Monday, February 22, 2016

Winter Reading: Fervor, fairies, and women who run with wolves

Time flies when you're reading good books, so I really have to schedule some no-fails for the winter. When you're lolling in the sun with a margarita, lesser works will suffice, but cold, dreary days call for something so engaging you forget the ice melt drips crystallizing on the floor and the the itchy layers of swaddling required to ward off icy fingers and toes.

Russian novels always seem like a good fit for the cold season. I read Tolstoy's Hadji Murad, which is about as long as some chapters in War and Peace -- bite-size Tolstoy for those with commitment issues. This slim novel tells the story of a historical Avar guerilla fighter who both fought against and with the Russians in their campaigns to quell the hostile people of the Caucasus in the 19th Century. Tolstoy was inspired by his experience serving in the Russian army at the time. It pits Christian Russia against the Muslim tribes in what is now Dagestan and Chechnya. Tolstoy's admiration for the struggle of Murad as a man of faith (even though not his own) comes through.

Another exploration of faith, Marilynne Robinson's moving and beautiful Lila rounds out her trilogy of novels centered around the quiet, and often troubled lives of two pastors in the small town of Gilead. These are books that take seriously the questions of Christian doctrine, and how it plays out in the lives of two families. They are anything but dry. Robinson's characters contend with faith and doubt, alienation and communion, family ties that bind, but that can't always hold together. Grave, honest, and lovely, Robinson's writing feels like a priestly blessing. She is one of my favorite writers and thinkers. In Gilead, the aging pastor John Ames narrates his life story for the young son that he knows he will not see into adulthood. Lila is the story of his young wife and how their unlikely marriage came to be.

In retrospect, it's as if I read by theme, but it was actually totally random. Sir Walter Scott's Old Mortality is a historical fiction set in the late 1600s in Scotland during the Presbyterian uprising of the conservative Covenanters (some these days might say, right-wing extremists), who fought the Royalists over the right to re-install their particular brand of religion without any interference from the Crown. The hero is Henry Morton, by birth and nurture a more moderate Covenanter, who is torn between his loyalties to his own people and his love for the lady Edith, the daughter of a leading Royalist supporter. It's an adventure novel wrapped up is some very Scottian narrative fustiness, but the accounts of narrow escapes and battles are very good.

Next, I finally got around to Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, already a BBC-produced series, about pre-eminent English magicians working their arts during the Napoleonic wars. An alternate history that brings magic and fairies into the realm of politics and military enterprise, I thought it was great fun. It's quirky in its attention to historical detail while at the same time, completely fantastical, rewriting the battles of the Peninsular Wars and Waterloo by giving Wellington his own magician aide de camp and setting up a showdown between humans, magicians, and fairies in Yorkshire. Sly, funny and smart.

Finally, I actually read a new book -- a novel by Sarah Hall called The Wolf Border, about a biologist whose expertise on wolves attracts the attention of a rich aristocrat in Cumbria. The protagonist, Rachel Caine leaves her work on an Idaho Reservation to head up an eccentric project in her native England. Her skepticism is overcome by a personal crisis that drives her to take on the job of returning wolves to the wild on an English estate. I don't want to reveal too much about the plot, but I loved the setting in the Lake District, the complicated family dynamics, and the conservation aspect of the story. Hall's writing is sharp and engaging. She works the themes of nature and nurture, the instincts of human and animal, the fragile border between wilderness and civilization.