Looking back over a year of books, a few stick out as being particularly memorable—for good or ill! I thought I’d take just a few from each genre and give you a review.
Mystery: Louise Penny, P.D. James, & Others
Reading Louise Penny gave me an epiphany: I suddenly realized what characterizes authors whom I want to keep rereading. My seven-book Louise Penny stint came on the heals of reading P.D. James—who originally intrigued me in Devices & Desires with her serial-killer thriller opening which had me jumping and starting and ripping through pages—however she lost me after reading Cover Her Face. I had seen a pattern emerge.
You see, there are more or less three different kinds of mystery novels. The queen of mystery writing, arguably in the category by herself, is, of course, Agatha Christie—wherein her pages she gives you every.single.detail you need to know to figure out the mystery—but you never will. (I got awfully close once or twice, just close enough to realize how brilliantly she lays her plots). She is a mystery writer for the brain.
Then there are mystery writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and Elizabeth Peters (I’d also throw in much of the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew mysteries, Jeeves & Wooster, etc.) which are better termed Adventure Stories. They are read for the fun of the chase—the bizarre and ghostly happenings, the melodramatic dangers, the clues the detective analyzes (i.e. dirt on the shoes you can’t see until the protagonist makes a comment about it). Personally, these are my least favorite kinds of mysteries, however much beloved by people I know. They affect your blood (and maybe your funny-bone)—but rarely your brain or heart.
The third kind of mystery novel is the psychologist mystery–the study of human nature. They are character driven stories, motivated by the people in them (such as Dorothy Sayer’s series with Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane). P.D. James is such a novelist, and she certainly does have a keen understanding of people which I appreciate—however the kinds of people which fill up her stories are the very worst sort. By the near-end of the novel, you have seen the disgusting under-belly of each character: you hate them all. Any one of them could have done the dirty deed. Every one of them had murder in their heart. James relentlessly (and rather callously) exposes each corrupt motive—and you are left the sadder (and mildly depressed) for having seen the worst of human nature.
I do not need to read books to know how wicked people can be. Nor is it the reason I personally pick up mystery novels.
Louise Penny is also a character-driven mystery novelist. However, what sets her and other authors like her apart is tenderness. She clearly loves each of her characters—even the would-be-villains. You start out despising someone—and then come to know them, and see yourself in their selfish choices, fears, obsessions, and mistakes. Her books are peppered with truly kind and wonderful people—and when she reveals their faulty motives you see a fundamentally human heart: your own. Her stories are filled with a perpetual hopefulness, that wounds will be healed, that pasts will be redeemed, that forgiveness triumphs. Is her moral-compass infallible? No. After 7 books, I have found a few moral appraisals which I disagree with, but as her stories are about humans and their choices (and the ramifications of most of her character’s choices are pretty on-point), I’m ok with our differing point of views. She is not a Christian as far as I can tell, but her own loving-kindness towards her characters seems to inform her view of God which makes for an insightful and stirring read.
Other recommendations for the series? It’s about the sleepy Canadian city of Three Pines (which apparently gets more than its usual share of murders) and the easily most honorable and lovable of men, Inspector Armand Gamache. Basically imagine the combination of rugged New World terrain with the classy trappings of the British Commonwealth peppered with all the textural delights of linguistic and culinary France. What could be better?
Non-Fiction: The Excellent Wife by Martha Peace
This book, lent from a church friend, was a game-changer for me! Wow, what a fantastic read. Martha Peace seamlessly weaves scripture in with biblical, practical instruction. Not only is it basically a hand-book for marriage, but it tackles so many important issues I would recommend it to single women as well. I think one of the most valuable things I took away from it was her practical lists of “godly vs ungodly” thoughts. I never really realized that the way to combat inner ungodliness was to consciously replace ungodly thoughts with biblical ones. Now when I catch myself thinking about things or in ways I shouldn’t—I am practically armed to combat the deceits of my heart! Just purchased my own copy and will be reading again soon!
