Stephen Hayes: The Year of the Dragon (2021-28)

This is sort-of a sequel to the author's _Of Wheels and Witches_. But where that was a children's book, _The Year of the Dragon_ is decidedly adult, and very much in the mold of Charles Williams.

It is late 1988 in South Africa, shortly before the fall of apartheid. Richard Rutherford, a lawyer, and his friend Denis Walters, an auctioneer, travel from the Durban to the back country, to look over the estate of the recently-deceased Mrs. Irene Sanderson, the owner of the farm Eerstelling. The firm Richard works for is the executor for Mrs. Sanderson's will, which is decades old. 

On arrival, they find Mrs. Sanderson's nephew, Ivan, sorting through her papers and a collection of Orthodox ikons. He asks them to take them and get them appraised, as some Russian ikons can bring a large price. Later that day, Richard and Denis return to Eerstelling and find the police blocking the driveway as a crime scene. When they drive out of sight of the police, a young boy pops out of the shrubbery and tells them that the police have killed his daddy. His name is Tim, and he is Ivan Morton's son.

They immediately become felons by taking Tim back to his mother. 

The next day, on returning from church, Denis finds his flat ransacked, but nothing seems to be stolen. (Richard had the ikons, and has turned them over to his boss, who put them in a safe.) 

Denis and Richard go to see an expert on ikons, who turns out to be Jefferey from _Of Wheels And Witches_, and who, in turn, takes them to see a priest of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, Father Mandla.

Tim is taken by the a pair of officials who claim to be from child protective services, but when the agency is contacted, they have no knowledge of it.

When he goes to talk to Tim's mother, Denis is informed on his cell phone that if he wants the boy back alive, he should bring the icons to the airport where he will be contacted. He goes, but does not bring the icons. He is rendered unconscious and put into an Army plane headed for he knows not where. In the plane with Tim and Denis are the plastic-wrapped corpses of the Black workers from Eerstelling. On arrival at their destination, which is by a river, the bodies are dumped into the water and quickly devoured by crocodiles.

Richard receives an anonymous call. If he wishes to see Denis and Tim alive, he is to turn over the ikons. After discussion with his boss and the boss's daughter Rachel (who is becoming his girlfriend during all this), he turns the ikons over to the local police precinct.

Things get much worse, as you might expect, and ultimately the plot hinges on a sacred McGuffin of the sort Williams liked to use. Not everybody survives, but there is a moderately-happy ending with the good rewarded in various ways, and the evil similarly punished. 

Hayes has a writing voice of his own, clear and concise. This one is definitely worth reading if you're a fan of Charles Williams's novels.

Again, this book is (for whatever reason) not available on Amazon; the only way I know to get hold of Hayes's books is to visit his Smashwords page, ;

Stephen Hayes: Of Wheels and Witches (2021-27)

Stephen Hayes is an Orthodox deacon in Tshwane, South Africa. I must confess to a loose acquaintance with him, largely through online Inklings fandom. He self-published this book in 2014, and I feel terribly guilty about only now getting around to read it. In my defense, it disappeared when I sent it to my Kindle and I only recently figured out how to acess Send-To-Kindle materials.

Imagine, then, if you will, a Charles WIlliams novel about kids. In South Africa during the Apartheid era - the early to mid 1960s, from internal cultural references: the Beatles' "Michelle" is A newISH. _Rubber Soul_  was released in December of '65, and this takes place in the South African winter, so probably around the middle of '66. With, I suspect, some influence from Susan Cooper's "The Dark Is Rising" sequence.

Jefferey*, a ten-year-old boarding-school boy, is sent for the winter holidays to a farm-cum-resort for kids run by a Mrs. Sanderson. (Well, she lives under the name of Sanderson, but she says her husband was Russian...) When Mrs. Sanderson picks him up at the train station, she introduces him to Catherine, her nine-year-old niece by marriage, a British orphan whose aunts have sent here to spend the summer (up north) holidays. In the evening, Jefferey is exposed for the first time to ikons and serious praying: Catherine has an ikon of Saint Catherine with her Wheel. 

