Writings: Book Notes

First follow nature and your judgement frame
By her just standard, which is still the same.

  1. Go to notes for Autumn 2004 – Summer 2009 (Princeton)
  2. Go to notes for Autumn 2009 – Spring 2013 (Montréal & Toronto)
  3. Go to notes for Summer 2013 – Spring 2015 (Vancouver)
  4. Go to notes for Autumn 2015 – Spring 2018 (Rome)
  5. Currently reading current book notes (Summer 2018 –)

The following are notes about books I have recently read. I restrict myself chiefly to what I read for pleasure and general cultivation; strictly scholarly reading, as well as more spiritual reading, as far as one can distinguish these scopes from the former, generally do not make their way into these pages.

  1. Ready Player One
  2. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien
  4. Alive
  5. Augustine of Hippo
  6. Neuromancer
  7. A Clergyman's Daughter
  8. J.R.R. Tolkien
  9. Einstein
  10. Hamlet
  11. The Foxglove Saga
  12. Sunset Song
  13. As You Like It
  14. Never Let Me Go
  15. Tom Jones
  16. What's Bred in the Bone
  17. Broken Universe
  18. Foundation Trilogy
  19. Boyhood
  20. The Grass is Singing
  21. Clive Staples Lewis
  22. The Golden Apples of the Sun
  23. Little House in the Big Woods
  24. A Few Green Leaves
  25. Gentian Hill
  26. Brideshead Revisited
  27. Anathem
  28. The Hedge & the Horse

Ready Player One   [Top]
Ernest Cline. First reading. 29 September 2018.

It's been a long time since I've had so much fun reading a novel. Ready Player One was pure entertainment. While I am far from being knowledgeable about pop trivia, I lived through enough of the era nostalgically portrayed that a large percentage of the references clicked. But beyond the cultural touchstones, the novel is simply well-plotted, creative and clever.

As a social commentary, it is not original; yes, our lives are becoming more and more immersed in the digital world, and yes, the latter will continue to be economically more and more important, but all that is rather trite. However, it is not really Cline's purpose, I would guess, to present deep reflexion on this world, but simply to use it as the stage for an adventure. Cline's only real misstep, perhaps, is a certain naïveté about the nature of power: as though only greedy corporations are capable of evil, whereas a benevolent overseer (viz., Ogden Morrow) need not be held back by basic ethical principles surrounding privacy since he only intends to use his power for good.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien   [Top]
Ed. Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien. First reading. 29 September 2018.

Writing a good letter takes a while, and Tolkien not only wrote lots of good letters, but wrote lots of long letters. He must have spent a significant fraction of many days composing and writing them out (many of the inclusions in this volume are from drafts, not fair copies). This is rather interesting since in many of them, he complains and frets about his extreme busyness. But given that this did not seem to stop him from writing long letters, one wonders if he was more worried about not having time than it actually being the case, or whether he was indeed busy and writing letters was simply high on the list of his life's priorities. At any rate, one thing I am not in doubt of is that he worked very hard as the breadwinner for his family, correcting endless examinations in order to raise sufficient funds to keep them in hearth and home—and, I gather, to educate his children.

I'm glad he did choose to spend his time writing letters, for it is a unique glimpse into his life. In fact, if I were to have a complaint about this volume, it would be in the choice of selection. There were lots of letters about his fiction: correspondence with his publisher, with informal editors and critics like Christopher Tolkien and occasionally with the Inklings, and with fans who wanted more background information about his mythology. While I did find such material fascinating on the whole, it sometimes became too detailed for my interest, and I was just as interested in his everyday life, which one only gets glimpses of here and there. This was largely by design, however, as his family preferred for his more private life to remain private, given that this volume was published less than a decade after his death. One would hope that, when sufficient time has passed, another volume might be released.

All this notwithstanding, I appreciated the many insights the letters to give one into Tolkien, the man. For one, his Catholic faith is very clear and one sees that it is by no means incidental to his identity. I was also interested to learn more of his relationship with C.S. Lewis: the latter, it seems, though certainly aware that he was in a deep friendship, did not attach as much importance to it as the former, nor did he feel the same claim of exclusivity: the entrance of Charles William into Lewis's life damaged the friendship, at least from Tolkien's point of view. On a lighter note, I was interested to learn that Tolkien had a ‘cordial dislike’ of Shakespeare, which I find rather bemusing, but does, I suppose, show the idiosyncrasy of his character.

