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Saturday Review of Books: June 25, 2016

“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” ~Jo Godwin

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Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

The Lark and the Laurel by Barbara Willard

The first in Ms. Willard’s series, The Mantlemass Chronicles, this romance novel is beautifully written. I compared it in my mind to another romance novel I read earlier this month (because it was set in Scotland; I don’t usually read romances), and this one by Willard is much more pleasing to the ear and to the imagination. The plot’s advancement depends on coincidence and on several fortuitous events that are almost unbelievable when threaded together to make a story. However, I didn’t care.

I just wanted Cecily and her fine, upstanding country friend, Lewis Mallory, to be able to get together in spite of all of the obstacles put before and between them. The blurb on the back of the book says that Christian Science Monitor called the book “an entrancing tale of cruel fathers, arranged marriages, sensible aunts, and a true love.” Library Journal named it “tender, solemn romance and a well-sustained mystery.” I agree. This book, published in 1970, holds up well as YA or even adult historical fiction, and the writing and the historical background require something of the reader that modern-day historical romances don’t usually—close and careful reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a marriage truly is or isn’t. This book adds something to my rumination on that subject. Set in England in 1485, just as Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond came to the throne, ending the Wars of the Roses between the Lancastrians and the Yorks, the story features several characters, each with his or her own attitude about what marriage is meant to be. Cecily’s father sees marriage as a contract, a way to advance his own interests in terms of power and money. Cecily’s aunt, having lived through a bad marriage to a cruel husband, is interested in maintaining her own independence and in helping Cecily to become strong and independent, too. However, Aunt Elizabeth FitzEdmund is not opposed to Cecily’s marriage—to the right person and at the right time and for love, not to further Cecily’s father’s ambitions. Cecily herself is not sure what she thinks, not having been allowed to think for herself nor to have any philosophies about marriage or anything else.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books in the Mantlemass Chronicles:

The Sprig of Broom (1485)
The Eldest Son (1534)
A cold Wind Blowing (1536)
The Iron Lily (1557)
A Flight of Swans (1588)
Harrow and Harvest (1642)

These books take us through English history from the Battle of Bosworth, to the reign of the Tudor kings, to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, to the Spanish Armada, to another English civil war between Cromwell’s Roundheads and the king’s men, Cavaliers. During all these great events the families in and around the manor house Mantlemass—Mallorys, Medleys, Plashets, and Hollands–pursue their own ends and keep their own secrets. From reading the synopses of these other novels in the series, I can see that marriage and romance and family secrets and loyalty and independence continue to be themes that Ms. Willard explores in her books. I’m going to enjoy exploring with her and her characters.

Saturday Review of Books: June 18, 2016

“In 1946 in the Village our feelings about books . . . went beyond love. It was as if we didn’t know where we ended and books began. We didn’t simply read books; we became them. We took them into ourselves and made them into our histories. While it would be easy to say that we escaped into books, it might be truer to say that books escaped into us. They showed us what was possible.” ~When Kafka Was the Rage by Anatole Broyard

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Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber

I am reading this book because Modern Mrs. Darcy recommended it to someone on her podcast. The premise is interesting: Peter is going to the planet Oasis as a missionary to the people who inhabit the planet. He is sent by a corporation called USIC to take the gospel to the Oasans.

I’m about halfway through the book. Maybe all of the following issues are resolved and explained in the second half, but right now I have some burning questions about our protagonist missionary and his mission. Some things just do not compute.

1. Peter’s mission. How does Peter even know that the Oasans need the gospel? Are they sinful creatures, in rebellion against the Creator? Do they need forgiveness and redemption? Maybe they already know God and walk in perfect fellowship with Him. Maybe not.

2. Which brings me to the second problem, Peter’s ignorance. Our missionary, Peter, is remarkably naive and unquestioning. He knows nothing or almost nothing about the people/creatures he is planning to evangelize. He knows next to nothing about the planet Oasis. He doesn’t even know what the initials OSIC stand for. When he does ask a few tentative questions, he is stonewalled. And still he allows this corporation that he knows nothing about to send him millions of miles away to a planet he knows nothing about to minister to a people he knows nothing about.

