Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

If last year was any indicator — which it probably was — this may be the last fiction book I read with any kind of efficacy for about 9 months.  Sniff.  There aren’t many complaints I have about grad school, but at the top of a very short list is this: my reading is taken up by articles and nonfiction, which taxes the brain and the soul.  I need my fiction, people!  I don’t know when most of you read books during the day, but before bed has always been a favorite for me, with quiet afternoon a close second.  Bedtime after a long day though is disastrous for remembering plot points and characters, no matter how poignant or abrasive or thrilling the story.  The Paris Wife is next on my list, so let’s hope I don’t let poor Mrs. Hemingway languish for months and months as I read one page per day.

Swamplandia! had all the weirdness I want from a book — a story about a family of alligator wrestlers who fall on hard times when a rival theme park moves in and takes away their customers.  It really turned out to be three sections — the first section about the family members finding outlets for their grief after the mother’s death (not a spoiler), the second an unintentional group of short stories going back and forth between Ava and Kiwi’s respective journeys, and the third a “dark night of the soul” type ending that culminates suddenly in the most Pollyanna way I could imagine.

I liked the quirkiness of the first section.  The family history and the set up of the Swamplandia! park and especially the descriptions of the mother were heartening with just the right amount of darkness to them.  Russell created a family that was wacky, quintessentially American, and easy to love.  Then in the second section everything falls apart, and although the humor is still pushing around in the peripherals,  it just seems like nothing is actually going to go right for anyone and the whole book becomes hopeless and dismal.  The reader watches characters make choices that seem not only weird, but are definitely bad. It’s not uncomfortable exactly — dismal really is the right word.

And then every bad thing you imagined might happen to the characters after their bad decisions (which, by the way, work because they are adolescents.  I didn’t feel any kind of sympathy for Chief Bigtree, the father, because there’s just no world that exists in my head where a parent should make the decision he does) DOES happen to them.  But suddenly!  The great Deus ex machina to the rescue!  And abruptly everything’s back to the tone of the first section again — the family is going to make it through this together, yo ho ho, isn’t the world funny?

Not really.

I haven’t read anything else by Russell, and I did really enjoy her writing early in the story.  I just appreciate consistency in the books I read.  If I should be ready for a long deep look into the evils of the human psyche, I can do that and appreciate that.  If I should be ready for a lovely story about the strengths of families and the storms they can weather together, I can do that and appreciate that.  But I can’t switch back and forth between the two.

I hear good things about Russell’s first book, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, as if that title wasn’t enough to make me want to read it.  And although this is largely a complainy post, I really did enjoy the book — just not as one unit.  So I will check out this other novel, if only to see how many girls are raised by wolves and whether St. Lucy makes it through alive.

In about 20 minutes, I’m off to my first class of fall quarter.  Good bye, summer!  Good bye, fiction books!  It’s me, not you!  I’ll try to keep in touch, novels!

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A Marvelous Trio of Books

This summer has been super duper cool, temperature wise, and therefore a great time for reading some non-academic tomes. I also finally got a library card to my new library — Patrick and I went to check it out one day.  He had a little trouble with the quiet part, but shelves and shelves of books?  He was sold.  And the best part is I finally figured out how to get library books on my Kindle!  2004 here I come!

So I first checked out Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.  The creepy cover got me interested, but having the author stand behind us in a line at the LA Times Book Festival got me even more intrigued.  You mean he’s a real person?!?!?  Yes, a real person with a fabulous kate spade typewriter satchel.  The story was fantastic, and definitely one that did give me pause to read right before bedtime. The monsters in this one, and the heroes too for that matter, are skin-crawly creepy sometimes.  There are pictures, real pictures, all throughout the book which fit with the story or reveal things about the plot or characters, or sometimes just creep you out.  The macabre in me really enjoyed this book, and I’ll definitely check out the second one when it comes out.

I was way behind the curve on the next book, but I am so glad I read it.  When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead takes its inspiration from A Wrinkle in Time, and I still have vivid memories of the Children’s Theater adaptation from the early 90s.  Now when I read young adult novels, I really get interested in the parent characters — go figure, right?  Miranda’s mom and her soon-to-be step-dad were excellent, and the little glimpses we got of Annemarie’s dad made me want to know her family more.  I guess it’s only natural that as I grow older, I’m more interested in the hesitance towards commitment in Miranda’s mom than I am in the difficulties the kids themselves are having at school.

