Book Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

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Black Swan Green – David Mitchell (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2006)

This was the fourth book I’ve read by David Mitchell and his work surprises me each time. If you’ve read Cloud Atlas then you may know Mitchell as an author who isn’t afraid to play with form. But what really impresses me about Mitchell’s novels is how entirely different they are from one another.

Black Swan Green is thirteen chapters containing thirteen stories in a year of the life of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor. We begin in January and end in January of the following year and watch Jason’s life unfold in the village of Black Swan Green in the early 1980s.

Jason lives a fairly ordinary, middle class life with his family. His middle-management dad, housewife mom, and his older sister. Each chapter shines a light on a crucial moment or experience in Jason’s life. Sometimes this occurs over a few weeks, sometimes only a few hours.

Having never been a teenage boy in England in the 1980s, I can’t speak to the authenticity of Jason as a character but can only say that Jason’s voice as narrator feels very real. There is cadence, slang, and rhythm that feel very authentic and honest and how a boy of Jason’s age, time, and locale would speak. Jason has a stammer which Mitchell uses to show character development in a subtle manner. While the stammer doesn’t define Jason, it clearly dominates his life in some unexpected ways. Mitchell does a great job at showing how it blocks Jason’s speech and effects his interactions, particularly in school, and how it creates a distance between Jason and those around him, keeping him from sharing his true thoughts. Jason refers to his stammer as “the Hangman”. I haven’t seen a speech impediment used in fiction much before and found this fascinating.

Black Swan Green – both the book and the village – is peopled with a variety of characters. Funny, affectionate, morbid, mysterious. We get to see the same characters pop up throughout Jason’s year and as the book (and year) continues, we see some behind the scenes developments. Some of these are a part of Jason’s story while others are simply hinted at. This gives the novel a strong feeling of existing in a real world, filled with individuals who have their own lives and tales.

All together, I loved the novel. Jason is a strong character. He feels very human but with enough traits to make him an interesting one to follow for a year. And Mitchell certainly captures how truly awful being thirteen can be!

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Book Review: Autobiography by G.K. Chesterton

Autobiography – G.K. Chesterton (Hamish Hamilton, 1986)

I’ve previously read Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday (review here), Orthodoxy, and some of his Father Brown mysteries and generally enjoyed Chesterton’s writing. So I thought it might be interesting to read his autobiography, first published in 1936.

Autobiography is, perhaps, a misleading title. What this book really is is a series of essays, loosely formulated around the timeline of Chesterton’s life. While he starts with his childhood and a few details about his life, that’s really not what the book is about. Chesterton does acknowledge this, telling the reader that he’s not one to keep track of dates and that if this is what you’re looking for, this isn’t the book for you. (Granted, this discussion takes place approximately two-thirds of the way through the book so the reader has likely already figured this out.) The book is not very personal – I’m not sure Chesterton even tells us his wife’s name. The closest he gets to personal revelation is when he talks about his brother who was killed in World War One.

What Chesterton tells us a lot about is British parliament and politics in the early 20th century. He mentions a few names I’d heard of before and a lot I hadn’t. While his insights into certain situations may have been fascinating to a contemporary reader – or a modern day reader with a yen for pre-war politics – I’m afraid much of it was lost on this 21st century Canadian. Those chapters dragged on and I came close to giving up on the book. I pushed through, waiting for the literary tales of Chesterton’s fellow authors. These had a cast of characters I was more familiar with.

Chesterton shares some entertaining tales of his close friend Hilaire Beloc, among others, and shares his background in newspapers and essay writing. These stories belie the stereotype of the stodgy Englishman and Chesterton’s writing is best when telling these hilarious tales.

I had hoped for more about his religious conversion and although there are glimmers throughout the book, Chesterton never tells the story in a straightforward manner. Perhaps he felt like he had written about it enough elsewhere. In the end, unless you’re a hardcore fan of Chesterton or immersed in British politics, I think you can give his Autobiography a pass. I do recommend Orthodoxy for readers wanting an introduction to Chesterton and his philosophies, particularly when it comes to Christianity.

Book Review: Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis

Reflections on the Psalms - C.S. Lewis (A Harvest Book, 1958)

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis (A Harvest Book, 1958)

I started (an attempt at least) to read a Psalm before bed every night in the fall. So it seemed like the perfect time to read this lesser known work of C.S. Lewis.

In typical, self-deprecating Lewis fashion, he begins by explaining why he’s not really qualified but here are some of his thoughts anyway. And also in typical Lewis style, he has some real wisdom to offer.

Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the Psalms, beginning with the most distasteful and uncomfortable (such as the cursing of enemies or bragging about how blessed you are). Lewis provides insight as to what these songs and poems might have meant to their original audience, separating them from the modern meanings we can’t help but ascribe to them.

One thing that surprised me was that Lewis treats the Psalms largely as Pagan poetry. He makes the crucial distinction of them being written before the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Therefore there are things the psalmists simply could not have known or even guessed at. The modern reader has the benefit of hindsight to see a clearer (and more prophetic) meaning to many of the Psalms.

Which isn’t to say that that meaning is wrong. As Christians we believe that all scripture is influenced and inspired by God. As Lewis beautifully puts it, “No good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights.” So while the Psalmists might not have known the entire significance of what they composed, through the Holy Spirit those references certainly are deliberate and important.

But no one now (I fancy) who accepts that spiritual or second sense is denying, or saying anything against, the very plain sense which the writers did intent.

– C.S. Lewis

At the same time, according to Lewis, the writers of the Psalms are human and sinful and some of their own shortcomings find their way into the Psalms. If anything, this should encourage us, that we sinners can also be used to spread the Word of God.

For our “services” both in their conduct and in our power to participate, are merely attempts at worship; never fully successful, often 99.9 per cent failures, sometimes total failures. We are not riders but pupils in the riding school; for most of us the falls and bruises, the aching muscles and the severity of the exercise, far outweigh those few moments in which we are, to our own astonishment, actually galloping without terror and without disaster. To see what the doctrine really means, we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God—drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by, that delight which, far from remaining pent up within ourselves as incommunicable, hence hardly tolerable, bliss, flows out from us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression, our joy no more separable from the praise in which it liberates and and utters itself than the brightness a mirror receives is separable from the brightness it sheds.

– C.S. Lewis