The Movie Snob is having a little trouble getting out to the cinema lately, so here’s another book review to tide you over:
The Humans, by Matt Haig (2013). I enjoyed this little science-fiction novel that tackles some big eternal themes. An extraterrestrial being from an unfathomably advanced race is sent to Earth in human form. He has a specific and rather grim mission, but he is immediately side-tracked by his horror and disgust at the ugliness of human beings—and by his unfamiliarity with the importance of wearing clothing. And then he’s baffled by the wife and son of the human whose identity he has assumed. But mainly the story is in service of the alien’s (and Haig’s?) awe at humanity’s optimism (or self-delusion?) in the face of mortality and at people’s capacity for love and kindness despite all the horror and violence in the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a movie out of this book someday.
Book review from The Movie Snob.
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather (originally published 1927). I had never read any of Willa Cather’s work before, but I found this novel very moving and very beautiful. In the mid-1800s, the United States is consolidating its control over the area that would eventually become the State of New Mexico. The Catholic Church responds to these developments by sending a new missionary bishop to take charge of the area—a Frenchman named Jean Marie Latour. His life-long friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, accompanies him, and together the two clerics (who had previously been toiling in the mission fields of Ohio) experience the beauty and the mystery of the southwestern desert and its Mexican and Indian inhabitants. Michael Dirda sums it up well: “The most serenely beautiful of [Cather’s] books, it seems scarcely a novel at all, more a kind of New World pastoral, evoking the beauty of the desert Southwest, lamenting the passing of traditional Native culture, and glorifying the lives of two saintly Catholic missionaries as they spread their faith in a harsh land.” (Classics for Pleasure 255.) For my part, I add this book to Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited as my favorite “Catholic” novels.
A book review from The Movie Snob.
The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan (2012). This is a pretty good novel. It’s a first-person narrative by a young woman named Grace. In the short prologue, we find out that (1) she survived some sort of oceanic disaster in a lifeboat, and (2) she and two other women are about to be tried for a murder allegedly committed on said lifeboat. The rest of the book is her account of the disaster. She spins a pretty convincing tale, but she’s clearly someone who always looks out for Number One. Can we trust her account of events? I found the book well-written and even hard to put down.
A book review from The Movie Snob.
Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales, by Russell Kirk (2004). I know of Russell Kirk mainly as an eccentric founding father of modern American conservatism and as the author of the 1953 classic The Conservative Mind. But he apparently has a reputation as an author of ghost stories and gothic tales, so I gave this anthology a try. The stories are strange—very religious in sensibility, and not really scary. I didn’t care for the first few, but I thought they got better as they went along. It isn’t Steven King or H.P. Lovecraft, but if you like weird fiction you might conceivably find this volume interesting.
The Movie Snob pens a book review.
The Warden, by Anthony Trollope (1855). I quite enjoyed this short (203 pages) novel, which is the first by Trollope I have ever read. The action takes place mainly in a fictional area of England called Barsetshire, and I think most fans of Jane Austen (and perhaps Downton Abbey) might feel quite at home here. The action of the story is quite simple. The “warden” is Septimus Harding, a mild, minor Anglican clergyman. For several years, he has had a comfortable living off a very old charitable bequest, for which all he has to do is look after twelve impoverished old men who have come to live at a place called Hiram’s Hospital. But similar arrangements are coming under scrutiny in other parts of England, and there have been scandals when people discovered that the modern arrangements don’t really match up to the terms of the ancient bequests. When a fellow of reforming temperament starts to look into Rev. Harding’s set-up, the good clergyman is shaken to the core to think that he has not been entitled to the money he has taken from the trust and rather freely spent over the years. A fierce archdeacon (who happens to be Rev. Harding’s son-in-law) fights back vigorously against the reformer and assures his father-in-law that they will prevail in court, but to Rev. Harding’s credit he doesn’t want to win—he wants to be right. It’s an enjoyable story, and although the stakes are pretty low, I still found myself sympathizing with Rev. Harding’s distress.
A new book review from The Movie Snob.
Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson (2006). A friend recommended this fantasy novel to me, and I liked it. This fantasy world is a dismal place. Ash frequently rains from the sky, most people are serfs or slaves, and there’s a nasty Lord Ruler who has tyrannized the realm for like 1,000 years. But a few people still dare to plot his overthrow, and a resourceful young female thief named Vin gets pulled into their seemingly suicidal circle. The system of magic in this world is pretty complicated, and I didn’t really try to follow it all that closely. Only a relatively few people have magical powers, and to access them they have to ingest and “burn” various metals to achieve the particular metals’ magical effects. (One of the main magical effects these people can pull off is to manipulate metal a lot like Magneto from X-Men.) Anyway, I enjoyed it even without trying to remember what all the different metals can do. Apparently it is the first book in a substantial series, but it also works as a stand-alone tale.
Another book review from The Movie Snob.
Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald (1979). This is another very short novel by Fitzgerald. I liked the first novel of hers that I read, The Bookshop, and I liked this one even better. It’s about a handful of interesting characters who live on boats (mostly on barges lashed together) docked out on the Thames. Apparently Fitzgerald herself actually lived on such a houseboat for a while, so it may be somewhat autobiographical. I won’t go into the plot since it is a very short book, but I will say that I found the characters interesting and their stories involving. Six-year-old Tilda (Matilda) James is particularly likeable. I recommend it.