Acts and Omissions, by Catherine Fox

actsandomissionsNow we go straight from my review of a book by a favourite author that I’d been eagerly anticipating and absolutely loved, to a book by an author I’d never heard of, only picked up because it was being discussed in an online book club and looked sort of interesting … which I also absolutely loved. Going straight from Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Quest to Catherine Fox’s Acts and Omissions was like going from a wonderful vacation in a beautiful spot to another vacation in a completely different spot — like going from the beach to the mountains, or vice versa. The only shared elements were that I read both books ravenously and far too quickly, and all I wanted in either case when I was done was an unobtainable sequel (unobtainable in Hobb’s case because it’s not been written yet and in Fox’s because although it’s written and published I can’t get hold of it in my country yet!).

But enough of my reading adventures: what about the actual book?

Catherine Fox is attempting, pretty transparently I think, to do for the twenty-first century Church of England what Anthony Trollope did in the nineteenth-century with his Barchester novels: use the Church and its clergy as the setting for a series of novels featuring a wide variety of characters living through ordinary and earth-shattering moments. I both laughed aloud and cried genuine tears while reading Acts and Omissions, which is set in and around the fictional Lindchester Cathedral and explores the lives of a large group of characters over the course of a calendar (and church) year.

Right off the top, one thing I know some readers won’t like about this book is the narrative voice. Acts and Omissions features not only an omniscient narrator, but a very intrusive one who addresses the reader directly and comments on the actions of the characters — who, in other words, tells as well as shows in the way that was quite acceptable for novelists of Trollope’s era but that fell out of favour in the twentieth century (though now that we’re all postmodern and meta, the voice of the intrusive narrator is having its day again). Dickens, Trollope, Austin, all the nineteenth century novelists used this voice, and some readers of today will find it jarring (or will not mind the device but will find the slightly snarky voice of this particular narrator annoying; I don’t, but I understand why some people do). I’m reminded most of Thackery and the closing lines of Vanity Fair: “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.” Fox, like those nineteenth-century novelists, never lets us forget that we are reading a novel about fictional characters — yet somehow the characters come to life of their own accord and leap off the page as real people who can make us laugh and cry (see my note above about laughing and crying).

There are several levels on which to enjoy this book, which I’ll categorize as the Anglican Level, the Christian Level, and the General Human Being Level. There’s obviously a lot of rich material here for Anglicans, especially those familiar with church hierarchies and politics, and despite the narrator’s best attempts to make some of this clear to the rest of us, a lot of this will just sail over the heads of readers like me who are not members of the Anglican church. This is OK; I don’t mind inside jokes and references, since that’s part of why I read — to catch glimpses into other worlds and other subcultures. So when the narrator assures us, before introducing the wonderful character of the Archdeacon Matt, that we will of course have certain preconceptions in our head as soon as she says “the Archdeacon” — well, no, of course I don’t; I haven’t got the faintest clue what an Archdeacon is or does, and thus have no idea of the stereotypes about Archdeacons. But I’m OK with that.

I read this book accepting the hardcore Church of England business as I would accept a lot of the details in a novel set among cannibal tribes on a remote Pacific island — I don’t understand it, but it’s interesting to read about. Where the novel touched me most deeply was on what I’ll call the Christian level — because apart from the machinations of a particular church culture, this is a novel about hope, faith and redemption; about the ways we try to be better people and often tragically fail; about how our religious faith can both help us along that path and sometimes, for some of us, be the stumbling block that makes us fall. 

The novel has, as I’ve said, a huge cast of characters and the narrator dips in and out of their lives, but the central conflict of the story focuses mainly on Paul Henderson, the Bishop of Lindchester, his wife Susanna, and a troubled young man named Freddie May who they’ve taken to live in their home for a few months. The personal struggles of these characters and a host of others are set against the bigger-world backdrop of the Church of England’s struggle with the issue of same-sex marriage, significant to this story because Paul is a fairly conservative bishop who opposes same-sex marriage but has, of course, gay clergy and gay parishioners in his care, as well as a large number of more liberal colleagues who completely disagree with his stance. The political becomes very personal by the end of the novel, not just for Bishop Paul but for many others.

