Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Little Book Talk

Catching up on the last few week's reading (or listening):
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: I  tried it before but either wasn’t in the right mood or was expecting something different. Hannah read it, loved it, shoved it on my nightstand, and nagged me about it (with that hopeful, wistful, little puppy look that a mom can’t say no to…) so I gave in. I found the writing was charmingly understated and amusing. It is about magic, English practitioners of magic, books about magic, and set in England during the Napoleonic war. Principally, the conceit of the story is that there was an English form of magic but it has been lost. The only true practitioner who has been found is Mr. Norrell who learned everything from his precious books. Eventually we also meet Jonathan Strange who is surprised to find that he has a natural aptitude for magic. Eventually the two men meet and have an interesting relationship that is partly friendship and partly competitive.

    After about 200 pages in, I was struggling as the author did much meandering from the plot at a length that doesn't move the story along, although it did add atmosphere. The author based her writing upon the style at the time the story is set ... Dickens, Jane Austen, etc. ... which helps account for the meandering and footnotes, many of which are hilarious or tell interesting stories. I finally switched to the audio book and enjoyed it immensely more than in simple reading. I think I do better with meandering books when on audio for some reason. It certainly helped with Charles Dickens when I was reading A Tale of Two Cities. At any rate, the narration was simply excellent and I believe that helped me a great deal as I practically became addicted to it.

    At the end the book suddenly picked up the pace with one thing happening after another. It ended in an unexpected way with some story lines being firmly concluded while others were left to drift off. Usually this would bother me but, in a sense, it was very true to real life, which makes me reflect upon the fact that the way the story was told was very like having someone tell it to you in person. They take little byways of explanation that may not have too much to do with the story and then come back to the point. In listening to the book this made for a delightful and somehow restful story. This was wonderfully narrated and that doubtless helped quite a bit. Recommended but only for those who do not object to long, meandering stories with a lot of footnotes. (Four out of five stars.)
  • Quo Vadis:  Read for our Catholic women's bookclub, this is a historical fiction based around a young, headstrong Roman soldier who suddenly falls for a fetching young Christian girl. He then pursues her while she is alternately attracted by him and then repelled by his less attractive characteristics ... and there are many to be repelled by, believe me. It is set against the backdrop of Nero who is constantly hoping to be further inspired by a poetic muse (even to the point of considering burning down a city ... yes, we're going all the way on this one). This is a book that deserves to be rediscovered in the strong comparison of characters (Petronius versus Vinicius versus Nero, etc.) and beautifully written prose. Or would that be "beautifully translated prose?" Probably both. Anyway, there is clear foreshadowing of Rome being burned from the moment we meet Nero so it is not a spoiler to comment that I had never given any thought to the complete chaos that would ensue from attempting to flee a burning city ... this vivid portrayal has held me enthralled. I  greatly enjoyed the depiction of ancient Roman life under Nero and the unfolding story of passionate love which gradually takes on a spiritual dimension also. This book is very inspirational in its look at Christianity and also at free will, especially in the martyrdoms toward the very end. I found Petronius' character wonderful to the end, though will say little more here as I don't want to give away any spoilers. I, myself, was guessing up until the end at who would live and who would die.
  • Inner Compass:  A review book from Loyola Press that I received some time ago. I've been interested in Ignatian Spirituality for a while and this has a more general take so far than some books I've read. Silf has a way with imagery and of helping one mentally "enter" the situations she presents. All this helps to get a clear view of where we stand, where God is (yes, everywhere), and how we can better connect. Although the imagery can be helpful, eventually I hit a spot in the book which made me wonder about the author's ability to truly pass it on well. At one point she retells God and Satan's conversation from the beginning of the book of Job, which is what begins Job's suffering. However, her portray of God is so very ... human ... God hasn't thought of something that Satan mentions to him, He wonders and doubts, etc. Really? God doubts? This makes Silf the world's absolute worst reteller of that story. Read it for yourself and see that there are no such motives for God as she ascribes. Since she is essentially retelling us Ignatian spirituality from St. Ignatius's work, it makes me wonder if she is doing a similarly careless job filtering it for us. Therefore, it makes her entire work suspect in my eyes, until I am able to compare it to St. Ignatius's writings. Which, obviously, is where I would  turn if I was interested in further pursuing this course. Not sure if I am, actually, as I read this because it was a review book ... 
  • Miss Marple-The Complete Short Stories: I read all these in different editions, many when they first came out long ago. They prove just as entertaining now as they did then, and in many cases I don't remember the stories well, which is a bonus. There is no one for sniffing out wickedness in basic human behavior like a spinster lady who has lived in a little village, as gentle Miss Marple continually must remind those around her.
  • The Moving Finger: I haven't read an Agatha Christie in years, having read them all repeatedly through my youth and young adulthood. I suddenly was taken with the urge to revisit the Miss Marple mysteries and this is the first full-length novel that came to me from the library. This is told from the point of view of a brother and sister who have moved to a small country town and find that there is a anonymous letter writer plaguing everyone with salacious innuendos. This eventually results in sudden death and murder. I was surprised to see that I didn't remember the murderer, or at least I thought I didn't. Turns out I actually did, but Christie moved me away from that choice with such finesse and sleight-of-hand that I was really unsure until the end and changed my mind several times during the course of the book. It was interesting to reread after such a long absence from her style and see how well she painted character and place with very few strokes, saving most of her effort for the mystery. Most enjoyable and highly recommended.
  • The Body in the Library: my second foray into revisiting Agatha Christie's Miss Marple mystery novels. When Col. and Dolly Bantry find the body of a young woman in their library one morning, Mrs. Bantry fetches Miss Marple to solve the murder. I had absolutely no recollection of this mystery. Once again, even when looking for the simplest, most logical solution (as Miss Marple would do), Agatha Christie hornswoggled me and I was fooled. Simply brilliant storytelling using a minimum of description but yet leaving the reader with clear mental images of the people and locations (or at least inferring so much tone that the reader is free to do it for themselves).


  1. I tried Jonathan Strange a couple years ago, made it 600 pages and felt the same frustration of which you speak--gave it up. But maybe I should go back and pick up the last few chapters to read that unexpected ending.

    You are the third person in the last 12 hours of my life to mention Quo Vadis. Apparently, I need to read this.

  2. My goodness ... somewhere there is a copy of Quo Vadis with your name on it! :-)