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📚 What to Read Next (No. 221): Fantastical and Magical
Happy Friday, readers!
We’ve had the Encanto soundtrack playing in our house more days than not for the last few months. So I’ve definitely had my fair share of enchanting lyrics in my head:
Welcome to the Family Madrigal! . . .
Where all the people are fantastical and magical.
The books featured here are certainly fantastical and magical and I’m doing things a little differently today with four shorter reviews.
First, there’s a couple books about the magical power of reading. Then, I get into a couple books that fall squarely into the “fantasy” category, which I’ve been enjoying more and more.
Let’s get right to it!
Read Until You Understand by Farah Jasmine Griffin
The subtitle of this one says it all: “The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature.” Griffin, whose father passed away when she was 9 years old, has used her dad’s advice her entire life: read until you understand. Blending memoir with history with literary criticism, Griffin opens up about how Black art shaped her.
I really enjoyed how Griffin connected various ideas from Frederick Douglass, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Malcolm X (and so many others) to the thorny real life considerations and problems of Mercy, Rage, Death, Love, etc.
This isn’t necessarily the best book for general audiences, but for those deeply interested in Black culture and/or in books about books, Read Until You Understand is a very good choice.
The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination In the Company of Saints by Jessica Hooten Wilson
Though I’m all about reading-as-pure-entertaiment, it can’t be denied that books have the power to shape who we are. Everything we consume has that power.
In her brand new book, Wilson encourages readers to look towards great novels, and the characters within them, as examples of living faithfully and morally. Walker Percy, Willa Cather, Sigrid Unset, and CS Lewis are just a few of the memorable authors whose work she highlights.
Though clearly coming from a Christian perspective, there are bookish treasures within, no matter your faith tradition (or lack thereof).
The gist: Reading novels powers our empathy and imagination, which guides us towards love as a defining life philosophy, which leads to a fuller, more adventurous, and more satisfying existence. I can’t wait to read her backlist.
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Jade City by Fonda Lee
I first heard of Fonda Lee through David Epstein’s always excellent newsletter. Lee’s intent with the Jade trilogy was to craft a fantasy world not set in medieval Europe (like Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, etc.). The world she created is obviously based on East Asian culture, though none of the places are real, per se.
And it’s a modern world that isn’t too different from our actual world — there are cell phones and fast cars and real jobs. The element of fantasy is found in the fact that jade, the bright green precious stone, confers supernatural abilities on the lone race of people who can physically wear it.
On the small island of Kekon — the only place in the world where jade is mined and sold — there are rivaling clans. They fight over territory, jade control, relationships with foreign partners, etc. It’s basically a mafia story, a la The Godfather, with a little bit of magic tossed in.
Just as in The Godfather, the primary drama and entertainment is found in the relational and political dynamics more than in the raw violence — though there’s certainly a good helping of that as well.
I’m through 1.5 books of the trilogy and enjoying every page. Jade City took me some time to get into, but I did eventually reach a point where I had a hard time putting it down. Jade War is a little slower going for me, but I’m definitely still invested in the characters and storylines.
Highly recommended if you enjoy family/political dramas with a touch of fantasy and kung fu action.
Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune
Early in the pandemic, Klune became a bit of a #bookstagram sensation for his breakout novel The House in the Cerulean Sea. It didn’t garner much attention in traditional media outlets, but real people around the world — as opposed to book critics — were enjoying it in spades.
My wife recommended I read it, but it didn’t happen in that particular moment, for reasons that elude me (likely just because I had a pile of other books I was excited about).
When she also recommended his newest book, Under the Whispering Door, I followed her advice and immediately regretted not doing so the first time around.
Now, I’m not going to say much about the story. It’s a wild one. I’ll sum it up in just a few words here: Wallace is dead, Hugo runs an otherworldly tea shop and is charged with guiding Wallace to the other side, and the Manager puts a time limit of seven days on the whole endeavor.
It’s basically a ghosty gay love story — not my usual reading material, for sure, but it’s so so so fun, earnest, and life-giving. Modern literature is often a combination of sarcasm, anger, and sadness; Klune writes with optimism and joy. Under the Whispering Door was a breath of fresh air.
If it doesn’t sound like your thing, you should probably give it a try. That’s what reading is all about.
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