Monday, May 26, 2014

Summertime, and the reading is series

I can't help it, I like a good series. I think I hinted at this, at least, in my Anne of Green Gables post; I have that sort of gotta catch em all compulsion when it comes to book series. (See also the Dragonriders of Pern books.) (Oh, Pern.) Here in adulthood (?) however, I have learned that it's okay to just move on and not finish the series if I feel like it. One advantage of this is that you don't get caught in an obsessive-compulsive reading cycle (always a plus); another that I've discovered recently is that it's really nice to come back to a series when you've been away. So here are three series I've picked back up in the last week or so.*

So, first up: the SPQR series by John Maddox Roberts. I read a couple of these on Kindle a few years ago and enjoyed them, and recently I saw fellow classics nerd and all-around cool person Meg was reading them, so off I went to the library. After a rather frustrating hunt through the forest of Nora Roberts books (I like to get my books off the shelves myself like an honest woman, but this experience convinced me of the superiority of placing holds), I grabbed volume 6 here, the library not owning 3-5.

These are such fun books. They manage to balance the conventions of detective stories with a historical setting that doesn't have detectives or modern policing in a way that's fun and effective and not at all tedious. There are some blatantly exposition-y passages but I didn't mind them; it's all directly related to the plot and it's ancient Rome so maybe I'm just more willing to give it a pass in general. The main character (and narrator) makes me laugh, he's such a perfect grouchy, cynical Roman.

More historical mystery: the Max Liebermann series was the first thing I wrote about on this blog! I see in that post I wrote:
I liked them, and would have kept going for probably another couple of books if this were 2014 and there were another couple of books in the series.
I remember when I got to the end of the available books that the stories were starting to feel same-y, and I'm pleased to report that taking a couple of years off helps address that problem. Death and the Maiden has a high-level-government-conspiracy thing going on as well as a cameo by Mahler (admittedly easier to achieve when you're writing a novel) and the SVU-level psychoanalysis I noted in that first post. I didn't really follow the conspiracy plot very well, and I'm not sure that the book was all that successful on the whole, but I did like being back with the characters, so this series and I can part amicably until the next time I stumble across a new volume.

And finally, which it's only THE GREATEST SERIES OF ALL TIME. You and Dr. Huang can draw your own conclusions from the fact that I, the compulsive completist, stopped reading these two from the end expressly because I didn't want to be done with them. However, as I had picked up the above series I decided it was time to finally read the last two Aubrey/Maturin books. The Hundred Days was a nice reminder of how much I love these books, even if, in itself, I didn't think was the finest installment of the series. I have to go back to the library for Blue at the Mizzen, but in the meantime I'm re-reading Desolation Island which is one of the ones I own (the first couple chapters with Jack on land just kill me).

I suppose there's also the published chapters of 21, but I don't know how I feel about those. (Basically, they published what Patrick O'Brian had written of the latest book at the time of his death, if you don't know what I'm talking about.) But a few chapters, without an actual book, and without any sort of revisions, isn't all that appealing to me. I don't get much out of fragments. But then I'm sure my completist impulse will compel me to check them out anyway.

Proud to share reading tastes with Ron Swanson

I hope you're all feeling the joy of warmer weather; I've been reading outside quite a bit this long weekend, it's madness.

* Each of these books I read in about a day. I'm telling you, I'm having this crazy-awesome reading moment.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Love and cynicism in a cautiously optimistic place

I have sprinted through two books in the last five days, and it feels good.

The Exiles Return is a book I first became aware of through Persephone but appears to have been published last year by Picador ("appears" = this library copy was published by Picador with a copyright date of 2013) (I am like Sherlock Holmes with the deduction). The Persephone description is really (too?) detailed, but what it shares with the Picador edition is its emphasis on the historical place of the book, the circumstances in which it was written and the historical situation it depicts.

This isn't all that surprising. Exiles is a posthumously published novel about 1950s Vienna, written by a woman with personal and family experience of that city at that time. Early in the book, a character returning to Vienna for the first time after the war arrives by train and is shocked by what he sees:
Formerly, there had been a long and high, cavernous, glazed-in hall into which the trains used to glide; it was old-fashioned, dingy, and yet somehow sumptuously dignified like the well-worn attire of a high-born elderly spinster who has clothed herself once and for all in her best and scorned to change her style. But now there was just -- nothing: an open space where the bombed wreckage of the old station had been cleared away; stacks of building material, steel girders and concrete mixers for the new modern station under construction. Adler experienced a violent sense of shock. It was his first actual contact with the fact to which he had hitherto not given much thought: that not everything would look the same -- or be the same -- as it had looked and been when he left it. I shall have to learn the lesson of the Western Station, he though, and this phrase, repeated silently many times in the coming months, summed up and symbolised for him the situations and experiences he would be having to deal with in the course of his attempt at repatriation.
 Given that it's Vienna, the baggage here isn't just the Second World War, but also Nazism and the Anschluss, as well as the end of Austria-Hungary. The descriptions and blurbs are right: the book does capture a uniquely complex time and place well. There are some passages and incidents -- like the one above -- that really bring the setting alive. Interestingly, I felt that the overtly "historical" aspect of the book slid to the background as it went on (although it never really goes away, of course; it's the setting and creates some of the conditions for the denouement). Again, I don't really like this kind of strawman hypothetical, but I think this is the difference between someone writing a novel about a situation they lived through rather than sitting down to write a historical novel about an Important Time: the latter sort of book would probably keep historically-significant set pieces at the center.

