1 July 2016

june bookblog.


Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb. This was a reread. I read it less than a year ago, but it seems to be ever-new. It's a meditation on cooking and theology. Capon was an Episcopalian priest with strong views on kitchen knives—so, you know. Dream man. There's a bit where he says that cooking with an electric stove is like playing the piano in mittens, a line I agree with fervently and quote frequently. It's full of brilliant little bon mots like that, and what stops it from feeling like nothing more than a book of one-liners is a) the larger unity of the work and b) Capon's gift for turning a phrase, which is such that I'll allow him anything up to half my kingdom.

Susan Howatch, Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes, and Scandalous Risks. These are all part of the Starbridge series, six books about the Church of England in the twentieth century (which is to say, the thirties through the sixties). I rather enjoy thinking of it as Clergymen Make Bad Life Choices: the Series. Most of them are narrated by clergy—Powers is about Jon Darrow, an Anglo-Catholic priest and ex-monk, while Prizes focuses on Neville Aysgarth, Darrow's archdeacon. Even Risks, which is narrated by laywoman Venetia Flaxton, is full of clergymen and their terrible decisions. The first novel, which I read in May, was called Glittering Images and focused on Charles Ashworth, a canon.

I'm fairly certain Howatch must be an Anglo-Catholic, though I have no proof of this but the fact that she makes her Anglo-Catholic characters much more sympathetic than her low church characters. Certainly I had far more patience with Darrow than with the Liberal Protestant Aysgarth, and I don't think it's only because I'm quite high church myself. I had even less time for Venetia, who's a churchgoer but not a communicant. All her life choices are awful, though I must say it's not entirely her fault. (But really—a kindly intellectual German canon who's smitten with you sounds absolutely the top. Why focus your attentions on a married man who could be your father?) I really wanted to like the only female narrator, but there you are; it was a relentlessly bleak novel and I was glad to see the back of it.

(And I think Howatch has a bit of a tendency to fridge her female characters, a tendency which is doubtless brought into focus by reading them all in a row like I did.)

Nevertheless, I enjoy seeing different strains of thought in the Church of England, and I love seeing characters from multiple points of view as the books continue—especially the way characters who look sensible and well-adjusted outwardly are really just as tormented as everyone else, and the way even the most rascally of them—lookin' at you, Aysgarth—really are doing their best to serve God as well as they know how. Despite some misgivings it is with a joyful heart that I add these novels to the Official List of Non-Terrible Post-Milton Fiction About Christianity.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar. After finishing Risks I re-read Julius Caesar in a reader's theatre with my family. We've been taking turns choosing plays to read, and this was my brother's selection. I hadn't read it since, gosh, 2012? and I love it even more than I remembered. Casca is underrated. (My young brother's considered opinion on Caesar: Cassius is young, scrappy, and hungry, and he's not throwing away his shot. I suppose the corollary is that yond Alex has a lean and hungry look? Someone get on this.)

Howatch, Mystical Paths and Absolute Truths. Then I read the last two Starbridge books. I think Paths is probably my favorite of the series, but Truths—although chronologically it's set a few years before Paths—makes an elegant and satisfying ending to the sequence.

Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words. This, Lahiri's latest, was a recommendation from my mother. She's loved Lahiri's previous books, none of which I've read. This one is a memoir of language—the Bengali she learned as a child, the English that became her primary language, and her recent acquisition of Italian. This book was written in Italian, published there as In altre parole, and translated not by Lahiri but by translator Ann Goldstein. It's less a straightforward narrative than a collection of essays, less travelogue than introspection (the Guardian review called it "monkish," inexplicably), and it contains two short stories she wrote in Italian. I think perhaps those stories, "The Exchange" and "Half-Light," are the strongest parts of the book, limpid pieces that are both autobiographical and dreamlike.

It brought back my own experiences learning languages (French, Latin, Koiné), and it reminded me also of reading Dante's Commedia in a bilingual edition and trying to puzzle out the Italian. "Assume Italian if you have it not," the professor said, which did not prove to be the most helpful advice he ever gave us. It's also a book about feeling lost and foreign, experiences I can identify with all too well.

Jennifer Donnelly, Revolution. I've got a long post about this one in the works. Suffice it to say for the moment that I don't recommend it.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. I wanted to read The Buried Giant since it's been getting such good reviews, but it was out. This one was marvelous, though, a lovely chilling little book. I'll definitely be seeking out more of Ishiguro's work. Maybe The Remains of the Day?

Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, & the Outrage of Grace. The mind behind this is obviously the same as the mind behind The Supper of the Lamb, but this book is a much more ambitious book and as such a much more challenging read in every sense. It's the sort of thing that I'm going to have to worry at for a long while before I really feel settled with it—and there are a few points I do actually disagree with—but on the whole I love this book. It starts as a romance novel, turns into a Socratic dialogue, and ends as a theological high-wire act wherein Capon juggles concepts of reconciliation, judgment, hell, and heaven. There's also two sermons (one of them in the style of John Donne) and a short story about the mob. He's not very good at genre, but then genre is a social construct mostly of use to booksellers. Fr. Capon shocks, and does so gleefully, but I never feel that he's out purely for shock value. And stylistically he's a delight.

