One of the best things about vacation is having time to read. I finished six books in the past week.
Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. A novel about four kids – ages thirteen, ten, nine, and six – abandoned by their mom in a parking lot, who must travel hundreds of miles with very little money, and without being discovered by authorities (who might split them up to put them in foster homes). This book is amazing, one of those rare stories that starts strong, stays good through the middle, and has a satisfying ending. Good characters, fascinating insight into the dynamics, relationships, and power structures that kids will form with each other when left to their own devices. Ultimately it’s a book about family, but with none of the syrupy sweetness that normally implies. My highest recommendation.
In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki (translated by Thomas J. Harper & Edward G. Seidensticker). Nonfiction about how darkness – the literal kind, a lack of photons – is aesthetically superior to bright light in architecture, art, fashion, and other areas. Tanizaki argues that traditional Japanese aesthetics honored darkness, whereas modern and Western trends have lost the old subtlety of shadow. It’s an intriguing idea, but sadly, the book is mostly just Tanizaki rambling illogically about how everything was better in his day and these young’uns and for’gners are ruining the country. He starts by explaining how he spent tons of money trying to remodel a modern house into the old style, to meet his sense of aesthetics, then explains that Japanese culture embraces shadow because they can accept life as it is and don’t need to change everything. A short book, but shorter if you don’t read it, which is what I’d suggest.
The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński (translated by William R. Brand & Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand). Nonfiction about the last years and downfall of the final Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. A fascinating look inside an imperial court that was largely disconnected from reality, concerned mostly with maintaining its own power and image, warping the truth 1984-style to do so. Courtiers had absurd jobs; the sole duty of one man was opening doors for the Emperor (a more difficult job than you might think, due to fastidious protocol), while another man was charged with cleaning dignitaries’ shoes when the Emperor’s lapdog, Lulu, peed on them. The pettiness of the power struggles, the way everyone fawned over the Emperor like a god, the terrible danger that hung constantly over all of them – it’s a whole other world, recreated with some masterful detective work by the author.
The Essential Kabbalah by Daniel C. Matt. An introductory essay to give context, followed by selections from various Kabbalah texts, designed to give a newbie like me some idea of what Kabbalah is all about. (I’m researching the subject as one of the many sources for Crane Girl). If you’re wondering, Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism, using meditation and other techniques to approach a direct experience of the Divine. Its function is similar to Zen Buddhism, Sufi Islam, and Christian monasticism, though its form is very different, relying heavily on a structure of ten interconnected points called “sefirot” that collectively give insight into the nature of God and humanity. It’s an interesting little book.
The Spire by William Golding. A novel by the author of Lord of the Flies. This story is about the dean of a cathedral who orders a vast tower and spire built at the cathedral’s peak, even though the master builder says it’s unsafe and everyone else in the world says it’s a terrible idea. (Spoiler alert: it is.) While there are some glimmers of quality here, I thought it was pretty bad overall. The Spire retains and exaggerates all the flaws of Lord of the Flies (overly thick allegory, characters who feel more like symbols than people, trying too hard to Say Something Important) but has none of its virtues (clarity, strong plot, likable protagonist, the sense of a profound message). In The Spire, it’s often hard to tell what’s going on, and there’s little reason to try. My vote: skip it.
Lewis Carroll and Alice by Stephanie Lovett Stoffel. A nice little biography of Carroll, packed with photos and reproductions, supplemented with selections of Carroll’s lesser-known writing (like Sylvie and Bruno) at the end. Enlightening and enjoyable. The book did portray Carroll in a very positive light, so much so that I sometimes wondered about bias, but I don’t know enough about the man to judge for myself. Side note: the publishers didn’t bother to put the author’s name anywhere on the front or back cover, which seems like a real slap in the face.
The Maze Runner by James Dashner. A Young Adult sci-fi dystopian novel, in roughly the same vein as The Hunger Games, about a bunch of boys trapped in a giant, mysterious maze from which they must escape, overcoming all sorts of deadly horrors. Except that Hunger Games is fast-paced, tightly written, and engaging, whereas Maze Runner is slow, full of awkward sentences, and spends a long time explaining stuff while nothing much is happening. I read the first few chapters, got bored, and skimmed through the rest to see what the big secret of the maze was. It turns out to be a huge surprise – if you’ve never read any other science fiction, ever. Honestly, I’m not sure how this became a bestseller. It isn’t just that I didn’t like it, it didn’t seem like something that would have wide appeal in general. C’est la vie. (Not pictured in photo above because I didn’t take it home with me from England.)
Read anything good lately?