Version Control

version-controlI’ve started and set aside several books in the last couple of weeks in what was starting to seem like a futile quest for a really good story. I very nearly decided to give up my intention to read as many Tournament of Books contenders as possible and just turn someone I could count on the give me a good story. But then I picked up Version Control by Dexter Palmer and was caught up in it.

Rebecca Wright, the main character in the novel, is married to a scientist named Philip Steiner who is working on something called a causality violation device (not a time machine!). She drinks too much and is uneasy about what’s happening in the world around her. She’s grieving the death of her son, and her husband is buried in his work. And then… events ensue. (There’s a time machine causality violation device involved, so the nature of the events should be no surprise, although the details may be.)

The first half of the book is mostly uneventful. It’s a lot of set-up, but I enjoyed getting to know the characters and situation too much to be bothered. The world of the book is in our near future. Self-driving cars are the norm, the president can pop onto our screens to talk to us anytime he pleases (shudder), and kids are given customized lessons on tablets at school. It’s just different enough to feel futuristic, but not so different as to feel implausible. And Philip’s scientific work is as much about tedious trying and trying again as it is about making big discoveries. We get the story not just of Rebecca and Philip’s daily life but also the history of their courtship and eventual marriage. They’re an odd pair, but I found their story pretty sweet, even though I’m not sure I could deal with really being close to either of them.

Once the big events ensue, we see how different experiences change and don’t change who people essentially are. Rebecca still drinks a lot, her friend Kate still has a fractious romance with Philip’s colleague Carson, and the guards at the lab still muse over what time travel really is. Yet everything has changed.

The book is jam-packed with characters who like to talk about big ideas. Rebecca’s father, a Unitarian minister, has regular debates about God with Philip. Kate and Carson both muse to friends about whether Kate is secretly or subconsciously racist and therefore unable to live happily in her relationship with Carson, a black man. And Rebecca’s colleagues at Lovability, the online dating service, discuss to what extent their clients are people vs. bits of data. Some of this may come across as false to some readers, but to me, it felt realistic. Not everyone talks about this stuff openly, but some people do. And Palmer avoids turning these discussions into places where he can drum into readers his own ideas regarding these issues. They’re part of the fabric of the world and worth considering, for the characters and us as readers.

I’m still mulling over whether the actual resolution of the plot really works. Is the world the novel ends up with the right one? How can we know? What makes a world the right one? There’s also a lot of scientific talk about transfer of matter and causality that sounds good—good enough for me to shrug, accept, and keep reading. How realistic the science is doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that it’s a good story with some interesting ideas. On that front, it delivers.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 8 Comments

The Discoverers

the-discoverersThe Discoverers is the first in Daniel Boorstin’s “knowledge trilogy.” (The others are The Creators and The Seekers.) This book, more than 700 pages long in small type, describes the progress of the inventors and explorers of Western civilization, beginning with ancient Greece and Rome and continuing through the beginning of the 20th century. Boorstin writes about how inquisitive, persistent, brave, and intelligent people have continued to try to find out about the world around us, and about our own interesting selves, since history began.

Rather than do a simple chronological history, the book is divided into four sections: Time, The Earth and the Seas, Nature, and Society. Time addresses the history of clocks and the process of cutting up our days and years into pieces. (It never occurred to me that — duh — you’d need something other than a sundial at night, so people were making things like water clocks very early on.) Reliable calendars depended on knowing astronomy and geography and mathematics. A reliable clock, with a spring, made navigation possible. And then, of course, navigation opened up the whole world. Boorstin talks about the Mongol Empire and how they opened the way to the East for a few decades before the land curtain came down again; the way Christian dogma messed up mapmaking for centuries; the influence of the Vikings; and the discovery of new flora and fauna during the age of exploration.

This leads easily into the section on Nature. Boorstin explores the importance of experimental science — it wasn’t always the case that people used their senses to learn about the world around them. Slowly, personal observation and the nearly-miraculous invention of the microscope replaced the tyranny of Galen, a Greek physician whose dictates about the human body had been reigning since the third century CE. The Royal Society spread discoveries by letter and the Philosophical Transactions, and people started striving to be first to get credit for a new piece of knowledge (especially Newton, who sounds like a total pill.) We began to catalogue everything in Creation.

The section on Society is the most higgledy-piggledy (as perhaps you’d expect. Is Society more higgledy-piggledy than Nature? Discuss.) It begins with the art of Memory (one of the Muses!) which was largely lost when printing began. Then there’s a piece on the development of the discipline of history over time, and the discovery of prehistory, archaeology, and related sciences like paleography and sphragistics. (Ask me to tell you about sphragistics! I looked it up!) Finally, there’s a brief section on anthropology, demography and statistics, economics (Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes in about three pages), and the atom.

There are a lot of things to like about this book. It’s written in congenial prose, with lots of anecdotes about the people involved. I thoroughly enjoyed, for instance, reading about Captain James Cook, who was sent (among other things) to prove there was no antarctic continent. It was a surprise to me that as recently as the origins of the United States, we still didn’t know whether there was any land at the South Pole. Cook was perhaps the greatest negative discoverer. I also enjoyed reading about Linnaeus, who shocked the scientific community with his unabashed descriptions of the sexuality of plants. Prurient, indeed! The Discoverers has a tremendous amount to say about the excitement of explorers and inventors and how they initiated change.

There are a few things that disappointed me, though. The scope of this book is so broad — well over 5000 years of history — that Boorstin can only touch on Great Men, most of whom are so Great that I already knew about them. There were some exceptions, of course, but for the most part this is Columbus, Vespucci, Galileo, Copernicus, Prince Henry the Navigator, Leeuwenhoek, Linnaeus — not small figures with unexpected contributions. I appreciated the detail and the anecdotes, but I’d have liked to learn more.

Speaking of which, this book is over 700 pages long (did I mention?) and there is not one single woman in it. Not, that is to say, as an inventor, an explorer, a scientist, a mapmaker, an author, or a seeker after knowledge. No Hypatia. No Marie Curie. No Lise Meitner. No Ada Lovelace. No Emilie du Chatelet or Sofia Kovalevskaya or Maria Sibylla Merian. I suppose I should mention that there were a few wives here and there. For instance, Boorstin points out that Michael Faraday’s wife Sarah Bernard “never shared the scientific interests that kept him awake nights, but said she was happy to be ‘the pillow of his mind.'” (!) I do not demand parity (after all, it takes a room of one’s own) but in 700 pages, it became clear that Boorstin’s subtitle (A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself) was deliberate.

I was also not very comfortable with Boorstin’s occasional side trips to China or to Islamic cultures. His approach is to ask, “Why didn’t this culture engage in world exploration/ invent the printing press/ have mechanical clocks?” The implied, and sometimes the explicit, answer is always, “Because something in their culture prevented them from doing it the way we do.” But that is not how different cultures work. There isn’t one cultural norm that all other cultures would match if there weren’t internal obstacles. You can’t explain away cultural difference that way, or even adequately explain why a culture might not instantly adapt your wonderful invention once they see it. Cultures grow up organically for all sorts of reasons that I don’t have time to explain, including locally available foods, religions, trade and relationships with nearby nations, language, customs, kinship structures, government, and on and on. It makes their whole world view different, priorities and all. It’s a bit like asking me, “Why haven’t you succeeded at being a high-powered lawyer?” Because I never wanted to be one, is part of the reason why.

So. Pros and cons. This was a good, readable, interesting book full of anecdote and detail about the inventive people who have made Western Civilization what it is. But if I could, I’d have made it more well-rounded.

Posted in History, Nonfiction | 11 Comments

Grief is the Thing with Feathers

grief-is-the-thing-with-feathersA man and his two sons are grieving the loss of his wife (and their mother) when a crow turns up, promising to stay until he wasn’t needed anymore. The crow observes the family, and the family tries to come to grips with their new reality. This little book by Max Porter tells their story through poems and vignettes that capture the thoughts, dreams, and observation of the dad, the boys, and the crow.

