A bookworm’s holiday

Working for a college has the advantage of getting a week and a half off for the holidays, something I haven’t had for many years, unless I took vacation days. (The company I worked for previously did have a mandatory shutdown at the end of December at least two years, and I used vacation days in order to get my normal pay.) So I’ve had lots of time to read lately.

Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John Grey series

I was first introduced to Diana Gabaldon’s writing by my mother-in-law, who gave me the first three (and at the time there were only the three) books of the Outlander series. I like time travel stories, and I like historical fiction, especially when set in the British Isles. I don’t know if my mother-in-law knew that (I had seen her twice, I think, since our wedding), or if she just liked them herself, but I enjoyed them very much.

I’ve found it hard to keep up with Gabaldon’s more recent additions to the series, because they are such long books. Once Jamie and Claire left the British Isles for the New World, I wasn’t sure I was interested enough to buy the novels. And they’re so long that when I borrow them from the library, I have trouble finishing them during the time allotted.

That is one reason I was happy to discover her Lord John series, because the books are much shorter. (When she wrote the second one, she thought of it as a short story, until her agents told her it was the size of a normal book.) I read Lord John and the Private Matter last summer, and Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade sometime this fall.

Over Christmas break I read The Scottish Prisoner, which is the latest of the Lord John books, then Lord John and the Hand of Devils, which is actually a compilation of three novellas that come earlier, in terms of Lord John’s life. There are apparently two other Lord John novellas I haven’t read, because the collections in which they were published were edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, and it hadn’t occurred to me to look for Lord John under any name but Gabaldon. I now have one of them on request through inter-library loan.

There is no time travel in these books, but they are mysteries, which is a genre I’ve also come to appreciate. Historical mysteries are particularly good – assuming they’re well written, of course. Lord John Grey is a soldier, not a detective, but of course, the notion of detective as an occupation hadn’t been created yet. As an army officer and a nobleman, Lord John is well-placed to both encounter and solve various mysteries.

The fact that Lord John is sexually attracted to other men, rather than to women, plays a role in each of these stories, but I was glad that there were not the descriptive scenes of sexual encounters that were in the Lord John books I read previously. (I don’t care for reading details of sex between heterosexuals either. I’m not bothered by allusions to it, even fairly direct ones. But I don’t want details.)

My favorite was The Scottish Prisoner, in part because this is the only one where Jamie Fraser (the “Scottish prisoner”) plays a significant role – it’s as much his story as Lord John’s. This novel also explores ideas more than the others, especially the concept of honor. Lord John is always concerned with honor – not just, perhaps not even primarily, his honor as a nobleman, but his honor as a man of integrity. What makes this book so interesting is the interactions of multiple characters, Jamie Fraser in particular, whose sense of honor dictates their actions in ways that put them at odds with each other.

Her Death of Cold

After reading several books by Ralph McInerny, I finally found the first of his Father Dowling mysteries. This book gives a good deal more insight into Father Dowling as a person and as a priest, as it gives his personal history and how he ended up as a parish priest in Fox River. Years spent on the Chicago Archdiocesan Marriage Council clearly did not develop his pastoral skills. His attempts to reassure a woman afraid of dying – and of her children, who she believes wish her dead – come across as weak platitudes of a man who really doesn’t know what to say.

Few of the other characters with whom I have become familiar from reading later books are present in this one. I suppose it’s just as well I didn’t start with this novel, as I’m not sure I would have found any of the characters likeable enough for me to want to read more. Certainly none of the suspects are at all appealing. In later books, there are certainly characters I would want nothing to do with, but usually some of them, at least, are sympathetic figures.

It will be interesting, now that I have found a list of the Father Dowling mysteries in order (somehow I hadn’t thought to look that up before going to the library), to observe his development as a source of wisdom and comfort to his flock.

Twice upon a Time

I was reluctant to leave the library without more books to read, knowing I’d have plenty of time to read this week, but without any clear idea what to look for. I glanced at shelves, letting names of authors and of books, and even book designs, catch my eye. One that caught my eye was Twice upon a Time, probably because the title hinted at time travel. I had never heard of Dennis M. Van Wey, but I was intrigued to see that the back cover listed him as living in Muscatine. Did the library have his book just because he was a local writer, I wondered?

I also saw that the book was published by a Christian publisher, and that it contained “a Spiritual Adventure,” according to the back cover. I have generally not been greatly impressed by most “Christian fiction,” where the intended spiritual lessons often take precedence over good storytelling. I read the first page, decided that it might not be great but it wasn’t bad, and that a time travel book by a local writer was worth checking out.

The story was certainly interesting enough, and raises interesting questions about the effects of our choices and actions. From what I understand of science, time travel is simply not possible, so the moral issues raised by its use are purely theoretical, but interesting nonetheless. If you discovered that history had been changed due to time travel, would it be right to do what you could to change it back?

Michael Fields discovers, in the alternate timeline created by his trip back in time with Lenny Welles, that his son died years ago. He embarks on an intense project of historical research to figure out where the timeline changed, so that he can go back in time again and fix it, thus bringing his son back. However, it turns out that “fixing it” means ensuring that another person dies.

I would have liked Van Wey to dig deeper into the moral issues involved here. Once the timeline has been altered, everyone currently alive has reason to consider their current reality the only “real” one. Why should Michael, the only person (except Lenny, whose whereabouts in time are unknown) to know that there was once (will be?) a different reality, get to alter everyone else’s in order to restore the one that is so important to him? Van Wey touches on Michael’s discomfort with what he is doing, but rather briefly.

More important seems to be bringing Michael to faith in Christ. A man with only scorn for religion, and faith in the ability of man to solve his own problems, Michael nevertheless comes to a grudging admiration for the faith of the people running the rescue mission at which he finds himself in Buffalo in 1901. A sermon, given at the entrance to the Pan-American Exposition and warning against the dangers of man creating monuments to his own greatness, makes Michael realize the emptiness of the project that had so excited him in 1990.

I have to say that the idea of building a monument to the Baby Boomer generation struck a false note to me from the beginning. Baby Boomers may well be even more self-absorbed than other generations (though I’m not necessarily convinced of that either), but my impression is that such self-absorption is expressed in other ways than building monuments. The very idea of building monuments seems foreign to the Baby Boomer mindset. They (we? whether I am a Baby Boomer depends on which years you use to define it) may create “monuments” by the amount of money spent on the things they want, but I don’t see a monument to themselves as being among those wants.

The leader of the rescue mission has the opportunity to present the Gospel clearly to Michael, explaining that the most important decision he will ever make is to accept Jesus Christ as Savior. (Perhaps this could be considered a spoiler, but this was something I knew had to be in there before I read a single page of the book.) I think Van Wey did a reasonably good job of showing Michael’s changing frame of mind leading up to this decision, but I can’t help feeling that all the rest of the book was little more than a way to get people to read that scene – essentially a 300-page tract.

But an enjoyable tract, at least. Van Wey clearly did a good deal of research into the time, place, and events into which he inserts Michael Fields. He doesn’t recreate it in nearly the depth that Diana Gabaldon does in her historical fiction, but I might have been less critical if I hadn’t just finished reading Gabaldon’s books. I learned a chapter of American history that I did not know before – I knew McKinley had been a U.S. president, largely because our local elementary school is named for him (and while I am not certain, I believe Van Wey lives very close to the school), but I did not remember that he had been assassinated, and I knew none of the circumstances surrounding his death.

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