Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

The Immediate Book Meme

photo by Evan Laurence Bench

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.


Because of my reduced access to my laptop now that the kids take classes online/chat with friends/do labwork, and because all of our computers have grown so slow that they're difficult to write on, this post has lingered on the vine long enough that my books keep shifting categories. But this time for sure!

1. What book are you reading now?

Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places, by Margaret Doody.

About the complex meanings behind the names of Austen's characters and places, and the history of names in this period of England. Fascinating, and a great resource for anyone wanting to write about this era.

I'm working through these as I prepare for each chapter of my Seventh Grade Bible Study on Matthew.

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

I just read Beloved (of which more below), so I'm trying some other Morrison to get a feel for her range.

1a. Readaloud

Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

We've just entered the Mines of Moria. (My 15yo daughter: "Wait, all this time it's been a literal mine? I thought you were saying "Minds of Moria".)

2. What book did you just finish?
As I say, this post was so long in the making that a lot of books that were going to be Next reads are now Just Finished.

I found this at the library while looking for something else. I read The Weeping Time, about the largest slave auction in American history, held at the Butler plantation. British actress Fanny Kemble married into the family before visiting the plantation (and later divorced out of it). Her horrified diary and letters and memoir give a window into the appalling culture of the plantation. Novelist Owen Wister (The Virginian) was a grandson of Pierce Butler and Fanny Kemble, son of their abolitionist daughter Sarah.

What Can I Do When I Grow Up?, by The School of Life

Also found on the library shelf in passing. (Folks: go browse the shelves in person.) This is a wonderfully British book from a foundation in London called The School of Life, which exists, I guess, to prepare people for life. The book begins with the commonsense assertion that it's ridiculous that adults will put kids on the spot asking what they want to do when they grow up when most adults don't feel entirely grown up themselves or know what it is that they want to do, even if they have a job. Then it discusses what is a job, what is the purpose of money, what your talents and inclination might point you towards, and examines the universe of hidden jobs that aren't always obvious to the consumer. 

This is the sort of book that I would have devoured devotionally as a child. My own children didn't seem quite as fascinated, but I bought a copy anyway. I made everyone do the exercise in which each person ranks the different kinds of pleasure derived from activities (The pleasure of Order, of Teaching, of Making Money, of Beauty, of Nature, of Technology, etc.) which can clarify why it is you like what you like. 

My daughter with dyslexia had a major reading click this year, and is tearing through books by herself. She's been reading the Penderwicks series, and I've skimmed along with her to refresh my memory. The author is clearly reaching for the easy childhood sibling fun of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit, but there's a odd disconnect in these books, an unwillingness to address the implications or even the existence of modern technology, and piggybacking on a foundation of Christian moral behavior without having to acknowledge that religion exists. 

The author -- and I find this exceedingly problematic -- also ends up excusing some very bad behavior by eliding over real and deep family traumas. This isn't as much in evidence in the earlier books, but I think it's the fourth novel, The Penderwicks in Spring, that has one sister blaming another for the childbirth death of their mother, and the younger sister going into a major spiral of depression and anxiety over it, and at the end instead of arranging for intensive therapy (and possibly hospitalization) for these troubled kids, the adults kind of brush everything off with "I'll try to pay more attention to you all." This is... not okay. These kids are intensely troubled, and the resolution is pretty troubling too.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston was a great student and observer of African-American folkways and cultures, and this story of Janie Crawford, a woman who longs to find true love, is an intense, engaging, and sometimes critical depiction of the vibrant Black culture of the 30s in Florida. 

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Morrison is following a literary path blazed by Hurston, even in her lush emotional writing. (Margaret Atwood's description of  Morrison's "anti-minimalist prose" is no more than the truth.) Morrison is a gifted writer who knows how to highlight the evils of racism with carefully vivid thematic elements. Beloved is a big bruising story of the ghost of a baby girl haunting the home of her traumatized mother Sethe, who has escaped from slavery and doesn't intend to see any of her beloved children forced back into that cruel life.

Morrison chooses the maximal visceral detail to underline the horrors of her story. Many of these I've read about in historical sources, but one major thematic incident is unprecedented in my reading (which is not to say that it is historically unprecedented, but just that I've never seen any documentation of this kind of violation, even in other cruel and oppressive cultures in world history.) It would be as if I wrote a book about the evil effects of Irish oppression on mothers during the Potato Famine and included a vile English landlord who wore a coat made of the skins of Irish children. The history is evil enough without my needing to invent a disgusting event to make it even more gut-wrenchingly gross. But as I say, perhaps Morrison found a mention of this in her research.

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik.

I thoroughly enjoyed Spinning Silver by Novik and was excited to read her previous novel. And Uprooted is set in the same kind of world that Novik does so well -- a Grimm's Mitteleuropa of fairytales where magic is woven into the landscape. But where Spinning Silver was so devoid of romantic scenes that you almost wondered how the main characters would deal together, Uprooted features a two-page-long sex scene that makes it, in my mind, a bit much for teen readers -- more so because of fantasy nature of the interaction that doesn't seem humanly true to the awkward nature of first-time intimacy -- nor entirely true to the main character, either. I was disappointed, because it was a strange intrusion into an otherwise-recommendable book. It did make me want to re-read Spinning Silver, so there's that.

I should note that I also thoroughly disliked A Deadly Education, Novik's more contemporary fantasy novel, which did not have any sex scenes. This seems to make me an outlier in my community of reading friends, most of whom loved it. 

3. What do you plan to read next?

I... did not read Moby-Dick, and I no longer plan to read it next.

Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Lost in Thought, by Zena Hitz
I really the concept here, an exploration of why the intellectual life matters to everyone, not just self-styled "intellectuals", but I felt like the book wasn't well-served by the current editorial trend of putting an autobiographical chapter right at the beginning. For all that, I'd like to finish it, and it's on my nightstand on top of everything else.

The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Why is this taking me so long? I love it while I'm reading it, but once I put it down...

See above. I will never finish this book.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

I'm sure there's something out there I'm supposed to start, but nothing's leaping to mind right now.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Acclaimed fiction by African-American women.


Brandon said...

Uprooted is the only Naomi Novik I've read. I didn't not like it, I found it a nice bit of light fiction and with a fair amount of good description, but I think it's very much the reason I haven't even tried any other Novik works; I was more than a little exasperated that the main character's innate magical talent is basically inexplicable feminine intuition, everything just sort of happens, and the romance I found just entirely underwhelming at every point.

MrsDarwin said...

"I was more than a little exasperated that the main character's innate magical talent is basically inexplicable feminine intuition".

You have that in common with the Dragon, then.

I could believe that there was a more intuitive side to magic, as it had been established that there were others (like the character who is the prototype for Baba Yaga) who worked the same way. What I couldn't believe was that that intuition extended to a technically flawless loss of virginity for a character whose primary note is being a hapless mess and who shows no signs of bucking against the traditional morality of her society. C'mon!

I think you probably would enjoy Spinning Silver more.

Larry Denninger said...

I've only read her "His Majesty's Dragon", and found it delightful and inventive. I may read more in that series, but like you, my list far exceeds my time.