Book Review, Classics, E.H. Gombrich, Fiction, Historical Fiction, History, Mario Puzo, Non-Fiction, Potpour-reads, S.E. Hinton, Young Adult

The Outsiders, The Godfather, and A Little History

In this fourth “potpour-reads” post, I put together some thoughts on three classics, including two works of fiction and one of non-fiction. The first fiction classic is classified by Penguin as a “modern classic” and is sometimes categorized further into “young adult,” although I don’t think that is necessary. The second fiction classic is notoriously known for being simultaneously the author’s least successful stylistically but also the most successful commercially. Finally, the non-fiction classic is an adult adaptation of a history book that was originally written for children, then updated many years later. Each of these books was read in June, 2018, and the covers shown are for the editions that I read.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

This is a book that I have had on my “TBR” shelf for probably 20+ years. I honestly have no idea what took me so long to read it, especially considering how many people love it. Perhaps that was part of my apprehension, actually, because who wants to be “that guy” who hates a book everyone else finds so amazing? Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. The story takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1965. At the heart of the story is its narrator, Ponyboy Curtis (yes, that’s his real name) whose parents have died and left him and his elder brother Sodapop in the care of their eldest brother, Darry. The three teenagers are members of the lower-working class and belong to a type of gang called “Greasers.” Their rivals are the wealthy gang from the better part of town, called the “Socs” (short for “Socials”). One of the more gripping elements of the novel is the intimate look at family and friendship, and especially the way that young men take care of each other when they have no parents or guardians willing or able to do the job. The boys often refer to each other with terms of endearment usually restricted to romantic partners, which provides insight into how close they are and how much they would be willing to risk for one another. They are “boys,” though, and masculine stereotypes abound: duty, honor, manhood, etc. These “values” get the young men into plenty of trouble, from gang fights to murder, to a questionable suicide. What makes the almost clichéd nature of it all (a girl named “Cherry”?) worth it is the complexity of character that so many of the Greasers have, especially the sensitivity of the poet and the artist, Ponyboy and Johnny. By the end, almost without realizing it, I had begun to root for these kids, just as many of the townspeople do. This is a book that has certainly “stayed gold” after all these years. (I’m killing myself after learning that Hinton wrote the book when she was in high school and published it when she was 18 – my god!)

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

This is another book I have been meaning to read for years, ever since I discovered that it was a book and not just a movie. The Godfather trilogy is my favorite film series of all-time; so, much like The Outsiders, I suppose I was subconsciously reluctant to read it because I wondered if it would withstand my close scrutiny. I mean, I basically grew up on this movie! Unlike The Outsiders, though, Mario Puzo’s book was just “okay,” for me. It is one of those rare instances where the film really outdoes the original material, and I think a lot of that is thanks to the genius of Francis Ford Coppola and the many incredible actors hired for the film(s). The novel itself is interesting and I did enjoy it, and probably would have even if I weren’t already so familiar with the story. Some of the positives, in fact, include the detailed sub-plots that did not make it into any of the movies, such as the storyline for Johnny Fontaine. At first, I wondered why he was getting so much page time since his character was so insignificant in the film, but the book does more than make it work. I also enjoyed reading this as an American immigrant story. Even though Vito Corleone’s back story does not get nearly as much attention as is provided in The Godfather II, there are enough recognizable bits of it. I was reminded, while reading, that this is one of the few books in college I was assigned to read but never did. The point was to read it as an immigrant novel, and I think having done so (in an academic setting) would have been interesting. Instead, I focused on other things while relying on my knowledge of the film to get me through discussions. Whoops! I did find that the book was fairly well written, though not the kind of evocative prose or description I was expecting. Puzo himself expressed that he wrote this book for money and in desperation, so I’m confident that he would agree with me that this isn’t a stellar work. Still, it’s a good one and it lent itself perfectly for the franchise it would birth.

