Beatrice and Virgil


Beatrice andbeatrice and virgil Virgil, Yann Martel

I was among the millions of people who were enthralled by Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I’ve read it a few times. I’ve shared it with others. The writing was so engaging and pulled me in, the story so fascinating. I loved the book, the story it told, the examination of fantasy and fable. Sadly, I am also among the many who, after falling so deeply in love with Life of Pi, found myself disappointed in the follow up, Beatrice and Virgil.

Beatrice and Virgil opens on an author, Henry L’Hote, who bears a striking resemblance to Martel himself. L’Hote is a Canadian author. He wrote a book that was surprisingly well received and continues to sell for years, with many adoring fans. The book told a story through animals, and is described as approaching a serious story using animals to give it a fantastical bent. He then suffers severely from writers block, waiting five years before writing another book—an essay and fable about the Holocaust, which he foresees being sold together. His essay proclaims that there is not enough true art about the Holocaust, which gets to the truth outside of facts, and we should allow greater exploration of it through art. The fable will present this artistical description of the Holocaust, and the stories shall be packaged together as a flip-book and sold as one.

The publishers tear down Henry’s idea, to the point that he decides his first book was enough and he will give up writing for the time being. He and his wife decide to move, settling in “one of those great cities of the world that is a world unto itself, a storied metropolis where all kinds of people find themselves and lose themselves. Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin.” While there, his wife finds employment as a nurse, and he putters around, playing clarinet, being in an amateur theatre troupe, working in a chocolate café. (A café that sells chocolate, I mean. Not made of it.)  However, people continue to send him fan mail, and eventually he receives a letter from someone who is coincidentally living nearby, in the same city. A letter that includes the short story “The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller” by Gustave Flaubert, a piece of a play with the two characters Beatrice and Virgil, and a short note saying that the author needs his help.

Through this note we are entered into the rest of the story. Henry finds an elderly taxidermist, also Henry, working on a play—a play very similar to the style of Waiting for Godot, as Martel himself points out in a common theme of self-awareness—based on two of the animals in his shop, Beatrice, a stuffed donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey. They have been through unspeakably terrible experiences they refer to as “the Horrors.” They wander around on a striped shirt. Their list of how they shall remember their experiences includes a word that sounds like “Auschwitz” and an address tied to a trove of documents from the Warsaw Ghetto. Though Henry the Taxidermist denies it throughout, the play seems very much like a tale of animals that is about the Holocaust. Henry the author is intrigued.

I do think that Martel is a talented writer, speaking strictly in terms of writing. I was pulled into the book and read through it quickly (it is under 200 pages.) Some of the passages, such as the first part of the play where Beatrice and Virgil discuss a pear, are quite beautifully written. And I agree with his meditations on fiction being almost more important than fact in tapping into deep truths, although I wouldn’t say he is the first to have this insight.

That being said, the problems of this book far outweigh one well-written passage. For one thing, it’s far too self-referential, while also remaining distanced from itself at the same time. In one review I read it was referred to as a lesson in post-modern pastiche and I can’t say I entirely disagree. And this is coming from someone who generally enjoys post-modern pastiche!

As already mentioned, the main character, Henry L’Hote, is clearly meant to resemble Yann Martel. The first part of the book, outlining why author Henry would want to write such a book of an essay and a story in the first place, clearly serves as the essay within this book, with the play acting as the story. And yet at the same time, it remains distant. Even Henry is kept at arms length, as we are told this is a pen name, and never given his real identity. The story itself, this fable for the holocaust, is written as a play in the style of Godot, that is written by a character that the main character then meets. We are at least 5 layers removed from this fable that Martel wants to tell, which seems a rather coy, and almost fearful, way to present his tale.

Then there is this. While I agree that horrific events should be told through a variety of art, that is not, in fact, what this is. While the book focused quite a bit on our own ways of looking at history and art, and the trials of someone who wants to write about it, for a book about the Holocaust it actually focused very little on the horrific events and how we were supposed to examine and feel about themselves ourselves. It did not talk about why they happened or how we prevent them or how we live with them or how those who went through them can continue. It was using the Holocaust as a way to address how we tell stories, rather than stories as a way to tell the Holocaust. Which is, in my opinion, not at all the way to address such a horrific occasion, and a rather disrespectful treatment of it. Far from the arguments presented by the concerns of Martel in this book, it’s not disrespectful because there were animals or a fable, but because he was far more concerned than the author struggling to write this story than any participant in the story. It was the Holocaust as background.

This last is, by far, the biggest concern of the book. The Holocaust was the attempted extermination of a people; it was neighbors turning against neighbors; it was ‘good people’ engaging in, going along with, or turning a blind to the most horrific acts, it was an example of the worst of society and the reason we must constantly be vigilant against the rise of evil, exclusion and inertia. It’s not a way for an author with no connection to it to work out his feelings on art and himself. Let us not cheapen it in such a way.


Death Comes to Pemberley

death comes to pemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James

Can I make a confession here? I would like to think that this blog is a safe space, where I can open up and be honest with you. So here it goes:

I have never really loved Jane Austen.

It feels good to get that off my chest. I know that she’s a wonderful author. I know that I should love her. As a well read, well-educated feminist woman of a certain race and socioeconomic status, it’s practically required. And it’s not that I dislike her. She’s fine. And of the Austen books, Pride and Prejudice is definitely my favorite, and one I’ve grown to appreciate more. It’s just, well, British Victorian books and comedies of manners and all that aren’t exactly my thing. I tend to get frustrated and want to yell at everyone to just say what they’re thinking. And the excruciating politeness of it all just seems exhausting;^ I do not think I would enjoy living in that particular place and time.

Unfortunately, it’s not just that Jane Austen is a beloved author and her books are classics. For some reason, a bunch of culture, especially high-brow women’s culture, in recent years is now centered around Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice. Finding Mr. Darcy. The song “Oh Mr. Darcy.” This entire Etsy page. The book is everywhere. (Oddly enough focused far too often on how wonderful Mr. Darcy is, whose main qualification is that he realized he was being a jerk and liked Elizabeth. There should really be more feminist self-help on how to be Elizabeth than how to find Mr. Darcy.) Enter Death Comes to Pemberley, by acclaimed mystery novelist P.D. James.

Death Comes to Pemberley follows the Darcies a few years out from their marriage and the end of Pride and Prejudice. They are established and happily married, although Darcy’s relations still do not entirely approve. A ball is in the works, two suitors are vying for the hand of Darcy’s sister, Georgina, and they have two young boys. Their life is thrown into disarray, however, when Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia, shows up in a state, screaming that her husband, Darcy’s former friend George Wickham, has been killed in the woods. Instead, after a search party is mounted, they find Wickham covered in blood, dragging his friend, Captain Martin Denny, and saying that he killed his only friend. From there the mystery proceeds.

I thought the book was fun enough, and I do enjoy a good old fashioned British mystery. James captured the style of Austen quite well, and clearly did a great deal of research, or was already familiar with, the legal systems of Victorian Britain. I don’t remember Pride and Prejudice well enough to say how accurate it was in terms of all the relationships, but James has enough attention to detail that I assume all of that is correct. I will say that whether or not it was accurate or true to the original, I very much enjoyed all of the character work in Death Comes to Pemberly. Not just Elizabeth and Darcy, who have the sort of amicable and respectful marriage that I imagine most of the fans dream of for them, but the household staff, other magistrates, and even the most incidental characters seem to have clear personalities, motivations and a thought-out purpose. I do enjoy that sort of attention in a book.

