In these monthly posts about books I’ve read, I generally try to keep to one paragraph for each book. But I decided that sometimes there is just more than fits in a paragraph.
It was difficult to figure out what to read for “a book on a subject you know nothing about.” I’ve read about a lot of different subjects over the decades, and I generally know something about the subjects that interest me. How would I find something I didn’t know enough about to go looking for a book about it, that would turn out to be interesting? I could find a biography of someone I had barely heard of, or read the history of some country I had barely heard of, but what was the likelihood I would find that interesting? I thought I might just come across something by chance, but by halfway through the year, I figured I’d better start looking for something.
Someone in a Goodreads discussion on this prompt for the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge suggested reading a microhistory and provided a link to a list. So I looked through the list for something that I knew little or nothing about but thought I would find interesting. What I came up with was Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky. Of course I knew something about cod – I’ve eaten it, and I knew it was a fish. But I realized that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge. I had no idea how big a cod was, how it was caught, any of the history or economics of the cod fishing business, or what was the difference between cod and scrod.
I learned a lot of fascinating information from this book, mostly about history, and how the fishing business affects – and is affected by – economics and politics, even leading to wars. Kurlansky portrays both the big picture, how people in many different countries were involved in the cod fishing business, and also tells the stories of individuals and how their lives have been changed by recent (when the book was written, in 1997) changes due to overfishing in the past decades. I learned about the connections of cod with Spain, where I studied and traveled as a college student, and about the codfish aristocracy of New England, where I grew up. Kurlansky includes a number of recipes from different time periods and cultures, and I thought I’d see if I could find one I wanted to try, but none really appealed to me (most of them use salt cod, and nearly all sound too complicated).
It took me a while to find a book set in a city that has hosted the Olympics. I thought probably one or another book I read would turn out to fit, but with each book, I checked the list of cities and it wasn’t there. (Aru Shah and the End of Time does start out and end in Atlanta, Georgia, but most of the action takes place in the Otherworld.) So I finally started looking through lists of books that fit, from a discussion group on Goodreads for people doing the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge.
When I found a series set in Barcelona, I decided that was what I wanted to read. I visited Barcelona twice when I was studying in Spain in the early 1980’s. La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind) is set in decades before I was born (it starts in 1945, and includes accounts of people’s lives earlier in the twentieth century, including the Spanish Civil War), so it is a much different city than the one I visited, but I recognize two places mentioned, and of course much else about life in Spain.
It had been years since I had read a book in Spanish, but I thought it would be a great way to help evoke the setting in my mind. I was pleased to find that I could follow the story with no trouble, even when I didn’t understand every word. Reading reviews later, I found readers complaining that Carlos Ruiz Zafón uses too many adjectives, two much flowery language, that did not really add to the story. Well, that explains why not understanding it all did not detract from the story. And why there were so many words I wasn’t familiar with.
It starts out with a library and a book, but turns out to be much more about the author than about books. It took a while before I really got engrossed it in (near the end, actually, when the mysteries finally begin to be explained), but I liked it well enough to read more by Ruiz Zafón. The library did not have The Angel’s Game in Spanish, so I read it in English instead. It is a prequel of sorts to The Shadow of the Wind, and it turned out to fit for “a book set in the 1920’s.” Like The Shadow of the Wind, there is a lot of mystery involved. But unlike The Shadow of the Wind, where everything is finally explained (perhaps too neatly?) near the end of the book, in The Angel’s Game there is a good deal left unexplained at the end, which made it less satisfying to me.
I am continuing to reread Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, and this month I read Greenwitch and The Grey King, the third and fourth books in the series. When rereading most books I enjoyed as a child, I enjoy them partly because they are like familiar friends, partly because they are just plain good stories. Rereading this series, I find myself puzzled. Very little is familiar to me, almost nothing in these two books.
In Greenwitch, I didn’t feel all that drawn into the story. I didn’t feel what the characters felt and there was little to make me eager to see how things worked out. I found myself wondering, did I enjoy this series as a child, or do I just remember the fact of having read it? Did I enjoy it more then, because as a child I identified more with the characters than I do now as an adult? Or did I just uncritically enjoy reading just about anything (having no real friends and few interests other than reading)?
