Winter Reading Roundup, Part III: Influential Firsts

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.

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Jane of Austin: A Novel of Sweet Tea and Sensibility, by Hillary Manton Lodge

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.

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Winter Reading Roundup, Part II: Mystery and Middle Grade in WWII Britain

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.

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D, by Michel Faber

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.

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Winter Reading Roundup, Part I: A. Trollope and Christmas short stories

Home for Christmas: Stories for Young and Old (The Plough Publishing House, 2002)

Despite my bias against seasonal short stories, based on a possibly unjustified perception of their predilection for sentimentality, this collection caught my attention. The table of contents featured the names of several prominent twentieth-century writers whom I knew only as novelists (Madeleine L’Engle, Katherine Paterson, Pearl Buck), as well as some particular to my personal history (Selma Lagerlof, Elizabeth Goudge). 

Several selections do circle around the predictable (though nevertheless valuable) theme of generosity at Christmas, but most avoid over-simplification or moralizing. The nativity figures into most of the stories, either by suggestion or as a central narrative feature. I derived greatest enjoyment from “The Riders of St. Nicholas,” by Jack Schaefer, and “The Vexation of Barney Hatch,” by B.J. Chute. The authors of both tales skillfully capture the tone and voice distinctive to their settings. Continue reading

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Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Part II

Like Remains of the Day, Klara rolls along at a steady pace, without extremes of suspense or drama. Nevertheless, the looming potential for tragedy and an emotional investment in the complex characters sustains reader interest.

My husband found the ending disappointingly anticlimactic and open-ended. I concede the point, although I appreciated the artful exploration of themes and questions—human relationships, the nature of belief, what constitutes identity. Certainly no fiction writer worth the paper her book is printed on would admit to smuggling a message into its pages. But if Ishiguro puts forth any discernable proposition it is this: that the love other people bear us is what constitutes the immortal essence of our being. Such a notion inevitably raises—and certainly intends to raise—further questions.

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Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Part I

When I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day a few years ago I found it profoundly thought provoking. I was not surprised to run across an interview recently that highlighted purpose as a theme in Ishiguro’s novels. In Remains of the Day, an aging butler grapples with his changing role—as well as his lifelong loyalties—in the wake of WWII.

Not only the butler but the overall ethos of the book harks back to nineteenth-century conventions. I was therefore intrigued to learn that Ishiguro’s most recent release features an AI (artificial intelligence) protagonist in a futuristic setting. The story opens—and carries on for some time—with Klara in a shop awaiting purchase as an artificial friend (AF) for a child. At length she is bought by the mother of a teen, Josie, who has set her heart on Klara, even though Klara is not the latest model of AF.

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Imagine Wanting Only This, by Kristen Radtke

Imagine Wanting Only This is a graphic nonfiction chronicle of the author’s passage through young adulthood. Two motifs arise early and recur throughout the narrative: the loss of a beloved uncle to a genetic condition that runs in Radtke’s family, and her fascination with ruins—abandoned buildings, historic sites, ghost towns.

The author’s restless quest for something more than “only this” takes her to far-flung destinations: Gary, Indiana, Chicago, Iowa, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, Iceland, Italy, and Europe at large. It propels her to into contemplations of war, ecology, love, and the study of antiquities. Conversations with fellow art students, airplane companions, a priest, a faith healer, a cardiologist, and residents of abandoned mining towns convey and further her ruminations.

Radtke’s unflinching portrayal of emptiness is undeniably unsettling. But I appreciate that she doesn’t offer platitudes about finding satisfaction in, say, self-realization, or achieving one’s potential, or even family or an amorphous “faith.”

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Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis

I first read Till We Have Faces in high school, thirty-plus years ago. Most of it went over my head, and my overall impression was rather dull and dismal–a conception not entirely off the mark, as much of the internal life of Orual, the main character, amounts to that.

But my faith in Lewis, along with a recent renewed interest in fairy stories and Greek mythology, inspired me to try again. I was not disappointed in my expectations of a deeper, richer experience this time around. Lewis considered Till We Have Faces, his final novel, to be his best work.

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Planted, by Leah Kostamo

A friend gave me Planted I’m-not-sure-how-many years ago. She had lived in Vancouver, BC, and participated in a day program at the A Rocha center started by Leah Kostamo and her husband. My friend thought I would appreciate the book’s themes of Christian community and care for the environment.

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