Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Inkworld trilogy, by Cornelia Funke

I finally got through all three books in the Inkheart trilogy. I should probably find a better way to phrase it, as that makes it sound like it was a struggle or a chore to read them, and it wasn’t.

The concept is fascinating: Mo is a bookbinder and book enthusiast whose voice literally brings characters to life. As in, when he reads, things come out of the book into our world. Of course, balance must be maintained, so whenever something comes out, something goes in. Mo’s wife was taken into a book called “Inkheart” when one of the villains of the book came out…and now the characters are looking for Mo. Some of them want to go home; some of them want to take over our world. Mo and his daughter Meggie just want their family back.

That’s book one (Inkheart). It was filmed a couple of years ago with Brendan Fraser as Mo and Paul Bettany as Dustfinger (one of the characters). It’s not a great movie but the things that were flawed about it (especially lack of protagonist consistency) work in the book, where it’s easier and more obvious to switch between different points-of-view.

Books two and three are about the fallout from book one. Meggie is still obsessed with the Inkworld and is trying to find a way into it. She doesn’t quite know what she’ll do when she gets there: she just wants to go.

Most of books 2 and 3 explore the Inkworld and the inevitable change that occur, as every writer know, when characters take on a life of their own. Books 2 and 3 are also ways for Funke to show off the complexity and detail of the world she created but didn’t visit in Book 1. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – it is a fantastic world.

There’s quite a lot abou tthe power of language and word use, of course, and parts that deal with reader versus author: what kind of ownership does an author have over his work once it’s done? What kind of ownership does a reader have over his favourite work? What responsibility does a writer have to his characters and to his readers? In that element of the concept – the reality of fiction, the idea that we are all characters in a story – it reminded me of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. But where Sophie’s World is a deliberate education in philosophy, these questions in the Inkworld are explored through characters, so the reader never feels like they’re hearing a treatise.

I really enjoyed these books, and have been recommending them to my friends who like other-world fantasy. Some of the machinations in Book 3 are a little bit reliant on coincidence, but I suppose that’s only natural when the story is ‘being written’ as it happens. More could have been done with the culture shock aspect of it, too, I thought – but I don’t know what you’d cut out in its place. Anyway, they’re excellent books and worth reading.

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Austenland, by Shannon Hale

Austen-based literature, especially based on Pride and Prejudice, is surprisingly common. I suppose a lot of that is due to the 1995 BBC adaptation and the 2005 movie. It’s all essentially Austen fan-fiction, and some of it is quite good. There are sequels, there are prequels, there are stories that focus on one of the more minor characters, and there are stories about people who, for whatever reason, relive one of the stories. Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is based on Pride and Prejudice, and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, which is based on Persuasion, are probably the most famous of these. Austenland and another book that I read last year called Me and Mr Darcy are both about women who go on vacation in order to actually relive Pride and Prejudice.

These books have a lot in common. They’re both perfectly fine books that are quite entertaining and they are more than just simple retreadings of the Pride and Prejudice plot. Another thing they have in common is something incredibly annoying: their heroines, in spite of claiming to be obsessed with Pride and Prejudice, have absolutely no memory of the first, oh, two-thirds of the book. Both of them complain about the man with whom they have a tense verbal relationship and say things like, “If only he could be more like Mr Darcy!”

Do they not remember the book? Elizabeth hates Darcy for the first part of the book. When he proposes she is genuinely surprised because she thinks that he hates her just as much. They banter, they insult each other, they misunderstand each other both deliberately and inadvertently. How can people who claim to be so obsessed with P&P look at a bantering relationship – especially one that uses almost exactly the same words as P&P – and NOT see it as a Darcy relationship? Honestly, if the main character is that clueless about the book and story that has been touted as her favourite, it makes me trust and like her a little bit less.

There are good moments in Austenland: Jane has a believably hard time letting go of her modern self and following the ‘rules’ of Regency England – something I think a lot of time travellers underestimate is the difficulty of letting go of the modern assumptions that make us who we are. And I had to laugh at the piano playing scene:

With professional suavity, Jane arranged her skirt, spread out the music, poised her fingers, and then with one hand played the black keys, singing along with the notes, “Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her, put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.”

She rose and curtsied to the room. (p.111)

I think that showed great poise and humour and, as a pianist myself, I appreciated it.

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Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s Alzheimers diagnosis has not yet significantly affected his creative skill. There were times in Unseen Academicals that I got distracted away from it, but I blame my fractured attention span, not the book itself.

