Book Break: The Ladies of Grace Adieu

LadiesGraceAdieuMany years ago—based upon a radio interview, I think—I read Susanna Clark’s massive debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. As I recall, the book combines historical fiction and fantasy to tell the tale of two somewhat friendly, rival magicians rediscovering actual, practical magic in 19th-century England. The book calls to mind the Harry Potter series in the sense that this is our world as we know it, but with wizarding world just beneath the surface that breaks through into the open. It recalls Tolkien in the depth and detail of its footnoted backstories.

More than a decade later, I see I did not blog about it, and today I remember little about the plot, other than it involved a young woman tormented by a fairy who drew her, night after night, into his realm to do his bidding. What I recall most was the atmosphere of the book: Clarke’s descriptions of “the man with the thistledown hair” and the world of Faery are terrible and otherworldly—you feel every bit as transported and disoriented as the characters; their thoughts and fears become your own.

I remember thinking highly enough of the book that when I ran across Clarke’s collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, I snapped it up despite the pink flowers on the front. And now, a decade later, I’ve finally read them. Continue reading

Book Break: A Canticle for Leibowitz

LeibowitzBeing without work these past few weeks, I’ve had more time than usual to read. Last weekend, I finished Walter M. Miller’s 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, a book recommended to me by three of the smartest men I know. Set in post-apocalyptic America in the centuries following a nuclear holocaust, it tells the story of the monks of the Albertine Order of Leibowitz, who scratch their livelihood from the rocks and dust of the southwestern deserts and dedicate themselves to their founder’s mission of extracting knowledge from the rubble of the previous civilization and preserving it for the future. Continue reading

Book Break: Old House of Fear

While back home in Michigan over Divine Mercy weekend, I had the pleasure of browsing the Mecosta Book Gallery and coming home with my first Gothic fiction work of local literary hero and celebrated thinker and writer Russell Kirk, an unjacketed, former library edition of Old House of Fear.

Too few people, perhaps, know of Russell Kirk today. Even growing up a few miles from the tall brick house where he dwelt and wrote, and with his four daughters not far from me in age, all I knew growing up was that a eccentric writer supposedly lived in that big house. Such knowledge was wasted on my teenage self; had I known he was one of the foremost conservative political thinkers of the last century and a novelist to boot, I may have postponed Yale for a year and ultimately saved myself the trouble and the expense.

But I didn’t — and now I’m playing catchup.

I would describe Old House of Fear as a Gothic men’s adventure story: equal parts ghostly yarn, murder mystery, and manful romance. Our protagonist is sent by his employer, a Scottish-American industrialist intent on buying his family’s ancestral home on the remote Scottish island of Carnglass. The requisite castle has an ominous name — the House of Fear — though in its ancestral Gaelic it would be spelled fir or fhir and means “man.” What begins as a challenging business transaction with a strange old widow becomes a treacherous tale of intimidation, terrorism, and murder, involving Communists and occultists, as well as more run-of-the-mill ruffians, a beautiful red-headed niece who may also be a witch, and the ever-present shadow of a legend: a grostesque, three-eyed goat-man said to haunt the island from time immemorial.

It is a quick and satisfactory read, if a bit tidier than I expected at the end. I enjoyed it thoroughly and recommend it wholeheartedly…if you can find it! If not, I may be convinced to loan it to you!

Book Break: Manalive

“Madness does not come by breaking out, but by giving in; by settling down in some dirty, little, self-repeating circle of ideas; by being tamed.” 

– G.K. Chesterton

I’ve quit believing in coincidence. When seemingly random events culminate in a meaningful way, providence is my line now. Such was the case when I was searching the Great River Regional Library website for an audiobook to accompany me to and from Michigan over Divine Mercy weekend. I searched for several titles by name, and several topics by keyword, to little avail. Then I stumbled across an audio version of G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive, narrated by athiest-turned-Catholic and Theater of the Word founder and actor Kevin O’Brien.

I didn’t know what the story was about. That it was Chesterton told me it should be good — but as I’ve said before, Chesterton can be too clever by half at times, and I’d never tried his fiction before. I put in a request for this book and for Mark Twain’s biography of St. Joan of Arc, and Manalive arrived first.

I hesitate to say too much. It is the story of an apparent madman or idiot who invades a British boarding house and turns the humdrum lives of the inhabitants upside down. Ultimately, he is accused of insanity, theft, polygamy, and murder  but how can a man as wicked as that make others feel so alive for the first time in years?

