Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Some goodies soon to arrive, some from the library and some from the book shops. Midterm this week, so I think I needed something to look forward to.

I saw a post by Katherine, who is always walking into some bookstore or other, on Michael Cox's The Glass of Time, a Wilkie Collins-ish mystery. That sounded like fun but, it turns out, this book is the sequel to The Meaning of Night, so I decided I would read the first volume first. The Meaning of Night seems most remarked upon for its length, which is not necessarily a good sign, but it is compared to Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and The Quincunx, which I loved. So when I can hunker down with a good long saga, probably over winter break, I will dig into this one.

Now where did I read about this one? I have to be better about noting these things down. Someone raved about it. I am familiar with the plays of Swiss writer Max Frisch, but have never read one of his novels. Man in the Holocene was published in the late 1970s and concerns Herr Geiser, who lives alone in the Ticino - the Italian-speaking section of Switzerland. Through several days of heavy rains and threats of landslides he contemplates the fragility of memory and his existence. Not everyone's cup of tea most probably, but the writing is meant to be gorgeous and it is described that the violence of the terrain and the quietness of an interior monologue make for a meaningful parable.

Ring of Endless Light is about a young girl looking for love while coming to terms with the death of her grandfather. It's by Madeleine L'Engle whose writing I adore and whose penchant for slipping religious messages into her work I hate, but Sheila recommended so, enough said.

Everyone was writing Old School a few weeks back. I read about it on Books for Breakfast and I know that Matt wrote about it. Boys in a New England prep school compete in a poetry contest in 1960 as they await the fall of Camelot with the murder of John F. Kennedy, and the important cultural shifts that rocked America in the explosion of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. I enjoyed some of Wolff's short stories so I am looking forward to sinking my teeth into a novel by him.

In the meantime, as I study for my midterm and try to choose a paper topic my poor little brain cannot handle Middlemarch so I decided to re-read some Philip K. Dick and chose Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. He was already a bit dated when I read him in the 1980s, I'm curious how he will hold up 25 years later.


Katherine said...

I'm glad I could introduce you to a fabulous new author!

I read Old School a while back, and while I can't remember the specifics of it, I seem to remember too that I enjoyed it.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Oh God! If L'Engle mentions God - and you KNOW she will!! - don't blame me!

It's a lovely book ... and is really about death, and coming to terms with it ... so yes, there is God in it ... but frankly, I'm in it for the marine biology aspect, and the dolphins and the ESP.

Anne Camille said...

I remember you writing about hating A Wrinkle in Time, so I'm surprised that you're planning on reading another. Isn't Ring of Endless Light the last in a trilogy? I'm curious how one can love her writing but hate her including religious messages in the writing -- I don't know how you can separate them and I'm not sure that L'Engle intended them to be. I re-read Wrinkle for the first time in 35 years a few months ago and couldn't believe that I was so oblivious to the religious messages when I read it when I was 12. Was I that accepting that I didn't notice it? Well, yes, probably.

Sheila O'Malley said...

L'Engle was definitely not trying to "put one over" on the public, or trying to 'sneak in' a subliminal message. It is her worldview - and it is incredibly consistent over 50 some-odd books. By contrast, I felt that Jeanette Winterson, in tanglewreck, was trying to "sneak in" messages about "going green" and global warming hoping that the audience would either not notice (being kids) or be converted (being kids). It was didactic.

You can't separate L'Engle from that message.

Ring of Endless Light is not part of the Wrinkle in Time series (which deals with time in a tesseract-fashion - lots of time travel) - Ring of Endless Light is part of the Austin family series, which is (as L'Engle called it) part of her "chronos" books - or books that, unlike the Time Trilogy, take place in ordinary time. It's about the Austin family (based very much on the L'Engle family) and their adventures: living out in Connecticut, moving back to New York City, driving across country ... The Austin family books are some of my favorites of all of her books - and Ring of Endless Light ranks as one of my most beloved books of all time. There is one book in the series after Ring of Endless Light - as a matter of fact, it is the last novel L'Engle wrote. It's called Troubling a Star - and it talks about Vicky Austin's adventures (very dangerous) when on a trip to Antarctica (Vicky is interested in marine biology). After writing Troubling a Star, L'Engle, a very old woman by that point, stopped writing fiction and wrote mainly religious books or books about art and writing (these are lovely as well).

If you don't like the particular religious message, that's one thing ... or if you don't agree with it, etc., but it's part and parcel of all of her books. it would be like separating Dostoevsky from his Christian themes of redemption and martyrdom and purity thru suffering - it can't be done. The themes are there and they are deliberate.

I'm a huge L'Engle fan (obviously) and her religious themes don't bother me in the slightest (although sometimes in her non-fiction it gets A BIT MUCH). I find her worldview to be redemptive - and all about love, as opposed to dogma or a legalistic kind of environment, or anything rules-based. All of her books did much for me as a troubled teen and they still work for me.

I am speaking, as well, as someone who was raised Catholic and who remains Catholic - which can be quite a legalistic religion - and so her softer view of things, her more mysterious acceptance of things beyond our understanding - really spoke to me.

I realize this is incredibly personal.