It’s sometimes hard to explain Terry Pratchett’s style to people who’ve never read him or even heard much about him. Discworld is a rich and complex world, just set at a 45-degree angle from ours. Pratchett’s language use and wordplay feels kind of similar to Douglas Adams to me, too. It’s bits like this:

Truth is female, since truth is beauty rather than handsomeness; this, Ridcully reflected as the Council grumbled in, would certainly explain the saying that a lie could run around the world before Truth has got its, correction, her boots on, since she would have to choose which pair – the idea that any woman in a position to choose would have just one pair of boots being beyond rational belief. Indeed, as a goddess she would have lots of shoes, and thus many choices: comfy shoes for home truths, simple clogs for universal truths and possibly some kind of slipper for self-evident truth.

that add so much to Discworld and make me love it so much. Abstracts are characters just like the mortals [I can’t quite say humans, because there are also vampires, werewolves, trolls, dwarves, etc. Any stock fantasy creature is present in the Discworld].

Pratchett’s books, especially the more recent ones, take an element of “our” (20th/21st century British) society and see what the Discworld does with it. Unseen Academicals is mostly about football, with a bit of fashion modelling thrown in, set against a bit of Romeo and Juliet (but only a bit). If I have any complaints, it’s that the ‘fashion world’ could have had its own book, or possibly tabloid culture which was touched on a bit but not explored as much as it might have been.

I’m also afraid that, for me, Pratchett might end up in the same category as Dick Francis: a writer that I am so familiar with and enjoy so much that I end up being overly critical of new publications. I know that I’m going to like it, so I don’t need to focus on the high points (such as the increasingly disturbing repetition of the word “worth”) and instead I find the things that don’t work as well (like the abruptness of the formal reveal of Nutt’s….race? species? whatever you call it).

I liked Unseen Academicals a lot, as expected, but it tries to fit in a bit too much, I’m afraid. Story-wise, there’s football and fashion and the “downstairs” of the university. Message-wise, there’s rivalries and mob mentality and prejudice/racism. It’s a lot for one book – and it manages to get it all in successfully, but it might have been better if it had been more limited in breadth, so that it could have had a bit more depth.

The new characters are fantastic. Glenda is wonderful, Nutt is wonderful (although, as I mentioned, the mystery of his race/species/whatever drags on for a bit too long, considering that we haven’t had any backstory that I remember in previous books), Pepe is quite hilarious. Trevor and Juliet are collections of cliches, but they work. I love seeing Ponder Stibbons stand up for himself a little bit more than he’s done in the past. I personally love the Watch, so I was a little disappointed at their relatively small role, but that’s a matter of preference, not a flaw.

I don’t think it’s going to be one of my ‘all-time favourites’ of Pratchett’s books (like I said, I love the Watch….and Death. Death is awesome.) but it’s definitely one that I’m going to reread. Probably several times.

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Great Expectations

I’m teaching Great Expectations with one of my classes right now. I recognize the irony of having to teach Great Expectations very soon after saying I was giving up on Dickens. Luckily it’s one of the ones that I’ve read before, so I’m not totally starting from scratch.

I’d forgotten how ironic Dickens can be in his writing. There were times when I actually laughed out loud at how blind Pip was being. It’s so much better, and more action-filled, than books like Bleak House.

The other thing I’d forgotten is how overwhelmingly unpleasant almost all of the characters are. There are a few exceptions: Herbert is lovely, if a bit dim. Joe and Biddy are sweet. Wemmick is a good and loyal friend, even if he is a bit secretive. They are, I think, the only “good” characters in the whole book.

Women, especially don’t come off well. Mrs. Joe is abusive. She resents Pip for no apparent reason apart from his mere existence. Miss Havisham is insane. She attempted to freeze time around her and is trapped in the most horrible moment of her life – and when she realises her mistake, she dies in a most horrible way. It’s like she can’t exist outside of her need for pity and revenge. Estella is, to put it mildly, a bitch. She is by her own admission cold-hearted and emotionless, the living embodiment of Miss Havisham’s revenge on mankind.

The men aren’t much better. Magwitch is a violent criminal. Orlick is evil – evil with a motivation of jealousy and envy, but still evil. Jaggers is officious, secretive, and probably corrupt. Uncle Pumblechook is overbearing and a liar who blatantly makes up tales (such as his relationship with Pip) to improve his status.

And then there’s Pip. Pip is an idiot. He falls in love with someone who treats him like dirt or worse, simply because she is pretty. At even the word “gentleman” he completely abandons his old life and old friends, treating them the way Estella treats him. He is the most horrible snob who only cares about the appearance of gentility. He seizes on anything that reinforces his misconceptions, while completely ignoring any information that contradicts them. His only redeeming factor is that, by the end of the book, he realizes his mistakes and works to correct them. That doesn’t change the fact that through most of the action, he is one of the most irritating protagonists I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

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Remembrance Day

I am fascinated by World War One, and have been for years. I am not a military historian: the troop movements and strategies and big-picture things like that do not interest me at all (at least not for this time period, not yet). I am much more interested in the little picture: daily life things, both in the trenches and at home.

