Monday, December 31, 2007

Holiday Reading (Books 128-134)

We just this evening got in from our trip to Alabama, so instead of partying I'm curled up on the couch enjoying having high-speed net access again. Here are my final reads of 2007:

Sharpe’s Christmas (Bernard Cornwell, 2003) contains two short stories Cornwell wrote for Christmas editions of British papers. They were entertaining reads, perfect in-flight entertainment, and it’s always good to see Sharpe, but I can tell the short story isn’t Cornwell’s usual form--it’s like he sets up a situation that could develop into a novel, realizes he’s only got 2000 words or so left on his count limit, then wraps it up in a hurry.

The Wise Virgin (Jo Beverley, 1999) is part of a Christmas anthology of medieval romances and features a young woman who finds a way to unite two families who’ve been feuding for generations over a holy relic. As usual, Beverley delivers a good balance of romance, strong characterization, and a believable historical background.

The Drop Edge of Yonder (Donis Casey, 2007) is the third mystery featuring Alafair Tucker, an Oklahoma farmwife and mother of many in the early years of the 20th century. This time Alafair’s young brother-in-law is the murder victim and one of her daughters is a witness, if only she can recover from a head injury in time to work out what happened before the murderer comes after her, too. I figured out who the killer was well before Alafair did, unusual for me when reading a mystery, but that’s partly because I narrowed it to two suspects and made up my mind it just COULDN’T be the more sympathetic of the two characters, even though the evidence seemed stacked against him. Anyway, these are engaging mysteries written in a strong voice, and I’ll be looking forward to the next murder that threatens the Tucker clan.

I’ve read a lot about Wellington over the past four years or so, but Wellington: The Iron Duke (Richard Holmes, 2003) brings out the less appealing side of his character more than most histories. He was undoubtedly easier to admire than to like, and Holmes doesn’t obscure or make many excuses for his occasionally reactionary politics, his reluctance to give praise and credit where due, or the fact that he was what we today would call a control freak. Even so, Wellington admirer that I am, I think Holmes is a fair biographer, concluding that while Wellington wasn’t always a good man, he was unquestionably a great one.

At this point in my journey I started running low on things to read, especially since I was saving two books for the flight home. So I started raiding my mother’s bookshelves and picked up Reflections on the Psalms (C.S. Lewis, 1958). I’d read it before at the age of 13 or so, but I figure if it’s been 20 years and more since I’ve read a book, it can count as a new read for the purpose of this journal.

I remember being baffled and perturbed by this book the first time around, because it didn’t accord with the strict view of biblical inspiration I’d grown up with. Now, though in superficial matters Lewis is very much a man of his nation, class, and time--and I’m much more aware of the fact that I’m two generations or so removed from him and from a cousin nation with a subtly different culture--I found the book both thought-provoking and encouraging as a view of a faith that doesn’t need absolutes to function.

Lord John and the Hand of Devils (Diana Gabaldon, 2007) is a set of three short stories (more like one short story and two novellas) featuring Lord John Grey, 18th century British officer and closeted gay man. This was an entertaining airplane read. I think Gabaldon is almost better writing Lord John than Jamie and Claire Fraser, as if the shorter length and mystery genre constraints force discipline and structure upon her.

It’s Not About the Accent (Caridad Ferrer, 2007) is a coming-of-age novel about seeking adventures and exploring roots. Caroline Darcy feels that her Ohio hometown is too boring, so she gloms onto her 1/8 Cuban heritage, courtesy of a great-grandmother she adored as a child, and pretends to be an exotic half-Latina babe when she goes off to college. At first the adventure is everything Caro hoped for, but complications ensue--at its midpoint, this is a very dark book--before she learns to make her search for roots less about playing pretend and more about exploring history.

This was a great book to close out my 2007 reading. I’ve never really pretended to be what I’m not, but I can relate to glomming onto one fraction of your heritage that seems better and more interesting than the rest of an ordinary small-town background. For instance, I used to make much of the fact that I’m part Highland Scot, really I am, I’ve got to be, because I had an ancestor named Fraser. In 1750 or so, but still! Fraser! Highlander! I’ve also gotten excited about a possible trace of Creek blood, and ever since the “Freedom Fries” idiocy of a few years ago, I’ve been extremely proud of my French ancestry, never mind that it’s only a trace of Huguenot from a long, long time ago. We’re talking “stand up and hum La Marseillaise” proud, and never mind that the Fanchers left France a hundred years or so before there WAS such a song. Anyway, in Caro’s journey she does find meaningful Cuban roots and family ties--she’s more Cuban than I am French, Indian, or Highlander--but I’ve been figuring out how to own all facets of my own family history, without making them more or less than they are, so I connected to this book.

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