Lessons learned: No more children’s books for Nye. I’m afraid my child heart is stone cold.
More thoughts on Lewis Carroll.
Aargh. Children’s books. Never mind. They are off the list. Unless there is some seriously promulgulating reason, they are off the list. I only finished it because it was short, and all I could think about while finishing it was “Oh my god, the author is probably a child molester.” Does that make me a bad person? Does it make other people bad for liking this book? The classics always ask classic questions, I suppose.
Lessons learned: No more children’s books for Nye. I’m afraid my child heart is stone cold.
More thoughts on Lewis Carroll.
I might also add that I am probably going to take off all really, really long books on this list, especially after reading Susannah Clarke’s first novel which was MUCH longer than its 800 pages. It was written in the manner of Jane Austin, with dry, meandering prose composed in almost completely in passive sentences. The premise kept drawing me through – two magicians compete to recreate magic in early 1800s England – and the feeling that there was something fine waiting in the wings permeated the story.
There were a few gleeful views, to be sure: “MERLIN was another but, as he was upon his mother’s side Welsh and upon his father’s infernal, he will scarcely do for that pattern of respectable English Magic upon which Portishead, Norrell, and Strange have set their hearts…”
And “When the fairy sang, the whole world listened to him. Stephen felt clouds pause in their passing; he felt sleeping hills shift and murmur; he felt cold mists dance. He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands. In the fairy’s song the earth recognized the names by which it called itself.”
And “She even learnt the language of a strange country which, Signor Tosetti had been told, some people believed still existed, although no one in the world could say where it was. (The name of this country was Wales.)”
Lastly, the chapter entitled THE HAWTHORNE TREE, late in the book, on page 814, was terribly wonderful and stand-alone. I would have been quite happy to have just read that chapter by itself. I was completely enamored of the concept of having an entire book tattooed on one’s body. If I could tattoo one book on my body, what would it be? (When I asked Chris, he said: Fahrenheit 451.)
Lessons learned: Passive Sentences are L-O-N-G sentences. Use with discretion.
Learn more about Susannah Clarke.
First, an aside.
I very, very rarely read non-fiction, but I have read two back-to-back just now. One was for my class – Food Inc. by Peter Pringle about genetically modified organisms, and the other was because I heard the author on BookTV while lazing away in a hotel in Yuma, and was so captivated by him and his book that I immediately purchased it – The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined in the World, by Steven Pinker.
Oddly enough, they both intersect at the same point: information wants to flow free. In Food Inc, it was clear that gene-flow, the basic unit of information in life, moves as much as it can, whether we want it to or not; In Angels, shared communication and literature and reasoning bring us out of instinctive and cultural violence. I am in love with Angels. I want to give it to everyone I know.
The Better Angels of our Nature is a 700-page tome that I read in a week in a half. The author flits from history to religion to neurobiology to current events to cognitive psychology to pulp culture to sociology and anthropology, weaving a rug you want to fly on. The view you get flying through this book is breath-taking. It will probably be the best book I will read this year. And am I reading more of his stuff?
I was going to read Black Mountain, Red Moon by Joy Chant, and the dedication seemed auspicious – to a professor in Welsh Aberystwth of all places. But it was a children’s book, and not a good one either. I think I am going to bypass children’s books now, except for the Classics, from now on. (And maybe not even then.)
Kushiel’s Dart was long, too. It was the author’s first book, 800 pages long, and readable with enjoyably articulated sentences and entertaining imagery in the medieval genre, even though the protagonist, Phaedre, seemed to have no flaws and didn’t seem to learn or grow through her amazing journey (-- as long as you don’t consider as being under the “no flaws clause” that she is a masochistic prostitute). It was a bit surprising that a book touted as erotica had so many scenes ending with “and everyone knows what happened next.” The last third of the book wasn’t really that interesting, the ending was wrapped up a little too twee for me, and of course, there was the obligatory hint of the expected sequel. But give the woman a break: it was a first book!
Lessons: this book was the kind of fantasy genre I usually shy away from – boilerplate magical kingdoms with impossibly beautiful people vying for power – but something made this book lovely to read. I’m not sure what that was, but I think it was the movement of the story, the ups and downs each chapter took. It gave a ride.
More on Pinker's Angels and More on Carey's Masochists!
This last year, Chris went to the infamous Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco. Of it, he said “I think I scorched my eyeballs.” I think this book did the same to mine. It is postmodern erotica (I think, I really don’t know for sure), and each chapter is an adventure in which the protagonist Desiridero invokes wish fulfillment of various needs or desires (finding his ancestral people, finding his true love named Albertina, meeting the sadistic and vampiric Count, finding Professor Hoffman) which then disintegrates into disturbing sexual descriptions written in beautiful, poetic metaphor, which then decompose into a deadly scenario, and finally ends with an implausible rescue that also propels Desiridero into his next adventure. Again, this may be another Faust-inspired tale.
Although not a huge fan of it overall, I think postmodernism was the perfect style for this book, because sexual fantasies are, like postmodern writing, innately pretentious and silly at the same time. And Angela Carter is a lauded British writer – she died in 1992 – and her lush imagination and to-die-for similes and metaphors were truly inspired: it made it emotional and so very readable. I am glad I read the book, but I don’t know if I’m up for another in the same vein… because my eyeballs need calamine lotion, now.
Lessons: As with Mr. Attanasio, descriptions should strain to be as poetic as possible, different than what you have ever read before so it sticks in your head forever, and as perfect as you can possibly make them.
Some Angela Carter quotes.
I cannot avoid Wales, and apparently have never been able to. It has been looming over me, since The Prisoner as a four year old, and in the sixth grade, when I first read The Book of Three. This book and the other books in the Prydain series are based on The Mabiginion, and all the names refer to Welsh heroes or Arthurian legends. For that alone it is wonderful to read: Taran means “Thunder.”