The third in my trio was A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, and wow.  Heavy, dark, and excellent.  While dealing with his mother’s illness and impending death, the adolescent main character “accidentally” calls a monster to help him.  The grieving the protagonist goes through is realistic — messy, confusing, heartbreaking.  And the illustrations reminded me of the ones from Scary Stories to Read in the Dark…so, pretty creepy also.  But this book made me cry in the end, and not because of anything sappy.  Unexpected from the cover art.

All three books gave me little thrills and chills — shimmy shivers, as I call them.  There were moments for each of them when I was a little afraid to get up in the night, and when for sure I didn’t want to brave the walk up to the marina bathrooms after dark.  Shimmy shivers.  But they all had strong main characters that I could really feel for, and get involved with, which is just the kind of release and literary relationship I’m looking for in a summer read.  I recommend them all, if you’re in the market for a summer read that will help you work some emotions out and release some pent-up stress with good thought and deep feelings.

Since I haven’t written in a while, here are some of the other books I read this spring with abridged reviews.  They each deserve their own feature-length extravaganza, but the books keep coming, and any specific thoughts I had about them are a little lost in the haze.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson — amazing supernatural/religious/sci-fi mash-up with great twists!  Put it on your list!

Broken Harbor by Tana French — I loved French’s first two books, the third was too similar to the others, and this fourth one was void of surprise and overtly gruesome.

Anasi Boys by Neil Gaiman — LOVE!  Can we get more stories from the American Gods world, please?  Please?

Villette by Charlotte Bronte — This book changed my thinking.  Whatever was going on with those Bronte sisters, man, they made it happen.  I assume this one takes the back seat to Jane Eyre because the ending is…unexpected, but I think that maybe… … MAYBE… … I liked this one better than Jane Eyre.  Read it.  Do it now.

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente — Fun, but I think it would have been much more meaningful to me if I knew more about Russian mythology or fairy tales.  I was able to figure out who some characters were, but ultimately, I was an outsider on the inside jokes here.

Catching up – Quips!

I am alive!  Who would have guessed it?  Not anyone reading this blog.  You would have thought I had finally nailed myself into a coffin with my worsted weight noose, but NO!  I am still here!  I am still knitting and reading, but with this PhD program, suddenly writing isn’t something I really want to do in my spare time anymore.  Which is a pity.  So we’ll have ourselves a little catch-up post here, and then maybe I can keep a little better track of things after that.

So last you heard, I had read The Beautiful and the Damned and it was a stirring experience.  After that, I figured it was time for some comfort food…book style.  So I used the power of my Kindle to find all those wonderful little Arthurian romance/legend novels I loved so much.  I read Persia Woolley’s Guinevere Trilogy, which is a long time favorite of mine.  I found the third book at a library book sale back in late middle school.  The cover was SUPER romance novelly — Guinevere sitting on a throne with billowing red hair, an look of defiance, and full, painted lips with a brilliant velvet dress spilling onto the floor around her.  It was definitely a cover I was embarrassed to be seen with — I think I read most of it at home.  But you know the old saying…regardless of the crazy artwork, the third book is fantastic — the fall of Camelot, with relate-able characters who I really grew to love.   Eventually, I went back to the library and found the first two books, which were fun, too, but the third one takes the cake.  Rereading them again after so many years was comforting and provided a fantastic escape from the stress of starting my graduate education.

I also struck out on new Arthurian territory, with a book called Gawain and Lady Green by Anne Eliot Crompton.  The author has also written an excellent and unique Arthurian legend called Merlin’s Harp, which I devoured in high school.  Merlin’s Harp is a feminist retelling through the eyes of Nimue, but it isn’t easily recognizable as the Arthurian tale.  Not at first.  The main character only hops in on the tale we’re all familiar with every now and then.  Gawain and Lady Green is, as you English majors out there might expect, a retelling of Gawain and the Green Knight.  It’s cute, and also comfort-foody, and unique again — if you don’t know the story of Gawain, you might not recognize the novel for what it is.  But I’m not sure you can only enjoy it if you know the story…I could see many a young adult enjoying this book simply for itself.

