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?

Completed: Death Masks (#5 of Dresden Files)

Cover: Death Masks by Jim Butcher
Death Masks
Jim Butcher
2003, U.S.

I had hoped to have The Hound of the Baskervilles finished by now for the readalong (if you’re participating, share the link to your thoughts on the RAL post by the end of the week–I’ll be done by then, promise!), but lacking that, some quick notes on my latest completed read.

Death Masks is the 5th of the Dresden Files, a series that is part mystery, part urban fantasy–and thus perfect for R.I.P. I’ve been (very slowly) making my way through the series in order, and by this point I think it’s safe to say that they pretty much follow the same formula: Harry Dresden, Wizard and P.I., finds himself entangled in a mess usually partly of his own making and partly as a result of an investigation he has been hired to solve (and/or to consult on for the Chicago PD). The action is nonstop, there’s pretty much a guarantee that a)Harry won’t get enough sleep b)he will completely miss an obvious clue because of either his tiredness or (more likely) a pretty lady c) he will face down a creature more powerful than himself but d) you know he will win in the end because 1) the good guys always do, especially when they’re the narrators and 2) he’s not so good that he’s above cheating. So pretty standard stuff, and really not too much to think about past the first book or two (beyond maybe looking up the traditional stories about some of the creatures/legends Harry encounters). However, probably because of all the blogging/tweeting I’ve seen about diverse books and diverse characters this year, it finally dawned on me–the Dresden Files novels have a really diverse set of characters. I don’t spend much time with fantasy-type novels (Tolkien and children’s lit aside), but my understanding this a diverse cast of characters is not exactly common in the genre.

I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess

Completed: The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien
1954-56, England

At first the beauty of the melodies and the interwoven words in the Elven-tongue, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell, as soon as he began to attend to them. Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world. Then the entertainment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him, too multitudinous for its pattern to be comprehended; it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched and drowned him. Swiftly he sank under its shining weight into a deep realm of sleep. (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 1)

It has been a long time–relatively speaking–since I last read The Lord of the Rings. Although I’ve read it some five or six times now, most of those were spaced closely together, and I last picked up the books in 2002. (Which I remember distinctly, because it was between the first and second of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, and the second came out just before I went to Italy in 2003.) In some ways, reading it again, I feel like a worse reader than I was all those years past, as it took me so much longer and at times seemed to drag on so much more. But I’ve read more–that is, other books–in the meantime, and I got so much more out of this reading than those past.

One important difference–I finally read The Silmarillion a couple years ago. One of many of Tolkien’s works published posthumously, it contains much of the background of Tolkien’s imaginary world. Reading The Lord of the Rings after it, I realized how much of this background, this invented history is referenced in The Lord of the Rings–references that I would never have caught, nor even realized that I was missing. The depth and breadth of Tolkien’s creation continually astonishes me.

I’ve also read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories,” developed from a 1939 lecture, in which he lays out a defense for what he calls “fairy-stories” or what we might now term fantasy. It is interesting in light of the debate, not only over the literary merits of “genre” writing, but also the debate over whether to consider The Lord of the Rings as for “children” or “adults.”* From what I see online, it seems the debate often goes, “well, there’s a clear-cut battle between good and evil, so they must be for children.” But this is in contrast with Tolkien’s own views. First, that “fairy-stories” should not be relegated to children merely because they are imaginary. And more importantly, because of Tolkien’s concept of “eucatastrophe,” the sudden unexpected turn to the joy of the happy ending, which he would never dismiss as for children only: his ultimate example is that of the Resurrection, and as a faithful Catholic, Tolkien would never call the Easter story one for children only. His definitions of “good” and “evil” are clearly informed by his religious faith rather than that of a secular worldview.

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.’ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2)

In fact, on this fifth/sixth(?) reread, I am completely convinced that Tolkien’s writing cannot be fully understood/appreciated without acknowledging his faith. Although there are not allegorical allusions (Tolkien disliked allegory), the worldview is strikingly Christian, as seen in the repetitions of the ideas of faith, mercy, redemption, and hope throughout the novel. In the confrontation between Frodo and Boromir at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, I was struck that while Frodo maintained faith despite recent events, Boromir had lost his–or at least lost hope. In contrast, at about halfway through The Return of the King, Frodo has lost all hope–but remains steadfastly faithful to the mission, even without hope. Samwise, steadfastly faithful to Frodo, provides all the hope they need.

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. (The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter 2)

One thing I can’t quite seem to put my finger on: how is Tolkien’s work generally considered, critically? Browsing blogs, there seem to be mostly posts of either the “I LOVE this so much, it’s my favorite thing ever!” or “I just.couldn’t.get.through.it” types. There are websites by Tolkien scholars, often dedicated to minutiae; I would assume that most of them started from a “love it” place. And where I see those that dismiss it as “mere children’s stories” not worthy of study, it seems they do so for the good/evil reason. At times I found the language stilted (specifically dialogue), but it seemed a deliberate choice, to make his heroes sound as the heroes of epics past. Perhaps, even sixty years on, we still need more passage of time for illumination.

I feel like this year, almost all of my reading has made me want to wander down another path I hadn’t planned (I’ve resisted, mostly), and The Lord of the Rings is no exception. I’ve never really read any of Tolkien’s sources or inspirations, just a little of Malory. Tolkien’s faux-historical narrative (both in plot and style) encourages me to visit some of his predecessors. The ancient sagas call to me. And there are still works of Tolkien’s I’d like to explore: his retelling of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Children of Hurin. Stories of ages long gone, or of ages that only ever were in imagination, but grand tales to tempt the imagination.

‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually–their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on–and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same–like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! (The Two Towers, Book 4, Chapter 8)

 

*My opinion? Why on earth need there be a distinction between books for children and books for adults, so long as they are good enough for children? But, that said, the style and language might be a bit tricky for some young readers–Tolkien liked antique words that I often must look up, and his narrative at times harkens to epics past.