Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Cover: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna ClarkeJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Susanna Clarke
2004, Britain

He wished he had stayed at Hurtfew Abbey, reading and doing magic for his own pleasure. None of it, he thought, was worth the loss of forty books. (Ch. 29)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been on my shelf, and my to-be-read list for quite some time. It sounded just my thing: a tale of two magicians, set in Regency England. A sort of Harry Potter-Jane Austen mash-up. It took me some time to get to it, however, as I find so often with books I own rather than books I’ve borrowed.

It is a deliciously slow read, not the brisk jaunt through magic and manners that one might expect of a genre novel. Rather, it unfolds its tale gradually, taking us from York and the Society of Magicians–more a social dinner group, than anything–to the bustle of London, the battlefields of the Iberian Peninsula, the remote English countryside, and beyond. As the story opens, neither title character is anywhere in sight, and one wonders at first if the first magician we encounter, John Segundus, will perhaps morph into one of the titular characters. He is rather our introduction to this magical world–someone who believes in magic, but doesn’t know how to yet do it himself. It is not long, however, before Mr. Norrell comes on the scene and so begins the long, winding build-up to the great climatic battle of magic and wits. All in good manners and taste, of course.

There is an interesting tension in the world that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell inhabits, between a reality that impresses upon the reader the idea that this is almost a pure historical fiction tale–the Regency era is rendered so fully–and the wonderous magical environment overlaid upon the history. King George III and the Duke of Wellington are characters, but so are the magical Raven King and the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. More fully rounding out the depth of the invented world are the delightful footnotes, complete with (fictional) citations to historical and magical books, telling tales of the (fictional) history of English magic and folklore.

I found Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a delightful and immersive, if slow, read (though how much of that is one me?), and I could see myself returning to its magical world again. After reading it, I watched the BBC miniseries adaptation, and was equally charmed, though I really see the TV series as a complement, rather than replacement for the novel.

Completed: A Swiftly Tilting Planet

A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Madeleine L’Engle
1978, US

They moved through the time-spinning reaches of a far galaxy, and he realized that the galaxy itself was part of a mighty orchestra, and each star and planet within the galaxy added its own instrument to the music of the spheres. As long as the ancient harmonies were sung, the universe would not entirely lose its joy. (Chapter Four)

Unfortunately, it’s been many months since I reread A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and I simply don’t remember it as well as I would wish–not merely to write about, but because, going back through passages I marked, it is a beautiful book.

A beautiful book for a dark time, a book of hope and joy, A Swiftly Tilting Planet was published in 1978, and so written in a time, in the US at least, of great cultural upheaval, political turmoil, economic fears and environmental concerns. And it reflects these concerns. Opening as the Murray family is preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner, the catalyst for the plot is a phone call from the US President to Mr. Murry: the leader of a small (fictional) South American country, “Mad Dog Branzillo” is threatening nuclear war. What follows is an interesting mix of Celtic and American myth and L’Engle fantasy as fifteen-year-old Charles Wallace and the unicorn Gaudior travel back in time, seeking out the “Might-Have-Been” that they can change and so avert disaster. Meg, married to Calvin by now and expecting their first child, joins in remotely, “kything” (a sort of mind-reading) with Charles Wallace so that she knows what is going on, and providing a connection for the reader between his story and the present day. All the while, the enemy, the true Enemy, is not Branzillo, but the Echthroi, who seek to destroy the world’s harmony and will attempt anything–including killing Charles Wallace–to have their way.

“Has the world lost its joy? Is that why we’re in such a mess?” (Meg, Chapter Three)

It struck me last summer when reading the novel, and again today rereading the passages I’d marked, how timely the story felt, how applicable to the world now. And while perhaps that is an indictment on the world we humans have created, and our failures to create an environment in which we interact with love and joy and peace, it is also a reflection of the timelessness of L’Engle’s work and her ability to illuminate the types of concerns that have been present throughout human history. It is the beauty of the novel that it doesn’t create a limited world in which the evil element is defeated and all is well, but that it acknowledges a continual battle while giving hope for victories ever to come.

