Having finished my annual Philippine Literature Challenge, which doubles as your Philippine Literature Giveaway (Congratulations again, Sheila!), I can get back to the 2015 TBR Challenge. Unlike my previous "Three-legged List," which featured titles I picked for myself and just put off reading, this one has three books that I never asked for, but that others thought I'd enjoy. So how did they fare?
Well, in general, none of them gave me that "right book at the right time" feeling--though a couple of them convinced me that "the right time" isn't always a recurring planetary aspect you can always run into again . . . even if it takes centuries . . . but sometimes a period of personal history that a window can slam shut on forever. In which case rewarding reading requires a time machine.
I Needed A Couple of Nudges to Read
Father Elijah by Michael D. O'Brien
Before Melanie chose this for me last month, Sheila was already recommending it--and long before it became part of my 2015 TBR Challenge, Stilwell sent it to me as a gift. (Thanks again, Stilwell!) Some time in between, I mentioned it to Christopher, who had some very definite opinions on Michael O'Brien's fiction to share. So much for "the right time": it looks as if I'm late to the Father Elijah party! And not even fashionably late. =P
For those who didn't even receive an invitation, this novel is about a Carmelite monk who used to be a rising star in Israeli politics and who continues to be torn between spiritual power and temporal power, as well as spiritual love and romantic love, at a time when the events predicted in Revelation seem to be unfolding. And it has got one of the best mystical descriptions of that book of the New Testament ("a series of visions that were given to Saint John in a multidimensional form . . . restricted to . . . a two-dimensional form--a string of letters on a page") that I have ever read. An exciting premise and some beautiful passages. But not quite great literature.
Reading Father Elijah two months ago reminded me of being part of the Catholic blogosphere six years ago. If I had received this copy before I left that life, I would have enjoyed it more. Not that it isn't okay now and okay in general; it's also just obviously aimed at a certain demographic. A very narrow one. And they will know exactly what I mean when I say my stance on the culture wars has changed from "Rasczack's Roughneck" to "Southerner who joined the Confederate Army only after Union troops burned his house and fields." But making the shift has also given me a better view of what tactics work and what don't, and I see it as a mark against this novel that it wants to contribute nothing to pop culture, which is the most significant front. Even The Da Vinci Code and Left Behind were more ambitious than that: and for all their flaws, they had a better sense of "small-c catholic" than Father Elijah does and have already sowed more seeds in the world than it ever will.
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
Christopher picked this one Twitter, I told my offline friend "CCL," whose shadow has fallen over this blog a whopping one fleeting time: "Guess what! I've finally started that book you gave me . . ." And she miraculously managed not to sigh when she said, "Enbrethiliel, you mean the book I lent you." I honestly hadn't remembered that part, but it's still embarrassing to know that I've kept a borrowed book for almost five years! =S
On the other hand, 2015 happens to be the year I got really interested in perfumes--notes, blends, sillage, and all. (Anyone else love Flower by Kenzo?) And I know that I wouldn't have enjoyed all the details of the perfume design process that Robbins works in, had I read it before I started caring. (Then again, perhaps there's a parallel universe in which reading this triggered my interest in perfumes . . .)
What I could have appreciated much earlier is Robbins reworking of the Greek myth of Pan that gives a plausible answer to the mystery of what happened after the sailor Thanos received that famous announcement of his "death." Why, yes, I do see how Pan would get tangled up with a minor eighth-century king who wants to be immortal, a free-thinking Indian widow happy to elude death with him for centuries, and a motley accord of perfumiers (My own collective noun! Like it?) who keep getting beets delivered to their doors. It's so believable, in fact, that I actually looked up a perfume formula used in the plot, in the hopes of getting a "dupe" for myself and smelling like this story. And I was truly sad to learn that that blend doesn't exist in real life.
You may have already figured out that Jitterbug Perfume inspired one of my Eurovision posts; and it may yet give me a "Top 5 Pan Cameos in Modern Literature" for the future. This pick also showed me that despite all the lip service I pay to variety in reading, I tend to stay within several comfort zones anyway. Jitterbug Perfume is not something I would have chosen on my own. It's more like something I would have, had I browsed into it in a bookstore, put back on the shelf and promptly forgotten about--thus missing out on some of the most effortlessly hilarious prose I've ever read! If only it weren't also so effortlessly pornographic in parts. (Sigh!) Well, I guess there has to be one drawback.
Carry On, Jeeves by P.D. Wodehouse
Having finally made the acquaintance of young Bertie Wooster and his invaluable valet Jeeves, I have two reactions: pure mirth . . . and a bit of regret. For I can tell that these stories are something really special; they just don't feel like anything special to me.
I really think I missed the window on Wodehouse. You need to read these stories when your inner Bertie's voice is louder than your inner Aunt Agatha's voice, if you take my meaning. As much as I like what Bertie does with English and love how game he is as a friend, I ultimately wish he weren't so shallow. Our "hero" lives in some La La Land where all he has to worry about is his allowance and his outfits--and while I get that it's necessary to the charm of these stories, it does wear a little thin. And as historically off as this may be, I wish he'd just get a job (or a wife!) and stop sponging off a rich relation whom he doesn't even respect. By the end of Carry On, Jeeves, in which nearly every story sees him helping others to keep sponging off their own rich relations, I found myself wishing WWII would start and that they'd all get conscripted already.
Thanks to the last story, one of the few ever narrated by Jeeves, I believe, I'm also nursing a "fan theory" that Jeeves is a villain along the lines of a Morality Play devil. But I think I'll let that percolate some more.
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It seems that I average a book a month on my TBR Challenge. That's a pretty decent rate, but surely I can do better than that! If you'd like to help me out, be the first person to name another title from my TBR Challenge post in the combox!
Image Sources: a) Father Elijah by Michael D. O'Brien, b) Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, c) Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse