Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings (CBR11 #5)

Hildegard Of Bingen: Mystical Writings (Crossroad Spirtual Classics Series)

Every so often a book about faith sneaks into my reading. There was a time when I was much more involved in organized religion, but it has been a tough fit for me in the past decade or more. I have tended to hold my personal faith a little closer than that shared in a large gathering. The historian side of me is also always looking to learn more about the faith I was raised in and a couple of years ago when the ladies of the Stuff You Missed In History podcast did an episode on Hildegard of Bingen I paid specific attention. Here was a religious person from the better part of a thousand years ago who shared ideas that sound very familiar to the modern ear. I was intrigued.

I’m also embarking on the Reading Women challenge this year, and one of the tasks on that one is a translated book published before 1945. I took this as an opportunity to reach ALL the way back to Hildegard and the late 12th century and read some of her work directly, or as directly as possible when translated from Latin across 800 years. With that, Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings by Hildegard of Bingen, edited by Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies and featuring several translators published in 1990 ended up on my January to read list.

The first half of the book is a series of essays about Hildegard, her times, and the religious upheaval happening all around her both locally in Germany and stretching all the way to Rome and on to the Crusades. I am familiar with a bit of this, but it was nice to have it all packaged together as an extensive preamble to Hildegard’s own writings. The book is slim, my copy clocks in at less than 160 pages and about 60 of those were the preamble, so the writings we get are excerpts from her larger works. Hildegard wrote extensively after one of her visions instructed her to write down what she was experiencing (and she received support from local religious men). Her writings however weren’t limited in any way – she is writing about matters of state, the schism in the church with reigning popes and anti-popes, as well as the nature of faith and god, and two different medical texts.

I sat with this book for many days, pondering the nature of the divine tends to require slowing down and really absorbing what you are reading. I was also sitting on a federal petit jury during the week, weighing the evidence put in front of us and it was mentally exhausting. I don’t know that I’m any fonder of Hildegard now, but I do feel closer to a forebear in my faith. She was no nonsense in a really fun way, and I wish her books read as her letters do, I think they would be much more accessible, but I also understand the intense societal pressure to create as formal a writing as possible. Best of all to me, although they come to it from slightly different angles, she and Carl Sagan agree that we are in fact all made of star stuff.

Reading Women 2019 task 14: a translated book published before 1945

Read Harder Challenge: tasks 9, a book published before January 1, 2019 with less than 100 reviews on Goodreads, and 10, a translated book written or translated by a woman

This book was read as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

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Completed 2018 Read Harder Challenge

My Read Harder Challenge 2018 is complete with 24 hours to spare. I appreciate that these 24 tasks push me to consider what I am reading, and give me a way to prioritize my choices. Below are all the books which I have read as of December 30, 2018 in attainment of these various goals.

I haven’t decided if I will continue with Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge in 2019. I know that I will be working towards Reading Women’s 2019 Challenge though. We’ll have to see what the new year brings.

The Turn of the Screw (CBR10 #64)

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This was the Read Harder 2018 task I was looking least forward to, and I managed to push it off until the last possible moment, but at least I am completing the challenge this year. Task 24 was to “read an assigned book you hated (or never finished)”. In reality I have very few books that I never completed, and the ones that I hated I don’t really feel emotionally prepared to ever read again (Beloved is a tough book, The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald can fuck right off, and I’ve already read Lord of the Flies three times and The Metamorphosis twice so I feel as though I have done my time). It took months before I realized that I had a book sitting on my shelf that I had taken from my mother because I intended to get back to it all along, and just hadn’t yet. It was time, 20 years later, to give The Turn of the Screw another chance.

It wasn’t this book’s fault I never read it when it was assigned my sophomore year of high school. I missed the week we covered it in English as I was attending my grandfather’s funeral and my teacher exempted me from the assignments surrounding it as long as I did other parts of the unit. But Henry James, and his influence, are everywhere in the literary world of trans-Atlantic literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and he knew and influenced nearly every major writer on either side of the Atlantic during the same time frame.

The story concerns an unnamed governess who finds a position caring for two children in the English countryside, eight-year-old Miles and six-year-old Flora. Both children are sweet, and the governess feels an instant connection with the precocious Miles. He is supposed to be at boarding school but was expelled for mysterious reasons. The governess can’t understand what a boy as angelic as Miles could possibly have done to get expelled so suddenly and irrevocably.

As she watches the children, she notices a man watching them from afar. He frightens her, and she discovers from the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, that this shadow matches the description of the master’s former valet, Peter Quint. The governess begins to see another ghost: Miss Jessel, her predecessor. The governess learns that Quint and Miss Jessel had an affair, and that both died mysteriously and that the two may have had an inappropriate relationship with the children. She begins to suspect that the children see the ghosts, too, and that the ghosts are determined to corrupt the children somehow. She vows to save them from these spectral predators from beyond the grave.

There has been debate over the years about whether the ghosts are real, or the governess is slowly losing her mind. Another one posits that the true villain of the story might be Mrs. Grose. It’s possible that Mrs. Grose, disgruntled at losing her place as the children’s primary caretaker slowly drives the governess to madness by planting disturbing ideas in her mind. These all fit in with what James is known for: describing the internal states of mind and social dynamics of his characters and making use of a style in which ambiguous or contradictory motives and impressions were overlaid in the discussion of a character’s psyche. This is on full display with this novel – we are left to puzzle out what we think is really happening, and the novel can be viewed from any number of vantage points. Its no wonder the ambiguity of his late works have been compared to impressionist paintings.

As far as the novel is concerned, I don’t think it has quite the same shock value it had when it was first published, but it still maintains an eerie quality. If gothic literature or classic ghost stories are your thing than you might want to add this to your list is you haven’t yet, but I can’t really recommend it to anyone else.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We begin our ELEVENTH year in the coming days and are always looking for new readers who want to review what they’ve read and help us raise money to say “fuck you” to cancer.

Calling Me Home (CBR10 #62)

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There are few things more disappointing than a book you had high hopes for letting you down. I really wanted to like this one, but the writing bothered me too much. The story is fine, not great but fine. There were a lot of stereotypical plot contrivances along the way. There were several times I rolled my eyes; popular media needs to stop perpetuating lazy stereotypes.

So, what is the story about? After hearing  a story how her grandmother fell in love with a young black man when she was a teenager author Julie Kibler took that inspiration and wrote a book about how that may have played out. We meet Isabelle McAllister as an elderly woman living alone in Texas and as the story unfold, we learn in flashbacks about Isabelle’s teenage years in small-town Kentucky in the 1930s, and the impossible romance that develops between her and Robert Prewitt, the son of her family’s housekeeper. The secondary story is that of Dorrie Curtis, a single mother in her thirties and Isabelle’s present day hair stylist. In much the same way we learn about teenage Isabelle in her POV chapters we also learn some of the details of Dorrie’s life and the relationship between the two women, despite their different ages and races in her POV sections. Together, they are on a cross-country road trip to a funeral where the great reveal of Isabelle’s past will come to light.

Like I said before, the writing itself bothered me. I’m not a first-person lover, but I’ve warmed to it over time, however, deployed in less than spectacular ways it can become clunky and that is exactly what listening to this audiobook felt like. This book used a lot of informal speech instead of actual descriptions, which misses the beauty possible in describing feelings and situations when a story is told well in first person.  Structurally the flashback chapters are set up to be Isabelle telling Dorrie about her past in detail, but tonally it didn’t land. I found myself waiting desperately to get back to the Dorrie chapters to recap the Isabelle ones and move the plot forward.

It felt as if the author wanted to cram a ton of issues into one book simply because there were big issues surrounding the meat of her story. Some of the events—the bigotry, threats, and brutality—are familiar and predictable and I can see why that would appeal to most readers. Unfortunately, I am not most readers.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society.

Want to join us in sticking it to cancer one book at a time? Registration for our ELEVENTH year is now open. 

City of Ghosts (CBR10 #61)

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I read a bit of YA, but middle grades is not something I usually think to pick up, or even necessarily think of as a distinct genre. But as is often the case in my reading diet of the past few years the Read Harder Challenge had a task that needed sorting. Enter Leedock and her review of City of Ghosts – the perfect book to fulfill the “read the first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series”.

Now is when I admit to having never read a Victoria (or V.E. as she is sometimes known) Schwab book before.  She’s relatively well-reviewed around Cannonball Read and now that I’ve been initiated I can see why. Her writing is inventive and immediately sets the reader into her world. In the case of City of Ghosts we’re joining Cass and her best friend Jacob (who is a ghost, by the by) as the easy summer vacation at the beach away from the tap tap tap of ghosts on the otherside of the Veil is replaced by a family trip to Edinburgh, Scotland so Cass’s parents (writers of a series of books about paranormal happenings and ghost myths) can host a new travel show about the most haunted places in the world (an easy series maker, that).

The only thing keeping this from having been a one sitting read is that I was falling asleep the first night I picked it up and no amount of page-turning writing was going to keep me awake. The next time I sat down with the book I was however sucked in, and since this is a book aimed at 8 to 12 year olds (although I think Schwab slightly missed the mark on this, it reads more 12 to 14 to me edging into the YA zone) I plowed through the adventures Cass and Jacob get into and the new friends they meet, and new dangers they find. The book was both a good story and a good book for building a reader’s skills – truly what I’m looking for in books aimed at this age range.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. You can join our bunch of ragtag readers and reviewers and help us raise money for the American Cancer Society. Every little bit helps, and goals of 13, 26, or 52 are available!

Daughter of Fortune (CBR10 #54)

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It took me a long time to read Daughter of Fortune. By some cosmic joke, which the reading gods seem to enjoy, I had paced my book choices in such a way that this book overlapped with Jane Eyre and that is quite a lot of heavy book to process all at once. What it did for me (besides slow me down a bit) was provide an opportunity to compare and contrast two different powerhouse women writers writing about the self-determination of their female leads. Isabel Allende is a white whale author for me. I first tackled her The House of the Spirits two years ago, and was simply blown away by it. She writes in an incredibly dense style, using history, allegory, and incredibly high personal stakes to weave her narrative together. Like The House of Spirits, Daughter of Fortune wasn’t a novel that I could power through, or skim, or wanted to. I felt the self-imposed deadlines nipping at my heels, but this remained a book that needed and deserved to be savored.

Daughter of Fortune is the story of Eliza Sommers. It starts as the orphaned girl who was left on the doorstep of the Sommers home in Valparaiso, Chile and is raised in Valparaíso’s British colony by well-intentioned Victorian spinster Miss Rose and her rigid elder brother Jeremy enters her teenage years. At the tender age of sixteen she meets and falls in love with Joaquín Andieta, a poor clerk who works for Jeremy and is not an appropriate suitor for a girl raised as a high class English lady. Then, as neither Joaquin or Eliza know how to proceed,  gold is discovered in the hills of northern California and Joaquín takes off for San Francisco to seek his fortune. Eliza discovers that she is pregnant and decides to follow and try to find him in California. The first half of the novel displays the magical realism that I expected from Allende, and we are deeply rooted in the story of Eliza and her town.

