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Bleak House

I have just finished Bleak House–an engaging book, my comfortable companion on the daily commute (audiobooks mean no weighty tome to lug about). YES, it is predictable and slow moving, YES, a certain amount of mawkish sentimentality, and then there are the overdone character tics–but it is a delightful treasure of good humored entertainment. Dickens can’t resist opportunities for lampooning the self righteous–oh those ineffably silly do-gooder ladies!–and HOW he relishes making our flesh to creep! Bleak House abounds in disease and death–seven deaths, I can think of, and there are probably more. There is a death by opium, a death by snowstorm, and even one by SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION.

It would be hard to translate this story into modern times, so deeply entrenched as it is in Victorian mores and attitudes–the main plot involves the long delayed but implacable punishment of a woman for her youthful betrayal of the social code. Though it suddenly occurred to me that there actually is a modern equivalent, if we reverse the sexes: the Puritanical ferocity which brought down Lady Dedlock is now being visited on erring men, whose punishment is similarly severe. Though at least they are not banished out, OUT into the storm, just losing their jobs, their positions.
The BBC production of the story is really very good, though I question the casting of Esther, who is not only constantly described as radiantly beautiful, but uncannily like Lady Dedlock. The actress was neither, particularly of course when the makeup artist goes nuts with horrid smallpox sores–all of which had magically cleared up for the last scene, when both Esther’s goodness and the viewers’ patience are rewarded with one of those traditional end-of-series BBC wedding scenes with all the characters (those that haven’t been killed off, that is) dancing gaily about on a sunny sward while adorable children dart about.

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This book is a memoir on dealing with loss. The death of her father throws the author into an almost insane state, in which she takes what was a long held passion for falconry and birds, and decides to train a Goshawk–a notably difficult hawk to train. She loses herself in this pursuit, becomes one with the hawk, anti-social, obsessed–but finally pulls back and realizes what she needs to to get over her sadness. She writes a lot about a parallel hawk trainer, T.H. White through out the book.

ACCIPITER GENTILIS

 

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220px-moritz_thomsen_1990I thought this was a well written searingly honest journey of a man, 63, who has lost his health, histeeth, and the farm he had been passionately working on in the jungles of Ecuador, and, after a period of shock, undertakes a trip through Brazil to try and find some meaning or purpose to his life. His very bleak and angry feelings about the capitalists, the USA, business, rich people, and in particular his wealthy hated father got tiresome after a while, how many ways and times do I want to hear about the destruction of the Amazon, for example. As you know, I am sufficiently bleak enough myself in my thoughts on our species and the planet. However I was interested in how he was dealing with age, loneliness, the sense of being inconsequential to others, meaningful existence, and I liked his descriptions of his time on the farm in the jungle.

Quote from Amazon

From Library Journal
All travel narratives are self-revealing to some extent, but few go as far as this one. The author was a 1960s Peace Corp Volunteer in Ecuador who stayed on in an attempt to farm. (His account of his farming experience appeared in The Farm on the River of Emeralds, LJ 7/78). When that eventually fell through, Thomsen took a trip to Rio and up the Amazon River, which is the backdrop for this book. The author is an introspective, tormented, and bitter man, and he tells us much more about his failures and his struggles to face old age (he was 63 at the time of writing this) and death than many readers will want to know. Nonetheless, he is a brilliant writer, and in the process he gives us a view of South America that balances the more conventional travel writing and political commentary generally available.

