Hey, kids! It’s June, it’s summer (in the Northern Hemisphere), and I’m back!
I’m sure you were all very worried, to the point of sending out search parties and inquiring where the checks for funeral contributions could be sent, but I am not, in fact, dead or even missing, and if you had no fear of either and are in fact surprised to hear it’s been over a month since I last posted…mate, same.
It’s good to be back, though, catch up on some of y’all’s lovely posts (at least reading, maybe not commenting – query: why does commenting take so much mental energy?), and talk about the books that I read this past April and May!
// Orbiting Jupiter // Gary D. Schmidt
So…I have really complicated thoughts on this one.
Actually, really, they’re not complicated. They’re just confused. Really, really confused.
For starters, probably not good timing on my part reading this? There was a thing that made me sad, and if I had read it at some time in the past or some time in the future it maybe wouldn’t have made me so sad, but as it was I finished it, set it down, stared at the sunset out my window, and screamed (mentally), “WHAT WAS THE POINT?!”
(Please don’t explain about theme & symbolism &c. I got that. I just don’t care. I don’t normally feel this way, but, like, you know what love and self-sacrifice and all those noble things don’t fix? THE FACT THAT – well, spoilers. But I’m still angry about this.)
However, to actually talk about the book and not just my unreasonable feelings thereupon, it was…I don’t know. It didn’t enrapture me like Okay for Now and The Wednesday Wars (or even Pay Attention, Carter Jones). There wasn’t that same delightful narrative voice. There wasn’t that same level of realness – real characters, real settings, real problems with real humans struggling through them.
I mean, I guess the problems were pretty real – child abuse, prejudice, loneliness, being a father when you are 100% Not Ready. But the way the book approached them just wasn’t the same??
Books about Issues do this a lot, I think. The problem takes the spotlight. All character moments are either intensely sad or heartwarming – there’s no in-between space for that reminder of the regular part of life. Laughing. Kidding around. Being scared of stupid things. Just doing stupid stuff because you’re a kid and you’re discovering life in all its sweet, mundane unimportance. Leave out that stuff and you leave out the real flavor of the thing – and hence the possibility for the heartbreak you seem so anxious to induce. I can’t break my heart over something that isn’t quite solid to my touch.
What I’m trying to say is, Orbiting Jupiter is a very sweet and sad story about a thirteen-year-old who’s experienced things no thirteen-year-old should, his quest to find his baby daughter Jupiter, and foster siblings to, as an excellent sponge once put it, melt your heart. Except that I personally found it rather dry. And then the ending made me mad. So.
But then I’m confused, because I talked about it with the lovely lady who told me to read it, and although she felt just as betrayed by the ending as I did (imagine staying up late to finish it one night when your husband and kids aren’t home and getting to THAT at ONE IN THE MORNING and then the book being OVER), and while explaining what she loved so much about it, she said something along the lines of, “I’m not saying what they did was right. I mean, it wasn’t right. It was wrong. But before, I would have scoffed. I would have thought, ‘You’re thirteen. What do you know about love? You don’t know anything about love.’ But they did know. They got it. Better than so many of us, who are adults, and think we know.”
Sadly that is not her actual words, which were better, but what I remember of the gist of what she said. Which…kind of made me appreciate the book a lot more. So.
I’m still mad and I’d still recommend Okay for Now instead.
