Books I read in December 2021

This month has been an odd mixture. I finally finished Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, which I started in November. And I read Rewards and Fairies which is quite a melancholy book. I also finally got hold of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows in book form, for which I’ve been waiting for a long time, but it’s more of a dipping book. I read Esmond in India and found it a bit depressing. Then I read a collection of interviews with Ursula K Le Guin.

Rewards and Fairies, Rudyard Kipling

Having finished Puck of Pook’s Hill in November, I decided to reread the sequel, Rewards and Fairies, which is a more sombre book in many ways. It also has some more problematic bits in it, such as usage of the N-word, and a portrayal of Seneca people as “noble savages” but also childlike. To be fair to Kipling, these seem to have been the views of the character portrayed rather than his own views, as he generally seems to have been rather keen on the fraternity of humanity transcending the boundaries of race; but the exoticization of Indigenous Peoples is not cool. The theme of Rewards and Fairies seems to be the refrain “What else could I have done” which is uttered by several of the characters. There’s also a good deal more about religion in it (perhaps someone had complained about the positive portrayal of Mithraism — clearly an allegory of Kipling’s own Freemasonry — in the previous book). The characters who appear in this book are more famous too — there’s Elizabeth I, and Nicholas Culpeper, and a Christian saint, and a character who met Napoleon and Talleyrand. One of the more intriguing characters is Meon the atheist and his friend Padda the seal. There’s even a very moving appearance from King Harold Godwinsson. Overall, the book presents an intriguing snapshot of a late Victorian / early Edwardian view of history, mythology, religion, and culture.

Mighty stories, dangerous rituals: Weaving together the human and the divine, Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley

This is a really interesting book. It talks about the importance of stories and how we use them to construct meaning in our lives, and how that plays into ritual and how we use ritual to create meaning in our lives (even rituals like how we open Yule gifts or decorate the Yule tree together). The stories we tell about ourselves are co-created with the people around us, and we can change them and make them more authentic.

One example given in the book: a person might be telling themselves a story that they had an idyllic childhood and if only they could get back to something that represents that childhood idyll, they’d be happy. But in reality their self-destructive behaviour drives others away, and the attainment of the childhood idyll is unrealistic (e.g. it relies on winning the lottery).

The book is written by two Christians, so Pagan readers will need to do a bit of translating in their heads, but it’s worth the effort, and most of the time you can get by with just replacing “God” with “the gods” and skim-reading the Jesus bits.

I picked it up because I thought the title was great, and decided to buy it because it has an endorsement from Ronald Grimes on the back (a ritual theorist whom I admire). I also flicked through it and saw that it was well written and had good examples of challenging life situations that could happen to people.

The book goes through how to create new rituals for situations like divorce, adoption, and untimely death, turning off a ventilator or life support, and dealing with traumatic events like wars. The section on being inclusive was good, though it was silent about including disabled people and LGBTQ2SIA people. The section on reconciliation was excellent and should be read by anyone who wants the kind of reconciliation that involves sweeping things under the rug, which is of course not reconciliation at all.

It talks about incorporating the stories of people’s lives into ritual, but it doesn’t really go into detail about how to do that. Where it shines is in talking about how to ritualize not only the significant events of life, but also ordinary time (the times between high days and holidays, and between rites of passage).

What I appreciated about the book is that it counsels against facile answers for things. Instead it argues for allowing divinity to break through into trauma and pain.

Esmond in India, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

What a sad book. No one was happy, no one was fulfilled, nobody had an adventure. Shakuntala slept with a third rate Englishman. Har Dayal betrayed his friend. Everyone betrayed their ideals. The only characters I liked were Uma (who was genuinely caring) and Narayan (who never actually made an appearance). Gulab is an interesting character who just wants to sleep all day and eat nice food. I can relate. The book is billed as a comedy of manners but I think it’s a tragedy of manners. It’s beautifully written, but wistful and elegiac. A story of muddle. The novel ends without finishing the story, too, which is annoying. Does Shakuntala see sense or does she end up with Esmond and then repeat what happened to Gulab?

Ursula K Le Guin: The Last Interview and other conversations, edited by David Streitfeld

If you love Ursula Le Guin’s writing as much as I do, this is a must-read. It illuminates the sources of her inspiration and also gives excellent advice to other writers. It shows how much effort she put into creating her worlds, especially for the Ekumen series, the Earthsea series, and Always Coming Home. It also shows how the characters emerged from her inner world rather than from any didactic impulse. The characters and the world-building are what make her novels so awesome.

High Spirits, Robertson Davies

Several people (including Mortellus in the interview I did with them the other day — see part 1 and part 2 on my YouTube channel) have pointed out that there’s a Christmas tradition of ghost stories. Accordingly, I reread, for the umpteenth time, this hilarious collection of Christmas ghost stories by Robertson Davies. These stories were originally performed by him at Massey College Gaudy Nights. Unfortunately for him, his books were put on the school curriculum, thus putting off a whole generation of Canadian kids from reading him. His work is very Jungian, in my opinion, and I enjoy it immensely. It has flaws, but it’s still great writing. These ghost stories were clearly written as a bit of fun and larks, but they’re very well structured. A knowledge of Canadian history is not entirely necessary to enjoy them (I did not possess this knowledge the first time I read them), but it does make them much funnier.

The Hidden Palace, Helene Wecker

A bit of a slow start — but many threads of story wove together to make a satisfyingly rich and unexpected ending to the story. Beautiful writing and unforgettable characters. This is the sequel to The Golem and the Jinni, which I read in December 2018.

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