This is not a “Christian novel” in the sense that you’d expect to find it on the shelves of a Christian bookstore where you can be guaranteed no swear words, no sex, and a Jesus-driven resolution to every conflict by the last page. But it is a deeply  Christian novel in the sense that it is about real people struggling with the real issues of living a life of faith (or avoiding doing so, as not every character in the book is a professed Christian). While I think this is a human enough and interesting enough story to be enjoyed on the General Human Being Level by readers who are not particularly interested in questions of faith, I feel like it’s written primarily for people who do see the big (and little) struggles of human life playing out on the bigger canvas that contains God, hope, redemption, sin and salvation. While this book may not be everyone’s cup of tea it was absolutely mine: I fell in love with almost every character (even the unlikable ones) and cannot wait to spend more time in Lindchester. If only I can get my hands on that sequel!

 

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Fool’s Quest, by Robin Hobb

foolsquestI don’t know if I need to get into detail on how amazingly good this book is: perhaps you just need to refer to my review of Fool’s Assassin from last summer to get a sense of what I’m talking about. Let’s just say that in the couple of days before Fool’s Quest was released I re-read Fool’s Assassin so all its events would be fresh in my mind, then spent the next couple of days devouring Fool’s Quest as soon as it downloaded to my Kobo. Immersed back in the world of the Six Duchies, I followed the adventures of FitzChivalry Farseer, finally reunited with his beloved Fool, the friend he thought he’d never see again. But every gain has a loss: the same incident that brought a broken and dying Fool back to Fitz’s side also robbed him of his beloved nine-year-old daughter Bee, and now Fitz has to decide how best get Bee back — or to get revenge, if saving her is not possible.

The worst thing about this book was knowing I’ll have to wait at least another year to find out how the story ends. The best thing about this book was everything else.

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Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

betweentheworldThis is probably one of the most talked-about books of 2015, and it’s a quick read, and I think everyone should read it. It has important things to say about the issues of race in the United States, and you don’t have to be American to appreciate it and learn from it. In the wake of the past year’s string of fatal incidents involving US police officers and African-American men, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates frames this book (really three long essays) as a series of letters to his teenaged son about his own experience growing up as a black man in the United States and his hopes and fears for his son.

This book is by no means an easy read with easy, comforting answers for us white folk. Coates is unsparing in his criticism of what he calls “the Dream of Whiteness” and the systemic violence it has inflicted upon black people. This book is astringent and angry and raw in places, and it’s always thought-provoking.

As a white person living in a place that doesn’t have a long history of white-vs-black racial discrimination (only because of lack of diversity in the population, not because we’re any better than other people), it was important for me not only to learn about how at least one African-American man views his country’s racial divide, but also to put what Coates says into the context of other forms of discrimination. For example, a lot of what he says about growing up in the slums of an American city grows out of not just racial but class prejudice: some of his experiences, I know, are common to people from poor families in poor neighbourhoods all over North America, regardless of race. And at least one experience he describes — dining out with a new acquaintance on a trip to France — made me reflect that perhaps his experience as a black man made him able to appreciate a little of the wary vigilance with which most of us women always approach the world (“Yes, you’re being very nice and friendly to me now, but I’m still on guard against the moment when you might turn against me and attack me”).

But though there is much here that is universal, this is (I think) not intended to be a universal but a very particular book — writing about the particular experience of being a black man in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Some parts will be hard to read — for me, these parts included Coates’s rejection of Martin Luther King’s status as an icon and of the practices of nonviolent resistance. As a hardcore pacifist (an oxymoron, I know) I have, of course, admired King and those he worked with in the civil rights movement, but it was important for me to pause and think about how double-edged and dangerous it is for those of us in positions of power and privilege to recommend non-violent resistance as a strategy for the oppressed. If you commit to using only non-violent methods to defeat racism, does that make me feel safe while I enjoy the benefits of that racism, in a society built upon generations of violence?

As I said, there’s a lot here to think about. Many people are reading and talking about this book this summer, and they should be: this is a lyrical and thoughtful examination of issues that need to be examined. 

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In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume

unlikelyeventIt may be hard to believe that three unrelated plane crashes could hit residential areas in the same town over a period of a few months, but that’s exactly what happened in New Jersey when Judy Blume was growing up, and she fictionalizes that incredibly real-life coincidence as the backdrop for her novel In the Unlikely Event. Though this is billed as one of Blume’s novels for adults, the main character throughout the novel is teenaged Miri Ammerman. Miri, along with the other teenagers in the novel, lives through the three crashes and the fear and uncertainty that descends on the community in the wake of the tragedies. For Miri and her friends the crashes are just one more puzzles piece to fit into the complex jigsaw of growing up, falling in love, coping with family and changing friendships. Perhaps this is marketed as an adult rather than a young-adult novel because we get a few point of view chapters from the perspective of adult characters, and in a framing story the adult Miri goes back to her hometown for a reunion and meets many of the people she knew as a teenager. But essentially, this is a standard coming of age story with the unusual twist of a series of improbable but unrelated disasters in the background.