All that being said... and I am not confident of this judgment so let me know what you think if you've read this book... I'm not sure this is all that great a novel. I mean it's fine, I liked it. But the plotlines in the second half were a little meh for me, and I'm not sure Marie-Theres in particular ever really made all that much sense to me as a character. Maybe there's a reason why all the summaries of this book stress the historical side. Or maybe I just read it too fast. (Eee, that's a possibility this time! *flexes muscles*)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

It's beautiful outside! Let's talk about CALAMITY

The first thing to say about this book (Sean McMeekin's July 1914 -- I have this feeling that half the posts I write don't actually identify what I'm talking about) is that it came from Powell's Books, and they are awesome. When I went to see (online) how much this newly published hardcover book might cost, I noticed that Powell's had a used copy listed at a respectable discount. Sweet! So I ordered it. What arrived, however, was a brand NEW book with an adorable note saying that the used copy was no longer on the shelf and so they'd sent me a new one. That is thoroughly awesome.

shiny and eager!

So, on to the content of the book. In my world, the fact that this year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War is a really big unmissable deal, and this book, July 1914, is one of many that have been published for the occasion.

McMeekin's account of the July Crisis that led to the declaration(s) of war has several distinct features. For one, it is almost entirely focused on the highest reaches of government and diplomacy. There are a few mentions of public outcry, public reaction, etc, but mostly it keeps to the point: the men who had the power to actually make or influence the decisions about war and peace. Toward the end of the story, there are mentions of "rumors" and "reports" of border crossings and skirmishes which McMeekin dismisses as "mostly false" without much explanation of what's going on here; but you can't fault the guy for sticking to his own can of historical worms and not opening another. (I'll return to this below.)

Most of the book consists of day-by-day chapters, with a few covering overnight periods. Helpfully, there is a "dramatis personae" in the front of the book as well as a summary timeline. The really delightful thing is that McMeekin is meticulous -- like, meticulous -- with his sources. Time and again his analysis slows down to take into account the time a message was decided on, composed, approved, encrypted, sent, arrived, decoded, (possibly translated,) delivered to, and read by various people. I am totally serious when I say that this is THRILLING. Not just because I am a document nerd, but also because it allows the book to retain suspense even when you know all along that everything's going to end in disaster. McMeekin is not telling a story of dominoes falling but of a constantly shifting landscape in which people are choosing from the options they see on the table, based on the options they wish they saw or hope will be made available to them shortly.

One of the themes of the book is thus communications. McMeekin is constantly pointing out where people are making decisions based on bad, outdated or ambiguous information. (This is where I think it could have been proper to discuss the "rumors" that start to factor into decision- and excuse-making at the start of August. But as I say, that's a whole 'nother kind of research, and McMeekin is quite within his rights to leave it alone!) Individual diplomats and politicians tell lies, make unintentionally misleading statements, deliberately leave their answers vague, send cables at the worst possible times and choose exactly the wrong words. I kept thinking about the speed of modern communications as I read this book, and wondering whether we might consider that to be a factor in the crisis.

McMeekin's book prior to this one is titled The Russian Origins of the First World War which might give you a sense of some of his conclusions here. He firmly refutes the idea that the Germans had some special predilection for war, for instance, and argues convincingly that France and Russia were just as guilty of underhanded war mongering as Austria or Germany. In fact, in McMeekin's view, Germany is often disadvantaged by being too honest and rule-abiding, where her enemies are lying and sneaking around and thus saving face. The epilogue contains a straightforward discussion of blame -- which is nice; by that point I was ready to hear how the author would make his judgements.