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich

This book is, well, how can I put it other than to say, it is darling. Who knew a history book could be precious? As it turns out, Gombrich originally wrote the book in German and for children, and it was a wild success, until World War II happened and the Nazis banned it. Many years later, he rewrote and expanded the book for adults and translated it himself into English for a bigger market audience. One can tell by much of the phrasing that it was originally written for children, but I did not find this a distraction. The history is accurate and thorough enough (though very concise) for an adult reader to appreciate it, and yet there is a strong sense of wonder and awe in the prose and style. Gombrich invites the reader to engage with multiple historical events as they happen concurrently, which has always been my favorite way to approach the study of history (otherwise I can never remember what was happening at the same time as whatever else). In this way, it is one of the favorite pieces of popular history I have ever read. That said, it is clear that Gombrich studied art (his doctorate was earned in art history), because he spends a lot of time focusing on the artistic elements of each event and looking at what was happening in history through an artistic lens. Many of his analogies have to do with art or music. This style might not work for everyone, but it was fine for me. I also appreciated two important features: first, Gombrich writes about the many religions with equal respect and detail. This is really uncommon in many popular histories, and even academic ones, so call it a pleasant surprise! He also treats religion as the historical feature it is, within the context of each culture, yes, but also in relation (drawing the lines between Christ and Mohammed, for example.) I found this beyond helpful, and so fascinating! The second important feature is that he corrected information in previous editions. Where he had made an error, he explicitly pointed it out and amended that information for the new edition. In both ways, he demonstrated a trustworthy ethos–always important, but even more so these days. This is a book that will remain on my shelf permanently.

 

Standard
Book Review, Christopher Phillips, Death and Dying, Fiction, George Saunders, Grief/Recovery, Historical Fiction, LGBT, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Potpour-reads, Will Walton, Young Adult

Lincoln, Socrates, and A Funeral

In this third “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in June. Somehow, none of these books are ones from any of my challenge lists. Go figure. I read Lincoln in the Bardo because it is getting a lot of attention and because it sounded interesting. I read Socrates Café because I have been pivoting toward philosophy and history pretty heavily in the last couple of months (since January, really, when I began my focused study of Stoicism); and I read I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain largely based on the recommendation of the incomparable Andrew Smith, who has not steered me wrong, yet.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is unlike anything I have ever read. It is a contemporary postmodernism married with black humor and historical fiction. As a first novel, it seems a stunning achievement, though this is the first Saunders work I have read at all, so I do not know how it compares to his short stories. (I’ve had Tenth of December sitting on my shelf for years, having purchased it only a few weeks after it was published; it is safe to say I plan to get to it sooner rather than later, now.) Essentially, Saunders combines historical accounts of Lincoln’s life and presidency with fictional ones that he creates, and then interweaves in almost testimonial fashion between the narrative portion, which is told by a trio of bizarre ghosts who meet one of Lincoln’s sons and, through him, the President himself. I’ve read a number of reviews that found the humor in this book to be off-putting and even inappropriate. I can understand their point, as some of the bawdy comedy does seem to come out of left-field. And yet, I can’t help thinking about what I’ve learned about Lincoln’s sense of humor over the years. It seems to me that he would actually appreciate the irreverent take on his life and legacy, particularly as it highlights the elements of human nature that Saunders explores, here, including fear, sexuality, death, mental health, and loneliness. It is safe to say that I did not know what to expect of Lincoln in the Bardo, even after reading the description and other reviews. Then, when reading the book, it somehow managed to be even more different than I thought it would be. In this way, I think, it deserves all the praise it has received as a contemporary masterpiece and a novel approach to, well, the novel. I was also thrilled that Saunders explored a lot of contemporary issues that are actually historical, yet would have been “taboo” for discussion in Lincoln’s time

Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips

I have been reading much more non-fiction, lately, including history and philosophy. I stumbled upon Christopher Phillips’s Socrates Café while perusing the philosophy section of Barnes & Noble for contemporary overviews (I’ve been in a kind of “self-help” exploratory approach to the history of philosophy, I guess.) Despite reading the blurb, this is another book that caught me slightly off-guard and was not what I had expected. It is in many ways a reference guide to creating your own Socrates Café, something I had never considered and yet left the book feeling, “well, why the hell not?” I loved Phillips passion, though I did sometimes feel like the examples he gave from his own cafes around the country seemed a little far-fetched. Maybe they did happen, I don’t know, but he himself says that most of this was reconstructed after the fact, so I can’t help thinking he added a bit more flair and impressive insight than might have occurred originally. (So many of his café participants seemed to know so much about philosophy, for example, and could quote a range of philosophers from memory.) In this way, I found the book might be setting false expectations for people who are using it as a guide to beginning their own Socrates Cafe. That said, as a generally interested reader, one who is on his own journey to learn more about ancient philosophies andto think more thoughtfully about the current world, this book does an excellent job of putting the two together. In the end, it did make me want to get out there and engage with other thoughtful people, to ask big and small questions without expecting concrete answers, and to wonder gleefully about all manner of things. I think, then, Phillips does what he set out to do: make philosophy exciting again.