I read a borrowed copy of this book, which I have since returned to its owner (my brother), and hence do not have the ready opportunity of including any quotations here.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth   [Top]
Daniel Grotta. First reading. 29 September 2018.

I finished Tolkien's letters on holiday, and it so happened that this biography was on one of the shelves in the house where I was staying. It seemed like a suitable follow-up. But, in truth, it was barely worth following through to the end. Apparently, not being an authorised biography, the writer got no cooperation from the Tolkien family or from many of J.R.R.'s friends, and hence had to rely on secondary and tertiary sources. The result is a fair amount of speculation, lots of background filler, and a sprinkling of factual error. The latter I easily detected having just read Tolkien's letters, though I am not aware (in my admittedly scant knowledge) of any gross error. To be fair to the writer, he did not have access to all the material that might have helped him—The Silmarillion, for instance, had not been been yet published. Nonetheless, not a very compelling read.

Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors   [Top]
Piers Paul Read. First reading. 29 September 2018.

Like the previous book, this one was picked up at the house where I was holidaying. Very well done and a good example of the genre. I do confess that I never quite got straight all the many persons involved, but that did not make the story any less gripping.

Augustine of Hippo: A Biography   [Top]
Peter Brown. First-and-a-half reading. 29 September 2018.

A few years ago I started reading this life of St. Augustine, which is, I have gathered, still the authoritative biography of him in the English language, but got distracted in the middle of it. I had always intended to finish it, though, and since it had been a while, I simply started again at the beginning and read it through.

Brown succeeds at writing on two quite diverse levels. On the one hand, he provides a wonderful narrative of Augustine's life, providing vivid and detailed insight into the cultures, geographies, politics and religious movements in which he was immersed. On the other hand, as one might expect in the biography of a great thinker, a large portion of the book is about ideas, and here too Brown holds his own. I am by no means an Augustine scholar, but nothing smelt off about Brown's presentation and discussion of the various philosophical and religious ideas that Augustine tackled. They are presented lucidly, intelligently and, as far as I could see, with great scholarship. No axes appeared to be being ground, and a nice balance is kept between faithfully presenting Augustine's doctrines and providing the historical and cultural context that he was operating in.

Neuromancer   [Top]
William Gibson. First reading. 29 September 2018.

This is an Important Book in the science fiction canon, but I don't think I enjoyed it as much as others have. It is extremely inventive, but also extremely dense and immersive in its inventiveness: if you are not following closely, you get lost quickly, which I confessed happened to me not a few times.

A Clergyman's Daughter   [Top]
George Orwell. First reading. 4 November 2018.

George Orwell was never happy with this novel and would not allow it to be reprinted before he died; I on the other hand, did not think it sub par by any stretch. Curiously, the theatre-style Chapter 3 (apparently influenced by Ulysses), which I considered to be by far the worst part of the book, was the only part that Orwell himself looked upon favourably.

So what did I like about it? First of all, like Down and Out in Paris and London he gives a fascinating account of lower-class life of the period. It is sympathetic without being sentimental. Both the hop-picking and schoolroom episodes are excellent; the latter Dickensian in the best sense of the word.

Second, it contains a thoughtful meditation on the nature of faith, and I wonder how autobiographical it was. Orwell was, apparently, an atheist and a humanist who, nonetheless, frequented his Anglican church and was a frequent communicant there. This is basically how the heroine of A Clergyman's Daughter ends up: having lost her faith, she still at the same time returns to her very active life at her father's parish.

Where had she gone, that well-meaning, ridiculous girl who had prayed ecstatically in summer-scented fields and pricked her arm as a punishment for sacrilegious thoughts? And where is any of ourselves of even a year ago? And yet after all—and here lay the trouble—she was the same girl. Beliefs change, thoughts change, but there is some inner part of the soul that does not change. Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before (Chap. 5.ii).

