Posted October 16, 2008on:
What have I been reading lately? As the end of my MA studies drew near and my thesis showed no signs of shrinking (or finishing itself) one could observe (lamentable) trends. I withdrew from almost all literary conversation — I did not blog or read any that weren’t in my RSS reader and lost desire for all lit mags, except one. The Paris Review managed to retain my affections partly because it’s a quarterly (so I felt I could read it at leisure), partly because I regard it as a curio among my lit mag/journal interests, and partly because it’s not very demanding in comparison to them (sorry PR staff). I always have reasonable excuses when the poetry befuddles me. (Btw, where the heck is my Fall issue? I miss being befuddled.)
As for books that jumped around a bit. My fantasy interested regressed. I reread The Hobbit and the entire Harry Potter series (like Jennysbooks is doing now). That was my third time with Tolkien’s first tale. The first time I was a tween and I left it with confused memories of the novel and the Rankin & Bass animated adaptation. The second time I closed it quite disgusted with Tolkien’s “children’s author” tone — a stylistic choice he later regretted. IIt’s an overly cute, somewhat artificial, self-conscious tone used by the world’s Enid Blytons. It works well enough for the right age group and then immediately loses favour. Even before I was ten I remember being exasperated with her style. For gratification I counted how many stories in a particular collection she ended with a question mark, mocking her silently.
This third time I made peace with that peeve and was able to appreciate Tolkien’s humour and the story’s rolicking air. I am now now even more worried about its fate as a film: it is fundamentally different from The Lord of the Rings but I fear that the trilogy’s success will convince those in charge that The Hobbit film must be made in its image. The “two movie” plan is very much the doubtful “epic” approach I feared they’d take. We shall see.
J.K. Rowling isn’t that skilfull of a writer, is she? I’ve mentioned many times that when I read the first two Harry Potter books I could not fathom what made it so popular with adults. (I came to the series through the fourth.) Now I think that their length and complexity are better suited to her strengths than a sprawling 700+ pages excursion. (Her best is the third in which she combines meatier content without needing endless words.) As the books got longer she had to do more dialogue…and she’s not very good at it. She overuses adverbs and seems limited to describing her characters as saying something “slowly” whenever they’re not running away from anyone. The plot heaves and gets kind of soap opera-y ie complications happen for the sake of it. She often fails at making her characters convincingly complex. Harry Potter’s teen angst phase came off as PSA-caricature to me but England does purportedly have a youth problem these days.
All the same…I did re-read the entire series, a compliment I have not bestowed on technically better writers whose books I’ve long since bartered. (Granted, I only own three of the HP series.) Rowlings quirky world creations and sympathetic characters combined with the pleasure of communal reading — it is wonderful to know one is enjoying a book with so many others and have endless opportunities to discuss it with them — are very potent. She could be an excellent author with a good editor. It is a bit grievous, though, to know that there are authors whose stories are both captivating and accomplished and yet are not half so spectacularly successful.
I like my mini-quests. My current one is to read all of Diana Wynne Jone’s backlist. Before this year I had read Howl’s Moving Castle, Conrad’s Fate, Power of Three and The Merlin Conspiracy. Since August I completed Chrestomanci Volumes I & II, The Dalemark Quartet and The Pinhoe Egg. I owned Charmed Life, the first in the Chrestomanci Vol. I, for a long time but was repeatedly put off by the first paragraph. I believe it’s one of her earlier novels, published in the 70s, and it stumbled with very abrupt, ugly sentences that did not promise the wry, elegant, tongue-in-cheek Diana I knew well.
Cat Chant admired his elder sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left him no one else to cling to.
Mayhaps I’m overreacting but they read so serviceable, plain, without art or promise. The kind of book you get in grade on when you’re learning to read. Compare it to say, the opening in The Merlin Conspiracy, a favourite.
I have been with the Court all my life, travelling with the King’s Progress.
It’s even shorter than the first example but it scans well. It gives a tantalising bit of information while making you want to know more. That the narrator is writing this down also hints his/her situation is changing which also snags my curiousity. It works, you know? Jones also write it nearly 30 years later so of course she has a better handle of how to get things going. In any case, I did manage to get over Charmed Life’s awkward start, thanks to the quest and the knowledge that the Chrestomanci series is Jones’ most popular, and became one of her many readers to fall head over heels for Christopher Chant and his flamboyant dress robes.
One of the real charms Jones’ books holds for me is how her various urban and rural settings are not modeled too far from real life. In other stories you may have the familiar setting with the fantastical world intruding or its an extreme version of reality (like in Harry Potter with the Firebolts and wizard cards and such — which I adore btw). She explores and pokes at the strange British class system and, to a lesser extent, civil service. Her Conrad’s Fate struck me as being awfully similar to Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (don’t guffaw!) in it humorous, sharp study of an upper class home’s ecosystem, from the master and mistress down to the shoe shine boy. It’s not done to make any point in particular. And…although the magic *is* necessary to the plot , there is so little effort to jazz it up that I’d recommend it to non-fantasy fans who are Anglophiles and like mysteries.
I do not love all of her books equally. The reasons escape me but I found The Magicians of Caprona less than satisfactory. I’ve noticed DWJ’s preference for male over female heroines, the latter oft regulated to the prominent sidekick role. (Unfortunately, when she does have a book with a prominent female heroine, like the third book in The Dalemark Quartet, I pretty much can’t stand it and long for all my favourite boys from the previous two.) She does have an excellent grasp of what sets a young female reading going and that made up some of my favourite moments. In The Lives of Christopher Chant there’s a young goddess named Millie who is starved for reading material. Christopher, on the advice of a male friend with experience in the ladies’ reading tastes, buys her a series that I’m sure is modelled on Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl books. Mille immediately becomes quite desperate to have girl crushes, tea time, Midnight Feasts, become a prefect and so on which mirrored my reaction exactly, except that I also wanted to wake up at ungodly hours to swim in a lake. (I still remember the illustration of the girls running towards it.) In Pinhoe’s Egg there’s a similar moment when two girls despair for a horse, plan to buy riding gear and speak knowingly of gymkhanas after taking in one of those girl + pony books. But this one felt contrived, as if DWJ was trying to recapture a moment better done before.
I’m now in the middle of Hexwood which happily has a prominent heroine (who I like) and seems to be a mix of both fantasy and science fiction, which is always nice, as long as Jones is the author. I shan’t make any promises but I also read, among others, John Banville’s Doctor Copernicus and, in order to remain a critblog in Dan Green’s standings, I shall offer you more critical fare on both that and Mill on the Floss, of course. I read a strange mid-20th century Japanese novel entitled The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Mishima Yukio. It was such a hothouse novel and stamped with Freud’s seal of approval…lots of phallic poles, edifices, ship masts, womanly flowers opening up and what have you…and so riddled with imagery…I still don’t know what to make of it. (Japanese writers rule.)