I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain by Will Walton

Like Lincoln in the Bardo, Will Walton’s young adult novel about grief and loss, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a creative approach to narrative (and verse) fiction. It was also not what I expected from the blurb and from reading other reviews, and yet somehow ended up being much more satisfying, much more curious, than I imagined it would be. I’ve been let down by “hype” on too many occasions, as I think we all have, but in this case, I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain lives up to the hype without necessarily living up to expectations. I’m not sure how to clarify that except to say, even though the book did not meet my expectations, I ended up appreciating it and what it does in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. This is mostly due to its construction and to the fact that, somehow, Walton manages to create that sense of grief in his text, the confusion, the sense of drowning, the psychological wandering we do when we have lost someone important to us. There are a lot of books about grief and loss, some of them are beautiful in the way they treat the subject or in the language they use to explore it. Walton’s is beautiful because, inexplicably, it simply reads like the experience of grief. I think back to a time when I most felt a terrible loss and can easily connect those feelings to the way this narrative is told and the way it unfolds, in choppy segments, in distant characterization, and in the interplay of concrete prose and transcendent verse. My only personal critique was that I felt, sometimes, like some of the segments read as if they were creative prompts inserted for the sake of it, and not as if they developed along the course of this particular story. That said, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a special book that explores a difficult topic in a unique way. It is unlike anything else on the market this year.

Standard
Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Coming-of-Age, Fantasy, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Horror, Middle Grade, Mythology, Potpour-reads, Rick Riordan, Stephen King, Thriller, Young Adult

A Garden, A Maze, A Sematary*

In this second “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in May. The Secret Garden was a title on my Classics Club Challenge list. The Burning Maze is third in the Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan, and I read Pet Sematary because a new film adaptation is supposedly in the works and I tend to get caught up in that sort of thing. 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I recently read The Secret Garden as part of my Classics Club Challenge, after many years of seeing it come and go from my various TBR lifts and shelves. I’ve been meaning to read this book for years but have always put it off, probably because, subconsciously, I thought of it as a children’s book – a sorry excuse indeed because why should that matter? How many children’s books, especially classics, have I read and loved? Nevertheless, I have these tendencies, as I’m sure all readers do, to approach my reading with certain prejudices, and this being both a “child’s” book and a “girl’s” book, I wondered, isn’t it likely to be well beyond my interest at this point? Of course, then I actually started reading the book and couldn’t stop myself thinking, where has this book been all my life? Confession time? I guess I’m a bit of a reading diva, and it’s pretty stupid.

Anyhow, The Secret Garden begins in India under British colonial rule. We are introduced to the protagonist in this way: “When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too.” Hilarious. Who begins a children’s book by dissing the main character’s appearance!? Something about that opening, and the honesty of the narrator throughout, drew me into the story and had me feeling equal hatred and empathy for little Mary and even little Colin, her cousin, both of whom are really rather terrible little brats at the beginning. But then a farm boy named Dickon starts to come around, and the secret garden is discovered, and the magic of humanity found in friendship, childish wonder, and the natural world begins to do its work. And it’s stunning and romantic in the best way imaginable.

For some reason, I thought this book was going to be more of a magical realism/mystery/fantasy kind of tale. It is actually firmly rooted in naturalism and realism; it is a coming-of-age tale that expresses magic in the everyday experience, and in the way children, even horribly disagreeable ones, can grow and change into wonderful people, given the right environment, the best challenges, and some great friends. I wasn’t expecting this kind of story, but it was exactly the kind I needed at the time of reading it. And Dickon, the nature sprite who is all things dirt and animal, plant and hill, is now one of my favorite characters of all-time. If Burnett had written a sequel from Dickon’s perspective, I could easily imagine it becoming a favorite of mine. The other characters, including the adults, are human enough and just present enough to matter without getting in the way of the children’s’ tale, which is and should be front and center. There are some very adult themes, a truly underlying sadness, and some dark commentary on colonialism, which makes reading this one as an adult all the more interesting and moving.

Now the real question: Should I watch the movie? Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0.