I am sure that a hardcore Pride and Prejudice fan would get far more out of this book than I did. As I mentioned, I didn’t get all of the allusions to the actual story, and I am still frustrated by everyone in Victorian England who won’t just say what they mean. I still greatly enjoyed this book, though, even being only vaguely familiar with the story. James is a talented writer, and an excellent story teller. I definitely recommend, for Austen fans and mystery fans alike.

*As long as I’m confessing all the ways I’m betraying my race, socioeconomic status and womanhood, you know what else I don’t love? La La Land. It was fine, better than not doing anything, I suppose. But that’s it. It was kind of boring!°

°I don’t want to give the impression I’m some brave countercultural independent thinker, though. I still enjoy British crime dramas, drinking white wine during the day, brunch, mommy bloggers, and all the other things you’d expect.

^And yes, I know I was just full of praise for a different Victorian novel. Honestly, part of the reason I was so gushing there is because it is rare that I would so thoroughly enjoy one.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

jonathan strangeJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

This sprawling, 1000+ page story of magic’s return to England is truly amazing. Set during the Napoleonic wars, it takes place in an England where Magic is—or at least was—very real, with an alternate history where John Uskglass the Raven King had ruled over the North for centuries, faerie roads used to be common, and many groups and clubs of learned men meet to discuss and write articles on the history of magic. At this time, however, it has been generations since the last faerie road has closed. And this is the mystery at the heart of the book: what has happened to British magic, and when it will return to England?

When the book begins, we are introduced to a group of theoretical magicians—men who study magic, not perform it—with a new member asking the impolitic question of why practical magic no longer exists. Through this discussion we eventually come to Mr. Norrell, who offers to prove his practical magic in a dramatic fashion if all theoretical magicians will renounce their claim to the title of magician. His success brings him to London, where he endeavors to restore magic to its rightful, respectable place, aid the war effort, and win high regard—but only for his own particular thoughts on magic. We are eventually introduced to Jonathan Strange, charismatic, impulsive, and a brilliant natural at magic, who stumbles into his career as a practical magician.

This is the bare-bones of a story that takes us throughout the Iberian peninsula in the war, through the way magic begins to effect numerous characters throughout the story, introduces us to an amoral faerie, the Man with the Thistledown Hair, and sees magic reintroduced to England. And most of all, dives in depth into the story of the Raven King and the history of the England just off to the side of our own world, where many similar things have happened, but in very different ways.

The world building in Jonathan Strange is truly staggering. Many characters in the tale have their own tales. The background story of Jonathan Strange, for instance, doled out in one or two longish chapters, could have been its own standalone short story. Almost every character we encounter is fully fleshed out, and their own story expertly woven into and important to the larger narrative. Even more amazing, though, is her story of magic. The alternate history, and the tale of the Raven King, dips in and out of the story at all turns, with the Raven King overshadowing everything that is done with magic, and even politics in the Britain of the book. In addition, footnotes are given for numerous references to magic and history, and citations of other books within this world, with each footnote being its own tale again. For instance, take a look at just this one footnote in the book, a fairly representative one:

One autumn morning the Cumbrian child went out into her grandmother’s garden. In a forgotten corner she discovered a house about the height and largeness of a bee-skep, built of spiders’ webs stiffened and whitened with hoar-frost. Inside the house was a tiny person who at times immeasurably old and at other times no older than the child herself. The little person told the Cumbrian child that she was a songbird-herd and that for ages past it had been her task to look after fieldfares, redwings and mistle-thrushes in that part of Cumbria. …

…and on for several more sentences to the end of the tale. To say nothing of the occasional three and four page footnote. David Foster Wallace has nothing on Susanna Clarke.

I also loved the way Clarke brought in other topics in a subtle way, an excellent example of “show don’t tell”. The book is not a polemic or a treatise on social justice issues by any means. But any careful reading will pick out the way the same magickal affliction affects an aristocratic woman and a servant in very different ways, with the former an invalid who everyone can tell is ailing the latter forced to carry on in the same manner. Or the way some of the problems may have been solved earlier if people were expected more to listen to and pay attention to sidelined women. These issues only arise here and there, but are certainly present to anyone who cares to pay attention.