Her father said, “You know, my dears, the world has been abnormal for so long that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in a peaceful and reasonable climate. If there is to be any peace or reason, we have to create it in our own hearts and homes.” (Chapter One)

At Tara in this fateful hour,
I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the wind with its swiftness along its path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the Earth with its starkness
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness
(Chapter one and throughout)

Completed: A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle

When I was poking around my drafts the other day, I realized that I has never hit “publish” on this post from back in June. Better late than never, I suppose!

Cover: A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'EngleA Wind in the Door
Madeleine L’Engle
(1973, US)

“My children,” Blajeny said gravely, “my school building is the entire cosmos. Before your time with me is over, I may have to take you great distances, and to very strange places.” (68)

Unlike its immediate predecessor The Arm of the Starfish, A Wind in the Door is of a kind with the style and tone of A Wrinkle in Time. Here, we return to the world of Meg and Charles Wallace Murray and Calvin O’Keefe, to cosmic battles and fantastic beings, to playing with time and space—and, now size. For while in A Wrinkle in Time the three children traveled the cosmos in search of Mr. Murray and to defeat the IT, in A Wind in the Door, it is Meg and Calvin who must travel into Charles Wallace–or more precisely, into his mitochondria. As the book opens, Meg is just starting to realize that not only is her little brother being bullied at school, he is deathly ill, a mitochondrial illness. The only hope is for Meg and Calvin, the cherubim Proginoskes, and, quite unexpectedly, Meg’s past nemesis, principal Mr. Jenkins, to journey into Charles Wallace in a desperate attempt to save his farandolae from being “x-ed” or “unnamed.” (While mitochondria are real, farandolae are an invention of L’Engle’s.)

“It isn’t just in distant galaxies that strange, unreasonable things are happening. Unreason has crept up on us so insidiously that we’ve hardly been aware of it. But think of the the things going on in our own country which you wouldn’t have believed possible only a few years ago.” (96)

“I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming—making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate. That’s why we still need Namers, because there are places throughout the universe like your planet Earth. When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.” (111-12)

As with Wrinkle it is a cosmic battle, but one that plays out on a microscopic scale. Good vs. evil. This illness is not of germs or viruses, but the deliberate creation of evil beings, the Echtroi, the unnamers. Naming, being named, given the full sense of self and not falling prey to the nothingness of being unnamed–this is the theme of A Wind in the Door. It is a theme I have seen elsewhere in L’Engle’s work, most notably (that I recall) in her nonfiction meditation on creativity, Walking on Water. And so it must be important to her. But it is not necessarily easy to fully understand. Indeed, A Wind in the Door is quite a conceptual novel. Farandole is to mitochondria as human is to galaxy. Kything and communing vs communicating. And so many scenes where no one actually sees or talks (kything only). Truly, this novel seems that it would be unfilmable!

But there is great wisdom here. It is not enough that we talk at or even merely to each other; we must commune together. It is not enough to know someone on the surface, we must know them well enough to name them and we ourselves must be open to being named. And just as love played a central role in A Wrinkle in Time, none of this is possible, neither Naming nor defeating Evil, without Love, either in L’Engle’s fictional world, or in ours.

“Yes. The Echthroi are those who hate, those who would keep you from being Named, who would un-Name you. It is the nature of love to create. It is the nature of hate to destroy.” (149)

Read as part of the 2018 TBR Challenge and my Classics of Children’s Literature project list.

Completed: The Grey King

Cover: The Grey King by Susan Cooper The Grey King
Susan Cooper
1974, England

I’ve been slowly revisiting The Dark is Rising Sequence over the past year and a half or so, inspired to reread this favorite childhood series by my reading of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys. (And after I started my reread, I learned that she was indeed inspired by Cooper’s work.) I haven’t been blogging about these for the most part, but since I’ve included the last two on my 15 Books of Summer list, I thought I’d write up just a little bit.

