Book Reviews

 

Last Updated: 08 June 2004


I Am of Irelaunde: A Novel of Patrick and Osian
Juilene Osborne-McKnight
Tor/Forge 2002

Rating: C

05 June 2004

Inscentive to finally read this novel came when I picked up a copy of McKnight's second novel "Daughter of Ireland" on a remainder table at work. So, in my desire to read that one, I began this in haste. I thought it would be a different type of book than it turned out to be, but, for a first book, it was fair.

The story begins with Patrick, the Saint and "Christianizer" of Ireland. I liked the idea of bringing an historical figure, Patrick, into contact with a pagan mythological figure, Osian, poet of the Fenians. This incorporated a lot of pagan ideas/ideals as well as a necessary setting of divine mythology and the necessity for storytelling about Celtic Old Ways teachings. In fact, the storytelling of Osian is some of the best writing in the book, developing his character very well and making the scenes and settings for Patrick's moral delimmas and internal struggles impecably set up. Problem is, Patrick himself is not believable in the least. Perhaps this stems from his being voiced in the first person, which I think is a bit pretentious on the part of the author, but mostly it is because his motivation for being stubborn and headstrong, and his hatred (which is also poorly portrayed) of the Hibernians is highly underdeveloped. We are told about it rather than shown, and Patrick never really shares his reasons with the reader on an internal level, so we never knows how he really feels. This is a major shortcoming, and had it not been for the excellent tales of Fionn and his adventures with the Fenians, I might have put the book down. Ainfean, the druidess who would be Patrick's lover if he weren't so stuck on his Roman-Christian ways of celibacy (which is laughed at by the "heathens" of the Celtic tribes who know better indeed), is believable right up until the point where whe is converted, baptized, and, ironically, taken in a Roman slave raid. At this point, her strong female presence is obliterated and the reader is left wondering if all her work proving to Patrick that there is a place for women in the faith of the White Christ has been in vain. Up until that point, her arguments to Patrick for incorporating the two faiths had been excellently delivered, bringing the similarities of Christianity and the Old Ways together seamlessly, creating little lightbulbs above the heads of uninlightened readers everywhere (though, for Patrick's lack of charisma, I found her ready acceptance of the White Christ a bit unbelievable as well). Shame she had to fall under the wheels of the great Xian chariot after all. Alack and alas...

Historical attributes were well places, especially the use of the "Shield of Patrick" and the repition of the "Dord Fionn." This made the story feel more from the Celtic oral tradition, a very nice touch. I will recommend the book for two reasons: 1) a fine example of how mythology and history can be integrated in a believable and readable fashion, 2) a prime example of how not to write a protagonist.


Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road
Neil Peart
ECW Press 2002

Rating: B-

17 May 2004

James sent this book to us as a Christmas gift, and I think I'd recalled him mentioning it before, though I couldn't remember what he said about it the first time. This second time, in the card accompanying the book itself, he gave it rave reviews. So I went on his word and my faith in it and read the heavy tome of a book, despite my hesitation in reading a book by a drummer, let alone the drummer of a band I'm not too fond of. The premis sounded interesting enough: a travel log about Peart's grief process during his travels across Canada, the U.S. and Mexico on motorcycle. Since Eric and I are road warriors ourselves, the idea attracted me.

The book contains bood descriptions of the western and southwestern United States, to the point of making me a bit homesick at times. Peart has the eyes of a traveling poet, and many of his observations clicked with me: I knew excatly what he was talking about. The intense emotion of the passages at times seemed forced, or sometimes irrelevant. But the style of incorporating emotion into a travelogue is something I was encouraged to do while reading this book. I enjoyed the various formats of narrative: the prosaic book (written in a hindsight voice), journal (the internal present and emotional voice), letters to many people (often formal and eloquent descriptions of place), and Rush song lyrics between chapters (when they were "on" they were "on"). The ending was a bit abrupt/rushed/unexpected/cheesy, mostly because the author goes from woe to true love in a matter of paragraphs where the rest of the book took pages to describe a single emotional landscape. Outside of that flaw, I liked the book. I hope that Eric will read it after his father passes, and I hope that it gives him some comfort.