Then, we have the fortunate meeting with Tao Chi’en and Eliza’s escape in the hold of a ship to California, and her terrifying miscarriage. At this point, the tone of the novel shifts entirely, we leave behind most of the magical realism components (Tao’s faith still play into that arena) and are instead on a journey with Eliza as she truly leaves her girlhood behind, first in search of the elusive Joaquin, and then as she discovers her true self and the kinds of relationships that are truly soul-filling. As I got to the end of the book it became a little easier to call, a little more by the numbers than I was anticipating. While I was deeply engrossed in Eliza and Tao’s intertwined stories the narrative felt unfinished. We are left for the most part without definite conclusions, and while that is certainly the author’s prerogative and a sign of surety, it left me a bit cold at the end of the day. But this is still a stunning work about what defines being fortunate, what lives can be carved out of seemingly limited possibilities, and the strength of faith in oneself.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Jane Eyre (CBR10 #53)

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For many, Jane Eyre is part of the reading undertaken during their education. For some it is read in high school, for others college, but for me it never joined the reading lists of my various courses. In fact, until several years ago when I read Agnes Grey I had read nothing at all by any of the Bronte sisters. It is however fully in the milieu of a reader’s culture; I understood it enough to get the jokes in Texts from Jane Eyre and Hark! A Vagrant.

I have seen cinematic versions of the story (quite enjoying the Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender version and the visual world built around them by Cory Joji Fukunaga) but I don’t know that even those had prepared me for the version of the story written by Bronte. I had been meaning to read this for years, and had the audio version read by Thandie Newton (a lovely narrator) waiting for me in my Audible account. With the advent of CBR10 Bingo one of my white whales became This Old Thing, as it was published in 1847 – 171 years ago.

I suppose this story is well known, the orphaned Jane Eyre is expelled from her aunt’s home at age 10 and sent away to school. Eight years in residence there prepares her to be a governess and she finds a position at Thornfield Hall as the governess of Adele, a young French orphaned girl. She enjoys her life there, even if it is a bit quiet and mundane. The owner of Thornfield returns, the house becomes livelier, and over time and conversations a love connection is formed between Rochester and Jane Eyre.  Rochester’s past and the madwoman in the attic prevent their marriage and Jane leaves Rochester to attempt a life of her own on her own terms. Events however bring her back to Thornfield Hall.

While the gothic elements of the novel do place this firmly in its time, it also has incredibly beautiful and descriptive turns of phrase throughout, and such language makes this a classic which has kept its place in the great pantheon all this time. The book moreover doesn’t sound its age, if that makes sense. It is of course more formal than our writing is today; there are references and allusions that no longer match our daily lives, but this is in so many ways a modern novel.

Its modernity does not prevent it from being both long (over 19 hours of audio or about 600 pages) and slow. While on the whole I enjoyed my time with the novel, and with Thandie Newton’s voice portraying Jane as she often broke the fourth wall to refer to me as “dear reader”, it did not prevent me from finding myself needing to be at a secondary task while listening: I needed to drive, to color, to cook, or clean while I was reading with my ears in order to keep myself engaged.  As Jen K said in her review “these people don’t have conversations, they monologue at each other”, and there was one point following the discovery of Rochester’s attempt at bigamy where his character spoke for nearly an hour straight.

In addition to being incredibly personal, Jane Eyre is a novel of intensity; it is a passionate depiction of a woman’s search for equality and freedom. We see Jane become an individual and stand up for herself as a person worthy of whatever agency and independence she can carve out for herself. That, for me is the crux of the novel – it is at its core the story of a young woman who chooses herself above all else. When her principles and sense of self were going to be compromised, she removed herself from the harmful situations causing them to be so time and time again, from that of a small child begging to go to school to walking away from two proposals of marriage. Yes, there is romance, an exploration of passion and sexuality (fire and ice abound), and an examination of the extremes of masculinity (Mr. Brocklehurst, Mr. Rochester, St. John Rivers), but those are merely elements surrounding the center. We see in Bertha (the woman the book locks in the attic) the dearth of agency and independence that was possible and probable. Jane’s aunt Mrs. Reed, Miss Temple, Helen Burns, Mrs. Fairfax, Bessie, and the Rivers Sisters show the smaller continuum of expectations available to women and the vagaries of life Jane is navigating.

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This book is read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.