The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan

The Burning Maze is Book Three in the Trials of Apollo series. Apollo has been sent to earth in the form of a pudgy, pimply teenage boy, largely without any kind of godly power at all, and is tasked with helping the Roman and Greek demigods fight the horrors of the Triad: three evil, dangerous, and powerful former Roman Emperors with plans to take over the world. Beneath their plot, even, lies the power of Apollo’s most feared antagonist, Python, the god of snakes. As is typical with Riordan’s books, the pace is fast and the plot is fun. There is a lot to learn regarding roman mythology, especially, and that is always exciting for me. There is also a bit of tragedy in this third book, one that the reader is somewhat eased into but that is nevertheless difficult for those who have been invested in the two Roman series’ so far.

In this third installment, we learn much more about Meg, the twelve-year-old demigod who is essentially Apollo’s “master,” and her background. Some old and familiar characters from other books in this series, as well as the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series’, reappear. As with many of the other books, this one follows a certain formula that readers of Riordan’s books should come to expect; Burning Maze even revisits one of the original Percy Jackson battlegrounds, the Labyrinth, but in this case the visit is short and sweet, and the maze then becomes an underlying menace rather than a place of action for the entire plot.

Riordan has also taken more and more chances with his books over the years, something he began with (I think) the Heroes of Olympus series and then carried over into the Magnus Chase books (I have not kept up with the Kane Chronicles, unfortunately, so I can’t speak to that one). Riordan is an outspoken LGBTQ ally, for example, and a number of LGBTQ+ characters have been written into the stories, some major and some minor. This has been extraordinarily exciting to witness in the middle grade genre, and it has been particularly effective, I think, because Riordan does a nice job of delicately handling the reality of “coming out” with the kinds of reactions his queer characters receive from other characters, mostly accepting but sometimes with shock, wonder, curiosity, etc. The humor is still excellent, as are the character relationships. One of the most interesting and rewarding elements is the way that Apollo is growing from book-to-book. One of the themes of all the Riordan novels is how flippantly the gods take their relationships with humanity and their human children. The fascinating piece of this series is that we have a god who has been made human and who is now experiencing all that it is to be human, which is changing him in very profound ways. It is a smart and meaningful take on the modern myth series. Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I was going to check my Goodreads account to see how many King novels I have read so far and where this one falls in that line, but I realized it would take more time than I’m willing to give it. We’ll just say, I’ve read a lot of Stephen King. The reason why I like King so much is actually not because I like horror/thrillers (it’s quite frankly not a genre I read very often). Instead, I like King because he has so much to say about the human psyche and human instinct. Pet Sematary is considered to be one of King’s most chilling horror novels and, while I don’t think it’s really his scariest or goriest or any of that, I can agree with the assessmentbecauseit treats the human condition in such an honest, and horrible, way.

The book is about Dr. Louis Creed and his young family, all of whom move to Ludlow, Maine so that Creed can take a job as a University physician. The majority of the novel is background, character building, and scene-setting. Almost all of the real action, the terror, takes place in the third and final section, which is much shorter than the first two. This helps create a false sense of security throughout most of the book while simultaneously allowing the ending to be much more dramatic and exhilarating, even unexpected (if anything from King can be considered unexpected – maybe that’s silly!) The horror begins when Creed’s daughter’s cat is killed and Creed’s neighbor, perhaps against his will, shares a secret that is better left unknown. This sets forth a series of ominous events that increase in impact and effect, until at last, a force beyond anyone’s control grips Ludlow, especially the Creeds, and begins to pull all the strings.

Pet Sematary was written between 1979-1982 and then published in 1983. King was reluctant to send it out to his publishers because he himself was so concerned with what he wrote, and it is not hard to understand why. Few popular novels that I can think of at this time so honestly and deeply addressed the lengths to which a person will go in order to ease an unthinkably painful emotional and psychological burden. Creed is suffering the worst pain imaginable, as is his wife, and his grief causes him to be compelled further and further down a path he knows is horribly dangerous and morally wrong. How can a man be driven to make all the wrong steps? In small increments and through tiny justifications and false ratiocination (as Poe would call them), until, without realizing what is happening, the decisions have been made and the actions have been taken, and all hell has broken loose.

Pet Sematary reminded me very much of King’s other most popular of horror novels, IT. The ominous force is even described as “IT” –an unnamed thing—and various points in the novel. I wonder if King was already working on that idea as early as 1979, even though IT itself did not appear until 1986. There are so many similarities, but the most prominent is the theme of evil as an uncontrollable force of human nature: good and smart and decent people being compelled to do terrible things. What is scarier than that? Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0. 

