Category Archives: fiction

The interesting interconnections you notice

I’ve been doing this reading old books challenge for a year and 8 months now. As part of the challenge, I read some Sherlock Holmes mysteries for the first time. I’m in the middle of a second volume of the complete Sherlock (actually it is volume 1 but I read volume 2 first), so have got a pretty clear picture of Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson and their world. It is fairly shocking to see Mr. Holmes clearly shown to be a user of intravenous drugs without censure. I kind of knew this, but still. Plus, the 19th-century versions of crack houses are rather vividly portrayed.

All this reading about Sherlock Holmes has made me a bit more attuned to mentions of him in other places. I picked up The Magician’s Nephew for a little night-time relaxation, and Ka-Zam! Mr. Sherlock Holmes shows up, right there on page 1. Really. This is how C.S. Lewis begins TMN:

This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child. It is a very important story because it shows how all the comings and goings between our own world and the land of Narnia first began.

In those days Mr Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road.

I stopped reading. I looked again: “In those days Mr Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street.” Suddenly the world of Polly and Digory got a little dingier, a little more full of frightening possibilities, and the idea of Queen Jadis at large in London with Mr. Sherlock Holmes around was rather interesting. I saw the setting of this one book (which I’ve read more times than I remember) differently because I’d read all these other books.

Connections and literary references. The more you read, the more interesting re-reading becomes.

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Current and Recent Reading

It has been a bit of a slow reading year so far. Not that I haven’t been reading (68 completed books to date), not that I haven’t been reading widely (both fiction and non-fiction, the old books percentage is up-to-date), but nothing has really stood out so far. Sometimes that happens, then BAM, a book hits you over the head. Still looking for the BAM book.

Enjoyable current reads:

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. I started this one a while ago and never got past the first page. Not sure why. This time I’m enjoying it very much. There is this lovely little bit on books and reading near the beginning. The main character is in hospital recovering from a serious fall and is contemplating with some disgust the pile of books kind friends have sent in.

Even in that, you knew what to expect on the next page. Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then? Was everyone nowadays thrilled to a formula? Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that their public expected it. The public talked about ‘a new Silas Weekley’ or ‘a new Lavinia Fitch’ exactly as they talked about ‘a new brick’ or ‘a new hairbrush’. They never said ‘a new book by’ whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like.

Excellent. The book itself is about Richard III, monarch who has recently been in the news because he was dug up out of a car park. This book is a great novel to give beginning history students, or anyone who thinks all history they’ve heard in school is true. This is one of my older books, so there is no discussion of kings in car parks at all.

Longbourn by Jo Baker. Below-stairs at the Bennet’s house during the events related in Pride and Prejudice. So far this is a well-imagined mirror world. I’m quite enjoying it.

Recent Reads:

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs. A very enjoyable essay on reading and its benefits. Jacobs does not rail against the internet and all distractions, but talks about them as one who has been distracted, but managed to find his way back from distraction. With an e-reader. True story.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. I had high expectations of this book as many people said this was THE Murakami book as far as they were concerned. I’m not quite sure. I think I liked 1Q84 better. It is the fourth Murakami I’ve read, and it isn’t the last, but so far it isn’t my favourite. Possibly I was reading it at the wrong time.

What have you been reading?

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Lists!

I found a couple of new lists of books on the web this week. In case you need reading suggestions for July, here they are:

  • The Top 20 Novels Set in Toronto. Local Literature! How exciting. I’ve read five from this list, including the Fionavar Trilogy, which is actually three books. In this case “top” means popular, which explains the breadth of the list. It includes fantasy (the Fionavar Trilogy), graphic novels (Scott Pilgrim), and books by CanLit icons (Atwood, Ondaatje). (5/20 = 25% of this list I’ve read)
  • 100 Greatest American Novels. 100 years, 100 novels, “American” novels, though some of the USAians listed work abroad (ex. Plath, Hemingway), and buddy who wrote the list includes William Gibson (born in the USA works in Canada) but not Carol Shields (same pedigree) which I find a tiny bit odd. His criteria are clear, and he invites revisions to the list with the rule being to add something you must eliminate something else. I’ve read 8/100 or 8% of this list. I tend to prefer British or Canadian writers I think, which may skew these results.
  • Time 100 Best Novels since 1923 (the beginning of TIME, haha.) I’ve read 19% of this list. Lev Grossman was involved in making the list, so he included Possession, a critical inclusion in my books.
  • Modern Library 100 best novels list includes two lists on one page, how handy. One list is the Modern Library Board’s list, the other is a Reader’s list. I’ve read 12% of the Board’s list and 26% of the Reader’s list. The Reader’s list is oddly skewed toward science fiction, which may indicate that somewhere someone was stuffing the ballot box in some way, or that only scifi fans found a way to participate in making the list.

So there you go, handy dandy reading lists for this July weekend.

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A Dozen Books of Influence

Karen Swallow Prior recently wrote an article called “Classic literary works to challenge the thinking Christian” in which she lists 12 + 1 (a baker’s dozen) works she recommends because they are challenging but rewarding, and all have helped her “to love the Lord my God with all my soul, all my strength, and all my mind—and to be a better steward of this world in which God has placed us.”

It is a good list. I’ve nothing against Prior’s list. So far I’ve read 2 of her 13, and have at least three others on my shelf. I agree that the list is challenging. I started one of the books she lists, and was not able to go on after about a page. I’ve not had the courage to try again, though everyone raves about Beloved. (Does this count as a true confession? Probably.) Though Prior’s list is good, it isn’t my list. So I’ve come up with a list of my own, not to replace hers, and not with exactly the same criteria. I made a list of books, works of fiction, that have in some way shaped my spiritual life and thinking. Often a particular author has been a spiritual guide in many works, but I have only chosen one work by any author.

Disclaimer: These are all works of fiction, and I don’t think any of them is classified as “Christian Fiction” anywhere. Some come closer to actually being that than others. Just because a novel is on Prior’s list, or on my list, you shouldn’t think it is “safe” or happy-clappy or filled with people going to church. These books gave me some kind of positive spiritual insight, but they are not in the least preachy.

  1. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve set this as an option for an intro to the OT class I taught. I have enjoyed students’ thoughts on this as well, and learned from them.
  2. John Wyndham, The Chrysalids. I’ve also set this for that OT intro class. This has some striking ideas about what it means to be created Imago Dei.
  3. P.D. James, The Children of Men. You may notice a speculative/science fiction bent to this list so far. Yes, that is true. Sometimes by writing about worlds askew somehow from reality, writers are better able to comment on lived reality.
  4. Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion. And a fantasy novel?? Yes. See above remark. Also see the works of C.S. Lewis, who I have not included on this list anywhere.
  5. Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana. More fantasy. Don’t worry, I’ll turn to more “serious” fiction next. If, however, you think that the speculative/science fiction and/or fantasy is less serious than other kinds of fiction, I refer you again to that guy Lewis.
  6. John Grisham, The Last Juror. Yes, this could be classified as genre fiction of a certain kind (Thriller? Mystery?). Grisham is, however, a good story-teller, and his stories can pack a punch. You don’t need to go to the classics for the possibility of life-change.
  7. Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection. At last! A canonical writer! Bet you’ve never heard of this Tolstoy though. You should check it out. It is his last novel.
  8. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. More solid recognized fiction, even recognized as Christian. I read Resurrection and The Power and the Glory this year. The timing was good for me on both of them. If you don’t find them appealing now, try again some other time.
  9. Susan Howatch, Mystical Paths. Again, Howatch’s Church of England series is pretty churchy, but not in a conventional way. I picked this one out of all of them because it was the one that resonated with me most when I read it.
  10. Chaim Potok, In the Beginning. All of Potok’s books belong on this list, as with Howatch above. Let’s just leave it there. With Potok we end the obviously religious books.
  11. Emma Donoghue, Room. This is a life-altering book. I’ve heard lots of people say so. I don’t think anyone who says that has exactly the same experience reading the book. You should try it.
  12. A.S. Byatt, Possession. I debated putting this book on this list. It could also be on a list of books that have influenced my personal life, or resonated with me personally/emotionally/intellectually. It does all those things, but it also has spiritual resonance.