3. Problem #3: Peter’s and Bea’s marriage, which is supposed to be the central theme of the novel. They are said and shown to be very close, in a very loving and inter-dependent marriage. Yet, not only does Peter leave Bea to go to a planet far, far, away for an indeterminate length of time, but when he has the opportunity to email her, to answer her plea for details about his mission, to reassure her that he is there and that he still cares for her, Peter can’t manage to write much more than a few sentences at a time, every two or three weeks. This ostensibly strong marriage falls apart in short order. Maybe the point is to remind us of our bodies, that we are embodied creatures, very dependent on physical intimacy to maintain emotional and spiritual intimacy?

4. There’s a mystery about the Oasans and their relationship to OSIC and their relationship to Jesus. I get that there’s a mystery. And that part will probably get resolved. But what in the world is going on with OSIC supplying these non-human creatures with pharmaceuticals? They haven’t examined these “Oasans” and don’t even know how they look on the outside, much less their body chemistry and physiology, but they’re giving them antibiotics, analgesics, and other medicines that have been tested on humans but never on Oasans? Wouldn’t that be unethical and highly dangerous—or else maybe ineffective? And no one is questioning the ethics or the efficacy of this “drug drop”?

5. The people who work for OSIC come across as very amateurish and untrained. Oh, they have engineering degrees or mining expertise, but they don’t seem to know much about Oasis or the overall mission of OSIC or anything besides their own narrow job skills. And that mission, whatever it may be, looks as if it’s thrown together by a bunch of amateur NASA wannabes. No astronaut or cross-cultural missions training for Peter, no details or background education for any of the other OSIC workers. The Oasans want drugs? OK, give them whatever we have left over. The Oasans want to hear more about Jesus? OK, hire a missionary. There’s this flower that grows here and is good for food? OK, let’s eat it. It rains a lot on this planet? OK, drink up.

I just finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir before I started this book, and no doubt the previous book colored my reading of another space travel science fiction book, The Book of Strange New Things. Peter the Missionary and his cohorts just are so very amateur and unprepared compared to the protagonist in The Martian. Mark Watney, the astronaut who is stranded alone on Mars, knows how to fix almost anything, and he has been trained to the nth degree. By comparison, Peter the Missionary looks like a child wandering in the dark. Maybe The Book of Strange New Things is meant to make Christians look like credulous fools, except that Peter comes across as really intelligent, but also gullible and unquestioning. I won’t really know until I finish the book.

So, have any of you read either The Martian or The Book of Strange New Things? What did you think? Are you frustrated, as I am, at Peter’s lack of curiosity and his credulous nature? And on the other book, does anyone believe that even a NASA-trained engineer could survive what Mark Watney survives in The Martian? I wouldn’t have have made it five minutes–even if I had all the NASA training that Mark Watney had.

Semicolon Comments on the News

Because I can and because I want to.

1. Fifty people died violently in Orlando, Florida, and I only want to read about those fifty people and their families and the loss and how much they will be missed and mourned. I don’t want to hear about gun control or Islamic extremism or immigration or the shooter or what made him do it or LGBT issues or anything else. I just want to mourn fifty lives lost to the violence and hatred of a sinful, depraved man.

2. Brock Turner should be in jail for a long time. He needs time to learn that what he did to an unconscious young woman is completely, totally unacceptable and wrong. And drunkenness is no excuse. He needs to repent, and true repentance takes time and acceptance of responsibility. Because I am commanded in Scripture to pray for even enemies, I am praying for him and for the lady he assaulted. They are both going to need the Lord’s grace and mercy and healing.
If you haven’t read this letter from Brock Turner’s victim to him and to the court, you should.

