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 As the author of an unpublished epistolary novel, the format hooked me.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.
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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.
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.
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
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
It seems natural to follow the foregoing review of Grace, by Natashia Deon, with a review of Some Form of Grace, by Dee Dee Chumley. The settings and stories differ widely, but, as the titles indicate, similar themes run through both books.
At the outset of Some Form of Grace, Gracene is about to be released from a minimum security prison in Oklahoma City. Her mother, she tells us, used to say that upon first laying eyes on her baby she knew the child’s name must be “some form of grace.”
“[The name] ‘suited’ me like a tutu suits a giraffe or like ballet slippers suit size ten clodhoppers,” Gracene contends.