Susan Howatch, The Wonder Worker. Astute readers may remember that over the summer I read the Starbridge series, a collection of novels focusing on the Church of England from the thirties to the sixties. Later on, Howatch wrote three more in the series, featuring a different setting but lots of the same characters. These are the St. Benet's Trilogy, about a London-based ministry of healing. The thing I love about Howatch is her characters. They all feel so real, and coming back to her world after a few months away was like paying a call on old friends. Unlike the Starbridge books, this book has a different narrator for each part: Alice Fletcher, Lewis Hall, Rosalind Darrow, and Nicholas Darrow. The changing perspectives worked very well to build a full picture of events. I was able to see—for example—from Lewis' perspective that Rosalind was utterly ghastly and all wrong for Nicholas, and then I was able to see from Rosalind's perspective how agonizing it must be to be Nick's wife, and how having Lewis around wasn't helping even a little. Nuance! None of these people are terrible, although they can be terrible to one another. They all need lots of help. And divine grace.
Alejandro Zambra, Multiple Choice. Experimental Chilean novel (short stories? poetry? game?) written in the form of a multiple-choice test. It took me a while to get into the spirit of things, but it got better as it went and ultimately I think it's a successful project.
Ryan North & Erica Henderson, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now. And just like that there's three whole ongoing comics series I care about. (Saga and Ms. Marvel, obviously.) Doreen Green is a sophomore computer-science major with all the powers of squirrel! She fights crime! Where was this comic book when I was twelve! It's a warm-hearted all-ages comic, it's really funny, and Henderson's art is delightful.
David Prudhomme, Cruising Through the Louvre. Immersive and magical. A man wanders around the Louvre, feeling as though he's in an enormous comic book. Minimal dialogue and narration, lots of wonderful sketches of museum patrons. My favorite bits are the parallels between the patrons and the art, especially on the Raft of the Medusa page. Looking at people looking at art is one of my favorite parts of the museum experience, and Prudhomme captures that so beautifully.
Howatch, The High Flyer. I don't know what it is with Susan Howatch. Her early books were so subtle and psychologically nuanced. This book is not really either of those things. (Well, maybe the second. Definitely not the first.) Carter Graham is a high-powered City lawyer; her husband Kim has, depending on how you count, no fewer than three dark secrets. One of them involves Nazis; one of them involves gnosticism. The number and general over-the-topness of Kim's revelations rapidly leads to diminishing returns, such that the entire plotline becomes less shocking than funny. There's a lot to like here—Carter herself is well-drawn, and the St. Benet's crew are as lovely as ever—but overall it's a weak entry in the series.
Howatch, The Heartbreaker. A step up from The High Flyer, though still not up to her earlier standard. I think my major issue with these three is that they focus almost entirely on the laity, which means they lack all the church politics from the earlier volumes. It turns out I really was largely in it for the clerical infighting and archidiaconal scorn.
ed. Jack Lindsay, Loving Mad Tom. A collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Bedlamite songs. Folklore nerds, for the use of. (No, you regularly Google MA programs in folkloristics.) This was published in the twenties and reprinted in the seventies and is now out of print, and all I can say is thank God for college library privileges—it looks as though my other option would have been to buy it for $223 from Amazon. Which, like, if that sounds like a good deal to you then by all means go for it, though I'm not sure how wholeheartedly I can recommend that. In terms of the texts themselves it's an invaluable resource, but I wish the notes were less cumbersome to navigate. It's a good and important volume but not as user-friendly as it could be. (Also, shout-out to the foreword, by Robert Graves, which contains the following line on "Tom o' Bedlam": "All that need by said is that the author was someone pretty good." Same, bro.)
North & Henderson, Squirrel Power & Squirrel, You Know It's True. See above.
Pat Barker, Regeneration. A historical novel about Siegfried Sassoon's time in psychiatric care. I was going to say "long on incident, short on plot," but in fact it's short on both those things. It's a beautiful novel and I admire it, but the fact is that nothing happens and I had trouble telling the characters apart.
Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning. A new sci-fi novel that's going to get nominated for all this year's awards, and if there's any justice in the world it's going to win the Tiptree. (Seriously, it'll upend your perceptions of gender if you give it half a chance.) It's a bit, a little bit, like if Susanna Clarke wrote sci-fi instead of fantasy, complete with the shock of wait, what, this is her first novel, WHAT. Like JS&MN, this is one of those books that takes a while to ease into because all the while it's teaching you how to read it. It's set in the twenty-fifth century but written in an eighteenth-century style. The world is intricate and multifaceted, and it gets into your head. The thing people will want to do with this book is argue about whether it's utopian or dystopian, and the argument will be as boring and wrongheaded as it always is. The world is a bit good and a bit bad, which is why it's convincing. I wouldn't want to live in Palmer's world, but I want some of the things that it has and I can see why other people would want to live there. It's also theological sci-fi, though the theology is very strange and I won't be able to comment on it properly until I've read the rest of the series.
Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. This is such a weird play. It's got that sort of Grimm Brothers atmosphere of casual slapstick surrealism—which makes sense, of course, as the plot comes out of German folklore. "Let's be invisible and steal the Pope's dinner and then punch him!" and "that magician just ate a whole cartload of hay for literally no reason?" and "oh, I tried to wake this guy up and now his entire leg came off in my hand, this is fine," that sort of thing. Besides all that, Faustus' idea of earthly delights appears to be a) pranks b) arguing (he argues about existence of hell with a demon he just summoned out of hell; Faustus is too dumb to live—same with all that "think'st thou then that Faustus must be damned?" malarkey: you just now signed your soul over to Lucifer, my dude! Do you, like, not know what words mean, is that the problem?) and c) kissing Helen of Troy that one time. (He's always promising to make human sacrifices, which would be interestingly perverse and make a change from all the astronomy, but he never really seems to get around to it.) He does get a chariot drawn by dragons, but the dragons are offstage, probably on grounds of "Kit, we showed your draft to the props master and he started crying?" Mistake me not: this play is incredible. There are parts of it I would give a year of my life to have written, and I want to have sex with Kit Marlowe's brain. But, yeah, it's also kind of ridiculous. Feelings! They're complicated!
Dorothy Sayers, The Devil to Pay. Another play of the Faust legend, and it was not well served by being paired so directly with Marlowe. I grant that saying "Dorothy Sayers was not as good as Marlowe" does rather amount to praising her with faint damns. There's some really wonderful moments here—Faustus' soul being so degraded that even Mephistopheles isn't interested in it anymore is a neat touch, and I love the handling of Azrael—but on the whole this is very thin. I think that skill at writing everyday people, which served her so well in her life of Christ plays, is her undoing here; she tries to make Faustus believable and ends by making him ordinary. Ordinariness is of course the last thing I want from the Faustus myth, and the effect shows in the fact that though this play is occasionally clever, it is never terrifying. There are also rather too many things that go underexplained, and the gender roles are not at all what I'd expect from Sayers.
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