I discovered this book shortly after its publication in 2017. My ninety-year-old mother-in-law had developed fairly advanced dementia. But her lifelong appreciation for books, cartography, history, exploration, and the art of illustration had not failed her. The fortuitous coincidence of all those elements allowed us to ramble through these pages together on multiple occasions with some semblance of former camaraderie.
Arranged alphabetically by the names of the explorers, this visually stunning book represents a wealth of information and artistry, not to mention a herculean task of compilation. As the title indicates, it represents excerpts from the sketchbooks of more than seventy explorers and documenters of the natural world. Some names are familiar—John James Audubon, Meriwether Lewis, Carl Linnaeus, David Livingstone—most much less so. Most are men; a little more than a tenth are women.
Among contemporary works of literature, Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) represents a rare combination of engaging storyline, appealing characters, master craftsmanship, and meditation on uncommon virtues. Five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to lifelong house arrest in a luxury hotel. His crime is writing a few lines of verse that the regime takes exception to.
The premise is intriguing though wholly fictional. A Gentleman is not so much a historical novel as a parable of modernism. While the reader waits for the blows of Soviet brutality to fall upon the hero, Towles focuses his attention on subtler evils.
I found this epistolary novel through the Christianity Today 2022 book awards, where it received honorable mention for fiction. The glowing reviews on Amazon countered my usual reluctance to order a book sight unseen. As a very casual birdwatcher (and keeper of pigeons), the idea of bird-watching nuns intrigued me. As the author of an unpublished epistolary novel, the format hooked me. And references to coffee, cancer, and marriage reeled me in.
The idea of a library where every book represents a life you would have lived if you had made one different choice is intriguing. The “two roads diverged in a wood” idea. How many of us haven’t at least wondered what might have happened if we had pursued a different degree, taken a different first job, moved to a different city?
Nora, the protagonist of The Midnight Library lacks, the essential motivation suggested by the title of Matt Haig’s memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive. Having attempted suicide, Nora winds up in a sort of limbo, with the opportunity to choose a different “book.” She even gets to sample them.
Our mother-daughter book club recently elected to read this Newberry Award-winning 1965 historical novel. The reluctance registered by my fifteen-year-old, whose tastes incline heavily toward fantasy, was overridden by academically minded moms. But she soon found it much more interesting than she anticipated.
The 17th-century Spanish setting was, she said, so different as to seem almost another world. As the title suggests, the book is the fictional memoir of Juan de Pareja (1606–1670), an African slave inherited by Spanish court painter Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660). The narrative devotes brief attention to Pareja’s early life, about which little is known. It then follows his journey into the household of Velazquez, who is soon summoned by King Philip IV of Spain to set up a studio in the palace.
My husband and I have been reading out loud to one another since shortly after we got married more than twenty years ago. It all started on Cyprus with A Thousand and One Nights. Sometimes we dip into several books before landing on one we both enjoy. A year ago my husband agreed to sample Pilgrim’s Inn with me. A cousin had given it to me for Christmas, along with its prequel, The Bird in the Tree.
We were both surprised when Pilgrim’s Inn, which many would consider women’s lit, captured my husband’s interest as well as mine. What we didn’t know when we started was that it would turn out to be the perfect read not only for late winter, but for other tough and uncertain times (see note below).
Phantastes, by George MacDonald
The influence of this Scottish author and minister is most famously cited in connection with C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia as well as other works of fiction and nonfiction. But George MacDonald (1824-1905) is often described as the father of modern fantasy and credited with inspiring a host of other early- and mid-twentieth century authors.
I have blogged elsewhere about the suitability of fairy stories for winter reading (click here for the post). December seemed a good time to commence my long-intended re-reading of MacDonald’s classic. When I first read Phantastes some thirty years ago, it left me, in the main, puzzled. Last fall I waded through The Faerie Queen (or rather, let all sixty hours of the audiobook wash over me). Despite my lamentable inattention to Spenser’s meandering masterpiece, familiarity with The Faerie Queen did enhance my appreciation for MacDonald’s imagery and the protagonist’s journey through faerieland.
This rewrite of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility enticed me into a genre (romance) that doesn’t usually tempt me. But the skilled rendering of voices by reader Kate Hanford and the calamities visited upon the Woodward sisters in the early chapters kept me listening to the audiobook.
When West Coast transplants Celia, Jane, and Margot found themselves in Texas, whence hail my antecedents, I was hooked. All of the state’s hospitality, goodwill, gusto, and flavorful cooking come through Texas-style, larger-than-life. If the author isn’t from Texas she must at least have spent some time there.
Thrones, Dominations and A Presumption of Death, by Jill Paton Walsh (and Dorothy Sayers)
Though I’m not a Sayers expert, it seems to me Jill Paton Walsh carries off these post-Sayers Wimsey-Vane mysteries admirably. Sayers, it seems, lost interest in Thrones, Dominations after penning a partial manuscript and some notes. In 1986 the publisher approached Walsh with the manuscript, and she agreed to complete it. (Who wouldn’t?) The result is the first full-length work to pick up with Peter and Harriett’s married life in London. It follows Busman’s Honeymoon, set in Harriett’s hometown of Hertfordshire.
During WWII Sayers published some letters by members of the Wimsey family that provided the public with a glimpse of the Wimseys’ wartime life. These letters provided the inspiration as well as the opening chapters of A Presumption of Death. Harriett, her two children, her nephews, and a niece are back in Hertfordshire. Peter is on the continent doing (what else?) top-secret intelligence work. When a murder takes place during a village air raid, Harriett, of course, agrees to help with the investigation.
The hidden-picture nature of this engaging middle-grade novel accounts for some portion of its appeal: Can you spot the echoes of Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Lewis Carroll, and J.K. Rowling? (Not to mention a host of others with whom I’m likely unacquainted. Literary influences cited by the author alerted me to The Wonderful O, by James Thurber, which I plan to investigate soon.)
D’s protagonist, Dhikhilo, is the adopted daughter of a British couple who make limited appearances in the narrative. The fact that Dhikhilo is born in Somaliland and the presence of immigrants and travelers in her seaside town introduce a diversity theme that carries over into the fantasy realm of Liminus.