Confessions of a Pagan Nun
Kate Horsley
Shambhala 2001

Rating: A

17 December 2003

I thought to pick this trim novel up when it first arrived in hardcover, but somehow I forgot that I'd seen it in the deluge of books I see everyday working in the receiving room of a large chain bookstore. When I re-discovered it as it arrived in trade paperback, I purchased it immediately and began the journey. I think what first drew my attention was the title, as it was/is very intriguing to me. My key interests in my course of scholarship are the Celts and their transition from such a rich pagan culture into Christianity. This book fits those interests and covers them well. In fact, I've read only one other book that is on par with this in my "favorites" category and that it Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Granted, that novel is different in many ways (length for starters, and the knowledge that Arthurian Legend is nearly always conjecture, whereas events in Confessions of a Pagan Nun might actually have happened), and the comparison only extends so far as I can state that I love the books and would recommend them to family and friends. That last bit is key, as there are few books I've read at all that I would, let alone have, recommended to my family and friends.

The story begins in an unspecified year, though one with any knowledge of Celtic history, and the history of the Irish in particular, could deduce that story is set around the end of the 5th century C.E., perhaps early in the 6th century. Patrick has already left his footprint on the spiritual paths of the Irish people and the land is becoming populated with Christians from Britain and as far as Rome. Brigit, also, has recently been canonized and the narrator is a nun who tends the flame in the monastery of Saint Brigit. Gwynneve is one of 19 sisters cloistered there, transcribing the words of Augustine and Patrick. Gwynneve has taken to secretly recording her memories youth, her pagan youth. These are told in a series of numbered chapters interrupted by the happenings at the monastery. Each storyline is deeply satisfying and succeeds in juxtaposing the differences and similarities of each spiritual path.

As a young girl, Gwynneve learns the crafts of herbs and the pagan way from her mother, an independent wise-woman of their tuath, or tribe. Much of her mother's strength and skill with healing plants has been inherited by Gwynneve, and in her early adolescence, she decides that she wants to make herself apprentice to the charismatic druid, Giannon. This act changes her life, as her apprenticeship to Giannon leads Gwynneve not only to the mysteries of shamanism and faith, but also to the mysteries of written language and the heart.

This is not a romance. Nothing of Gwynneve's tale is idealized or even sentimental. Their love-story is presented so well, with just enough detail and emotion to make it believable but not too much as to make it devour the rest of the story. It is, in other words, realistic. That is the case with so much of the novel. The plot is engaging and clever, giving the reader cause to think and perhaps even question their trust in their own faith path, their theology. Moreover, it compares and contrasts paganism and Christianity to the point where they become nearly seamless, their main skeletal structures overlapping so the point where one has difficulty discerning one from the other. To the reader, this leads to the logical question of: "Why do we all fight with each other so?" Certainly, it is a mystery to Gwynneve and Giannon, and in the end, it takes tears them apart as well.

The disturbing events at the cloister, which interrupt the "confessions," are a stark contrast to the internal struggle of the characters in Gwynneve's history. Perhaps they appear as the manifestation of doubt in one's faith that remains unexplored. Many of the nuns in the monastery are former pagans, and some still cling to their old superstitions under the pain of guilt and repentance enforced by their new Christian religion. The struggles to remain chaste, vigilant, and faithful occupy the minds of the nuns and monks to a point of fault. The resulting actions lead the characters to an ending that is haunting yet completely appropriate, a much needed martyrdom for the faith.

I am in love with the language Kate Horsley uses to present this tale. It is both poetic and poignant without being pretentious. The inclusion of Old Irish words throughout the text creates a definite sense of place and time and the author's descriptions of people and places are steeped in historical accuracy. Horsley's ability to define the abstract feelings of faith and mysticism are truly what illuminates the landscape of the novel, leaving just enough shadowed for the reader to dwell upon, leaving just enough texture. This is a rich and engaging tale, exquisite and thought-provoking. This is, quite possibly, the perfect book. I wish I'd written it myself--in fact, it is exactly the sort of story I aspire to.


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