Books I read in July 2021

I read Crosstalk by Connie Willis and then decided to re-read The Deptford Trilogy. Then I read a book on Indigenous stories, and then a book on walking in Paris, which I bought secondhand ages ago and only just got around to reading. And then I re-read Terry Pratchett’s last book, The Shepherd’s Crown.

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

Hilarious and complex romp through communication, social media, and corporate culture. A neurologist has devised a way to enhance communication between couples, and Trent and Briddey decide to go for it, but get considerably more than they bargained for.

Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies

Dunstan Ramsay (the Fifth Business of the title) is one of my all-time favourite fictional characters. I like his view of the world and enjoyment of the mythical realms. I’m still not sure what to think about Boy Staunton, who was clearly not a nice person at all, but as to whether he was morally responsible for what happened to Mary Dempster, I’m still not sure. I first read this book around 1989, and have read it many many times since. It’s rather interesting to read it again and tie in the few references to Indigenous people with what I know now, including a better idea of the geography of Southern Ontario. The reason I love Davies’ writing so much is the way that he dissects Christianity and gives it a Jungian twist. The discussion of the role of the Devil is particularly interesting; and also the character of Padre Blazon, who points out that Jesus is a deity for young men, since all his ideas were those of a young man (the searing moral clarity of people under forty). Blazon says he wants a god to whom he can relate.

The Manticore, by Robertson Davies

This is the sequel to Fifth Business and is written from the point of view of Boy Staunton’s son, now an adult. He is relating his childhood and teenage years to a therapist in Zürich. He is rather tiresomely opposed to Jungian ideas but has succumbed to analysis as a last resort. He seems to have idolized his father, without realizing what a horrible person he was. The book does a great job of introducing some key Jungian concepts without beating the reader over the head with them. I’ve read this book many, many times and it never fails to be interesting. One of the oddest things about accounts of Ontario in the first half of the twentieth century is the fact that Indigenous people are mentioned in passing but are clearly not part of village life (as they wouldn’t have been, since they had to get passes to leave the reserve). They’re sort of conspicuous by their absence. Davies does include them, but in the background, not as characters in the story.

The chief interest of these books for me is their treatment of Christianity. One of the images in the book is that the heraldic animals (supporters) in the royal crest in Canadian courts are usually emasculated, whereas in the private courtroom in David Staunton’s imagination, they are complete (with genitalia). I sort of feel that Christianity as we know it is incomplete, because its Shadow side is repressed and projected outwards, whereas the Christianity in Davies’ books has its Shadow restored, being seen from a Jungian perspective.

Royal arms of the UK (note that the supporters are complete, though it’s very subtly depicted)

World of Wonders, by Robertson Davies

This is the last instalment of the Deptford trilogy. I can never decide which of the trilogy is my favourite, but World of Wonders is probably the most varied in its settings and its twists and turns. Who could forget the dreadful Willard, or Happy Hannah, or the poignant portrayal of Sir John Tresize and Milady? This is Davies at his best, creating atmosphere and exploring the interior landscapes of his characters.

Our stories remember: American Indian History, Culture, and Values through Storytelling, by Joseph Bruchac

Really interesting book. Lots of information about Indigenous lore and mythology. I wish that he had used the real names of Indigenous Peoples throughout instead of the European names for them (though he does provide a list of their real names).

The stories are really good though, and the context given for them is helpful. I was particularly interested in the information about Indigenous afterlife beliefs.

According to this book, the residential school experience in the USA does not seem to have been quite as horrendous as in Canada, but I wonder how different it actually was. It seems that a reckoning is due, and that the search for bodies at US residential schools (“Indian boarding schools”) is likely to result in finding unmarked graves there too.

Some might think the book is too pan-Indigenous but he gives the source of each story and which people it came from, plus a great further reading list. The book is an excellent primer for people who want a general introduction to the Indigenous cultures of Turtle Island (North America).

Another review of the book (contains spoilers)

The most beautiful walk in the world: a Pedestrian in Paris, by John Baxter

Is this a memoir, or a book about walking, or a book about Paris, or a book about writers between the wars? I’m not quite sure, but it was a fun book to read anyway, and it made me laugh aloud a few times. I like the laid-back approach to life espoused by the author (exemplified by the marvellous quote from William Faulkner on page 146) — the spirit of the flâneur. I also like the philosophy of travel that is exemplified here: don’t try to see All The Things: instead, soak up the atmosphere of the place that you find in backstreets and forgotten corners.

A quote from William Faulkner’s Wild Palms

A room with a view, by EM Forster

I think this is my favourite of EM Forster’s books. The character of Charlotte Bartlett is almost unbearable, but I like all the other main characters, except the Rev Eager, Cecil Vyse and his mother, obviously. This is a comedy of manners, but the stultifying Victorian nonsense that the characters get up to (which Forster opposes, of course) is relieved by the plot and the superb prose. If it wasn’t for the Emersons (presumably named in tribute to Ralph Waldo Emerson) and Freddy, the comedy would’ve shifted to tragedy. Thank goodness for AE Housman-quoting Emerson senior.

My favourite line in the whole book is uttered by Freddy: “The tune’s right enough, but the words are rotten.” Freddy doesn’t get enough of an airing, in my opinion. Although the scene in the Sacred Lake is hilarious, and profoundly illustrates the theme of the book: life and love must triumph over convention and muddle. This is probably the most Pagan of Forster’s novels — not just because of the numerous classical references, but because of its affirmation of life.

The Shepherd’s Crown, by Terry Pratchett

Although the book is unfinished, it is still a chance to revisit some favourite characters, and see the Discworld changing, with a possible male witch, the coming of the steam engine, and the last stand of the elves.

Reading the book is tinged with the sadness of the knowledge that it was Terry Pratchett’s last book.

Great review of The Shepherd’s Crown by Brenton Dickieson.

WWW: Wake, by Robert Sawyer

I really enjoyed this for the science and the Canadian setting, but I think the characterization of Caitlin is off, especially her attitude to being blind (you don’t miss something that you never had); and the way that her father’s autism is described is incorrect, if I’ve understood anything about autism from actually autistic people. It is also rude about Kuroda being overweight (although that may just be the other characters’ attitudes).

A very critical review of WWW: Wake

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