Standard
Book Review, Fantasy, Fiction, Halloween, Horror, Middle Grade, Ray Bradbury, Young Adult

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

“The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across. And the town was full of . . . boys. And it was the afternoon of Halloween” (3). Thus, begins Ray Bradbury’s entertaining, eerie, and historically fascinating middle grade novel, The Halloween Tree (1972). At the center of the novel is a group of nine boys, eight of whom come galloping out of their respective houses, doors slamming joyously behind them as they run to greet each other for the start of what should be a raucously fun evening trick-or-treating. When they meet up, however, they soon realize that their dear friend, Pipkin, is missing. And Pipkin never misses Halloween.

Soon enough, the aptly named Tom Skelton, leader of this rag-tag little gang of festive Illinoisans, leads the group to Pip’s house, where they discover their friend disturbingly melancholy. Pipkin is usually the “boy’s boy,” the one who holds the whole group together and who ensures a good time is had by all, every time. But tonight, on Halloween, he seems to be fading fast. What could be wrong with him? And how can this gang of eight help their dear friend before it is too late?

The answer arrives, ominously, at the haunted house near the end of the neighborhood’s main street, where lives a mysterious man named Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud. This beastly specter invites the boys through a rollicking tour of world history, spanning eons of time and a number of cultures, from the ancient Egyptians to the classical French, to Mexican catacombs. Each time and place has one thing in common, though: it is Halloween night and Pip, or some version of him, is there, and he is in trouble.

Bradbury’s prose is swift and exotic, with a lyricism that will be familiar to anyone who has read his adult novels, such as Something Wicked this Way Comes and Dandelion Wine. Somehow, the spooky mystery of his stories is echoed by the fluid but ominous style he employs. The reader is both seduced by and weary of the poetic form applied. Is it a soft and simple beauty, or is it the call of a siren leading us to our doom? The boys’ own adventure is wrapped-up in a similar question. Surely, the young men have a marvelous time. They are whisked along by magic, beginning with a tree filled with pumpkin poltergeists and ending with the discovery of their friend buried alive in another country, at another time. How bizarre to be with these boys, exhilarated by their journey and yet tensely aware of the thread of danger weaving its way through the narrative.

In the end, the boys must decide, together, whether they will sacrifice a part of themselves in order to save their friend. What is a Pipkin worth, to boys like these? What is the price of friendship, and is it ever too great?

I stumbled across this one quite randomly at Barnes & Noble about a month ago. I had never heard of it, but it stuck out to me like a Jack O’ Lantern in the midnight darkness of All Hallow’s Eve – beckoning, take me home! And I did. As a fan of Bradbury, and a deep lover of Halloween (I was married on that day, after all!) I was not let down by The Halloween Tree. I think it is sure to become an annual October read. What a ride! Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes

“The Romans cut the Druids, their oaks, their God of the Dead, bang! down! And put in their own gods, eh? Now the Christians run and cut the Romans down! New altars, boys, new incense, new names . . .” (79).

“Every town has its resident witch. Every town hides some old Greek pagan priest, some Roman worshiper of tiny gods who ran up the roads, hid in culverts, sank in caves to escape Christians! In every tiny village, boy, in every scrubby farm the old religions hide out” (85).

“A religion gets big, yes? A religion gets big! How. With buildings large enough to cast shadows across an entire land. Build buildings you can see for a hundred miles. Build one so tall and famous it has a hunchback in it, ringing bells” (91).

“They went down the steps in single file and with each step down the dark got darker and with each step down the silence grew more silent and with each step down the night became deep as a well and very black indeed and with each step down the shadows waited and seemed to lean from walls and with each step down strange things seemed to smile at them from the long cave which waited below” (125).

Standard
Contemporary, Nic Stone, Race, Young Adult

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin by Nic Stone is a timely and important fictional account of the kinds of news stories we hear all too often in the United States lately. Justyce McAllister is a brilliant young man who is mistaken for a criminal and who witnesses one of the worst injustices imaginable. The two incidents cause him to question himself, his place in the world, and his long-held beliefs about race, privilege, opportunity, and justice.

To cope with his thoughts and emotions after the fist incident, where Justyce is brutalized by a Latino police officer, he begins to write letters to Dr. Martin Luther King. The letters are both explorations of himself and questions about society. These letters are interwoven into the story of Justyce’s life, including his growing struggles at school, where he had been at the top of his class and quickly headed to the Ivy League, as well as his difficulties in love, confusions about place and race, and stresses between himself and his best friend, another black teenager who responds differently to the racial tensions surrounding them.