3. He-who-shall-not-be-named but whose initials are DT and She-who-thinks-she-must-be-obeyed in spite of her dishonesty and incompetence are still both unacceptable as candidates for dog catcher the highest political office in the United States of America. I still cannot, will not, shall not vote for either one of them. I will pray for them, too.

Thank you, and we will now return you to our regularly scheduled programming of book talk.

Saturday Review of Books: June 11, 2016

“Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.” ~Carlos Ruiz Zafron

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Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

I tried to become absorbed in this rather self-centered and pretentious novel because the cast of characters who inhabit the novel are my age mates. The six friends who make up the group who call themselves “the Interestings” are teenagers in the mid-seventies, college students in the late seventies and early eighties, get married (or at least co-habit) in the eighties, really marry and have children in the nineties, and find themselves midddle-aged and evaluating the consequences of their life decisions in the twenty first century. That’s me, except for the co-habitation part, and except for the fact that these are artsy people. Or artsy wannabes. And rich, mostly. And New Yorkers, insufferably proud and parochial New Yorkers. If it weren’t for all those differences, I could have been any one of the characters in this novel.

So, other than age, I don’t really have much in common with Jules and Ethan and Ash and Goodman and Jonah and Cathy. Honestly, I’m glad not to have much affinity with these characters because they are not very likable people, except for Ethan who is a teddy bear. Jules, the main viewpoint character, is the outsider who meets the other teens at Spirit-in-the-Woods summer camp for “talented” teens and becomes a part of their oh-so-interesting in-group. But Jules always feels a little outside and a little envious because she’s from suburbia and middle class and not really all that interesting. Ash and Goodman, brother and sister, are rich, not terribly talented or interesting on their own, but backed by lots of money and influence, they can appear to be both. Cathy is a dancer with the wrong kind of body for professional success in dancing. Jonah is a musician, but emotionally damaged, the son of a sixties folk music star. And Ethan is an artist and animator, the real talent in the the group.

In 468 pages, Ms. Wolitzer tells the story of these six people, their friendships, their professional lives, their coupling and uncoupling, their families, and their sexual misadventures. The book could have been about 200 pages shorter and lot better had Ms. Wolitzer left out the long and tedious descriptions of the various characters’ sexual encounters, both within and outside marriage. I get it. Sex is really important to these people. Jules rejects Ethan because she’s not sexually attracted to him, even though he is her best friend. She buys sex toys on a shopping trip with her best girlfriend, Ash. She fantasizes sex with Goodman. She has lots of sex with her live-in boyfriend, then husband, Dennis.

Jonah Bay is gay, so we must have lots of descriptions of homosex, including answers to the questions we all have about how to have sex when one partner is HIV-positive. Then, there’s attempted rape, sex with a clinically depressed person (not much there), sex in marriage, sex in the college dorm, sex while high, unfulfilled sexual attraction, sex with vibrator, no sex, maybe sex, wild sex. Every few pages the author throws in a sex scene, some of which attempt to be titillating but only succeed at being boring. I skimmed a lot.

And, although I read the whole thing, skimming aside, I would say that’s an apt description for the entire book: it tries but fails to be interesting. The characters try but fail to grow to be interesting. Jules tries to be wry and sardonic but only manages to be jealous and lazy, trapped in some ideal past when she “came alive” at camp. Jonah tries to overcome his past as an abused kid, but he never connects with anyone much. Ethan tries to be a good rich and powerful man, but he has to have a major failure, so the author sticks one in, even though it doesn’t seem to be in character. Ash tries to be a feminist and an artist but turns into a a rich housewife like her mom. Goodman doesn’t try ever, and he reaps what he sows. Cathy sort of drops out of the story after providing a convenient plot device. I kept hoping for character development, but all I got was more sex scenes and detailed physical descriptions of how ugly or pretty each character was at any given point in his or her life. These descriptions (and the sex scenes) may have been supposed to stand in for character development.