Here’s how the crow explains himself:

In other versions I am a doctor or ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.

In this case, he’s probably a crow because the dad is a Ted Hughes scholar, and Hughes authored a poetry collection called Crow. I haven’t read that collection (in fact, I haven’t read much Hughes at all), and I kind of wish that I had because I wasn’t sure what to make of a crow’s presence in this book. Is he meant to be simply a sign that things are not normal, that the family is living a disrupted life? Is his leaving a sign that they’ve settled in to that new reality?

Grief, the title tells us, is the “thing with feathers”—an Emily Dickinson reference, though her feathered thing is hope. If we take the title at its word, the crow is grief itself. But a grief mixed with hope perhaps? The arrival of the crow breaks the dad out of a sort of daze, and he seems glad about that. Maybe the crow represents a sort of forward motion, going through the work of living on.

The boys are also aware of the crow as they work out their grief together and apart. They always appear together in the book, although it’s clear they have two different personalities. Some of the book’s best, most moving moments involve the boys. They tell lies to themselves and others about what happened to their mother. They make messes around the house so they’ll have a reason to miss her.

There are lots of arresting moments in this book, but I found it hard to connect with as a whole. It seemed to be trying so hard to be profound. It’s so meticulously put together that it never stopped feeling constructed—the effect was that of an exercise than a raw outpouring of grief. This book is part of the Tournament of Books this March, so I’ll be interested to see if others felt the same.

Most of the reviews I’ve seen have been strongly positive. Although this seemed like the kind of book I could like, I just never quite sunk into the concept of it. I’m wondering if my tendency these days to prefer straightforward storytelling was getting in my way here. It’s possible, although I hope this tendency passes because when I enjoy books like this, I tend to enjoy them very much, and I like to enjoy books! And many people have enjoyed this, and I could appreciate parts of it. But it wasn’t quite the book for me right now.

Posted in Fiction, Poetry | 11 Comments

Lanterns Across the Snow

lanterns-across-the-snow_0If you’re like me, you associate Susan Hill with Gothic spookiness (The Woman in Black) and/or murder (her series of Simon Serrailler mysteries.) Lanterns Across the Snow is neither one nor the other, though her usual predilections peek out in unexpected places.

This very short book (under 80 pages) is Fanny Hart’s reminiscence about a Christmas past — one that happened when she was nine years old and lived in the Wessex countryside, around the turn of the century. The memories take us from Christmas Eve, where her father is saying Evensong, to carolers awakening her from sleep, to presents on Christmas morning, to a few other surprises. The language is lush, detailed, and observant the way a child would be, of small emotional ups and downs: the glory of the snow and the intense cold, the quick smiles and frowns of parents, the bewilderment about God and his angels.

As I mentioned, Hill doesn’t let this quite fall into syrupy nostalgia. The brief prologue tells us that everyone in the narrative except Fanny is now dead, and she is the only one left to remember, which casts a slight shadow over the bright, happy proceedings. A death (though not a mysterious one) occurs on Christmas morning, and Fanny’s father, the vicar, is called away to attend to it. Poverty, death, birth, work, love, and glory are all glimpsed in this tiny work. It’s mostly the happy memories of a child — but there’s a touch of something else there.

I read this in an hour, for my book group (we didn’t want to assign too much over the holidays.) If you’re looking for something light and wintry to read, you might bookmark this one.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 5 Comments

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide

white-rageIn the prologue to this short, but devastating history, scholar Carol Anderson explains her title in this way:

White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies. It wreaks havoc subtly, almost imperceptibly, certainly, for a nation consistently drawn to the spectacular—to what it can see. It’s not the Klan. White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses, or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively, far more destructively.