I’ve read this book twice now. And each time it’s been just as surprisingly delightful, intriguing, and just so, so impressive. I guess there’s more detail in something like The Silmarillion, but Clarke still has my admiration because she made it interesting, too. I know the thickness might be off putting to some, but I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s a wonderful story, amazing world created, and for anyone willing to put in the thought and time discussions a-plenty to be had.


MortMort, Terry Pratchett

We return to Discworld with Mort, following the story of Death as he goes through a mid-eternity crisis, and his chosen apprentice, Mort, as he decides whether or not to become Death. In the process we meet Death’s butler, his adopted daughter, learn about Afterlife and theology on the Disc, and watch Mort deal with the how to address that whole fate thing and how much we should mess with it.

Death is a recurring character in Discworld, having made cameos in the previous books, and giving him his own series was a good idea for a spinoff. It occurs to me that the reason almost endless spinoffs for something like Discworld can work is that, freed from the necessities of weekly episodes and annual seasons, an author can wait until he actually has a good idea to write a story. It’s a truth that serves books well and I’m grateful for it.

Mort is, well, not exactly a prequel but it does take place before the other books, with Rincewind of the first book making a brief appearance early in his wizarding career. It is certainly a stand alone book, however, that a person could pick up without fully knowing the world, although having a working knowledge of how exactly the whole thing works what with the world turtle and all does add a certain something. The only mild drawback I’d say is that, by making this a book anyone can drop in on, Pratchett does need to repeat some things.  It’s not so much a problem that he goes over the same information on the inner workings of Discworld, but he does seem to be overly found of a few phrases, such as how the light moves lazily on the Disc due to the magical field, that are used more than they need to be. But I suppose if one waits more than a week or so between reading his books it wouldn’t be as much of a problem. And it’s a bit hypocritical of me to complain about this when I was just criticizing a book for going too far in the other direction.

And, honestly, what complaints I may have are minimal. Pratchett’s skill at weaving a tale, his humor, and his deftness of dealing with what can be grim topics with wit and just a touch-hardly any, really, it doesn’t get in the way at all-of compassion is on full display in this book. It’s not everyone who can take a story about Death and turn it into a fun book that isn’t either too dark or too kitschy or too much of trying to make it be a whole thing and making a statement. Here it’s just that Death is, and he’s trying to get through existence as best he can, just as all of us are. I greatly enjoy the way Pratchett plays and subverts tropes, done throughout in this book. And he’s a clever writer. His descriptions of Death capture the doom and gloom and seriousness with a few creative twists, and he pulls us into scenes quite creatively. I’m glad I finally started reading Terry Pratchett. He’s quickly become a favorite for all of my light-hearted reading needs.

Michael Tolliver Lives

michael tolliver livesMichael Tolliver Lives, Armistead Maupin

Armistead Maupin is known for his Tales of the City stories, a daily serial in the San Francisco Chronicle throughout the 70s, chronicling a unique time and place that will never be recaptured. People look back on these books with real fondness, and through it Maupin had a unique view point to capture the sexual revolution, the first glimmer of gay rights, and the destruction of the AIDS epidemic. Sadly, all of this is what I have picked up from reading *about* Maupin. I never read any of the Tales of the City stories. Instead, I picked up Michael Tolliver Lives, which catches up with a lead character several years on. Why did I start there? Because this was sitting there waiting to be taken at the Library Book Sale, my main source of reading material, and the others were not!

It’s a shame I didn’t read the others first, because then maybe I would have liked this book. Instead I felt myself unable to connect with any of the characters, not particularly interested, and thinking that everything felt superficial and like a caricature.