Fiction: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
I made the mistake of picking up this book on my French-kick after returning from our trip. Can I be blunt? THIS WAS THE MOST HORRIBLE BOOK EVER. Literally. Terrible. On sooo many levels. Where to begin? First, let’s begin with the structure and writing. Imagine a rather boring professor decides to write his graduate thesis on medieval architecture. It is bland and rhapsodic in the kind of way only a man enamored with a dry subject could find interesting. Somewhere around page, oh, 67, the professor realizes this and decides, to attract readers, to turn his thesis into a novel. (No joke. Hugo was, in fact, on an architecture craze when he penned the novel). The plot-half of the book is devoted to mocking the church with a lurid, heart-breaking tale of a gorgeous woman who is betrayed by every single man in her life (who are each beastly in their own unique ways). Rapist priest? Check. Brutish and in the end unhelpful hunchback? Check. Cruel, self-absorbed and philandering soldier? Check. Stupid and cowardly poet? Check. Will the male-fantasy of a temptingly-half-dressed-but-totally-innocent-and-slightly-stupid-16-year-old gypsy Esmeralda be saved from a horrific and unjust death at the hands of the barbarous church and murderous people? Let’s TORTURE HER WITH MEDIEVAL DEVICES FIRST (in a rather great stretch of historicity) and then let’s almost save her and then!!! KILL EVERYBODY OFF.
The end. Zero likable characters. Zero heroes. Zero people live to tell the tale except the stupid poet. (Maybe that’s Victor Hugo in disguise.) There! Now you don’t have to read it.
Fiction: Georgette Heyer vs. Austen & Bronte
My mother-in-law turned me on to this delightful author. She is, to quote Publisher Weekly, “the next best thing to reading Austen.” I would contend that she is actually a good deal more fun than reading Austen.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Jane Austen. Her books are magnificent and technically the superior in craftsmanship. But she wrote so few of them. And I’m inclined to think her romances lack substance—probably a result of her never having had a real one herself—and I tend to think if I’d met her in real life I wouldn’t have liked her. I’ve read Jane’s letters to her sister Cassandra—whole pages of mockery and small-minded nitpicking of people’s personal appearance. “A wit,” she was, no doubt, but not to my taste. Likewise, (lest anyone accuse me of favoring the author of one of my favorite novels, Jane Eyre), Charlotte Bronte, while able to come so close to the human soul in her writing, was in person an awkward, silent, mousy creature who would have probably bored me to tears (as she apparently bored the people who met her). Thus it is that I have decided that among the romance writers it is Georgette and I that would have gotten on famously.
The woman’s a riot. Her novels are delightful romantic adventures from beginning to end—and everything concludes exactly as you hoped it would. While most of her books are a good laugh, The Civil Contract was quite serious and proved to me Heyer’s depth and capacity for realism. She is a woman who understands women. Georgette Heyer led a perfectly normal married life, eschewed publicity despite her novels’ immense success, and fully understood the nature of her own writing. “I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense,” she is known to have written, “But it’s unquestionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter or recovering from flu.” Or, I might add, on a stuffy, smelly, and very long subway ride.
Fiction: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
I first read this book in a Southern Literature class in college—I liked it then (read at a helter-skelter pace in several hour shifts) and I liked it even more a second time. It is a book about politics and the ramifications of our choices and actions—or failure to act. Honestly it’s a must-read for anyone in politics. Even after twice reading I’m not entirely convinced I’m sure of the overall point Robert Penn Warren intends to make with his conclusion—I think he spends much of the book building up to a point he never actually spells out. The concepts of fatalism and personal responsibility are held in tension almost until the end when one wins out. But having also read Brideshead Revisited and Father Brown, I find my own answer forming as I close the book. If I could spell out the conclusion which Warren aught to (and almost) makes, it is the Irresistible nature of Grace—and that just like the spider in Warren’s web metaphor (where in one single action has countless ramifications), in a single second Grace can snap your string—bringing you back even from the ends of the earth into its grasp.
Fiction: Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
I really don’t have much to say about this book except that it is a must-read. Wendell Berry makes a compelling argument for the importance of place in our lives, (this book pretty much made me want to never move again). It is a beautiful story of a woman’s reflections on her life, marriage, and children—and furthermore has one of the most beautiful chapters on marital love ever penned.
“If you want to know why even in telling of trouble and sorrow I am giving thanks, this is why.” – Wendell Berry