Friends and countrymen, I come to you today…to talk about books. Seven of them, to be precise, all of which I have read. Ain’t I as honest and diligent as the day is long?
In these books we learn many things (such as what sorts of head-chopping contests not to get yourself into, also how to accidentally outwit pirates), but mostly we learn that the consequences of caring about the truth are generally rather unpleasant.
You should probably do it anyway, but keep that in mind.
Something to also keep in mind is that I suppose you might say I spoiled A Man for All Seasons, so beware of that. I didn’t think of it as spoiling at the time, because…well, it’s rather like that time I was talking with a friend about Fawkes and realized that this friend had not known all along what was going to happen to Guy Fawkes at the end. If you know about Guy Fawkes, you know how it’ll go. If you know about Thomas More, you know how it’ll go. If you don’t, it’s spoilers.
A Strange Habit of Mind
It’s basically a murder mystery with espionage undertones, because the main character is an ex-spy (ex-assassin?) investigating a tech mogul. My aunt lent it to me after neither of us liked the first book (When Christmas Comes, not necessary to read first really) much, but she liked this a lot more and wanted to know if I did too. Which I did.
Not that I didn’t still have problems.
- Navel-gazing. (If you’re thinking about putting a bunch of navel-gazing in your story, and you’re not Dostoyevsky, just don’t.)
- Why is everyone so lustful? Society is what it is and people are what they are, but this does not mean that every single person has to be lusting after every single other person they encounter, now does it? It’s not a moral issue, it’s—how is this realistic? And when even the benign elderly therapist is restraining herself from slobbering all over the main character (literally half her age), you’ve got yourself a real bad case of Mary Sue there, son.
- But it isn’t simply everyone else lusting after Professor Cameron Winter (our debonair protagonist). It’s him lusting after everyone else too. Which doesn’t mesh at all with the attempt to set him up as some sort of old-fashioned gentleman. That’s not how that works. My standard for old-fashioned goes a little further back than the 1940s, okay?
- Winter’s “strange habit of mind” is…I guess…assessing a situation with complete objectivity? It makes more sense than it did in the first book (“I have communed with myself for three hours and now I magically know the answer. I didn’t figure it out using logic or anything; it was just something my mind did, ~a strange habit of mind~” was all I got from the first book), but it’s still…what is it, exactly?
Despite problems, I did enjoy the book, for which there are also reasons.
Reasons for Enjoying the Book:
- I’ve decided that Villain Whose Villainy Consists in Benevolently Playing God (And Inevitably Spirals Out of Control Therefore) is one of the best types. Such satisfying stories you can tell, and it’s all too rare as a villainous concept, I think.
- Cameron Winter sort of reminds me of Lord Peter Wimsey? With his guilt and his carelessly brilliant (but sort of ashamed of its own brilliance) intellect and his agnosticism.
- All the poetry quotations and references! There was even a T. S. Eliot one, though since Winter is all about the English Romantics, there was obviously a lot more Wordsworth and Shelley.
- I have so much respect for anyone who quotes “Ozymandias” to a drug lord, I’m just saying.
- The Recruiter is a very interesting character all around. His way of speaking, his Christianity (which may or may not be warped…but is certainly both sincere and humble; like I said, he’s an interesting character), his lack of Winter’s guilt because in the end he has a less rosy view of human nature than Winter does, his hardness.
- The plot was satisfying, including in how it fetched up, which is always nice and especially so in a mystery.
And thus another domino falls in my plan of slowly reading through all of Shakespeare so I can say, and no one can contradict me, that I hate him. With once again the awkward addendum that I didn’t hate this one. But don’t worry! I’m sure I’ll hate the next one!
A Summary of the Experience:
- A deep and abiding satisfaction with Cordelia’s inability or refusal (it was kind of both) to put her love for her father on parade as proof of its reality, her reluctance to thus parade it being an indicator of its reality, the realism of how dumb people react to that
- Me feeling like a dumb person for at least the first two acts because I could not follow the political intrigue or remember who was who (Kent? France? Burgundy? Gloucester? Who married who? Which one had the sons with the indistinguishable names?)
- But this was also my copy’s fault. It utterly failed to distinguish the beginnings and endings of scenes properly. I was well into the third act before I realized I wasn’t still laboring through the first.