I also received a book from meine Mutti-in-law, called Bringing Up Bebe — One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman.  HIGHLY recommend!  Especially if you’ve ever been weirded out by the stress American culture brings into parenting.  If you’ve ever stumbled upon the kind of crazy that only we Americans can come up with on Facebook or blogs — fatwa on [insert trend here], why aren’t you afraid of this?  don’t you realize how your child’s life will be RUINED if they do thing x? — then you know what I mean.  This book is the perfect remedy.  It helped me breath a sigh of relief, that we weren’t raising Patrick like a weirdo — we were kind of raising him like a little Frenchman.  Which he is, to a certain percentage point.  The section on food is fantastic.  I wish I could enroll in a creche and eat like that — amazing.  A really fun read that helped me feel like I wasn’t the only one who thought our society’s expectation that being a mother = living in a constant state of freak-out is a bogus expectation.

Devil’s Advocate: Obviously, if you’re not freaking out, you’re not paying attention.  Am I right, America?!?  Who’s with me?!?  Let’s be sure to stress ourselves out about every feature of our child’s life, because if we don’t, then mass ax-murdering is CERTAINLY in their future.  (Did I conjugate that correctly?)

Then, Christmas rolled around, and I got a couple books for the jolly holiday!  The first one I read was from Drew, a T.C. Boyle novel that took place in our new home.  It’s called When the Killing’s Done and it was excellent.  By far the best of his novels I’ve read.  Subtle themes that progressed as the plot unfolded, characters who were true to themselves throughout, and realistic to boot.  Really excellent.  A literary treat, after all my Arthur comfort diving.  It also takes place in …drumroll… the Channel Islands National Park!  Right across the ocean from us!  And parts of it take place in our HOME — Ventura, Oxnard, Santa Barbara, Ojai — so fun!  Nothing like a book based on where you live to make you feel special.  Of course, almost all the boats in it sink to the bottom of the sea, and it does live up to it’s title, but…it’s still kind of a trip.

Let’s start with that for now.  I’ve got three more books to add, plus the one I am currently reading.  But I think if I don’t publish this post now, it may be the end of poor little Knitquip: the blog.  And I can’t have that.  PUBLISH!

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

After reading The Run Diary earlier this fall, I knew I needed to revisit this one.  I’ve lived in Vegas for almost 7 years now…wait, fact check.  For real?  It’s been 7 years already?  Yep — 7 years.  And now that I’ve lived here, I feel like I know the kinds of things about this city that only “locals” can know.  So it was time to recheck out Thompson’s book — you know, the one from that movie with Johnny Depp.  He’s the old guy who plays Jack Sparrow.

Anyway.

It’s spot on.  I mean, all the drug culture stuff and the crazed stupors are still hysterical and gritty, but what I wanted to see this time is how well does Thompson paint this town?  Does he nail it?  Answer?  Yes.  What’s difficult is that the Vegas Thompson describes is still the Vegas of today — even though Vegas would rather die than admit it.  But it’s true.  The kind of depraved negligence he shows is the way this city runs.  The confusion between whether it’s a city or just a tourist dump is the lifeblood of conversation here.  The city just built a beautiful Arts Center — really, very gorgeous — for shows and for the symphony to play in.  But all the town can talk about is whether it will attract any tourists.  It’s like the entire point of an Arts Center is missed — who cares about the tourists?  That building is for YOU, locals.  Or — Drew’s favorite example — NPR ran a spot for weeks about the possible smoking ban that went something like this: “New York, LA, Paris…what do all these cities have that Las Vegas doesn’t?  A smoking ban.”  Well, I guess that’s true.  Of course they also have a ton of OTHER, more IMPORTANT things that draw the line between actual “city” and…here.

Fair warning.  I know I’m hating.  But this town can’t keep ignoring this stuff.  How much cultural or educational growth can a place have when the best a school can hope for in a partnership is with a casino that has a restaurant called “The Pink Taco?”

But the moments of clarity in between drugged fantasies are worth anyone’s time.  And it is still true that Circus Circus is exactly what the entire hep world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.  Again, spot on.

I hope to read this book in another 10 years or so and say, “Wow, Las Vegas is a lot different than it used to be!”  But if it’s already been 40 years….well, I’m not going to slow down through bat country.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

This book took forever.  Not because of the book — oh no.  I started reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma around Christmas.  Then I paused to finish Walking to Canterbury.  Then I got sick, and didn’t want to read at night for awhile…which is really my only opportunity to read right now.  Then I was just plain tired for too many nights in a row, so I didn’t read it then.  Then he started talking about foraging for mushrooms, which I don’t really like to eat, so my interest waned.

BUT!