Michael Tolliver Lives catches us back up again with Michael Tolliver, an aging gay man who’s been in San Francisco from the beginning (he featured in the earlier books), now married to a younger man, running a landscaping and nursery business, and dealing with the death of his conservative mother in Orlando, FL, and his more-or-less adoptive mother back home in San Francisco. For all that, there didn’t seem to be much conflict or tension in the book, and everything proceeded as you’d expect. The book seemed to stay on the surface of the story. And much of this is because some of the conflict had already been introduced before, I’m sure. Much of the relationships were told, not shown—because it was just a reminder of what the reader should already know.

There were some people who apparently loved this book, but I think all of them are people who loved these characters from before, and enjoyed checking in. Some series you can drop yourself into. Some you can’t. This book was for people who had loved Tales of the City and looked forward to seeing what everyone was up to now. It was the reunion special. But just like I wouldn’t watch Fuller House without knowing the first one, don’t pick this up unless you already know and love Michael Tolliver and his life.


My Year in Books

There was a time, before I had kids, when I looked at the 50 Books challenge and scoffed. Not even one book a week? How was that a challenge? Try to stretch yourself people! Now I find myself in a position where 50 books a year isn’t just a challenge, it’s an impossible dream. But still- I did 37. While working, raising three kids, and #resist-ing. So that’s not too bad, right? Right?

I hope for 40 next year. But my real challenge for 2018 isn’t for 50 books, it’s 52 blog posts. One review a week shouldn’t be too much to ask of myself. I didn’t come even close to that schedule—or keeping up with my reading habit—this year. But that’s what New Year’s Resolutions are for, I suppose.

So, without further ado, my incredibly brief reviews of the books I’ve read this year. With links to a full review on the rare occasions they’re available.

Earth is Room Enough, Isaac Asimov—A collection of Asimov short stories, all of which take place on Earth. Asimov is at his best at a short story writer, and this was entertaining enough. I don’t think any of these are my favorites that he’s written, but they were a perfectly cromulent way to pass the time.

The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible—and Other Journeys through Knowledge, James Burke—In the vein of How We Got to Now and other such stories, this book aims to explain how discoveries in one era can lead to unintended inventions and discoveries elsewhere. I thought that the connections were less compelling than those in other, similar books, and Burke isn’t the best of writers. There are other such books and miniseries done better.

The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris—A while back there was a Facebook quiz thingy asking people to list the 10 books that had most influenced one’s life. Two of my friends listed this. I picked it up at a library book sale and it was fascinating and beautifully written.

The Fragile Absolute, Slavoj Žižek—As might be evident from the fact that I write a book review blog and happily read Umberto Eco and Zeynep Tufecki, I am a huge nerd. Despite some earlier plans, though, I eventually decided a life in academia wasn’t for me, and that academic writing tended towards pointlessness and preening with no meaning. Sometimes I regret that decision. Then I read a ‘popular’ philosopher like Žižek and realize all my worst thoughts of academia are correct and I made the right decision. And on a related note.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Kim Edwards—The book opens (and this isn’t a spoiler; it’s on the back cover and everything) with a doctor’s decision in the 1950s to tell his wife that one of their twins, born with Down syndrome, was stillborn, and asks his nurse to take the girl to an institution. The book covers how this lie affects everyone’s life for years. It was poignant and well written, and I’ve been talking about it with others all year.

The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson—Bryson is always hilarious, and his tangents informative and fascinating. My mind is also a weird musty attic for pieces of trivia, so anyone who provides as much as he does is a valued companion to me. Sadly, Bryson is also a grump and, in his old age, a curmudgeon who turns his astute judgments on the absurdity of society to complaints about Kids These Days and their clothes. This book was fun enough for a Bryson fan, but if you’re a newcomer pick up a younger and more cheerful book first.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein—There’s a prison colony on the Moon that wants freedom, and so a super computer and three unlikely leaders plot a rebellion. I’ve read other Henlein books and this is similar in that it starts off interesting enough and then gets sort of strange and goes off the rails. Also this was written when he was quite firmly in his extreme libertarian phase, so there’s that. He has some… interesting… ideas about government and feminism, I’ll give you that.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, Brock Clarke—Until I was looking through my Goodreads list of books I’d read this year, I completely forgot this book. Which should probably tell you all you need to know.

