a bad romance novel.  Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy would have never gotten it on before the wedding night, such actions were incredibly untrue to their characters (especially with Darcy’s sense of honor and Elizabeth’s own sense of propriety), all this does is turn an interesting book into a bad, really bad,  romance novel.  Plus the ending turns Elizabeth Bennett into a completely uninteresting character– something that I never thought possible. (And I have no problem with romance novels– the thing is there is such a thing as truth in advertising. I had hoped this would be true to the spirit of Austen’s original work. Compared to when one reads a romance novel, you expect for the hunky hero to save the damsel in distress and other high jinks to ensue.)

So the ending of the book ruined it to me. Instead of being a clever re-working of Austen’s comedy of manners it turns into a bad romance novel. Ick.

The second Austen spin-off that I read was Charlotte Collins: A Continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice  by Jennifer Becton. So this one was quite a bit better. What Becton did was take a minor character (Charlotte Lucas) and built a story around her. In this telling Charlotte Collins has become a widow rather suddenly– the odious Mr Collins has died unexpectedly, and Charlotte is left a poor, young widow. To add to that, she becomes responsible for her younger sister Maria, who moves in with Charlotte in order to be properly chaperoned on the “catch a husband” circuit, as their parents are now too old. Well Maria and Charlotte enter into society and all sorts of misunderstandings and fun ensue. What I liked about this book is that it stayed close to the Austen style– in fact it pays homage to Sense and Sensibility as much as it does to Pride and Prejudice. And there are no bad romance-novel scenes. This is a short little book, easily read in a night and enjoyable.

So a mixed bag, but I do think that Jane Austen would mind that all the fan fiction turns her smoldering hero Mr. Darcy into some bodice-ripping Englishman. Because what I think is so wonderful about the Darcy character is that he is left so mysterious, and that the reader can assign to him the qualities that they want— and I think he is better left that way.

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.


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.


World War II on an Island…

Today’s book is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann  Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

I had heard about this book quite a few times, so after end-of-the-semester grading was finished I curled up with it and indulged.  The book is written in a unique format– through letters between the main character, a writer named Juliet, and her friends. It is set just after World War II, Juliet lives in London and is searching for a new book to write. She is a single, unmarried women in her thirties, without any family.

At first the book seems confusing, because you have to keep track of the letters, and puzzle out the relationships between the characters. There is Juliet’s editor, the editor’s sister (and her best friend) and then an interesting cast of characters arrives on the scene: That would be the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. This occurs by happenstance– a pig farmer named Dawsey buys a book of Juliet’s from a used bookseller, and he contacts her about the book. Dawsey happens to live on the Isle of Guernsey, which is an island in the English Channel, between France and England (it is closer to France than England) and after Juliet makes contact with Dawsey, a remarkable story flows forth.

Guernsey, as many may or may not have known, was the only English territory to be occupied during WWII. The islanders lived not only under German occupation, but also horrible deprivation and completely cut off from the rest of the world (as the Germans confiscated their radios, did not let them have access to newspapers, etc).  This deprivation included turning over the majority of the island livestock over to feed the German army (thus leaving the people to starve.) The literary society came about because of a lie that a group of islanders told the Germans because they were trying to cover up an “illegal pig” (a hog kept by an island woman who had been slaughtered and enjoyed by her neighbors.)  It turned into an actual literary society after the lie was told (so to not blow their cover) and it is this group of islanders who begin to get in touch with Juliet about their story.

What comes out is the story of strong friendships, humanity and joy that is laced with deep darkness, heartbreak and the scars of war. The islanders who Juliet comes to know and love, survived harrowing times, and depended upon each other to do so. Their circle revolves around an islander named Elizabeth, who loved greatly, and sacrificed much, ending up in a German concentration camp for defying authorities, and who left behind a daughter for her neighbors to raise.

Juliet finds herself, well, trying to find herself, and in the process becomes far more deeply enmeshed in the lives of the islanders than anyone could have imagined. The tone of the book is remarkable. Somehow the two authors managed to develop different voices for each of the characters in ways that were not contrived or precious.  The book alternates between a light, playful tone, and a more  somber understanding and it is this alternating between darkness and light that can sometimes send a punch to the gut to the reader before you realize it. In many ways, the characters show the versatility of humanity– even during the darkest of times, people hang on, and even find joy. The book also is really a meditation on friendship and community. So many of the characters lost their families during war in ways that were profoundly painful, but their friends, their community, their family of choice, is what kept them going despite it all.

I really enjoyed this book.  Beware, in the first few pages it seems all light and frothy, but it will have you gasping in horror as you get into it, and into the lives of the islanders who survived hell on earth. But the book shows that the human spirit somehow always find a way to keep going, a way to heal, and a way to love.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Dystopian Thriller

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve written a post.  Lots of things going on these last couple of months that I won’t get into, but I’m going to try to get back on the wagon, as it would be a shame to let this project fall by the wayside.  I decided to go with a short but profound thriller by P. D. James, The Children of Men.

As you’ll have gathered from the title of the post, the story is set in a dystopian society in the not-too-distant future.  The year is 2021.  For twenty-five years, human beings have been unable to procreate, plagued with infertility.  Thus, the youngest members of society are in their mid-twenties, and the population trends geriatric.  The consequences of this plague are numerous: many have lost the will to live, committing ritualistic mass suicide; the lack of fertility has led to a dwindling interest in sex, so that the State purveys p*rn left and right, trying to maintain the societal libido; in England, convicts are shipped to a penitentiary on the Isle of Man where chaos reigns, though crime on the mainland is at an all time low.  In this bleak situation, Theo Faron, our protagonist, is recruited to a conspiracy that advocates for change in the government.  The cousin of the Warden of England, Theo would seem particularly well placed to persuade him to make the desired changes.  After some convincing, he makes the effort, but to no avail.  Thus ends the first half of the novel.

In the second half, Theo once again becomes involved with the conspiracy, learning that, by some miracle (not literal – no virgin birth here), one of the members has become pregnant and needs his help.  The rest of the story describes the group’s efforts to find a place for the delivery of the child safely far away from the government – a task harder than it sounds, as the government is on to the group, which has been blowing up landings from which the mass “suicides” are launched.  Filled with twists and turns, the story rushes to an intriguing and unexpected climax that tantalizingly leaves unanswered many of the difficult questions the story raises.

This is the first James novel I’ve read, and it did not disappoint.  Her style is elegant and engaging, and it is filled with profound insights on the nature of faith and the human condition, without being an overtly religious story.  Take this description of humanity’s relationship to science:

“Western science has been our god.  In the variety of its power it has preserved, comforted, healed, warmed, fed and entertained us and we have felt free to criticize and occasionally reject it as men have always rejected their gods, but in the knowledge that, despite our apostasy, this deity, our creature and our slave, would still provide for us; the anaesthetic for the pain, the spare heart, the new lung, the antibiotic, the moving wheels and the moving pictures… Science was never a subject I was at home with… Yet it has been my god too, even if its achievements are incomprehensible to me, and I share the universal disillusionment of those whose god has died.” (5)

Or the following dialogue regarding the existence of God toward the end of the story:

“I don’t think [God] bargains.”
“Oh yes He does.  I may not be religious but I know my Bible.  My mother saw to that.  He bargains all right.  But he’s supposed to be just.  If He wants belief He’d better provide some evidence.”
“That He exists?”
“That He cares.”

In a brief nine sentences, James eloquently sums up the strongest argument against the existence of God, and yet in a way that the challenge could be met.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this book is its eerie similarity to western culture today.  Though human beings are not incapable en masse of procreation, the tendency in most western countries is toward reproductive rates below replacement level, and one wonders what kind of future is in store for western civilization.  The Children of Men grapples with these and other questions in a compelling and insightful way.  Highly recommended.

Twenty-three down, (at least) twenty-nine to go.


NOLA State of Mind

Continuing with the Catholic novel theme, this past weekend I read Walker Percy’s first novel, The Moviegoer.  Set in Louisiana, where Percy spent much of his adult life, the story centers on John Bolling, the eponymous moviegoer of the title.   As I sat down to write this blog post, I happened upon the epigraph of the novel from Søren Kierkegaard: “… the specific character of despair is this: it is unaware of being despair.”  Being the brilliant literary critic that I am (/sarcasm), I quickly realized that this epigraph epitomizes John Bolling.

Bolling, aka Binx, is a man with no clear direction in life.  A veteran of the Korean War, he now works as a stockbroker in Gentilly, LA and finds what little meaning he can at the movies.  The novel describes, at times beautifully and often meanderingly, Binx’s “search.”  “What is the nature of the search? you ask. … The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”  Though most people associate the notion of a search with a quest for God, Binx is reticent to identify the object of his search.  Though he identifies himself with the 2% of Americans who are atheists or agnostics, he leaves open the possibility that the 98% who believe in God may be right – he simply doesn’t know.

Despite his fascination with the movies, Binx does not look to them for a proper understanding of the search.  On his reading, the movies screw the search up: “The search always ends in despair.”  Binx’s definition of despair is not, however, the typical definition: the protagonist in the movies inevitably marries and settles down and “In two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead.”

Given this understanding of despair, it is hardly surprising that Binx spends his life doing anything but settle down – his self-avowed goal is to avoid everydayness.  Unable to develop or maintain meaningful relationships, Binx periodically has flings with his secretaries, with only minor qualms about mixing business and pleasure.  The only escape he can hold on to is one that, somewhat oddly, he shares with his fourteen-year-old half-brother Lonnie.  In many ways Lonnie is the polar opposite of Binx: confined to a wheelchair, Lonnie is a devout Catholic who wonders about things like habitual dispositions.  In a rare moment of vulnerability, Binx tells the reader that he envies Lonnie’s ability to offer up his suffering to Christ.  Despite their differences, there is a deep affection between the two, which plays a vital element in the stories denouement.  Indeed, it is a combination of this relationship and Binx’s relationship with Kate, another main character in the story, that leads to the surprising end of his search.

As with the other existentialist novel with which I began this project, I’m sure there’s more to The Moviegoer than I caught on the first read through.  The search is clearly a central theme of the book, and yet I don’t think I’ve quite gotten it.  Even the title is a tantalizing riddle.  At one point Binx says of another character in the story that he, too, was a moviegoer, even though he didn’t watch movies.  There’s something there that I’d like to get, but it would take at least a second read through for me to begin to figure it out.  Alas, such is not the nature of this project.  Regardless, The Moviegoer is a great introduction to Percy and an interesting window onto the Louisiana of the 1950s.

Nineteen down, (at least) thirty-three to go.


An Upper Class British Bachelor

Many years ago a friend of mine recommended to me P. G. Wodehouse’s short stories about a British gentleman named Bertie Wooster and his butler, Jeeves.  At some point I saw a T.V. episode based on the stories, and found it pretty amusing, but it took me a while to get around to finally reading some of the stories, which I did this past weekend.  Since a couple of Wodehouse collections are conveniently available as a free download for my Kindle (new toy), I decided to give one a whirl.

My Man Jeeves is a collection of eight short stories, most of which center around Jeeves and Wooster, but a few of which focus on Wodehouse’s earlier character, Reggie Peppers.  The stories present a comical window into the life of the pre-World War II social elite, and they are told from the first person perspective of Wooster.  In this collection Wooster, a man of considerable means, has taken up residence in New York City, in part to get away from the influence of his burdensome Aunt Agatha, who still lives in London.  Wooster’s world consists of being waited upon by Jeeves, enjoying NYC’s nightlife, and (with the considerable help of Jeeves) helping get his friends out of fixes.

The stories are somewhat formulaic – a friend approaches Bertie with a problem, Bertie asks Jeeves to help find a solution, hilarity ensues, Jeeves finally solves the problem – but are no less amusing for the familiar pattern.  Wodehouse’s characters – not least the title characters – are positively eccentric, the dilemmas they face, absurd.  My favorite story in the collection involves the Reggie Peppers character.  Peppers’s friend Freddie, in an attempt to be reconciled with his girlfriend, kidnaps a child he mistakenly thinks to be her cousin in the hopes of winning the girlfriend back by returning the child safe and sound.  Upon discovering that the child is not her cousin, he seeks out the child’s family for fear of being brought up on kidnapping charges, only to find the family quarantined with the measles.  Freddie and Reggie – two uppercrust British bachelors – are thus left to care for the child until the family has mended.

Another amusing feature of the stories is the dynamic between Jeeves and Wooster.  Though Jeeves is a more than able servant, he has his opinions about Bertie’s fashion and grooming habits, which often leads to tension between the two.  Needless to say, in the context of the master-servant relationship, the tension is all the more amusing, as the two seek determinedly to win a battle of wills over which tie or hat Wooster should wear.

On the whole, these stories are excellent light entertainment, particularly for Anglophiles like me.  Though it wasn’t my favorite book this year, it was certainly worthwhile and a nice light diversion, both from work and from some of the heavier books I’ve read.

Sixteen down, (at least) thirty-six to go.


A Curious Book

This evening I finished Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, recommended to me by a good friend.  I can honestly say it’s unlike any other book I’ve ever read, and in a good way.  Haddon tells the story from the perspective of Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15-year-old boy with autism (actually, the book doesn’t specify what his behavioral problem is), which makes for an unusual and fascinating style: lots of stream-of-consciousness, lots of digressions, lots of literalism.

The story begins with a murder – well, to Christopher’s mind it’s a murder.   To others it’s simply the unfortunate killing of a dog, specifically the neighbor’s pet poodle Wellington.  Puzzled by the incident and fascinated with Sherlock Holmes, Christopher takes up the role of detective to discover who killed poor Wellington.  At first, the book seems like an unconventional murder mystery.  The reader is lead to believe that the point of the book is for Christopher to solve the mystery, and the first half of the story lives up to this expectation.  Christopher investigates (as best he can given his condition and his fear of strangers), looks for clues, and makes deductions, often with airtight logic.

Eventually Christopher’s father discovers his extracurricular activity and orders him to stop his investigation.  At this point the story takes an unexpected turn, as Christopher discovers information that throws him into confusion and calls into question his trust in his father.  Too frightened to stay at home, he sneaks out of the house in search of a new place to live.  His search sets him on a daunting journey longer than any he has ever taken by himself.  The trek involves overcoming some of his greatest fears: crowded places, loud noises, talking to strangers, using public toilets.  Through it all he perseveres and reaches his goal, only to find his new home is no better or safer than the one he left in fear.  Without giving away the ending, I will say that it is a happy one without lapsing into sentimentality.

Curious Incident is a remarkable book.  The (authoritative and always reliable) Wikipedia notes that Haddon did no research on autism or Asperger’s syndrome for the book, nor does he consider himself an expert on the subject.  In fact, he regrets that the term “Asperger’s syndrome” appeared on the cover.  Nevertheless, the book paints a vivid and realistic picture of the mind of an autistic child, at least based on the very little experience I have had with the condition.  Christopher fixates on things most people ignore, which makes him much more aware of his surroundings, but at the same time makes his life much more complicated.  He is uncomfortable with human contact, to the point of screaming if a stranger touches him.  Because of his fixation, however, he can also do things that baffle most “ordinary” people.  He knows all the prime numbers up to 7,057.  He can solve complex math problems – he even prepares to take the A levels math exam, an important element in the story.  He can beat most people at chess and quickly calculate the probabilities of various outcomes in a game of chance.

Another interesting aspect of the story is Christopher’s reflections on language.  He doesn’t like metaphors because they are “lies,” whereas similes are acceptable.  He doesn’t completely understand why words like “spazzer” are unacceptable, when kids can make the accurate word “special needs” into an insult.  An apocryphal story is simply a lie, because it describes something that didn’t happen.  His perspective on the world is strictly black and white, making it difficult, bordering on impossible, for him to lie.

The book also opens a window onto the difficulties of raising a special needs child.  Despite his mistakes, Christopher’s father comes across as a patient and loving father.  The responsibility has clearly taken a toll on his life (as it did on his marriage), but he cares deeply for his son and does whatever he can to protect him, to a fault, as the reader discovers.

Curious Incident was a fun read and certainly one I would like to come back to at some point (but not this year :)).  If you’d like to learn more about the book, I recommend this interview with Haddon at Powell’s Books.

Twelve down, (at least) forty to go.


We suffer because of the way we are.

Back where C and I did our graduate studies, the name of Wendell Berry was often invoked, at least in some of the circles I ran in.  Despite his ubiquitous presence, I had never read a word by him.  Because of the contexts in which I heard the name, I typically associated him with essays advocating for agrarianism and sustainable agriculture.  I discovered in looking for something by him to read that he is also a novelist, and so I decided to pick up his first novel, Nathan Coulter, because it met one of my requirements (or at least preferences) for reading during the school year: it’s short.

The book is a coming of age tale told from the perspective of the title character.  The Coulters work on a tobacco farm in rural Kentucky, and their life evinces the joys, fears, and tensions that mark most families.  Early on in the story, Nathan and his brother (whom he normally refers to as “Brother” rather than his name “Tom”) lose their mother to an illness.  Because their father can’t raise them and till the land on his own, they move to the next farm over to live with their grandparents and uncle.  The story develops a number of themes, but the one that struck me was that of Nathan’s continually changing relationships with each of his family members, as well as the inner dynamics of the Coulter family in general.  These dynamics strain under the difficulties most families face: sibling rivalry, the desire to strike out on one’s own, transitions, death.  Through it all Nathan learns how much his family means to him, as well as the fragility of day-to-day life.

For the first chapter or so, I had a hard time getting into the novel, perhaps because it was somewhat foreign to my experience.  A product of late twentieth century suburbia, I initially had a hard time relating to the rural way of life Berry describes.  But gradually he won me over.  His writing style has an elegant simplicity that reflects the pace and values of a simpler time.  Moreover, at points Berry writes with poignancy about the difficulty of moving on.  One paragraph toward the end of the story particularly moved me.  Upon realizing that Brother has left for good and will not be coming home to stay, Nathan reflects:

“I could have cried myself.  Brother was gone, and he wouldn’t be back.  And things that had been so before never would be so again.  We were the way we were; nothing could make us any different, and we suffered because of it.  Things happened to us the way they did because we were ourselves.  And if we’d been other people it wouldn’t have mattered… we’d have had to suffer whatever it was that they suffered because they were themselves.  And there was nothing anybody could do but let it happen.”

Despite the somewhat depressing tone of this passage, Berry also highlights the simple joys of time with family, but almost always with a reminder of their fleetingness.  I suppose what I took away from the book is the importance of savoring precious moments with friends and family, because before we know it, they’ll be gone.  Not a bad reminder.

Eight down, (at least) forty-four to go.


Late Medieval Whodunnit

Okay, I’m finally veering a bit from the existentialist/curmudgeon tone I set in my first several posts (for the time being).  With the new semester starting, and things thus a little more hectic, I decided to go for something short and sweet.  On my mother’s recommendation, I picked up a mystery novel by Margaret Frazer.

The Servant’s Tale, the second in Frazer’s Sister Frevisse Medieval Mystery series, tells a story of intrigue in the most unlikely of places: a rural Benedictine nunnery (St. Frideswide) in fifteenth century England.  The story centers on Meg, a poor commoner working as a scullery maid at the monastery in order to try to scrape up enough money to make her younger son Hewe a priest.  Early in the novel a traveling band of players arrives at St. Frideswide, bringing along Meg’s husband Barnaby, who had been terribly injured in a wagon accident.  Though at first he seems to be on the mend, Barnaby dies mysteriously in the night.  The nuns assume the death came about naturally as a result of an unseen wound, but it leaves poor Meg devastated.  Unfortunately for Meg, her husband’s death is just the first of a series of deaths, culminating in a surprising ending.

Sr. Frevisse stands in a long line of religious sleuths that includes G. K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown and Ralph McInerny’s Fr. Dowling.  What makes The Servant’s Tale (and, I assume, the rest of the books in the series) distinctive is Frazer’s descriptions of late medieval society.  Everyday, ordinary things that we in twenty-first century America take for granted – a warm place to sleep at night, the availability of various kinds of food, ease of travel – are shown to be rare commodities in medieval England.  To take but one example, before his death Barnaby gives his wife a special treat he had earned and brought back for her: an orange.  At first, Meg is unsure of what it is, and she shrieks in terror as Dame Frevisse attempts to show her how to take the skin off, thinking the nun will ruin it.  Frazer later describes the delight and wonderment of Meg and her son Hewe when they finally open the orange and partake of it at home, commenting on how different an orange is on the inside than an apple.  To us, this is common sense, but Frazer reminds us that it was not always so, and in this way reminds us of the wonder of ordinary things.

Frazer also has clearly done her homework and captures the feel of monastic life beautifully (or at least it’s the way I suspect monastic life to be).  The nuns are not all saints – they each have their foibles, pet peeves, and animosities.  Nevertheless, they regularly come together for prayer, invited with the standard Latin greetings, and they humbly obey the will of the prioress, Domina Edith.

One other aspect of the book that I enjoyed was its pace.  It is not until nearly halfway through the book that the first recognizable murder takes place.  Even then, the murders unfold slowly, and Frazer throws in just enough credible suspects and motives to keep the reader uncertain.  At the same time, as with any good mystery novel, once the crime is solved, all of the clues are seen to have been there all along.

There are some elements of the book that I cannot comment on for fear of giving away the ending, but the thing that struck me the most was Frazer’s portrayal of the medieval mind and of medieval society.  The people of the fifteenth century had very different priorities than we do, and yet in other ways were not that different from us.  This reminder, combined with the challenge of solving the mystery, makes The Servant’s Tale an engaging and worthwhile read.

Seven down, (at least) forty-five to go.