The next day the two of them meet twele-year-old Janet, from a neighboring farm, upon whom Jefferey immediately develops a serious crush. Her mother invites them to a party for her older sister's birthday, where they hear several Beatles' songs and a rather obscure surf tune called "Wheels". One of the older girls proposes a game of "glassie-glassie", a variation on the Ouija board. A cryptic set of letters and numbers appears twice, under the hands of different players; Catherine and Jefferey eventually recognize that it was describing the spokes of a wheel.

But before that, they go for a horseback ride with Janet, to a cave where there are some Bushmen** paintings of hunters hunting. Catherine finds herself irrationally afraid that they are hunting her. Jefferey sees a wheel similar to St. Catherine's in the painting; photos of the cave taken earlier show no such wheel.

A few days later, as they try to cross a river before a storm makes it impassable, lightning strikes the water. Janet, an experienced rider, controls her horse, but Catherine and Jeffrey are thrown, and Catherine nearly drowns. 

(Somewhere in here we learn that witches attack people with lightning, and can control wildcats.)

Well, I don't want to summarize any more, but let's say that things get really bad. The Security Police appear to be involved with witchcraft†. Mrs. Sanderson is "detained". I don't think most of Williams's protagonists go through the kinds of scrapes, pains, and torments our three (soon four) young heroes encounter.

There is a more-or-less happy ending, but the less is not small. And the larger situation remains unresolved, but the kids - in various ways - are made safe from it.

* Yes, it's spelled that way.
** I know, but that's what the kids call them...
† African-style witchcraft, not the European variety.

Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works (2021-26)

In her lifetime, Flannery O'Connor published two novels and one short story collection, preparing a second collection for publication before she died. I have reviewed these individually.

There are, however, another five hundred plus pages of material here - longer than any two of her books - and that is what I am covering here. 

First up we have "The Geranium and Other Stories", containing her earilest work - this collection of stories, though she did not publish it, was presented as her thesis at Iowa State University for her Master's in Fine Arts. They are indeed early work, and it shows. Three of these stories were reworked later: "The Train" as the first chapter of _Wise Blood_; "The Turkey" as "An Afternoon in the Woods", which appears later in this volume; and "The Geranium", which was her first professional sale. She reworked "The Geranium" several times during her too-short career, at one time trying to publish its then-current version as "An Exile in the East", and finished her final revision on her deathbed in 1964: "Judgement Day", which was the last story in _Everything That Rises Must Converge_.

Probably the strongest story in here is "Wildcat", a story of a old Black (other words are used) man and his community when a wildcat (probably a bobcat, given that O'Connor's stories mostly take place in Georgia) comes and threatens their livestock and, they think, their lives. As the old man reflects on a previous time that this happened, when he was young, a group of younger men go out to find and kill the wildcat. But the wildcat has other plans.

There are three more short stories here. "An Afternoon in the Woods" tells of a boy who runs down a wild turkey; "The Partridge Festival" sets the story of a murderer and his admirers against the backdrop of a small town's Azalea Festival; and "Why Do the Heathen Rage?" is a slight story about the family of a man who has had a paralyzing stroke. (No spoilers here!)

Next up we have eight essays, or, as the table of contents calls them, "Occasional Prose". Though several of these are talks on her position as a writer, the two best are not.

The "Introduction to _A Memoir of Mary Ann_" tells how O'Connor came to edit and market a book by a convent of Dominican nuns, the "Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer", about a small girl who came to them with a face severely disfigured by her cancer and brightened all their lives until her death eight years later. It begins with the story of how the order was founded by the daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and ends with a reflection of how the book may "illuminate that join the most diverse lives and that hold us fast in Christ." 

"The King of the Birds" is about her lifelong hobby (except for the decade or so she was away from home in Iowa and Connecticut and New York) that began with the fancy chickens that got her into a Pathé newsreel at the age of five and, in maturity, led to her hosting a small horde of peafowl. It is poignant and funny at the same time, which ain't easy to pull off.