The Keeper of Lost Causes, Jossi Adler-Olsen—A Scandinavian murder mystery! This was an enjoyable thriller, and I enjoyed the troubled detective enough for his type. If you enjoy the genre you’ll likely enjoy this book. I’ve read a few of these types now, and personally I find the Scandinavian thrillers to just be a bit too tortured and cruel, but I have a lower tolerance for that sort of thing than most.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, Denise Kiernan—This book was absolutely fascinating. I had no idea of the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was basically created from whole cloth to center around uranium enrichment factories. It was a secret city that didn’t even appear on maps until well after the war ended, and women and men were employed there in almost every conceivable position. If you liked Hidden Figures, you’ll probably like this book.

Armada, Ernest Cline—Ready Player One was absolutely amazing. I loved it. But you can only go to the well so many times, you know?

What is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi—This was, hands down, the most creative book I have read in a long, long time. I read a lot and it is rare that I read something that is entirely original, but this is. I have spent all my time since I read this book wondering why everyone isn’t talking about it and how amazing it is.

Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks—There is always interest to be had and things to be learned with Oliver Sacks. That being said, this wasn’t my favorite of his books. It didn’t have quiet enough variety and just didn’t capture my attention they way others have.

The Secret of Lost Things, Sheridan Hay—This was a book I took with me on summer vacation, and about where I would assign it. It kept me entertained, it passed the time. It didn’t do much more than that.

Flight, Sherman Alexie—I had never read anything by Alexie, and this showed up at a library book sale. It was something, that’s for sure. I read it a few months ago, and I’m still working out all of my feelings, which I take as a good sign in a book. A troubling read, but a worthwhile one.

Murder in the Dark, Kerry Greenwood—I *love* Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on PBS. Because I am a white, upper-middle-class woman and we are obsessed with British* crime dramas. This was the first of the books I’d read, though, and it was great fun. If I ever have time to dive into a series again, I’ll definitely pick them up.

Strangers in a Strange Land, Charles Chaput—Not to be confused with Stranger in a Strange Land, by Heinlein, a very different book indeed. Chaput thinks that traditional Christianity is under attack, and that liberal views, particularly those on sexuality, are to be blamed for most of our current ills. He also thinks that civil authorities letting gay people be married is a far greater threat to our Church than, say, objectivism. He has some great things to say about the ideal society and civics, he just seems to have trouble identifying the actual problems.

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep TufeckiAre you part of the #resistance? Good. Get this book. Read it. Bring it to your Indivisible or Flippable or Swing Left or whatever group and have them read it and talk about it together. And follow Tufecki on Twitter. I didn’t think everything about this book was perfect, but she has important things to say and we need to think about the questions she’s raising.

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obrecht—A moving tale told through the perspectives of a woman in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars and her grandfather. It tells the history of the place, and the story itself, and is imbued with magical realism and a painful sympathy for the region.

The Winter People, Jennifer McMahon—A suspenseful thriller and a modern day ghost story. The genre isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but the book was a page turner, and if you enjoy this type of book I think you’d love this one.

Getting Better, Charles Kenny—I know everything is horrible right now, especially in the developed world. But that’s exactly why a book like this is important. For one thing, it gives you some hope. For another, while so many on the right are trying to tear down the current order, and many of the far left (my political home) are too disillusioned and disappointed to vigorously fight for it, this book reminds us of the tremendous successes of post- WWII liberalism. I’d like to give a copy to everyone.

