Monday, July 23, 2007

Many Thanks to That Girl on the T

So I'm reading a book that is really amazing and that I really love. It's been on my list for a while, and I wasn't sure how heavy it was going to be. I was inspired to read it because, on the T one day about two years ago, a girl sitting next to me was reading a book in which two priests were having a serious conversation. I read about two sentences, and I thought I should maybe read it. Mostly because they were priests (or monks, it was unclear; now I know that one was a cardinal and one a monk), and priests, though not quite nuns, still make really good novels in my opinion.

So I caught a glance at the spine and went home to put the book on my list. And I never got around to reading it, because it's not like it came with high recommendations or anything. What would bump it to the top? I mean, the list is like 85 books long now.

But the author's name starts with W, and a couple of weeks ago, I was too lazy to run to another part of the library. So I went looking for it--Knowledge of Angels, by Jill Paton Walsh. It turns out it was in the P section, but by the time I realized that, I was on a mission, and I went and found it. And now I'm reading it.

And oh, thank you, thank you, random girl on the T. This book is basically a long, plotty exploration about the existence of God. Does that sound boring? It's not, not at all. On a small island whose prince is also a cardinal, the cardinal is forced to think for the first time about the reality and inevitability of his beliefs. An atheist, a girl raised by wolves, a brilliant monk, and a convent far from the world. This is a book full of good people trying to find truth and do right by man and God, while trying to figure out just what man and God need. This is (so far; I'm about 1/3 of the way through) a brilliant, beautifully written book. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, presumably in 1994 when it was published. You absolutely should read it.

I also want to put in a little plug for Castle Waiting, a sweet little comic by Linda Medley. It's a big fat book, fairy-tale in nature, that's sort of an assortment of "how I ended up here" stories about a motley crew of characters who live cheerfully in an abandoned castle. It doesn't have much of a plot, but it's just so happy and sweet.

I'm all sunshine and rainbows today. The truth is, I've always thought that books about good people doing the right thing, with nothing majorly bad happening to them, were inevitably boring. But I've had a good week of those, which puts me in a fabulous mood. So pick one of these books--seriously, worth it.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Charles Dickens: Enigma

Actually, the post title is shamelessly and unnecessarily sensational. I don't know much about Charles Dickens, but my understanding is that this is due only to my own willed ignorance, and not because history lacks information, if I were only to seek it out. I do know, for example, that he was sadly poor until he inherited some money that an unlikely distant relative had left him. Someone told me that, anyway.

But in school--twice--I was exposed to Great Expectations, and I have to say, I really didn't like it at all. Which is kind of funny, because I remember it as having a reasonably interesting plot and well-crafted characters. I think that part of the problem is that I didn't like anyone in the book--except perhaps for his elderly friend at work, the one who lived with his Aged Parent--what was his name? Anyway, everyone from Pip and Estella, through his initially upstanding roommate who becomes an indebted fool because of Pip, right down through the convict and of course Miss Whatsername in the wedding dress is, in one way or another, a bit of a creep. Oh, not Joe or their maid who (spoiler) Joe ends up marrying--Bessie, was it?--they're good folk and stay that way, which is nice. But my perception of them can't help but be tainted by Pip's disdain throughout most of the book, and I can't love them, by the end, as much as I did at the beginning, though I recognize that they haven't done anything to deserve that assessment.

All this to say that, until now, the above and The Christmas Carol were the only Dickens that I had read. And I'm not fond of him, though, as I said, he does tell a story, and his characters are well-wrought. Why? Well, they tell you he wrote by the word, and I do believe you can hear that in the slow and roundabout way in which every scene unfolds. I feel sometimes like you can see him squeezing extra words in for the money. Does the Establishment agree with me? My only evidence either way is the fact that every teacher who mentioned Dickens to me also mentioned that he was paid by the word--as though they knew that he had something to answer for, and that was the answer they were giving on his behalf.

And now (to the point), I'm listening to an excellent reading of A Tale of Two Cities. And from the beginning, I enjoyed it immensely. I'm still enjoying it, though I'm less certain of where it's going, since we seem to have taken a rather long digression into the affairs of the heart (which I have to say, I've never read convincingly in Dickens--I mean, who could love Estella?). So we have all these characters, and we've learned something about their history, and they're all in love with Miss Manette (audiobook; I don't know how to spell any of the names). But I'm less than halfway done, and I have no idea what's going to happen next. Oh, except the French Revolution. That's been pretty well telegraphed, albeit with historical accuracy. Seriously, how did the aristocracy not see that coming?

But here's my real question; the question that I came here to ask. Sydney Carton, the look-alike lawyer who's a dissolute alcoholic. What did he ever do wrong? He's kind of mopey and insolent, and, as I mentioned, a raging alcoholic. But in the scene I just heard, he proposed to Miss Manette, with no hope in his heart because he's not worthy of her. Now, all suitors in books like this proclaim themselves unworthy of their lady-loves. But both he and she really seem to believe it here. What I want to know is, what did he ever do? He clearly has a bit of a bad-boy attitude--is that enough to rule him out in that day and age? Or is there some hint of a dark secret in his past that I'm not seeing? Or is it a strength of character thing--his slacker mopeyness is enough to rule him out of the marriage pool entirely?

I guess they just had higher standards, but if there IS something he did wrong, and I'm missing it, somebody please let me know.

Seriously, though? This is the most fun I've ever had with Dickens. The reader is great, and, with audiobooks, you sort of half-ignore the slow parts. I'm really excited to be kicking it, Dickens-style, as the young folk say.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Too Much of Nothing

I was supposed to meet Lynne at the library at 5:30. I got there at 4:30. This is a recipe for disaster, and now I have 18 books to read. And it's not 20 only because I exercised a great deal of self-restraint.