Perhaps what comes across most of all is human frailty. These men all have their own weaknesses and interests, not all tied to the national interest (however that might be construed). Fear and anxiety, not least over reputation and one's own political future, all play a role in what gets said, when, and in what tone. I don't have an in-depth knowledge of this subject (the July Crisis or the First World War) so I can only judge the book so far; but I thought it was very worthwhile and informative. Above all, this note of human frailty, so effectively conveyed by a focus on the nitty-gritty and practical aspects of diplomatic communications, is an important counterpoint to easy generalizations about national interest and national character. Fathers Day (also Mothers Day -- #FEMINISM) is coming up, and if a War Book is something that qualifies as a good gift in your household, this is a solid choice. It's a bit complex -- there are a lot of names, and sometimes German diplomats have French-sounding surnames and so on -- but I really was surprised how it sucked me in in spite of that, and it ended up being a compelling read. So maybe not the best choice for my dad, who spends a lot of time in airports waiting for flights (to be cancelled) (poor dad), but for a dad who does lots of reading in an armchair. But YDMV.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

In which my childhood is not ruined

Anne of Green Gables, y'all. Like so many other girls my age, I was obsessed with Anne of Green Gables when I was 10ish. I read all the book in the series multiple times; I don't think I ever owned them but I knew right where to find them in the library. My Victorian dollhouse Playmobil figures were always Anne and Gilbert and family, acting out incredibly dramatic scenes.

I didn't have this puppy, so I would use masking tape to make a house floorplan on my bedroom floor.

When I got to the end of the series, I would start over; at one point I remember feeling vaguely like maybe I should read something else, but ANNE was all I wanted to read, so ONE MORE TIME. That's just the kind of groove I get into now with 30 Rock on Netflix so, as they say in Quebec, plus ├ža change.

For all that, I discovered in conversation with some friends this winter that I had mostly forgotten what the books were about. I mean, I recognized various incidents ("oh yeaaaah...") but I couldn't have summarized anything to save my life. So when I saw this very attractive Oxford Children's Classics edition:

the book magpie strikes again
I thought I should re-read it. Not without some trepidation! You may remember that my re-reading of Nancy Drew was rather disappointing. And in general, what are the odds that a book for little girls published in 1908 wouldn't be embarrassing in 2014?

Actually, as it turns out, the book holds up pretty well! A lot of that has to do with one of Anne's key characteristics: that she is a whiz kid at school. There's no conflict about this in the book; I hate hypotheticals like this, but if it were a historical novel being written today, would the author have refrained from making "Anne is made to feel unfeminine for being smart" a major plot point? As I was reading, I both recognized that this is why I identified so intensely with Anne and also that this book, with its glorification of studying to win top marks, really shaped the way I approached my schoolwork as a kid.

And, not unrelatedly, Gilbert is still such. a. dish.*

Let's review, shall we? Gilbert Blythe (SIGH sigh sigh) is a boy who teases Anne about the color of her hair and she not only schools him good at the moment, she swears eternal hatred. Anne and Gilbert battle it out to be the top student in school on every assignment, exam, etc. Gilbert is clearly attracted to this girl who is so able and willing to fight back. Anne is mostly contemptuous, but by the end of the book they agree to be friends.

Amen amen, my fellow Ameriwomen, you can put away your tired "ooo, Disney princes gave me unrealistic expectations" meme, because that right there is kryptonite. Oh, you mean the most handsome boy in school will only love me more if I whoop him on spelling tests? I CAN DO THAT. And definitely, an antagonistic relationship like that will resolve in mutual respect and eventual love. Oh yes; Gilbert Blythe (SIGH sigh sigh) remains my one and only fictional crush.

* I've never seen the Canadian TV movie (series?), mind you. It seemed relevant to mention that at this particular moment.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Something Different: Something Other Than God

A few points to note before we get started today, class:
  1. This is a review of a Catholic book written for a Catholic audience. Act accordingly.
  2. This post contains links to where you can buy the book, but they are not affiliate links.
  3. This post is being entered in a random drawing for a prize being offered by the author of the book to mark its launch and encourage people to read and write about it. However, the post is not sponsored or anything like that, and the opinions here are 100% my own, blah blah blah.
Now, on with the post... 

It occurred to me this afternoon that the Church gives us saints in response to our desire for celebrities. A celebrity is someone we want to think we know; they represent something — sex, or genius, or a particular system of belief — and we watch them like hawks. We think we know them, and we think we know their story, ignoring the fact that they are human beings like we are, in the middle of an uncertain life with unknown twists and turns ahead. When our celebrities fall or stray from their designated narrative we criticize them, we question or abandon our beliefs and affiliations, we recontextualize and rationalize and talk and talk and talk. We want so much to see particular values played out in someone else’s life, to have someone to point to (not always positively; we want someone to represent wrongness as much as to be our role model). The saints are an answer to this. Their lives have been lived, with all their messiness, but they have lived out particular virtues and heroisms, and we know that they have run the good race. In short, the Church tells us that if we want someone to model for us what virtue and devotion look like, we should look to these saints who are now eternally with God. (True to Philippians 4:8, the Church apparently isn't particularly concerned with providing bad examples.)