The series in general–five books in all–is inspired by Arthurian legend, but set in the present day (roughly 1960s/70s, when it was written, though it really doesn’t feel that dated and could equally be now). The first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, was a grail quest, as the three Drew children sought to retrieve the Hold Grail before a group of adult adversaries can. It ends with the Grail in a museum and the tantalizing suggestion that maybe The Merlin has been helping them along the way. And there, I understand, Cooper originally intended to leave it. It was only some years later that she added on the other four books, to round out a series depicting a great battle between the Light and the Dark, a battle ongoing since at least the time of the great King Arthur. The books from this point bounce between protagonists: Will Stanton, the last (and youngest) of the Old Ones, is introduced in book two, The Dark is Rising, where he must search out and retrieve the six signs by Midwinter’s Night. In book three, Greenwitch, the Drews return as protagonists, when they “happen” to meet Will in a small town in Cornwall (the setting of the first book) where they must rescue the stolen Grail back from the Dark.

The fourth book, The Grey King, returns to Will’s point of view. He has been sent to Wales to recuperate after a severe illness. While there, he meets a strange boy, Bran, and Bran’s dog Cafall, and discovers that he will need their help in retrieving a lost gold harp meant to wake the “six sleepers” whose aid the Light will need in their upcoming battle against the Dark. Over the course of the story, Will and Bran will also learn the surprising backstory to Bran’s arrival in Wales and that Bran’s help may be needed for more than finding the harp.

Although commonly classified as fantasy, The Dark is Rising sequence has long felt to me more akin to the myths and legends of long-gone times: of King Arthur, of Brenin Llwyd. Perhaps, in our cynical, rational age, this is a fine distinction. After all, we know that magic doesn’t exist–at least not as defined in fantasy tales. But when I find myself considering what book might most naturally follow next after these, it is the old legends and stories I think of, not more contemporary writers. Cooper, by drawing in bits of stories she only borrows, pushes me towards seeking out stories I don’t yet fully know. And if that is the result of reading one book, to be pushed toward others, I would say that the writer has been successful in their telling.

I read The Grey King as part of my Classics of Children’s Lit project and as #2/15 for the 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

Playing Catch-up – A Trio of Mini-Thoughts

I spent a good chunk of last weekend catching up on the writing about the books I’ve read the last few months. Hopefully I will get all the posts up this month (I don’t have them in WordPress format yet, just a Word document), but thought I’d start with some quick notes on books I either don’t remember well enough to write more about or didn’t have much to say about.

Cover: Eragon by Christorpher PaoliniEragon
Christopher Paolini
U.S., 2003

I read this, starting in 2015, on a sort of impulse. I’d thought of picking it up for a while, as dragon stories interest me. Alas, I’m not sure I enjoyed it enough to read the series. Early on, the entire story felt very familiar – it wasn’t until I was rewatching the original Star Wars movies before I saw The Force Awakens that I realized that there are many plot similarities with A New Hope. So not only was it very familiar, but very predictable. I have a guess for how the series ends… A series I would have enjoyed more in middle school than as an adult.

Cover: White Nights by Ann CleevesWhite Nights
Ann Cleeves
U.K., 2008

The second in the Shetland Series by Ann Cleeves, I read the first back in October of 2014. Eventually I will read the entire series, for I love the world that Cleeves creates. As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the conventions of mysteries–a small cast of characters from which the murderer must come–works so well in the small Shetland villages that populate her novels; there really is only a limited number of people from whom to pick. (Assuming, of course, no outsiders sneaked in and out–which is always possible when the victim is from out-of-town.) If only big city sleuthing were so easy! I love too the way she moves her narrative between the different characters, allowing us into multiple thoughts and motivations and to know more than just the detective well. We the reader know more than any one character, but still not enough to solve the mystery just yet. At the end I was a bit torn–on the one hand, the solution seemed rather abrupt, but on the other, looking back there were still so many clues paving the way. I just wasn’t as clever as Jimmy Perez, the local detective on the case, who managed to piece all these little clues together.

 

Cover: The Martian by Andy WeirThe Martian
Andy Weir
2011 & 2014, US

On page 36 I gasped. 64% hydrogen?! And then I remembered. This is fiction.

Such was the power of the opening chapters of Andy Weir’s The Martian. I found these early chapters, told in the form of a daily log kept by stranded astronaut, Mark Watney, so realistic*, and so engaging–math, science and all–that it was at times somewhat of a stretch to remember that this has all been made up. And unlike other thrillers where the twists and turns seem just a plot device to ramp up the tension, here each obstacle to Watney’s survival, on such a remote and unforgiving place as an empty Mars, seemed a natural outgrowth from the harsh conditions. In a way, this isn’t a science-fiction story; it is a pioneer story, a lone traveler in a foreign landscape seemingly conspiring to kill him.