The talks are insightful but slight, covering topics like "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" and "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South". (Though she was a lifelong, and devout, Catholic, O'Connor's stories are mostly about Protestants.)

Finally, after the Occasional Prose, there are roughly three hundred fifty pages of letters. The first is O'Connor's  attempt to acquire an agent in 1948; the last, sixteen years later, is a note to a friend written days before her death. In between they paint a picture of a woman of her time and place. A modern liberal will find some of them offensive, as O'Connor was a conservative in rural Georgia in the mid-twentieth century. She gathered pen-pals like a flower patch attracts bees, and was very open in these letters for a decided introvert. The letters also detail her struggle witih lupus, decalcifying bones, kidney infections, and more.

I found them fascinating, and very revealing about what she meant her stories to reveal: the action of grace on those unwilling to bear it. For example, both her novels are about people with a real calling from God who desperately try to refuse it, and who fail in the end to do so. Grace to O'Connor generally takes forms that are rarely what we want, but always what we need.

That Mary Flannery O'Connor was a great American writer, her Collected Works leave no doubt. She is not a writer for everyone, but for those receptive to what she does, the effect of reading her is likely to be permanent.

St. Patrick: The Confession (2021-25)

 The _Confession_ itself is a rather simple telling of the life of St. Patrick of Ireland. A Briton who was taken as a slave by Irish raiders, discovered faith while there, escaped, returned home, and was inspired to become an apostle to the Irish. 
There is no reference in it to the various miracles associated with Patrick, nor, indeed, of many of the details found in most of the pious Lives of Patrick written over the centuries. (Nope, no driving out snakes; no explaining the Trinity with a shamrock.) Patrick comes across as a simple but fervently religious man who took on a mission and lived it to the end of his life.
What hurts this editoin, in my opinion, is the introduction by the translator, an Anglican priest who, in the 1850s, was determined to prove at any cost that St. Patrick was not a Catholic. This is, frankly, ridiculous; Catholics and heretics was all there were at that point in history (the fifth century). It is simply another case of Protestant ahistorical insistence that the Catholic Church is a relatively late development; the problem with it is that it implies strongly that there was no legitimate Church in Western Europe for close on a thousand years, and Luther singlehandedly figured out the truth behind the Romish lies.

Francis Spufford: Unapologetic (2021-24)

This is not _exactly_ a book of Christian apologetics, in that it isn't trying to show that Christianity is "logical" or "compatible with science" or any of the usual things apologists try to show. Instead, he makes the argument that there is a whole aspect of human experience, which some call "religioius" or "grace", which, however they can be explained by sufficiently clever science, are nonetheless completely real to the person who experiences them.

Along the way he replaces the concept of "sin" with the concept of the Human Propensity to Fuck Things Up (HPtFtU - why the second t is small and the u is capitalized, I surely don't know). And the fact that he uses this phrase is a clue to one of this book's charms (which may be dubious): Spufford uses "language" freely. He may do this with some vague intent of shocking - he is, after all, English - but I suspect it's more of a way of saying "we're all just ordinary people here, not Holy Joes." Indeed, one of the topics he covers is the modern English folks feel severe embarrassment at admitting that they are "religious". 

Spufford speaks frankly, if not always explicitly, of his own experiences with HPtFtU, and admits that he has indeed FtU pretty badly at times; but against this he puts the experience of grace. I can't really reproduce his explanation of grace without quoting it, and that would be too long.

The fundamental problem with this book, as with most apologetics books for that matter, is that mostly the people who will read it don't need it except as a bolster for their own faith; atheists, in my experience, rarely read books of apologetics unless they are looking for arguments to puncture or take exception to. The border case, someone who is quavering on the edge of gaining or losing religious faith, is probably the ideal audience for this book.

Still, I enjoyed it. His description of the life and death of Jesus (referred to as Yeshua for the length of the story)is worth the price of admission by itself.

Olga Grushin: The Charmed Wife (2021-23)

This book is a serious mindf***. 