The book lays out the many ways this white rage used the system to tear down any instance of black advancement. She begins with the Reconstruction era, when southern whites reacted to emancipation of enslaved black people by enacting laws that limited their freedom and put them in a state of slavery in everything but name. When black Americans managed to acquire the means to move north to pursue something closer to freedom, the response was to stop the trains from moving at all. The response to desegregation of schools was to close the schools and, when that didn’t work, to winnow away at the law until it hardly had any effect. The Civil Rights movement led whites to posit a “color blind” society where wrongs didn’t need to be redressed because they no longer exist—if anything, they claimed, whites were the victims of efforts to redress past wrongs. And when a black man became president, the white power structure ramped up efforts to disenfranchise voters in non-white areas. Anderson addresses things like policing, the prison system, housing discrimination, and other ways that the system pushes back against black people’s advancement.

In short, this book is a history of systemic racism in the United States since the Civil War. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking and talking about it. (I read the final chapter, “How to Unelect a Black President” on January 20, and it was almost too much.)

There are several things I loved about this book. For one thing, it covers a lot of ground without being very long. The text is only about 166 pages. She also cites her sources, providing around 60 pages of notes. It is dense with information, as you might imagine, but it’s written in a very accessible style. It took me a while to read because I had to stop frequently to rage about something else. I also loved that she started after the Civil War. Although slavery was a grievous wrong from our history, Anderson doesn’t leave room for the argument that system racism ended with emancipation. This book is about everything that came after.

And, oh, how much came after. I grew up in Virginia in the 1970s and 80s, and I learned about racism, but the worst of it was treated as the violence of a few bad actors. And the rest, stuff like Jim Crow laws, was treated as a series of bumps along the way to progress. But there was little discussion of the arguments behind Jim Crow or of the deliberate attempts from within the system to keep black Americans from achieving equal access to good schools, good jobs, and good homes (and all of these elements are tied in together). In my adult life, I’ve picked up bits and pieces of information, particularly in the past few years, but this book did an excellent job showing how all those pieces work together. Many of the arguments used today to limit government benefits or privatize public schools, for example, are rooted in or are echoes of racist arguments from the past. It was startling!

I could fill this post with fact after fact, but what I really want is for more people to read this book and talk about it. It’s an important part of the conversation, especially given the new political world we Americans find ourselves in. So, to that end, I’m going to give away five copies of this book.

I only have two requests. If you get a copy, read it soon and tell someone about it, whether in conversation, on your blog or on social media. Share something you learned! I’d also like to limit the giveaway to U.S. readers. I love our international readers, but this book is very much centered on American racism, and, although I think readers outside the U.S. will find it interesting, the book does assume a basic familiarity with U.S. history and how our governing system operates. Many of you outside the U.S. have that knowledge, I know, but I also believe that because the specific examples of racism Anderson discusses is an American problem it’s up to us to do something about it. And getting educated in the history is an essential first step.

So, if you’d like a copy, let me know in the comments. If more than five people have expressed interest by Wednesday, I’ll throw the names into and select the first five names.

Edited on Thursday: I just did the drawing, and the winners are Elle, Florinda, Ann Marie, Jenny, and Jeanne!

Posted in History, Nonfiction | 25 Comments

Good Reading for Hard Times

Perhaps you are looking forward to today’s inaugural activities, either with pleasure or as a witness. Perhaps, however, like me, you have been absorbing the news with increasing concern (not to say despair — never despair), and, while you have been making plans for strong action in the coming years, you would like to spend today peacefully away from any source of news, reading something good.

Well, what’s good? Something purely escapist, that will help you forget it all for a few hours? Something uplifting, that will give you hope? Something by an author from a marginalized group, so you can show solidarity and maybe open up your horizons? Something that will remind you that literature and art are here to make connections in our world? I’ve got some suggestions for you!

If You Just Want to Forget Everything For A While:

The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan. This novel, narrated by Jake Marlowe, a 201-year-old, whiskey-drinking aesthete of a werewolf, the last of his kind, is breathless, witty, ironic, fast-paced, and fabulous. Look out for purple prose, but it’s well-earned.