Orwell hence sees that, even if one professes atheism, such a facile identification does not plumb the depth of authentic living. What he grasps, I think, is that faith is not something reducible to contingencies of one's life. It is not simple belief or convention. Dorothea's case shows this: when her life changes drastically, the convention of religion ceases to have any meaning, and the religious practice that was comme il faut—however well-meaning and sincere—is shown to be largely a product of her provincial existence. But beneath all that is something deeper and more permanent, and this is why the easy-go-lucky attitude of someone like a Mr. Warbuton is ultimately intolerable.

Now, obviously Orwell and I part ways soon enough, for he is (or rather, seems: one never knows) unwilling to convert to faith. One hopes, for instance, that he never committed himself irrevocably to faith's alternative:

There was, she saw clearly, no possible subsitute for faith; no pagan acceptance of life as sufficient to itself, no pantheistic cheer-up stuff, non pseudo-religion of ‘progress’ with visions of glittering Utopias and ant-heaps of steel and concrete. It is all or nothing. Either life on earth is a preparation for something greater and more lasting, or it is meaningless, dark and dreadful (Chap. 5.ii).

And, perhaps it is near the beginning of the book where we can find what he was ultimately looking for (the whole first chapter, by the way, is marvellously constructed):

Then it happened that she glanced sidelong, through the open south door. A momentary spear of sunlight had pierced the clouds. It struck downwards through the leaves of the limes, and a spray of leaves in the doorway gleamed with a transient, matchless green, greener than jade or emerald or Atlantic waters. It was as though some jewel of unimaginable splendour had flashed for an instant, filling the doorway with green light, and then faded. A flood of joy ran through Dorothy's heart. The flash of living colour had brought back to her, by a process deeper than reason, her peace of mind, her love of God, her power of worship. Somehow, because of the greenness of the leaves, it was again possible to pray. O all ye green things upon the earth, praise ye the Lord! She began to pray, ardently, joyfully, thankfully. The wafer melted upon her tongue. She took the chalice from her father, and tasted without repulsion, even with an added joy in this small act of self-abasement, the wet imprint of Miss Mayfill's lips on its silver rim (Chap. 1.i).

And yet, his conclusion is so much less poetic: ‘That faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful and acceptable’ (Chap. 5.ii). Sadly, this is where things end …

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography   [Top]
Humphrey Carpenter. First reading. 4 November 2018.

After the biography I read this summer left me unsatisfied, I decided to go for this more standard (and authorised) life of Tolkien, and found it much more satisfactory. One gets a better picture of his family life, particularly his childhood and his marriage. It also confirmed that much of his worrying about being to busy was indeed more worrying than reality; he would, apparently, often spend long tracts of time playing Patience when he had work to do. But then, who knows that today with so many more opportunities provided us by the digital world that we don't procrastinate more than he?

Einstein: His Life and Universe   [Top]
Walter Isaacson. First reading. 30 December 2018.

I very much enjoyed this masterly life of Einstein; though I knew the rough outline of his CV, this really introduced me to the man and all the complexities of his life. Isaacson does a good job of explaining the science in a way that is (I presume) accessible to the average person and still generally accurate. It is a longish book—around 700 pages including bibliography and index—but it reads well and fast; my only criticism is that occasionally Isaacson repeats himself: for instance, at several points he has similar digressions about Einstein's non-conformist streak. Recommended.

The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke   [Top]
Shakspere. Nth reading, N ≫ 1. 30 December 2018.

Last time I read this, I said it ought to be read annually; that was two years ago. This time I read it almost accidentally after simply picking it up one evening.

The Foxglove Saga   [Top]
Auberon Waugh. First reading. 30 December 2018.

Humorously written, and at times quite amusing, but horrid characters and the saga becomes rather depressing by the end.

Sunset Song   [Top]
Lewis Grassic Gibbon. First reading. 21 January 2019.

I usually find intensely lyrical prose affected, and often insufferable, but not in the case of this novel. Here we have an author who is highly original in his style in a way that does not distract but adds to the story. And as an added bonus I learnt a few Scots terms (for which, helpfully, there was a very complete glossary); my edition (Penguin Classics) also had good notes.