This book was great.  It doesn’t matter how long it took me to consume it — it was by turns fascinating and revealing.  The idea of the book is that Michael Pollan is going to try to create four different meals — one from all industrially sourced foods, one from industrial organic foods, one from “true” organic foods, and one where he has hunted or grown or found all the foods himself.  The meals are all unforgettable, and I won’t blow it for you by telling you how all of them turn out.  His meals are just a lovely little piece of creative nonfiction.

The real interest in this book comes in the reveals he makes.  About 7 years ago, Drew and I were watching Real Time with Bill Maher, and we laughed at what a fool Bill Maher was.  He was going on and on about how bad corn was for everyone, and how it was killing us, and how terrible it was for our country.  The panel just laughed, and so did we.  Well, Bill Maher, I formally apologize for making you into a Cassandra.  Turns out, he’s maybe right.  Check it out:

A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef.  (Modern-day hunter-gatherers who subsist on wild meat don’t have our rates of heart disease.)  In the same way ruminants (cows) are ill adapted to eating corn, humans in turn may be poorly adapted to eating ruminants that eat corn.

———

Pollan talks to a farmer in Iowa about corn subsidies: So the plague of cheap corn goes on, impoverishing farmers (both here and in the countries to which we export it), degrading the land, polluting the water, and bleeding the federal treasury, which now spends up to $5 billion  a year subsidizing cheap corn.  But though those subsidy checks go to the farmer (and represent nearly half of net farm income today), what the Treasury is really subsidizing are the buyers of all that cheap corn.  “Agriculture’s always going to be organized by the government; the question is, organized for whose benefit?  Now it’s for Cargill and Coca-Cola.  It’s certainly not for the farmer.”

———-

He has a biologist friend of his put his meal from McDonald’s into a mass spectrometer:In order of diminishing corniness, this is how the laboratory measured our meal: soda (100 percent corn), milkshake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent), and French fries (23 percent).  What in the eyes of the omnivore looks like a meal of impressive variety turns out, when viewed through the eyes of the mass spectrometer, to be the meal of a far more specialized kind of eater.  But then, this is what the industrial eater has become: corn’s koala (Earlier in the book, he describes what it means to be an omnivore — it means we have choices when we eat, and that can lead to many “dilemmas” about what we are actually going to consume.  The koala, on the other hand, doesn’t have this problem — it only eats one thing.  Like us, now!)

———-

Because of diabetes and all the other health problems that accompany obesity, today’s children may turn out to be the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy will actually be shorter than that of their parents.  (This is shocking…and the biggest reason why having a child makes me want to change my diet even more.  No way is Patrick’s life going to be shorter than mine — not if I can do something about it.  Pollan goes on to list all of the reasons for “humanity’s expanding waistline” but intelligently cuts it down to the real source:  “When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.”  Which is really all you need to know.)

Pollan goes from industrial farming, where he buys a steer and then works VERY HARD to try and track it down through the system (which proves extremely difficult), to a place called Polyface Farms, which is organic and run by a farmer named Joel Salatin who believes very strongly in his way of life and products.  He introduces Pollan to all kinds of agricultural insights, like this one about soil — “When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine.” And finally, in the face of a farm that “feeds itself,” Pollan (and at this point, me the reader also) asks, “All of which begs a rather large question: Why did we ever turn away from this free lunch in favor of biologically ruinous meal based on corn?  Why in the world did Americans ever take ruminants off the grass?  And how could it come to pass that a fast-food burger produced from corn and fossil fuel actually costs less than a burger produced from grass and sunlight?”

As you might imagine, he does answer a lot of these questions.  But the philosophical idea there is a hard one to answer — why do we eat this way?  When we know it’s bad for us, and we know it’s killing us and our children and hurting the environment too — why?  And that, there is no answer for.

The book contains SO MUCH more than I can talk about in one blog post — he talks about vegetarianism, he kills a wild pig for his last meal, he talks about how deceptive Whole Foods is (which we all knew anyway, right?).  All in all, a fascinating read, even if a slow one.  And honestly, shouldn’t a book like this, which ends up giving you faith in the slow food movement be a slow read also?  In a way, it was good to have a long time to really think about the ideas he brought up and the experiences he had trying to trace his meals down the food chain.  I am really struck by how far removed we are from the food we eat — most of us don’t grow it, or hunt it, or even meet the people who grew it or hunted it or found it or created it in a lab.  It’s like magic — it just appears on the shelves or in the cases of your local supermarket.  I’m also struck by how cheap food really is, and how little we spend on it.