Nightfall and Other Stories, Isaac Asimov—Asimov is amazingly prolific, and as I mentioned about another collection (old sci-fi paperbacks are usually $.25 on half-price day at the library book sale, so I have several) he wrote so much that his short stories can be hit or miss. But “Nightfall”, the title story of this collection, is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.  Reading the whole book was worth it just for that.

The Best American Essays, 2003, Ed. Anne Fadiman—I love the “Best American” series, and I adore essays and long form articles, so I loved this book. My favorites were Katha Pollit’s very honest “Learning to Drive”, and “Home Alone”, which surprisingly had me cheering on a defense of Martha Stewart and her fans.

The Quiet American, Graham Greene—God, this book is amazing. I kind of want to read it again right now. Why Greene isn’t more held up as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, I don’t know. An amazing spy novel against the backdrop of Viet Nam, before Americans were even in the thick of it. It’s less than 200 pages and has more to say about colonialism, neoliberalism, revolution, and human nature than almost any other book I’ve read.

Disarming Beauty, Julian CarronDisappointing. This collection of essays circled back and occasionally repeated itself, but never built on itself. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.

The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar and the Geography of Desire, Richard Adams Carey—An incredibly engaging read. Carey does a wonderful job of talking about the history and future of caviar, going into detail regarding high end importers, the agents enforcing endangered animal treaties, environmental regulators, organized crime, and the politics of biologists. A great example of the genre of digging down into a rarely examined piece of life.

The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher—Rod Dreher thinks that Christians need to remove themselves from current society to the extent possible to defend the faith because traditional Christianity is under threat from people wanting cakes at their gay weddings and gender theory in schools. It’s basically just like communist Eastern Europe, an analogy he actually uses. But let’s leave that aside for now. The bigger issue is, how does one write an entire book about having lay people exercise a Benedict Option and never once mention lay Benedictine Oblates! I mean, that just seems obvious.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2009 ed. Elizabeth Kolbert­—The Science and Nature writing series is my favorite, and this was no exception. It’s a bit depressing—Kolbert is the author of The Sixth Extinction, and her knowledge of and interest in ongoing environmental catastrophe shows. But there’s plenty of other topics to round it out. Try reading Atul Gawande’s “The Itch” without scratching for weeks. I’m itchy again just thinking about it.

A Long Way Down¸ Nick Hornby—Four people contemplating suicide on New Year’s Eve meet each other and form connections instead. Entertaining, if you like Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) you’ll like this one, too.

Arkwright, Allen Steele—You know all those books by Clarke and Asimov and Heinlein that start out with humans on a planet we colonized long, long ago? This is the prequel. It should be a must read for any sci-fi fan.

Murder at the Dacha, Alexei Bayer—A murder mystery in Soviet era Moscow. Well paced, well written, and a good mystery novel that also paints a picture of life at this time and place.

Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett—The first in Pratcett’s Witch series in Discworld, it follows a girl who was accidentally made a wizard when women clearly can’t be wizards. I still don’t understand how I made it so far in life without reading Pratchett, but I’m doing my best to make up for it now.

Well of Lost Plots, Jasper FfordeThird of the Thursday Next series, our protagonist has taken refuge in Book World while she tries to un-eradicate her husband and plot how to take out Yorrick Kaine, a would-be dictator who’s escaped from fiction to the real world. And if none of that made sense, just start with The Eyre Affair and keep reading.

St. Francis and the Foolishness of God, Marie Dennis, Fr. Joseph Nangle, OFM, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, & Stuart Taylor—My only problem with this book is that it was clearly written to be studied at a prayer or small faith group, with discussion questions and everything, and it wasn’t presented that way up front. There’s limited utility if you’re reading it on your own.

The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian GreeneGreene traces the history of the scientific quest to determine reality and its beginnings from Galileo and Newton and on through modern string theory. It’s fascinating. Also, the difference between discussions at physics conferences and weed intensive college dorms is apparently just how many math equations are used.