William Shakespeare, As You Like It. It was my turn to choose a Shakespeare play, and I thought I'd plump for a comedy. My mother and brother quit after two acts contending that it didn't make any sense, but the faithful remnant finished it on our own and loved it—I think it may be my favorite of Will's comedies.

Jaques is my favorite character, perhaps unsurprisingly, but I love Rosalind and Touchstone and Celia and even Orlando. (Theory: Jaques is what Hamlet would have grown up into if he'd lived in a comedy.) It's sweet and funny of course, and the poetry is to die for. Indeed the only thing I can think of to make this play better is that Rosalind's father the Duke should be her mother the Duchess, and all her lords and attendants in the forest should be women as well. Nothing less than a sylvan misandrist utopia in the forest of Arden will satisfy me. Jaques is the only one allowed to be a man, as he can be the token dude who nobody much likes. I wonder why nobody ever hires me as a director?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. I have nothing useful to say about this book, except what everyone already knows, which is that Coates is a great stylist and that this book is incredibly important. It's not a perfect book and it deserves honest and thoughtful criticism—there's nothing more dangerous than a pedestal—but I'm not the person to do that criticism, not only because I'm white but also because I haven't thought, or read, or learned, nearly enough to talk intelligently.

Susan Palwick, The Fate of Mice. I love short stories, but like most (all?) short story fans I've got used to expecting at least one dud in any given collection. The Fate of Mice isn't like that at all. I have favorites—"Sorrel's Heart," "The Old World," the title story—but every story here is just right and I wouldn't change a thing about the lineup. "Gestella" has displaced Suzy McKee Charnas' "Boobs" as my favorite werewolf short story, "Beautiful Stuff" made me care about zombies, and I think "Ever After" might be a definitive take on Cinderella. There's a wide range of genres here—some of the stories, like "Jo's Hair" and arguably "GI Jesus," aren't fantasy or sci-fi, in fact—but most of the stories are sad, all of them are kind, and they're full of a deep and palpable concern for women's lives. The introduction, by one Paul di Filippo, says that Palwick's stories are about the question "How does one live boldly in the face of looming personal extinction?" Spoilers, the answer is caring about each other. I'll definitely seek out Palwick's novels.

Madeleine L'Engle, The Sphinx at Dawn. Reviewed here.


Christopher Moore, Fool. Women in the audience—you know when you’re reading a book by a male writer, and you want to like it, but as you go on you realize that the man who wrote this never imagined a woman reading it? It so often feels personally insulting—you’re trying to enjoy yourself and the book keeps saying, “No. No. No. Not for you.” If on a winter's night a traveler was like that, but I managed to enjoy it anyway because a of all it was published in '79 and second of b Calvino was a genuinely game-changing genius. Fool came out in 2009, and Italo Calvino it ain't. It's a comic novel narrated by Lear's Fool, and all through it kept reminding me of Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters, which is a comic novel based on Macbeth. It will astonish none of you if I tell you Wyrd Sisters is far the superior novel. Pratchett, if you believe it, could write old women without boggling at how disgusting they are, and young women without making them into sex objects. I know! No bloody wonder, is it, that when I first read Pratchett's novels I spent quite a while thinking he was a woman. If I sound bitter it's because I'm bitter.

Also, the footnotes. I usually adore footnotes in fiction, but Moore uses his footnotes to define words like "portcullis," "trencher," and "iamb." A few words I could maybe allow, but these? I'm reading a novel about Lear's Fool; I'm not here to be condescended to, and few of any of the definitions had even a scrap of humor in them. (There is exactly one person who can get away with defining words for me in narration, by the way, and his name rhymes with Jiminy Cricket.) Defining British slang, as Moore does occasionally, is a bit more comprehensible given that the book is aimed at an American reader, but it's still a bit unacceptable in a post-Google age. And, you know, I have limited sympathy for Americans who try to be British or for anybody who tries to be Richard Curtis*. Moore's successfully replicated all the misogynistic and homophobic bits of Blackadder (of which there are more than I generally prefer to admit), but the things that actually made it funny seem to remain by and large beyond his grasp.

There are quite a few good lines in amongst the cheap sophomoric gags. I did laugh out loud more than once! But I soured on this book incredibly quickly and I wonder if it wouldn't have been better off as a short story.


Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters. (Reread.)

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. (Reread.)

Helen Marshall, Gifts for the One Who Comes After.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales.

As of the end of June 2016, I've read 119 books since January. I'll see you next month with another pile!

*Yes, I know there was more than one writer on Blackadder. It was by way of being a synechdoche.

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