But the last little quote I’ll leave you with is just kind of fun — and applies to this blog directly.  Pollan is about to go foraging for mushrooms for the first time, and will soon go hunting for the first time, too: “Isn’t is curious how in so many of our pastimes and hobbies we play at supplying one or another of our fundamental creaturely needs — for food, shelter, even clothing?  So some people knit, others build things or chop wood, and a great many of us “work” at feeding ourselves — by gardening or hunting, fishing or foraging.” Guilty!  I play at self-reliance!  But hopefully, our little family can continue to play at self-reliance in other food ways as well, and then we can stay healthy and only eat corn when it’s on the cob.  With lime.

Walking to Canterbury by John Ellis

Way back when, or, as Spinal Tap would say, “before the dawn of history,” I fulfilled the author study component of my English degree with an Interim class on Chaucer.  I had read bits and pieces of The Canterbury Tales in my survey courses, but I was unprepared for the diligence required when reading in Middle English, but that was tempered by the bawdy, hidden humor of Chaucer’s poetry.  The professor was extremely influential to me, academically and otherwise — she was the kind of woman I continue to aspire to be.  There were only 9 of us in the class, all girls, and our fearless leader helped us to understand Chaucer through the lens of a medievalist.

So a few months after the class, I was spending a lazy moment perusing through the St. Olaf Bookstore, when I came upon this book, Walking to Canterbury by Jerry Ellis.  I didn’t know the author’s name, but after being captivated by the ideals of pilgrimage, I was curious to see what kind of person would try this — a walk from London to Canterbury — in our modern times.

For those of you that don’t know, Canterbury Cathedral is the location where Saint Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights, mistakenly sent by the king, his old friend, Henry II.  After the knights killed Becket, he was declared a martyr and many (thousands? millions, maybe?) made pilgrimages to the place of his martyrdom.  This eventually led to Geoffrey Chaucer writing The Canterbury Tales, a story in which a group of pilgrims are traveling to Canterbury from London, and they each tell a tale along the way.  Enter our intrepid author who decided to make this pilgrimage himself in 1999.

Apparently, I wasn’t as curious as I thought.  I bought the book.  It waited on my shelf through graduation, through my wedding, through two years of teaching in MN, made the move in a cardboard box to Las Vegas, waited on a bookshelf in first one apartment, then a house, where it languished gathering dust for 5 more years, never touched.  I couldn’t ever bring myself to give it away, thinking, “But I AM going to read it someday…” so it would travel with us, making its own mini-pilgrimages from state to state, abode to abode, just biding its time.

Finally, this summer, when we sold the house and moved into another apartment, I had to decide.  Was I actually going to read this book?  Ever?  Or should I pass it along to another reader at my local library?  I decided to give it ONE MORE shot, and moved with the book again, this time promising myself (and the poor book) that I would read it before the next adventure.

And I did!  Promise fulfilled!  It’s probably best, actually, that I waited, because Ellis spends quite a substantial amount of his musing time musing about what life was like in Chaucer’s England.  Lots and lots and LOTS of paragraphs begin with something like this… “Handguns did not exist in the middle ages…” and then he goes on for a few pages on the types of weaponry used in the middle ages, and how the pilgrims might have protected themselves on the journey.  His transitions from narrative to history are weak and nascent — which I didn’t appreciatee now, but would have appreciated FAR less just coming off an extensive month-long study of an author from the time period.

However, what he lacked in eloquent weaving of prose, he made up for in philosophical ruminations.  Part Cherokee, Ellis is constantly discussing his Native American teachings and finding connections with all the people he meets on his trip.  It gets a little “bubble-gum” at times — too much about how we are all brothers, and the past pilgrims on this journey are just like his ancestors, which is true, but he never quite says it honestly enough for me to really FEEL it — but then he has moments of clarity about the time we live in that really strike home:

Often in debt up to our necks and working at jobs that we don’t truly love, we have become modern-day serfs, bowing to a lord whose face we can’t quite see there in the shadows between paychecks.  we just know down in our guts and hearts that something isn’t right, and we dare not talk about it too openly for fear it will become more real than we can dare bear.

That gets to the heart of it, doesn’t it?  Honesty — dark and brutal like that — is what makes me feel a connection to the medieval soul — we have not come as far as we’d like to think.  There is so much beauty in the world, in our lives, and STILL, we are not given enough opportunities to worship, to contemplate, to consider what our lives really mean.