But reading these in my forties, these are so very clearly books for children: as much as everyone loves them, as much as I love them, some things distracted me from the pleasure of reading them. The repetitive character ticks are annoying, although a young child would probably not notice them. The heroes, Gwydion and Adion especially, are so cartoonily noble that it became hard to take those characters seriously. Also, sometimes the simple sentence construction aids the story, and sometimes it hinders it. And did I mention that the important action scenes very often take place off stage?
But I still love these stories, although sometimes nostalgically. I do.
Lessons learned? Ah, this is hard. As much as I love a The Book of Three and all of these other stories, the characters, and their settings, it is clear that Craft supports and strengthens a story. It should not be showy and obvious (and in the next book, I think it is, but that is also part of the story, so it works for the most part). Why? I steal from “Writing Great Sentences“ – Style is not meant to impress; it is meant to express!
Lloyd Alexander, with affection.
This was an odd book in that there was a story, but I just couldn’t keep track of what was going on because the paragraphs wandered around so much – in wonderful ways, in that they were interesting and beautiful – and in frustrating ways because I kept losing track of where the story was going. It made it very hard to finish this book, and I was completely clueless of what had happened by the end of the story. Just a portion of the opening description of the wizard Prospero’s house illustrates this phenomenon perfectly:
“He lived in a huge, ridiculous doodad-covered, trash-filled two-story horror of a house that stumbled, staggered, and dribbled right up to the edge of a great shadowy forest of elms and oaks and maples. It was a house whose gutter spouts were worked into the shape of whistling sphinxes and screaming bearded faces; a house whose white wooden porch was decorated with carved bears, monkeys, toads, and fat women in togas holding sheaves of grain; a house whose steep gray-slate roof was capped with a glass-enclosed, twisty-copper-columned observatory…”
Important lessons here: the form of the cumulative sentence CAN be used to death. A sentence does more than simply describe things: it is part of the story.
Actually, this is two novels combined: The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage, and it arrived so reeking of mothballs I had to put it outside next to the new flowers (white pansies, purple stock, dark pink cyclamen) in the afternoon sunlight for a little bit to let it air out first.
Do you think you know what imaginative is? You don’t. This book is beyond imaginative, and seems to owe quite a bit to Alan Dean Foster’s relentless sense of adventure. There are maestros, and soulless faeries, and wives turned into brain-snails, and Half-Breeds, and fangy bird-women, and Barbara Stanwyck, and magic, and more magic. I really enjoyed it, and I think it was written to be enjoyed. I especially like that the main character, after being kidnapped to the Magic Realm, simply tells his parents (whom he calls by first name, so L.A. in the 80s that) what is going on so he has friends on his side, instead of being secretive in solitude and misery. I love that women were the bearers of magic, and that almost all the people stolen by the Faerie were women. I loved Mozart and Mahler, and the truly inspired description of the symphonies – I’ve never seen a symphony described like that, and having read it, I realized that was the way it always should have been written. Amazing.
Another Writing Lesson: write stories for readers to enjoy, with characters who do things the readers want to do.
Visit Greg Bear's Website.
Everyone thinks they know the story of Peter Pan, and I did, too, so I was on the fence about reading it… until I saw a beautiful hard-cover illustrated centenary edition and was held in thrall. Forget Julie Andrews, forget Disney, forget Robin Williams: this is a creepy story that is just a hair shy of Lord of the Flies (actually, another book I have never read, but have referred to very often. That gives me pause, actually). A very enjoyable, wicked and more wicked story, with words I had to look up. (“Moidores” are Portuguese gold coins; “ambonpoint” means plump in a pleasing, healthy way and incidentally, was used to describe Tinker Bell.) The last line of the book sums everything up: “When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who will be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”
Someone famous, I don’t remember who, said it is crucial to read the classics rather than anemic interpretations on them, and Peter Pan is a case in point. Additionally, it brings up another important aspect of fantasy: the logic of magic. Imagination runs rampant here, but that is the natural landscape for it, and the narrative swoops and flies exactly like the magic it describes, running from person to person and time to time, to imagination, and back to reality, with neither being more important than the other.
Lessons. One – I do need to read classics. It is inevitable, now. Two – the logic of the magic must be understood, must reflect the theme, and must be supported by the narrative. It must be woven throughout the story.
See the beautiful and illustrated version.
I was so taken with Hawksmoor, I researched what else Peter Ackroyd had written, because I think I would like to read more of him. In researching, I saw that he had written a King Arthur book, and because I enjoyed The Once and Future King so much, I wondered what other authors had written King Arthur stories. So I made a list, and A.A. Attanasio was at the top, with several King Arthur books.
The first book, The Dragon & Unicorn, is wonderful and cordial and kind, with wild poetry and blustering imagination, and characters who are villains in other versions are looked upon with great empathy and love. The things I loved best about the story was the knowing nods to the original stories, the Y Mamau (which means The Mothers in Welsh, so chill when you considered how much Morgeu hated her own mother), and an ending war scene so gruesome that Uther’s response is completely and emotionally logical so it turns unbelievable heartbreak into something deeply bittersweet. I never could quite buy Uther and Ygraine’s change of hearts in their individual faiths – it made sense for the story, but not for the characters in my eyes – and I wonder if that is addressed in the updated version. I don’t care, though. I really loved this story and I am going to read all the others.
A writing lesson: Use the words that describe the feeling something gives you, even if the words don’t quite fit the object. That is a beautiful way to write.
Visit A.A. Attanasio at his website.
In 2011, I began reading a list of 100 Great Fantasy Novels. I am listing them on this page.