Thirteen and a half years after the bit with the glass slipper, she is miserable and wants the Prince - now King - dead. The book opens, more or less, with the Queen sneaking out of the castle at night to meet a witch at the crossroads. In the cauldron, she and the Witch will see scenes of the years of her marriage. Meanwhile, the mice (Nibbles and Brie, to start with) are developing quite a little civilization in the castle, always making sure that there are a Nibbles and a Brie for the Queen to turn to when she's sad.

Soon the witch's opposite number, the Fairy Godmother, shows up, hoping to talk the Queen out of this terrible deed. And things proceed to a crisis, end of part one, and I won't say much about part two, where things get _really_ weird. 
Meanwhile, a powerful mouse has become aware of _our_ world, and is working to merge the two worlds.

Told in the Queen's first person, with interspersed bits of third-person narration in italics, the story grabs hold and won't let go.

Lots of other fairy stories (not all Western ones) wander into, out of, and through the story, each having their part to play in our heroine's growing awareness of what's really going on here. Let me tell you what hat it _isn't_ like: Gregory "Wicked" Maguire, Jane "How to Fracture a Fairy Tale" Yolen, or Jasper "Nursery Crimes" Fforde. This book is very much its own thing.

Seriously, read it. You won't regret it.

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (2021-22)

This 42-page (counting only the numbered pages) chapbook contains illustrations, four blank pages, an eight-page preface by the editors, and a fifteen-page introduction by Donna Haraway: there are only eleven pages of Le Guin text here, alas. 

But (as expected) it's quite fine text. Le Guin observes that, in Hunter-Gatherer cultures, though most of the food was gleaned by the Gatherers (women), the stories tended to be told by the Hunters (men) - because it's hard to tell an exciting story about how the day went when it was spent gathering wild oats, nuts, berries, and such. Because Hunters told the stories, the stories tended to involve Heroes and Long Sharp Pointy Things, and this ur-Story has become the Story of (and so shatped) Civilization and History. These stories were even shaped like Long Sharp Pointy Things, with a beginning, a middle, and a pointy end.

But, she says, before long pointy tools, tools for carrying and holding things - "A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. A reciptient." - were invented. 

(If this sounds Freudian, it is no accident.)

The domination of the Long Sharp Pointy Thing story has led us to our current crisis, and will lead, in time, to its own collapse. So some of us had better start looking for stories shaped like Carriers so that there will be something to shape society around when the LSPT story is no longer tenable.

Stories, I (the reviewer, not Le Guin) posit, like _Always Coming Home_.

Flannery O'Connor: Everything that Rises Must Converge (2021-20)

O'Connor's second collection of short stories and the last published in her lifetime.(Technically, there is a third, which was her first, her Master's thesis; but it was _not_ published in her lifetime, and is currently available only as a part of the LIbrary of America edition of O'Connor's collected works.) What are these stories about? Here's a few examples.

In the title story, a young man named Julia takes his overweight mother on the bus to her "reducing class at the Y". (She won't ride the busses alone at night now that they have been integrated.) Most of the story takes place on the bus, as Julian fumes against his mother's attitudes about life in general, and especially towards African-Americans: a few of whom are encountered along the way. 

"Greenleaf" is about a landowning woman whose land is invaded by a stray bull. The bull belongs to the adult sons of Mr. Greenleaf, her hired hand. When they won't come and get it, she orders Greenleaf to kill it.

In "The Enduring Chill", twenty-five year old Asbury, a failed writer,  returns to the home he hates to die. He and his mother and sister find each other intolerable but they are family and treat each other as such. He has written his mother a long letter, to be opened when she dies, explaining in detail how she has ruined his life.

And "The Lame Shall Enter First" concerns a teacher and his orphaned son. The father visits boys at the reformatory, runs a Little League team, and generally is very impressed with his own goodness. He takes in a boy freshly released from the orphanage, who has what you might call a bad attitude: he believes himself to be possessed by the Devil.

Need I say that these stories tend to end badly?

Need I say that they are gorgeously written, with tremendously _real_ characters and astonishing verbal detail?

I didn't think so.