Okay — I’ll back off now.  It was a good read, but I think now its next journey is upon it.  Time for a new adventure, book!  Off to your next reader!  Hopefully they won’t keep you waiting as long as I did.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome and To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Years ago, I read To Say Nothing of the Dog and loved it.  I knew there were references flying past me at every page turn that I had no knowledge of, but it didn’t matter.  The book was just fun.  A romantic blend of sci-fi with all the Victorian era aplomb one could every want or need — no need for reference catching.  I just enjoyed this story of two historians trapped in time, the man dashing in his boater, the woman described as a naiad out of a Waterhouse painting. I’m a little in love with both of them.

But the whole book — including the title — was written in homage to the Victorian book, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome.  First of all — awesome name.  Second of all — I had to finally read the mother of all references.  Nancy Pearl, who I used to follow with regularity before she quasi-retired, is always going on and on about what a funny book it is.  And it is funny.  Allow me to illustrate:

The narrator when trying to decide whether to partake of a trip down(up?) the Thames with his two other natty friends: It is a curious fact, but nobody ever is sea-sick on land.  At sea, you come across plenty of people very bad indeed, whole boat-loads of them; but I never met a man yet, on land, who had ever known at all what it was to be sea-sick.  Where the thousands upon thousands of bad sailors that swarm in every ship hide themselves when they are on land is a mystery.

The narrator when his friend has slept in too late on their first morning of travel: There was George, throwing away in hideous sloth the inestimable gift of time; his valuable life, every second of which he would have to account for hereafter, passing away from him, unused.  He might have been up stuffing himself with eggs and bacon, irritating the dog, or flirting with the slavey, instead sprawling there, sunk in soul-clogging oblivion.

Simple observation: But who wants to be foretold the weather?  It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.

And, our narrator on a lunch gone wrong: It cast a gloom over the boat, there being no mustard.  We ate our beef in silence.  Existence seemed hollow and uninteresting.  we thought of the happy days of childhood, and sighed.

The whole book was just a wonderful daydream into a time where gentlemen of a certain destiny did not work, did not worry, just boated with friends and reflected thereupon — like a Jeeves and Wooster novel, without all the hijinks.

So as soon as I finished the book, I knew I had to reread To Say Nothing of the Dog.  And it was not a disappointment — all the more funny, now that I understood most of the references.  And now, with teh interweb in full swing, any reference I didn’t know, I could just google.  Or Lougle (your own reference to check).  Ned Henry, our hero, was all the more dashing because I now knew about his favorite book.  Verity Kindle, our heroine, was all the more lovely and serene now that I knew who she was constantly being compared to.

Always good to reread.  Always good to revisit.  Placet.

 

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

I read the first in this series, The Magicians, over Christmas break 2010.  It was a relatively cool book, especially considering all of the weird things I had heard about it before I read it.  All sorts of readers on Good Reads kept saying meaningless comparisons like, “It’s Harry Potter for adults” or “Harry Potter for the Hipster crowd!”  Being only Hipster-sensitive and not myself a hipster, I didn’t know exactly what to make of that.  Turns out what that meant was that The Magicians was a book about high school graduates who are invited to a private school to learn magic.  Honestly, that seems to be where the comparisons end.

The Magician King, the sequel, was also better than I expected.  At the end of the first book, I was unsure of where the story could go, or if it could even continue.  The answer?  It’s got places to go, new magical mysteries to uncover, and yes, it’s able to continue.  New characters were introduced that I ended up caring about.  New magical places were explored that I had not heard about in the other book.  Old ideas were dredged up again for another going-over, but new ideas were also brought to light.  The ending of this book was in some ways more satisfying than the first book — I feel more compelled to continue reading — but it also feels odd.  I’m not sure exactly how to feel about my main character at the end.  Is he really the martyr I think the author wants me to see?  Or is Quentin (the main character) just at another weird crossroads but somehow has found his “bliss,” something he’s never been remotely close to before?

It probably feels like I’m not actually saying much about this book. I’m trying to explain my thoughts about it without totally blowing the plot for you, in case you’re interested in reading it.  But now, looking at what I’ve written so far, it’s difficult to get what I’m talking about.  I’ll say this: if you read the first book, it’s worth reading the second.  If you haven’t read the first book, but you like fantasy novels with realistic touches, check it out.