But like I said in my first comment - the reason Ring of Endless Light is such a beloved book to me is because of the family relationships it describes, and the whole working-with-dolphins theme, exploring their sonar capabilities and what that might mean for humans. L'Engle takes it to another level, a metaphoric level: might we, as humans, be able to communicate with one another telepathically as dolphins appear to do?

I love the book. I think it should have been made into a film - it'd be marvelous, I think.

Ted said...

I love the conversation that has taken place over the course of today while I couldn't get to a computer!

K - Thanks for the recommendation, I'm really looking forward to it.

Sheila - I guess you have a wider perspective on L'Engle's writing than I do, I don't think she was sureptitious. I do think the point of view she comes to her stories from is genuine, but it did take me by surprise. Particularly as it was a second reading. I take your point about Winterson - definitely. I guess that one reading of L'Engle just made me feel excluded. I cannot dispute her on writing quality, imagination or integrity and any recommendation of your's is worth reading as far as I'm concerned.

Cam - I guess I hated that particular reading experience without hating the book or the writer, or have come to have that perspective since. I admire her skill and really want to give another book of her's a chance. In fact, I may even give A Wrinkle in Time another chance at some point.

Anne Camille said...

Thanks Sheila for your additional comments. I started to read 'Arm of the Starfish' which is also about dolphins, this year. You probably have read that one too. I read it & Wrinkle at the same time -- as part of a reading group discussion -- but never finished 'Arm of the Starfish'. It is still in my car, occasionally sliding out from under the seat, begging me to read it or get rid of it. Maybe, now that I've read your comment, I will finish it. I have read some of L'Engle's non-fiction. I'm not oppossed to the religious message -- in fact the reading group I read Wrinkle for specifically reads works for their spiritual content or context -- but I was nevertheless surprised at how much was in both works. It's easy to see how 'Wrinkle' has become something of a classic. 'Arm of the Starfish' felt very dated to me.

Last year, when I was working in NYC, I frequently walked past St John the Divine where L'Engle had a long affiliation as member, librarian, and writer-in-residence. I recalled reading a description years ago of the Cathedral and think it may have been in one of L'Engle's works, but don't have any idea which one. Any ideas which of her works I might have read that in? I also, btw, think that the building where IT resides in Wrinkle could easily be based on the building across Cathedral Parkway from the Cathedral -- no windows, rather ugly & monolithic looking!

Ted -- thanks for letting me use this space for this conversation!

Sheila O'Malley said...

Cam - Yes, great conversation!!

Madeleine L'Engle wrote a book called The Severed Wasp where St. John the Divine is practically another character! It's a sequel to her first novel The Small Rain - only she wrote it many many years later. You could probably read The Severed Wasp without reading The Small Rain - it stands alone. It tells the story of an old woman who used to be a famous concert pianist - who has moved back to New York City for various reasons, and is trying to enjoy a quiet retirement after a long life of upheaval and tragedy ... but things keep happening that keep pulling her back into, say, engagement, life. She almost resents it. She wants to be left alone. But life doesn't always work that way. She ends up getting involved with the community at St. John the Divine even though she is extremely anti-religious - but as I'm sure you know, concerts are given at St. John the Divine all the time - with quite famous people ... and so she agrees to give a concert. The cathedral really seems like a living breathing being in that book.

Another one of her books - The Young Unicorns - which is part of the Austin family series (it takes place when the Austin family moves from the country back into New York City and has all kinds of creepy experiences involving a genie that comes out of a bottle, and scary thugs trying to intimidate a blind girl) also features St. John the Divine - maybe that's the one you read?

I do like Arm of the Starfish (another one of L'Engle's books that features marine biology - and the philosophical and medical questions surrounding starfish being able to regenerate themselves after amputation ...) - and there is definitely a Christian theme going on in that one (one of the lead characters being named Joshua, I believe) ... That's part of the Wrinkle in Time series, only it's the next generation - Meg Murray and Calvin's children.

(I'm a little bit obsessed about L'Engle's timeline - as should be obvious!! Sheila, get some other interests!!)

Anne Camille said...

Thanks, Sheila. I think I read an excerpt from A Severed Wasp -- or started it and never finished it. The plot doesn't seem at all familiar but the description of St John's does. I'm sure I read it long before I was ever near St John's. But, maybe it was the Young Unicorns and I read it to/with my son. I remember when he was about 12 - 13, we were visiting NYC and he refused to walk on 110th on the side of the street near the Cathedral because he thought the wall surrounding the property was too creepy! Maybe the book was were he got that idea! Funny how neither book seems familiar to me but I remember descriptions of the church which I have only been in once or twice.

Ted said...

I love playing host - more wine, ladies?

Sheila O'Malley said...

Bring it on!

Where's Dee when you need her??

Anne Camille said...

If this had been an in-person conversation, I think we would have finished off at least one bottle by now and started on the second! A Parisian once told me that the French have two rules regarding wine: 1) Good wine must be accompanied by good conversation and 2) An open bottle is an empty bottle when friends are gathered. Good rules for any country I think.

Thanks for hosting this conversation, Ted. Go pour yourself and The Ragazzo a glass of wine.