At the heart of this novel are the teachings of Dr. King and Malcolm X. The question of when it is necessary to act or to listen, to proceed with nonviolent resistance, or to radicalize for necessary change. To be peaceful or to rage. What do we do when our own mother tells us we cannot love the person we love simply because of the color of her skin? What do we do when our lifelong friends’ racism becomes more and more obvious, and troubling? How do we choose an identity when we are split between two worlds and do not really belong to, or are accepted by, either one? How do you deal with the pain of discovering the world is not what you thought it was and that your place in it is more precarious than you ever realized? 

So much of what is happening in the world, and in our country specifically right now, is both reflected in and articulated by Nic Stone’s honest, biting, dangerous, beautiful coming-of-age story. Justyce McCallister is so many of us, and so many young people we know. And yet his is a story that continues, though we know it shouldn’t, and goes unspoken and unattended, despite the attentions we pretend to give it. Stone’s novel, like Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, is a modern-day must-read.

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0. 

Standard
Fantasy, Madeleine L'Engle, Religion, Science-Fiction, Young Adult

The Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time (1962)

“It was a dark and stormy night.” The first book in the Time Quintet is the most well-known and recognizable. The book is classified as “science fantasy,” which is to say, science-fiction but also with elements of fantasy (the three traveler-guides who are often perceived as types of witches, for example, though I would argue this is a misreading). Of the five books in the series, this one is often rated as “third best,” for whatever that is worth, but I think it is my favorite. Partly, I must admit, this is nostalgia. I grew up with this story, it was my sister’s favorite, and I read it before reading any of the others (this was a re-read). That being said, if I am being honest, it is probably not the best of the five. What it lacks in, say, plot, it makes up for in other places, though, such as characterization. L’Engle understands how to draw a character in clear and in subtle ways. We know who the protagonist Meg is; her actions are not always noble, but they are always consistent to her character and ultimately work toward the good. We know who young Charles Wallace, the special genius, is, and how a boy wonder, untested, might find his first challenge is a struggle with his own ego; and we know who Calvin is, and why he belongs with the others despite not being one of their siblings. Without this first installment, I would find it difficult to understand or care about any of the characters in the later books, including An Acceptable Time, which deals with a new protagonist and, for the first time, the first-hand experiences of the Murry parents. I also much prefer the three mysterious guides, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, far more than the guides in any of the later books (although Gaudior the Unicorn from A Swiftly Tilting Planet might come close). Ultimately, what I love about this book is its unabashed embracing of science, including the wonder and, yes, the magic of reality, great and small. It also introduces a common theme to be explored in later books: the nature of good and evil, moral and immoral, selflessness and selfishness. If I have one complaint, it is the ending – where did they go? And why don’t we see them again? (Who? Read the book.) My Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0.   

A Wind in the Door (1973)

“If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate.” This second in the series picks up not long after the first. It takes the elements of morality (one might even say the human soul) and science, and merges them together in seemingly impossible ways. What if we could connect every single element of all that we know, from the grand scale of the full universe to the smallest, most miniscule and unobservable atom within us, and discover that they function in a delicate relationship? In this second book, L’Engle’s exploration of religious faith (particularly Christian) and its co-existence with scientific fact begins to come more clearly into focus. Suddenly, the books begin to speak as spiritual tracts and as scientific treatises. Who does that? Well, not many, and perhaps this is what has so fascinated readers of this series for so very long, the idea that one need not prefer or subordinate a belief system to a scientific understanding of the universe, or vice versa. Of the five books in the series, I think this one is the most interesting and in some ways the most playful, as it has a Magic School Bus for grown-ups kind of attitude about it; however, the story gets repetitive at points, and the dénouement, though rather beautiful, is a bit rushed and anti-climactic. Characterization also gives way to plot and purpose, in this case, which is why I think it is important to start with A Wrinkle in Time, otherwise we might care about what is happening to Charles Wallace, but we might not understand Meg’s and Calvin’s actions quite as well. (The introduction of the anti-hero principal, though, was both funny and powerfully moving).  My Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978)