I do enjoy the realistic world Grossman has created.  It’s not like Harry Potter — nothing is safe, or out of bounds, or unimaginable.  Evil is truly scary, not referred to like the Boogieman.  And I think one aspect of his realism is how he treats magic in these books — as just another talent that some people have.  I see others on Good Reads complaining about how nonchalant Quentin (who is our main Magician, and our Magician King in this second book) is about magic.  But wouldn’t you be, after awhile?  We like to think that magic is special, and exciting, etc. etc.  But if it was actually something you could do, the simple stuff would lose its charm eventually.  (punny!)  So it seems only realistic to me that Quentin would sometimes be a little bored, even though we, the unmagic types, find everything he does exceptional.  I like that Grossman doesn’t seem worried about creating a world where magic exists and we find it “magical” — in his world, magic just exists, like how religion exists.  Some people are really into it — other folks, it’s just something they do.

That’s not to say he doesn’t create some fantastical things.  I love the world of Fillory, and I find the Neitherworlds really interesting as an idea.  And, without giving too much away, the origin of magic as discussed in this book is really cool — good food for thought.  So haters can hate.  These books are enjoyable, and if you can’t get past Quentin’s ennui at times to enjoy the interesting paradoxical worlds Grossman has created, then just leave it.  Go back to your Hipster hating parties and leave poor Quentin alone.  Lord knows he’s got enough problems by the end of this book.

Also, on an ending note — I swear, I’m almost done with this weird and random review — I was not into Harry Potter or the Narnia books as a youngster.  I’ve read both, but as an adult, not at a more impressionable age.  But I would think that the Narnia fans would enjoy these books more than the Harry Potter crowd would.  Grossman is really creating an homage to Narnia in Fillory, but often ridicules the Harry Potter world with his own comparisons in this book.  Either way, he’s created something that deserves to be called its own — not only referred to by comparisons that don’t hold together well anyway.

Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi

When I was eighteen, I was embarking on the biggest adventure of my life thus far, heading to college, which was about an hour from where I had grown up.

When she was eighteen Tania Aebi began a circumnavigation of the world, embarking on an adventure that would take her 2 and a half years, and segue her into her adult life.

Whoa.

I just finished reading her book about the trip, called Maiden Voyage.  Whether you are into sailing or not, it is worth a read, just to see the power of adventure and feel the vastness of our world.  Ever since Drew and I have been together, we’ve talked about sailing…always in little increments.  First it was learning how to sail — which we’ve done in Marina del Rey, CA with a fantastic class from the Blue Pacific Boating folks.  Then, it was to charter a boat — just the two of us — which we’ve done in the BVI.  If that little adventure was just a taste of what we could have cruising, then sign me up.

Now, Tania did this all on her own.  She single-handed the whole trip, from New York down through the Caribbean, transiting the Panama canal, making the “puddle jump” across the Pacific to the Marquesas and the rest of the South Pacific, down to Australia, back up to Sri Lanka, then through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal into the Med, making her final landfall in Gibraltar and then crossing the Atlantic amid storms and squalls back to New York.  All by herself.  Well, with the help of a cat, named Tarzoon.

Whether you’re interested in sailing of any kind or not, this is a cool book.  It starts a little slow, because, like many books by journalists, she peppers the first few chapters with flashbacks to how she ended up in this place.  Her familial relations are sympathetic for anyone, and her father is a character himself.  (It’s his idea to have her do this, and every time she makes landfall somewhere, his first question when she calls is, “When do you leave?”)

But especially if you like sailing, this is probably a required read.  It’s the kind of book that makes you all that more determined to cruise someday, and to realize that unless you just DO it, it won’t ever happen.  Conditions will never be perfect, you’ll never have “enough” money — you just have to go.  I have yet to visit a cruising blog that doesn’t state that.

It’s true of any adventure, though, isn’t it?  You just have to do it.  You can’t wait for things to happen to you.  Oh yes, readers — the wheels are turning, and soon, very soon, I will make my adventure happen too.  And if I don’t, it will be no one’s fault but my own.   But I’ll settle for less that a complete circumnavigation — maybe just Mexico someday, or Mexico to the South Pacific and back via Hawaii and Seattle. Or maybe even just living on a boat for awhile, do some small cruising on the weekends, just try it out.

Whatever I do, I don’t wish to just envy the adventures of others  — I want to have them as well.  And I’d like my little man to grow up with adventures already behind him, not just waiting on the horizon.  Other people are doing it — why not me?  If you’d like to see some of those other people, check out the blogs listed on the right under “Blogs I Read.” There’s also a great website, where most of these pictures came from, http://www.womenandcruising.com, which has tons of information and testimonials from the ladies who have been there or are there right now.