- Me also being confused because is this person actually insane? Or just pretending? Was pretending, now actually is? Was, now isn’t anymore? I have lost track.
- I read Julius Caesar when I was a wee one, and I read a smidge of an introduction or afterword or some such thing, wherein it was stated that it was unusually dramatic for Caesar to get stabbed actually onstage. NOT AS DRAMATIC AS PUTTING OUT PEOPLE’S EYES ONSTAGE, WHICH IS WHAT THIS PLAY DOES.
- “Frankly, Regan and Goneril were sexier than Kaz [Brekker].” Becky said that to me once, a long time ago, and I kept thinking of it as I read this, and it got progressively funnier to me as I read. For reasons.
So yes, I liked the play.
Things I Liked:
- Gloucester (love him so much)
- Edward (or was it Edmund? I can’t keep their names straight) had some issues, but I liked his general thing, y’know?
- The way Lear came to realize all the things
- Regan and Goneril being…Regan and Goneril (horrible. But entertaining).
- Redemption and family love and stuff
- Some absolutely beautiful lines, some very strong lines (Holling Hoodhood would approve) not lacking in wit
But Okay, What I Did Hate:
- ((Spoilers from here on out by the way))
- Okay, so Everybody Dies The End is a stupid plot to begin with.
- But it’s especially stupid when part of Everybody is Gloucester, who was saved from committing suicide by his son and now the second he can actually be with his son he dies because his heart bursts with joy or something dumb like that. Gloucester has been through A LOT. He can deal with finding out that there is at long last something in his life that’s not completely horrible. He deserved better.
- Cordelia’s death might could be argued to be necessary to drive the point fully home to Lear that this is what happens when you cast off the people who actually love you and listen to flatterers, but hasn’t that point already been driven so incredibly far home???
- It’s just unsatisfying, on a story level, for all the good characters to die at the end in a story like this. Lear maybe, sure (if your name is the title of a Shakespeare tragedy, you’re sort of doomed, right?), but not EVERYBODY. It feels authorially manipulated.
- Shakespeare’s jokes-your-mom-wouldn’t-approve-of are generally unnecessary, but I’m not sure I’ve ever come upon an instance so totally out of place as the one (1) time when the Fool directly addresses the audience, which he never does elsewhere in the play, nor does anyone else, for the sole purpose of making a frankly rather convoluted and not very good joke that will “make the maidens blush” or whatever. I mean. Good golly. *smacks forehead*
••Maud Hart Lovelace••
I have at long last finished all the Betsy-Tacy books!
Feels good. My favorites remain the first one, Betsy in Spite of Herself, and Betsy and the Great World, but this one is about a pair of newlywed writers living their best life in Minneapolis while WWI rages in Europe, so it’s rather wonderful too. It took me a while to warm up to it (I think just because I was slow to forgive Joe for how much I disliked his behavior in Betsy and Joe, even though it’s been years and water under the bridge), but I do think in the end I liked it well enough to keep it and round out my collection.
Tacy is ever the best of friends.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
••Anonymous; translated by J. R. R. Tolkien••
I don’t have much to say about this one, except that I really, really liked it. The poetry is alliterative, with shorter rhyming lines at the end of each section. The language is sometimes rather beautiful (especially in the hunt sections, it’s like crashing along through the wet wild woods in the thick of it yourself)–always vivid, usually strong, and just…just rather lovely, to a lover of words.
And as for Gawain himself, he’s ever so Gawainish.
The Ball and the Cross
••G. K. Chesterton••
An atheist newspaper editor writes an article that is less than respectful of the Virgin Mary. A Catholic, newly arrived in London fresh from his Highland hills, smashes his shop-window. The two proceed to fight a duel (with swords) over the existence of God. Society proceeds to be very much astonished that anybody nowadays actually cares that much about, like, anything.
A Random Assortment of Thoughts:
- I like the opening chapter with Michael and Professor Lucifer very much.
- James Turnbull is my second favorite atheist (my first favorite being of course Ivan Karamazov).