// On Stories // C. S. Lewis
Some critics seem to confuse growth with the cost of growth and also to wish to make that cost far higher than, in nature, it need be.-from “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Lewis talking about why you don’t need to “grow out of” things like fairy tales and optimism and happy endings
He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.-also from “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”; beautiful, isn’t it? talking about why adults needn’t worry unduly that reading fantasy will make kids discontented with their ordinary mortal lot
“But why,” (some ask) “why, if you have a serious comment to make on the real life of men, must you do it by talking about a phantasmagoric never-never land of your own?” Because, I take it, one of the main things the author wants to say is that the real life of men is of that mythical and heroic quality.-from Lewis’s review of The Lord of the Rings, the entirety of which is fabulous
Those are, alas, the only quotes I wrote down, but also included is a tribute to Dorothy Sayers, written soon after her death, through which her personality, and Lewis’s respect and affection, shine. And an essay about criticizing what you don’t like and why you really mostly shouldn’t, about which Sam wrote a whole glorious post that you should read. And the titular essay, which is interesting and well-expressed and YES, that is the indefinable element I look for in certain stories, beyond even deep character or beautiful writing, and YES, there is another type of reader who just…doesn’t and we will never quite understand each other. And so, so much more! Call now to get 30% off your first –
Just read it.
// Detection Unlimited // Georgette Heyer
Not since The Murder of Roger Ackroyd have I been so utterly BETRAYED by a mystery writer.
(This is even worse, really, because Georgette Heyer’s characters are better than Agatha Christie’s.)
Have you ever noticed, and wondered about, the way the murder victim in murder mysteries is almost always a thoroughly nasty person that nobody is really sad to see dead?
I’ve wondered this a lot. There are some possible reasons, like that this gives more people motives, which is nice for the mystery writer trying to bamboozle readers, and that it’s probably just realistic for nasty people to get murdered more often than nice people, but I have come up with a theory that I like better. I think the reason is so that the story can’t get bogged down in grief. Because grief is going to be focused on the dead person, but what the mystery writer actually wants to focus on is the person who did the killing.
Since nobody’s overwhelming grief over the little “pocket Hitler” who died in this book was clouding the atmosphere, you had no particular rancor toward his murderer – though, of course, one really shouldn’t go around murdering people – and so there was nothing in the way of your regarding the murderer as a person rather than a monster.
And because I happened to get attached to the murderer, I really thought about what it means for a person to be a murderer. And it was really sad.
For the murderer.
Like. I’m not explaining this well. But Father Brown showed me that a murder mystery can be a really cool vehicle for exploring a question of morality, and this was similar to that except…different.
You know how it’s pretty easy for us to be heartbroken over human suffering? But not so easy to be heartbroken over human sin? (When we say we’re heartbroken over sin, we actually mostly mean we’re heartbroken over the suffering caused by sin. Which is still the first type of heartbreak.) We tend to get angry over sin a lot more than heartbroken.
And it’s not wrong to be angry about sin. But also, it’s right to be heartbroken. Like God is.
And that’s what this book made me think – how sad, to be a sinner. How sad, to commit a sin. Quite apart from the consequences of it, you know? How very sad, how horrifying, to take another human life, not just because it was taken, but because you were the one who reached out and took it.
It’s like something Chesterton would make you think, except it was Georgette Heyer.
(So kudos to Georgette Heyer.)
As to the actual story, it was quite good. Clever. A man was shot in a small English country village, in his garden, at a time of day when a number of people who didn’t like him could conceivably have been out and about shooting people. There are altogether too many suspects, and the weapon is altogether too common: a .22 rifle.
Personalities clash, young people fall in love, the village’s oldest inhabitant is a nuisance, the murdered man’s niece is unbearably (suspiciously?) saintly, and Gavin Plenmeller, the town’s resident myster writer, goes around being nastily sarcastic to everyone and overjoyed to find himself a suspect in a real mystery case.
Meanwhile Inspectors Hemingway and Harbottle have got to narrow down their suspects somehow. Which sha’n’t be a problem, because Hemingway (as he will not scruple to remind you) has flair.
// A Matter of Days // Hugh Ross
Not much to say about this one except that it’s about creation, including why the author considers the “days” of creation long periods of time rather than regular 24-hour days (and why the beginning of Genesis shouldn’t be regarded as the only Scriptural passage that talks authoritatively about creation) and the evidence, both scientific and Biblical, for this point of view.
And just, wow astronomy is cool. Creation is cool. It’s…so cool. I can’t.
