WWW Wednesday 11-20-2013

WWW Wednesday. This meme is from shouldbereading.

www_wednesdays43To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading?
• What did you recently finish reading?
• What do you think you’ll read next?

• What are you currently reading?

A Difficult Woman, by Alice Kessler Harris, a thematic biography of Lillian Hellman; and Which Lie Did I Tell, by William Goldman.  Every now and then I find myself up to my hips in non-fiction.  There is probably a reason for it, but I’m not sure what it is.

A Difficult Woman is an intriguingly structured bio of playwright Lillian Hellman; the author is clearly alive to Hellman’s flaws (which were legion, and legendary) but is equally clearly a fan, and sees Hellman as, among other things, a lens through which to observe the changing place and status of women in 20th century America.  The book is set up with chapters that recap Hellman’s life and career in terms of specific topics: her Jewish heritage, her place in literature, her relationships, her politics, her appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, her later vilification for her earlier naive political choices (Hellman, who believed profoundly in social justice and thought that communism, or at least socialism, was the way to get it, was an apologist for the Soviet Union under Stalin long past the time when his sins, and the sins of his government, were known).  I was a little startled, reading the first section to get to her death on page 45 and think, “hey, what’s the rest of the book about?”  Then I started the next chapter and realized that Hellman’s story was reset to childhood as a way to look at another aspect of her life and times.  So far I’m finding it a very good book.  I am not a huge fan of Hellman’s plays, which seem to me to be very much of their time.  But she was a really, really intriguing person.

Hellman was a self-mythologizer: she told so many stories about herself and her past that it’s unclear if she knew which ones were true and which were not.  William Goldman is also a bit of a self-mythologizer, but he knows it and kids himself about it.  Which Lie Did I Tell is a sequel of sorts to Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman’s first book on screenwriting, Hollywood business, and story as a force of nature.  But even if you haven’t read Adventures, it’s pretty likely you’ve seen one of both of his two most celebrated works: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Princess Bride.  You know the voice of both of those movies?  It’s the same way he writes about his successes and failures in the screenwriting business. There’s humor and wistfulness and bite.  Sometimes he’s a little pissy; sometimes you’re aware that Goldman is being cagey, careful not to chomp down too hard on any of the hands that feed him in Hollywood.  For all that, he’s entertaining and informative.  If you haven’t read Adventures, go read that.  Really, like, right now.  Which Lie isn’t quite as good, but I’m finding all sorts of fun stuff in it.

• What did you recently finish reading?

I just finished two fiction books: The Red: First Light, by BVC’s own Linda Nagata; and The Anchoress of Shere, by Paul Moorcraft.  I’m not agin’ military SF, but it’s not a go-to for me; but my colleagues here were kind of raving about The Red: First Light, so I picked it up…and did not put it down until I was done, except for occasional interruptions to feed people, and do some work.  I skimped on sleep.  But The Red was worth it.  It is not battle-porn or a libertarian fun-fest, as the worst military SF can be.  Instead, as in Joe Haldeman’s Forever War, there are people inside those armor suits, with a wealth of points of view and attitude, and they move through a world that is directly extrapolated from the worst and the best of ours.  It’s really good.

The Anchoress of Shere was suggested to me by someone when I mentioned that I had dressed up as Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic and anchoress, for Halloween.  (You may take from that what you will.)  An anchoress/anchorite, in case you didn’t know, was sort of a hermit-in-residence: a person who lived in a tiny cell or anchorhold, usually but not always attached to the church.  Some were sealed in, with food and water brought daily, and a slops pail exchanged.  Others simply holed up in their cell or cottage and, although they could move about freely, didn’t  do so.  The anchoress always had a way to hear mass and take communion, usually via a shuttered window.  An anchorite might have a set of prescribed devotions on top of hearing all the masses celebrated in the church, and had his or her own personal prayers and meditations.  That was his or her day: total immersion in the thought and belief of God.

Alas, the book, the book, the book.  It follows two timelines: that of a priest in England in 1963, who is (in his spare time) writing a novelized “history” of Christine of Shere, and that of Christine herself (through his novelization).  The priest, to say the least, is unstable, and becomes obsessed with the idea of creating a modern day anchoress.  Easy-peasy: kidnap a woman, keep her in a dank cell, convert her to Catholicism by dint of providing a Bible and other useful texts, and the odd bit of torture. If that doesn’t work, lather, rinse, repeat.  It’s a grisly book, and what held my interest is my abiding fascination with the lives of people with religious vocations.  By the end that part had been overtaken by the melodrama in both timelines.  The sections set in the 14th century are better, as a whole, than the 1960s ones, but the characters and the dialogue are wooden, and Moorcraft cannot stop himself from explaining everything.  Not describing: explaining.  In the end, I didn’t buy his rather creepy thesis that it is possible to create a religious vocation.

Christine of Shere, by the way, is a real historical figure.  As a teenager she sought enclosure, was investigated six ways to Sunday by the Church, judged pure and worthy, and “sealed” to her enclosure.  Leaving meant excommunication, maybe even death.  But somehow she did leave and then, Heaven help us, sued to be re-enclosed.  After serious discussion she was finally re-enclosed, as much as a penance for the sin of having left as to continue her contemplative vocation. I would love to read a novel that deals with this story without requiring a serial killer to spice it up.

• What do you think you’ll read next?

On my trip back to NYC I cleverly left my Nook, with many goodies loaded on it, in my seat back pocket on the plane. Thanks to United Airlines unusually functional customer service it was located and sent back to me.  Which means I can start reading Across the Spectrum, Rotten Row, and Mad Science Café. That will do to be going on with.

After that? Hmm.  What do I need to know?

 

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WWW Wednesday 11-20-2013 — 5 Comments

  1. Read:
    Advertising the American Dream by Roland Marchand
    Our Mutts by Patrick Mcdonnell
    Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers
    Reading:
    Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers
    To Read:
    Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen