Tag Archive: review 25

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.


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