I don’t know to whom to recommend this book. If you are self-absorbed enough to identify with these characters, then you are self-absorbed and won’t find them to be very interesting. Maybe New Yorkers who are not self centered and pretentious could see by reading The Interestings why the rest of us tend to think that they are. Books like this one don’t help to dispel the stereotype.

Remembrance by Theresa Breslin

I read Remembrance for my journey to Scotland last month because it was the only book by Theresa Breslin, Carnegie medal winning Scottish author, that my library system had. And it was set during World War I, a favorite time period. There were definitely echoes of Downton Abbey in the book.

Seventeen year old John Malcolm Dundas, son of a Scottish shopkeeper, can’t wait to enlist and fight the Huns. His sister Maggie is eager to do her part, too, or at least to do something more exciting than working her father’s store, and she goes to work in a munitions factory. Little brother Alex Dundas is only fourteen, but he longs to get into the fighting before the war ends. Then, there’s the other family in the book, the Armstrong-Barneses, consisting of mother, son Francis, and daughter Charlotte. Charlotte trains to become a nurse so that she can contribute to the war effort, even though her mother does not approve of girls in her “station of life” (the upper class) working in hospitals, particularly not her teenaged daughter. Francis, old enough to be a soldier, tries to avoid the war, reads lots of newspapers, and draws. He’s the sensitive, artistic type, and he’s opposed to the war and the way it’s being fought.

The book follows the histories of these five teens as World War I impacts them, fills their lives, and changes them and their families and their village. It would be a good fictional introduction to World War I for high school age readers and for adults. The details of life in the trenches and in the hospitals are harrowing and gritty, but I would much prefer this book as an accompaniment to the study of World War I over the one that’s often assigned, All Quiet on the Western Front. I found the plot of All Quiet on the Western Front very nearly as confusing as the battles of the war itself must have been. Remembrance with its more straightforward plot leaves out none of the horror of the war, but it tells the story of World War I in a much more approachable and understandable manner.

Talking to Strange Men by Ruth Rendell

Talking to Strange Men is a strange book, illuminating the strange but insightful mind of acclaimed mystery writer Ruth Rendell. If ever Thoreau’s famous observation were embedded in a novel, this story of a lonely garden center sales clerk who pursues his runaway wife while becoming caught up in a game of espionage is that novel.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” ~Henry David Thoreau

The cast of characters, teens and adults, in Talking to Strange Men are not wise. The plot is convoluted, but believable. The setting is very British, and my only complaint, besides the depressing, almost despairing tone of the novel, was that some of the details and language and slang that are peculiar to the British setting were somewhat obscure to me, a lowly American.

There is some talk of sexual matters in the novel; it’s definitely an adult novel despite the many teenaged characters. But the sex talk is much more discreet than would be the case with a novel written and published nowadays. (I just read The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, and I thought the book could have been a couple of hundred pages shorter and much better without all the detailed sexual information that added very little if anything to the story.) Talking to Strange Men is a 1987, cold war sort of novel, and its age shows in the details of the spying and the crime investigation that go on throughout the story. Not that the age of the novel makes it any less satisfying as a psychological page turner, but it is definitely set back in the days before cell phones, computers, and the world wide web became ubiquitous.

Read Talking to Strange Men if you’re a fan of psychological and British quirkiness, like Tana French, maybe, or P.D. James.

Saturday Review of Books: June 4, 2016

“As for literature––to introduce children to literature is to install them in a very rich and glorious kingdom, to bring a continual holiday to their doors, to lay before them a feast exquisitely served. But they must learn to know literature by being familiar with it from the very first. A child’s intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find.” ~Charlotte Mason

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I apologize for the absence of the Saturday Review for the past two Saturdays in a row. I do plan to post the Saturday Review each and every Saturday this summer and into the foreseeable future; however, it’s been a crazy month of May, and my head has been little crazy, too. I hope the madness is reducing itself to a manageable level, and I can enjoy sharing the Saturday Review with you and your book review links.

Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.