And now the plus one for the baker’s dozen. Ready for it?

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I’ll just leave it there for you to ponder.

What about you? Books that have influenced your spiritual life in some way?

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Nine (fiction) books on my to be read pile

True Confessions: I went to a bookshop today. Is anyone surprised? I was. I wasn’t really planning on it, but it turns out the new Book City Bloor West is open. I am so happy there are books in the ‘hood again, I went in and bought books. The three books I bought have been added to my growing To Be Read Pile. Here are 9 randomly grabbed books from my fiction to be read pile. The first three I bought today, the others I acquired as noted.

  1. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Why have I not noticed this book before? Possibly people have pointed it out to me but I couldn’t see it for various reasons.
  2. Divergent by Veronica Roth. Now A Major Motion Picture! But I’ve also been intrigued by what I’ve heard about this YA dystopia. My friend the Library Page is a fan.
  3. Longbourn by Jo Baker. My Orthodox Colleague is muttering about the pollution of the shades of Pemberley again, but I can’t help it. It is Austen FanFic.
  4. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood. I got this for Christmas but Whim has not taken me to this book quite yet. I’ll get there soon. Almost there. (I’ve just finished reading The Pleasures of Reading in An Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs, who talks about reading Serendipty and Whim. These things, he argues, are vital to the well-rounded reading life.)
  5. Millenium by John Varley. A Time Travel Thriller! according to the cover. I recently re-read a Varley book (Red Thunder) and enjoyed it so much I went Varley-hunting in several used bookshops. I scored a bunch. This is one of them.
  6. The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe. Lent to me by 1Mom a while ago, but Whim has not yet encouraged me to open the cover.
  7. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. The ambitious choice. I picked this mass market seventies edition up at one of my local used bookshops. The owner and I had a little chat about whether it was actually a readable book or not. We both agreed that the mass market format made it less formidable looking.
  8. Domino by Ross King. I’ve read King before and enjoyed his historical fiction. I found this used somewhere, so I picked it up.
  9. Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom. I really like Sansom’s murder mysteries set in the reign of Henry VIII. This is not so much set in the reign of Henry VIII, but I thought I’d give Sansom’s other work a try as well.

What is on your to be read pile?

 

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Eight Books that Blew Me Away

I list these eight in addition to the six-that-stick other-worldly books I wrote about the other day. These are in no particular order, but are clustered as indicated by the subtitles.

Books other people recommended to me that I was pretty skeptical about:

  1. Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The Norwegian gave this book to me. I was pretty skeptical. How interesting can a book about a tiger and a boy in a boat be? If this is what you think, think again. It is really good. Try it and see.
  2. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Again, this is the Norwegian’s fault. I should just stop being skeptical of books she gives me and read them. This book won the Booker Prize in 1997. I don’t think the Booker is infallible (there are a couple of Booker-winners that I thought were duds) but I’ve usually enjoyed the winners. This one kept me glued to the pages, plus the writing is beautiful.
  3. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. 1Mom recommended this one to me. I was slightly skeptical because of the title. But I thought I’d give it a try. I usually like the books 1Mom recommends, though we don’t always see eye-to-eye on every book. (Her theory is that this is timing. Sometimes a book comes to you at the right time. I think there’s more to it than that, but agree that timing is important.) This book blew me away for a variety of reasons, not least that it is a window on worlds I didn’t know existed.