But, of course, the expert (which I am not) sums up everything I want to say about her book and about any kind of adventures, big or small, when she’s contemplating her return to “civilization” in the Atlantic.

I remembered back to the days before leaving New York, when I worried if I would ever adapt to life at sea on my own.  Having done it, I realized now how much more is possible.  But I could never have known had I not tried.

Now, in the same spot as I had been as a an eighteen-year-old setting off on her maiden voyage, scared and apprehensive of the future, I realized that the future wasn’t something to worry about.  If living at sea had taught me anything, it had revealed the importance of taking each new dawn in stride and doing the best that I could with whatever was presented.

And now, two last pictures that inspire me, and that I aspire to:

Tania now, during a circumnavigation with her two sons -- just the three of them.

Lin Pardey, a total hardcore cruiser, points to land from the boom. I daydream about being her in the picture at least once a day.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

In the end, satisfying and worth reading.  The third novel isn’t substantially different than the first two, and, to avoid spoiling any plot points for you, I’ll focus on the series as a whole.

First off!  What I liked:

  1. The ending — It made me tear up a little bit, I’ll admit it.  And the love triangle, while not super captivating, did end in a way that I hadn’t foreseen but had hoped for.  Tied up most of the loose ends a reader might care about, and made me feel the span of Katniss’ journey.
  2. The message — Autocracy — bad.  Societies enslaving whole groups of people — bad.  Simple messages,  but good ones for a young crowd to internalize.
  3. The “young adult” traps that were avoided —  I did have to remind myself, often, that these books weren’t really for me.  They were written for the me of 17 years ago, and the me from back then would have LOVED them.  LOVED.  But the me of today appreciated that Collins avoided many “young adult” tropes.  Her main character was constantly dealing with the guilt and aftermath of people she had killed or had caused to be killed.  But not in an off-hand way — it was a large part of her character.  She also did not become a killing machine, even in either of the arenas.  She only actually killed a few people, many less than the other Hunger Games victors we were introduced to, and, also unlike them, she was never able to put a cold distance between herself and those she had killed.  Collins also kept the books realistically violent — terrible things happen, and are not sugar-coated for younger readers.  But the book is stronger for it.  It doesn’t shy away, it doesn’t hide from what might actually happen in a war.  And there’s a lot of confusion — the enemies are not as cut-and-dry as other young adult fiction.  Katniss trusts someone, then learns they can’t be trusted, finds out her source was the one who was untrustworthy, but that STILL doesn’t make the person she did trust trustworthy.  Collins gives her readers some credit…after all, what middle school student doesn’t know all about the dangers of trust and deception?

What I didn’t like:

  1. The epilogue — Didn’t need it.  From the actual end of the book, I felt like I had everything I needed…I knew which characters were going to survive, and I knew how the rest of Katniss’ life was going to play out.  The epilogue was another tablespoon of sugar on top of some lemonade.  Leave it out.
  2. Inconsistent characterization  — I talked about this in my post on Catching Fire.  Honestly, the problems I had with her characterization of Katniss as dim-witted when it came to others cleared up in the third book.  In this one, she seemed just as aware of the motives of others as she had in the first book.  So, one problem solved. 
  3. Unnecessary deaths — Once again, I don’t want to say WHO dies, but some main characters die in the third book.  For one of those deaths, I almost missed it.  I had to page back and read again…”Oh, he died?  Wait, what?  Just like that?”  Some die in sudden, quick ways, but it seems incompatible with their personal stories, and incompatible with the narrative Collins set up.  They should have either had more of a send-off, so I would really feel the loss, or not died at all.  Another character died dramatically, but her death makes her entire existence in the novel seem inconsequential.  She lived only so she could die so that Katniss would find the strength to do what needed to be done…but Katniss already seemed fairly committed to doing all she could.  I think some young adult novels really try to pack in the deaths at the end of a trilogy, but go too far.  There’s a line there, between realistic intensity and caricatured violence…many authors cross that line, trying to make sure their young readers really see the devastating toll of war and unwarranted bloodshed.  But it just makes the work seem a little sloppy, and also makes sensitive readers (like myself) feel like they’re just killing off characters for sport.  If they can’t write about them anymore, the characters will just have to die.

Overall — a good series.  Lots of interesting talking points for a young folks’ reading group, and something for everybody.  I’ll look forward to the movies!  More than other stories I’ve read lately, it really lends itself to the screen.  In the meantime, I’ll just hope that this isn’t actually in our country’s future and settle down to cuddle with my own little Buttercup cat here in District 13.

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