// Duplicate Death// Georgette Heyer
‘Tis Chief Inspector Hemingway again, this time investigating a scandalous high-society London strangling with the help of Inspector Grant, an excellent detective save for his annoying Highland habit of spouting Gaelic at his superior. There is blackmail, there is drugs, there is Terrible Timothy all grown up, what a surprise!
Terrible Timothy, if you don’t know, is from a much earlier Heyer mystery, They Found Him Dead, which used to be my favorite one, not because of the mystery itself which frankly wasn’t good at all, but because…well, because of Alicia and Jim mostly, and Rosemary being entertainingly awful. And also Terrible Timothy, a fourteen-year-old with a conniving mind and a fascination with American gangster films (this was written in the 1920s by the way) who wanted very much to help the poor harassed Sergeant Hemingway solve the murder. So it was pretty fun to see him again.
Also he’s now fallen in love with a girl named Beulah, the surprisingly awesome possessor of a whole lot of spunk and sourness, not to mention a mysterious past and current status of Prime Suspect.
I enjoyed this book, but I would’ve enjoyed it even more if it had just been Timothy and Beulah arguing about whether he should marry her since he doesn’t know anything about her (his opinion being that he totally definitely should).
// Message from Málaga // Helen MacInnes
I adore Helen MacInnes so much.
She’s such a good writer????
Like, you should have seen me devouring this book. I don’t devour books any more. I’m a busy adult with a fractured attention span (it depresses me every time I think about it) who usually only reads at night and who needs her sleep because she has much stuff that needs doing. And who nevertheless spent her entire day (while she wasn’t at work) reading this.
Because I was so worried, you guys. I was so worried.
So do you need a Cold War spy thriller set in Andalusia with Cuban defectors, KGB agents, secret assassination societies, and flamenco dancers in your life? Do you need Tavita, who is melodramatic and ridiculously intelligent and helps Communist defectors for her brother’s sake, because remember Spain had a civil war and it wasn’t pretty? Do you need a sweet, rational, disillusioned American college student who’s decided to go do something worthwhile (and highly dangerous) with her life? Do you need a soft-spoken police captain trying to get a handle on all this spy chicanery going on in his jurisdiction? Do you need a pretty average main character who’s selfish and judgmental but at least he’s also intelligent and skeptical, and ooh, hey, look, he actually admitted he was selfish, and oh, look, he’s capable of appreciating others and being compassionate and okay, he’s not actually that bad by the end?
Do you need a plot that involves ancient secret passages between houses in Granada and double agents and cyanide spray-guns and will give you a heart attack from prolonged stress over are these characters gonna make it? are they gonna be okay?
DO YOU NEED A HOUSEKEEPER NAMED CONCEPCIÓN WHO JUST INVITES HER WHOLE FAMILY TO COME STAY AT HER EMPLOYER’S HOUSE WHENEVER THEY LIKE AND SHE’LL COOK FOR THEM AND IT’S RATHER A LARGE FAMILY BUT IT’S ALL TOTALLY AWESOME AND FINE AND JAIME IS A DARLING, AND THERE’S ALSO A GRUMPY EX-BULLFIGHTER NAMED ESTEBAN WHO JUST WANTS PEOPLE TO LEAVE HIS FRIENDS ALONE?
You do! You know you do!
Helen MacInnes has this…way of capturing the people of a particular place, their culture, their prejudice, their flavor. I wouldn’t know if it’s true, since I’ve never been to Andalusia, or Greece, or Brittany, but it feels so true. It feels so respectful because it feels so appreciative. Like she loves these people, like they’re her friends and she thinks their culture beautiful and their history important.
So I really like that. I think it’s the final touch that makes her books not just fun spy thrillers for me, but also really good books.
Wow, there was a real dearth of fantasy and classics these last two months. Which I often think are my most-read genres?? I guess breaks are good, though. And I’ve been craving murder mysteries. Do y’all ever just…really really want to read a good murder mystery and nothing else, for like no reason whatsoever? What good (and not-so-good) books have you been reading this spring?