Books other people recommended to me, no skepticism to overcome:

  1. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. One of my math students recommended this to me. “You are religious, right? And you like computers? You would like this book.” Who can resist this recommendation?
  2. Room by Emma Donoghue. This was the first book 1Mom lent me. I read it pretty much in one sitting. It blew me away. Look for the resurrection in it.

Books I read because of the author, but were better than I expected:

  1. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. Link this to Cutting for Stone because of the twins if you must, but this is something else entirely. Surreal. Haunting. Mind-blowing. All of these things. Fair warning: it is not The Time-Traveler’s Wife in any way, they just happen to share an author.
  2. Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams. I expected a nice little scifi adventure and got my mind blown. Kaboom! You should read it even if you don’t like science fiction. It is philosophical. Yes, yes it is. Mind-blowingly philosophical.
  3. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Potok’s book stick in my head in general, but this one sticks out more than the others. I’m not sure exactly why that is. Some of it is the art discussion I think.

So there are my 8 books that blew my mind. Which books blow your mind?

Follow-up from the number 7:

Many of you have read my previous post about books I’m not interested in reading — in fact the post has turned out to be the most popular post I’ve published in some time, with over two hundred hits in the last couple of days. I’ve enjoyed the feedback, both in comments on the blog and on fb. I’m not actually sure that I’m open to reconsidering some of the books on that list (as the Constant Reader astutely pointed out on fb), but I’m thinking about some of them in a different way now that you have spoken. Keep speaking! Who knows what will happen.

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Seven Books I Am Not Interested In Reading

I’m not interested in these books, even though they are all on lists of the 100 books you should really read in your lifetime. Not Interested. These are the books that I’ve gotten close enough to to get a whiff of what they are about and what they are like and decided I was not interested. I’m not even sure I’m open to your arguments about why I should want to read them. But you can try.

  1. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by  Judy Blume
  2. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  3. Ulysses by James Joyce
  4. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  5. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  6. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
  7. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

So tell me, why should I care about any of these?

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Six Other-Worldly Books

Today I’m going to talk about other-worldly books, six that stuck in my head. This group of books is not clearly Science Fiction, or clearly Speculative Fiction. One is a Fantasy more than anything else. I’ve put them together because they are all set somewhere Other. Plus they all stick in my head. Books that make you think, that you remember for a long time, these are the ones that are good, not your every-day run-of-the-mill stuff. I won’t argue that these books are great, but I will say they are all worth reading. These are in no particular order.

  1. Children of Men by P.D. James. This is not a mystery novel, it is speculative fiction. I’ve just finished listening to the audio book version for a different spin on it. I want to assign this book for a children’s ministry course in seminary. This evening, I began comparing it in my head with The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. James and Atwood are onto some similar themes I think, but they work them out quite differently. Things that make you go hmmm.
  2. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. So good. Kay’s best in my humble opinion. The Constant Reader thinks so too. This is the Fantasy book. Kay writes Historical Fantasy, in which his fantastic worlds bear some resemblance to some aspect of world history. This one is sort of Italian.
  3. A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright. A twist on time travel, with apocalyptic overtones. It references The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, which I’ve not yet read. I should get on that. One thing I remember about Wright’s book is that Harry becomes king and we never find out what happened to William. (This was written before George was born.) Henry IX is a very remote and background figure in the book, but it was an interesting future what-if detail, part of a well-imagined world.
  4. The Moon is A Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. Moon colonies and sentient machines, plus a lot of political manoeuvring, what else could you want in a SciFi book? I liked this one on audio quite a lot because the guy who read it performed the voices so well. (To be fair, others found the voices irritating.) The sentient computer is a key character in the book, which is part of what makes the whole thing interesting to me. Plus Heinlein managed to imagine a moon colony with its own evolving cultural mores.
  5. Red Thunder by John Varley. Part of the reason this one sticks in my head is the the giant engineering hack that is the centre of the plot. Home-built spaceship anyone? Oh yeah. Plus there’s a fake crocodile in a pool, and the space coast setting in Florida, what more could you want?
  6. Beggers in Spain by Nancy Kress. I read this one first a long time ago. It was recommended to me by a fellow physics teacher. This is speculative fiction that imagines what happens when people are genetically modified so they don’t need sleep. The Sleepless have 8 more hours every day than the rest of us. Think on that.