One of my favourite books ever is Rilla of Ingleside, the last of the Anne series, which focuses on the Canadian home front. Politics and strategies and “big picture” events are just a background to things like soup tureens and green hats and Dog Monday and falling in love. It’s about how the people live and deal with the war. It honours the soldiers without over-glorifying the war. (You could argue that Walter’s role in the book is that of a “glorious sacrifice”, but I don’t think that they sugarcoat it too much. Walter’s enlistment is a huge dilemma for him, Anne and Rilla both struggle with feelings of resentment toward him both for enlisting and for dying, and the trauma of casualties and capture permeate the whole second half of the book. Yeah, everything gets wrapped up shiny with a bow, but I really hate the assumption that literature must be tragic to be true.)

One of my favourite poems of all time is also a Canadian World War One poem (I think the Canadian thing is a coincidence) – “In Flanders Fields”, by John MacRae. This poem does glorify the sacrifice of war, and is kind of similar to Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” in terms of blatant recruitment attempts. But it doesn’t have to be only that. I like the poem because it reminds me that life goes on during and despite war. I also think that the last stanza doesn’t have to be limited to military meaning. “The torch” can be any number of ideas, not just military continuity.

MacRae is not the only “war poet” that I like, though. I love Sassoon and Owen and Rosenberg – anyone who can shine some light on “daily life” of men in the trenches – what they experienced, what they felt, and how they reacted.

World War One is so fascinating to me, I think, because of its ‘transition’ status. It so often gets overshadowed by World War Two (and rightly so, many times; WW2 was horrifying on so many levels) but it really paved the way for a lot of the 20th century. It was the first “world” war, affecting people on nearly every continent. It was the first to use some of the “modern” military equipment like tanks and airplanes. It was also one of the first that recognized PTSD (shell-shock) as a legitimate condition to be treated (granted, there was a lot of misdiagnosis and under-treatment but that definitely still happens today). And let’s not forget that it led pretty directly to the conditions for WW2 – even at the time, people called the Versailles Treaty a 20-year cease-fire instead of a lasting peace.

From a literary point of view, it was the first to really accept daily life/common man poems, not just heraldic glorification of soldiery, as part of the canon. Look at Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” against anything by Sassoon or Owen: the difference in tone is dramatic and far more than would be expected simply from the passing years. It also developed the first cracks in the literary culture that eventually led to “modernism” (and that word is a post in and of itself, not to mention a PhD. For someone else.)

World War One changed the world in so many ways, which is why I think Remembrance Day is such a moving holiday (for me). Memorial Day in the US is so often just another day off, or the de facto start of summer; Remembrance Day/Veteran’s Day is still a way to support soldiers and others who serve without necessarily supporting war, as well as remembering others we’ve lost from the world.

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Remembrance Day

I posted some links here.

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eReaders vs. paper books

I have an eReader, a Sony. I also covet the Kindle, although Barnes and Noble’s Nook is looking incredibly appealing. I also own several hundred paper books.

I read an article today that seemed to imply, as so many articles do, that e-books are inferior to paper books, and that e-books are taking over the world. This article doesn’t make the argument that e-books – or, rather, e-publishing – are destroying publishing and literature and the quality of writing and hence the world.

What it does do is something that pretty much all the other articles do: it implies that e-books and paper books can’t coexist. That if you have an eReader, then you’ve given up on ‘traditional’ books. This is so untrue.

Just take a look at my own buying habits. I have an eReader. I have several hundred books from various sources on my eReader. And just last week I bought three more paper books including a hardcover that I’m pretty sure is available as an e-book.

I use my eReader when I’m travelling, or when I know I’m going to have a short attention span, or when I know that the things I want to read are relatively short. I use it when I don’t want to, or can’t, carry a lot of books with me, or if I’m not sure what I’m going to be in the mood for. It’s useful for short reading windows, because it remembers what page I’m on, even if I switch to another book. I don’t have to find a bookmark or use some other kind of mnemonic.

If I have a lot of time, though, or am reading before bed, I’ll read a paper book. It’s still not great to curl up with an e-book. I think that’s because it only has display on one side. And it’s still a bit faster, for me, to read a paper book, because there is a time delay of a second or so on the page turn.

I am also a person fascinated by old books. One of my favourite things about my MA was the ability to look at manuscripts, even in facsimile. I am also fascinated by scrolls and tablets. Even hundreds of years from now, when we’re reading things in formats we can’t even imagine now or in literary forms we haven’t thought of, there will still be a place for today’s books.

My point, made very obtusely, is that there is room in my life for both paper and e-books. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive. And I get quite annoyed by people who imply that they do.

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