As I have remarked elsewhere, I have never understood why some novelists eschew the use of inverted commas to indicate dialogue. This is the first case where it hasn't utterly annoyed me—Gibbon uses italics for the characters' speech, which I found I good enough visual indication. Give me quotation marks any day, but failing that, give me italics over a newline and a dash.

These stylistic and typographic comments aside, it is the plot, the mood, the scenery, if you will, that held my attention. Chris is a very finely wrought character, and the notion of the ‘two Chrises’ that she has to choose between is nicely done.

The childbirth scene is remarkable. Of course, I will never really know how accurately Gibbon has described the experience, but he certainly was effective in conveying its intensity.

An aesthetic observation:

There were lovely things in the world, lovely that didn't endure, and the lovelier for that. (‘Ploughing’)

As You Like It   [Top]
Shakspere. Nth reading, N ≫ 1. 13 April 2019.

I have always considered this one of his finer comedies, despite its apparent frivolity at times.

Never Let Me Go   [Top]
Kazuo Ishiguro. First reading. 13 April 2019.

The setting of this novel is inventive: it is science fiction, but taking place in the eighties or so, in England, in a world in which human clones are reared in order for their organs to be harvested once they reach adulthood. Against this backdrop the lives of three such clones in a subtly-rendered love triangle play out. Though the story-telling is a little clunky and occasionally contrived, it is on balance well-done.

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling   [Top]
Henry Fielding. First reading. 13 April 2019.

This is a pretty fat novel and I hoped that after warming up for a couple of hundred pages, it would capture me. This ended up not being the case—in fact, the middle six hundred pages I found quite tedious; the last pages were more interesting, but with too many dei ex machina. In the end, I ended up reading it over several months, always feeling I had gotten far enough into it to warrant finishing it and vainly hoping it would pick up …

So, I find myself at odds with most critics in the two-hundred fifty years since Tom Jones has been written who consider this one of the Great English Novels. (It is, in fact, generally considered one of the first novels in our language, though this must surely be taken with a grain of salt as it was published almost twenty years after Defoe's death.) Perhaps it was simply that I just never hit my stride. So I very much felt that Fielding was speaking directly to me when, in one of his introductory chapters (each of the eighteen of the novel's books begins with a brief address to the reader), he referred to

persons who read books with no other view than to say they have read them, a more general motive to reading than is commonly imagined; and from which not only law books, and good books, but the pages of Homer and Virgil, of Swift and Cervantes, have been often turned over. (XVI.1)

One thing that could potentially surprise a present-day reader is at how risqué much of the material is in this book. Tom Jones cheerfully moves from affair to affair, which the most of the characters indulgently excuse as youthful indiscretions. His future father-in-law swears a blue streak—one does not need much imagination to figure out what the dashed-out words are. This novel was most definitely written well before the end of the Georgian era and the arrival of the Victorian.

What's Bred in the Bone   [Top]
Robertson Davies. First reading. 18 May 2019.

The only other Robertson Davies I have read is The Deptford Trilogy, many years ago now; as I read What's Bred in the Bone, I recalled how enjoyable those books were, for this one was a fun and intriguing read. Still, by the end I thought that it rang a little tinny: it is an engrossing story, but I found it lacked a satisfying resolution or raison d'être. I certainly still would have read it, and am pretty sure I'll remember it, but I reckon that it will be the whimsical and the strange rather than anything more profound that will remain in my memory.

Broken Universe   [Top]
Paul Melko. First reading. 26 May 2019.

A fun and breezy science fiction novel about a group of friends who have gained the ability to travel between universes with slightly different histories. I only realised gradually that it is a sequel, but that did not really take away from my enjoyment of it. Perhaps I'll seek out the first book.

My only criticism is a technical one: how is it that the time in all the universes is perfectly synchronised?

Foundation; Foundation and Empire; Second Foundation   [Top]
Isaac Asimov. Second reading. 21 July 2019.

I enjoyed this trilogy—as well as all the other later additions to the seiries—as a teenager and have long meant to pick it up again. I think I may have enjoyed it even more this second time around. It had been long enough that although I had vague memories of some of the plot points, I had forgotten enough to find pleasure in some of the stories' twists and turns.

