The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Catching up

Posted on: October 16, 2008

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.)

15 Responses to "Catching up"

It’s nice to catch up and know what you’ve been doing! I, too, think the third Harry Potter book is by far and away the best, and that a good editing would have improved the later volumes a great deal. As for Diana Wynne Jones, I’ve read (with my son) Archer’s Goon and The Ogre Downstairs, which we both loved. When she’s good, she’s very very good.

Have never read Diana Wynne Jones but I did see a Miyazaki film called Howl’s Moving Castle, is it the same story or have I confused something?

I agree with you on Rowling’s writing, one of the reasons I get frustrated with her books. I really do think its wonderful she got so many kids excited about reading, but I’ve been able to convince myself they are as interesting for an adult reader. And at the same time, I think kids deserve the best writing as well.

I’ve been wondering where you were. Welcome back!

I’ve been meaning to try some of Diana Wynne Jones’s work. She’s so highly recommended! I may look at some of her works at the library today.

I’ve noticed that about Rowling too. My hubby calls her a brilliant rip-off, since so many of her themes are shared by so many other works and she’s made a killing doing it.

Litlove I haven’t read those DWJ books of hers yet but I’m looking forward to them. I thought I might not enjoy her books that were skewed to the very young (like Eight Days of Luke) but, as usual, she changed my mind.

verbivore it is the same story although Miyazaki’s film is only loosely based on the plot…and it’s tone is entirely different (far more ironic). As a Miyazaki fan you know that he is typically more earnest. Many Jones fans were disappointed with the film. I, on the other hand, saw the screen version before reading the book so I was able to enjoy both since a friend warned me of the difference.

Many of her fans consider it to be her best stand-a-lone work.

It’s always a mystery, isn’t it, what it is about certain books that capture public imagination vs those that do quite well but don’t make comparable impact. It’s pretty obvious when reading Jones work that Rowling pulled a lot of material from it. It’s kinder to say she was “influenced” but I do have sympathy for those who call her work “derivative”…

like Heather’s husband. (Well, he used stronger words ;).) Thanks Heather, it is good to be back! Ooo, you should try some of Jones’ books — I think she’s brilliant and that you’d really take to them.

Well I picked up Howl’s Moving Castle today at the library, so I’m going to give her a try!!

And don’t worry, I have given him more than one tongue-lashing about Rowling. He hasn’t even read the books, so I say he can’t talk about her until he does. LOL

i read some Mishima short stories earlier this year and my first Murakami and I agree with you, Japanese writers do rule. I am looking forward to reading more of both writers.

Heather lol, ok, yes that automatically disqualifies him from comment, although perhaps it’s telling that he’s heard only parts of the novel and yet to him they sound derivative. Oh well, no one’s perfect. 😉 I hope you enjoy Howl. I actually don’t remember it that well so I shall have to reread it and see what I think (again).

Stefanie ooo you read Murakami! Did I miss it? I wonder if I missed it. I’ll search your archives. I wove Murakami but I’ve yet to try any of his short works because I tried one of his most recent when it appeared in the New Yorker and was not impressed. That might just be the New Yorker’s fun-sucking effect though.

Welcome back friend!
I am in the thick of caring for my dad, he had surgery a week ago, now has a sick heart, he will be going to a nursing home for a while, I am reading, but not posting yet.
I have read the first 2 books of the Potter series, she has a great imagination, you were very disciplined to read all of them.

Imani… welcome back… feel your pain about the Paris Review, although the interview with Umberto Eco in the summer was a tasty morsel for me (he’s one of my favs)… Thanks for your comment on the essay by Lee Seigel (Unsafe at any Read). I ended up photocopying it and sharing it with my students… oh, they tore it up. Welcome back, my dear and good friend! Cheerioooo!

DWJ is still my daughter’s favorite writer (she’s 17), and I’ve read DWJ to all three of my children. The way I first heard about her was that Elisabeth Knox recommended her to my editor at fsg, who in turn mentioned her to me because I was always looking for books for children. And I’ll bet Knox likes them as well.

Grand stuff, and I think that if you keep your eyes open (I think yours always are generally open) you will see a wealth of DWJ sources for Rowling. Somewhere there’s a quote from DWJ that is about Rowling feeling strangely familiar. It’s particularly noticeable that she snagged the time plot for “Prisoner of Azkaban” from “Aunt Maria.” And that is a very clever plot. I like many of DWJ’s books; one you didn’t mention that I find very interesting is “Spellcoats,” from the Dalemark quartet.

Right now I’m reading the Potter books to my youngest at bedtime. While you’re quite right about an editor (it’s the modifier errors that trip me the most), I am finding that they are far more intricately interconnected and their goals more ambitious than I had realized. She is very good at assimilation of many sources and embroidery.

Rowlingesque: “Imani and the Very Big Thesis.”

I too have been jumping on the Fantasy wagon. I just read Garth Nix’s Sabriel for the first time, think J.K. Rowling with a good editor. I agree on the HP books, but I think Order of the Phoenix is the best of the series.

Good luck on your thesis.

Also, for some reason, it keeps trying to direct to an old blog, but I believe I fixed that problem.

LitLove…I have missed you!

The fault of adding links to the Google Reader, somehow left yours off… and get into the habit of only checking out those on the GR list… this is a problem.

Better to go back to the random search and serendipidity method.

I have to say, I completely disagree with you about Charmed Life and The Merlin Conspiracy. Whilst I think Charmed Life is an absolute masterpiece of a book, I think The Merlin Conspiracy is AWFUL and makes me think something went wrong with her writing in the past 20 years or so. Also, I don’t know how you can say her female heroines aren’t any good when Sophie is perhaps the best female character I’ve ever read in a fantasy novel. I thought Magicians of Caprona was clever, complex and well-written, too. There’s no accounting for taste, I guess.

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