 

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Sapiens,  A Brief History of Humankind, by Noah Yuval Harari offers a very wide look at our species, starting back in the dawn of homos–perhaps theoretical and not all solid facts, but I thoroughly enjoyed his speculations and drove both Brian and my mother nuts when I was reading it because I wanted to share his points with them. It also speculates about where we are headed, and have we come to the end of our evolution as such, or rather have we become godlike in our ability to short cut evolution with our growing genetics know-how,  will we become some version of new creature, with the addition of our computers, our gene tinkering, a new super species?
comparcranesh543px

 

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3sThe story centers around two young people growing up during the World War II years: a young, blind French girl living in Paris and then Brittany, and a young German boy, who grows up in an orphanage with his sister, and then becomes a soldier during the war, crossing Europe with German army units. Plot details from me shall be sparse, because one beauty of the book is the way the story unspools before you, and the slowness with which the author’s intentions for the characters are revealed and described, and it would not do, I think, to reveal too much of that and spoil the joy of discovery, should you choose to read the book. It’s quite lengthy and detailed along the way, there’s a rich beauty to the prose, and great inventiveness by the author, as descriptions accumulate and characters develop.
Once an initial, introductory phase during which I wondered if I would put it down or continue to read had passed, I became, well, hooked, lined and sinkered: when I wasn’t reading I was wanting to, and kept looking around the house and making sure the book was available so I could pick it up when time permitted. And I did that, long and often. So there’s a slow start and then, whoops, there you are being swept away by the current, wondering how that happened until you realize how beautiful and compelling the writing and the story are.
But, must admit, some final details were disappointing, and also difficult to conceptualize as possible, as most of the body of the book had been. Anyway, well worth reading, I think, if only for the beauty of the language and characters and concepts–though had I been an editor or “reader”, would have wanted to have some discussions with the author, about the way it all came together in the end.

Comment from Hope

I had the same initial reaction as Lois–unenthusiastic, and not convinced. But as you say, Lois, the language was sharp and fresh and as it went on, I also liked it more and more. Didn’t LOVE it, but enjoyed the language and descriptions, and the two stories as they gradually converge. Fascinating, the whole bit about radio technology. Didn’t you feel a little disconcerted by the notion of the central character being blind? There were moments when it seemed a little too much of a gimmick to me. . And the ending was disappointing, but then, a lot of modern fiction seems determined to prove its seriousness by denying us our happy endings. Still, a fine book–many thanks to Cathie for recommending and to Lois for the detailed review!
I wonder if his previous book might be equally interesting? About Grace, “heartbreaking, radiant, and astonishingly accomplished.”
Except, do we need more heartbreak?

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I have just reread Lois McMaster Bujold ‘s fantasy series, 3 books set in a well-designed fantasy world (irresistibly bringing to mind the cynical book agent’s definition of fantasy worlds in Mal Peet’s excellent book, The Murdstone Trilogy:  “The world–‘Realm’ is the proper term–of High Fantasy is sort of medieval.  Well, pre-industrial, anyway. .  . the Realm has fallen under the power of a Dark Lord”)
Bulold’s Realm pretty much follows that definition.

CastleI liked the books when I first read them, some years ago and they continue to charm. She is known for her sci-fi books, which are all very well, but these fantasy books are so well made, and her world is very convincing– with the amusing conceit of a religion that worships 5 very real and engaged gods. There are also demons, and magic of a sort, but all carefully overseen by the gods. These gods can do nothing without the intervention of a human–not so much as lift a leaf, as one of the characters says. They try to answer the prayers of their worshippers, but can only do so through people, who have to allow the gods into their hearts. Which sounds fairly benign except that the gods are so huge, their vision so enormous, that it is overwhelming for those so afflicted. They are called Saints, the god-touched.

ChalionRavenThe first story involves warring princes and a ghastly inherited curse–a powerful and malign curse, that is destroying the royal family of Chalion. The man who saves Chalion–his country–from the curse is a modest good man, but with a sense of humor, and a sharp wit. A soldier, who had been shamefully used by his superior–which ghastly superior, by the way, has Dark Lord tendencies but does not actually qualify as such, lacking that kind of total power. But, my, he is very evil, and as for his horrible brother, les bras m’en tombe. Anyway, Cazeril (yes, painfully close to the word denoting a useful kitchen container) returns from the SLAVE GALLEYS (!) and eventually saves the world. I shall not tell you how.