Something Rotten, Jasper Fforde—Having left the safety of Book World, Thursday Next is now back in real-world England trying to take down Yorrick Kaine by ensuring Swindon wins the biggest croquet match of the year, deal with a mopey Hamlet, and find reliable child care.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco­—Umberto Eco is amazing. I still think Baudolino is my favorite, and a far too underrated book, but I will always have great love for this one. My fourth (?) time reading it, and I always discover something new.

And that’s it! I suppose not a bad showing on my part, but I could certainly do more writing. My main goal for the coming year.

Happy New Years, all, and Happy Reading.


*Okay, technically this one is Australian, but it’s on our PBS station that shows entirely BBC shows, so I think it counts as British Crime Drama.

^My youngest is 19 months, so I figure another 16 years or so until I have spare time.

Well of Lost Plots

well of lost plotsWell of Lost Plots, Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde’s Well of Lost Plots is the third installment of his Thursday Next series, and it starts off more or less immediately where the former book, Lost in a Good Book ends. Thursday Next is a Jurisfiction Agent in a Great Britain similar to the one in our world, but with some notable differences.  Genetic engineering is quite common, and Thursday has a pet dodo she made with a home genetics kit. The series takes place in the 1980s, but the Crimean war is still raging. Wales is independent. Zombies, werewolves and vampires are all real, but more of a nuisance than anything else. Time travel is possible, but highly regulated by the Chronoguard. There are severe cheese shortages and cheese import laws. And the most relevant to the series, people take books seriously. Very seriously. Like, there is a special operations division, SO-27, dedicated to tracking down forged books and protecting literature. Oh, also, literary characters live in book world and have their own policing agencies to keep the plots as they’re supposed to be and sometimes people from the real world can enter the books and vice versa.

Well of Lost Plots is unique in the series so far in that it takes place entirely in the book world. And from here on out there will be SPOILERS for what has happened in the first two installments, and you have now been warned. At the end of Lost in a Good Book Thursday Next had been apprenticed as a Jurisfiction Agent policing book world rather than books in the real world, her husband, Landon, had been eradicated through time travel by the multinational Goliath Corporation, and she was somehow still pregnant with his child in this time stream. Thursday is less distressed by this part than many of us would be since her own father, a rogue Chronoguard agent, had been eradicated and still pops up in her life regularly. Sadly, Landon’s eradication seems to be somewhat more complete.

While she’s pregnant, and planning how to get her husband back, Thursday decides to take a break in Book World as a Jurisfiction Agent, subbing for a character in a seldom-read book while continuing to track down Page Runners (characters who escape their books), evading Grammasites (parasites who feed on words) and fighting off a plot to make all books far more generic and lifeless through what sounds suspiciously like e-books.

I’m constantly surprised that Jasper Fforde’s books are not far more popular. They’re incredibly witty and clever, the world building is truly impressive, and they are full of allusions and references that can only be understood for the overeducated types who have spent far too much time in our world’s paltry equivalent of Book World. There is absolutely no reason that nerdy hipster types shouldn’t be referring to Jasper Fforde constantly and bragging about how many of his jokes and references they understood. Each book is basically a novel of in jokes for literature and history nerds.

Well of Lost Plots is just as clever as the others, and Fforde is a talented enough writer to pull off all of this. It just works, you see. Oddly enough, Lost Plots was somewhat easier to understand than some of the others in the series, I thought, since it only takes place in Book World and one doesn’t need to try to keep track of all of the rules of both worlds. And, a further benefit for those of us who like to be in on the jokes, it sets up the Nursery Crimes series. One doesn’t need to have read one book to get the other, but having read The Big Over Easy definitely made me appreciate some of the bits of Well of Lost Plots more.

Anyone who spends too much time on books, especially classics, who enjoys being the smartest in the room, or who likes Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, or other witty British authors will likely enjoy all of Fforde’s work. He’s one of the more creative and imaginative authors I’ve read, and I’ve got the rest of the series waiting on my to be read shelf for the next year.