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It’s hard to know how best to describe The Essex Serpent. Sarah Perry‘s writing reminds me a bit of Kate Atkinson’s. This is a historical novel, set in the late 1800s. It’s also an examination of the nineteenth (and sadly, the 20th and 21st) century’s tension between faith and reason, religion and science. It’s a social commentary on the role of women in society, and on the responsibility of the wealthy and powerful to the poor, and on the way social welfare, such as housing programs, is often laced with paternalism and judgement. It’s about love in all its complexity and variety, especially as manifested in parenthood, friendship, romance, desire, and social conscience. It’s about fear, longing, joy, and despair. It’s about mythology and mob thinking. It’s about the beauty and also the strangeness of the natural world and our perception of it. It’s about illness and medicine, in particular nineteenth century surgery and the impact of tuberculosis on a patient’s mind. It’s about how a child likely on the autism spectrum would have been viewed in the nineteenth century (a bit eccentric and not prone to affection) It’s about the pros and cons of city and country life and what we need to make a life. It’s a book that hits on all the Big Ideas of being human without hammering the reader over the head with them.

Cora is a a smart, unconventional woman, a recent widow who is glad to be free of her cruel and abusive husband, and who would rather be tramping around in a man’s coat and boots looking for fossils but moves easily in a world of silk and diamonds and expensive treats from Harrod’s. She ends up in Essex with her companion, Martha, a socialist and fair housing advocate, and her son, Francis (the one who seems to me to be autistic). Their circle of friends includes the Reverend William Ransome, (who reminds me a bit of an older, more settled version of Sidney Chambers, nineteenth century style) and his wife Stella, who Cora and Martha meet through London friends, as well as the doctor, Luke, who attended Cora’s late husband and who makes history performing surgery on a stabbing victim’s heart, and Luke’s best friend George (mostly referred to by his last name, Spencer).

The way Perry intertwines her characters’ lives is brilliant. And the way she weaves through their lives the mystery of the Essex serpent is also well done; even those characters who aren’t directly interested in whether the beast exists are impacted by “the trouble” it causes. I loved that Perry’s inspiration was a real pamphlet (published in the 1600s and and reprinted in the 1800s as well as recently) alleging “Strange News Out of Essex.”  And I loved the language — here’s a passage that caught my eye (and ear) as I read it last night, as Martha is startled to see Francis in Stella’s lap: “What Martha later recalled most vividly of those last few fog-white days was this: William’s wife and Cora’s son, fit together like broken pieces soldered on the seam.” It’s not a straightforward narrative, as Perry sprinkles her text with the letters her characters write to each other. But it’s not a straight up epistolary novel either, as there are long passages without letters.

I loved it, and I loved how it ended — Cora has undergone change without being transformed beyond recognition, there’s no pat conclusion of the chaos she’s wrought or the pain she’s experienced, but there’s hope. A thoroughly entertaining and also thought provoking book — the kind of read that makes you long to talk it over with someone who’s read it too. And yes, it’s another of Simon’s recommendations from an episode (maybe several) of The Readers! Thanks, Simon.

 

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I found this book as I find many — I was checking in returns at the library. I’m interested in Tolkien, and have read a number of books by C.S. Lewis. Both offspring the Elder and the Younger have to read Lewis for courses this semester. And the Elder has told me repeatedly, no other fiction satisfied him once he read The Lord of the Rings books in his early teens. I’ve also long been interested in WWI. My grandmother brought Vera Brittain to my attention when I in college, and I have always been fascinated by the literary response to war.

But let me get back to the book at hand, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. The point of my digression is that I was primed to really enjoy this book. I found myself marking pages as I read, which is usually a good sign. For example, I was interested in this: “The conceit of the intellectual elites of the day was that science, and the technology it underwrites, could solve the most intractable of human problems.”

Which is where we are again today — I touched on that a bit in my review of It’s Your World. We believe we can solve poverty, illness, and even conflict. And we can — potentially. We are to some extent. The Computer Scientist quoted some of the latest Harper’s Index last night, which notes, “Estimated percentage change in the rate of extreme poverty worldwide over the past twenty years : –66 Chances that an American believes the rate has “almost doubled” over that period : 2 in 3.” We humans are a complicated lot — we believe we can do anything if we set our minds to it and we also believe we’re screwing everything up. Perhaps because for every person working on ending human suffering there seems to be another who is profiting from it, and it’s hard to tell which is prevailing in the daily stream of bad news.