11/22/63 , by Stephen King. What if you could go back in time and change the world — but only to one specific spot? This is what happens to Jake Epping, who discovers he can travel back in time, but only to October, 1958. Can he save John Kennedy, and by so doing, save Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, millions in Vietnam? Find out in this great, suspenseful time-travel novel.

Bellwether, by Connie Willis. This is an extremely funny book about fads and chaos theory, luck, work, and inspiration, exasperation, and the way love can bloom in a weird environment. If it doesn’t make you laugh (even today), I’ll be very, very surprised.

Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier. If you’ve only read Rebecca, you’ve only just started. This is a thrilling, sinister Gothic romance in a great tradition, with touches only du Maurier can do right.

High Rising, by Angela Thirkell. Actually, you could read any of Thirkell’s Barsetshire Chronicles and be equally delighted, charmed, and amused, but this is the first one and it’s satisfying to start with.

If You Would Like Something Uplifting For a Change:

Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit. A book about how action results from and produces hope, even if we don’t know anything about our possible futures.

Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine. This wonderful, immensely readable book on neuropsychology first debunks many old experiments that claimed men were more intelligent or more able than women, then posits that our brains are molded by our environments. If we have a more just society, we will have more just brains. Simple as that, right?

Bird by Bird or Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. These books (about writing and the first year of having a baby, respectively) revolve around the importance of friendship, faith, love, sobriety, forgiveness, and Cheetos. They are some of my mainstays.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Even the smallest person can make a difference.

Résistance: A Frenchwoman’s Journal of the War, by Agnès Humbert. This story of fighting back against the Nazi occupation of France will fill you with determination and pride.

If You Would Like to Create Solidarity With Your Reading:

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This letter to Coates’s son, inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (another good selection!) is an indictment, a memoir, and a manifesto.

Americanah, by Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie. This is a book about being an immigrant, about being a NAB (Non-American Black) in a racialized country, about being a woman in a patriarchy — and it’s also about a long relationship, and about the meaning of home.

The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. This wordless book shows you what it means to make a life in a really, really new place.

There but for the, by Ali Smith. This novel is a marvelously strange construction of humor and seriousness, about a man who has been invited to a dinner party by total strangers (it’s implied that he’s there because he’s gay — they like to invite people who are “different.”) In the middle of the party, he goes upstairs, locks himself into the spare room, and won’t… come… out. The way Smith unfolds meaning like a paper flower from this premise is glorious.

All the Single Ladies, by Rebecca Traister. A comprehensive, readable, sensible look at single womanhood in the United States.

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. This novel begins with a crime — rape and attempted murder — and should feel isolating. But it is about community and shared pain, and the complicated limits of that community. A great choice from a great author.

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson, is in the voice of a woman who has known abandonment and homelessness, poverty, loss, danger, and distance from mainstream, middle-class values all her life. Her deep, intuitive understanding, her reach for words to express her knowledge, and her yearning for love and relationship (even while she is wary of it) make this one of the best books I’ve read in years.


If you are reading today, I wish you peace and contentment. What will you be reading, if anything? What would you add to this list — any of the categories? Would you add a category? If you aren’t reading, what are you doing?

Posted in Uncategorized | 32 Comments


peacekeeperIt’s often easiest to review books when they stay inside generic boundaries, and the smaller the box, the better. This is a cozy mystery, this is a thriller, this is a western. If you like what goes in this box, you’ll like this, because it goes in the box you like. Books that go in more than one box, or make up new boxes, or ooze outside of boxes altogether, are harder to review, and to recommend, because sometimes the things that make them worth reading are off-putting to people who don’t usually read those sorts of things (if there even is a “sort of thing” like that yet.)

Peacekeeper, by Christopher Bryan, is not quite as mightily genre-bending as all that. It’s mystery, and fantasy. It’s unabashedly Christian, but it doesn’t have the hectoring tone of the Left Behind series; it believes in a literal heaven and hell, but it isn’t about telling a certain segment of the population that they’re going to one place or another. It draws heavily on Charles Williams, on C.S. Lewis, and even on George Macdonald for inspiration, but it’s set in contemporary Britain.