I can see it now: me holding a map, scratching my head, trying to figure out how I ended up on Venus.

I was initially disappointed by a sudden switch in the narrative device, but quickly realized it only served to ratchet up the tension even more. And yet, despite all of the tension and suspense–was it even remotely possible for Watney to make it?–the humor. So much humor! It is not often that I literally laugh out loud while reading, but this novel, despite the dire picture it painted provided ample opportunity. Watney was truly the right character to strand on Mars.

Humor, science, math, suspense: quite possibly my favorite read from 2015.

*I assume. I don’t know enough of the science to say, but it seems sound.

Completed: The Scorprio Races

Cover - Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races
Maggie Stiefvater
2011, U.S.

“Fifty years ago, it was a man they killed up there, just like every year before. The man who will not ride.”

“Why?” I demanded.

Her voice is bored; there’s a real answer, possibly, but she’s not interested in knowing it. “Because men like to kill things. Good thing they stopped. We’d run out of men.”

“Because,” cuts in a voice that I recognize instantly, “if you feed the island blood before the race, maybe she won’t take as much during it.”

This wasn’t the title that I had in mind when I decided to participate in this year’s Once Upon a Time challenge, but it was the one that somehow managed to make its way home with me from the library–and more importantly, get read. I’ve read several of Stiefvater’s books now (the first three books in the Raven Cycle plus this), and she seems to write just the sort of thing I can’t resist. I saw a list–I don’t remember where now–of books from she read growing up that she recommended to her fans for when they run out of her books to read. So many of them–The Dark is Rising series, Arthurian mythology, among others–were stories I either loved growing up or have (belatedly) discovered since. No wonder I am drawn to these.

The Scorpio Races introduced me to a myth I was not previously familiar with (reminding me I still want to read more Celtic mythology), that of the water horse, or capall uisce (or glashtin, capall uisge, cabyll ushtey, aughisky, each uisge, or kepie according to which mythology/language is being referenced), a flesh-eating November-associated, ocean horse. In Stiefvater’s version, the island men race these dangerous creatures each November–and more than one man is almost certain to die. This race is the background for the novel, which focuses on two young people, Sean, a multi-year champion of the races who seems to be one of the only to understand the wild horses, and Kate (or “Puck”), who, out of desperation enters the race–the first woman to do so, a grave challenge to convention, but also a grave risk to her life. Although I suppose I could say that the story is largely plot-based it also focuses much on the characters, specifically Sean and Puck, who both narrate the story. They both have desires and dreams, and it is really their chase after these that forms the heart of the novel; the climatic race is just the means by which they hope to achieve them.

As with the other Stiefvater novels I’ve read, I was completely pulled in by the story–by the magic, of her words, of the horses, of the setting. The Thisby of the novel reminded me of the descriptions of the remote Shetland islands in Ann Clevees’ Raven Black. As I turned the last pages, I found I was reluctant to leave Thisby–and its dangerous, magical horses–behind.

Once Upon a Time IX Logo

Week’s End Notes (24) – Once Upon a Time

 Once Upon a Time IX 

I’ve been in the midst of quite a reading/blogging slump lately. Part work (super-busy until about two weeks ago), part weather (just…winter…), part not quite finding the right book, part other distractions. I’ve only finished one book since January (The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper), but I recently started rereading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and I think that’s going to be just the thing. I’ve been missing 19th century lit, and didn’t even know it.

There’s also been the persistent idea worrying away at the back of my brain that I want to read some fairy tales, or adaptations. Maybe some writing about fairy tales. Something, I’m not sure just quite what yet. And when I saw–and I confess, I had completely forgotten that it would be coming soon–that Carl is hosting yet another edition of his “Once Upon a Time” event, it seemed that I simply must poke my head back in here and participate. Carl’s events are always fun (the number 1 and 2 rules), they don’t require much–one book is participating–and with the arrival of spring–actually here on time this year!–it seems the timing just right.

Now…what to read?