Loconte goes on to explain however, that Tolkien and Lewis saw in trench warfare “the horrific progeny of this thinking,” about science’s potential, and thus endowed their fictional characters more realistically with “a tragic mix of nobility and wretchedness” which they related to “the Fall,” which Tolkien claimed “lurked behind every story.” But, it seems a bit of a leap of logic to me to suggest that because science was supposed to be man’s salvation, WWI’s betrayal of that idea caused a loss of faith in mankind, and Tolkein and Lewis, because of their exposure to this, created characters who are both heroic and flawed. I’m not sure all of that follows, necessarily, and even if I agreed with the logic, it’s a very incomplete picture.

Also while Loconte correctly notes that many Christian denominations went awry in supporting eugenics and nationalism and endorsing WWI, I think it’s also over-simplifying to say that the war “instigated a new season of religious doubts.” As this British Library article notes, there were many social and cultural causes for the decline in organized religion both before and after the war. But organized religion is not the same as faith, and while I am sure it’s true that many people struggled with faith in the face of such horrors, others discovered it, or found it strengthened. Churches changed over the ensuing decades, sometimes for the better (like not preaching eugenics anymore), sometimes for the worse (like supporting white supremacy). But religion didn’t die, nor did faith.

And many religious thinkers, or writers influenced by faith, born before, during, or after WWI, continued to focus on how we should live  — Tolkien and Lewis, yes, but also (in no particular order, and not meant to be a comprehensive list) T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoffer, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Rumer Godden, James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dorothy Sayers, Paul Tillich, Wendell Berry, Donald Hall, Jane Gardam, Alan Paton, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr. Loconte declares faith rare among “the literarti” which is an overgeneralization. Sure, there were a lot of secular writers in the early to mid-20th century, but those for whom faith mattered are hardly lightweights or unknowns.

The most interesting parts of A Hobbit A Wardrobe and a Great War are the sections where Loconte talks about Tolkien’s and Lewis’s friendship, and other friendships that sustained them as writers and thinkers. I wish those sections had been longer. Also, the book is so heavily footnoted that I began to wonder what Loconte himself thought; was this book simply a review of others’ theories or his own?

So, I’m glad I read it, but I didn’t love it. However, it made me think and got The Computer Scientist and me talking about how combat impacted his thoughts on faith, and any book that sparks conversation can’t be all bad.

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In September 2011, Lillian Daniel’s essay on Huffington Post, “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me” went viral, which led her, eventually, to write this similarly named book. I thought it looked intriguing, and as I began to read, her voice reminded me of some of my favorite people (you know who you are) — smart, funny, and blunt. This is one of those books that isn’t hard to read but may be hard to process.

Each chapter is an essay (or a sermon? I wondered if that’s where these began), brief and self contained, and they’re organized loosely by theme.  Since it’s a new library book, I only had two weeks to read it, but if I’d had longer I probably would have read one a day, so I had time to let them sink in. What I love about her writing is that like the best kinds of stories, these essays are delightful to read, entertaining, and then upon reflection, thought provoking.

Daniel can be quite direct, as when she addresses the spiritual-but-not-religious, “who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating,” — “There’s nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or, heaven forbid, disagree with you.” Discussing the way individual opinion is paramount online she writes, “We are creating a culture of narcissists who have never had a thought they did not press ‘send’ on.” Or, describing the way progressive religious types tend to explain their beliefs by saying what our churches don’t believe, “Oh just stop it . . . . You can be accepting of other people’s ideas but still willing to articulate your own.”

So she tells it like she sees it. Which means she also celebrates the messiness, the imperfections, the inconsistencies, and the “perplexity” in living out one’s faith in community. Some essays are rooted more in everyday life than in church, but she writes from a clear and unapologetic point of view as a minister in a progressive Protestant denomination (United Church of Christ). Even if you don’t share her faith or her views, she’s also very funny and a keen observer of human nature and of contemporary culture, and writes beautifully, so you will probably find something to enjoy. And if you don’t, that’s probably fine with her.

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