Peacekeeper is the sequel to Siding Star, in which we met D.I. Cecelia Cavaliere and her officers of the peace, as well as her friend, the Anglican vicar Michael Aarons. In Siding Star, they averted a literally apocalyptic scenario through supernatural means, and Peacekeeper picks up just a few months later. The book begins with a murder-robbery that seems unconnected to anything that’s gone before. But this time, the evil Academy has a new plan for ending the world — global nuclear war — and the Detective Inspector learns about it only through her meticulous policing and her willingness to listen to what’s gone seriously wrong in her world.

This book is engaging, fast-paced, and reasonably well-written. There are visions, saints, and demons here, but the main power is that of the human will: apart from a little bit of time travel (Doctor Who fans will get a nod), the only real supernatural intervention is that of ideas. It is human beings — their greed, cowardice, pettiness, and lust for power, or on the other hand, their joy, love, delight, tenderness, humor, and loyalty — that decide what this earth will be. Bryan believes in the physical goodness of the earth, given by God: red wine, good food, sex, sunshine, and perhaps especially animals. Those who reject life, love, and goodness in favor of death, self, and cruelty are rejecting God himself. Bryan may be drawing on Charles Williams, but he doesn’t have his asceticism.

One criticism: Bryan doesn’t just get inspiration from C.S. Lewis, he outright cribs from him. There’s at least one scene and possibly two in this book that are simply taken from Lewis, in their exact outlines and much too precisely in some of their wording. I think Bryan is capable of writing originally; the trap of admiring someone else’s writing so much is a hard one.

There are at least two more books in this series. I have one more (Singularity) on my shelves, and I’ll see when I get to it. These are quick reads! I didn’t announce this at the beginning of January, just because I forgot to, but I’m spending at least this month and maybe February reading from my TBR shelves. They have gotten a little out of control — for me — at 38 books. (Remember that I do 98%+ of my reading from the library, and normally get books only at my birthday and Christmas!) I’m making good progress, so you may see Singularity here soon.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries, Religion, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments

A Prayer Journal

prayer-journalWhen Flannery O’Connor was a very young woman, just twenty-one, she went to the University of Iowa for a year to participate in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was a devout Catholic, and during that year or so, she kept a prayer journal in a ruled notebook. This journal has been published. It’s of interest partly because Flannery O’Connor’s stories do so often have to do with her faith, of course, but also because her thoughts on faith so often have to do with her writing.

Most of her prayers (as you would imagine) are very earnest: pleas for grace, supplications for help, requests to love God and her fellow beings more. Some are humorous, smiling at her own earnestness. O’Connor was more self-aware than a lot of twenty-one-year-olds:

I don’t want to be a coward, staying with You because I fear hell. I should reason that if I fear hell, I can be assured of the author of it. But learned people can analyze for me why I fear hell and their implication is that there is no hell. But I believe in hell. Hell seems a great deal more feasible to my weak mind than heaven. No doubt because hell is a more earthly-seeming thing. I can fancy the tortures of the damned but I cannot imagine the disembodied souls hanging in a crystal for all eternity praising God. It is natural that I should not imagine this. If we could accurately map heaven some of our up-&-coming scientists would begin drawing blueprints for its improvement, and the bourgeois would sell guides 10¢ the copy to all over sixty-five. But I do not mean to be clever although I do mean to be clever on 2nd thought and like to be clever & want to be considered so. But the point more specifically here is, I don’t want to fear to be out, I want to love to be in; I don’t want to believe in hell but in heaven.

Even in her private prayers, she couldn’t bear the least hint of cant or sentimentality. It all boiled down to grace, for her.

