4 books reviewed here, and from them you’ll get a sense of my odd taste in reading these days. No particular reason for it — each one spurred by happenstance, satisfying a yen, or whatever.
Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees (1926, NYPL e-book). A character in one of Gaiman’s short stories mentions this book, and — mirabile dictu — it was available from the NYPL’s e-book collection. (I can’t say often enough how much I appreciate the NYPL’s e-book collection.) Lud-in-the-Mist is a town located at the confluence of two rivers, one of which flows out of Faerie and threatens the comfort of the townspeople. Then Nicholas Chanticleer’s son and daughter disappear into Faerie, and he must go after them. But this novel concerns so much more than just villainous fairies kidnapping wayward teens. It’s also about the qualities that reason lacks. At one point a doctor says to Nicholas, “I’d like to reason with you a little …. Reason, I know, is only a drug, and, as such, its effects are never permanent. But, like the juice of the poppy, it often gives a temporary relief.” Reason, of course, can be powerful, and not just as a drug to ease distress. But, Mirrlees’ story argues, a life that relies solely on reason is missing something critical to happiness. Faerie provides what’s missing. And for “Faerie”, read Art, Music, Literature — i.e., anything outside the realm of mere reason.
Mirrlees doesn’t shy from making startling pronouncements, such as “the real anchor is not hope but faith — even if it be only somebody else’s faith.” And this, at the conclusion of her story:
… the Written Word is a Fairy, as mocking and elusive as Wily Wisp [a trickster character in the novel], speaking lying words to us in a feigned voice. So let all readers of books take warning! And with this final exhortation this book shall close.
I can see why this is one of Gaiman’s top-ten novels.
M is for Magic, by Neil Gaiman (2007, NYPL e-book). These 11 short stories, one of which is an excerpt from Gaiman’s Newbery winning novel, The Graveyard Book, include a nursery rhyme detective story (à la Jasper Fforde’s DCI Jack Spratt series), a troll-under-a-bridge horror story, a con-man tale set in another world, a tale of alien invasion, and so much more: Horror, fantasy, science fiction — it’s all here.
In his Introduction, Gaiman says that writing short stories was “a great way to begin to learn my craft as a writer. The hardest thing to do as a young writer is to finish something, and that was what I was learning how to do.”
This may be a year of reading/re-reading a bunch of Gaiman (#WitchWeek2020, anyone?), so I’m happy to start with this collection.
Black Narcissus, by Rumer Godden (1939, NYPL e-book). This is one of those rare books that was successfully transferred to the screen. I’ve loved that film (1947, written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) since first seeing it in the 1990s, and reading the book just makes me more appreciative of what Powell and Pressburger accomplished. A brief summary of the novel: to establish a hospital and school, 5 nuns settle into an abandoned palace near Kanchenjunga in the Himalayan Mountains. The wind, the views, the sky, the mountains themselves (especially Kanchengunga) challenge the nuns:
The flimsy walls [of the palace] did not shut out the world but made a sounding box for it; through every crack the smell of the world crept in, the smell of rain and sun and earth and the deodar trees and a wind strangely scented with tea. Here the bell did not command, it sounded doubtful against the gulf …. And everywhere in front of them was that far horizon and the eagles in the gulf below the snows.
The nuns fail and, after less than a year, leave the palace for their convent in the city.
Godden, who grew up in Bengal and, as an adult, spent many years in Calcutta, doesn’t romanticize the hardships of life in this part of what is now Bangladesh, nor does she ignore the beauty. However, it’s clear that outsiders, particularly ones trying to adhere to an alien discipline, are doomed to either madness or despair. Near the end, the Sister Superior cries, “I couldn’t stop the wind from blowing!” There may be a lot of sexual tension in this novel, but for me it’s the wind that causes the most trouble.
With the Fire on High, by Elizabeth Alcevedo (2019, NYPL e-book). Emani is a single mom and an aspiring chef, living in Philadelphia. In her senior year of high school, she has to figure out what she wants for herself and her daughter, has to decide what to sacrifice and what to fight for.
In Emani, we find a young woman who masks her self-doubt with bravura and a no-boys-allowed regime. Her skills in the kitchen give her something to be proud of, with friends asking for favorite dishes. Then, when she signs up for a cooking class and finds that her intuitions don’t impress the instructor, she comes close to quitting, ready to give up on her dream to be a professional chef.
Acevedo skillfully takes us through Emani’s difficult senior year, providing insights into her history (her father lives in Puerto Rico, her part time job at the local burger joint is sheer torture, her baby’s father takes the child every other weekend) that make us root for her success. When it comes, it’s well-earned.
And that’s it. With luck, I’ll be back again in a month or so with some more highlights from my reading.