Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Philosopher-Concierge. A Horse-Training Magician. A Classically-Educated Gentleman.

“ ‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.’ No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement.”                (Miss Bingley in Pride and Prejudice)

I didn’t read much this winter and spring, which is probably one of the reasons why I wrote less. Locating good fiction, especially modern fiction, is hard for me. I get impatient if a book fails to make good use of English grammar and vocabulary (yes, I read books just because they have lovely sentence structure), if it displays its plot devices too transparently, if its protagonist is clichéd, if it assaults my values too annoyingly, if it conveys the impression that life is meaningless, if it’s too heavily flavored with Romanticism, if it’s too heavily flavored with modernism, if it’s…actually, yes, I’m picky. I complain about books a lot. If one really disappoints me, I have a bad habit of following my husband around the house for the next couple of days and informing him of all the book’s deficiencies. At great length. It’s a good thing that he is a patient man.  

Too picky? "I am no longer surprised at your knowing
only six accomplished women, Mr. Darcy.
In fact, I rather wonder at your knowing any." 

However, this summer has included some interesting books, most of which I would never have picked up if it wasn’t for the recommendation of friends. Three of them shall be discussed.


The Elegance of the Hedgehog 
(L'Élégance du hérisson) by Muriel Barbery
English Publication: 2008
A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it. Edward P. Morgan

How can life, so full of untruths and ugly dissatisfaction, contain meaning? How can a thinking individual reconcile her existence with the meaningless of most people’s lives? This novel alternates between the journal entries of a concierge who hides her intellectual mind behind the trappings of her lowly profession, and the writing of a precocious young girl who is disgusted by the emptiness of her wealthy family’s lifestyle. Both characters are vividly compelling and jarringly human; and their commentary on their fellow creatures is often amusingly astute. This stark examination of life threatens to lead them to despair. In the end, however, both reach an appreciation of beauty as a way to touch the eternal, unchangeable, and real. In its delicate examination of human minds and the search for eternal truth, this book is beautiful. Even though I didn’t actually like it until I was halfway through, I am very grateful that I persisted. The conclusion is not adequate from a Christian perspective, but it contains truth— Christians, too, are seeking that which is true, good, and beautiful. The realization in this book that beauty exists seems so, so close to a realization of God’s existence. We can learn from another person’s exploration of such a theme themes while being grateful for the faith that gives us true hope for eternity.

Territory by Emma Bull
Published 2007

Ms. Bull takes several famous Western outlaws (Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, etc.), adds a rough and ready Western town, and draws upon the tropes of the classic Western. Yet she achieves something unique.  The characters in her novel are vibrant and compelling and the story is far from predictable. This is partly because of her addition of magic to the Old West, but mostly because she writes well.

Any author who addresses fictional use of magic is faced with the choice between a skills-based magic (which can become boringly mechanical or require too much time for the protagonist to learn) or an intuitive, “feel the force” type (which can appear too easy to master, and actually prevent suspense because it has no apparent limits as long as the protagonist really, really concentrates). Ms. Bull handles this successfully by using intuitive magic but limiting its use within the story and thereby keeping it mysterious. Not only does the mystery of the magic enhance its believability, it also keeps the focus on character development.

Although the Western atmosphere is well-drawn, the book displays a few of the prejudices that tend to afflict modern books. It is apparently a current standard of historical fiction that because nineteenth-century women were sexually oppressed, the prostitutes must have been happy and open-minded rather than victimized. Another modern note is struck in that religion is absent from Ms. Bull’s thriving Western town. No churches or preachers are present among either the influential or the downtrodden citizens. No one discusses prayer when under stress. This is unrealistic for the time, although it is possible that Ms. Bull chose to eliminate religion rather than try to reconcile religion and magic. The book’s other flaw is the difficulty it presents of remembering the many names of minor characters. However, the plot and protagonists are engaging enough to draw the reader along despite any confusion.

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
Published 1921
(This review also appears on my Goodreads account)

This book is more amusing than it realizes it is. 

The setting (France in the very early days of the French Revolution) is interesting, and the cast of characters (proud and imperious aristocrats, traveling improvisers, fencing masters, revolutionaries and beautiful maidens) is colorful. The protagonist himself is reasonably engaging, although one questions whether he would really be quite so brilliant at every career he attempts (perhaps this brilliance merely illustrates an authorial trust that a classically educated gentleman will be able to succeed in every endeavor he takes up-- and who am I to quibble with that sentiment?). 

However, the book provides no evidence that the author ever outlined or even edited it. Each episodic adventure slides loosely into the next, and sometimes a slight inconsistency is noticeable in how the characters are portrayed from chapter to chapter. Most of the book (at least two thirds) is dialogue, much of it elaborate debate between characters. Some of the structural choices are frustrating. The author occasionally summarizes key scenes or derails his suspense by providing in-text editorial comments ("some years later, they heard that X had reached safety in Austria and was doing Y"). The author also does not hesitate to provide scathing condemnation of the political group whom he blames for the unfortunate course of the revolution (in his mind, the aristocrats brought on the bloodbath by stupidly scheming with Austria to undermine the reforms of the Third Estate). 

The cultural attitudes are sometimes humorously dated, especially when it comes to the influence of a pure young woman on the men around her (she inspires a pure, deep, "almost spiritual" passion that can save them from themselves if they are not already too far gone). 

I rolled my eyes a lot while I read this book. It even has a "Luke, I am your father!" moment.


What else should I read this summer? Any recommendations?


  1. Have you read The Brothers Karamazov? Heat and Dust? Kristin Lavransdatter? Peace Like a River? The last is pretty new, but very well done... Those are a few books that I consider good enough that I would read them again - and I have read Kristin at least twice.

    1. Gretchen, I've read Crime and Punishment (at a really bad time-- it was an awfully depressing choice of novel for when I was already under a lot of stress) but not The Brothers. Kristin Lavransdatter: part of it when I was young. I should try it as an adult, and look for the others. Thanks!

  2. I cannot find you on Goodreads. Can you supply a link to it? ~Susan

    1. Susan, you can try this one:

  3. You may enjoy some Robin McKinley if you haven't read her already. Spindle's End is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty (an incredible retelling, if you ask me), and both Beauty and Rose Daughter are retellings of Beauty and the Beast. I heartily enjoyed both.
    Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus is amazing. I don't know that I agree with or appreciate everything in it, but I think it's an important book to be aware of. And there is a lot of it that is lyrically beautiful.
    If you haven't read Charles de Lint yet, you ought to give him a try. His first book of short stories is Dreams Underfoot. Sometimes the stories are sweet, sometimes they're weird, sometimes they're dark. But he brings mythology to the modern world in unexpected ways and I can't get enough.
    Ursula K. LeGuin is an awesome scifi writer--I don't know if that's really your preferred genre, but The Lathe of Heaven is a great story (easier to get into than some of her others) and she's quite a respected voice in the field.
    Please post what you end up selecting so we can read along with you!

  4. Thanks! I'll have to look into these. I really liked McKinley's Beauty, although the ending was a bit weak (don't you think?). The only Ursual LeGuin book that I've read recently is Lavinia, and it's one of my all-time favorites. The other authors are unfamiliar to me.

    Hmm, that would be fun to read some stuff together! I'll have to wait to post anything about it until I see how long my library holds take to arrive. :-)


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