Despite its (literally) galactic scope, the trilogy is written with a remarkable simplicity. The first novel, for instance, is structured almost like five short stories in a row, each with its own characters and plot arc, separated by many years. The second two have more closely organised plots, but still convey the grand sweep of history through concrete stories.

These novels were written before the invention of the microcomputer. Nonetheless, the vision of the future does not seem as dated as one might expect. In fact, it even makes it a little better, perhaps, given that the scientific and technological knowledge of humanity waxes and wanes through the course of the hundreds of years over which the books are set.

I may turn to the other four novels at some point in the near future.

Boyhood   [Top]
Leo Tolstoy. First reading. 21 July 2019.

A wonderful little autobiography.

The Grass is Singing   [Top]
Doris Lessing. First reading. 21 July 2019.

This was Lessing's ‘breakthrough’ novel; readable and interesting, but ultimately extremely bleak.

Like The Summer Before the Dark the psychological insights are remarkable; one gets sucked into the character's minds, so to speak, which is one thing that makes the whole thing so dark. Tragedy, you might say, without the benefit of much catharsis. So I think I'll give Lessing a rest!

C. S. Lewis: A Dramatic Life   [Top]
William Griffin. First reading. 16 August 2019.

In addition to his memoir and some collections of his letters, I have read a couple of biographies on C.S. Lewis (Sayers's, and, I believe, Hooper's); this particular life, however, is written in a rather unconventional way but one which I quickly grew to enjoy. It is arranged chronologically, with a chapter for each year, starting in 1925 when he was elected to the faculty at Magdalen College (Oxford), and finishing with his death in 1963. Each chapter consists of short anecdotes or incidents from his life, often disconnected. The life is ‘dramatic’ due to the style in which these episodes are narrated: they are peppered with dialogue, much of which is taken from letters or other such sources. While the dialogue is ‘dramatised’ in the sense that many episodes have been somewhat invented, the dialogue itself is lifted from actual sources. And so one might approach as near as possible to the feel of his daily life as is possible for something constructed from written sources. It is thus, as far as I am concerned, a successful approach to biography, so long as one is not expecting the balance and broader objectivity that the more conventional biography would provide. But for the latter there are other books.

One of the most elusive and yet important aspects of Lewis's life was his relationship with Jane Moore. He had made a promise to her son Paddy, a friend of his in the First World War, that he would care for her if he should die, which ended up happening. Being motherless since a child, Lewis seems to have found with her a domestic existence that he had long desired. At the same time, the nature of their relationship has been a subject of speculation; some, such as George Sayers, believe that they may have been lovers for a period. At any rate, though it does not touch upon that particular conjecture, this book does still shed light on the domestic part of his life, so removed from the academic existence for which he best known; in particular, it reveals how faithfully kept his promise and provided for her until the end, patiently enduring her difficult moods as her mind slowly slipped in old age.

The book also chronicles how he slowly came to know, appreciate, and then love the American writer Joy Davidman, whom he eventually married. One has the impression that she was one of the few people that was a match for his quick mind and confident manners. Also treated of with frankness, but also with sensitivity, is his brother Warren's trouble with alcohol. But these troubles never dominate the foreground of his character: he remains perhaps his brother's closest friend.

I borrowed this book from the library of a retreat house where I was staying for a few days and had to leave it behind when finished; otherwise I might have extracted some of the more memorable quotes and anecdotes to record here.

The Golden Apples of the Sun   [Top]
Ray Bradbury. First reading. 16 August 2019.

The twenty-odd short stories of this collection, mostly written in the 1950's, are very diverse in theme and genre. They are all quite short, some only three or four pages long. I am not sure I quite like the form of such short stories—they do not consistently grab my imagination. Nonetheless, these all seem to be top form.

‘The Murderer’, about a man rebelling against the constant cacophony of the machinery of modern life, I thought quite good. ‘Hail and Farewell’, about a boy who never grows up but wanders from family to family, was also compelling. And then some, such as as the psychological piece ‘The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl’, are excellent little set-pieces, as it were.

Little House in the Big Woods   [Top]
Laura Ingalls Wilder. Second [?] reading. 16 August 2019.