In the NEXT book, god-touched Ista–the sad and lovely ex-queen, on whom the curse had been particularly heavy–is redeemed, and manages to forgive herself for a heinous failure involving an attempt to lift the curse of the previous book. And in the engaging and delightfully designed story, she escapes the fiendish plots of a Very Wicked Sorceress (ALMOST a Dark Lord, do you see–well, Dark Lady. Doesn’t have the same ring though, does it?). In the midst of the battle, Ista has a dreadful vision of the roiling spirit chains which bind the enslaved captains of her army to the Sorceress–snaking purple ropes winding from her heart to each of her captains, keeping them attached to her like puppets on a string. It is Ista’s god-enhanced second sight that allows her to see such visions, hidden to most people.

Anyway, it is a fine story, filled with astonishing visions—such as the beautiful dead man who yet seems to live, his seeming life preserved by his sleeping brother, whose spirit magically streams into him. And a bear inhabited by a demon! And a priest who dreams his own death!

What stayed with me was the powerful moment when Ista confronts the vicious sorceress. She had first to pass through a terrible ordeal, during which her god appeared to have deserted her, so that she despairs—my god, my god, why have you forsaken me? But just as the sorceress seems to triumph, the god looms up, a giant of joyful power–and easily defeats the dark lady. He had had hidden himself so deep that the sorceress couldn’t perceive him, and thus Ista was allowed to approach the dark throne. God-sleight!

This sudden welling up of a god so reminded me of Pound’s lines about Bacchus finding himself kidnapped by some (astonishingly foolish) pirates,  and furiously letting loose his power, magically binding the boat in strong vines of ivy and grape, and–a little lagniappe–turning the pirates into dolphins:

“God-sleight then, god-sleight:
Ship stock fast in sea-swirl,
Ivy upon the oars, King Pentheus,
grapes with no seed but sea-foam. . .”

Bacco_e_AceteThe third book in the series is called the Hallowed Hunt, and involves spirit animals inhabiting people according to some Ancient Magical Rite. Blood is shed, and dark magics invoked. This too is a very engaging book, set in an earlier version of that same very well-conceived world, 5 gods and all.

All three books are, as they say, page turners. Or, in the case of the iPod, a time eater. I was sorry to say goodbye to that world—but I suppose 3 books are plenty, and a good place for Ms. Bujold to stop.
And me!

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I just happened across this book, and was very impressed with it. An odd and individual voice; knowing and familiar, who has read all the things I have read, and who can tell a good story. Mal Peet was first a writer of children’s books, who ventured into the grown up world for the first time with this book–and unfortunately, died shortly thereafter. A fatal enterprise for him, it seems. It is an inventive and witty book, which starts in a very different world from where it ends. The protagonist is a failing writer whose agent encourages him to write fantasy (only it’s often spelled ‘PHANTASY’, she tells him).
Her wry and wonderful summary of how to write a successful fantasy was the first hint that this book was more than a typical struggling writer story.

Seen on allwallpapersfree.blogspot.com

“The world–“Realm” is the proper term–of High Fantasy is sort of medieval. Well, pre-industrial, anyway. Something like Devon, I imagine. Vaguely socialist, in an idyllic, farmerish–is that a word?–sort of a way. But the Realm has fallen under the power of a Dark Lord who wants to change everything. . . Anyway, the Dark Lord is served by minions. That’s a word you must use, OK?. . . The young hero lives in a remote village in the furthest Shire–that’s another must, Shire, OK–of the Realm. He thinks he’s an orphan, but he’s a prince, of course. He’s being brought up by nice doddery old sort of humans. They probably get slaughtered by the Dorcs and he has to flee…”

I was enchanted by the cynical treatment of the publishing world. Reminded me of Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words, a wonderful satire of the world of literary prizes.
The book is much darker than I initially supposed, and I regretted having praised it so highly while still in the midst of it. With the whole of it read, I would temper my enthusiasm with a warning: there be monsters here.

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