Book Break: The Jungle

A few weeks ago, I attended a day-long training to become a home visitor for our local conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The most compelling part of the training was the section on what poverty looks like, from the perspective of the person living through it. This segment of the training was led by a man who was born and raised in some of the roughest areas of Chicago and Minneapolis, who was hired by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as a teen and loved and accompanied for years, through numerous trials and triumphs. Today he is a college-educated husband and father, a successful manager and talented speaker on the state and national level, and a Vincentian for life.

The training was thought-provoking and convicting; it, along with learning more about my own ancestors’ struggles with poverty before I was born, led me to want to dig deeper—which in turn led me to another unread book on my shelf: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

Sinclair was an influential muckraking journalist, author, activist, and political candidate at the turn of the 20th century. The Jungle is his fictional but detailed and realistic account of power, corruption, and poverty during this time, particularly in the stockyard district of Chicago. The book follows one immigrant family from Lithuania, who moves to America on the promise of plentiful work for good wages, and finds a corrupt system of capitalists and politicians of every stripe, at every level, keeping prices high and wages low, controlling everything from housing and food supplies in the neighboring slums to law enforcement, inspections, and elections—and driving workers to desperate measures to avoid death by illness, exposure, or starvation.

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Extended Book Break: The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis

I was blessed, on my trip to Michigan and back in the past few weeks, to listen to The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis in its entirety. The version available on Audible, narrated by Geoffrey Howard, is approximately 24 hours of continuous listening, and worth every minute. The three books of The Space Trilogy were certainly inspired by classic science fiction of the last century, but combine these influences with fantasy, mythology, horror and Christian theology.

  • The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, is the most sci-fi of the three, delving into interplanetary space flight and exploration, extraterrestrial life-forms and more. A British linguist named Ransom is shanghaied onto a spaceship bound for a nearby planet known by its native inhabitants as Malacandra. He escapes his captors to discover multiple rational animals with very different appearances, skills and abilities, and cultures, who nevertheless live together in good-humored and mutually beneficial peace. Slowly Ransom abandons his earthly notions of power, control, and desire and strives to help the natives against the other Earthlings who seek to exploit them.
  • The second book, Perelandra, is a science-fantasy tale also involving interplanetary travel and extraterrestrial life to frame a retelling of the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Ransom agrees to travel to the planet Perelandra on an urgent mission, but with no idea what that mission is. He encounters a lone humanoid woman who lives in harmony with the world and creatures around her and is searching for her man. An old adversary arrives from Earth to tempt the woman into disobeying the higher powers she knows on Perelandra, and Ransom must again fight against his fellow man as well as demonic activity to save a pristine world from importing Earth’s sin.
  • The final book, That Hideous Strength, is as long as the first two books combined and takes place entirely on Earth, specifically, in England. It continues Ransom’s tale in a story combining dystopian fiction, Arthurian legend and horror to critique materialism, modernism, politics, education and contemporary ideas of gender and marriage. It follows a young sociologist striving to get ahead in his career by joining a new and increasingly powerful national scientific insitute, while his wife, who is struggling with bad dreams that appear to predict the future, falls in with a small band of local resistance led by an eccentric old linguist who is rumored to be contact with powerful extraterrestrials who are pure spirit and are preparing for a final battle over the fate of the Earth.
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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!