Many times, she refers to her writing, with a kind of desperate love for it, thoroughly mixed with her love of God:

Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine. Please let the story, dear God, in its revisions, be made too clear for any false & low interpretation because in it, I am not trying to disparage anybody’s religion although when it was coming out, I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to do or what it was going to mean. I don’t know now if it is consistent. Please don’t let me have to scrap the story because it turns out to mean more wrong than right—or any wrong. […]

Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel. I want to do this for a good feeling & for a bad one. The bad one is uppermost. The psychologists say it is the natural one. Let me get away dear God from all things thus “natural.” Help me to get what is more than natural into my work—help me to love & bear with my work on that account. If I have to sweat for it, dear God, let it be as in Your service. I would like to be intelligently holy. I am a presumptuous fool, but maybe the vague thing in me that keeps me in is hope. […]

But how eliminate this picky fish bone kind of way I do things—I want so to love God all the way. At the same time I want all the things that seem opposed to it—I want to be a fine writer. Any success will tend to swell my head—unconsciously even. If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing. But I’ll continue to try—that is the point.

I find this fascinating, just as a window into O’Connor’s point of view as a beginning writer. Her passion for writing — good writing, fine writing — is consuming. She doesn’t think much of her own intellect (perhaps this is a result of being at the workshop in 1946, which I am presuming was male-dominated in some of the particular ways academia was in those days), but she doesn’t seem to have much doubt that she’s meant to write, and that she wants to do it for motivations that are beyond what psychologists tell her are the “real” ones. As she wrote this journal, she was shaping Wise Blood, and bringing it in to the workshop to be examined.

O’Connor abandoned this journal after 18 months. She had her first attack of lupus — the disease she suffered from all her life, and  that killed her at the age of 39 — three years later. Most of the evidence of what she thought about grace and judgment and mercy (and race and class and a lot of other things) is in her stories and letters, rather than in journals. But if you are interested in a glimpse of the writer O’Connor would become — if you are interested in the way she was thinking as she was forming her ideas on how to write as a Christian for the rest of her life — this brief book (which includes a replica of the original handwritten journal) may interest you.

Posted in Nonfiction, Religion | Leave a comment


runawayI find it difficult to describe the experience of reading the short fiction of Alice Munro. Usually, I like my short stories to be a little bit weird and experimental — to play with form, the way George Saunders does, or to be good satire, or to take place somewhere I’ve never imagined. Alice Munro does none of this. Her stories deal with the complexity of human behavior, both good and bad. Her writing is dry, simple, and faintly witty, and I find that as she gets older, it mostly gets sparer. I’ve read reviewers who say that not much happens in her stories, but actually they’re pretty brightly studded with plot: runaways, suicides, marriages and divorces, decades of child-rearing, a man who institutionalizes his psychic wife when her clairvoyance no longer pays the bills, infidelity, sudden death, travel and homecoming, the kind of phone call none of us would rather receive. There isn’t much space in the stories (though they’re all pretty long — 40 or 50 pages) and so they go deep, instead.

In a lot of Munro’s work, she’s written about younger women. In Runaway, she is creating work that’s more about middle-aged and older women, who hold in themselves the knowledge of having been young. “Powers” is a good example of this. The first section of the story is Nancy’s diary from 1927, a little masterpiece of a young, meddling, self-centered girl. There’s no nostalgia here and no information given: Munro knows that the past wasn’t quaint to the people living in it. Nancy plays a foolish April Fool’s joke on a young doctor and then is too embarrassed to turn down his offer of marriage. Her friend, Tessa, a clairvoyant, is also tangled up in marriage with a young man who is out for his own financial gain. Decades later, and after a horrible “seniors’ cruise,” Nancy bumps into Tessa’s husband. He tells her — at length — the story of his marriage to Tessa, but Nancy knows that his story is a tissue of lies. She feels that she herself is lying by not protesting. The story ends, mysteriously, with a dream: a shared understanding about what women know, but force themselves not to know, in order to live a happy life. The story works wonderfully, with the fractured, nonlinear narrative, and the close examination of what “powers” may mean in a life.

“Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence” are all about the same character, Juliet. In the first, she is a studious young teacher who meets a man on a train and falls in love with him. Later, she impulsively goes to visit him in British Columbia where he is a fisherman, arriving accidentally the day of his wife’s wake. In “Soon,” Juliet is a young mother, home with her parents, showing off her baby, Penelope. In “Silence,” Juliet is a late middle-aged widow whose daughter has cut off relations with her mother. It appears that the independence and sturdy logic we admired in the younger Juliet have alienated Penelope, who has gone in search of the spiritual things she never had at home. One of the really interesting things about this trilogy is that it doesn’t feel like a novel. Each story feels complete and separate, spacious in its own right. They resonate with each other, but are unforced.

There were a couple of stories that felt more heavy-handed to me. The title story is about Carla, who wants to run away from her emotionally abusive husband and is aided to do so by a neighbor. Eventually, however, she can’t imagine her life without him and she’s drawn back home. Her miserable adventure is echoed by a runaway goat, Flora, who is literally the scapegoat in the picture. I mean, this story would teach well, but when the symbolism is this obvious, I find it a little intrusive. I was also almost unable to read “Tricks,” which uses a literally Shakespearean case of mistaken identity as the hinge of the plot. I cannot tell you how I loathe plots that turn on simple misunderstandings (which is why I can’t bear Romeo and Juliet.) However, it’s important to note that these two stories are so jarring in Munro’s work because she usually works with such dogged, almost muted realism. At the beginning of this review, I said I like weird stories. Well, clairvoyance, a fateful goat returning at exactly the right moment, and a case of a deaf-mute twin ought to please me, oughtn’t they? Munro is doing this on purpose, which she proves by calling her story “Tricks.” It’s not the strange Shakespearean coincidence that counts, nor the clairvoyance. It’s the human reaction: the betrayal, the lie, the cowardice, or — on the other hand — the faithful friendship, the enduring love.

If you haven’t read Munro, do. I think you could start anywhere; I started with Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and this is the fourth book I’ve read of hers. But don’t miss her.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 8 Comments

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

sidney-chambers-shadow-of-deathA couple of years ago, I watched the Grantchester mysteries on PBS Masterpiece. I enjoyed them thoroughly (I would enjoy anything with Robson Green in it!) and didn’t think much more about it. But when I discovered that the show was based on a series of books by James Runcie, I thought I would give them a try.

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is admirably suited for television adaptation. It’s episodic: each chapter is a short, standalone mystery,  but it has the continuity of a novel. The crimes range from theft to art forgery to questionable suicide to outright murder — a lot of variety for a smallish town just outside of Cambridge, you may think, but of course that’s the detective-story tradition, isn’t it?

The title character, Sidney Chambers, is a vicar. He gets mixed up in these crimes in part because one of his closest friends is the local Detective Inspector Geordie Keating: they play backgammon in the pub and share shop talk, and sometimes Keating sends Sidney in to talk to someone who might not open up to a police officer. Sidney is a very appealing character. He’s a reluctant detective, because he thinks he should be devoting himself to his vocation as a priest, but he’s so intelligent and observant that he can hardly help making discoveries. He’s kind and empathetic, and respects the privacy of his congregants. He has a passion for jazz, and would prefer whisky to the sherry he’s constantly offered (though he would never say so.)

Besides all this, Sidney wrestles with the morality and ethics of his faith, and truly believes in his calling. It’s rare to find a priest in any novel who actually understands even the rudiments of Christianity (try Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene for that), but Sidney is a good priest without being the least bit sanctimonious. He does what priests actually do — including things like supervising the building of the manger at Christmas, attending meetings, and visiting sick people — and he worries about his prayer life. James Runcie is the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury. I see he knows the life!

Runcie’s prose is no better than workmanlike, but it was good enough to make it charming. If a cozy ecclesiastical mystery appeals, or if you enjoyed the television performance, I can definitely recommend this, and I will probably pick up the next in the series (I think he has written six of these!)

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mysteries | 10 Comments