“People are afraid of knowledge that is not yet theirs.” Of the five books in this series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet is my least favorite. It jumps ahead in time by 7 or 8 years, and gives us Charles Wallace, at 15, as protagonist. The premise is absolutely fascinating: the world is on the brink of destruction, and only by visiting important moments of the past and making the one single change, at the precise right moment, will that destruction be avoided. Charles Wallace, via, somehow, Calvin O’Keefe’s mother, becomes a time traveler, with the help of an ancient Celtic rune and a magic, time-traveling unicorn named Gaudior. The one thing I found most irksome about this installment was its repetition. An evil force from A Wind in the Door is re-introduced, and the pattern Meg and Calvin followed on the tiniest scale as set in the last installment, is now followed by Charles Wallace, but in a much grander way, through time and space rather than at the cellular level, within a human body. Gaudior is funny at times, and while not emotive, he eventually becomes a kind of friend and protector for Charles Wallace. The historical episodes introduced, and the patterns of mythologies traced from the ancient Celts to the Native Americans, down to South America, and finally to present-day New England, is definitely thrilling. The fact that much of the mystery unfolds through discoveries made in textual evidence, like books and journals, also tugs at the heart-strings of any reader/writer. But the flow is choppy and Charles Wallace is, in my opinion, not well-served by the manner in which he travels. He is much too much an interesting character to have been relegated to a type of “body snatcher” whose experience is actually related through Meg’s psychic connection with him. That said, L’Engle continues her pursuit of bridging the world’s mythologies with scientific and technological advancements in an effort to highlight the ethics and morality, and necessary limitations, of intellectual pursuits, as well as human hubris. My Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0.  

Many Waters (1986)

“In the coolness just before morning she liked to go sit on one of the great exposed rocks and rest, and listen to the slow song of the setting stars.” Sandy and Dennys Murry, the brilliant but practical siblings in a genius but often impractical family, finally get their adventure in this fourth installment, and it is one of the best. Although the fourth book in the series, this one is actually set between A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The children are all still living at home, but when everyone else is away for the day, the twins–messing irresponsibly with their mother’s experiment–accidentally transport themselves to another time, which they mistake as a distant and different planet. The people are shorter, the language is different, the sun is hotter, the land dryer, and the technology non-existent. When Sandy and Dennys are discovered by the natives of this brave new world, which turns out to be their own ancient world, they are mistaken for giants or angels. Readers soon discover this is because both giants and angels exist in this time, and in this place, which is the land of Canaan just before the flood. In this antediluvian setting, Sandy and Dennys must figure out both what their purpose is in being there—was it God’s plan?—and also how to get home before the Nephilim, the fallen angels, decide they are too dangerous to their plans for world domination. With a little help from Noah’s family and the Seraphim, the teenagers manage to mend Noah’s relationship with his father and essentially save the entire human race. L’Engle makes a clear turn toward not just mythologies/faith systems in general, but the Christian religion (readers familiar with the Book of Genesis will recognize a lot of familiar names and places). Again, science and faith work together to tell a cohesive tale, rather than competing with each other in a dichotomy. Of the five books in this series, Many Waters is the most distinct, though it does reference events in prior books, and it is the most patient and complete of the stories; it never feels rushed, nor does it end too soon. My Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0.

An Acceptable Time (1989)

“I’m grateful every day that I can read and write. I don’t underestimate knowledge. But we get into trouble when we confuse it with truth.” In this final installment of the Time Quintet, L’Engle takes us a generation into the future, installing as her protagonist, Meg and Calvin’s daughter, Polly. Once again, L’Engle demonstrates her mastery of character: she understands who these people are, how they think, and what are their motivations. This is fortunate because some of the characters re-appearing from the previous novels are treated more fully, here, and we realize they are not necessarily what we expected. Are the brilliant Drs. Murry really so narrow-minded? Does the fact that they are grandparents, now, make them more cautious over Polly than they were over their own children, or were they simply not accepting the reality of their children’s adventures in the first place? After getting this far into the series, it was a surprise to be surprised by some of these characters’ actions, but in understanding their motivations, things turn out to be rather consistent after all. In addition to the Drs. Murry, we are introduced to Zachary, a semi-romantic interest for Polly, whose personality and described physiognomy are alarming from the first. He, too, remains rather consistent throughout, even to the point of disgusting the reader. In contrast are the Bishop and the native people, whom Polly and the Bishop (and Zachary) meet when a centuries’-old time circle overlaps their own, so that they can cross the time-space barrier. In this way, L’Engle again manages to place at the center of her story a discussion of religion (monotheism and polytheism, mythologies, druids, modern Christianity) with scientific possibilities. Most importantly, L’Engle explores the concepts of charity and forgiveness. What does it take to forgive someone who has committed the ultimate betrayal? The nature of evil, too, is treated with more finesse and complexity. Is it fair to call what is seemingly necessary, evil? While most of the original young cast of characters is absent from this tale, Polly is a wonderful addition: curious, gracious, flawed. Her journey to understand the universe, to understand faith, and to understand people & human nature, makes for an interesting and complex finale to a series that asks these questions consistently throughout. My Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0.