- It reminded me of The Napoleon of Notting Hill (or a little of The Man Who Was Thursday) in its dystopian dreaminess. I really don’t like dystopia or dreaminess in fiction, so that bothered me off and on, but not enough to matter.
- I quite liked how Chesterton ended up resolving, in the mouth of MacIan, the two opposing facts that a) it’s good Turnbull and MacIan care about their beliefs, and b) killing people over differences in beliefs is, like, something we shouldn’t do?? It was hard to see how the two notions fit together until MacIan had his little revelation, so I liked that.
- But WHERE did the notion that the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre was in any sense “provoked” come from? Where? Show me. I will wait. The Huguenots did nothing–literally nothing!!–that could by any fair use of the term be said to have provoked the indiscriminate killing of THOUSANDS (so the river ran red with their blood) of men, women, and children in the streets of Paris.
- I don’t care that MacIan’s point was that massacre is evil nonetheless. Nonetheless what??? DON’T ACT LIKE THE HUGUENOTS SOMEHOW ASKED FOR IT. THEY DID NOT.
- I’m really not completely sure, either (heads up for spoilers, mate), how I feel about a miracle occurring at the end. On the one hand it gives us the lovely bit about Turnbull preferring a fact even to materialism. On the other hand I’m just not really sure I like it as a thematically satisfying conclusion to his journey.
- I do like Professor Lucifer as a villain, and he’s very satisfying in the role.
Swallows and Amazons
- About summer and SAILING
- Also camping, which isn’t as good as sailing but still good
- Set in England, which it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out
- Quietly well-written, quietly funny
- Altogether a refreshment to the spirit.
One of the things I loved so much about it was this uncanny accuracy in so many little things from the children’s point of view, like:
- John being embarrassed and disgusted at the grown-ups cheering them
- John’s oldest-child precautions for his siblings’ safety and the specific flavor of his guilt about the staying-out-all-night episode (since he did take precautions)
- The flavor of Susan’s second-oldest-child guilt about the same (since she wasn’t in charge of the precautions)
- Titty’s joy at being left alone on the island
- “oh crap we really can’t see anything in this dark, why did we think this was a good idea?” (It’s always so much harder to do things in the dark than you think it’s going to be!)
- The perfect selfishness of the Amazon sisters expecting their uncle to play with them. He couldn’t possibly have something better to do.
- The exact relationship with grown-ups and which things they say that annoy the children because they’re breaking the game (and that they don’t express this disgruntlement except sometimes afterward to each other)
- The exact proportion of in-the-game and real-life in how the children talk. They don’t believe their game is real, but they are completely immersed in and satisfied by it in a way you never are after a certain age.
- The passion to have actually discovered something new
- How everyone takes care of the youngest
That list is horrifically long and pedantic, but I just adored how accurate to childhood and summer adventures the book was. It really was a refreshment.
A Man For All Seasons
Sir Thomas tried so hard, y’all. He tried so hard.
He steered the perfect line between his principles and discretion in his speech and had need of every inch of discretion and still died for his principles. I like stories like that a lot. I think because I agree with the premise that there always comes a time, if people are truly out to get you, where tact gets you nowhere and it still comes down to a raw choice between dying (or whatever unfortunate thing) for what you think is right or giving in to the people you think are wrong, but also because it’s frustrating when someone’s own flaws seal an otherwise up-for-grabs fate. That’s a valid tragedy, but not a tragedy I like to read much. I prefer the other story, and I prefer the other theme, which I don’t really think gets explored enough.
Something I also thought was really cool was the definite echoes of Christ’s trial, where they try so hard to catch him in his own words and in the end resort to perjury because they can’t.
(And one can’t help admiring that part of Sir Thomas More, despite being…not ambivalent, but conflicted, about him as a historical figure. I take no issue with how he’s depicted in this play, though. It’s very good and incredibly sympathetic.)
Anyway, the playwright had a keen eye for human nature and a keen ear for human dialogue, and it was a stunningly good play. I was picturing the whole thing vividly as I read, something I usually have trouble with when reading plays. Would recommend.
So have you read A Man For All Seasons? Please talk with me if you have. Please go read it and then talk to me if you haven’t. What historical massacre gets you particularly up in arms? What is your definition of an old-fashioned gentleman? Are you ready for summertime? I hope so.