I enjoyed The Grey King somewhat more. Here Will is finally having to figure out what to do on his own, without Merriman around to guide him. He still seems to often end up just somehow knowing what to do, based on information put into his mind from the Book of Gramarye, but at least there is more of a sense of quest and discovery. His relationship with Bran Davies also adds to the story. And it’s a bonus that I can understand some of the Welsh phrases used in the book, having been studying it on Duolingo for the past few years.
Finally, as I finished the series with Silver on the Tree, I concluded that I had never in fact finished reading the series when I was younger. There is simply nothing I recognize in the last two books of the series, and when I checked the publication dates, I realized that I was in high school by the time I could have read them, and by then I picked books only from the adult section of the local library, never the children’s section. I’ve no idea what I would have thought of it back then, but now I found the book, like the rest of the series, moderately interesting but with too much of a feel of everything having been scripted to work out according to the prophecies. At the moment help was needed, it always came, whether by Will or Bran suddenly just knowing what to do or to say, or an adult showing up to take care of things.
Back to the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge, for an anthology I picked The Starlit Wood, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe. It is a volume of “cross-genre fairy tale retellings,” which appealed to me as I have found retellings of fairy tales very interesting. Usually I have read full-length retellings, however (such as The Coachman Rat by David Henry Wilson and Briar Rose by Jane Yolen), and short stories don’t appeal to me as much, perhaps because there is less scope for development of complex characters and settings. On the whole I didn’t care a great deal for this book, and one story I simply disliked. But there were a few that I did enjoy enough to look for full-length books by those authors.
One of these was The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss. It’s amazing how differently readers react to different books. Sometimes there are books I have found so-so that other readers rave about. This book I found so enjoyable that I finished it in a little over two days. But others called it boring, cluttered (too many characters), or flat (characters had no depth). There are some books that have so many characters I can’t keep track of them, but this wasn’t one. (Well, a few times I might have gotten two of them briefly mixed up, but not much.) I didn’t find the comments (of the characters reviewing their own story, as written by one of them) interspersed in the narrative at all bothersome. They helped introduce the characters, tease the reader with an idea of events yet to happen, and add humor. And of course I liked the idea that Goss could bring together characters from a variety of other books, including Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, and Dr. Moreau. I haven’t read all of those but know the general idea of their stories.
As I have continued to reread some of C.S. Lewis’s books, this month I read The Four Loves, where he discusses affection, friendship, erotic love, and the love of God. I found some aspects of his thinking very helpful, others less so. When I first read this, as a college student, it was about four decades since it had been written. Now another four decades have passed, and I had to keep reminding myself that in England in the 1940’s, his cultural assumptions (particularly about men and women) were probably very mainstream, but they are rather jarring today.
Another book with statements I found somewhat jarring was Mystical Paths, fifth in Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series that I have been rereading. The narrator is Nick Darrow (son of Jonathan Darrow, who is the central character in the second book), and he keeps translating the “code-language” of traditional Christian discourse into psychological explanations. For instance, Nick tells a friend, “You’ve got to live an authentic existence by being true to your real self! That’s the point about Christ – he was uniquely integrated, he wasn’t at the mercy of a false ego, he was wholly at one with God’s design for him, and that’s why we have to ‘follow Jesus’ – ‘following Jesus’ is code-language signalling that because he’s the finest example there’s ever been of what it means to be fully human, we have to tread in his footsteps if we want to reach our maximum potential.”
Certain Jesus Christ was uniquely integrated and wholly at one with God’s design for him, but is that “the point about Christ”? I kept reminding myself that just because Nick thinks in terms of Jesus as the greatest healer who ever lived and someone who was uniquely integrated, that doesn’t mean Nick didn’t believe he was the Son of God. Nick does make regular use of the Orthodox prayer (he calls it a mantra) “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” though his use of the prayer is to help him “tune in” to God when simply “flipping the switch” in his head does not work and he has to use words.
Each book of the series explores a different tradition within the Church of England, while following a character who has gone “off the rails” spiritually and needs someone to help him come to repentance and reconciliation with God and then with other people. The plot is largely about Nick trying to find out how his friend Christian died, but it’s really about Nick struggling with his identity and trying to untangle his very complicated relationship with his father. Nick is a very annoying character sometimes, but as with the rest of the series, I enjoy the writing (Howatch is a good storyteller) and seeing how people with such different views of Christianity learn to make it real in their lives.