Any Other Worlds that stick in your head?

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Sunday Excursions

This is not an excursus, but an excursion, a small trip around a few old books I read during my two months of silence. It does not follow the numerical sequence which I picked up with my Four Reasons post of yesterday, and which I’ll continue tomorrow, in the tradition of other Sunday posts this year so far.

Time Travel: Of course one of my reasons for reading older books is time travel. I travel to a different age, whether or not the author sets the book in his or her present, it is the past now. At times the author sets the book in some imagined future, but that is still time travel of a sort. I read one book set in the author’s future during my little blog break: Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. C.S. Lewis though very highly of this book when it first came out. I think it was mentioned in one of his letters. Lewis’s mention of Childhood’s End was the reason I picked the book up in the first place. It is certainly an interesting take on the visitation by UFOs/aliens story. If you haven’t read it and enjoy SciFi, I’d recommend it. It is vaguely Buddhist just as Orson Scott Card’s books tend to be rather Mormon.

Russia: I’ve now read two Russian Novels, both by Tolstoy. I should probably branch out and try some other Russian Author as well. Dostoevsky might be next. I did not revisit War and Peace, rather I read Resurrection. I began this book during Holy Week, and found it appropriate reading for the season. It is very good, and, I think, pretty accessible for Tolstoy. It is his last novel, first published in 1899. It gave me a different view of pre-revolutionary Russia.

England: Four books took me to England, two to the early 19th century, and two to the first half of the 20th century. Northanger Abbey, the Jane Austen I hadn’t read before, is quite amusing. Austen sends up gothic novels very well. Great Expectations is the first Dickens novel I’ve read. I have read A Christmas Carol, but it is better called a novella I think, and I know the stories of A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist, but have never read the books. I quite enjoyed Great Expectations considering that I had low expectations as I thought that possibly Dickens has been over-hyped. I’m not as convinced of the over-hyped opinion as I once was. I’ve more Dickens on the shelf for this year, so we’ll see what comes of those. Both of these books are set in the early part of the 19th century. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is set in the second World War, but recollections of the narrator give his story through the 20s and 30s as well. This has an interesting theological twist or two in it, and I’d like to hear what YOU think of the ending. Finally, His Last Bow by Arthur Conan Doyle brings Sherlock Holmes into the 20th century in a collection of short stories that are not entirely sequential, but include a story set during the first World War.

New England: Finally, I listened to Little Women by Louisa May Alcott on audio book. I still think that this is a rather moralistic/moralizing book that is not very theologically sound. It was interesting hearing it read, as I couldn’t skip bits as I tend to do when re-reading. I heard a lot more foreshadowing of who the boy next door would end up with than I’d noticed when reading the book.

Those are some of the places I’ve gone while reading, how about you?

 

 

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Third time’s the charm?

I’ve just finished The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. I was about to give up on Greene. I’ve heard lots of good things, but, while his books I read last year in my Reading Older Books project were ok and had memorable moments, I didn’t find them “wow” kind of reading. I had one Greene more to read already in my TBR pile that I’d heard lots of people talk about, but given the description of the story along with my previous experiences, I did not have high hopes.

Instead of disappointing, The Power and the Glory blew me away. It is really good. But, I will qualify that by saying not everyone will like the book. I don’t think I would have liked the book this much had I read it 10 years ago. Sometimes books come along and there’s a synergy with a moment in time in your life. I feel like that might be the case for me and TPatG.

Or maybe having experienced Greene two previous times, I was able to read him better the third time. What’s your favourite Greene book? Maybe I should look for that one next.

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