Ultimately, I have to say that I am thrilled to have finally read this entire series. I most appreciate that L’Engle finds equal space for religious and scientific exploration, without making these antithetical the way so many do, as if we must choose one way or the other. Even though I do not follow her faith, I think this is a unique success for her series. Also, for the longest time, I had no idea that A Wrinkle in Time had even one sequel, let alone four! I do eventually want to read the related novels that deal with some of the same cast (and I assume similar themes). Someday. For now, L’Engle’s Time Quintet has definitely made its way onto my “favorite series'” list. It hovers somewhere under Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and His Dark Materials, but above Chronicles of Narnia and maybe even the Percy Jackson books. Gasp! 

Standard
Arthurian Legend, Celtic Mythology, Fantasy, Susan Cooper, Young Adult

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

Simon, Jane, and Barnabas Drew are on a summer trip with their parents, visiting their mysterious uncle in Trewissick, a small and ancient village, just outside the limits of Cornwall, England. It is fabled that Cornwall is the land of that once and future King, Arthur Pendragon. After discovering an ancient map in the attic of the “Grey House,” which their parents have rented for the holiday, the kids are soon sucked into events beyond their years and beyond their control. As the children are quick to discover, the village is rife with members of the “Dark” – forces who seek to find the Holy Grail and use its power for evil. The Drew siblings, with a little help and protection from their Uncle Merry (who is more than he appears) and dog Rufus, must learn to read the map, understand its clues, and find the Grail before the Dark can get to it. 
Though I enjoyed this book overall, the biggest complaint I have is its lack of character development, depth, or description. The reader spends most of his time with the three Drew children, but I for one never really got a grasp on each of their individual personalities, or even the simple things like what they look like (aside from Barney’s light-colored hair) or how old they are. Even by the end of the book, I honestly felt like I had to create their images and personalities almost entirely in my head. The mysterious Uncle Merry, too, only gets a decent description in the last few pages, though he’s had many “on page” moments. The parents are nearly entirely on the periphery, as they tend to be in many of these YA Fantasy books where the kids are the heroes, and while I felt I had a small understanding of the father, there wasn’t much for the mother (who, as an artist, could have been a wonderful opportunity). Bill Hoover Jr. and Mr. and Miss Withers were okay, as was Hastings and Mrs. Palk. Still, these were characters who were all, in some way, antagonistic toward the main characters, and only as effective as in relation to the Drew children, who were sadly under-developed.

Fortunately, though the book lacked depth and growth in its characters, it was very well written. The prose is engaging and a bit challenging (in a good way); more so than, say, the Chronicles of Narnia series, which is likely written for the same age group and for readers of similar interests. Dialogue is spot on, too, and Cooper does a nice job of linking characters’ thoughts or dialogue with facial expressions, body movements, etc. When Rufus the dog is scared or angry, for instance, it is described both in the physical manifestations, as well as the sounds and actions the dog makes. There is a bit more “telling” than showing, where human characters are involved, but not so much so as to be distracting or to detract from the enjoyment of the plot in action.

What completely surprised me about this book, because it was not hinted at in the book’s description, was that the crux of the fantasy element and good v. evil power struggle in this book is the Arthurian legend. The legend of Merlin and Arthur, the quest for the Holy Grail and its disappearance, etc., is something I am fascinated with in general. So, when I discovered that this is where the book was leading, the plot became suddenly much more interesting and enjoyable. Having this legend as the driving force for the story also added a deeper level of meaning for the fantasy itself; battles between good and evil, with supernatural elements, magical beings, ancient languages and all, can be and often are very interesting motivators for a fantasy plot, but when those elements are interwoven with another ancient legend, and those specific elements of the legend start to play out in the new story’s plot (which takes place centuries later), it’s a different kind of magic. It reminds me of what Riordan does with his mythology series’ (Percy Jackson, The Kane Chronicles, etc.) – using modern places and events + contemporary storytelling to retell the ancient Greek and Egyptian myths. Susan Cooper is doing the same with the Arthurian Legend, and it’s groovy.

Final Verdict: 3.0  out of 4.0

 

Standard