I recently came across a copy of this book, so memorable from childhood, and very much enjoyed revisiting it. (I am not sure whether I ever read it or its companions on my own after they were read aloud to me as a small child.) What I enjoyed perhaps most of all were the unhurried descriptions of the various activities of homesteading: making cheese and syrup and smoking meat and bringing in the harvest and so forth. Simple domestic activities take on a particular charm and comfort when presented through a child's eye. And one gets the impression that her parents were truly remarkable people. If I come across the sequels I may indulge further.

A Few Green Leaves   [Top]
Barbara Pym. First reading. 16 August 2019.

This little novel was picked off a shelf when on holiday. It is set in a village in Oxfordshire in the 1970's, and is centred on a thirty-something anthropologist who moves into the neighbourhood ostensibly to study its inhabitants, some of whom form the rest of the core of characters. There is not much plot; it is more a portrait of village life. As such I found it a pleasant read but not much more. Suitable as a holiday book.

Gentian Hill   [Top]
Elizabeth Goudge. First reading. 6 September 2019.

My final holiday book—again, picked somewhat randomly off a shelf—which I subsequently finished in Toronto with a library copy.

I found this novel characterised in this review as a story that is ‘spiritually realistic’: i.e., it is not pure realism or naturalism but one in which goodness is heightened. One might also say that it is a sort of mix of fairy story and realism. As one of the characters remarks, ‘In the deep heart of this country [England] the fairy world is still quite extraordinarily near the surface’ (II.vii.3).

Still, despite the interesting genre and style, I did not find it a particularly compelling book. The overarching plot, despite being propped up by various incidents, I found a bit thin; the characters, despite their backgrounds and adventures, I found lacking in depth. Perhaps at a different age or in a different mood I would have enjoyed the novel more; as it stands, it was good enough to keep me to the end, but not much more.

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder   [Top]
Evelyn Waugh. Fifth reading (first reading of first edition). 9 October 2019.

Most copies of this novel today are of a revised edition of 1959 in which Waugh slightly edited the work, mainly by cutting passages he considered too purple and switching from a two- to three-part division of the text. This time around I got ahold of the original 1944 edition, having been curious to see how it felt compared to the later edition which I had read before.

I must say that I did not notice much difference in reading the first edition: there seemed to be passages that were longer than I remembered and a few little details may have hit me here or there, but I experienced basically the same novel. Surely if I had had them side-by-side the differences would have jumped out, perhaps with some import, but I am not very interested in engaging in textual criticism for this sort of book.

So, in the end, it was simply another visit to this great novel, two years after my last. And I look forward to doing so again in a few years.

Anathem   [Top]
Neal Stephenson. First Reading. 17 October 2019.

This novel was recommended to me about ten years ago. I never forgot the recommendation, and in fact purchased this book a couple of years ago, began reading it and but stopped not far in for some reason I don't fully recall. Then, this summer, I saw that a friend was reading it and he too recommended it, so I finally set forth upon on it in earnest, and I was glad I did. It is a fat novel, but once you enter into it, it reads rapidly and its inventiveness absorbs you.

Stephenson includes a lot of philosophical speculation in the novel, but with the merit that the story rarely devolves to mere talking heads: he does a good job at weaving his ideas into the plot in creative ways that keeps the narrative flowing. That being said, while his familiarity with philosophy is obvious, I don't think what is presented is terribly deep: I think I take issue with his interpretation of Platonism, for instance (even if it is not named as such). He does, though, present the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics in an intriguing way.

Now, this novel's endless inventiveness is also its weakness: there is a lot crammed in here, and while I generally think that unity of place and time is not terribly important (though I suppose that rule is intended for drama, strictly speaking) here I think it might have helped. Still, this is more of a quibble than a complaint.

The Hedge & the Horse   [Top]
Hillaire Belloc. First reading. 17 October 2019.

I was looking for The Path to Rome in the Belloc section of the library but was unsuccessful, so I picked out this novel almost at random. It is a light novel, meant, I think, as nothing more than entertainment. At first I was a bit disappointed in this, but then found it somewhat charming so I read it through and was diverted.