I was thinking about this because the book I’m reviewing here, Jennifer Fulwiler’s Something Other Than God (click for links to buy, a free excerpt, a video featuring a man in a banana suit, &c), is an example of a genre I really don’t ever read: the conversion story.

This is the gif Fulwiler made to celebrate the book launch. She is my people.
Fulwiler grew up as an atheist (in Texas, no less), without any real knowledge of religious culture or lore, and her objections were more to religion itself, as a guiding principle in someone’s life, than to any particular doctrine. This is more the culture that I recognize in my own surroundings, and part of the reason why I like reading Fulwiler’s blog. Her explanations and ponderings speak to the kinds of pushback I feel around me, and the currents I feel invited to fall into (that’s a terrible metaphor but whatever). The other reason her blog is so great is because Fulwiler is a funny, lively writer, who’s able to tell a hilarious story in all its absurd glory. She’s been working on this book for years (always a good sign), and when it was finally available to preorder I jumped on it. I also set up text alerts from Amazon to let me know when it was on its way. One of those texts arrived as I was counting down the minutes to a phone interview; if it had been my mother texting to wish me good luck I might have been annoyed at the near-heart attack it gave me, but since it was this book, I was just that much more excited. Priorities.

I was so psyched when it came I had to document the moment. And the tiles in my building's foyer. FEEL THE EXCITEMENT.

If I had to pick two words to describe the writing I might choose “clear” and “tight”. I was seeing reports on Twitter of people reading it in four or five hours, and I believe it. It’s not a quick read in the sense that there’s nothing to it, but in the sense that it draws you in and doesn’t slow you down. Since I’m a grad student I am contractually obligated to (a) like books, but also (b) make critical remarks, and this is really my only criticism: the book is so lean and focused that it can feel, well, too lean and focused. All the description of Fulwiler’s pre-conversion life is centered on her spiritual crises and the questions she had trouble answering within an atheist worldview. I would have liked a little more — I hate phrases like “word painting” or “pen portrait” but fine. I would have liked a little fuller pen portrait of atheist Jennifer Fulwiler, rather than getting it later on as a contrast to whatever was currently happening in the narrative. That being said, this tight focus gives the book a humble quality: it's not here to offer too much interpretation beyond the demands of the narrative. So, in my usual academic way: it's a plus and a minus.

The focus of the book is on the conversion process itself which is wrapped up in several dramatic changes that took place in her and her husband’s lives at the same time. This story is really interesting and relatable, even though it deals with fairly unusual circumstances, and in spite of the (realistic) complexity of all this, it's easy to follow. If you want to know the details, you should buy the book (also available as an ebook).

Which brings me around to the thoughts I opened this post with (eh? eh? I’m a writer). Conversion stories are like memoirs, being autobiographical narratives published while the writer is still alive. (That sentence is mocking me, pointing out that there is a ton of theory on exactly this topic that I have not read, but I am pushing through.) A conversion story could potentially play into a desire to latch onto celebrities, pulling us away from the real spiritual growth that could come from studying the lives of the saints into the roller coaster drama of constantly evaluating someone else’s life and opinions. As I was reflecting on the book, I thought about how difficult it would be to publish a narrative of your life like this. It would be strange to read a book written by a friend, offering her decided-on version of the part of her life which included you, particularly if you were part of the “before” picture. So what’s the point? Given that we don’t want to be idolizing our contemporaries, what’s the point of reading a story like this?

My answer to that question is that a book like this offers a unique kind of faith-sharing, where we can see what thoughts were going through someone else's mind and what challenges they faced, all in the context of a larger trajectory. Each of us is in the midst of our own story, striving to make little before-and-afters out of our faults and failings. Each of us is called to conversion throughout our lives: am I embracing that, or am I just trying to get comfortable? A story like this can also make us reflect on how we are helping others on their own way. Am I the camp counselor who pressures people in my care to conform? Am I the parishioner who celebrates the presence of a seeker?

This isn't a book that has all the answers, and of course it shouldn't be; Fulwiler, still alive (and long may she be) is not a saint, and she wisely isn't setting herself up as a celebrity either.* What it is, is a fascinating story about how — to quote the subtitle — the author "passionately sought happiness and accidentally found it." Something Other Than God is more than just a blog book; for one thing it gives a much more complete version of Fulwiler's story than I ever picked up reading her blog. More importantly, it's also a thoughtful account of how "conversion" means changing your life along with your mind. I enjoyed it just as much as I thought I would, and I can't wait to read/hear other people's thoughts about it.

* I am emphatically not telling Jennifer Fulwiler "Careful Icarus", just to be clear.**
** Mostly I added that footnote so I could link the Careful Icarus clip. I'm only human.