On the other hand, why would such a joyful simpleton  a holy fool  carry a revolver among his holiday luggage and playthings? Our protagonist has a mission, which sounds ominous and, indeed, mad: “I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him – only to bring him to life.”

Like Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue, which I reread over Holy Week, the book portrays a man who had dedicated himself to a worldview that the world has little use for and who pursues it at whatever cost. As a result, he makes us think about our own worldview and priorities. Manalive is chock full of great Chesterton quotes and paradoxes and memorable characters made moreso by O’Brien’s theatrical reading, voicing each of the characters as clearly as if he were several people himself.

By way of criticism: The work does wax poetic at times – particularly the introductory chapter – and at all times Chesterton’s presence is felt in the thoughts, wit, and turn of phrase of the characters. I would also be remiss in not pointing out Chesterton’s use of racial and ethnic stereotypes and language, particularly in drawing the character of  Moses Gould. In the context of this story, it was unsettling, but it struck me more as a product of his time than of strong personal animus. As to his actual views of minorities, I need to read more.

By way of endorsement: I listened to it start to finish on the way to Michigan, again on the way home from Michigan, and yet again on the trip back from Florida with Rose and Trev. It has climbed to the upper heights of my list of favorite stories — and if you want a fictitious explanation for why I’m leaving a good job at the church for a nebulous next step involving writing, this is it. I could not have stumbled across a better novel to bolster and encourage me in this time of transition.

That, friends, is providence.

O’Connor, or Three Things to Love About The Violent Bear It Away

Blogger’s Note: Several years ago, I agreed to my friend Jacqui’s challenge to read 15 Classics in 15 Weeks. Though 15 weeks is long past, this, at last, is 15 of 15!

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“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” 
— Matthew 11:12 (Douay-Rheims Bible); epigraph of Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away

I am somewhat embarrassed to say that this was my first venture into Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, and what an introduction. It is a dark, hard, unflinching work, awful and mesmerizing, like a wreck along the highway–and yet strangely hopeful even as it descends. 

The book tells the story of Francis Marion Tarwater, an orphan boy in the mid-20th century deep South, raised with backwoods, biblical faith by his great uncle who believes himself to be a prophet and the boy to be his successor. When the uncle dies (at the very beginning of the story, so not a spoiler), the boy begins a very real spiritual struggle to discover the truth of this calling and the fate of his soul. The book builds a sense of dread even as the reader clings to threads of hopefulness, and erupts in violence both in present tense and in flashbacks–calling to mind a number of interpretations for the title and scripture verse it references.

I hesitate to say much more, for two reasons: first, this is a novel to be experienced, not spoiled or “set up,” and second, I honestly am not entirely sure what to make of it. I decided to wait a day or so before writing Three Things to Love, in order to reflect on the book–and I purposely didn’t read any commentaries. This morning, however, I read a couple of reflections on it by other people, and it appears I am not alone. O’Connor reportedly agonized over it, and readers for years have struggled with its deeper meanings and implications. On the surface, it is about the persistent pull on our hearts of both God and the world, and each person’s struggle to find freedom: will they take up the Lord’s yoke and find that it is light, or cast off the shackles of belief and live this life, for this world? It can be read (and enjoyed, after a fashion) at this level, but I am convinced there is deeper meaning here and will read it again someday.

So with that preamble, Three Things to Love about The Violent Bear It Away:
  • The Descriptions. Unlike several of the other books I read for this challenge (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Melville), this is a short book but still ripe with detail and description. O’Connor uses sparse, poetic language; metaphor; and simile to sculpt with words; the results a real, living people unalterably carved in stone.
  • Unflinching Honesty. O’Connor does not shy away from the darkness in humanity, and shares the thoughts and actions of her characters with relentless, sometimes shocking, honesty. At the same time, she does not succumb to the modern tendency to dwell on violence with pornographic detail–her matter-of-fact simplicity makes the book that much more compelling.
  • Eternal Themes. Faith and reason. Freedom and destiny. The nature of love. The spiritual combat. Here they are again: themes that arise in so much of great literature through the ages appearing again in 1960, set in the south of the United States. 
I feel as though I am sharing very little about this book, so maybe some comparisons would help. It reminds me in ways of two other books I enjoyed: Steinbeck’s East of Eden (one of my all-time favorite novels) and a more recent novel, Tobit’s Dog. If you like, check out those reviews to gauge whether The Violent Bear It Away might work for you.