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Caching In, by Tracy Krimmer

cachinginThis is another of my “I don’t read many romances but …” reviews. I don’t read many romances but … I do love geocaching, and when I stumbled across this romance novel about a couple who meet while caching, I couldn’t resist checking it out. Caching In is a nice, light, fun romp with Ally, who takes up geocaching while recovering from a nasty breakup and runs into experienced cacher Seth, who has a heartbreak of his own to recover from. While the plot is the standard romance-novel fare of a couple with hidden hurts that threaten to tear them apart, Ally is an appealing enough narrator to make the story fresh and interesting even to the non-romance-reader like me. Plus, there’s geocaching! A fun romantic romp through a search for hidden treasure and a hopeful future for two people trying to leave the past behind.

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Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby

funnygirlI loved this book. I devoured it. I devoured it rapidly like a box of chocolates, if I were going to eat an entire box of chocolates at once, which I would not do because it’s a bad idea. I always enjoy Nick Hornby’s books and this is one of my favourites. It’s the story of Barbara from Blackpool, who changes her name to Sophie Straw when she goes to London in the mid-1960s seeking a career in comedy. Ironically, she ends up as Barbara from Blackpool again when she lucks into a starring role in a BBC sitcom. This is a story about an ambitious young woman and the behind-the-scenes world of the BBC in the golden age of television.

It’s not just Sophie’s story — Hornby handles an omniscient point of view with ease and allows the story to unfold through several points of view, mostly through the men who are Sophie’s coworkers. But Sophie is the engine that drives the story — her energy, her ambition, the genuine joy she finds in her job. This book is not only funny and engaging but is driven by Hornby’s signature ability to tease out the nuances of what characters are thinking beneath the surface of what they’re saying and doing. This book was a joy to read, and I only wish it had been longer.

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Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

gosetawatchman Warning: Long post ahead.

Yes, I read it. I couldn’t NOT read it — if nothing else, I was too curious, and the revelations about Watchman’s plot revealed in the last few days only made me more curious. I did not buy it; I read it in two sittings in the bookstore cafe, something I used to do years ago when I was younger and poorer but wouldn’t normally do now when I can afford to buy all the books I want. In this case, reading what I’ve read about the book’s turbulent history, I was pretty much convinced that a younger and perhaps more sound-of-mind Harper Lee would not have approved publication of this book in this form, and I didn’t want to give any money to anyone who may be exploiting an elderly woman who can no longer defend her literary legacy. Having read the book, I’m more convinced than ever that Lee would not have knowingly OK’d the publication of this book, but I’m also not sorry I read it.

First off, let’s talk about what Go Set a Watchman (apparently) is and is not. It reads like it should be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird; it features our familiar main character, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (here in third-person limited point of view rather than the first-person of Mockingbird). She is very recognizably the same girl, but now she is twenty-six, living in New York (as Nelle Harper Lee was when she wrote the novel), and returning home to visit her aging father Atticus in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama.

But this is not a sequel, as near as we can tell from the manuscript’s murky history; it’s the book Lee wrote first. Her first draft, if you will, and while her writing style is strong and skillful and recognizable, it also sometimes reads like a first draft, especially towards the end, when she tries to pull everything together and doesn’t quite succeed.

Apparently, Lee’s editor convinced her to take the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood that are embedded in Watchman and fashion those into a different novel, a novel that confronts the same issue — the deeply embedded racism of the segregated South — through the eyes of a child rather than a young adult, and (importantly) against the backdrop of the Great Depression rather than on the cusp of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Watchman and Mockingbird are, in a way, telling the same story — a young white Southern girl discovers that the community she loves and belongs to is capable of deep and vicious racism. The difference that makes a difference to most readers is that in Mockingbird, Scout’s father, Atticus, viewed through the hero-worshipping eyes of a child, stands against that racism. In Watchman, the older Attticus stands for a certain kind of racism, and he becomes Scout’s antagonist rather than her hero. Continue reading

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